If you go to the drug store and buy a bottle of medicine, that bottle will include several things no matter what kind of medicine it contains. On the outside of the bottle will be a label with a warning. Now if you are like me, you probably can’t read that incredibly small print. But if you could read it you would see that the warning includes such things as the proper dosage, for you don’t want to take too much. It may also warn you against taking the medicine in combination with certain other medicines for that could cause complications, or it may caution you against taking the medicine if you have particular health conditions.
The reason for these safety precautions is obvious. Medicine is a very good thing that can bring healing to our bodies. But it is also a very powerful thing, and so if not used properly, it can be a dangerous thing, even a deadly thing. And thus, while the warnings and safety caps could be seen as restrictive or limiting, for they tell us not to do certain things, in reality they are a good thing for they protect us from harm.
And this brings us to the seventh of the Ten Commandments. God declared in Exodus 20:14: “You shall not commit adultery.” Both sex and marriage are good gifts from God. God has given them to us to bring a greater degree of fulfillment, meaning, and pleasure to our lives. But like medicine, if they are not used properly, if they are not used in accordance with their intended purpose, they can end up being very destructive. So God has put a warning label on these good gifts – not because God is trying to limit or restrict us, but because God is trying to protect us. And part of that warning label includes the command: “You shall not commit adultery.”
I suppose there are a number of ways we can judge the nature or quality of a culture. One is by considering what shocks it. If we see what shocks a culture we will understand something of its values and practices. And I think we’d have to conclude that adultery simply does not shock our world today. Certainly there are plenty of people who regret it, and even abhor it. But it has become so common – both in real life as well as in the movies and on television – that we are no longer shocked by it. In some circles it’s even seen as normal. As one writer put it, “The seventh commandment seems to be an endangered species.”
Actually, it almost became that. The most outrageous misprint of an English language Bible occurred in 1631 with the King James Bible. In printing it – and I’m sure we can come up with all kinds of reasons as to how or why this happened – somehow the word “not” was omitted from this commandment, so it read, “Thou shalt commit adultery.” No doubt there are many who wish that’s the way the commandment really read. But of course, there are very good reasons for that small word “not” to be there.
Unfortunately, we disregard this commandment so much in our contemporary world that it almost has become an endangered species. It’s almost as if the word “not” was excluded from the command. That, of course, is a tragic development. For the commandment against adultery is just as relevant and just as important today as the day it was given. It’s a sad indictment of our culture when we take this commandment so lightly and accept the breaking of it so easily.
Now it must be pointed out that this command is addressing specifically the matter of faithfulness in the marriage relationship. It is not dealing with all kinds of sexual sin, which in Scripture often come under the heading of fornication. That does not mean these other types of sexual sin, such as sex between unmarried people, are not to be taken seriously. They certainly are, for they violate God’s good purposes for the gift of sex and run counter to God’s good purposes for our lives. There are plenty of biblical passages in both the Old and New Testaments that warn us against all kinds of sexual encounters outside of marriage. For instance, Gal. 5:19 states: “The acts of the sinful nature are obvious.” And the first two such acts listed are sexual immorality and impurity.
So Scripture is clear that God gave us the gift of sexual expression to be used only in the context of marriage. But this command against adultery is speaking specifically about violation of the marriage covenant. Renown Old Testament scholar Brevard Childs notes, “It is clear from the evidence that throughout the O.T. adultery was placed in a different category from fornication.”
The reason adultery falls into a different category than other sexual sin, and what in fact makes it even more serious, is that in addition to the misuse of our sexuality it is also involves the breaking of a commitment. When a man and woman stand before the altar in marriage they pledge their fidelity, their faithfulness to one another. They vow to be true to one another, to live in a loving relationship that by its very nature is and must be exclusive.
When one partner commits adultery, they not only sin sexually but they break the vow they made. And in breaking their vow they not only go against their word but they bring about devastating consequences. They bring untold pain and destruction to the person they married, to the marriage relationship, and to the family if they have children. They show the most severe form of disrespect to the person they promised to love “for better or worse.”
If we take God’s word for what it is and accept His purposes for both sex and marriage, what then can help us to keep this command and honor our marriage vows? The key to avoiding adultery is not only exercising discipline and restraint in the face of sexual temptation, although there will be times when that will be necessary. As Paul wrote to the Christians at Corinth, there are times when we meet temptation head-on, and then he said, we simply must “flee sexual immorality.”
Before the temptation arises, we must already decide to view it as God views it and that our response will be to flee from it. More importantly over the long haul in keeping this commandment, though, is giving the time and energy to nurture your marriage relationship so that it is alive and fulfilling. Then we are much less likely to be tempted in this area. For the seeds of adultery are usually planted long before the act is committed.
One of the ways we plant the seeds of adultery is by not giving our marriage and our marriage partner the effort and care needed to sustain a healthy marriage. And it’s easy to fall into that rut. Work may take too much of both your time and energy. As the years go by you may take each other for granted, the stress of life accumulates, the demands of children increase, you perhaps become more irritated by the flaws in the person you married, and the reality of living day-in and day-out with an imperfect person perhaps makes it all become rather wearisome, and that’s when we’re vulnerable. This doesn’t mean you married the wrong person! Or that it’s time for a change! It just means that your marriage, like all marriages, requires work, dedication, and regular maintenance. For there is no autopilot switch on marriage, so you just flip the switch and your marriage goes along perfectly on its own. No, marriages require intentional nurture.
The best definition of marriage I’ve ever heard goes like this: “Marriage is an unconditional commitment to love an imperfect person.” That is not the most romantic definition of marriage you’ll ever hear, but it is the most realistic. There are no perfect mates out there, so you can stop looking for one or wishing you had one. If you are married, the person you married has imperfections and flaws – just like you do and just like everyone does.
One of the keys to marriage is to first of all recognize that, and then to commit yourself to loving this person anyway – even in difficult times, just as God loves us with all our flaws and imperfections. The more you decide to do that rather than focusing on the flaws in your spouse and the disappointments in your marriage, and the more you actively nurture your marriage relationship and your marriage partner, the more satisfying your marriage will be. Then you will be less likely to stray. But when we don’t make that effort, that’s when we are in danger of being drawn away into an adulterous relationship. Listen to how Earl Palmer describes it.
Adultery is the sin of abandonment, of loss of interest, of rejection, of self-pity. Most adultery is not at all like the highly charged carelessness of the young who have strong passions; instead, adultery is too often the desperate act of those who have gone stale in the afternoon of their lives and are feeling sorry for themselves because they are unhappy. They have no energy left to work hard on the adult relationship called marriage. Out of this exhaustion most people drift into adultery.
It’s when that staleness sets in – after five, ten, twenty years of marriage, that we are most vulnerable and when we must choose whether or not we will be true to our vows and love the person we promised to love. Will we continue to nurture our marriage in order to bring new life into it, or will we take the easy way out by not making the effort to nurture our marriage, and turn our back on both our word and our husband or wife. For typically it is not lust that drives one to adultery but it is a longing for meaningful relationship or a sense of excitement, a desire that often is intensified during the dry times of our marriages – and dry times happen to all marriages. Thus, we must constantly strive to nurture our marriages.
So if we are to keep this command, there will be times when we must exercise discipline and restraint, when we must vow to flee from temptation. More importantly, we must make the regular effort to nurture our marriage so we are satisfied there.
And the need to constantly nurture our marriage brings us to the deeper message behind this command. This command is not simply about not committing adultery, but it’s about developing meaningful, satisfying marriages. On the surface, it appears as simply a negative commandment – do not commit adultery. It tells us what we are not to do. But anytime God tells us not to do something there is a reason for it, just as the warning label is on a bottle of medicine for good reason. We could say the reason for this prohibition against adultery is really threefold.
In the first place, as I’ve already touched on, God has warned us against adultery because of all the negative consequences that result from it, the hurt and the pain it brings. And so God wants to protect us. Hollywood makes adultery seem so romantic and exciting. But in reality, there’s a bill to be paid afterward.
If you go to a five-star restaurant, you look over the menu and see all the delicious food and exquisite wines. But you also look at the price, for you know when the meal is over you will have to pay the bill, so you want to be sure what you order is really worth it. Well, there is a bill to be paid for adultery. One person decided to itemize that bill. He listed the consequences if he should walk through the door called Desire. This is what he came up with.
I will grieve the One who redeemed me.
I will drag His sacred name through the mud.
I will have to look Jesus in the eye one day and give an account of my actions.
I will inflict untold hurt on my wife, who is my best friend and who has been faithful to me.
I will lose my wife’s respect, love, and trust.
I will hurt my beloved daughters.
I will destroy my example and credibility.
I might lose my wife and children forever.
I will shame my family.
I will lose my own self-respect. (Though God could forgive me, could I forgive myself?)
I could form memories and flashbacks that plague future intimacy with my spouse.
I could reap the consequences of diseases.
I could cause a pregnancy that would be a lifelong reminder of my sin.
I could invoke lifelong shame and embarrassment on myself.
There’s a wise man. He’s looking at the bill in advance, and realizes that whatever momentary pleasure he might experience in the act of adultery, there’s no way it is worth the cost. The terms of payment are far too steep – for himself and for those he cares most about.
And so God put this warning label around His good gifts of sex and marriage for everyone’s benefit. If we follow the warning we won’t have to deal with the destructive and disastrous consequences of misusing these good gifts.
The second reason for this command is positive in nature. Through this negative command God is pointing us to the positive ideal, and that is healthy, committed marriages. That’s what God wants for us. The goal for marriage is not simply to refrain from being unfaithful, for you can do that but still have a dead or dysfunctional marriage. Sometimes a couple struggling with their marriage will go in for counseling and one will say, “I’ve never been unfaithful to my spouse.” That of course, is good. But that by itself does not make for a satisfying marriage. It does not mirror the purposes for marriage that God has for it. That is sort of the minimum basic requirement for marriage.
It’s like we saw last week with the commandment forbidding murder. To have never murdered someone is obviously a good thing, but that hardly fulfills God’s purposes for how we relate to one another in community. That commandment reveals to us the high value of all human life, and thus we are to go to the next level and love our neighbor, and even love our enemy, as we love ourselves. We don’t simply refrain from doing harm but we pursue the good of our neighbor.
The same is true of marriage. Not committing adultery is a good starting point, but that alone is not God’s goal for marriage. God gave this command to highlight the importance and sanctity of marriage. Because of this, we are to love our marriage partner with an exclusive, sacrificial love that will then lead to growth, joy, and satisfaction, for both marriage partners, and a healthy environment to raise and train our children. That’s why we nurture our marriages. It’s not simply so we won’t commit adultery, but so that we will enjoy healthy marriages. Not committing adultery becomes almost a kind of by-product.
The third reason for this commandment takes us beyond sexuality and marriage to the matter of our character. This commandment reveals to us one more way we can and should become like God. For at the heart of this commandment is faithfulness – being faithful to our word, and being faithful to the one we married.
God instructs us to be faithful for we are made in His image, and He is faithful. I Cor. 1:9 reminds us, “God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” Deut. 7:9 adds, “Know therefore that the Lord your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commandments.” God is faithful and so He keeps His covenant with us. That’s why Ps. 108:4 assures us, “Your faithfulness reaches to the skies,” for God’s faithfulness never ends; He is always faithful.
Even when we are unfaithful to God, He doesn’t stop being faithful to us. In speaking of how the Old Testament Israelites were unfaithful to God as they served false gods and idols, Paul wrote in Rom. 3:3-4, “What if some were unfaithful? Will their unfaithfulness nullify God’s faithfulness? Not at all!”
God is faithful, and aren’t we glad He is! If God wasn’t faithful, we could not depend on His promises. God has promised to never leave or forsake us, He is with us always in every situation. But maybe that was yesterday and today God doesn’t feel like being with us. In Jn. 3:16 God has assured us that all who believe in Jesus will have eternal life. But if God were not faithful, He could say He changed His mind. Our lives would be filled with confusion, doubt, uncertainty, and fear if God were not faithful. But as it is, God is faithful, so we can live with confident certainty in all God has promised.
That is what God wants for our lives and for our relationships. In that sense, this commandment addresses all of us, whether we are married or not. God wants faithfulness to mark our lives because we are created in His image and He is faithful, and also because that’s the only way our relationships with each other can be healthy and fulfilling.
When the husband and wife are faithful to each other, they can enjoy the love of each other as well as the freedom and assurance that come from knowing the other has pledged to stick with them through thick and thin. What a gift that is. And the same is true in other relationships – with other family members, with our friends or colleagues at work. When faithfulness marks all of our lives, we have the joy of knowing that others will not hurt us, betray us, or turn against us. We can count on each other when we are faithful.
So through the law God has graciously put a warning label around marriage. Or we could call it a fence. That fence relates to adultery. We are not to cross that fence for it will always be destructive. But we are not only to refrain from jumping over the fence. We are to live as fully as we can on this side of the fence by creatively and intentionally nurturing our marriage. To quote Earl Palmer again, “The intent of the commandment is positive faithfulness, which is the source of the most joyous and liberating possibilities in human relationship.”
Now let me just say a word if you have failed as it relates to this command. Obviously, we are to take this commandment very seriously. Yet as serious as adultery is, it is not the unforgivable sin. Like all sin, it requires repentance. We acknowledge both what we have done and that what we have done is sin in the eyes of God. We sincerely ask God’s forgiveness as well as the forgiveness of all those we have hurt through our actions. We certainly turn away from any adulterous activity if we have not yet done that.
And then we accept God’s forgiveness. Sometimes, especially if we are serious about following Jesus, this is the hardest part. For we think what we have done is just too awful for God to truly forgive, or that we will always be second-class Christians. But when Jesus died on the cross He died for all our sins, not just certain ones. As Paul wrote in Rom. 5:20, “Where sin increased, grace increased all the more.” God has assured us that His grace is always sufficient when we sincerely confess our sin.
As the words from the song go, it is only by grace that we can enter God’s presence. No matter what sins have marked our past and no matter what sins have not marked our past, we come before God and are accepted by God only and always through God’s grace by which we are forgiven. And then by His grace God invites us to a new, wholesome way of living and by His grace God enables us to do that. This is all summed up by the words of Jesus to the woman caught in adultery: “Does no one condemn you? Then neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin.” God’s grace is always sufficient – to forgive our sins and to empower us to live a new way.
So it’s not only in God’s forgiveness when we fail that we see God’s grace. At the very core, this commandment is about grace. If we are tempted to rebel against this commandment, if we feel like dismissing it as irrelevant or too repressive for our day, we must remember that it comes from a loving God. This command is one more example of God’s grace. For through this commandment God has put a fence around the most precious and important of all relationships – marriage.
When we really take it to heart – both the negative prohibition against adultery and the positive affirmation of nurturing the marriage relationship – it both protects and invigorates our marriages. It also provides for the well-being of our children and the foundation of a healthy society. So for the good of us all, let us accept and abide by this gracious commandment, and heed the warning label.