The Bible is a book about God, about us, and about how God saves us through the person and work of Jesus Christ; therefore, it isn’t terribly surprising to discover that the Bible has a great deal to say about sex. Human beings are sexual creatures – God made us male and female – therefore the story of creation, fall, and redemption is necessarily, at least in part, a story about human sexuality.
Parts of that story are relatively well known, but other parts can be quite unexpected – even shocking – to the first time Bible reader. Among the most surprising revelations would be the following:
1. It’s good
In our contemporary culture, Christianity is generally portrayed as sexually repressive in the extreme. Christians are known for being opposed to gay sex, pre-marital sex, and extramarital sex and therefore the assumption is that Christians believe that sex is bad in and of itself – but nothing could be further from the truth!
The Bible says that the first husband and wife were: “both naked and were not ashamed” (Genesis 2:25 ESV).
Before the fall – before sin – sex was part of the created order. It was good – VERY GOOD – and was engaged in freely, without inhibition of any kind by the man and the woman.
The Bible says that sex was affected by the fall but it remains something to be celebrated and protected throughout the entire canon of Scripture. In the Book of Proverbs, the wise father instructs his son to:
rejoice in the wife of your youth, a lovely deer, a graceful doe. Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight; be intoxicated always in her love. (Proverbs 5:18–19 ESV)
Likewise in the New Testament, it says:
Let marriage be held in honour among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled. (Hebrews 13:4 ESV)
Sex between a husband and a wife is never a cause for shame. It should be honoured, cherished and enjoyed as the gift and the good that it is; thanks be to God!
2. Husbands owe it to wives
Many historians think that the most surprising thing the Bible says about sex is found in 1 Corinthians 7:3-4:
the husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. (1 Corinthians 7:3–4 ESV)
One scholar, for example, puts it this way:
The marked mutuality of Paul’s comments (the husband has authority over his wife’s body and she has authority over his) was, however, revolutionary in the ancient world where patriarchy was the norm. For the husband to have authority over his wife’s body was nothing special…. Paul’s following statement affirming the reverse, that “the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does,” clearly pointed to a radical and unprecedented restriction on the husbands’ sexual freedom. It communicates, negatively, his obligation to refrain from engaging in sexual relations with anyone other than his wife and, positively, his obligation to fulfill his marital duty to provide her with sexual pleasure and satisfaction.
The idea that sex was to be mutual and that the husband owed it to his wife – and that the wife had a right to claim it from the husband – was revolutionary! It was unprecedented! No one had ever said anything like this, anywhere else in the ancient world.
Far from parroting the sexual norms of the culture, Christianity taught that sex within a marriage should be free, generous and reciprocal. That council was at odds with the norms of the first-century Roman world and it remains at odds with the wisdom of our culture still today. Young couples nowadays are often told that they should only have sex when both parties desire it – however, the Bible says that sex should be given in a marriage whenever either party desires it. Of all the things said in the Bible about sex, this could be the most surprising of them all.
3. Married couples should have it often
Queen Victoria famously instructed the Christian ladies in her realm to “Lie back and think of the Empire”; a view of sex that seems pessimistic and pragmatic in the extreme. Thankfully the Bible presents a very different view. In addition to the goodness, generosity, and reciprocity mentioned above, the Scriptures also recommend a level of frequency that many modern Bible readers find quite surprising.
The Apostle Paul told his people:
Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. (1 Corinthians 7:5 ESV)
At most, married couples could set aside a few days for dedicated prayer and spiritual observance – only if both parties were in agreement – but then they must come together quickly lest they be tempted to sexual immorality.
As in the Old Testament, so in the New, frequent marital intercourse is prescribed as a guard against a wandering eye and a lustful heart. The assumption is that if we drink deeply from our own cisterns we will be less tempted to draw from our neighbour’s well. (Proverbs 5:15) There is great wisdom – and great joy – in following this inspired instruction.
4. It’s not just about the kids
You don’t have to read very far in the Bible to discover the connection between sexuality and procreation. In the very first chapter of the very first book it says:
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it. (Genesis 1:27–28 ESV)
God made them male and female and he told them to be fruitful and multiply. The message seems rather obvious: having and raising godly babies is part of how we exercise dominion over the earth.
That’s true, but it isn’t the end of the story – it isn’t even the start of the story! In fact, the first thing that God says about a human being in the Book of Genesis is that: “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him” (Genesis 2:18 ESV).
Human beings are intended to resemble and represent God – therefore the man ought to have a complementary and co-equal partner. Therefore God created Eve from a rib taken from Adam’s side. The Bible goes on to say:
Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. (Genesis 2:24 ESV)
Sex in the Bible is first and foremost about intimate friendship. It is about cleaving to your God-given other. It is about becoming “one flesh”. This Hebrew term implies more than, but not less than, physical union. It means almost becoming one person. Sex is about pursuing physical, emotional, sexual and ontological union. It is about submission, exploration, discovery, and delight.
Done right, under blessing, it often results in children, but it isn’t ultimately for that. It is for the glory of God and the comfort of mankind. That’s a subtle and yet very significant distinction.
5. It’s not what makes you truly human
Despite all of what the Scriptures say in support and celebration of human sexuality, the Bible makes it very clear that you can be fully and entirely human without ever having it.
Jesus never had it.
Nor did Jeremiah.
Or John the Baptist.
Or the Apostle Paul – at least for the better part of his life.
In fact, there are so many lifelong celibates in the Bible that some early Christians actually began to wonder if abstinence represented a sort of inside track to spiritual fulfillment. They wrote to Paul and asked him about that very thing. In response to their question, he spoke about marriage as a general rule (1 Corinthians 7:2); the need to be generous and reciprocal in the marriage bed (1 Corinthians 7:3-4) and the need for married couples to have sex on a regular and consistent basis (1 Corinthians 7:5).
But then he said something very surprising to the modern reader. He said:
I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. (1 Corinthians 7:7 ESV)
Paul says that he wishes there were more lifelong celibates! He wishes there were more people who could do as he did – travelling the world, serving the Lord, feeding the flock and building up the people of God without worrying that he was neglecting his natural family. Paul says that if he had his way there would be MORE people like that – but each has his own gift from God. God gives to some the gift of marriage and to others, the gift of celibacy and Paul must submit to the Sovereign will of his Maker.
What a surprising statement!
Everything about that statement agitates and disturbs the modern mind!
So many people today define themselves by their sexuality. They ARE who they have sex with. But the Bible doesn’t take that view. The Bible says that a person is a human being because they were created in the image and likeness of God. Meaning, before you have sex – before you have anything – you have maximal value and significance before God! You are an image-bearer! You are a ruling creature; under God and over everything else.
The implications of that insight are absolutely staggering.
It means for starters that sex is natural for human beings, but not necessary. A person can live a full, blessed, rich, useful, meaningful, God-glorifying life without ever having sex with anyone.
Sex is good but it’s not ultimate.
To many people in our culture, that would be the most surprising thing the Bible says about anything.
The Bible says that marriage is good, sex is good, singleness is good and celibacy is good. They are all precious gifts given according to the wisdom and timing of the Lord for his glory and our everlasting good.
Thanks be to God!