You shall not commit adultery.
Exodus 20:14 ESV
There is an interesting symmetry to be found within our recently studied commandments. The Fifth Commandment presented us with how we must relate to those who gave us life, our father and mother. The Sixth Commandment then dealt with how we actually treat life itself, specifically among our fellow image-bearers. Now for the Seventh Commandment, we focus upon how we are to treat our most intimate neighbor within this life, our spouse. In fact, through most marital unions of husband and wife, new image-bearers will be brought into the world. Thus, these commands are grounding themselves into the very foundation of life.
As with the previous commands, we will begin by explaining the commandment proper, then we will see the root of the law as found in the character of God, and finally we will note the positive implications for us here.
DO NOT COMMIT ADULTERY
As with all the commandments, the prohibition against adultery seems fairly self-explanatory, yet as we have seen each run far deeper than we might have ever realized. At first glance, non-married persons may seem to be left out of this command since adultery seems to require a spouse to commit adultery against. Sure, we may grant that adultery is a kind of archetypical sexual sin, but it can still feel like adultery is the main sin of sex whereas the others are only dealt with by implication. While that statement is certainly true to an extent, I would argue instead that all sexual sin is adultery.
But, you may be asking, how so for someone who is not married? Clearly any sexual action committed outside of a person’s marriage is act of adultery against their spouse. But any sexual sin committed by a person who is not married is still adultery because, while they are not breaking a particular marriage covenant, they are rejecting the very institution of marriage as designed by God. All sexual sin is adultery because sex is only lawful inside of the marriage unit of one man and one woman. Everything else is adultery, as it is an adulteration of this sacred pattern.
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.Matthew 5:27-30
As with murder, Jesus makes adultery a matter of the eyes, the mind, and the heart. He states that a look of lustful intent is heart-level adultery. Interestingly, the word for lustful intent could also be translated as desired, longed for, or even coveted. Jesus used this same word to describe the Prodigal Son’s longing for the food that the pigs were eating and to describe Lazarus’ longing for the rich man’s scraps. Thus, this lust, this desire, is guttural. It is sensuous in the literal sense of the word. It is instinctual. It is an animalistic desire to satisfy one’s appetite.
This further explains why this commandment naturally follows the prohibition of murder. Just as murder is sinful because it destroys the image of God, so does adultery. Looking upon a man or woman with lustful intent necessarily means that you are seeing them as an object to be used for your own satisfaction rather than as an image-bearer of the living God to be loved and honored. And as we noted with idolatry, such sinful behavior, which is itself a form of idolatry, distorts who we are as well. We cannot, after all, ignore the divine insignia upon our fellow human beings without also becoming less human ourselves. A heart of lust shapes us into looking more animal than man. And is it not Darwinian notions that have paved the way for our current sexual revolution? By classifying humans as just another animal, sex has become little more than a matter of appetite. Some people are vegetarian, while some are not. Likewise, some people are homosexual, polyamorous, pansexual, etc., while others are not. What’s the difference? If we are nothing more than genetically lucky chimps, then there isn’t one. Choosing not to marry your partner is perhaps no greater decision than choosing not to eat gluten. Without the imago Dei, adultery can be no real sin.
THE GOD WHO IS FAITHFUL
Yet we do believe that we bear the image and likeness of God our Creator. We believe that He gave us life so that we can reflect what He is like for His glory. And we believe that God gave us the sacred institution of marriage for our good. Before sin entered the world, the only not good thing in Eden was Adam being alone. Thus, God made a helpmate for the man, woman. God Himself brought Eve to Adam in what was essentially the first wedding. And their union was good.
In fact, it was only through this union that God’s command to fill the earth could be accomplished. For Adam, therefore, Eve was not a helper in the sense that she made his work easier and more enjoyable. She was his helper in the sense that he could not obey God’s commission without her, nor could she without him. Together they bore the likeness of God, and the image would be incomplete without the other. This was the beautiful design of marriage, one man and one woman together displaying the image of God by filling the earth with more image-bearers.
But Genesis 3 again reveals why we don’t deserve to have good things. Adam and Eve’s rejection of God yielded immediate consequences upon their own relationship. Sin destroyed their innocence, and they immediately noticed that they were naked. As they covered themselves with fig leaves, they would never again know the depths of intimacy that they once had. Although they were still together as husband and wife, a separation had occurred.
While we do not have record of adultery being committed within the following generation as we do with murder, it is still listed in Genesis 4. Cain’s descendent, Lamech (not to be confused with Noah’s father of the same name), not only also committed murder but he took for himself two wives. As with most narratives within the Bible, this first act of polygamy is not explicitly condemned by the text; however, it is clearly presented as a sinful deviation of God’s design. After all, the overall message of Genesis 4 is to show the slippery slope of sin.
Like Lamech, we are now naturally prone to deviate from God’s good design. If the opportunity presented itself to take two wives, we would have long since done so. Even God’s own people were not immune, even though each suffered consequences. Indeed, the cases of polygamy by the Old Testament saints within the Bible are shown to bring much conflict and hardship. Still, by default, the pattern of humanity is no longer to choose faithfulness but instead to choose self-gratification.
Yet God does not command faithfulness to our spouse because He is intent on limiting our passion and experiences. He commands faithfulness because He is faithful, and our imaging of His faithfulness is truly the path to joy and freedom. Unfettered freedom and self-expression are dead ends that eventually lead to despair. We are not made to be equally intimate with everyone. Deep levels of intimacy in friendship can by nature only be shared with a handful of people at most, and sexual intimacy was made to be shared with only one other person. Exceptions, of course, exist within our sin-scarred world so that it is not wrong to remarry after the death of a spouse. Indeed, for much of human history younger women had little choice but to find another husband if theirs had died. But even this is merely a necessary provision now that death is a reality. One man and one woman together for life is the design, the standard.
But it will not always be so. Marriage, as Piper notes, is momentary, not eternal. When questioned by the Sadducees about remarriage and the resurrection of the dead, Jesus stated that in our resurrected bodies we would no longer be given to marriage but would be like the angels. My wife and I, therefore, will not be married in Heaven. And since marriage will be absent, so will sex.
This leads us to perhaps the most needed and counter-cultural point that I will make today: sex is not ultimate nor is it a right. Sex is temporary, and it is a privilege. As Christians, I would imagine that many of us understand the first, but I am afraid that many fail to see the reality of the second. Even within marriage, sex is a grace, not a right. Of course, Paul calls sex conjugal rights in 1 Corinthians 7, but he is speaking to each spouse about the importance of serving the other by not withholding such intimacy. His purpose was not to imply that sex is necessary for marriage (importance and glorious, yes, but necessary, no) nor was he giving fodder for demanding sex from our spouse. Instead, sex should be seen as a good but temporary gift from a loving God for loving and serving our spouse.
If you are displeased, therefore, with your intimacy frequency (which is a crucial matter since adultery often begins by being discontent with one’s spouse), do not simply point to 1 Corinthians 7 and say, “But Paul says.”
Rather, husbands should woo and court your wife, pursuing herespeciallyemotionally not just physically. In Proverbs 5:18-19, Solomon counsels to “rejoice in the wife of your youth… Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight; be intoxicated with her love.” Clearly physical intimacy is important, but man in Song of Solomon shows that being intoxicated with love for his bride is by no means limited to the bedroom. Throughout thebook, he continuously praises the beauty and value of his bride.
And wives should likewise court your husband. If you desire greater intimacy, whether physical or emotional, then pursue him. From the bride of Song of Solomon and wife of Proverbs 31, we can easily note that submissiveness does not equal passivity. Both women are what we mightcall go-getters, yet both clearly honor their husband’s role of headship. Meditate over these biblical examples and similarly pursue the love of your husband.
For both husbands and wives, the positive implication of this commandment is to be faithful to your spouse, loving and honoring him or her in the Lord.
But ultimately, neither sex nor marriage are ultimate because they are meant to communicate a greater reality altogether. In Ephesians 5, Paul makes that reality very explicit: “I am saying that it [marriage] refers to Christ and the church” (v. 32). Marriage is a portrait of how Jesus loves His people. We are His bride, and He is our husband. He has betrothed Himself to us. And this is a stunning act of grace since we are adulterers against Him. As we noted within the First Commandment, God repeated describes our idolatry with the language of adultery. By rejecting the almighty Creator in favor of worshiping idols, we have left the love of our husband for the embrace of men who will only use us. Yet in the same way that God commanded Hosea to buy back his own wife from the house of prostitution, so did God redeem His bride from our idolatrous ways through Christ. Despite our adulterous love for gods that are not gods, Jesus saved us from the death of sin and reunited us to God. Although we were unfaithful, He has been ever faithful. We, therefore, are now the bride of Christ. He has given Himself up for us, and we now lovingly submit to His headship.
For this reason, Paul was able to tell the unmarried and widows of Corinth that it was “good for them to remain single” (1 Corinthians 7:8). Being without a wife was not good for Adam in the garden because without Eve he could not fulfill the First Commission to be fruitful and multiply. Yet Jesus has now revealed the substance which cast the Old Testament shadows. It certainly remains true that it is not good for us to live life alone, but Jesus exemplified through His life that marriage is not a necessity. Furthermore, Jesus revised God’s original commission for humanity to state that we now fill the earth with God’s image by making disciples. Of course, many will still make disciples through having children, but Jesus has expanded the scope into every nation of the earth. As with the First Commission, the Great Commission cannot be accomplished alone, but it is no longer dependent upon married people producing biological offspring. Instead, as a church, we nurture spiritual offspring who will pass on the faith to the following generation as well. Singleness, therefore, is now a gift, allowing you to be “anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord” rather than how to please your husband or wife (1 Corinthians 7:32-33). The positive call of this commandment to be faithful finds those in singleness being faithful in celibacy and in yielding your devotion to the Lord. In your singleness, therefore, devote yourself to the Lord. Give your time and energy to Him and to the work of His kingdom.
While marriage and sex are not ultimate, they are nevertheless sacred. The author of Hebrews issued this command, “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and the adulterous” (13:4). All saints are called honor marriage because faithful marriages reflect our faithful Savior, the one who has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrew 13:5). Committing adultery, whether you are single or married, is a rejection of our faithful God, a replay of the eaten fruit in Eden. May we, instead, fix our eyes upon Christ who has cleansed us from all impurity, and may we walk in His likeness, showing faithful and steadfast love to Him whether in singleness or in marriage.