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Understanding the Deeper Purposes of Sex

Sex is not an end in itself; it points to the deeper reality of the gospel.


by Gerald Hiestand and Jay Thomas

On the whole, human beings are fascinated with sex—men and women, young and old, Christians, atheists, and everyone in between. In all cultures, throughout all of history, sexual desire has been one of the greatest motivators of the human will. Men and women throw away their families, houses, money, and land in order to be sexually satisfied. Some are addicted to it. Wars have been fought over it. We compose songs about it, make movies about it, and write stories about it. And this preoccupation with sex is not simply a facet of our fallen nature. Even one whole book of the Bible (the Song of Solomon) is dedicated to celebrating the sexual relationship between the husband and wife.

But have you ever wondered why all the fuss? Why did God create us as sexual people in the first place? He was obviously not tied to a need for sexual reproduction in order to propagate the species. He just as easily could have created humans as asexual creatures that reproduce like amoebas.

Until we understand why God created sex, we will never sufficiently make sense of His commands regarding sexual purity, for His commands always relate to His purposes.

Christ and the church

Ephesians 5:24-32 pointedly describes the sexual relationship within marriage as an image of the spiritual relationship between Christ and the church. As you read the passage, note carefully the significance of the last sentence (verse 32) within its context:

Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. "Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.

In this passage Paul is discussing the relational dynamics of Christian marriage. And as he gives instruction to husbands and wives about how they are to treat one other, he draws a tight parallel between human marriage and Christ's relationship with the church. The way Christ treats the church, Paul tells us, serves as the pattern for the way in which a husband is to treat his wife. And the way the church relates to Christ is the way a wife is to relate to her husband.

But why is this? By what logic does Paul ask husbands and wives to relate to one another as Christ and the church? The answer is found in verse 32. Human marriage, Paul tells us, "refers to Christ and the church." In other words, marriage is a “type” of Christ's relationship to the church. Drawing upon the ancient marriage formula of Genesis 2:24, Paul reveals a mystery (i.e., a previously hidden truth): Sexual oneness within marriage was created by God to serve as a foreshadowing of the spiritual oneness that would exist between Christ and His church. As the great church father Augustine once wrote, "It is of Christ and the Church that it is most truly said, 'the two shall be one flesh.'"

From Paul's comments in Ephesians we can see that when a man and a woman come together sexually, in some mysterious way they become one in their flesh (see also 1 Corinthians 6:16). Something profound occurs through sexual intercourse. The marriage union is not simply a legal union or a social union, a financial union or a familial union, but rather a union of bodies, a sharing of physical life. Through sex, two people are joined together in the deepest and most wonderful way—so much so that they are said to become one. This is why sexual intercourse is rightly said to "consummate" a marriage.

Marriage is more than sex, but it's not less than sex. In fact, in the ancient biblical world, sexual union was the primary means by which a man and woman married each other (see, for example, the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah in Genesis 24:67). Unlike today, religious clergy of the ancient world did not create a marriage through a formal pronouncement; rather the act of sex itself created the marriage. Thus, a healthy marriage relationship is the living out of the union that is established through sexual intercourse. (This is why a sexual relationship that occurs outside the context of a marriage relationship is so emotionally destructive. The act of sex, which is meant to initiate and sustain a permanent union of marriage, is broken apart and divorced from its very purpose.)

A deeper reality

But herein lies the greatest significance of sex—not what it accomplishes on an earthly plane, but what it images on a divine plane. Sex is not an end in itself; it points to the deeper reality of the gospel. Just as the sacrifice of the Passover lamb in the Old Testament foreshadowed Christ's atoning sacrifice in the New, so too the physical oneness established through sex foreshadows the spiritual oneness that will exist (and which already exists) between Christ and his church at the wedding supper of the Lamb.

The New Testament's many references to the church as the "bride" of Christ and to Christ as the "bridegroom" further highlight this parallel between earthly and heavenly union. Additionally, many of Christ's parables use the wedding motif as an illustration of His return and consummate union with the church. And the book of Revelation explicitly refers to the wedding supper of the Lamb as inaugurating the dawn of the eternal age (Revelation 19:7; 21:2, 9; 22:17; see also Matthew 25:1-13).

But it's important to remember which came first in God's mind. God did not pattern the divine marriage after human marriage, but rather human marriage is a foreshadowing of the divine marriage. It's not as though God discovered the connection between sex and the gospel the way a pastor peruses the Wall Street Journal for preaching illustrations. No, the connection was purposed before the foundation of the world. As Paul tells us, the sexual oneness of marriage refers to Christ and the church. Just as God ordained the coming sacrifice of Christ, so too God ordained human marriage—from the very dawn of creation—to testify to the coming wedding supper of the Lamb.

Remembering the gospel

Our spiritual union with Christ is an essential yet often overlooked aspect of the gospel. The good news of salvation is not simply that God has forgiven us but, rather, that through our union with Christ we are born again into his very life—we have become sharers of his nature (2 Peter 1:4). Forgiveness is indeed a significant aspect of our salvation, but we must not reduce the saving work of God to simple bookkeeping in the divine registry, cleaning out our account of sins but otherwise leaving us untouched. Forgiveness cleans the slate, but forgiveness alone is not sufficient for entering the kingdom of heaven.

That last sentence is worth repeating: Forgiveness alone is not sufficient for entering the kingdom of heaven. It is only when we understand that our chief culpability before God is not bound up in our sinful actions but, even more fundamentally, in our sinful nature—the source of our sinful actions—that we can begin to understand why we need more than forgiveness.

Not surprisingly, the main requirement for entering into eternal life is that one actually be alive. Jesus Himself said, "No one can see [enter into] the kingdom of God unless he is born again" (John 3:3, NIV). A key component of New Testament salvation, therefore, is centered on our connection to the very life of God, through Jesus Christ via the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. It is when we become one spiritually with Christ Himself that we enter into both forgiveness and life. Just as a husband and wife become one in their physical life, so too Christ and the Christian, through the indwelling of the Spirit, become one in their spiritual life. Through our union with Christ, His life becomes our own. We are born again precisely because we have been united to the one who is life itself.

The ability to live a God-pleasing life, indeed, to inherit eternal life, does not stem from our dedication to God or vows of our will; rather, it flows to us from the power of the divine life granted to us through our supernatural union with Christ. The very life of God through Christ via the Holy Spirit has taken up residence inside us. We are irrevocably wed to the divine nature, and human marriage is a powerful picture, or symbol, of this union.

In the end, our final hope of salvation is that we have been married to Christ. When we come to God for salvation, He makes us one with Christ—just as a man and a woman become one in marriage. This union with Christ is the very thing that provides eternal life.  Indeed, the eternal life that we have now begun to live is the eternal life that Christ lives. The sap of the vine is the sap of the branch. Through our union with Him, we have been blessed with every spiritual blessing (Ephesians 1:3). He has become our head, and as His bride, His job is to present us "to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless" (Ephesians 5:27, NIV).

And He will do it. Marriage and sex are powerful illustrations of the union that exists between Christ and the Christian, and they were created specifically for that purpose.

Adapted from Sex, Dating, and Relationships by Gerald Hiestand and Jay Thomas, © 2012, pp. 17-26. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, www.crossway.org.

Listen to an interview with Gerald Hiestand and Jay Thomas on a recent FamilyLife Today® broadcast.

FamilyLife is a donor-supported ministry offering practical and biblical resources and events to help you build a godly marriage and family.



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