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Author:Dr. Reuben Bredenhof
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Congregation:Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary (CRTS)
 Hamilton, Ontario
Preached At:Free Reformed Church of Mt. Nasura
 Mt. Nasura, Western Australia
Title:God's Will for Holiness in Sexuality and the Family
Text:Leviticus 18:1-30 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 85:1,2                                                                                  

Ps 37:12,13                                                                                                    

Reading – Leviticus 18:1-30; Ephesians 5:22-33

Ps 106:1,16,18,22

Sermon – Leviticus 18:1-30

Ps 128:1,2,3

Hy 52:1,2

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation, while preparing this sermon I read a comment that I found striking. An author had just given an overview of our chapter. He was speaking about how Leviticus 18 addresses the difficult topic of sexuality, and that it doesn’t shy away from the many ways that it’s been twisted and perverted. For Leviticus 18 is about adultery, and incest, and homosexuality, and bestiality—some uncomfortable subjects. And then the author observed: “If only Leviticus was not so relevant to modern life!”

Because it is relevant—shockingly so. Our chapter reveals that the things we see around us today are not new: there’s an exploitation of the vulnerable, there’s a willingness to redefine marriage, there’s an acceptance of almost any kind of sexual relationship. We’re alarmed by our society’s lack of morals, how willing it is to distort the idea of family or the human body as God created it. Yet for help and guidance here we can go back to Scripture. Not just to the New Testament, but to Leviticus—an ancient book, indeed so relevant to modern life.

Now, our chapter is part of another section within Leviticus. The most recent chapters were part of the “Manual for Purity” (chapters 11-16). In that section God teaches how his people need to lead a life of separateness: set apart from sin, and set apart for the LORD. The “Handbook of Holiness” relates to all sorts of daily things: food, childbirth, skin disease, various functions of the body. This is because holiness is an entire style of life, where we’re distinguished by purity in all we do.

Starting at chapter 18 and into chapter 20, there’s a new section. Broadly speaking, it’s still about holiness, but now God speaks to issues of society and family. How should God’s people live together as a community? What are appropriate relationships? What is a valid marriage? And when it comes to sexuality, what should we NOT do? Let’s then consider Leviticus 18 on this theme,

            God gives His law for holiness in sexuality and the family:

1)     the good purpose

2)     the many perversions


1)     the good purpose: Maybe we’re tempted to skip verses 1-2, “Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: I am the LORD your God.’” That sounds like something we’ve heard many times. But let’s pause here, for it reminds us of who we are, and who we serve. God saying “I am the LORD your God” expresses at least two key truths.

First, that name for God is important: LORD. This is the name Yahweh, God’s covenant name, revealed to Abraham and then to Moses. It’s a name that automatically calls to mind the whole story of salvation, how God rescued his people from Egypt. Second, this LORD is “your God” (v 2), meaning He has a close bond with his people. God is ours, and we are his—we are holy to God.

So consider that: right at the beginning of a chapter all about avoiding sexual sin, and staying pure, and living according to God’s design for family, we’re pointed to our motive for obedience! We’re reminded about what it’s all about. Keeping God’s commandments must never be merely a formal duty—another box checked—but our obedience is a loving response to God, who’s shown us rich grace in Christ. Because God loves me, and because I love God, I want to walk in his ways! I want to honour the Saviour with my body, and in my family.

If you go through the chapter and count, you’ll see God actually says this six times, “I am the LORD your God.” This is always the weight of authority behind his words: it’s who He is, as God. Keeping his commands is good for us, sure. But ultimately our obedience to Him is about Him: He is the LORD, He is God. We know his words are right, and so we want to do them.

The introductory section continues in verse 4, when God says, “You shall observe my judgments and keep my ordinances, to walk in them.” There’s two words for law there, “judgments” and “ordinances.” That second word is interesting, because in the original Hebrew it’s a word that denotes something that’s inscribed or marked out by God. His laws are like a boundary line for us.

And something we learn from God’s law is that it’s good to stay inside the lines. His rules protect us. They give the freedom to live, without us always wondering how far we can go. Think of how that’s true in a family. Parents will make rules in order to protect their kids from the kinds of behaviours that harm them. These can be rules about food and drink—like not having too much sugar. Or rules about media—like not having unsupervised access to the Internet. Boundaries protect us from ourselves and outside dangers, and rules enable us to thrive.

That’s what God is giving us, He says in verse 4: ordinances, that you might “walk in them.” Notice the imagery of walking—God’s rules are not meant to paralyse us. Rather, God is showing the good path to take for family and sexuality. He continues in verse 5, “You shall therefore keep my statutes and my judgments, which if a man does, he shall live by them.” Underline that last phrase: obedience to the LORD brings life. Walking in God’s commands is the key to right living: safe, healthy and whole living—under his blessing.

Immediately after verse 5, we get into some of the immoral situations that people choose to enter. And these things aren’t just wrong, but miserable. As we think about these examples of adultery and incest and exploitation and more, it’s not hard to image all the misery and suffering that can result from these things. What seems like a good idea to our flesh in the moment can bring such ruin to life. What seems to offer us pleasure or security leads to such brokenness.

An obvious example is when a marriage is undercut by adultery. When a husband or a wife has had an affair, something is shattered. Even if it was just one moment of weakness, one indiscretion, immense damage has been done: trust is destroyed, bitterness invades, there is guilt and anger and confusion. So much misery, all because we decided to take our own way.

The same thing is true for every sin in this chapter. Even if it doesn’t come into the open, sin like this unleashes a torrent of misery. There is shame. There is emptiness. There’s even the potential to fall away from God entirely, because this sin comes to dominate your life. So before getting into any of that, God promises in verse 5, “If you keep my judgments, and walk in my paths, you’ll live. This is going to be better for you. It won’t always be easy—being pure, staying married, honouring my design—it won’t easy, but I guarantee you that it will lead to blessing. For I am the LORD your God.”

God’s design is simple. Back in Genesis 1 and 2, we read how the LORD created man and woman for each other. The union of Adam and Eve was the first marriage, the model for every other. And it reveals essential things about God’s will for family and sexuality. It reveals that marriage is an unbreakable covenant. It’s an exclusive union of one man and one woman, two who are joined together as one flesh.

When a marriage is built according to God’s design, we said, we expect to see the benefits and advantages. There’s no perfect marriage, but when a husband and wife have a committed love, and trust for each other, and a shared faith in Christ, there is great joy. There is a blessing not just for them, but for the people around them.

And God has a vested interest in giving the laws that He does in this chapter. For God knows that a godly marriage is a proven way of sanctifying his people. Living together with another sinful person in marriage often causes us to grow in faith and love and understanding. What’s more, with these laws God is thinking of the future. It’s his will that through families his people are built up. The family unit is meant to be a mini-community of teaching and learning about God and godliness, about salvation and service. Through parents who are committed to each other, and through parents who are devoted to raising children to fear the LORD, the church is increased and equipped.

The rules in this chapter can come across as negative, but think of what God is seeking to do: He wants to shield us from all the misery of giving into our sinful desire. He wants to protect our marriages, and to strengthen our families, and build his church. Through living in holiness and walking in his ways, He wants his people to grow. That’s as true in Leviticus 18 as it is today. But it’s also here that we face a danger.


2)     the many perversions: There’s a commandment that’s at the heart of this entire chapter. It’s the seventh: “You shall not commit adultery.” That’s the main idea, but we need help to understand that, so God gives a broader scope.

As God outlines the many perversions, notice how there must be a contrast between Israel and the nations. For example, it’s said twice in verse 3, “According to the doings of the land of Egypt, where you dwelt, you shall not do; and according to the doings of the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you, you shall not do.” That’s not the only time either: no less than seven times in our chapter, God says that his people must not treat sexuality like the pagans do.

God first mentions Egypt, the land from which He recently rescued them. This was a godless country, and a place where incest (or sex between members of the same family) was accepted as legitimate. Particularly the Egyptian royal family was known for this, brothers marrying sisters, and so on. God mentions the Canaanites too. In the land where Israel was going to settle, the people were known for promiscuity. They also permitted close intermarriage. Homosexuality wasn’t widespread, but it was accepted. In general, Israel’s neighbours had little restraint in their sexuality.

And if that’s what surrounded God’s people, it was going to be difficult for them to go a different way. It wasn’t that long ago that they were in Egypt, and the Israelites could surely remember the perversions they saw there. Or think of the temptations they faced when they came into the Promised Land. They were supposed to chase out the Canaanites, but even when they did, the influence of other people wasn’t far away. Just over the border, just beyond those hills—the Israelites knew how their neighbours lived. They knew about the prostitution and the wild parties at the pagan shrines. They knew about their neighbours’ free and easy ways with sex, and it was tempting to imitate that. If it’s acceptable for them, why not for us? Why do they get all the fun? This is why God warns them so often, “You shall not do as they do!”

Beloved, can’t you see the similarities with how we live today? This has always been an area of life where Satan has had a powerful effect. The devil’s tactics rarely change, for since the beginning they’ve proven to be so effective! We surrender so easily to his power of suggestion, especially where there’s the promise of pleasure.

Today sexual temptation besieges us. It’s very near, in the culture of our land and through the media that we can all access. We don’t even have the benefit of borders and segregation like the Israelites did, but we live among people who don’t know the Lord and his law. Because sin surrounds us, with its offer of indulgence and freedom, we are conflicted. When the culture’s whole direction is to change God’s design for sexuality and the family, it’s hard to be different.

But this is exactly what God wants. It’s particularly in this area that God’s people can demonstrate that we are holy. In a world of perversion, it’s here that we can show that we’re set apart from sin, and set apart for God’s glory. We show that we belong to God by our hard-fought purity, whether single or married. We show that we belong to God by our commitment to godly marriages, and by the strength of our families.

So what were some of the perversions that tempted the people of Israel? The basic guideline is verse 6, “None of you shall approach anyone who is near of kin to him, to uncover his nakedness.” Now, when it says “kin” or “family” in that verse, the Hebrew reads literally, “flesh of his flesh.”

You notice how that’s the same phrase in Genesis 2:23, when God institutes marriage, and Adam celebrates the woman whom God has given him, “flesh of his flesh.” When two people marry and have sexual relations, there is the creation of a deeply intimate relationship. It makes man and wife as closely related as parents and children, for man and wife become one flesh. Here God is saying that the gift of sexuality belongs in a very specific context, and in that context alone—and it’s not among members of the same family. It means too, that we can’t take it out of the marriage context, and expect that there won’t be a consequence. It’s going to be empty, and it’s going to lead to trouble.

Another thing about verse 6 is the phrase we find throughout this chapter, about “uncovering a person’s nakedness.” That’s what we call a euphemism; it’s a less graphic way of describing sexual intercourse. We do the same thing today, when we talk about how a person “went to bed” with someone, or “slept” with someone.

In this section of the chapter, God forbids various kinds of incest. We won’t go through each of these scenarios, but we can summarize them by saying that sexual unions of the first and second degree aren’t allowed. Relatives of the first degree would be, for example, the relationship of a brother with a sister, or a father with a daughter. This is what’s described in verse 7, “The nakedness of your father or the nakedness of your mother you shall not uncover.” An example of relatives of the second degree are a grandfather with his granddaughter, or nephew with his aunt.

Now, this part of the chapter is hard to relate to. The thought of having sexual relations with people in our own family is repulsive—we just wouldn’t go there—this is like a warning that we don’t really need! But to try understand it, think of the make-up of a traditional Israelite household. It wasn’t just one family of parents and children living together (like today), but relatives from a few generations, perhaps some grandparents and an aunt and uncle, and maybe some servants.

Another reality is that an Israelite man might’ve had more than one wife. This certainly wasn’t the way God intended, and yet God knew it would happen. This is why his laws sometimes assume the possibility of a man having more than one wife (e.g., Deut 21:15-17). For example, it’s implied in verse 8, “The nakedness of your father’s wife you shall not uncover.” This refers to the second wife of the father. And if a father had a second wife, and then had children by her, that would mean half-sisters and half-brothers who are living in the same house.

My point in describing a typical Israelite household is that there were lots of people around, not only first degree relations, but second and third degree. And therein was the temptation. For doesn’t temptation thrive on accessibility and opportunity? Reading through all the scenarios, you get the sense that people might be tempted to have sex with whomever—whoever was around. Once sex is taken out of the setting of marriage, what boundaries are there?

Once more we can see how disturbingly relevant our chapter is. Today there are apps for your phone where you’re given the ability to arrange casual hook-ups for sex with strangers. If you’re looking for this sin, it’s easy to find and simple to access.

Another example of this is pornography. It used to be tucked away on the top shelf of local shops, but now it’s just a click away on the Internet. The adultery through these images is anonymous, it’s affordable, and it’s accessible—tough to beat that combination. The devil’s temptations are still thriving on accessibility and opportunity.

The relevance is seen again in verse 22, where God forbids, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman.” This is not ambiguous, but direct. It’s also not politically correct in our time, but simply God’s truth. And lest someone dismiss this as an ancient teaching long since surpassed by Jesus’ command to love and accept everyone, it’s not just here in Leviticus that homosexuality is condemned. It is condemned throughout Scripture, in the New Testament too (Rom 1:27, 1 Cor 6:9, 1 Tim 1:10). Of it, God says: “It is an abomination.” That’s a word of strong disapproval, one often used in the law to warn against the practices of other religions. Just because it’s socially accepted, even trendy, you shall do as they do!

Verse 23 describes another perversion, “Nor shall you mate with any animal, to defile yourself with it. Nor shall any woman stand before an animal to mate with it.” We don’t want to say a lot about this, yet this was another practice that was known from cultures around Israel, including Egypt and Canaan.

Reading this chapter, you get the sense that God is thinking of any possible way that people might twist his gift of sexuality. For our minds can be disturbingly creative when it comes to sin. But don’t read this chapter from a stance of pride, as if we can’t relate. Also the most ordinary, “vanilla” sin against the seventh commandment is described in verse 20, “You shall not lie carnally with your neighbour’s wife, to defile yourself with her.” This isn’t about improper relations within a family, or your own gender, or with animals, but it refers to anyone else’s wife (or husband).

And notice what it does: it brings defilement. Leviticus speaks about the defilement caused by skin diseases and improper food, but this is different: according to God’s law, this is a permanent defilement. As Jesus taught us, even our thoughts against this command can stain us. We’re tempted sometimes to condemn deviations like homosexuality with a righteous anger. Or we get upset with push for transgender issues. How could they?! But God reminds us that anyone can be defiled. He wants us to look into the mirror of his law and consider: Maybe our own family relationships are deeply unhealthy. Maybe our view of women (or men) is terribly twisted. Maybe we have a harmful sexual habit that we’ve keep hidden. These too, are deviations from God’s holy will for family and sexuality.

So then, what do we do with verse 21? It seems not to fit into this chapter: “And you shall not let any of your descendants pass through the fire to Molech, nor shall you profane the name of your God.” This is about the practice of child sacrifice, when a child would be passed through the fire, something that happened among the Phoenecians and Canaanites.

As mentioned, the connection from this verse to the rest of the chapter isn’t clear. God mentions it, perhaps because the worship of Molech had sexual overtones. More likely, God wanted to teach his people about the close connection between physical adultery and spiritual adultery, unfaithfulness in body and in spirit. Verse 20 says literally, “You shall not give your seed to the wife of your neighbour.” And verse 21 says literally, “You shall not give your seed to Molech.” In this verse, and the entire chapter, God is demanding our faithfulness.

Related to this then, are the many times in Scripture that God accuses his people of committing spiritual adultery against Him. They were his bride, but they kept leaving Him for something they thought was better.

For that’s what all our sin is, ultimately, whether against this or any commandment. We’re not loving God above all else, and we’re not listening to his Word. And God can’t stomach that. Towards the end of the chapter He says that the nations are going to be vomited out of Canaan, because of their wicked ways. But then He also says his own people will be vomited out, if they do as the nations do. And this is exactly what happened, centuries later, when God sent his people into exile. They had committed adultery against Him once too often.

The way the chapter ends is an uncomfortable pointer to our own failures. This isn’t just about homosexuals and paedophiles and people who have affairs. We all struggle to live according to God’s will for sexuality and the family. We all deserve to be cast out for our impurity.

Yet that’s not where God leaves us. For God didn’t leave his people in exile. And God doesn’t leave us in exile. He gives the hope for redemption through Christ his Son. Paul speaks of this in Ephesians 5. There he’s talking about how husbands and wives should treat each other. But while he teaches on that topic, Paul wants to mention an even greater love: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her” (vv 25-26). Christ bought sinners with his own blood, giving himself for us, “to be his holy bride.” Christ gave himself completely, so we might be completely his.

And why did He do this? Explains Paul in Ephesians 5:27, “that [Christ] might present her to himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish.” Notice the purpose of Christ’s saving work: so that we’d be holy and without blemish. So that we’d belong to him—and him alone. This is good news. In a world full of depravity, with hearts that can be so perverse, Christ cleanses us from all sin, and He transforms us by his Spirit. So now be holy, and be undefiled for Him!  Amen.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
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(c) Copyright 2017, Dr. Reuben Bredenhof

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