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Jesus’ Teaching on Sexual Immorality

by Rebecca McLaughlin


People sometimes suggest that Jesus is not concerned with sexual sin. But this could not be further from the truth. In his famous “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus took the seventh of the Ten Commandments (which homes in on sexual sin) and drove it deep into the inner self:


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. (Matthew 5:27-28)


According to Jesus, all of us are sexual sinners. What’s more, the origin of all our sinful thoughts and words and deeds is not primarily our culture, upbringing, or friendship groups but our hearts. “For out of the heart,” Jesus explains, “come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person” (15:19-20).[1]


If we look carefully at Jesus’ illustrative list of sins, we’ll find that same-sex sexual relationships are certainly included. In addition to adultery, Jesus mentions “sexual immorality”—or, in the original Greek of the New Testament, porneia. As historian Kyle Harper explains, in Jewish writings around the time of Jesus, “porneia could be used to describe a whole array of improper sexual configurations: incest, prostitution ... homosexuality, and unchastity.”[2] In the Greco-Roman empire within which the Jews of Jesus’ day were living, it was common for men to sleep with other males. Jesus’ condemnation of porneia would have included that. As an analogy, if I said, “Looking at pornography is wrong,” you wouldn’t need me to mention gay pornography separately to know it was included in my statement. 

People sometimes argue that same-sex sexual relationships can’t be wrong because same-sex desire seems to crop up in some humans naturally. In my life, for example, feelings of attraction toward certain women haven’t needed to be manufactured. They’ve come out of my heart. But according to Jesus, the fact that something comes out of my heart or yours does not mean it isn’t sinful. The label on our sinful thoughts and actions always reads, “Made in the heart.” 

But if we listen to Jesus’ words, they also guard against the opposite mistake of putting same-sex sexual desire in its own, uniquely sinful category. People who grew up in church experiencing attraction toward members of their own sex can often feel like they’re more innately sinful than the person next to them, who might be prone to sinful desire toward members of the opposite sex. But Jesus’ diagnosis of the human heart is profoundly levelling. The fact that my heart tends to manufacture same-sex attraction while someone else’s typical temptations have a different object does not put me in a special category. When it comes to sexual sin—as with a hundred other kinds of sin—Jesus looks into your heart and mine and finds us both unquestionably guilty. But, at the same time, Jesus looks into your eyes and mine and tells us that we’re unimaginably loved.


Jesus’ Love for Sexual Sinners


While Jesus was extremely hard on sin of every kind, he radically welcomed sinners. When the Pharisees complained that Jesus was eating with “tax collectors and sinners” (likely including people known for sexual sin), Jesus replied, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). The Pharisees just failed to realize they were sinners too. Likewise, when “a woman of the city, who was a sinner,” poured out her love on Jesus because he had forgiven her sins, Jesus commended her faith and shut down the self-righteous Pharisee who despised her (Luke 7:36-50). Jesus shocked religious leaders by telling them that prostitutes were getting into the kingdom of heaven ahead of them. Why? Because the prostitutes repented (Matthew 21:28-32). In one of the most memorable stories from the Gospels, Jesus rescued a woman caught in adultery from being stoned (John 8:3-11). And Jesus rescues sexual sinners to this day. Jesus claimed he came “to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10). If you feel broken by your sexual sin today, Jesus sees you and says, You’re just the person I was looking for.


“If it was a choice between following an ancient religious leader or fulfilling my sexuality,” my friend Sam observes, “it would be hard not to argue in favor of the latter. But that is not the actual choice I face.”


Jesus is not a religious leader from many centuries ago. I believe him to be my Creator: the one who not only made me but came up with the idea of me in the first place. He thought me up! He knows far, far better than I do how I should live. He knows me more than I know myself and loves me more than I love myself.[3]


Jesus wasn’t silent when it came to God’s design for marriage as male-female. He warns us against all forms of sex outside of that relationship. But if we put our trust in him, we don’t need to pretend we are not tempted toward sexual sin, and we don’t need to try to hide the times we fail. He knows our thoughts and hearts, and nonetheless he loves us more than any other human—male or female—ever could. Don’t set your heart on anyone less wonderful than Jesus.


[1] See also Mark 7:21-23

[2] See Kyle Harper, From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity (Harvard University Press, 2013), p 89.

[3] Sam Allberry, Is God Anti-Gay?, p 33.


This article is adapted from Does the Bible Affirm Same-Sex Relationships? by Rebecca McLaughlin. In the book, Rebecca examines ten of the most common arguments used to claim that the Bible affirms same-sex sexual relationships. She analyzes the arguments and associated Bible passages one by one to uncover what the Bible really says. Rebecca holds a PhD in renaissance literature from Cambridge University and a theology degree from Oak Hill College in London.


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