Did Jesus ever say that the practice of homosexuality was a sin? Absolutely, He did! But because He did not say so explicitly, a growing number of today’s clergy and church-going lay-folk assume that Jesus condones and even blesses same-gender sex.
Until recently, it was enough to refer to an Old Testament passage like Leviticus 18:1-23, in which same-gender sexual activity is condemned alongside incest and bestiality, to convince someone that the Scripture considers homosexuality a sin. But now, clergy and lay-folk alike are prone to dismiss such Hebrew Scriptures as belonging to a time when the “old covenant” was operational, when God held His people to a different standard that is no longer binding for the Church today.
What about New Testament passages like the words of Paul in Romans 1:26ff? Here same-gender sexual activity is unambiguously described and summarily condemned. Once again, such passages are dismissed for reasons ranging anywhere from “Paul’s words do not carry the same weight as the words of Jesus” to “Paul was, himself, a repressed homosexual.”
So in discounting what the Old Testament teaches about homosexuality, as well as what the New Testament Epistles have to say, how does one account for the words of Jesus in Mark 7:21-23?
“That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. For from within, out of the heart of men proceed evil thoughts, sexual immoralities, thefts, adulteries, murder, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. All these evil things come from within a man and defile him.” (NASB)
When Jesus said this, He was, in part, reproving some of the Pharisees who had been congratulating themselves on their outward show of religion. At the same time, they were no less likely to exhibit behaviors that everybody agreed were “evil” and “defiling.” Jesus also spoke these words to His disciples, all of them Jews, all of them living in Israel at a time when the culture-at-large was guided by the Hebrew Scriptures. No Jew would deny that murder was a sin, or theft, adultery, covetousness, and slander.
But what did Jesus mean when, in addition to “adulteries,” He added “sexual immoralities” to the list? These words are a translation of the Greek word porneia (πορνεία, ας, ἡ). Among non-Jews in the culture surrounding Israel, porneia referred to “generally, of every kind of extramarital, unlawful, or unnatural sexual intercourse; extramarital intercourse, sexual immorality, fornication." (1) Adultery, incest, rape, bestiality, homosexuality, and prostitution were among such behaviors, and within the Greco/Roman culture were considered sexually immoral.
So, what acts were considered to be sexually immoral among the Jews? What did Jews consider to be porneia? There was widespread agreement that incest, bestiality, and homosexuality were among those behaviors that “defiled a person.” And the Jews believed that because their whole way of life was rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures, including Leviticus 18:1-23.
To be sure, Jesus never explicitly labeled bestiality, incest, or rape as behaviors that were evil. Nor did Jesus explicitly identify the practice of homosexuality as that which defiles a person. Yet, when Jesus distinguished porneia from adultery, His disciples surely understood that He meant to include homosexuality along with incest and bestiality.
In short, those who claim that Jesus was silent on the matter of homosexuality ought to consider how He used the word porneia in the context of His time, place, and culture. Intellectual honesty demands this in today’s Church, among clergy and lay-folk alike.
Certainly, Jesus taught that sexual immorality—including homosexual behavior—was a sin, no less than envy, theft, or murder. And for each of these, Jesus also spoke of the incredible life of victory He offers us when we turn from our sin and when we seek to abide in the love He has for us. In response to the apostle Paul who was going through his own terrible times of struggle, Jesus said, “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Paul learned that, in spite of his weaknesses, Jesus supplied him with all he needed to persevere and find victory.
The same grace extended to Paul is sufficient for us. It’s the grace of Jesus that enables us to resist temptation. It’s His grace that keeps us from being overwhelmed by the “I’ll never”s and the “not me”s that plague our thinking. Best of all, it’s this amazing grace that empowers us to experience joy-filled lives of faith, fellowship, and intimacy, despite whatever temptations may come our way. Jesus knows exactly what we’re going through. Though He never sinned, He was “tempted in every way” (Hebrews 4:15). Yet, for our sakes, because of His amazing love and His amazing grace, Jesus carried His cross and endured the weight of our sins, so that now we are empowered to carry the weight our own crosses. Truly, truly, there’s victory in Jesus.
(1) Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament
John White is an ordained minister of a Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) in KY, has served three churches in twenty two years, holds a Bachelors Degree in School of Speech, Northwestern, and a Master of Divinity from Yale Divinity School.
Copyright © 2016 by Pure Life Ministries. Permission is granted to use, copy, distribute, or retransmit information or materials on this page, so long as proper acknowledgment is given to Pure Life Ministries as the source of the materials, and no modifications are made to such material.