Though I’m eager to dive into the word study, I’m compelled to spend some time keeping my promise to reveal my own position and velocity. It will make this essay considerably, but necessarily, longer than I like.
The Greek words translated sexual immorality in the NET were translated fornication in the KJV. I thought fornication meant premarital sex. I didn’t know anything about the ritual sex of pagan worship until about thirty-five years ago (though I felt the sensual pull of Egyptian art since childhood). But I didn’t immediately question the meaning of sexual immorality or fornication. I remember wondering if the prostitutes in Jerusalem that Solomon feared so for his sons had been imported along with his wives’ religions (1 Kings 11:1-8).
Now I’m thinking that “the sin of premarital sex” is a way we have nullified the word of God by our traditions. Upwardly-mobile young men can “repent” of their “sins of premarital sex” and head off to college or a new career unencumbered by any of their responsibilities as husbands. “If a man is shacking up with a woman,” Denny wrote in his blog post THE PROGRESSIVE SANCTIFICATION HERESY, “simply saying, ‘I’m sorry God,’ just won’t do. It requires that you get out of that sinful situation.”
He might have meant “give the woman a ring and social status as a legal wife,” hearkening back to an older time when church folk believed, What therefore God hath joined together [Deuteronomy 22:28, 29; Exodus 22:16, 17], let not man [except for the young woman’s father] put asunder. It would demonstrate a humility reminiscent of the proverb of the wisest king of Israel (or perhaps, the wisest man ever): There are three things that are too wonderful for me, Solomon wrote, four that I do not understand: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a snake on a rock, the way of a ship in the sea, and the way of a man with a woman (Septuagint: “and the ways of a man in his youth”).
But I imagine Denny as a contemporary co-religionist, hailing from a prouder more macho tradition where “holiness” is measured by how harshly it savages human emotions. The two “shacking up” together, no matter how desperately they love one another (the more the better), must part, separate, send away, divorce, put asunder because they have committed the “unpardonable sin” of enjoying sex before a church official pronounced them lawful to do so. To paraphrase Friedrich Nietzsche’s Antichrist: What is good? All that heightens the feeling of church power.
Any man of Israel who refused to attend Ezra’s assembly and divorce his foreign wife would forfeit all his property. The list of men who had taken foreign wives at the end of the book (Ezra 10:18-44) persuades me that Ezra believed the proceedings to send foreign wives and their children away had transpired according to the Lord’s will. And so did I, until I heard yehôvâh’s response through the prophet Malachi (2:13-16 NET):
You also do this: You cover the altar of the Lord with tears as you weep and groan, because he no longer pays any attention to the offering nor accepts it favorably from you. Yet you ask, “Why?” The Lord is testifying against you on behalf of the wife you married when you were young, to whom you have become unfaithful even though she is your companion and wife by law. No one who has even a small portion of the Spirit in him does this. What did our ancestor do when seeking a child from God [e.g., Genesis 15:6]? Be attentive, then, to your own spirit, for one should not be disloyal to the wife he took in his youth. “I hate divorce,” says the Lord God of Israel, “and the one who is guilty of violence,” says the Lord who rules over all. “Pay attention to your conscience, and do not be unfaithful.”
The intimate absolute rejection of divorce was yehôvâh’s will for no one. But I’ve stacked the deck here as if I believe that staying together and formalizing the relationship is necessarily the “right” decision. In my case it was not so.
My contract with God had broken down. I had heard enough religion to know that some believed Christ put an “end” to the law and all things were “lawful” for me. So I did what I wanted. I shacked up with my girlfriend du jour. Unbeknownst to me at the time, with my sexual desires more or less satisfied for the first time in a long time, I began to walk in the grace of Christ’s salvation as I began to set the words of the Gospel to music.
Too many years of hallucinogenic drugs had made me functionally illiterate. At least I thought that term described me accurately the first time I heard it. (As it turned out functionally illiterate is just a redundancy for illiterate.) If I had read aloud one would have assumed I understood what I read. I read easily, fluently and coherently with an actor’s flair for inflection. My problem was a lack of faith. I had no confidence that strings of words meant anything beyond the beauty of their sounds, except in the most mundane cases: I’m hungry, I’m horny, I have to pee. And so with a young man’s needs met, a job and a woman, I set out to make art.
The one who hated the Bible as a child knew he wasn’t smart enough to choose which Gospel was the “right” one for his libretto, so he spent countless hours creating a harmony of the four Gospel narratives, and untold hours more with those words rolling over and over in his mind to set them to music. It was a long and laborious task because he was not a very good composer, at least he wasn’t quick about it.
When he played and sang John 17:1-11 for another composer friend, his friend commended his work: “You know, the first time you played this for me I thought it was just a throw-away. Now I think it may be the best piece you’ve ever written.” He, being a highly literate fellow, also commented on the meaning of the text: “And that’s the most interesting definition of eternal life I’ve ever heard.”
The functionally illiterate composer of the best piece he had ever written nodded appreciatively but hadn’t realized that the words—This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent—constituted a definition of eternal life. But he planned to take the words—This is and whatever words followed—a bit more seriously in the future. When he decided to formally marry his roommate the functionally illiterate composer had fallen away from grace, though he would not have understood that if someone had told him.
In fact, I wonder if I was capable of understanding it apart from actively becoming one who was trying to be declared righteous by the law. I began to study the Bible in earnest. Though I had been warned that the meaning of eternal life was to know the only true God and Jesus Christ whom He had sent I didn’t study to know the only true God and Jesus Christ whom He had sent to live that eternal life. I searched the Bible for rules to obey—or disobey as it turned out.
So what do I currently think is the “right” decision when one is conscience-stricken over “shacking up” together? I return to Ezra (Ezra 9:15 NET):
O Lord God of Israel, you are righteous, for we are left as a remnant this day. Indeed, we stand before you in our guilt. However, because of this guilt no one can really stand before you.
And then wait—acknowledging that you are caught in a tender trap (Hosea 11:4) and that there is no way for you to cleanse yourself of sin by your deeds. And while you’re waiting, study the Bible to know the only true God and Jesus Christ whom He has sent to live his eternal life. This essay will become a tale of three women (four women, though one was actually a symbol for a city), more importantly it will focus on Jesus’ response to those women.
Go call your husband and come back here, Jesus said to a Samaritan woman at a well. The woman replied, “I have no husband.” Jesus already knew her past: you have had five husbands, and the man you are living with now is not your husband. He did not command her to leave the man she had now (νῦν ὃν ἔχεις), nor did He command her to go to a priest and get married; the man was apparently already married to another woman. Jesus commended her for her truthfulness: καλῶς εἶπας ὅτι ἄνδρα οὐκ ἔχω is literally “beautifully you poured forth that husband you have not.” And he told her that in her truthfulness she was exactly the kind of person his Father was seeking for his kingdom (John 4:23, 24 NET):
But a time is coming – and now is here – when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such people to be his worshipers. God is spirit, and the people who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.
The second woman was from Thyatira: But I have this against you, Jesus addressed the singular angel of the church in Thyatira, You tolerate that woman Jezebel… The Greek word translated You tolerate was ἀφεῖς (a form of ἀφίημι). Here is a table of all the occurrences of ἀφεῖς and its translation.
|Form of ἀφίημι||Reference||KJV||
|ἀφεὶς||Matthew 13:36||Then Jesus sent the multitude away…||Then he left the crowds…|
|Matthew 26:44||And he left them…||So leaving them again…|
|Mark 8:13||And he left them…||Then he left them…|
|Mark 13:34||…who left his house…||He left his house…|
|Mark 15:37||And Jesus cried with a loud voice…||But Jesus cried out with a loud voice…|
|ἀφεῖς||Revelation 2:20||…thou sufferest that woman Jezebel…||You tolerate that woman Jezebel…|
Mark’s word picture, that Jesus left his body and its loud voice echoed on afterward, is stunning. In Revelation, You [left] that woman Jezebel hints that the angel of the church of Thyatira was a kind of ἐπίσκοπος on a visitation circuit inspecting (ἐπισκέπτομαι) churches. He saw what Jezebel was doing but did nothing. It doesn’t answer the question whether the angel was a human being or not but serves as prima facie evidence that he was not a local pastor.
Jesus described Jezebel as one who calls herself a prophetess, and by her teaching deceives my servants… The Greek word translated by her teaching was διδάσκει (a form of διδάσκω). Here is a table of all the occurrences of διδάσκει and its translation.
|Form of διδάσκω||Reference||KJV||
|διδάσκει||1 Corinthians 11:14||Doth not even nature itself teach you…||Does not nature itself teach you…|
|1 John 2:27||…the same anointing teacheth you of all…||…his anointing teaches you about all things…|
|Revelation 2:20||…to teach and to seduce my servants…||…and by her teaching deceives my servants…|
Though I have assumed that the fact that Jezebel taught indicated that she held a formal teaching position, neither nature nor Christ’s (or, God’s) anointing hold official teaching positions in the church. The Greek word translated deceives was πλανᾷ (a form of πλανάω). A table of the occurrences and translations of πλανᾷ follows.
Form of πλανᾷ
|πλανᾷ||John 7:12||…but he deceiveth the people…||He deceives the common people.|
|Revelation 2:20||…to teach and to seduce my servants…||…and by her teaching deceives my servants…|
|Revelation 13:14||And deceiveth them that dwell on the earth…||…he deceived those who live on the earth.|
Then I saw another beast coming up from the earth, John reported (Revelation 13:11-14a NET):
He had two horns like a lamb, but was speaking like a dragon. He exercised all the ruling authority of the first beast on his behalf, and made the earth and those who inhabit it worship the first beast, the one whose lethal wound had been healed. He performed momentous signs, even making fire come down from heaven in front of people and, by the signs he was permitted to perform on behalf of the beast, he deceived those who live on the earth.
This prophecy of an ostensibly Christian leader (He had two horns like a lamb) preaching Satan (speaking like a dragon) and deceiving people by momentous signs might explain to some extent why folks from my religious background fear the leading of the Holy Spirit. For false messiahs and false prophets will appear, Jesus warned, and perform great signs and wonders to deceive (πλανῆσαι, another form of πλανάω), if possible, even the elect. But to turn the fruit of the Spirit into one’s own works or qualities turns the salvation of Jesus Christ into just another works religion.
One of the momentous signs this beast will perform is to make fire come down from heaven in front of people. This is what James and John—before they received the Holy Spirit—wanted to do to Samaritans who refused to welcome Jesus (Luke 9:51-56). On the other hand some of the Ἰουδαῖοι (a form of Ἰουδαῖος) accused Jesus, He deceives (πλανᾷ, a form of πλανάω) the common people, because their leaders had recognized that He was performing many miraculous signs and they feared that everyone would believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away our sanctuary and our nation (John 11:45-53). Knowing Jesus intimately through his Spirit is essential to faith.
Jezebel by her teaching deceived Jesus’ servants to commit sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols. The Greek word translated to commit sexual immorality was πορνεῦσαι (a form of πορνεύω). A table of the occurrences and translations of πορνεῦσαι follows.
|Form of πορνεύω||Reference||KJV||
|πορνεῦσαι||Revelation 2:14||…to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication.||…eat food sacrificed to idols and commit sexual immorality.|
|Revelation 2:20||…to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols.||…to commit sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols.|
These two occurrences seem to be obvious references to sexualized pagan worship. Though I had no conscious alliance with any pagan deities I’m willing to consider my desire for group sex πορνεῦσαι for two reasons: 1) I thought group sex was the way of peace, distinct from, more real and effective than, any aspect of the fruit of the Spirit. My naiveté was deliberate. I was forbidden from reading or viewing stories about the treachery and violence of adultery. And I had discounted my parents’ example, assuming they were so hung up about the morality of sexuality they didn’t do it right.
The one story I had seen about adultery, on the sly as it were once I could drive and date, seemed like a subtle promo. I watched Hawkeye (Donald Sutherland) talk Lt. Dish (Jo Ann Pflug) into mercy sex with Painless (John Schuck) the night before she was scheduled to return home to her husband. I was desperate to find some meaning after the main character Frank Burns (Robert Duvall), the only character with anything like a storyline, had been written out of the movie MASH. I could see the guilt of Dish’s adultery on her face, particularly in her eyes—until she smiled. It’s been forty-seven years and I still remember her smile.
2) God stopped me from following through on my desire for group sex—twice. The second time was considerably more embarrassing and I may or may not reveal it. Jesus went on to describe πορνεῦσαι as πορνείας (a form of πορνεία), translated sexual immorality: I have given her time to repent, but she is not willing to repent of her sexual immorality. Here is a table of the occurrences and translations of πορνείας. I’ll consider each in turn.
|Form of πορνεία||Reference||KJV||
|πορνείας||Matthew 5:32||… whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication…||…everyone who divorces his wife, except for immorality…|
|John 8:41||We be not born of fornication…||We were not born as a result of immorality!|
|Acts 15:20||…abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication…||…to abstain from things defiled by idols and from sexual immorality…|
|Acts 15:29||…and from things strangled, and from fornication…||…from what has been strangled and from sexual immorality.|
|1 Corinthians 7:2||…to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife…||…because of immoralities, each man should have relations with his own wife…|
|1 Thessalonians 4:3||…that ye should abstain from fornication…||…that you keep away from sexual immorality…|
|Revelation 2:21||…to repent of her fornication…||…to repent of her sexual immorality.|
|Revelation 9:21||…nor of their fornication…||…of their sexual immorality…|
|Revelation 14:8||…she made all nations drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication.||She made all the nations drink of the wine of her immoral passion.|
|Revelation 17:2||…of the earth have been made drunk with the wine of her fornication.||…the earth’s inhabitants got drunk with the wine of her immorality.|
|Revelation 17:4||…and filthiness of her fornication…||…unclean things from her sexual immorality.|
|Revelation 18:3||…wine of the wrath of her fornication…||…from the wine of her immoral passion…|
It was said, Jesus taught, “Whoever divorces his wife must give her a legal document.” But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for immorality, makes her commit adultery (μοιχευθῆναι, a form of μοιχεύω), and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery (μοιχᾶται, a form of μοιχάω). Limiting πορνείας (translated, immorality) to the ritual sex of pagan worship here would correspond better to yehôvâh’s word through Malachi—I hate divorce—and Jesus’ negative answer (Matthew 19:4-6) to the Pharisees’ question: Is it lawful to divorce a wife for any cause?
I’m not entirely sure what the Ἰουδαίους (another form of Ἰουδαῖος) meant when they said: We were not born as a result of immorality! We have only one Father, God himself. But I take it as mostly irrelevant to understanding what Jesus meant when He used πορνείας. Assuming that James used πορνείας to mean the ritual sex of pagan worship when he suggested writing a letter to Gentiles, telling them to abstain from things defiled by idols and from sexual immorality and from what has been strangled and from blood, is the most charitable understanding of his abbreviation of the law.
If Paul had the lure of ritual sex in view it would account for his prescription of marriage though he considered it a distraction from devotion to Christ (1 Corinthians 7:32-35) and it would account for his description of Corinthian marriage as mutual sexual slavery (1 Corinthians 7:3-5). But as I’ve written before I find it very difficult to believe that Paul had ritual sex in mind in 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8.
Still, in Revelation ritual sex seems to be the meaning of πορνείας as its resurgence with pagan worship is a portent of the end times: The rest of humanity, those who survived the onslaught of an army numbering two hundred million, who had not been killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands, so that they did not stop worshiping demons and idols made of gold, silver, bronze, stone, and wood – idols that cannot see or hear or walk about. Furthermore, they did not repent of their murders, of their magic spells, of their sexual immorality, or of their stealing.
Then I saw another angel flying directly overhead, John continued his vision, and he had an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth – to every nation, tribe, language, and people. He declared in a loud voice: “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has arrived, and worship the one who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water!”
A second angel followed the first, declaring: “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great city! She made all the nations drink of the wine of her immoral passion.”
The Greek word translated passion was θυμοῦ (a form of θυμός). Here is a table of the occurrences and translations of θυμοῦ.
|Form of θυμός||Reference||KJV||
|θυμοῦ||Luke 4:28||…these things, were filled with wrath…||…in the synagogue were filled with rage.|
|Acts 19:28||…these sayings, they were full of wrath…||When they heard this they became enraged…|
|Revelation 14:8||…wine of the wrath of her fornication…||…drink of the wine of her immoral passion.|
|Revelation 14:10||…shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God…||…also drink of the wine of God’s anger…|
|Revelation 14:19||…the great winepress of the wrath of God.||…the great winepress of the wrath of God.|
|Revelation 15:7||…golden vials full of the wrath of God…||…golden bowls filled with the wrath of God…|
|Revelation 16:1||…the vials of the wrath of God…||…the seven bowls containing God’s wrath.|
|Revelation 16:19||…the wine of the fierceness of his wrath.||…the wine made of God’s furious wrath.|
|Revelation 18:3||…the wine of the wrath of her fornication…||…the wine of her immoral passion…|
|Revelation 19:15||…he treadeth the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God.||…he stomps the winepress of the furious wrath of God…|
In the NET translation Babylon made all the nations (or, all the Gentiles: πάντα τὰ ἔθνη) drink of her immoral passion, which I understand as idolatrous worship including ritual sex. In the KJV translation Babylon made all the nations (or, all the Gentiles) drink of the wrath directed at her fornication, whether all the individual nations or all of the individual Gentiles engaged directly in idolatrous worship including ritual sex or not. Though I prefer the NET translation as a matter of justice I can’t verify it independently. Here are the footnotes which attempt to explain it.
24 Grk “of the wine of the passion of the sexual immorality of her.” Here τῆς πορνείας…has been translated as an attributive genitive. In an ironic twist of fate, God will make Babylon drink her own mixture, but it will become the wine of his wrath in retribution for her immoral deeds (see the note on the word “wrath” in 16:19).
65 Following BDAG 461 s.v. θυμός 2, the combination of the genitives of θυμός…and ὀργή…in Rev 16:19 and 19:15 are taken to be a strengthening of the thought as in the OT and Qumran literature (Exod 32:12; Jer 32:37; Lam 2:3; CD 10:9). Thus in Rev 14:8 (to which the present passage alludes) and 18:3 there is irony: The wine of immoral behavior with which Babylon makes the nations drunk becomes the wine of God’s wrath for her.
In a later passage however it is clear that the earth’s inhabitants got drunk with the wine of her immorality (Revelation 17:1, 2 NET):
Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and spoke to me. “Come,” he said, “I will show you the condemnation and punishment of the great prostitute (πόρνης, a form of πόρνη) who sits on many waters, with whom the kings of the earth committed sexual immorality (ἐπόρνευσαν, another form of πορνεύω) and the earth’s inhabitants got drunk with the wine of her immorality.”
Now the woman was dressed in purple and scarlet clothing, John’s vision continued, and adorned with gold, precious stones, and pearls. She held in her hand a golden cup filled with detestable things and unclean things from her sexual immorality. On her forehead was written a name, a mystery: “Babylon the Great, the Mother of prostitutes (πορνῶν, another form of πόρνη) and of the detestable things of the earth.” As for the woman you saw, the angel explained, she is the great city that has sovereignty over the kings of the earth. I’m not sure if the angel meant a city at the time John saw the vision or at the time of the prophecy’s fulfillment. If pressed I would assume the latter since no single city has had sovereignty over the kings of the earth since the tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9).
After these things I saw another angel, John continued (Revelation 18:1-3 NET):
…who possessed great authority, coming down out of heaven, and the earth was lit up by his radiance. He shouted with a powerful voice: “Fallen, fallen, is Babylon the great! She has become a lair for demons, a haunt for every unclean spirit, a haunt for every unclean bird, a haunt for every unclean and detested beast. For all the nations have fallen from the wine of her immoral passion, and the kings of the earth have committed sexual immorality (ἐπόρνευσαν, another form of πορνεύω) with her, and the merchants of the earth have gotten rich from the power of her sensual behavior (στρήνους, a form of στρῆνος).”
Here, after the other verses I’ve quoted I’m much more comfortable with the NET translation (her immoral passion) of τοῦ θυμοῦ τῆς πορνείας αὐτῆς than the KJV translation (the wrath of her fornication).
Jesus described Jezebel’s followers with the Greek word μοιχεύοντας (another form of μοιχεύω), translated those who commit adultery. Though μοιχεύοντας only occurred this once in the New Testament it is fairly clear that in Jesus’ mind the verb πορνεῦσαι and the noun πορνείας described a special form of adultery. Consider his words to the third woman.
She had been caught (κατειλημμένην, a form of καταλαμβάνω) committing adultery (μοιχείᾳ, a form of μοιχεία). Teacher, this woman was caught (κατείληπται, another form of καταλαμβάνω) in the very act (αὐτοφώρῳ, a form of ἐπαυτοφώρῳ) of adultery (μοιχευομένη, another form of μοιχεύω), her accusers said to Jesus. When none of her accusers considered himself guiltless (ἀναμάρτητος) they left Jesus alone with the woman. He asked her, “Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?” She replied, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “I do not condemn you either. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”
But of the woman who was guilty of that special form of μοιχεία designated by the verb πορνεῦσαι and the noun πορνείας, He said: I am throwing her onto a bed of violent illness, and those who commit adultery with her into terrible suffering, unless they repent of her deeds. This was not written in the past age under the law, but in the present after Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension into heaven. Since I don’t believe that human bishops or circuit riders are enjoined or authorized by this Scripture to infect church members guilty of idolatrous worship and ritual sex with disease, Jesus’ condemnation indicates to me that the angel of the church of Thyatira, criticized for having left Jezebel unattended, was not human.