A Time to Embrace and a time to Refrain from Embracing
A Time to Embrace and a Time to Refrain from Embracing
Professor Henry Drummond (1969) says that "the greatest thing in all the world is love," and Paul reminds us that among the gifts to man there are three of outstanding quality: faith, hope and love, "these three; but the greatest of these is love" (1 Cor. 13:13). It is John, however, who declares the final word when he affirms that "God is love" (1 John 4:8). In saying this, the apostle is informing us that love is more than "the greatest thing," or even the "greatest gift." Love is God giving and forgiving; love is not impressive verbosity, but redemptive activity.
The Bible teaches, moreover, that love not only has its own laws, but keeps its own laws. Indeed, "love is the fulfillment of the law" (Rom. 13:10). Thus Solomon establishes a principle when he says there is "a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing" (Eccl. 3:5). This means that there is the constraint of love, and there is likewise the restraint of love. Let us proceed to examine these two aspects of the greatest thing in all the world.
The Constraint of Love
As we have observed, love is never static: it is always active. We have to read only the song of love as recorded in the 13th chapter of 1 Corinthians to see this. There we have set forth the priority, activity, and eternity of this greatest of all gifts. Essentially, love is fellowship between persons. It is an act of self-surrender. This is how love operates between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And this is how love ought to operate among the sons of men here upon earth. So we see that there is such a thing as the embrace, or constraint, of love.
For the purpose of this study, let us begin with the constraint of spiritual love. The apostle John sums up the constraint of spiritual love when he says, "We love Him because he first loved us" (1 John 4:19). If we understand the nature of spiritual love, we cannot withhold an appropriate response.
The New Testament is full of examples of this quality of response. Think of the love response of conversion in the life of the woman who entered Simon's house to anoint the feet of her Savior and Lord (Luke 7:36-40, 50). We read that she "kissed His feet and anointed them with the fragrant oil" (Luke 7:38). Little wonder that Jesus turned to her and said: "Your faith has saved you. Go in peace" (Luke 7:50). No one who appreciates full and free forgiveness can withhold the love response of conversion.
Then we read of the love response of communion. Consider Mary, the sister of Lazarus, who came to the Lord Jesus on the eve of His passion with a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus until the house was filled with the fragrance of the precious oil. Our Savior's comment to those who criticized her was, "Let her alone; she has kept this for the day of My burial" (John 12:7). Here was a woman whose communion with the Lord Jesus had given her an understanding of His redemptive mission beyond any one of the disciples. She knew what Jesus was about to accomplish at Calvary, and in appreciation of His sacrifice, she presented her own sacrifice. Truly, this was the love response of communion.
Another telling example is the love response of confession. This occurred when Peter opened his heart to the Savior and cried, "Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You" (John 21:17). He had miserably denied his Lord, but having sought forgiveness and restoration, he now matched his denial of Christ by his devotion to Christ in genuine love.
This, then, is what we call the constraint of spiritual love—"We love Him because he first loved us" (1 John 4:19). There is "a time to embrace" (Eccl. 3:5).
Then there is the constraint of social love. Before He went back to glory the Lord Jesus said to His disciples, "This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you" (John 15:12). In fact, He added, "By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:35). This is the supreme evidence of true discipleship, and the rest of Scripture corroborates this.
The constraint of social love involves the family. Addressing the head of the household, Paul says, "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her" (Eph. 5:25). And just as the Lord Jesus is the Head of the whole church, so the husband is the head of the whole family. A home is no longer a home where love does not exist between husband and wife, parents and children; in this context there is "a time to embrace."
The constraint of social love involves the brotherhood. Peter says, "Love the brotherhood" (1 Pet. 2:17). This, of course, is another name for the community of the redeemed, or the fellowship of the church. Such was the love among the brotherhood, in the early days of the Christian church, that the pagans had to exclaim, "See how these Christians love one another." There is nothing that convinces the world of the reality and authority of the church of Christ like a manifestation of such love. Surely, it is "a time to embrace."
The constraint of social love involves the neighbor. Jesus said, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Matt. 22:39). This is the natural overflow of our love to God. If we truly love God with all our heart, our soul, our mind, and strength, we cannot but love our neighbor as ourselves. It is because we have lost the vertical constraint of spiritual love that we fail to experience the horizontal constraint of social love. The secret of social action is not so much a matter of governmental policies or beneficial niceties, but rather a matter of spiritual power and action. In this regard, there is "a time to embrace," and the world around is waiting to see this.
The constraint of social love involves the enemy. The Master said, "Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you" (Matt. 5:44). Only Calvary can bring about this miracle of forgiving love. The Lord Jesus exhibited this social concern when He was being nailed to a wooden cross. Instead of cursing His enemies He prayed, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do" (Luke 23:34). That same spirit of loving concern motivated Stephen, as he was being stoned to death, for he, like the Master, cried with a loud voice: "'Lord, do not charge them with this sin.' And when he had said this, he fell asleep" (Acts 7:60). So even in the moment of death there is "a time to embrace."
With the constraint of social love, there is also the constraint of sexual love. The sanctity of sex is one of the great themes of Biblical revelation. When God created Adam and Eve, He pronounced their relationship as "very good" (Gen. 1:31). Indeed, it was He who saw that it was not good for man to be alone, and so produced a help meet for Adam. In His purpose and plan He willed that husband and wife should enjoy the constraint of sexual love.
Commenting on this aspect of love, Paul says, "Let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband" (1 Cor. 7:2). Then he adds, "Let the husband render to his wife the affection due her, and likewise also the wife to her husband" (1 Cor. 7:3). The Revised Standard Version renders this even more specifically: "The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband." The only exception to this normal practice is a mutual restraint for the purposes of fasting and prayer. So the apostle continues, "Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control" (1 Cor. 7:5). Under the control of the Holy Spirit, the constraint of sexual love can be real and romantic for as long as God wills it. On the other hand, to grieve the Holy Spirit in this regard is to despise God and to merit the vengeance of the Lord (1 Thess. 4:6, 8).
So there is "a time to embrace," but there is also "a time to refrain from embracing" (Eccl. 3:5). It is:
The Restraint of Love
Someone may well ask whether there is any Scripture that forbids us from loving. The answer, of course, is in the affirmative. Writing to his converts, the apostle John says: "Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever" (1 John 2:15-17). It is quite clear from these verses that the restraint of love prohibits the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.
In terms of human relationships, the restraint of love prohibits the unlawful embrace—"the lust of the flesh" (1 John 2:16). Contrary to the tenets of the "new morality" and "situation ethics," love has its own laws. Paul makes this abundantly clear when he states, "For he who loves another has fulfilled the law" and then immediately adds, "You shall not commit adultery.... Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law" (Rom. 13:8-10). The biblical interpretation of love is seen only within the context of God's moral law; therefore, there is such a thing as the unlawful embrace. Indeed, the Scriptures are very clear on this. For example—Paul advises, "It is good for a man not to touch a woman" (1 Cor. 7:1). That word "touch" is an important one. Our Authorized Version tends to mislead us. Actually the verb means, "to fasten to," "to kindle a fire," or "to handle with intention." Without question, it has reference to the unlawful embrace.
Now in this age of permissiveness, such an apostolic prohibition is simply scoffed at, but this does not alter the clear teaching of the Word of God. The Bible says:
For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you should abstain from sexual immorality; that each of you should know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in passion of lust, like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one should take advantage of and defraud his brother in this matter, because the Lord is the avenger of all such, as we also forewarned you and testified. For God did not call us to uncleanness, but in holiness. Therefore he who rejects this does not reject man, but God, who has also given us His Holy Spirit. (1 Thess. 4:3-8)
The Christian has no business to defraud or overreach in the matter of sexual appeal and activity. To persist in such a course of action is to merit the judgment of God. The Bible says, "The Lord is the avenger of all such, as we also forewarned you" (1 Thess. 4:6), and again, "Marriage is honorable among all, and the bed undefiled; but fornicators and adulterers God will judge" (Heb. 13:4). If I understand my Bible, this cuts out sexual petting, necking, and intercourse—outside of the lawful bounds of marriage.
We note further that in human relationships the restraint of love prohibits the unrealistic embrace—"the lust of the eyes" (1 John 2:16). When a person fears the consequences of the unlawful embrace, he resorts to the realm of the pornographic. Through the eye gate he creates the unrealistic world of imaginative happenings—with all their lustful consequences.
Now the Lord Jesus severely dealt with this kind of situation. He declared:, "Whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matt. 5:28)—which simply implies that sin within the realm of the imagination is just as serious before God as sin in the realm of physical involvement. The modern pornographic literature, the nudity plays, and the movies on sexual intercourse are evidence of a corrupt and corrupting society. As Christian people, we should protest such things, not only by nonparticipation, but also by the restraint of our love.
Still another factor in this matter of human relationships is that the restraint of love prohibits the unspiritual embrace—"the pride of life" (1 John 2:16). Pride and vainglory are the very antithesis of spirituality. And in no area is unspirituality more common than in the matter of love, courtship, and marriage. The fact is that carnal people do not want God to interfere with their love affairs. And yet no one can read the Bible without observing that God has a plan for every life, and within that plan is His purpose for love, courtship, and marriage. This is why the Lord Jesus referred His disciples to the early chapters of Genesis for the final word on this subject. To study these verses is to discover that God has a pattern for those who want His best.
There is, first of all, God's concern in the matter of love, courtship, and marriage. It was He who said, "It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him" (Gen. 2:18). Adam had never seen a woman, nor would he have been able to analyze what was missing in his life. And so God revealed this to him. Surely the lesson is obvious. God knows better than we do whether or not we need a partner, and who that partner might be. Only a proud person would rebel against this concern of God.
There is, secondly, God's control in the matter of love, courtship, and marriage. We read that "the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall on Adam, and he slept; and He took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh in its place. Then the rib which the Lord God had taken from man He made into a woman" (Gen. 2:21-22). Adam's willingness to sleep in the will of God shows his faith in the divine preparation and revelation of a true helpmeet. Anything less than this would have been "the pride of life" (1 John 2:16). Again, the lesson is obvious. If we desire God's choice for us, then we must submit to God's control over us. To refuse this divine control is an evidence of pride and unbelief.
Thirdly, there is God's consummation in the matter of love, courtship, and marriage. The Record informs us that "the Lord God ... brought her to the man" (Gen. 2:22). Because this was God's choice, it proved to be a perfect match. There was an affinity of spirit, for "the Lord God ... brought her to the man" (Gen. 2:22). Adam and Eve met in God. There was no unequal yoke. Then, further, there was an affinity of soul. Adam said, "She shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of man" (Gen. 2:23). As a woman, she was the complement of the man, and therefore, in every sense, an "helpmeet." Here is the answer to the incompatibilities of mind, heart, and will which ruin so many marriages. There was also an affinity of body. Adam said, "This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh" (Gen. 2:23). Physically, she was just right for Adam. This would satisfy such important considerations as age, size, and health. God never makes mistakes in marriages. So when He brings two lives together there is perfect consummation.
Now the question arises as to man's response to God's plan for human life. If he is spiritual he will want nothing but God's way. On the other hand, if he is carnal he will want man's way. This is why our society today is organized to swell our pride, build our egos, and insist on our rights when it comes to finding a wife or husband. Father and mother interfere, friends exert pressure, and Madison Avenue and Hollywood condition the outlook. But the Bible, with unchanging authority, declares, "There is ... a time to refrain from embracing" (Eccl. 3:1, 5), and such restraint of love prohibits the unspiritual embrace.
So we have seen what God has to say on "the greatest thing in all the world." The issues are clear. We can choose man's way or God's way. To choose God's way is to know fulfillment and contentment; to choose man's way is to experience frustration and ultimate failure. Are you prepared to choose God's way when it comes to this matter of love, courtship, and marriage? Do you think God is interested? I've talked about God's concern, God's control, and God's consummation in this matter. It is the number one priority in the purpose of God for your life. Anything less than that is a huge mistake. If you can trust the Heavenly Father for such little details as your shopping list and your daily activities, why shouldn't you trust Him for the most important thing in your life outside of conversion? Are you prepared to act upon these principles and let Him do the choosing? God's will is "good, pleasing and perfect" (Rom. 12:2, NIV).
Think on These Things (Phil. 4:8)
Second only to the creation of Adam was God's plan for a "helpmeet" for him. In a similar sense, next to our new creation in Christ is God's plan for an "helpmeet" for those of us who are destined to be married "in the Lord." The solemn question we must answer is clear: Is it "time to embrace" or "to refrain from embracing?" It is significant that this word "embrace," which occurs some twelve times in the Old Testament, is used in three specific ways: The first use of the term expresses the idea of embracing someone else to show fondness or affection (Gen. 29:13; 48:10; 2 Kgs. 4:16; Job 24:8). The second use of the word describes the embrace of lovers. This embrace can designate virtuous love (Song 2:6) or the adulterous embrace of a wrong relationship (Prov. 6:27, 32-33). The third idea of "folding of hands" is an implicit designation of self-love (Prov. 6:10; 24:33). Each one of us must choose God's will or our self-will.
— Time for Truth, A