In studying Galatians 5:19-21, the second sin, or "work of the flesh" mentioned by Paul is that of fornication. Galatians 5:19-21 closely parallels 1 Corinthians 6:9-10. There, Paul told those brethren that some "shall not inherit the kingdom of God"; and the very first ones on the list were "fornicators"! A note of interest to me concerning Galatians 5:19-21 is that in J.N. Darby's translation (1871), he omits listing "adultery" and has "fornication" mentioned first. This is also true of the Common English Version, printed in 1865. The New American Standard Bible simply lumps both adultery and fornication together, calling it "immorality." Nevertheless, to discuss the subject of fornication is certainly a Bible topic, and one which merits our study. We read the word "fornication" no less than 36 times in the Bible. "Whoredom" is found 22 times, and "whoring" is found 19 times. I mention "fornication," "whoredom," and "whoring" together because these three words come from the same Hebrew word (zanah) in the Old Testament, and the same Greek word (porneia/pornos) in the New Testament. Fornication is something that is consistently called a sin from Old to New Testament times, and should be treated as such today. Fornication is called a "work of the flesh" by Paul for a reason. Therefore, let us learn why we must avoid such sins.
Literally defined, the word fornication (porneia) means, "harlotry (includ. adultery and incest)" (Strong's Hebrew/Greek Lexicon). J.H. Thayer defines "porneia" as: "illicit sexual intercourse in general" (p. 532). In his commentary on Galatians 5:19, Mike Willis defines "porneia" as: "prostitution, unchastity, ... every kind of unlawful sexual intercourse" (Truth Commentaries, p. 257). Therefore, combining these definitions, we see that the word "fornication" stands for any kind of unlawful sexual intercourse, be it incest, prostitution, unchastity ("not virtuous; not pure ... characterized by sexual suggestiveness", Webster), homosexuality, bestiality, necrophilia, pedophilia, etc. In his commentary, brother Willis goes on to note that "porneia is broad enough" to include in its definition, that of adultery. However, when both words are listed together, as it is in Galatians 5:19, adultery would refer to one having sexual relations with someone other than his/her spouse, while fornication would have reference to sexual intercourse of unmarried people (ibid.). I might add that "porneia" is broad enough to include sexual intercourse of unmarried people to anyone or anything else, not necessarily limited to the male and female, just as we saw in the definitions above. Having defined this word, it should be no surprise to us that it is from this word (porneia) that we get our word "pornography."
Perhaps our dear readers have not considered this fact, but it is true that sometimes "fornication" is mentioned by God in a spiritual sense. That is, that though the word "fornication" is used, it stands for the sin of idolatry. In fact, in defining the word "porneia," Mr. Thayer says that this word is "used metaphorically of the worship of idols" (Thayer, p. 532). This is a fact that no serious Bible student can deny. Therefore, we must use the context of the Scriptures to determine whether "fornication" is used in a spiritual, or literal sense. Truly, both usages of the word are to be found in Scripture, and both spiritual and literal fornication are condemned by God.
We find "fornication" used in a spiritual sense in the Old Testament. When God spoke about His people as a nation, He often said they had committed fornication. This was a reference to their idolatry in opposition to the worshiping of Jehovah. A great description of this is found in Ezekiel 16. God is shown to be benevolent, and One who took care of Jerusalem, and took her as a wife (v. 6-14). But, she returned His kindness, not in love, but "pouredst out thy fornications on every one that passed by" (v. 15). She "played the harlot" (v. 16, NKJ) and "committed whoredom" with the enemy nations (v. 20-29). God's people are described as "a wife which committeth adultery, which taketh strangers instead of her husband" (v. 32). By Ezekiel 16:35, God simply calls the nation "O harlot"!
This is but one example of God's use of the word "fornication" in a spiritual sense. It is repeated in other areas as well. To the Jews, God said, "they shall no more offer their sacrifices unto devils, after whom they have gone a whoring" (Leviticus 17:7). Remember, "whoring/whoredom" in the Old Testament, comes from the same Hebrew root word (zanah) as does the word "fornication". In the days of King Jehoram, "he made high places in the mountains of Judah, and caused the inhabitants of Jerusalem to commit fornication, and compelled Judah thereto" (2 Chronicles 21:11). David spoke in Psalm 106 of the results of idolatry. He said, "they shall no more offer their sacrifices unto devils, after whom they have gone a whoring. And they served their idols: which were a snare unto them. .... Thus were they defiled with their own works, and went a whoring with their own inventions" (v. 34-39). Therefore, the use of the words "whore," "whoredom," "fornication," etc. take on a spiritual meaning, for these people had been unfaithful to their Lord and God (Jeremiah 3:2). They had sinned in breaking the commandment which said, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me" (Exodus 20:3).
Yes, we also learn about fornication being a literal act committed (Deuteronomy 23:17; Matthew 5:32, 19:9; Galatians 5:19; 1 Corinthians 6:9). This word is used in both Old and New Testaments, and the context must determine whether or not God means this in a literal or a spiritual way. Though "whoredom" is used more often in the Old Testament, and "fornication" is used more often as in the New, we know, based on the definition of the words, that God condemned such behavior under both covenants.
In Matthew 19, "the Pharisees also came unto him, (Christ, JJ) tempting him, and saying unto him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause? And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female, And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh? Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder. They say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away? He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so. And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery" (Matthew 19:3-9). Jesus had addressed this question not only here, but also in Matthew 5:31-32, giving the same answer.
In this section of Scripture, (Matthew 19) we see a question being asked concerning whether or not it is right to divorce a wife for "every cause" or "just any reason" (NKJ). Christ's answer: No! (Matthew 19:6). He then declares that there is one thing which, if committed, would result in the innocent party being free to "marry another". This reason is fornication (Matthew 19:9). Please look back to the definition of fornication at the beginning of this article. Anyone who has a mate guilty of committing sexual sins against him/her is authorized of God to divorce that one and "marry another." This is the only reason our Lord gave for divorce.
Too many treat marriage as "easy come, easy go." Some have the idea that if they "fall out of love," or just don't like one another any more, that they can get divorced, break up their family, and try again with someone else. This is not true. Notice also that Christ's apostles recognized the serious nature of marriage, as well as the consequences of divorce for "any cause" or "any reason" when they told the Lord, "if the case of the man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry" (Matthew 19:10). Friends, we have a generation of people who think little about the serious nature of those vows they made before God and their friends and family. It is high time we get back to understanding that God intended for marriages to last a lifetime (Matthew 19:4-6). This is such a serious and life-changing step in the lives of men and women, that the only thing God says could justify a divorce and marrying of another is the sin of fornication having been committed against the spouse. Knowing this, is it any wonder that Paul said those who commit such sins as fornication, or any other sin mentioned in Galatians 5:19-21, "shall not inherit the kingdom of God"?
When someone engages in such wicked sexual activity as fornication, we know that physical consequences abound. One might contract various diseases. Not only this, but pregnancy outside of marriage can result from such behavior. Let us never forget that "Marriage is honourable in all, and the bed undefiled: but whoremongers (Greek: "pornos") and adulterers God will judge" (Hebrews 13:4). Paul said that fornication was the one sin that was also a sin against your own body (1 Corinthians 6:18).
In a spiritual sense, we find that there are consequences to be faced when one is guilty of fornication -- whether we consider this from heterosexual sex outside of marriage, prostitution, to homosexual relations, to the most depraved examples we might reluctantly consider; know that there are spiritual consequences that must be faced. Fornication is a sin against God. Even in Old Testament days, Joseph knew this (Genesis 39:9). Hebrews 13:4 says God will judge those who are guilty of such sexual sins. To "judge" means, "deciding between the righteousness and unrighteousness of men ... contextually, used specifically of the act of condemning and decreeing penalty on one" (Thayer's, p. 361). Should not we, who are on this side of the cross, be all the more aware of the sinfulness of fornication?
Look again to our text of Galatians 5:19-21. Notice that within this context of "the works of the flesh," mentioning fornication as one such work, Paul says, "they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God" (v. 21). What does this mean? It means that those guilty of the sin of fornication, and who die in that state, cannot go to Heaven. Remember, this letter was written to the Christians at Corinth. Therefore, this says something about the false doctrine of "once saved, always saved," or "the impossibility of apostasy." Here, Paul writes to Christians and says that if there are those guilty of such sins, they cannot go to Heaven! Yes, the temptation to sin, to commit fornication, or anything else listed in Galatians 5, is a real temptation to both the Christian and non-Christian. But, for the one who is a Christian, if he commits such a sin, he is jeopardizing his own soul in the same way a non-Christian committing fornication jeopardizes his/her own soul!
As we consider the spiritual consequences of fornication, let us remember the words of John when he said, "But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death."
(Revelation 21:8). The word "whoremongers" is the Greek word "pornos." Again, this is the same word as was used in Hebrews 13:4; Matthew 19:9; and Galatians 5:19; and has the same root as "porneia" (fornication).
While this world portrays some aspects of fornication (sexual relations outside of marriage, and even now homosexual relations), as "acceptable," or as "true love," all of it is sin, and it will result in lost souls for those engaged in it. James 1:15 says "sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death". Romans 6:23 tells us that, "the wages of sin is death". Therefore, for those engaged in fornication (sexual immorality), if they do not repent, there is but one end for them -- "they shall not (will not, NKJ) inherit the kingdom of God"!
I know I do not want to be in that number whom God rejects. I do not want to hear Him say, "I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity" (Matthew 7:23). I do not want to hear my Lord tell me, "Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels" (Matthew 25:41). Therefore, let us avoid the temptations which lead to such sins as fornication, and all the others mentioned in Galatians 5. Let us avoid these that we might stand pure and holy in His sight. Certainly, this is what our Lord wants from us (1 Timothy 5:22; 1 Peter 1:15-16). Our responsibility is to be engaged in "the works of God," (Psalm 78:7; John 6:28-29; 1 John 3:7) not "the works of the flesh"! (Galatians 5:19)
For those who are reading this who do not know how one can be holy in the sight of God and have his/her sins washed away, then please know that God's plan is for you. He wants you to come to Him, believing that Jesus is the Son of God (John 8:24; Hebrews 11:6). You need to then repent of your sins (Luke 13:3; Acts 17:30), confess your faith in Christ as the Son of God (Romans 10:10; Acts 8:37), and be baptized for the remission (forgiveness) of your sins (Acts 2:38; Mark 16:16). One who has done these things can be forgiven, and can have a hope of Heaven one day (Titus 1:2, 2:13, 3:7).
For those who have done these things already, then let this be an encouragement to you to "be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord" (1 Corinthians 15:58). Fight the temptations that await you, "set your affections on things above" (Colossians 3:2), and make sure that the things you do bring glory, honor, and praise to the One who bought you and died for you. (Matthew 5:16) "Flee fornication"!!