Today, I’m going to be discussing a theology of marriage. I’m going to uphold the biblical ideal. I want to hold up the biblical vision of marriage like a jewel—so that we would be enamored by it. Just like a newly engaged woman shows her friends her ring. I want to hold up God’s vision for marriage so that we would desire God’s good design for a flourishing marriage.
When you hold up the ideal, you are sometimes made aware just how far you are from the ideal. This is not meant to induce guilt. But rather, as I hold up the biblical vision of marriage for us all to see, let us say, “I want that!” And let us move toward it.
We need to be honest with ourselves. Not only is there not a perfect marriage in this room, but there has also never been one since the fall of man. However, in Christ, God has “married” us, who are guilty and hopeless. So today, when you see or hear ways that you’ve messed up in the past or ways that you need to improve, you have two options.
You can either gaze on yourself (which is miserable for you and your marriage), or you can set your gaze on Jesus by repenting and trusting in him. You can choose to move toward Christ and move toward his desire for you to have a flourishing and God-honoring marriage.
The title of my talk is “The Marvelous Mystery of Marriage.”
All of us are probably familiar with Paul’s description of marriage as a “profound mystery” in Ephesians 5:32. The great mystery is that God has chosen the most intimate form of human relationship to display and point to the intimate love and union Christ has with the church.
This profound mystery is cause to marvel! If something is marvelous, it means it causes you to be astonished, it fills you with wonder.
Adam marvels at the mystery of marriage when, in his astonishment, he beholds the beauty of his beloved and proclaims:
“This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” (Gen 2:23)
This sense of marvelous astonishment is also picked up in Proverbs, where the young man is instructed:
“Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth, a lovely deer, a graceful doe. Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight; be intoxicated always in her love.”
John Kleinig is a theologian who has written a beautiful book called Wonderfully Made. In it, he describes how Song of Songs transforms our sexual imagination. He describes how in Song of Songs chapters 4 and 7, both the husband and wife address their spouse with words of admiration and praise. Here, the husband and wife marvel at each other’s bodies as made in God’s image.
Kleinig writes, “When married people use this poetry to meditate on each other physically and sexually, God himself orders and refines, purifies and sanctifies, their imagination and their desire for each other. Then they see each other as God sees them and hear his voice as he speaks to them through their spouse.”
He’s affirming that the mystery that their marriage union represents is cause to marvel.
The mystery of marriage is marvelous because God uses something so apparently ordinary to reflect the glorious nature of his redeeming love in the gospel of Christ.
That’s the goal this morning—to cast that vision. So what’s our road map? How am I going to do this? I’m going to break this talk into two parts. First, we’ll look at the story of marriage in the Bible. Then, we’ll look at God’s design for marriage. And finally, to wrap things up, we’re going to end with a poem that beautifully captures a happy marriage.
The Story of Marriage
Theologian Herman Bavinck says, “the history of the human race began with a wedding; it also ends with a wedding, the wedding of Christ and his church, of the heavenly Lord with his earthly bride.”
The Bible’s story begins and ends with a wedding.
Genesis opens in cosmic grandeur. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1). The crowning achievement of God’s creation is the creation of man.
“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion[…]” (Gen 1:26).
And the culmination of God’s creation of mankind is his creation of male and female.
“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Gen 1:27).
Husband and wife. A complementary pair. They are both equally made in God’s image. They are both, individually, equally made in God’s image. Yet they were created for each other. The man for the woman, the woman for the man. And together they reflect the image and likeness of God.
God blesses this union. “And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion[…]” (Gen 1:28).
Gen 2:24-25 again emphasizes this union. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.”
From the beginning, God’s design for marriage was that it would be a lifelong monogamous union between one man and one woman. That union establishes the stable conditions for raising children and having a healthy family. And healthy families create a healthy society.
The first sin, in Genesis 3, is a disruption of the family. It’s a disruption of God’s created order. Adam was entrusted with teaching and leading and he shirked his responsibility. Eve subverted Adam’s authority, and in her deception, led them both astray. That sin not only affected their family but the entire human race. We won’t rehearse that story here.
As we move through the Old Testament, we see how God enters into covenant relationship with his people. God promises Noah he would never again send a worldwide flood (Gen 9). God promises Abraham that he will make him into a great nation (Gen 12 and 15). Then, born out of that covenant is the Mosaic covenant (also called the Sinai Covenant…the 10 Commandments) made with the people of Israel as a nation (Ex 19-24). Out of that covenant, is the covenant of David, where God promises that through his line would come a king who would bring peace and blessing to all the nations (2 Sam 7).
Now, it’s really interesting that as the Prophets tell Israel’s story, they use the metaphor of marriage to talk about God’s covenant relationship with Israel.
You see this especially in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Hosea.
God pledges himself to Israel in holy matrimony. They are to be set apart from the surrounding pagan nations. All he asks is for their faithful, devoted worship to the one true God. The story of the Old Testament is the story of an adulterous, unfaithful spouse. They reject God and “whore themselves” after other non-gods.
Despite Israel’s unfaithfulness, we get glimpses of God’s heart. Listen to what the Lord says in Isaiah 54:5-7, 10:
“‘For your Maker is your husband, the LORD of hosts is his name; and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called. For the LORD has called you like a wife of youth when she is cast off, says your God. For a brief moment I deserted you, but with great compassion I will gather you. […] For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed,’ says the LORD, who has compassion on you.”
As Israel is the unfaithful bride, God remains faithful.
God will establish a new covenant in which he will write his law on our hearts (Jeremiah 31). He is the faithful groom who has chosen his bride (the church). We read this in Ephesians 5. Jesus has made his bride holy, “having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” (Eph 5:26-27)
Paul continues in vv. 31-32, “‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying it refers to Christ and the church.”
The storyline of marriage in the Bible has been pointing to this. Ultimately marriage is about our union with Christ.
And if the Bible begins with a wedding, it ends in a grand wedding reception. It ends with the marriage supper of the Lamb. This is the day that we are looking forward to.
John’s vision in Revelation 19:
“Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out, ‘Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure’– for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. And the angel said to me, ‘Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.’” (Rev 19:6-9)
In contrast to the story of unfaithfulness in the Old Testament, the Bride has been faithful. God himself has been at work, sanctifying, preserving, and protecting her.
Then John gives us a vision of the new heaven and the new earth in chapter 21.
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.” (Rev 21:1-3).
This is a vision of the fullness of the kingdom. This is a vision of shalom—peace, flourishing.
Marriage is a marvelous mystery because it points to this. Think of that and marvel—God is using your life, your marriage, to proclaim the excellencies of his glorious grace. Your marriage is pointing to God’s redeeming love. What a gift.
Because marriage points to the great gift of God’s love for us in Christ, it logically follows that our marriages will thrive as we behold and marvel at the union we have in Christ. As we behold Christ, we, filled with the Spirit, seek to love our spouse with Christ’s sacrificial love. And then, together, as a couple, we apply the love of God to our friends and neighbors.
God’s Design for Marriage
Now that we’ve looked at the storyline of marriage in the Bible, let’s look at God’s design for marriage. I’m going to list 4 designs for marriage. These are not meant to be exhaustive of all that you could possibly say about marriage. Rather, they represent what I think are four foundational designs for a biblical understanding of marriage.
Design #1: Marriage is a Lifelong, Monogamous Union Between One Man and One Woman
I won’t read these verses again because I’ve already read them (or parts of them), but Genesis 1:26-28 and 2:15-25 are foundational for constructing a theology of marriage. So foundational, in fact, that Jesus appeals to these verses in a dispute about divorce.
I don’t have time to go into the particulars here, but essentially there is an internal Jewish debate on the interpretation of the Mosaic Law concerning grounds for divorce. The Pharisees are trying to drag Jesus into controversy and being shrewd as a serpent and innocent as a dove, he responds.
Here’s what he says in Matt 19:4-6:
“He answered, ‘Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”
This is Jesus’ way of saying marriage is God’s idea. From the beginning, it was always designed to be this way. Marriage was always designed to be a lifelong, one-flesh union between a man and a woman. God’s design for marriage is rooted in creation order, in making man male and female.
Therefore, since it is God’s idea, we don’t get to tinker with it. Since God designed it that way, we can trust that he knows what is best. Marriage is a lifelong, covenantal monogamous union between a man and a woman.
Now, it is God’s design and intent that the marital bond never be broken. “What God has joined together, let not man separate.” However, Jesus does grant two exceptions: notably in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9. These are known as the “exception clauses” for divorce. Divorce is illegitimate except for “sexual immorality; porneia.” In context, we take this to mean infidelity.
It’s important to note that Jesus says with these exceptions, divorce is permitted but not required. Infidelity does not automatically trigger divorce proceedings. God’s intent is that the marital union stay intact, if possible. But both parties must be committed to pursuing reconciliation in this.
Design #2: Marriage is Provisional (Temporary)
John Piper has written an entire book on this one, called This Momentary Marriage.
Death dissolves the marriage bond. (My wife especially is very sad right now). But this is the biblical reality, and it’s a good thing.
The Sadducees were a group of religious leaders who denied the resurrection. In Matthew 22, they approach Jesus and seek to trap him with a trick question. They give him this absurd scenario. Guy meets girl. Guy dies without children. Guy’s brother marries widow. Brother #2 dies, so Brother #3 marries widow, and so forth down to Brother #7. Then they ask Jesus in the resurrection (which they don’t believe in), whose wife will she be?
Jesus responds in vs 29, “you are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.”
Our biblical survey of marriage answers the question of why there is no marriage in heaven. Marriage ultimately points to our union with Christ. Thus, marriage is only a provisional state. It will pass away when our spouse dies.
Here is John Kleinig again, “The single life is not at all abnormal and uncommon; it is quite normal and common. All married people were single before they were married, and half of them will once again be single after the death of their spouse.”
To be single is not to be less than human. Singleness is a gift just as marriage is a gift. Single and married folks can enrich the lives of each other. We are all one body.
Here’s a great challenge for us married folks from my PhD advisor, Gregg Allison. He writes, “Community should be a relational place that encourages singles to enjoy life-giving friendships with others—both married and single. Married couples should befriend single men and women and incorporate them into their family, community group, circles of friends, activities, and hobbies. Such friendships value single people as divine image bearers to love and from whom we receive love.”
Ultimately, whether single or married, we are both awaiting the full consummation of our union with Christ. Therefore, marriage is provisional.
Design #3: Marriage is for Procreation
Hopefully no one is surprised by this, but sex leads to children. It is very clear in Scripture that child rearing is natural to the institution of marriage. God has given the creation mandate “to be fruitful and multiply.” (Gen 1:28). God’s design is that having children would only take place in the context of marriage because that union creates the best nurturing, stable, environment for raising children. Marriage is what’s best for children. Herman Bavinck says that “the home is the first and best school of nurture that exists on earth.”
Nothing can replace the family. We ought to be grateful for foster care and ministries like Youth Horizons who serve at-risk youth. These things are good and necessary. But we must pray that they are the exception and not the norm. A strong, healthy family leads to healthy societies.
Psalm 127 says that children are a blessing (heritage) from the Lord. We live in a society that peddles narratives that treat children as a curse or an inconvenience. Children are impediments to your career or aspirations, etc. The Christian worldview must rightly reject this kind of talk and the entertainment of such thoughts. Children are a gift from the Lord. And to quote Gregg Allison, “at all times, God’s grace is sufficient to sustain his people.” Even when the circumstances are not ideal, we can trust God that his grace is sufficient to sustain us with what we need.
What about those who can’t have children? This is a very painful issue. Couples are right to grieve over this. And when shared with close friends, it’s appropriate for us to “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). But again, “at all times, God’s grace is sufficient to sustain his people.”
I’m not saying that all marriages must have children. Rather, the normal pattern of God’s design for marriage is that it leads to children. Those who don’t or can’t have children do not have a less than full marriage. God can empower these couples to engage in fruitful work for the kingdom as a couple.
Design #4: Marriage is for Unity and Intimacy
Now, it would make more logical sense to discuss this before discussing procreation, but I want to end with this design because I want to really capture and take hold of God’s design for loving intimacy with our spouse.
I want to borrow a wonderful phrase from John Kleinig to frame this. He speaks about what he calls “the Garden of Nuptial Love.” Nuptial is an old word meaning marriage.
He speaks about the traditional language of marriage as an estate— “a safe place for [the] sexual union to be protected, nurtured, and to thrive.”
Your marriage is a garden of love. Fenced off and protected from others, it is a beautiful environment in which your love may be nourished and cultivated.
Song of Songs chapters 4-5 use this imagery of a garden in which the husband and wife can safely present themselves to each other and be united sexually, mentally, emotionally, personally, and spiritually.
Sex is enormously powerful. It affects the whole person. Which is why it is so dangerous and destructive apart from God’s design. It affects all of our senses.
The garden of love is the place where husband and wife can come together in their whole person and give themselves in self-giving love. It is physical, there is pleasure, but it is also emotional and spiritual. It’s more than just a physical union.
Therefore, we must pursue chastity within our marriages. Chastity is an old word that we typically just associate with virginity. But it is much more than virginity or sexual abstinence.
Chastity is sexual purity—reserving yourself fully and faithfully for the other person.
Essentially, chastity is much more than merely physical. It is about a pure heart governed by self-giving love rather than a heart dominated by lust or the pursuit of personal pleasure.
So, hear me out. Sex is pleasurable. And it’s not wrong to enjoy it. That’s part of what makes it glorious. But we should not come together merely using the other person to obtain sexual pleasure. Pleasure is not the chief end of sex. Sex is a whole-person unitive experience, in which pleasure is a result. But it’s not the purpose. When pleasure is sought as the sole purpose, sex becomes degrading and objectifying.
Chastity and self-restraint in marriage actually serves to strengthen our desire for each other.
This view of sex leads to better sex. So if you want pleasure (and you’re lying if you say you don’t! – we all do), make it your aim and highest pleasure to please your spouse.
If you’d like to think more about this, I’d recommend an article called “The Beautiful Meaning of Sexual Intimacy” by Rob Lister, published in Eikon. It’s a journal published by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. You can read it for free online. In this article, he describes sexual intimacy in marriage as a covenant renewal ceremony. It is a union in which we come together to renew our commitment, faithfulness, and devotion to each other.
Your marriage is a garden of love. It is fenced off and protected in order that your love and union may grow and flourish.
A Poem on Marriage
I’d like to conclude by reading a poem on marriage by Dana Gioia. The poem is called “Marriage of Many Years.” It’s a poem about how in marriage, you develop an intimate form of communication with your spouse that is unique your marriage. So, as I read, I’d encourage you to close your eyes, grab your spouse’s hand, and let the poem fill you with love and gratitude for your spouse.
“Marriage of Many Years”
by Dana Gioia
Most of what happens happens beyond words.
The lexicon of lip and fingertip
defies translation into common speech.
I recognize the musk of your dark hair.
It always thrills me, though I can’t describe it.
My finger on your thigh does not touch skin—
it touches your skin warming to my touch.
You are a language I have learned by heart.
This intimate patois will vanish with us,
its only native speakers. Does it matter?
Our tribal chants, our dances round the fire
performed the sorcery we most required.
They bound us in a spell time could not break.
Let the young vaunt their ecstasy. We keep
our tribe of two in sovereign secrecy.
What must be lost was never lost on us.