A Biblical Theology of Marriage
Topic: Marriage Passage: Genesis 2, Ezekiel 16, Ephesians 5, Revelation 19
Series: Glorifying God in Marriage & Singleness (Part 1)
We’ll begin in Genesis and end in Revelation this morning, developing a biblical theology of marriage. The Bible is a book that begins with a marriage, between Adam and Eve, and ends with a marriage, between Christ and his people. Marriage becomes a key analogy to understanding God’s plan to save his people, and even God’s purpose for the world.
We enjoy preaching through books of the Bible. But occasionally—especially when in between books like we are now—we also enjoy addressing topics that our members have asked us about over time. As the elders sat down in the early parts of this year, a number of our members had been expressing a desire to receive specific instruction on marriage. So, here we are, seeking to lay a foundation on which you can keep building and use in discipling each other.
But I don’t want to give the impression that this is a series for married people only. Far from it. Not only will we devote one week to singleness in particular. But a lot of what we cover about marriage has implications for every Christian, no matter what place they may find themselves currently. I hope to show today that marriage is really a picture that has something to do with all of us.
It’s also true that marriage has been under attack in our culture explicitly. On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court imposed a mandate that redefined marriage for all fifty states. The Supreme Court declared same-sex “marriage”—or so they call it—to be a constitutional right. That decision has also had repercussions on family stability, human sexuality, and now religious liberty.
If you don’t think marriage is relevant just because you’re not married, too late, the culture has made it relevant for you. Your obedience to Jesus may require you to speak truth to the same-sex couple next door, or instruct a relative in your family, or contend for what’s right when that’s not the popular view on campus. As we’ll see, our convictions about marriage have great bearing on our adherence to the gospel.
Tracing Marriage along the Bible’s Storyline
So let’s get started with this biblical theology of marriage. Carpenters will often speak of cutting across the grain or along the grain in the wood. Let’s study marriage along the grain of the Bible’s storyline. The church has often divided the Bible’s storyline into four movements: creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. These four movements are super helpful in sharing the gospel with others. They provide answers to some of life’s biggest questions. Where’d we come from? Enter creation. Why’d things go wrong? Enter our Fall into sin. What will make things right? Enter redemption in Christ. Where’s the world heading? Enter the end, the consummation, a new heaven and earth. Let’s trace marriage along these four movements.
Creation: God designed marriage to image Christ’s union with his people
Let’s begin with creation. Where’d marriage come from anyway? Why does it exist? Genesis 1 recounts God’s creation of the heavens and the earth (Gen 1:1-31). On the sixth day in particular he created man and woman in his own image and likeness (Gen 1:26-27). Together, man and woman were to mirror God’s character in the way they ruled the earth and related to each other (Gen 1:28-39). Genesis 2 further details how God created man and woman. Here we find the origins of marriage. Let’s pick it up in 2:18,
18Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” 19Now out of the ground the LORD God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. 20The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him. 21So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. 22And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. 23Then the man said, “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.” 24Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. 25And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.
Some have argued that marriage is the result of evolutionary processes in biological creatures wherein couples eventually decide it’s best to pair up. Others have said that marriage was originally about property rights. Others that it’s the result of jealousy in men and their need for superiority and control.
But the Bible provides an altogether different narrative. Even better, it’s actually a true one! As God’s revelation to us, the Bible teaches that God created marriage. Here we find the original mold that Jesus and the apostles would use to instruct us on marriage. God fashioned Eve especially for Adam, and God doesn’t make mistakes. It’s the perfect marriage. No shame. Just unity, delight in the other, and perfect order.
We even find several good purposes for the marriage. God had commanded them to populate the earth; so it makes sense that one purpose was procreation. How amazing that God uses people to create more image bearers. But we also find that marriage was for companionship: “It’s not good that the man should be alone.” So God created a helper and brought her to the man. And with companionship comes pleasure, another purpose for marriage. Adam rejoices in his wife. He delights in her with poetry!
It then says that “[the two] shall become one flesh.” In that one-flesh union we find yet another purpose for marriage: covenant faithfulness. Elements of this one-flesh union suggest that marriage is more than a contractual agreement before a civil court. It’s analogous to a covenant before a holy God.[i] One man and one woman in a sacred union before God. Using this same passage, Jesus said, “What God has joined together let not man separate” (Matt 19:6). God will also use marriage as a key analogy to his own covenant relationship with his people—more on that in a minute.
But that leads us to the most significant purpose for marriage that we’ve yet to uncover. For this, we need just a little bit of help from another place in the Bible’s storyline: Ephesians 5:31-32 in particular. Paul quotes Genesis 2 and then says this: “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” Even the very first marriage was about Christ and the church. That becomes even clearer when we remember Ephesians 1:4, “[God] chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world.”
Even before God created the world God chose a people for his Son to redeem (cf. John 17:2, 9, 24). In other words, it’s not that God created marriage and then decided to use it as a good analogy. He created marriage to be the analogy that reflected something he already planned before the world existed. God designed marriage between one man and one woman to image Christ’s union with his people. Their companionship, their pleasure in each other, their covenant faithfulness—it’s all a window through which we look to see something much bigger than marriage itself. In and through marriage we get a glimpse of God’s purpose for the world to give his Son a people. That’s what God created marriage for, to image Christ’s union with his Bride, the church.
Fall: Idolatry ruins our relationship with God and each other
But any of us living in the present know that’s not what we experience. Divorce rates are now at 41 percent in America for the first marriage. For many, marriage amounts to nothing more than a sexual contract, designed for self-gratification. And when one’s not happy and their dreams aren’t met, they seek to dissolve that contract. Some of us have grown up in situations where mom and dad fight all the time, or in families where dad left mom behind. Even those of us deeply committed to our marriage still experience conflict. Sometimes we’ve caused our spouse great pain. We’re not “naked and unashamed” any more, at times the relationship seems full of shame or shaming.
What went so wrong? That leads us to the next major movement in the Bible’s storyline—the fall of man into sin and idolatry. Genesis 3 shows that despite God’s goodness and provision in the Garden, both Adam and Eve rebel. God was the head of Adam, Adam the head of his wife, and both of them together were to rule over all the creatures in their complementary roles (cf. 1 Cor 11:3).
But there’s an attempted coup, an attempt to reverse God’s good order. The crafty Serpent deceives Eve. She follows the beast instead of her husband. And instead of protecting Eve, Adam follows. Both rebel against God. Instead of trusting God to determine good from evil, they seek to determine good from evil themselves. They take the fruit, they eat, and immediately the consequences of their rebellion settle in.
Shame enters the picture—you see them trying to cover themselves in verse 7. They try to hide from God in verse 8. The relationship is now strained—the husband blames the woman in verse 12. The end of verse 16 also shows an undoing of the peace that once characterized the relationship: “Your desire shall be for your husband and he shall rule over you.” The basic idea is that she will suffer conflict with her husband.[ii]
Sin wreaks havoc in the first marriage, and it doesn’t take much reading through the Bible to see that sin wreaks havoc in all relationships. But in and beneath all this horizontal brokenness with others is a broken relationship with God. Sin separates us from God. God must judge sin, because fundamental to all sin is a disregard for God, is a desire to be God in place of the only true God, a desire to elevate the creature over the Creator, because we think we know better than he knows.
Interestingly enough, the Bible illustrates this idolatry as an unfaithful bride cheating on her husband. See, to be God’s people was to be in a covenant union with him that was much like marriage. That was true for Adam in the Garden, and it was also true for Israel in the Promised Land. God made Israel his people; he put them in a new, Garden-like place, the Promised Land, and he was their covenant Husband.
Ezekiel 16, for instance, tells a bit of a Cinderella story of God coming to Israel and finding her in a desperate state, dirty and bloody and without hope. Israel is in the same state that Adam was after the Fall, cut off from the Lord, in need of his mercy. And in his mercy, God cleans Israel up and prepares her to be his bride. Ezekiel 16:8…
8When I passed by you again and saw you, behold, you were at the age for love, and I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your nakedness; I made my vow to you and entered into a covenant with you…and you became mine. 9Then I bathed you with water and washed off your blood from you and anointed you with oil. 10I clothed you also with embroidered cloth and shod you with fine leather. I wrapped you in fine linen and covered you with silk. 11And I adorned you with ornaments and put bracelets on your wrists and a chain on your neck. 12And I put a ring on your nose and earrings in your ears and a beautiful crown on your head. 13Thus you were adorned with gold and silver, and your clothing was of fine linen and silk and embroidered cloth. You ate fine flour and honey and oil. You grew exceedingly beautiful and advanced to royalty. 14And your renown went forth among the nations because of your beauty, for it was perfect through the splendor that I had bestowed on you…
What an awesome portrait of our God! What an amazing covenant husband he is to so beautify his people for himself. Who, in their right mind, would want to run away from him?! But that’s exactly what Israel did. They chased after the idols of other nations. The people cheated on their faithful God with other gods. Ezekiel 16:15, “But you trusted in your beauty and played the whore because of your renown and lavished your whorings on any passerby…” She was like a serial adulteress.
This is what sin does to people. It not only makes us adulterers—people who cheat on God with the creation—it gives us an insatiable craving for more and more idolatry, more and more waywardness from the one true Husband, who offers us the riches of his presence. What happened with Adam in the Garden and what happened to Israel in the Promised Land—are portraits of what happens to all of us in sin.
Idolatry ruins our relationship with God and each other. And when that happens our sin ends up undermining God’s perfect design for marriage. Marriage won’t rightly image Christ’s relationship with his people, if we’re kicking against the Creator’s designs for it in our sin and idolatry. Worse than that, when we kick against the Creator, we become his enemies, objects of his wrath. He will not give his glory to another. He will not tolerate our rebellion. He must punish sin; he must punish us.
Redemption: God loves his unfaithful bride by sending his Son to die for her
But give thanks to God, brothers and sisters—the Bible’s storyline doesn’t end there. We move now to redemption, God’s redemption in Christ. As we noted earlier from Ephesians, God had a plan in place with Christ even before he created the world. Even before Adam and Eve’s sin ruined their relationship with God and each other, God had a plan in place to save their relationship with God and each other. What hope that gives us for our own marriages, our own relationships: even before we sinned, God already had a plan to save us.
We get a hint of this plan as early as Genesis 3:15. Adam failed to protect Eve from the Serpent’s lies, but God promises a coming offspring that would destroy the Serpent altogether. As the Bible’s storyline then continues, the prophets give even further hints that God will save his faithless people.
Even the end of Ezekiel 16—that horrible picture we read earlier—it ends with this promise: “I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall know that I am the LORD, that you may remember and be confounded, and never open your mouth again because of your shame…” Get that! We’ve moved from naked and not ashamed, to being ashamed, now to “never open your mouth again because of your shame.” Why? “when I atone for you for all that you have done, declares the Lord GOD.” All the guilt and shame before God because of their love-affair with idols—God is taking it all away, wiped clean, sins forgiven, punishment absorbed, wrath averted forever—atonement!
Hosea promises a similar hope, but makes the marriage analogy explicit. Hosea 2:16 says that “in that day, declares the LORD, you will call me ‘My Husband,’ and no longer will you call me ‘My Baal.’…I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness.” Isaiah 62:4, “You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate, but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the LORD delights in you, and your land shall be married.”
In other words, as the storyline progresses the Old Testament is dishing up the expectation for God to act as a Husband who comes to rescue his bride even when she has been unfaithful to him. And then in comes Jesus, God almighty in the flesh. And what do we find him doing? Being that Husband. He’s at a wedding feast in Cana—John 2—turning water into wine. Why? He’s the true Husband who comes to prepare the true wedding feast of God’s kingdom.
In John 3:29, John the Baptist is the best man in the wedding: “The one who has the bride is the bridegroom [that’s Jesus]. The friend of the bridegroom [that’s John] who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete.” He can hear the church bells ringing already, because the Bridegroom is finally here to take his bride. John’s conclusion, “Jesus must increase, I must decrease.” “I’m just here to introduce the Husband,” in other words.
Then Jesus, the Husband, what does he do? Does he fail his bride like Adam failed Eve? No! Does he flirt with other idols like Israel did to Yahweh? No way, he obeys God all the way, even when it means giving up his life for his unfaithful bride. Ephesians 5:25-27, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, 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.”
That’s how God makes us right with him. That’s how God welcomes us into his holy presence without condemnation—he pours out his wrath on Jesus in our place; he forgives our sins; he makes us holy through Jesus’ death on the cross. Jesus gave himself for us sacrificially at every turn, so that he might set us apart for himself, wash us, purify us, and in the end present us to himself in the splendor of glory.
If you want to be clean from all your wrongdoings, put your faith in Jesus and he will cleanse you from all your sins. He will make you part of his spotless bride. If you’re already trusting in him, and all you can see is your sin right now, look at the trajectory you’re on—you’re not perfect now, but look at where you’re going—according to Ephesians 5:27, “that he might present the church to himself in splendor.”
Consummation: Christ will dress his Bride in splendor & dwell with her forever
And that leads us right into the final movement in the Bible’s storyline, the consummation of all things. Christ will dress his Bride in splendor and dwell with her forever. Look first at Revelation 19:6, “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.”
Now to 21:2, “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.’”
Now down to 21:9, “Then came one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues and spoke to me, saying, ‘Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.’” Don’t miss that before reading the rest of chapter 21! He’s about to describe a city, but he says here, “I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.” What does she look like, John? Verse 10, “And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal.” That’s what she looks like!
He’s not merely describing a place to go; he’s describing a people we will be. We’ll be the perfected temple where God’s presence dwells and beautifies everything. Are your sins making you feel like an ash heap of ruin? God’s in the business of turning ash heaps of ruin into holy temples of splendor. Come to him! “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come!’” (Rev 22:17). If you’re desperate for life and cleansing and maybe even healing for your marriage, come to Jesus! He’s the ultimate Husband. He never fails us, never leaves us, never forgets us; and always loves us. It’s only through a relationship with him that we can be reconciled to God and to each other.
A Few Theological Implications
Now, with that storyline in mind, let’s draw out a few practical theological conclusions for marriage from the Bible’s storyline.
Every passage applies, since every passage reveals God to us
First, if God has woven marriage into the fabric of the Bible’s storyline, then every passage in Scripture applies to marriage not just the so-called “marriage” texts.[iii] Paul David Tripp says something similar when he writes this: “to the degree that every portion of the Bible tells us things about God, about ourselves, about life in this present world, and about the nature of the human struggle and the divine solution, to that degree every passage in the Bible is a marriage passage.”[iv]
In other words, we can’t read the Bible like a reference guide to our problems. It’s not a book arranged by topic. It stands together as one whole piece, revealing God to us through his saving purposes in Jesus Christ. The Bible was written so that we encounter God and satisfy our souls in him. Our marriages—better, all of our relationships—will benefit insofar as we encounter the living God through every word he speaks, not just through the words we select when something goes wrong.
Every page is a personal encounter with how the true Husband plans and thinks and acts and saves and judges for his people’s benefit. Meet him. Learn him. Walk with him. Satisfy your soul with him. Then you will know how to live and minister in marriage, or in any other relationship as well.
We must submit to God’s design for marriage
Second, if God created marriage, and even created marriage to image Christ’s union with his people, then we must submit ourselves to his design for it at all costs. The Supreme Court and our society may try to impose their own definitions of marriage on the church. They may also eventually penalize us for not compromising our convictions and how they play out in the public square. But we must stand firm. To compromise God’s design for marriage—one man and one woman in sacred union before God—is to compromise what God designed marriage to image: Christ’s union with his church. It’s not a personal preference issue; it’s a gospel issue.
But we should also be careful to uphold God’s design for marriage in the church. That includes a robust vision of biblical manhood and womanhood, faithfulness to our complementary roles in marriage—more on that next week. It includes enduring love when things go wrong at home. We not only want to be a people who preach the gospel, but a people who live according to the gospel, especially in the one-flesh union that God specifically designed to portray the gospel. Stated differently, the church must not argue for God’s vision for marriage in the public square while not living God’s vision for marriage at home.
Marriage is not about you; it’s about God’s purpose in Christ
Third, marriage is not first and foremost about you and your feelings; it’s about God and his purpose in Jesus Christ. Too often we’ve heard the stories: people want divorce because they got tired of their spouse; the so-called “chemistry” just faded away; they “fell out of love”; they just lost attraction; and on we could go. But this kind of reasoning works from the assumption that marriage is an institution of personal fulfillment. It views marriage as first about “me” and “my” personal life goals.
And it fails to see that marriage is first and foremost about God and his saving purpose in Jesus. We don’t marry to discover perfect compatibility; we marry to display persevering compassion. Yes, there is heartache and pain in preserving the marriage; but there’s also heartache and pain at the center of what Christ did to win us to himself. The cross isn’t a walk in the park—it includes agony in service of the beloved people.
When we sacrifice and give and give some more, sometimes without reciprocation, we put on display the kind of love that Christ extended to us when we were not worthy of it. As Bonhoeffer once put it, “It’s not the love that sustains the marriage, but the marriage that sustains the love.” If God designed marriage to image Christ’s covenant commitment to his people, even when we didn’t deserve it, then staying married is about loving our spouse for Christ’s sake even through times we don’t feel like it. Christ’s love then enables our love.
Marriage is a special union, but it isn’t everything
Fourth, marriage is a special union, but it isn’t everything. We witness two extremes in our culture. On the one hand, we have a culture of people embittered about marriage. Whether it’s the result of bad experiences with marriage, or a desire to live freely without long-term commitments, it’s becoming more popular to view marriage as a drag, constraining, and not all that sacred. On the other hand, other cultures elevate marriage so high that people hardly feel like they have any worth or value to society or even to the church unless they do get married.
The Bible, however, keeps us from making too little of marriage or too much of marriage. It keeps us from making too little of marriage by revealing that it is a sacred institution. God created it and designed it for companionship. Unless otherwise gifted for kingdom purposes, it really was true that it wasn’t good for the man to be alone. And most importantly, God created it to be a pointer to something far greater, Christ’s union with his people. This helps everybody respect it and learn from the living parable it is.
At the same time, the Bible keeps us from making too much of marriage. Jesus says in Luke 20:35 that marriage as we know it isn’t forever. After the resurrection, we’ll neither marry nor be given in marriage. I didn’t have a problem with Jesus’ words, until I married Rachel. I think so much of her, I didn’t know if I wanted the kingdom without having her as my wife. Oh, and Jesus sat me down and rebuked me for that. I can love being married to Rachel, but I best not let that marriage replace the Marriage.
So far be it from us to be so pessimistic about marriage; and far be it from us to treat non-married people like something is wrong. Maybe Jesus designs some people to skip the appetizer of marriage now to go straight for the wedding feast later. That’s his business. Ours is to love and serve alongside each other with a far better hope. Our identity and worth isn’t found in being married or not; it’s found in Christ. Both marriage and singleness will be replaced by our glorious marriage to Christ.
Marriage shapes our love and longing for God
Finally, marriage shapes our love and our longing for God. It’s not only that the gospel helps us understand what marriage is about; but marriage also helps us understand what the gospel is about. There’s a reason God created marriage to be a key analogy in describing what our relationship to Jesus is like. Our relationship to Jesus is not merely a mental assent. It also can’t be reduced to a mere act of will power. Our relationship to Jesus also involves passionate affection and intimacy.
Isaiah 62:5, “you shall be called, ‘My Delight is in Her’…as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.” In Christ, this is how he has chosen to relate to us. After taking us from our helpless place, he delights in us. And there’s coming a day where even the most intimate marriage relationship now will seem like nothing in comparison to the intimacy we’ll experience with the Lord. And so we long for him to come and bring us to his final dwelling place in the new heaven and earth. That’s why we come to the Bible, to listen to our Husband speak of his love for his bride. That’s what our prayers should be like, like a bride waiting on the edge of her seat to walk down the aisle and meet her husband face to face. The day of splendor couldn’t come soon enough.
[i]Reasons suggesting that the marriage union is better understood as a covenant (as opposed to a contract or sacrament) include: (1) elements of a covenant are present in that “leave” and “cleave” are covenant terms and the one-flesh, sexual union seems indicative of an oath-sealing act (cf. Deut 10:20; 11:22; 13:4; 30:20; Josh 22:5; 23:8; Ruth 1:14-16); (2) covenant terminology applies to the marriage union in Proverbs 2:17 and Malachi 2:14; (3) Yahweh/Christ’s covenant union with his people is depicted in terms of a marriage, though one should carefully note where the divine-human relationship differs from the human-human relationship (e.g., Isa 61:10; 61:5; Hos 2:16, 20; Rev 21:2-3). See especially G. Hugenberger, Marriage as a Covenant: Biblical Law and Ethics as Developed from Malachi, Supplements to Vetus Testamentum 52 (Leiden: Brill, 1994).
[ii]Susan T. Foh, “What is the Woman’s Desire?” Westminster Theological Journal 37 (1975): 376-83; Raymond C. Ortlund, Jr., “Male-Female Equality and Male Headship,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, eds. John Piper and Wayne Grudem (Wheaton: Crossway, 1991), 108-09.
[iii]Marriage isn’t the only theme God weaves across the Bible’s storyline—he does it for a hundred other themes too (e.g., home, rest, peace, family, life, image of God, etc.).
[iv]Paul David Tripp, What Did You Expect?: Redeeming the Realities of Marriage (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 17.
More in Glorifying God in Marriage & Singleness
November 13, 2016Singleness: Securing Undivided Devotion to the Lord
November 6, 2016The Peace, Power, Pattern, & Promise for Marriages
October 23, 2016Complementary Roles in Marriage