Let Marriage Be Held in Honor Among All
Topic: Marriage Passage: Hebrews 13:4–4
Owen Strachan published a book called Reenchanting Humanity: A Theology of Mankind. To introduce the book, he borrows the idea of enchantment. Enchantment, not in the sense of placing you under a spell, but in the sense of filling you with delight, dazzling you with true beauty. Enchantment, he thinks, captures what occurs when we grasp the Bible’s view of humanity: “God, the beautiful one, made the human race as his capstone work, his corporeal masterpiece.”
But when it comes to our skeptical, secularist era, we’ve been told “that we people are the chance result of impersonal chaos working its dark magic on the universe; we have no divine origin, there is no design or telos…to our bodies and identities, and…there is no God. The outcome of such thinking? Humanity is disenchanted”[i]—not filled with wonder. When society views itself apart their divine origin, when society rejects the Creator’s design, when society ignores the goal of their existence—why God made us what we are—it spirals downward into an ugly, pointless chaos. But to grasp the Bible’s vison of humanity and what God does in Christ to remake humanity into his image, is to become filled with wonder, dazzled with true beauty.
I’d like to borrow that idea but apply it to marriage, which is the focus of Hebrews 13:4. For our skeptical, secularist era marriage is disenchanted. Society strips marriage of its divine origins. They reject the Creator’s design. They ignore the end to which marriage points. The result? A downward spiral into dark, pointless chaos.
For many marriage is nothing more than a “sexual handshake,” a “bureaucratic stamp” for one’s personal choices.[ii] No-fault divorce laws and prenuptial agreements reinforce that covenant devotion is out, my dreams are in. Others redefine marriage to suit their own sexual interests. Porn functions like a new Sex Ed class, teaching all who view it that people are just parts, that the person isn’t to be cherished but just used, and that sex can be seized without cost or commitment. Society has also learned to shame the one who’s waiting for marriage while boasting in their latest one-night stand. What’s honorable, they shame; and what’s shameful, they honor.
The Bible recognizes such abuses, such chaos. But it also dazzles us with something far more beautiful. God created marriage good. It’s a sacred institution in which God joins one man to one woman in an exclusive covenant relationship. By his design, they partner in grace to glorify their Redeemer’s covenant-keeping love, a love that began in eternity past when God chose for his Son a Bride. And what’s the goal? How they live together on earth should foreshadow how our Savior’s jealous commitment will crown the Last Day with his marriage to us. Marriage has a divine origin, a covenantal design, and a Christ-centered end. Truly, it’s an enchanting parable.
Marriage & Acceptable Worship
Holding fast to that vision of marriage, though, isn’t easy. It requires endurance—and not just because the culture feeds us one self-centered lie after another, but because we have our own sinful desires to deal with. If not careful, our own view of marriage can become disenchanted, unholy. Hebrews 13:4 exists to keep that from happening. Read it with me: “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous.”
Remember the context. Hebrews 13 closes the letter with one command after another. Those commands don’t stand alone. They grow from the rich gospel truths rehearsed earlier in Hebrews. More immediately, though, consider again how he ended chapter 12: “…let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship [or service], with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” Chapter 12 ends on the note of offering God acceptable service.
That service grows from God’s work in Christ. Turn back to 9:14. It says, “…how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” Jesus’ blood purifies us from dead works to serve the living God—in things like brotherly love, hospitality, visiting prisoners, and now marriage. What does serving Christ in relation to marriage look like? How does Jesus want you to view marriage?
Let Marriage Be Held in Honor
Listen to that first part again: “Let marriage be held in honor among all.” He doesn’t mean just any union our culture decides to call “marriage.” The command isn’t to honor a so-called “same-sex marriage.” That sort of union the Bible describes elsewhere as shameful and unnatural. We honor the marriage God instituted from the beginning—the one that joins one man and one woman in a single, exclusive, covenant union as delineated in Scripture. That’s the marriage Jesus holds in honor when he points a gang of hard-hearted Pharisees to Genesis 2. Let that marriage union be held in honor.
To hold it in honor means that you esteem it as something precious. We find the same word elsewhere. 1 Peter 1:19 speaks of the “precious blood of Christ.” Revelation 21:11 compares the New Jerusalem to a most rare/precious jewel. Or how about this one from Proverbs 31:10—an excellent wife is “far more precious than jewels.” Same word now describes how we ought to esteem the marriage relationship—honored, held as precious, among all…”
Among all. The command isn’t for married people only. It’s for all of you—for children, for singles, for the widowed, for the abandoned. Even those in hard marriages or marriages to an unbelieving spouse like 1 Corinthians 7 or 1 Peter 3 point out—all must treat that union as precious. He’s not saying that all must get married, or that if you’re not married you’re lacking what’s precious. One only needs to consider Jesus. Also, passages like 1 Corinthians 7 and 1 Timothy 5 speak directly to the valuable role non-married and widows play in Christ’s church. Verse 4 simply states that marriage in itself is a precious institution; and if marriage isn’t held in honor, then it will lead to serious problems.
Let the Marriage Bed Be Undefiled
He goes there next, focusing on the marriage bed itself: “Let the marriage bed be undefiled.” As you probably guessed, he’s not talking about the actual furniture in the master bedroom. He’s referring to the sexual intimacy that God designed as good and holy and to be enjoyed freely within marriage. Don’t defile those sexual relations.
Hebrews has mentioned this idea of defilement before. 12:15 talks about the “root of bitterness” defiling many. That’s the person who says, “I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart.” If we connect the dots here, it’s the person who says, “I shall be safe, even though I choose to sleep around…I shall be safe, even though I do sexually inappropriate things in secret.”
The other place we find defilement language is with its opposite in the person of Jesus. 7:26, “For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained [or undefiled]…” Part of the reason we should keep the marriage bed undefiled, is that’s what Jesus is like. We want to be holy as he is holy. It’s also good to remember that Jesus persevered that way as a man to make us holy and bring us into the holy places. The unholy things must go. In Christ, we now belong to what’s holy. That must play out in relation to marriage and the marriage bed.
The way people defile the marriage bed is through, what the rest of the verse calls, sexual immorality and adultery. Adultery is compromising your marriage union with another person, whether physically or relationally. Sexual immorality covers a much broader swath. That’s anything you do with your body or with your interactions to gratify yourself or someone else sexually outside the marriage union. So, you can be alone and still defile the marriage bed by the pleasures you give yourself to. You can not actually sleep with someone but still interact with them in ways that defile the marriage bed. To the contrary, Christian, you must keep the marriage bed undefiled.
Motive: The Judgment of God
Here’s the motive. End of verse 4, “for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous.” That’s a promise bound up with the gospel. Jesus will return, and through him God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous. 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 emphasizes the same: “Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” If you continue in patterns of sinful sexual pleasures over the kingdom of God, God will exclude you from his kingdom. That’s a good motive to strive for sexual purity. The gospel we preach includes the promise of judgment for those who want their sin more than Christ. Is that you? If so, then repent—turn away from such wickedness and turn to Christ.
The gospel we preach also includes the promise of salvation to those who repent and place their faith in Jesus. 1 Corinthians 6:11 also says, “And such were some of you.” Some of you were fornicators. Some of you were adulterers. Some of you were homosexuals. “But,” he goes on to add, “you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
Not only does Jesus cleanse you from your former sins, he makes you holy and right before God, such that you are no longer what you were. But that’s just it: if you’re no longer what you were, then pursue what you now are in Jesus. You are his. You are holy. Sex is not your master, Christ is. You are his servant. Pursue what he calls good. Choosing to do otherwise will only invite the Lord’s judgment. “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous.”
Honoring Marriage Together
Now, having explained verse 4, how can we better ensure that we honor marriage and keep the marriage bed undefiled? What are some things we ought to consider and practice as individuals, as married couples, and as a church?
First, I have a few exhortations for you as individuals. Beware of worldly ideas that devalue marriage or strip sex from its marriage context. We live in a day where to claim the moral high ground is viewed as “oppressive.” But as Christians, we must recognize that the real oppression occurs when humanity rejects our Creator’s designs. His word rightly orders relationships and brings true freedom, the freedom to live as we ought. That includes what God says about marriage and sex.
That means we cannot embrace worldly ideas that contradict God’s word about marriage or sex. Whether it’s the sexual revolution, or Supreme Court decisions, or a Netflix series, our culture inundates us with ideas that redefine marriage, or treat it lightly, or turn so cynically against it that fewer and fewer people want it. There’s also a constant trickle in the media attempting to desensitize you to sexually immoral relationships. At times they even make it cute—you may even find yourself justifying it: “Well, good for her!” But we must be more discerning.
Do you think it’s an accident that nearly every letter in the New Testament addresses some warped view of sex, or marriage, or the body? Every culture has gone absolutely insane with sexual idolatry; and we have to be alert to the deception.
The world says that if marriage compromises your personal fulfillment in any way, then get out. We must say No; and then help them see that true fulfillment can only be found in Christ and how marriage pictures Christ’s commitment to us. The world says that same-sex marriage is a thing. But we must say No it isn’t. God defines marriage, not man; and based on God’s definition, same-sex marriage cannot exist. It’s impossible. The world knows that sex sells—provocative ads attempt to draw your attention to anything from Doritos to Dental care. The music industry routinely strips sex from the marriage setting. Be alert. Be discerning. Don’t grow accustomed to it. Anything less than the Bible’s vision for marriage and sex will harm couples, families, and children.
Next, bring your sexually immoral thoughts, desires, and actions into the light of Christ. Sin thrives in the darkness (Eph 5:12). Intentions of the heart hide in darkness (1 Cor 4:5). Are you hiding sexual immorality in the darkness? It will devour you there. It will suck your joy and destroy your soul—“the lips of a forbidden woman drip honey…but in the end she is bitter as wormwood…her feet go down to death.” Come to the light of Christ and save your life! Find trustworthy brothers and sisters, and confess your lusts and immorality. Ask them to pray for your purity and joy in Christ. If you’ve sinned against your spouse, seek their forgiveness for your betrayal. If your spouse is caught in immorality and refuses to repent, expose the darkness (Eph 5:11). Seek help from other godly men/women. Also come to the elders and we will walk with you, and seek to help you as best we know how according to Scripture.
Another, make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. That’s Romans 13:14. Cut off everything that arouses lustful desires and compromises purity in thought. Temptations will come (Luke 17:1). But we must not create occasions for sexual temptation, like accessing sensual images or getting into situations that make us vulnerable to defiling the marriage bed. For those lacking self-control, it means getting rid of your iPhone, tablets, personal laptop, Roku, and whatever else you may use to access immoral content. Until you mature in self-control, cut them off. If you need a phone, get a regular cellphone. If you need a computer, use it only in public places. As much as possible, avoid situations with others that may tempt you toward immorality.
More importantly, though, pursue the superior pleasures of the all-glorious God, who reveals himself in Christ. True repentance doesn’t just avoid sin; it turns to the Lord himself for true satisfaction. We’ve been here before in Hebrews 11:24-26: “By faith Moses…refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward.” The pleasures of sin are real, but they are fleeting. The pleasures of God in Christ are superior, more rewarding. True repentance will come only when you find the superior pleasures in God to silence the false promises of sexual temptation.
Lastly, for you as individuals, utilize means of grace such as meditating on Scripture, seeking God in prayer, and gathering with the church. Over time, numerous brothers have asked me to help them walk away from sexual immorality. One of the first questions I ask them is how much time they spend in the word and prayer. In every case so far, time in the word and prayer has been largely absent. That’s no coincidence! God’s self-revelation in Scripture is how we know and behold the pleasures of his glory in Christ. Also, our dependence on God in prayer is how we gain his powerful presence to overcome temptation. Not to read his word and pray is like trying to drive a car without ever refueling. So get in the word, pray, and rehearse the glories of Christ. Then don’t do it alone. God has given you a people to walk out repentance and faith.
As married couples…
Okay, let me now shift to a few words for married people. Hold your marriage in honor; treat it as something precious. We do not honor marriage by standing against false views of marriage in society while neglecting to tend to our own marriages. If I asked, “How do you honor your marriage?” and the only thing you can say is, “Well, we’re not divorced. We’re not sleeping around. We stand against homosexuality. We don’t fight much. I don’t look at porn.”—if that’s all you can say, you don’t hold your marriage in honor. Is that how we show what’s precious to us? By all we don’t do?
No. We cherish the things that are precious to us. We hold them dear and talk about them. We protect them and treat them with care. They come to mind often. We invest in them, spend time on them, plan things around them. Is this how you treat your marriage? In a number of ways, I have not treated my marriage this way. Protecting it from sexual immorality, yes! By grace, yes! Working hard to provide? By grace, yes! But this more proactive treasuring? No. And it has brought pain and hurt and emotional weariness to Rachel who has invested so faithfully. I have regrets for not recognizing this sooner. But we’re trusting the God of new creation. Brothers and sisters, if you do not hold your marriage in honor such that it leads you to proactive care, let today be the first of many more where the Lord turns your ash heap of your marriage into beauty.
Also, watch out for various other commitments tearing your marriage apart. For instance, generating more money can serve you and others. But those goals can often come without consideration for an employee’s marriage. Businesses may ask you to stay late a lot, work from afar; they may expect you on call every moment of the evening. If not careful, work commitments can hinder building a healthy marriage. I’m not saying that every instance of this sort of thing is wrong; I’m just saying to be alert with your work commitments. Employers are usually not asking how you can do your job while still honoring your marriage. But you need to be concerned with that.
Same with the demands of school. If, because of studies, you can’t invest in your marriage properly, take fewer hours at a time, take a C on that paper, or adjust the plan altogether. Sometimes extracurricular activities for the kids can stretch a family so thin that a couple has no margin or energy left to invest in each other. Be careful. Plan wisely. Don’t let cultural expectations dominate you. One of the best gifts that you can give your children is a healthy marriage.
Something else for married couples: delight in the Lord’s good gift of your spouse. Adam uses poetry to describe Eve (Gen 2:23-25). 1 Timothy 4:3 says that “God created [marriage] to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.” Proverbs 5:18-19 encourages the husband to delight himself in the wife of his youth. Song of Songs provides an intimate portrayal of the husband enchanting his wife with beautiful words (Song 4:1-15; 6:4-10). Ephesians 5:29 says that husbands must cherish their wives. This includes things like talking with her often. Truly listening when she speaks. Looking into her eyes and reassuring her of your commitment to her. It means showing affection and learning to enjoy the person God has made her to be. It means honoring her before the children and encouraging her in the Lord. When we delight in our spouse rightly, not only do we please our spouse, but we honor God with our pursuits and nurture covenant fidelity.
Another way to nurture fidelity and keep the marriage bed undefiled is this—cultivate healthy sexual relations in marriage. Proverbs 5:18 says, “Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth, a lovely dear, a graceful doe. Let her breasts satisfy you at all times with delight; be intoxicated always in her love.” The imagery may sound foreign, but the point is clear: intimacy within marriage is a good gift and to be celebrated. Solomon’s Song of Songs bears this out as well, depicting the ideal marriage as a return to Eden: one flesh…both naked…not ashamed (Gen 2:24-25). Of course, we know that such a liberation—such freedom to enjoy one another without shame—comes only through the one greater than Solomon, Jesus Christ (Matt 12:42).
1 Corinthians 7:3-5 also says this: “The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Stop depriving one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” Sex in marriage has the purpose of finding great pleasure in the spouse God has given you, and one of the benefits is greater self-control against temptation.
It’s not a matter of taking your rights but of gladly giving them to each other. Some seasons will inevitably call for greater sacrifice and energy. But avoid such an over-taxed schedule that leaves no room for intimacy. Also, relational distance, hurt, bitterness, distrust—all can hinder intimacy. And sometimes a lack of sexual intimacy can spiral into more resentment, bitterness, shame, and so on. That’s not healthy. Work toward reconciliation. Return to the cross for forgiveness and cleansing from sin. Return to Jesus who bore away your shame. Rebuild trust so that intimacy can flourish—the sex act itself isn’t the goal, but so loving your spouse that the relational bond you share enables you to give yourself freely to one another.
As a church…
Finally, some words for us as a church when it comes to honoring marriage and keeping the marriage bed undefiled. As a church, pray for the Lord to protect marriages. Marriage isn’t exempt from the cosmic battle. Because marriage images Christ and the church, we can be certain the enemy will do what he can to destroy it. In fact, the Bible’s storyline doesn’t get too far before we see the enemy’s attacks within the marriage. Satan tempts Eve while Adam passively watches and then follows her into rebellion (Gen 3:1-6). Ephesians 6 includes a section on spiritual warfare and prayer right after a section on relationships, including marriage. 1 Corinthians 7:5 mentions Satan tempting others with immoral sexual relations. Therefore, we must pray for the Lord to protect marriages and ask him for grace to preserve them and cause them to flourish.
Next, appoint leaders with healthy marriages and hold them accountable. 1 Timothy 3:2, 12 and Titus 1:6 both state that an elder or deacon must be the husband of one wife. More literally, he should be a one-woman man. That doesn’t mean that he’s simply not a polygamist. It also doesn’t mean that he’s simply not divorced. It means that he’s committed to the one woman he’s married to. He’s devoted to her. She is his one and only, and you can tell it by the way he cares for her and nurtures her. As go the leaders, so goes the church. Men like this must be put in place and kept in place if marriages in the church are to grow and have something to imitate. If that’s not happening among the leaders, hold the accountable. Draw near and see how you might be able to help them. If necessary, some leaders may need to step down in order to tend more carefully to this most precious relationship in God’s sight.
Something else: look for ways to serve others in their marriages. And for many of you I could say, “Keep looking for ways…” I hear you telling each other things like, “Hey, why don’t you let us watch the kids so you can spend some time together.” Some of you have helped watch kids so another couple can go on a short vacation. Older couples who have experience—you can instruct the younger couples in what the Lord has taught you. Those of you walking with Jesus for a long while—invite other couples into your lives, so that they can learn to imitate those things which are good and Christ-like.
Other members have done everything they can to hold marriage in honor, but their spouse has chosen not to join them in doing so. They are walking a very long, hard, and lonely road, with no easy answers. We must learn to weep with them, to remember them in prayer, to reach out to them and care for them, to show them hospitality and help them endure the hurt, the betrayal. Not all spouses will follow Jesus in marriage. Jesus, Paul, and Peter all taught us about these kinds of marriages; and it is our responsibility to draw near to these brothers and sisters in their suffering.
Also, practice corrective discipline when there’s no true repentance from sexual immorality or adultery. The immoral man in 1 Corinthians 5 claimed to be a brother, but he was also defiling the marriage bed. The apostle instructed the church to purge the evil person from among them. A little leaven leavens the whole lump. To tolerate unrepentant sexual immorality does not honor marriage. It will also destroy the integrity of the church, compromise the gospel, and teach others that it’s okay to defile the marriage bed. King Jesus has put measures in place to keep that from happening. It’s called discipline. The goal is always restorative, of course. But where there is no repentance, no real pursuit of what’s holy, we cannot sit by idly and do nothing. The story that marriage tells is far too significant.
Which brings me to my last point for us as a church: remember the story that marriage points to and rehearse it to one another. The Bible begins with a marriage and ends with a marriage. Between those bookends, we learn what marriage is about. God designed marriage to image Christ’s union with his people. Ephesians 5:31-32 is probably most helpful here: 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. 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, a people he would also come to save by laying down his life.
“Husbands, love your wife 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…” That’s what marriage is about. And here’s the goal of Jesus dying for his Bride: “…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.”
If you’re in Christ, that’s where you’re headed. No matter where you are, or what you’re walking through, to belong to Jesus is to belong the faithful Husband, the true Bridegroom. He will hold his marriage in honor. His jealous commitment to your holiness already proved itself in the cross. He will honor his vows. He will ensure that all his people will belong to him in holiness. Truly, marriage is an enchanting parable. Let it be held in honor among all.
[i] Owen Strachan, Reenchanting Humanity: A Theology of Humanity (Ross-shire: Christian Focus, 2019).
[ii] Roger Scrunton, “Sacrilege and Sacrament,” in The Meaning of Marriage: Family, State, Market, and Morals, eds. Robert P. George and Jean Bethke Elshtain (Dallas: Spence, 2006), 20.