The Whole Story

April 4th, 2011

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Solving a mystery requires seeing the whole story.

For some, it’s a mystery why marriage is only for heterosexual couples. This mystery cannot be solved unless we see the whole story. Is marriage a picture of the community of love between the Father, Son, and Spirit, as well as Christ and the church? Is this what scripture actually teaches? Is it the whole story?

A cursory reading of the Bible reveals it routinely refers to marriage as a metaphor for the community of love between the Godhead and his people. God is portrayed as the husband of his wife (Israel) in Jeremiah 31:32 and Hosea 2:1-23. The prophet Isaiah reminded Judea: “For your Maker is your husband” (Isa.54:5) and appealed to her: “Return, O faithless people, says the LORD; for I am your husband” (Jer.3:14). In the Old Testament, Israel is viewed both as a widow (Lam.1:1; Isa.54:4) and as divorced (Jer.3:8) yet will be restored as God’s wife in the new kingdom (Isa. 62:4, 5; 54:4-8).

In the New Testament, Jesus repeatedly referred to himself as the groom. “The attendants of the bridegroom cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast” (Mt.9:15). Five times in the Book of Revelation the church is described as a bride. “Let us rejoice and be glad and give the glory to Him, for the marriage of the Lamb has come and His bride has made herself ready” (Rev.19:7).

God’s eternal plan has always been to “marry” us (Hos.2:19). The mystery is how the plan is told in four chapters—creation-fall-redemption-consummation. This “four-chapter” story is the gospel and framed Jesus’ replies to cockamamie questions about marriage. In a story in Matthew 19, the Pharisees asked Jesus if it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason. “Haven’t you read,” Jesus replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh?’ So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.” Jesus referred to creation in reminding the Pharisees that marriage was created as a permanent, monogamous, male and female union.

Ah! they thought—then why did Moses (God’s man) command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away? Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.” God never commanded divorce. Because of the fall, God permitted it. The Pharisees were hoisted on their own petard.

A little later the Sadducees concocted another cockamamie situation about an unfortunate woman who had been married seven times. The Sadducees wanted to know which husband she’d be married to in eternity (Mt.22:23-30). Jesus replied, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.” The Sadducees had overlooked how marriage is a picture, not the perfected community of love in eternity. It’s a candle to be extinguished when the dawn breaks. Marriage will be swallowed up in a fully restored joy in the community of love with God. In these two conversations, Jesus frames marriage as the creation-fall-redemption-consummation picture of the love between the Father, Son, and Spirit.

This picture served as the Apostle Paul’s rationale for marriage. In Ephesians 5:31, he writes that “the reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh”—a reference to Genesis 2:24—is “a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church” (5:32). Marriage as a picture of Christ and the church framed Paul’s understanding of the gospel. He wrote that the Corinthian believers were “engaged” to Christ. “I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ” (II Cor. 11:2). Paul considered the church to be “betrothed” to Jesus, the husband. Betrothals in the ancient Near East were somewhat different than our modern idea of engagement. For example, Mary was betrothed to Joseph yet he was considered the “husband of Mary” (Mt.1:18). Betrothed couples were married yet living separately for one year. This waiting period was to prove their love for one another while the groom prepared a place for them to live—which is probably what Joseph was doing when Mary became pregnant. Betrothal is a picture of the church’s groom, Jesus, presently preparing a place for us (Jn.14:2).

James also saw marriage as a picture of the church being “wed” to Christ. He described unfaithful Christians as adulteresses: “You adulteresses, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God?” (James 4:4). Adulteress is a feminine noun, appropriate since the Greek “church” is ecclesiae, a noun with a feminine ending. This fits with the picture of the church as the bride of Christ.

The writer of Hebrews saw marriage as a picture of enjoying and expanding the community of love: “Marriage is to be held in honor among all, and the marriage bed is to be undefiled; for fornicators and adulterers God will judge” (Heb.13:4). Keeping the marriage bed clean meant sex before marriage, outside of marriage, or between same-sex individuals destroyed the picture. Small wonder that, after framing marriage as a bodily picture of a spiritual reality, Paul uses sensual language—urging believers to “gird your loins with truth” (Eph.6:14). He literally tells Christians to gird their genitalia—restrain and strengthen their bodily loins—with this understanding of marriage.

This is the story according to scripture, but it’s also told throughout church history. The connection between marriage and the gospel is how the Early Church interpreted the Bible, especially Song of Songs and the Book of Revelation. It accounts for much of the remarkable impact of the Early Church on Roman culture. Solving a mystery requires seeing the whole story, so there’s more next week. Stay tuned.

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One Response to “The Whole Story”

  1. Warren Brockett says:

    Great article, Mike.

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