What Is Marriage?
I figured he could probably say it better than I could. Believe it or not, I’ve done a wedding in which I was asked to start with those lines in character. In any event, we are talking this morning and for the next few weeks about mawwage…er…marriage. In fact, we are starting a brand new series this morning called “I Do.” There are three reasons we’re going to do this. First, for many of us in here we’ve said, “I do,” but way too many folks do that without really knowing what to do next. Many folks find themselves asking the question: “I’ve said, “I do,” so now what do I do”? For the next five weeks—the last three in particular—we’re going to try and answer that question. Second, marriage is hard and we all need help from time-to-time. One of the more important jobs of the church is to provide that help; to strengthen families. The family is the special, God-designed institution in which the faith is most effectively passed on to the next generation. Weak and failing families result in that passing happening poorly at best. As a result, if we want a strong Gospel-presence in our culture in the next generation, if we want this church to have a strong Gospel-presence in this community in the next generation, strengthening marriages and families is one of the best ways that’s going to happen. Third, marriage is a hot topic these days. Since the Supreme Court decision last June and even before our culture has been in a ferocious debate over what exactly marriage is and what we should think about it. The point here is that if we are going to engage well with the culture around us on the issue of marriage, then we need to be relentlessly clear regarding what we think about it, on even what we mean when we say the word.
Let me offer one more comment here. Even if you aren’t married this will be a good series for you to catch. For starters it may be that you will yet be married someday and this will be important information to have when you get there. Second, even if that doesn’t fall in the plans God has for you, still, knowing how to think rightly about marriage is important because of the role it plays in our culture. It is important because you no doubt have friends who are married and this will equip you to minister to them. You may have family members who are not yet married and this series will prepare you to give them some of the wisdom they will need in order to get them as prepared as they can be for the journey that lies ahead. You may have opportunities to advocate for what is the right understanding of marriage which if fully recognized and adopted will be to the benefit of everybody. Finally, the ultimate way to have a chance at doing marriage well is to submit ourselves wholly to Christ. Since that is always the way to have a chance at doing pretty much anything well, the big idea themes of the next few weeks will be applicable to more of life than just marriage.
With all of this in mind, for the next five weeks we are going to see just how many of these tensions we can resolve together. We’re going to spend the rest of this morning and next week talking about what exactly marriage is and what marriage is for. From there we’ll shift gears a bit to talking about how to do it well.
So then, what exactly is marriage? When you get down to the brass tacks, what is its essence? What’s more: why does knowing this matter? Well, for most of the last 2,000 years, followers of Jesus have believed that marriage is an ancient institution rooted in the creation of the world itself. They—we—have believed that marriage was not simply something made up by humans for the sake of convenience, but was in fact instituted by God in the process of making the world and everything in it. But, lest you think this is only a Christian thing, most other human cultures and religious traditions have believed something at least similar to this. In the ancient mythologies of the Greeks and the Romans marriage was something practiced by the gods before people were created. Now, they weren’t very good at it—Zeus was rather infamously free with his affections—but the point is that marriage was around before people were. If we are going to get our minds around what marriage is, then, it would seem that the best place to start would be to go back to the beginning and look there. And so, if you will grab a nearby copy of the Scriptures and find your way to Genesis 1, we’ll take a look at this together.
The first chapter of Genesis lays the ground work for everything that follows in Scripture. From the words and images used here we can learn a great deal about the nature of the God we serve as well as some of His purposes in creation. We can see from the very beginning that God was here before creation was. This means that He doesn’t depend on creation. Creation depends on Him.
We see a glimpse of His power: Light lies at the heart of what makes life work in this world. God created light with a word. We marvel at the stars at night in all their splendor. God created those as almost an afterthought. Verse 16: “And God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars.” It’s almost like after creating the sun and moon that God said, “You know what? Let’s add a little extra beauty here. Umm…I’ve got it! Stars!” All the millions of varieties of plants and animals in the world God spoke into existence.
We also see some of His character: Over and over again we hear His commitment to making a good world. He made light and said, “It is good.” He made the earth and the sky and called them good. He created dry land and the sea and they were good. He made the flora and fauna of the earth good. On and on this goes. Only a God who was essentially good Himself could superintend the creation of such a good world.
We see in the creation story God’s commitment to beauty and variety. Just think about all the things we often call the “natural wonders” of this world. God created them all. A more proper name perhaps would be “supernatural wonders.”
Well, as God was creating the world and everything in it, He put bits of Himself in all of His work almost like an artist signs his paintings. As King David put it: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” The apostle Paul would later put it like this: “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.” If you take much time to study it and use the proper lens, you can see the evidences of God’s special creation of the world everywhere you look. But, just as an artist will sometimes go above and beyond in one particular work such that it becomes so iconic for her that in looking at it you can almost see into her soul, near the end of day six, God goes one step further and creates just such a piece of art; He creates His magnum opus.
From Genesis 1:26: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” God didn’t just put a simple reflection of Himself in this final part of creation. He inscribed in it—in us—His very image.
Now, the whole notion of our being created in the image of God is a rich and deep truth that we’ll have to explore in more detail another time, but for now one of the key aspects of this image bearing comes out a bit more clearly in the next part of the creation story. You see God does not exist as a unity, but as a trinity. Now the doctrine of the trinity can be a little fuzzy and hard to understand, but stay with me here. God exists as Father, Son, and Spirit. Three persons which are distinct from each other while at the same time sharing of the same essence. The trinity is not simply a convenient way of talking about the different experiences people have with God, but rather a true description of who God is. In any event, because God is a trinity of Father, Son, and Spirit, He is an essentially relational being. He exists in a perfect, loving relationship with Himself. The Son and the Spirit love the Father, the Father and Son love the Spirit, and the Father and Spirit love the Son. In creating beings which bear His image, while He did not make us similarly triune in nature, he did make us similarly relational in nature. He created us for relationships. And while there are several different relational contexts in which this can happen God created one to be more important than the rest and as such designed it into creation from the start. Turn the page or thumb your way over the Genesis 2 and we’ll see how this unfolds together.
The creation story in Genesis 2 is very much more intimate than the first. In the first part of the story we see God creating things from a distance. He speaks and it happens. Things feel very impersonal there. In this second part of the story, though, see we God get down to our level. He forms the man Adam intentionally out of the dust with His own hands and breathes life into His lungs personally. Check this out: “…then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.”
Yet because the man—which in Hebrew is pronounced a’dam—was created to be a relational creature, while things in these earliest days are good, they are not yet complete. They are not yet very good. God Himself was the one to raise this point: “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone…” Again, we were designed for relationships with other people. This was, incidentally, the first and only thing that wasn’t good in creation. God’s solution? Keeping reading: “I will make him a helper fit for him.”
Let me offer a quick word on the idea of this person being a “helper” for Adam. That word is by far the most common and traditional translation of the relevant Hebrew word ezer. There’s just one problem: the English word “helper” carries a range of possible meanings and cultural assumptions with it such that it just isn’t the best word available to capture the full meaning of ezer. A fairly new translation available online called The Net Bible uses the word “companion” instead of “helper.” But more importantly, the scholars contributing to the translation included this note on the word: “Usage of the Hebrew term does not suggest a subordinate role, a connotation which English ‘helper’ can have. In the Bible God is frequently described as the ‘helper,’ the one who does for us what we cannot do for ourselves, the one who meets our needs. In this context the word seems to express the idea of an ‘indispensable companion.’ The woman would supply what the man was lacking in the design of creation and logically it would follow that the man would supply what she was lacking, although that is not stated here.” What’s more, their notes on the phrase “fit for him” are pretty helpful as well: “The Hebrew expression…literally means ‘according to the opposite of him.’ The man’s form and nature are matched by the woman’s as she reflects him and complements him. Together they correspond.”
Well, finding a helper fit for Adam is good plan that God quickly sets into motion. Adam experiences a virtual parade of potential matches. It was the very first speed dating session. The text describes it like this: “Now 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. The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field.” These creatures were all formed out of the ground just like Adam had been. They were creatures that were in this sense like him. And yet: “…for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him.” The lesson here: as an image bearer of God, no creature without that image could be a suitable helper for you.
In any event, because there was no creature in the world that made a suitable ezer for Adam, God did something radical: He made one, and in doing so completed creation. Verse 21: “So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man [the first anesthesia], and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.” Now at long last Adam has another creature that is like him in bearing the image of God. He sets this new creature before Adam and how do you think he responds? With awe and wonder. “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh [in other words: she’s like me]; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” Adam’s response is this poetic refrain to make a simple point: “God, she’s amazing!”
But if all of this so far has given us a helpful context of what God was doing in designing and creating us a certain way, what comes next is absolutely critical. Look at v. 24: “Therefore…” Stop there a minute. Remember one of our basic principles of good biblical interpretation? When you see the word “therefore” in the text what are you supposed to do? You go back and see what it’s there for (get it?). Well, what’s this particular “therefore” there for? It is explaining the result of this unique match, this bonding that has happened between the man and the woman. Because they were created so perfectly and uniquely for each other, because they alone in all the world completed each other as nothing else did…“therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his…” what? His wife.
Now, the phrase there “hold fast” may sound like it’s simply saying that a husband and wife should be committed to one another over and against anyone and everyone else. And that’s true, but there’s more to it. This is covenantal language. We can see an example of this kind of language in Deuteronomy which is in the form of an ancient covenantal document. Deuteronomy is the text of the covenant God made with the people of Israel. When God through Moses commanded the people of Israel to be committed to Him and no one else in Deuteronomy 10:20 He said: “You shall fear the Lord your God. You shall serve him and hold fast to him.”
A covenant is kind of like a contract but stronger and more permanent. Perhaps the most notable difference is that contracts have end points while covenants do not. Entering into a covenant in the ancient world was serious business. One of the common covenantal rituals was to take several animals, cut them in half, lay each part on either side of a path, and then walk between them (this, by the way, is where we get our wedding tradition of having family members sit on opposite sides of a center aisle and having the couple walk out between them after the ceremony has ended). The meaning is essentially this: may what has happened to these animals happen to us should we break this agreement—or in other words, leaving a covenant has painful consequences. In Deuteronomy God made this clear in the form of the promise of various curses if the Israelites left behind the covenant they were making with Him.
Well, another thing about a covenant that makes it different from a contract is that the ability of each party to hold to the promises being made has no bearing on whether or not the other party honors the promises it has made. In a contract if you fail to hold up your end of the deal I quit mine as well. In a covenant, though, each party says, “I’m going to keep these promises no matter what you do. You may leave the boundaries of the covenant and thus remove yourself from the benefit of my actions toward you which will be painful for both of us, but my commitment won’t change.”
This is what marriage was designed to look like from the beginning. Is this what it always looks like? You know as well as I do the answer to that question is a resounding no. Some of you have experienced that. Some of you perhaps are experiencing that right now. The fact is: we live in a sin-broken world and sometimes covenants get broken. Israel broke their covenant with God over and over again. Moses, Paul, and Jesus all acknowledged this can and does happen in the marriage covenant. Sometimes restoration is possible and that should always be our first goal only rejected after a herculean effort has been made to see it happen. Sometimes, though, it’s not. This is never God’s plan, but it doesn’t change His love for us nor does it affect His ability to work good in our lives as we submit ourselves to Him. It also doesn’t change what marriage is. And what is marriage? I think we have enough information to suggest a fairly clear definition: Marriage is a covenantal relationship between a man and a woman established by God in creation. Marriage is a covenantal relationship between a man and a woman established by God in creation.
Okay, but why does it matter whether or not we get this right? Well, for starters, when it comes to something as important as marriage which has been the fundamental social unit in all stable societies going back to the earliest days of humanity, wouldn’t you just want to get it right? But more than that, when this relationship was established between the first man and woman something incredible happened. The text says in 2:24 that they became one flesh. Something new and beautiful was added to creation which did not exist before this relationship was established. And ever since, whenever a marriage happens a new family is created. We are continuing God’s program of creation. We are being obedient to His command to be fruitful and multiply and I don’t just mean by having kids since that’s not something every couple experiences. We are creating new families where there were none before and, again, families are the primary vehicle God designed for the passing on of the faith. There is also the joy that comes from getting marriage right. The text says that the first man and wife were “naked and were not ashamed.” They were of course physically naked, but it was more than that. There was no wall between them. They were totally transparent before each other and not ashamed of what they found. Have you experienced that in your marriage?
If we don’t think about marriage rightly such a thing will fall outside the realm of possibility for us. If we don’t think covenantally but instead think contractually we will always be looking to guard our own interests rather than giving ourselves fully to the interests of our partner. No intimacy can flourish in such an environment as that. If we think that gender does not matter, we will allow for situations in which the unique complementarity that only exists between a man and a woman cannot happen. Who does that benefit?
When we think about marriage rightly and understand properly what it is we will also be able to stand and face a culture which is mired in confusion about marriage from a position of confidence and strength. This not to force our view in any way, but to stand and offer our lives and our marriages as an example of what this incredible relationship looks like when it is pursued properly. It will give us a foundation to stand on when we are attacked for holding to a view that no longer carries the blessing of cultural approval (and just so we’re clear: this particular definition doesn’t). It will allow us to have important conversations without feeling threatened or unsure of ourselves which always makes for a more levelheaded, more compassionate listener. In short: what we believe about marriage matters. It matters in our own lives. It matters in the lives of our kids. It matters in the life of our church. It matters in the life of our community. It matters in the life of our culture. It matters. What we believe about marriage matters. And if you’ll come back next week, we’ll talk about what marriage is for.