THE MEANING OF MARRIAGE
Written by Doug Ponder on November 11, 2012
Confusion about Marriage
Whether it’s seen as the “next step,” or Dating 2.0, or “what you do when you’re in love,” or even God’s stamp of approval for sex—the number of misguided ideas about marriage seem endless. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Jesus is both the creator of marriage and the one who makes healthy marriages possible. He takes broken men and women and turns them into selfless, sacrificial lovers and parents who experience joyful marriages through the power of the gospel.
So what exactly is marriage, anyway?
Marriage as a Promise
First of all, marriage is a promise. In fact, it’s a special kind of promise that the Bible calls a “covenant.” Covenants were promises two parties made to each other and to God. They were deep commitments that were designed to establish a perpetual relationship. As you can see, marriages are not like the “contracts” of our own day. Contracts are not designed to form an ongoing relationship. They’re purely legal agreements that are used to make sure a job gets done. So if one person messes up in the contract, there is no obligation for the other person to fulfill their part of the deal. Covenants are different than this. They call upon both parties to remember the relationship formed by the covenant and to keep the promises they made to each other and to God. But what are people promising to do in marriage? They are promising to love each other, to forgive each other, and to help each other follow Jesus in their life together. This is not a promise to feel loving toward the other person; it is a promise to be loving toward the other person. Feelings come and go, as everyone knows by experience. But marriages are not based on feelings. They are based upon the promise to be faithful to the other person, no matter what. As our wedding vows rightly say, “for better or worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.”
Marriage as a Pattern
Secondly, marriage is a pattern for understanding how believers should relate to each other. For example, though there are two people in any marriage, they are really “one flesh.” They are, as wedding vows correctly declare, “in interest and destiny, one.” In a similar way, we have one Lord, one hope, and one savior. Christians are, therefore, also ‘one in interest and destiny.’ Just as marriage partners must do, so also we are called to work together, to forgive each other, to bear with each other’s sins, to remind each other of the gospel, and so on. After all, the reason that Jesus had to die was to forgive us and cleanse us. To believe the gospel is to believe that we all need Jesus, and that we need each other to help us follow Jesus (Gal. 6:1-10). Marriage also gives us a pattern for how men and women should relate to each other. The Scriptures celebrate the differences between men and women as something that God intended for our good and his glory. In marriage God calls husbands to lead like Jesus (Eph. 5:25-28), and he calls wives to submit to their husbands (Eph. 5:22-24). But to lead like Jesus means something very different than the world often thinks. Instead of bossing his wife around or using his strength to intimidate her, a husband is called to love her, serve her, and sacrifice greatly for her—just as Jesus has done for his bride, church.In a beautifully complementary way, wives are called to follow their husbands as they follow Christ. They are a team with their husband, supporting him, encouraging him, and challenging him by speaking the truth in love. When husbands and wives live like this, they uphold God’s pattern for what the heart of real masculinity and femininity look like in the midst of an increasingly confused society.
Marriage as a Picture
Finally, marriage is a picture or symbol. The “mystery” of marriage, according to Paul the apostle, is that God designed it to depict the love of Jesus for the church. Another way of saying this is that our marriages all say something about Jesus. Depending on the marriage, that declaration is either made poorly or well, but it is always made. The question for all of us to consider, then, is not whether our marriages are declaring to the world something about Christ’s love for the church, but what kind of message do our marriages declare to the world about Christ’s love for the church? Men, would people see your marriage and conclude that Jesus is a lazy bum or a harsh master? Ladies, would people see your marriage and conclude that the church despises her servant-leader? If we refuse to forgive each other, will others see our marriages and think that Jesus and his people abandon each other? God forbid! Marriages is intended to remind us (and others) that one day we will unite with Jesus forever because of his work on our behalf. God calls us to believe the gospel and live in such a way that our marriages remind others of the joyful future we have with Jesus.
Marriage and the Gospel
Perhaps the real mystery of marriage is this: the only way that we can love each other as God has called us to do is if we understand the love that he has shown us in Christ. When you understand the depth of your sin against God, you are able to understand the depth of the forgiveness that you have received. This is what enables us to truly forgive others, even spouses who may hurt us deeply over the years. We can forgive them and love them, not because they deserve it, but because we also have been forgiven without deserving it. The gospel, therefore, is what enables couples to keep their promise to be faithful to each other throughout life. Spouses begin to see each other as sinners in need of Jesus, and they begin to understand that God uses the other to help them see their need for the gospel every day. Even singles benefit from understanding this beautiful truth, for they are able to receive the love, acceptance and joy that comes from Jesus, which is far better than any marriage will ever give them. To the degree that spouses (and singles) find true hope, joy, peace, and comfort in Christ, they will be free to forgive, to love, and to serve other people with joyful hearts.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.