There is more at stake in marriage than we ever could have known, without the mystery revealed in the Christian gospel (Eph. 5:32). So as we conclude this study of marriage, let’s think through some personal implications for our own lives. The implications are endless. But I will conclude with one momentous verse, relevant to all of us today: “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous” (Heb. 13:4). That was a countercultural message in the first century, and it is countercultural today. But it is one of the ways we offer to God acceptable worship with reverence and awe (Heb. 12:28).
The emphasis of the verse lies on the words “held in honor,” that is, prized, valued, esteemed. The New Testament never says, “Let money be prized, valued, esteemed.” But God has called us all to feel just that way about marriage. It is to be honored and lifted up and protected among all believers, not only among married believers. It is the God-defined institution of marriage as such, not only my own personal marriage, that I am to esteem. The gospel has shown us that every believer has something personally wonderful at stake in the sacred reality marriage, as it points beyond itself to the endless love of Jesus for us all. Now God wants all of us to translate that new awareness into the active hallowing of marriage here in this world.
The gospel, when it is allowed to make its own natural impact, creates a pro-marriage culture among God’s people. Not that unmarried people are second-class, for single people living for Christ gain strategic advantages over married people (1 Cor. 7:25-35). But marriage bespeaks ultimate reality in a way that the single life does not. It was designed to. Human marriage has always been intended by God to serve as a prophetic whisper of the eternal marriage. Every real marriage in the world today makes that statement, to some degree, however weakly, because that is what marriage is. Very few realities in our lives bear such a sacred meaning and deserve such special consideration.
All churches, therefore, have a gospel-motivated obligation actively to teach and honor and promote marriage, for the display of the gospel in our world of confusion and despair. If we love the preaching of the gospel from pulpits, then we will also love the display of the gospel in marriages. Churches must not be neutral or casual about what so rejoices the heart of God.
Yes, marriage also provides social benefits, which both believers and unbelievers can appreciate, especially the rearing of children for the next generation in a secure and stable environment. For that reason alone, the state has a clear interest in supporting and protecting the institution of marriage. Marriage is not the private property of the Christian church. At the creation, God gave marriage to the entire human race. But no one, and not even the entire human race all together, has the right to redefine marriage on its own terms. Nor can anyone, or all of us together, however broad and even unanimous our consensus, expect marriage to succeed if it is reshaped according to what it never was and can never be. If the state fails in its duty to preserve and protect real marriage, there will be a personal, social, and historic cost, a painful and heavy human cost.
The United States Supreme Court, in the landmark case Obergefell versus Hodges on June 26, 2015, by a vote of five to four, ruled that the US Constitution guarantees a right to same-sex “marriage.” Writing in the New York Times, Adam Liptak explained that in this and other related cases “Justice Kennedy embraced a vision of a living Constitution, one that evolves with societal changes.” (The reporter’s candor reminds us that college English and literature and hermeneutics courses might be shaping the future of our world as powerfully as political science courses do.) But as damaging as that Supreme Court ruling is, and as ominous for the future, the state has been injuring a pro-marriage culture for decades. In 1969 Governor Ronald Reagan of California made what he later admitted was one of the biggest mistakes of his political life when he signed into effect the nation’s first no-fault divorce law, with other states following soon thereafter. The state made it easier to end a marriage in divorce, and so it was. But even as the state foolishly continues to undermine a pro-marriage culture, our churches must work all the harder to build a pro-marriage counterculture, where faithfulness and beauty and lasting love point the way not only to a better human society but also, and far more, to the eternal love of Christ.
Divorce grieves the heart of God. God feels strongly in favor of solidly happy marriages. Marriage is precious to the Father and Christ longs for his own with all the romantic passion of his mighty heart. If that gospel is the true drama of human history, and it is, then how could God not hate divorce and every injury we inflict on his precious gift of marriage? God does not hate divorced people. He does not hate gay people. He does not hate Supreme Court justices. He does not hate you and me. Fortunately for us all, “for God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). But God’s people who have been divorced and gay and mistaken in many ways, that is, all believers in Christ—it is spiritual whores like us, having fallen exhausted and guilty into the arms of our bridegroom, who can now be compelling voices in favor of marriage. We know by experience the sorrows of every departure from God’s beautiful norm. Indeed, if Jonathan Edwards is right, if brokenhearted people make the best Christians, then we who have not lived up to God’s high standards for marriage and sexuality can serve best as advocates for those very standards. May our voices be humble but clear.
Hebrews 13:4 also says that the marriage bed must be undefiled, kept pure, its joys richly cultivated and its parameters strictly guarded. Why? We have seen that the biblical concern about sexual integrity is not a petty Victorian taboo, as if sex were dirty or even just beneath true spirituality. Just the opposite. Married sex, with its intimacy and desire and pleasure and intensity and adoration and satisfaction and rest, is a glorious metaphor of heaven. To betray our Lord’s sexual ethics, to drag his amazing gift into the gutter, is to deny the most sacred reality of all, the marriage of the Lamb, given his prophetic purpose invested in married sexuality. For God not to judge sexual sin would be for God to trivialize his own blood bought purposes.
Excerpt from Marriage in the World Today which is based on Marriage and the Mystery of the Gospel by Ray Ortlund