Dr. Ian Rennie, retired Dean of Tyndale Seminary, Toronto, lives in Vancouver and worships at Fairview Church.
I would like to write about marriage, and in order to do so I want to open the Bible at the Gospel of Matthew 19:1-9.
The first thing we notice as we come to this section is that God teaches us about marriage in the Bible. This may appear obvious but I think that it needs to be underscored. In verse three, as the Pharisees have come to Jesus and asked him their question about divorce, he knew that you can't talk about divorce until you've talked about marriage. So Jesus said, I'm going to teach about marriage and I'm going to do it from the Bible. As a result he inquired, "Haven't you read?", meaning haven't you read in the Bible. That is what you first need to do. If you would only read the Bible you would know the very fundamental realities about marriage, and then, later, about the subsidiary question of divorce.
Now today we have lots of other teachers about marriage. We have the professional people — counsellors, psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, evolutionary biologists. They are telling us a great deal about what marriage has been in various cultures and societies, and what would be the best form of marriage for us today. We also have the entertainment industry and the advertising world, where marriage is often derided as something from the Brady Bunch or the Waltons. Those silly people who believe in all this "till death do us part" nonsense. That's not where God wants us to get our basic ideas about marriage. If we do, we will only be more and more in the dark. But God gives us his design for marriage in the Bible. God has created us, and the God who has made us knows and understands what marriage should be. And as Christians, one of our great characteristics is that we believe what God teaches. For many people what God teaches is of no importance, but as Christians we have a profound disposition to believe God.
Now as we really get into this section, what I notice in the second place is how God is involved in preparing us for marriage. And this is given to us in verses 4-6, where I see four great preparations that God has given. (1) God has given us gender. As it says here in verse 4, "at the beginning God made them male and female." And in that maleness and femaleness God has put a tremendous attraction. And so we find a man and a woman in billions of cases throughout human history, attracted and drawn toward one another. A sense of love begins to develop, a sense of enjoyment in being with one another, a sense of respect for one another, a sense of wanting the best for one another and caring for one another, a desire to spend our lives together and then a desire to have and raise a family together. All of this is what God has built into us as human beings, as gender-specific people. We do not create gender; it is a wonderful gift from God. God puts attraction into gender, and there wouldn't be any marriage unless he had made us this way. But he has.
The next thing is (2) that God draws us to the marriage ceremony. As we are told in verse 5, "a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife." The couple are so drawn to each other that there is a readiness to leave home with parents and siblings, even at times, the land we so enjoy, because of a far greater love. Then there is the public union of the marriage ceremony. Thirty years ago or so, when there was a lot of dramatic social upheaval, many people would say "We want to be married, but we don't want a service, After all, it is only the two of us who are involved." But we have been seeing in Matthew 19 that God is involved, and in a public service we are thanking him for all that he has done, and asking his gracious presence with us throughout our marriage. At the public service vows are taken, and to us an old word, the "covenant" of marriage is entered into: "I take you to be my lawful wedded wife/husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness in health, to love and to cherish; till death do us part, and thereto I pledge you my vows." Suddenly the emotional temperature rises and tears are in the eyes. This is a transcendent moment. How wonderful of God, not just to draw people to live together, but to give us a ceremony of marriage to set our life together in its proper and essential context.
Then, (3) God unites in sexual intimacy. As verse 5 continues: "the two will become one flesh." God has created us within the bond of marriage for sexual intimacy, for the expression of love and commitment, unique belonging and intense joy. This is the way God has made us. Many people today do not want God's way in this regard. They want recreational sex, fun sex. They don't want sex within marriage, sex within commitment, sex within faithfulness, sex within love — rather they want sex as a game. This is as far away from God's intention for marriage and sexual intimacy as anything could be. From God's point of view this is an appalling debasement of sex and marriage. And of course out of sexual intimacy in marriage comes children. Then children grow and you have the wonderful situation of being able to relate with them as adults. Then there are grandchildren, with all the love that they pour into life. And through children and grandchildren God's kingdom is maintained and expanded. What a gift sex in marriage is, for us, for successive generations, for God's church and for society.
Finally, (4) God prepares us for the life of marriage by the miracle of oneness. I take this from the first sentence of verse 6 which states: "So they are no longer two but one." This means that in marriage God not only gives us sexual union, but union on every level of life, on the level of values, of goals, of truth, of emotion. Now God does this for every married couple. Christian or not yet Christian. God is so concerned and involved in marriages that he pours out his Spirit and creates a miracle of oneness for everyone who marries. But as Christians we have the privilege of knowing what God is doing. God also unites us on the spiritual level, so that we can worship as one, pray as one and serve as one.
Now with all that God has given us in relation to marriage, he's given us everything that we need for good, happy and successful marriages. In a very real sense marriage is like the Christian life; you have everything right from the start to live the life that God intends. When we become Christian we are made full Christians: we are joined to Christ by the Holy Spirit, we are forgiven, we are accepted, the Holy Spirit is within us and around us and baptizes us into the body of Christ. We have our whole Christian life in which to learn, grow and develop, but all the essential ingredients are there at the start, so it is with marriage. God has put everything into us to enable us to live the life of marriage. He has given us gender with its attraction, the marriage service with all that it means, sexual intimacy and unity as persons. We are married and we will never be more married than the day we are married. We are married, and God has been preparing marriage for us. Our marriage is a gift of God.
In the third place I see that God has made marriage to be permanent. "Therefore," declares the second sentence of verse 6, "what God has joined together, let no one separate." That may be a fairly weak translation, for one modern version reads, "let no person tear apart." And such a rendering makes sense; for if God has done so much to make marriage a reality, you do not contemplate dismantling it. It's a ripping, a rending, a suffering, a trauma, a terrible thing, when marriage is undone. So when we are married, God intends us to regard our marriages as permanent. But there is one exception, expressed in verse 9, where it is emphasized "that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery." Marriage unfaithfulness does not need to produce marriage breakup, if there is confession, forgiveness and reconciliation. But breakup under such a situation is valid. In our standard of faith and practice, The Westminster Confession, it is stated that wilful desertion is a form of adultery and can justifiably bring a marriage to an end. This, of course, can include geographic desertion, emotional desertion and the physical desertion of the battered-spouse syndrome. But the great concentration of the Bible is on marriage being God-given and permanent. And it is in this permanent marriage that love and trust and appreciation and joy are to grow. There are times of struggle in every marriage, but God is committed to us, and as he brings us through we will know that there is no place in all the world that comes within light years of marriage as the place where love dwells on earth.
In the fourth and last place, I want simply to draw out a few implications of Jesus' teaching on marriage. Marriage is a means of evangelism, for it is like a magnet that draws people to Jesus Christ. In today's world all sorts of thoughtful, well-meaning people long to maintain their marriage and families, but are fearful of the pressures upon them from society at large. In such a situation some will say maybe God, maybe the church, will be able to help. So they show up for a service, and one the most important things that they need to see are the loving and strong marriages and families, parents loving each other faithfully, loving their children, loving their grandchildren. And people are drawn to Jesus Christ, who is the giver of such love.
Marriage is a theological sign. The faithfulness of husband and wife together for life, sharing that unique life with no one else, is a picture of God's faithfulness. Of course God shares his love with all, but because he is divine he is able to share the fullness of his love with each believer. And in faithfulness God shares that love with us forever. We live in a society where unfulfilled vows and promises are on every corner. But when we see couples who through all their lives are faithful, then we have the best human picture of how faithful, utterly faithful God is, and thus how worthy of our trust he is.
Marriage needs all our support and encouragement. Satan will seek to destroy something as God-planned and God-sustained as marriage, and of such fundamental importance in all God's purposes. So let us pray for all the marriages in our family, in our congregation and among our friends.
Marriage is the best thing on the market in human relationships, so if you've not married and a good opportunity comes along, don't dither, take it! As Matthew 19:10-13 reminds us, there are people who are not to marry. But if you are not one such, and there is the possibility of a fine marriage, don't fritter the time away.
And if we've made a mess of marriage, let us turn to God — not to blame him for giving us a pathetic spouse or for setting his standard of marriage for too high — but to turn to him in repentance and faith, receiving his forgiveness and the plan of life which he offers. In this setting God heals and makes new.