How Do You Define Marriage?

Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. Genesis 2:24

Paul Tripp will be with us soon to teach on marriage. Why are we doing this? Because we want to see, we want everyone to see, how the grace of God repositions us for peace and shalom and beauty in our marriages – imperfectly but really in this life. We want the gospel of grace to connect with the questions and struggles of real people like us and our friends, to make Jesus non-ignorable. And a non-ignorable marriage speaks powerfully for him. And marriage deserves to be a focal point for God’s shalom. The Bible says a very interesting thing: “Let marriage be held in honor by all” (Hebrews 13:4). Both happily married people and unhappily married people and single people and divorced people and everyone who gets the gospel will honor marriage. Parenthood is a wonderful thing. Friendship is a wonderful thing. But the Bible doesn’t say, “Let parenthood (or friendship) be held in honor by all.” Why is marriage so privileged in the biblical explanation of reality? What I want to do today is answer the question why the gospel puts this very human and oftentimes messy reality of marriage in a special category.

As we ramp up for the Paul Tripp event, let’s remember that we are on mission together. Jesus said, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you” (John 20:21). The Father sent Jesus to bring heaven’s peace into our broken world. And Jesus has sent us on the same mission. We’re not here for conquest. We’re here for peace, and not just for us but for all. So we’re thinking of this 2014-15 ministry year together as a missions trip. But we’re not leaving town. We’re on mission right here. Our theme is “Peace in the City.” I can’t think of anything more relevant. Have you ever seen a city with too much humaneness and relaxedness and hope? That doesn’t happen by some wonderful luck; it comes down from Jesus through us to others. That is why we’re having these special events this year. Paul Tripp will speak on marriage, Rosaria Butterfield in January will speak on sexual identity, and Dr. Russell Moore in April on community involvement. I am asking you to pray for the Lord’s blessing, and I am asking you to bring a friend to these events. Do not think of bringing a friend to church as a small thing. It’s a significant way to live on mission right here in Nashville. Stick your neck out. Invite someone. God’s peace doesn’t just happen. He’s calling us to get involved. He’s calling us to pay a price for others.

So today, let’s think about marriage. The very definition of marriage is being debated in our nation today. What was taken for granted for so long – that marriage is one man with one woman for one lifetime – not that people always lived up to that, but the relationships that departed from that norm were considered either failed marriages or not marriage at all – what was taken for granted is now debated. So I want to show you this morning how the Bible defines marriage and why it matters. Just this week I read a blogger who claimed that the Bible doesn’t define marriage in any clear way, because there are various “arrangements” with men and women in Scripture, for example, the polygamy of the kings of Israel. So why shouldn’t polygamy be included in a “biblical” view of marriage? Why one wife or husband? The Bible says Solomon had 700 wives. Why shouldn’t seventy wives be considered conservative? Here’s the key. Just because the Bible records what people did, it doesn’t endorse what people did. And in the case of polygamy, the Bible signals to us its disapproval. It always helps, when we’re reading the Bible, to go back to the beginning of things in Genesis and all the way to the end of things in the Revelation. Then we can see things in their true meaning. Marriage begins in Genesis chapter 2, and it reappears in Revelation 21. I’ll explain that in a moment. But the first time we see polygamy is in Genesis chapter 4, in the life of a man named Lamech. He has two wives. He is also a violent bully. And in the flow of the Genesis narrative Lamech identifies with the people who oppose God. So the Bible casts doubt on polygamy the first time it appears, while in Genesis 2 the Bible defines normative marriage in a positive way. And we know from Jesus himself that’s how we should read the Bible. When some people asked him about divorce, in Matthew 19, Jesus admitted that the Old Testament accommodated human failings in marriage. And then he said, “But from the beginning it was not so” (Matthew 19:8). He quoted Genesis 2 as definitional of marriage: “The two shall become one flesh” (Matthew 19:5). Not the three – or the 700! Just because the Bible records what people did, it doesn’t endorse what people did. We find endorsement in what the Bible affirms in the totality of the story. So we can’t read the Bible piecemeal. If we pull out a verse here or a verse there, we can make the Bible say anything. But if we follow the plot-line of the whole story, then we’ll track with what the Bible is really getting at. So today I want to show you how the Bible defines marriage from the beginning, before we broke it, and how the Bible completes the story of marriage at the end. Then we’ll understand why marriage matters so much.

But here is what I’m not going to do today. I am not going to address the question of homosexual behavior or same-sex attraction or gay marriage. The Bible’s definition of marriage has implications for all those questions. But it isn’t my purpose today to say everything that could be said. Some of us have same-sex feelings. Some of us have been involved in homosexual behavior. Some of us approve of gay marriage – or don’t see any reason to disapprove of it. I hope Immanuel Church will always be a place where everyone can come without being shamed, so that all of us can re-think our lives without pressure, and a place where the Bible is taken at face value with no spin because we want to be honest before God.

What marriage is

Three insights here. One, God sees our aloneness, and he cares (verse 18). There are two ways in biblical Hebrew to say that something is “not good.” You can say that something is ’eyn tob, which means it just lies there in the bowl with no snap, crackle or pop. Or you can say that something is lo’ tob, which is means it is definitely bad. That is the expression here. It is bad for a man to be alone – which is the Lord’s gracious way of saying, “Every man needs adult supervision.” All through Genesis 1, as God creates the world, he keeps saying it’s all good, good, good. Verse 31: “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” But now God surprises us by saying something is bad – and in the Garden of Eden! Adam even had God himself right there in a perfect world. But God sees that his love must come into Adam’s experience in yet another way – through Eve. When the love of God comes down into a man’s heart through his wife, that love doesn’t stop being divine just because it’s also hers. It is still the love of God. Which is why a man should revere his wife. She is a gift from above, and his life would be bad without her.

God calls some of us to be single, and not because he cares less. To be single for him is a glorious calling and full of the love of God. Jesus was single. He never married. He never had sexual intercourse. He had no place to lay his head, including a woman’s shoulder. But Jesus was the most complete human being who ever lived. He was free to give himself completely to serving others. And he calls all of us to live fully for him, some married, others single, and every personal calling a glorious one full of the love of God. But Genesis 2:18 shows us that God sees our aloneness, and he cares, and he will meet our need for companionship – often through marriage, but in other ways as well.

Two, God shows us our aloneness, so that we care (verses 19-20). Verse 18 tells us what God saw. Adam didn’t see it. He didn’t feel alone. He was in the Garden of Eden! But God is not going to squander his most precious earthly gift on an uncomprehending man. So God puts him to work. By observing and studying the animals, Adam came to see what God had seen – that there was no other creature like Adam in all this world. With every new animal he names, Adam realizes more and more how alone he is. His obedience leads him into disappointment. So he’s finally ready. In fact, verse 20 can be literally translated, “. . . but for Adam, he did not find a helper fit for him.” If God has called you to be married, and you’re not, and you’re lonely, God is using that feeling gently to pressure you to trust him at a deeper level and to prepare you to receive your wife or husband with profound joy. But no one should get married without deep desire – because their family expects it, or because it would be a good career move. Marriage deserves better than that. It deserves our all, and it’s worth suffering for.

Three, God defined marriage as the “one flesh” union of one man with one woman for one lifetime (verses 21-25). This is what the Bible endorses here at the beginning and fulfills at the end. But I find this passage beautiful, simple, human. We can imagine God saying to Adam, “Now, son, I know what you’re feeling inside. Now trust me. Don’t worry about a thing. Just lie down here and go to sleep.” And while Adam sleeps, God takes flesh from Adam’s very body – not from any animal but from Adam – to make Eve. Adam was made from the ground (verse 7), but Eve was made from Adam. Adam was earth refined, but Eve was doubly refined. And, as Matthew Henry, says in his quaint way,

Not made out of his head to rule over him, nor out of his feet to be trampled upon by him, but out of his side to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected, and near his heart to be beloved.

And there she stands, the first woman, beautiful – as every woman is. And we can imagine God saying to her, “Now, dear, I want you to stand over there for just a moment. It’s okay. I’ll be right with you.” Off she goes. And God bends down and touches Adam, “Wake up, son. I have one more creature for you to name. I’m very interested to see your response to this creation.” Then like a father of the bride, God leads Eve to Adam, and it’s love at first sight.

Verse 23 are the very first recorded human words. They are love poetry: “This at last” – what relief and joy we should feel in those words – “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh, unlike the animals. They have their place. But she has my heart. I identify with her. I rejoice in her. I don’t feel lonely any more.” Then, as his last act of naming, Adam says, “She” – he is not speaking to Eve but to God, praising him for her – “She shall be called woman, because she was taken out of man.” Adam doesn’t say, “Out of me,” but “Out of man,” because he is speaking as the head of the human face for all of us. He is setting precedent.

Then verse 24 breaks the narrative: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” Here is the biblical definition of marriage. We can think of verse 24 this way. We are sitting in Moses’ living room, watching on DVD what happened back in the Garden of Eden. But now he picks up the remote and pushes the “pause” button, the action on the screen stops, Moses turns to us post-fall people in this broken world, and he explains the relevance of what happened so long ago: “Therefore – because of what God did back at the beginning of all things – a man and his wife today shall be and shall learn to live like one flesh.” Do you realize what this means? It means we didn’t lose the Garden of Eden completely. God let the human race keep marriage. And here is the definition of marriage: one flesh. That is, one total sharing of this mortal life, with no barriers or limits – one story, one purpose, one bed, one suffering, one joy, one check book, one reputation, one family, one everything. Two selfish me’s come together with an unconditional commitment to start thinking like one united us. Me-ness dies away, and us-ness comes alive, as in no other earthly relationship.

Those two words – “one flesh” – define marriage. But it is disputed today. Some say that other arrangements should also be legitimized. But that proposal is based on a very different understanding of marriage, a very different understanding of manhood and womanhood and God and everything. Re-drawing the lines of marriage is a huge question, touching all the basic issues of the gospel. The proposal to include many human arrangements as forms of “marriage” treats marriage as basically friendship, but with greater emotional intensity. So whether it’s two men, or two women, or a man and a woman – that’s up to those involved. For that matter, if people make each other happy, that should be allowed as marriage, however many people are involved and whoever they are. If you follow the logic further out, this most profound human relationship will keep morphing into whatever. Why limit it to adults? Why limit it to human beings? Why limit it at all? But at the present moment, this argument is getting traction because it sees marriage as essentially a loving bond between people who are seeking emotional happiness with one another, and what’s the harm in that? But notice. That is not an expansion of the meaning of marriage; that is a redefinition of the meaning of marriage, and the implications move out in all directions of our existence. Redefining marriage comes out of a total worldview and brings with it a total worldview. It is not a single issue. By the same token, the biblical view of marriage comes out of a total worldview and brings with it a total worldview. It is not a single issue.

The Bible is saying something audacious about everything by saying something audacious about marriage. It is saying that there is a love at the center of the universe greater than any other, because it is a love of another order altogether. The biblical worldview provides the outlook that makes the gospel meaningful and glorious. The Bible is saying that marriage is not a more intense version of other relationships; it is a different kind of relationship altogether. There is no other “one flesh” relationship anywhere on the human landscape, not even the mother/child relationship, even though a baby comes out of its mother’s very body. The Bible is saying that marriage as “one flesh” is the permanent, exclusive and comprehensive union of all that each spouse is with the other – which is why sex is involved in marriage and within marriage only. A man and a woman naturally fit. But if we’re going to set aside the obvious way of human sex for our own personal versions of it, if other forms of sexuality and therefore of marriage are allowable, then why not get more people involved, or more of anything, as long as we’re increasing our happiness? Redefining marriage locates all human relationships at points along one continuum. Marriage itself is no longer sacred. There is no need for vows or exclusivity or the sanctity of sex. Is that radical rearrangement of human reality conducive to human flourishing? Is that radical rearrangement the better future we want for our children in the next generation? I wonder what you think. But I want you to know that, according to the Bible, the exclusive sexual union of a husband and wife seals, symbolizes and refreshes the total life sharing, the one-flesh-ness, that marriage uniquely is. It’s the social arrangement God gave us, so that we and our children can thrive. Not that every home is a happy one, but our own creative alternatives will not take us where we want to go.

The Bible, then, sees marriage not as a very strong friendship but as something set apart – the complete uniting of a man and a woman, for the purposes of God, as long as they both shall live. On their wedding day they hurl themselves into the adventure of learning to live as one and think as one and love as one and procreate as one, in a way that happens in no other relationship. Marriage certainly is emotional. But it is more. It is the complete fusion of one man with one woman for one lifetime. And here is the glorious thing that happens so wonderfully inside the circle of the one-flesh union: “And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed” (verse 25). Totally exposed, completely known, and fully accepted. Marriage offers such total openness and trust and tenderness, that both the man and the woman, far from being shamed, are dignified, treasured, safe.

Why marriage matters

What intrigues me most about this chapter is that it’s here at all. Especially, right after the grandeur of Genesis 1 and the creation of the universe, why does the Bible suddenly shift to this simple human reality of a man and woman falling in love and getting married? It happens every day. Is the Bible moving from the sublime to the ridiculous? Isn’t it jarring to go from the cosmic sweep of Genesis 1 to the homely simplicity of Genesis 2? What’s going on here? Why does marriage deserve to be the sequel to the creation of the universe?

The end of the Bible answers our question. Here in Genesis 2 God gave a bride to a man. And in Revelation 21 God does it again, but this time even better. The end reveals the true grandeur of the beginning. God gives the whole redeemed human race to his Son as the Bride prepared for her husband (Revelation 21:2). The Bible says that we will be presented to him in splendor (Ephesians 5:27). And what we call heaven will be more like an eternal honeymoon of endlessly intimate joy. That’s why God made Adam and Eve. That’s why God made us all men and women. Some of us are married, others of us are unmarried. But no one in Christ is missing out on the Marriage. I love the way Martin Luther put it:

Faith unites the soul with Christ, as a bride is united with her bridegroom. From such a marriage, it follows that Christ and the soul become one, so that they hold all things in common, for better or worse. This means that what Christ possesses belongs to the believing soul, and what the soul possesses belongs to Christ. Thus Christ possesses all good things and holiness; these now belong to the soul. The soul possesses lots of vices and sin; these now belong to Christ. Is not this a happy business? Christ, the rich, noble and holy bridegroom, takes in marriage this poor, contemptible and sinful little prostitute, takes away all her evil and bestows all his goodness upon her! It is no longer possible for sin to overwhelm her, for she is now found in Christ.

Do not think of becoming a Christian as adding religion to your already busy life. That would be inviting one more lover into an already overcrowded bed, and Jesus will not do that. Becoming a Christian is a sinner being proposed to by the living Christ, who promises to give himself completely to you, and he asks you to give yourself completely to him, and you say, “I do.” Then you belong to him, and no other, forever. That is Christianity. It’s a romance, and he’s a faithful lover. How would you like to be united forever to the greatest and, in the end, the only Lover in the universe? All he asks is this. Say a definite “I do” to him!