Marriage is not a human institution devised in the dim past of human history as a convenient way to sort out social responsibilities. If marriage were a human invention, then different types of marriage could have equal value. Polygamy, the taking of several wives, may serve an agricultural society better than an industrialized society; polyandry, the sharing of a wife by several husbands, may prove to be more efficient and economical in a highly technological society. Monogamy, the lifelong union of one man to one woman, would have no more intrinsic value than any other type of marriage. Some could legitimately argue that monogamy has served its purpose as the ideal norm of society and should now be replaced by serial monogamy, the taking of a succession of husbands and wives. In fact, for many today the latter better satisfies the quest for greater self-fulfillment and gratification.
A Divine Institution. The Bible presents marriage as a divine institution. If marriage were of human origin, then human beings would have a right to decide the kind of marital relationships to choose. Marriage, however, began with God. It was established by God at the beginning of human history when He “created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1). As the Creator of marriage, God has the right to tell us which principles should govern our marital relationships.
If God had left us no instructions about marriage after establishing it, then marriage could be regulated according to personal whims. But He has not left us in the dark. In His revelation contained in the pages of the Bible, God has revealed His will regarding the nature and function of marriage. As Christians who choose to live in accordance with God’s will, we must study and respect those Biblical principles governing marriage, divorce, and remarriage. In some instances, the laws of a state regarding marriage, divorce and remarriage ignore or even violate the teachings of the Bible. In such cases, as Christians, “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
Objectives of Chapter. This chapter seeks to help the reader understand the Biblical view of marriage by examining three specific themes: (1) The creation of woman, (2) The institution of marriage, and (3) Marriage as a sacred covenant. The last part looks into the Old Testament teachings of the prophets and the New Testament teachings of Jesus and Paul regarding marriage. The study will show that Scripture consistently upholds marriage as a sacred and permanent covenant, established and witnessed by God Himself. The study closes urging the reader to recover the Biblical view of marriage as a sacred covenant to counteract the secularization of marriage in our society today.
PART I: THE CREATION OF WOMAN
No newspaper reporter was present to observe the creation of this universe and the celebration of the first marriage. God alone tells us how it all began in the brief account of Genesis 1-2. As the crown and culmination of His creative work, “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Gen 1:27).
This fundamental text reveals three things. First, the first human couple originated not from an evolutionary process, but through divine creation. Second, man, which, as the parallelism indicates, is the generic name inclusive of “male and female,” was fashioned in the image of God. This involves moral, rational and spiritual faculties rather than gender likeness, since God transcends male/female distinctions. It may also include the capacity of a man and a woman to experience a oneness of fellowship similar to the one existing in the Trinity. Third, man was created as a sexual being, consisting of a male and a female counterpart. This means that though men and women are sexually and functionally different, they enjoy equal dignity and importance before God.
The Need for Companionship. In the creation account, God repeatedly recognizes that His creation was good (Gen 1:4,10,12,18,21,25,31). The only thing that God acknowledges to be “not good” is the incomplete creation of man as a single being: “Then God said: ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him’” (Gen 2:20).
At this point creation was still incomplete. With man alone there could be no procreation, and more important yet, no possibility for him to experience the kind of intimate relationship existing within the Godhead. To be human means more than to be male or female. It means to be able to enjoy an intimate rational and spiritual fellowship. To rectify the “not good” situation, God declares, “I will make him a helper fit for him” (Gen 2:18).
A Suitable Helper. God designed woman to be man’s suitable helper, or literally, “a helper agreeing to him.” Eve was created to be Adam’s other half approximating him in every point and making the marriage union a complete whole. She was not created to be man’s slave, but rather his helper. The word “helper” (’ezer) is used in the Bible also for God as the helper of the needy (Ps 33:20; 146:5), thus it does not imply that woman is an inferior being. She is equal in nature and worth, reflecting the same divine image (Gen 1:27). Yet she is different in function, serving as a supportive helper. We shall consider in chapter 4 the importance of respecting the creational role distinctions to ensure harmonious relationships in the home and in the church.
Woman was created to be man’s counterpart, agreeing with him mentally, physically and spiritually, making him a larger person than he would have been alone, bringing into his life a new feminine perspective he would not have known otherwise. The same holds true for man. He brings to his wife a masculine perspective that enlarges her life, making her a more complete person than she could be without him. Thus, a marriage union not only fills the need for companionship, but it enables a man and a woman to become fuller, more complete persons.
The Single Life. God’s evaluation of the single life as “not good” (Gen 2:18) appears to be contradicted by Christ’s statement that “there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it” (Matt 19:11-12). A similar thought is expressed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:7 where in speaking of his single lifestyle he says: “I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own special gift from God, one of one kind and one of another” (1 Cor 7:7).
These two texts (Matt 19:11-12; 1 Cor 7:7) suggest that God has singled out some people to lead lives of celibacy for the sake of His kingdom. How then can God give the gift of celibacy to some while affirming at the same time, “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Gen 2:18)? The resolution to this apparent contradiction is to be found in recognizing that God has made an exception to His own general principle. Because of the social distortions and crises brought about by sin and because of the urgent demand upon the church to advance the cause of His kingdom, God has equipped some persons with the capacity of leading fulfilling single lives.
The exact nature of the gift of celibacy is never fully explained in the Scripture. Presumably it consists in the capacity to find companionship, though of a different kind, outside of marriage, by becoming deeply involved in the mission of the church in ways married persons cannot (see 1 Cor 7:32-34). According to Christ, “He who is able to receive this, let him receive it” (Matt 19:12). Those who have been granted the special gift of single service for Christ’s kingdom, must prepare for it and pursue it. To determine whether a person has the gift of leading a single life for Christ’s kingdom, it is necessary to apply the two tests suggested by Matthew 19:12 and 1 Corinthians 7:8,9: (1) Am I able to contain my sexual urges? and (2) Do I find satisfaction and companionship in the work of God’s kingdom?
Single Christians who have been granted the special gift of single service for Christ’s kingdom ought not to be looked down upon nor neglected by married Christians. Rather, they ought to be honored for their willingness to accept God’s call to make the advancement of His kingdom the primary purpose of their lives. After all, we do not look down on Paul for choosing a single life in order to be able to serve Christ more fully and more freely.
The Provision of Woman. The way God chose to create the first bride is most significant. Unlike the rest of creation and of man himself, God formed Eve not from “the dust of the ground” (Gen 2:7) but from the very man who was to become her husband, by utilizing one of his ribs (Gen 2:21). The significance of the manner of Eve’s creation, though not explicitly expressed, can hardly be missed. Eve was not made out of Adam’s head to rule over him, nor out of his feet to be trampled upon by him, but out of his side to be his equal, under his arm to be protected, and near his heart to be loved.
As Adam beheld with sleepy eyes the most beautiful creature of God’s creation, he declared with ecstatic excitement: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man” (Gen 2:23). Adam’s rejoicing was motivated by the discovery of the person who completed his incompleteness. His hunger for wholeness stemmed from the fact that God made him a male with the need for a female companion. God made Adam incomplete without Eve from the beginning.
The manner in which God created Adam and Eve reveals God’s design that there should be male and female. Each of them needs the other for self-fulfillment. Each of them should accept his or her sexual and functional roles as given by God. This means that efforts to promote sexual or functional role interchangeability between men and women represent a violation of the role distinctions established by God at creation. True completeness and self-realization can be found not by transcending our sexual or functional roles but rather by fulfilling our different and yet complementary roles.
PART II: THE INSTITUTION OF MARRIAGE
After Adam expressed his excitement at the sight of Eve and exercised his authority by naming her, God united them in holy matrimony, saying: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gen 2:24). This foundational statement about marriage is repeated three times in the Bible: First, by Jesus in the context of His teachings on divorce (Matt 19:5; Mark 10:7,8) and then by Paul to illustrate the relationship of Christ to His church (Eph 5:31).
Marriage as a Covenant. The very first description of the nature of marriage in the Bible, as consisting of leaving, cleaving and becoming one flesh (Gen 2:24), reveals the Biblical understanding of marriage as a covenant relationship. This meaning of marriage as a covenant of companionship is expressed more explicitly later in Scripture in such passages as Malachi 2:14: “The Lord was witness to the covenant between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant.”1 Being a sacred covenant, human marriage serves in the Old and New Testaments as the prism through which God reveals His covenant relationship with His people and Christ with His church.
To appreciate the Biblical view of marriage as a sacred covenant, it is helpful to distinguish between a contract and a covenant. Paul E. Palmer offers a helpful clarification of the difference between the two: “Contracts engage the services of people; covenants engage persons. Contracts are made for a stipulated period of time; covenants are forever. Contracts can be broken, with material loss to the contracting parties; covenants cannot be broken, but if violated, they result in personal loss and broken hearts. . . . Contracts are witnessed by people with the state as guarantor; covenants are witnessed by God with God as guarantor.”2 In light of this understanding of a covenant as a permanent commitment, witnessed and guaranteed by God, let us examine the three components of the marriage covenant mentioned in Genesis 2:24: leaving, cleaving, and becoming one flesh.
Leaving. The first step in establishing a marriage covenant is leaving all other relationships, including the closest ones of father and mother: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother” (Gen 2:24). Of course, leaving does not mean the abandonment of one’s parents. The responsibility to “Honor your father and mother” (Ex 20:12) is applied by Jesus to adults (Mark 7:6-13). We do not evade our responsibility toward our parents as they grow old. Jesus scorned the hypocrisy of those who gave to the Temple the money they had set aside for their parents (Mark 7:9-13). As adults, however, we assume responsibility for our parents rather than to them. The Bible never suggests that married couples should sever their ties with their parents, but that they must “let go” of their former lives as sons and daughters in order to cement their relationships as husbands and wives.
What “leaving” means is that all lesser relationships must give way to the newly formed marital relationship. A leaving must occur to cement a covenant relationship of husband and wife. This principle of leaving applies likewise to our covenant relationship with God. It is said of the disciples that “they left everything and followed Him” (Luke 5:11).3
Leaving is not always easy. It is often hard for a baby to leave his mother’s womb. It may look cruel to see a doctor cut the umbilical cord which binds the baby to themother. Yet, it is necessary for the growth and development of the baby. It is also hard for children to leave their parents and for parents to let their children go, for example, to a school away from home. Just as babies cannot grow physically unless they leave their mother’s womb and just as children cannot receive an education unless they leave home to go to school, similarly a marriage cannot mature unless both partners are willing to leave their parents in order to cement a new marital relationship and establish a new family.
Aspects of Leaving. There are men and women who fail to build strong covenant marriages because they are still “tied to their mother’s apron strings,” or they are not willing “to leave” their attachment to their parents, jobs, advanced education, sports, past lives, friends, or even church work, in order to establish strong marital relationships.
Leaving involves not only leaving behind our positions as dependent children, but also ending our financial dependence upon our parents. The couple who never learns to stand financially on its own feet will have difficulty in developing their future plans independently. We must also leave behind our parental authority. Possessive, interfering parents can threaten the best marriages. While parental counsel must always be respected, parents’ efforts to interfere in the private lives of their married children must be firmly resisted.
Leaving also involves learning to abandon some of our parents’ attitudes and influences. This is not always easy since we are largely the product of our upbringing. The process of adjustment to a new marital relationship requires that we learn to distinguish between what is fundamental and what is incidental to our past upbringing, being willing to leave behind the latter for the health and growth of our marriages.
Perhaps the most difficult things to leave behind are the inner wounds and hurts of our childhoods. We come to our marriages with the good and bad emotional experiences of the first two decades of our lives. Through the healing power of the Holy Spirit, we can be delivered from the past wounds that can infect our marital relationships. The love of Jesus and the encouragement of our spouse can set us free from our pasts and enable us to be the understanding partners God wants us to be. So the first principle we derive from the divine institution of marriage recorded in Genesis 2:24 is as follows: To establish a thrilling “one flesh” marriage covenant, we must be willing to leave all lesser relationships.
Cleaving. The second essential component of a marriage covenant is cleaving: “Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife” (Gen 2:24). A leaving must occur before a cleaving can take place. This process reveals divine wisdom. A man and a woman must leave all lesser relationships for the purpose of cleaving, that is, cementing their new relationship and establishing a new home.
“Cleaving” reflects the central concept of covenant-fidelity. The Hebrew word for “cleave” dabaq, suggests the idea of being permanently glued or joined together. It is one of the words frequently used to express the covenant commitment of the people to God: “You shall fear the Lord your God; you shall serve him and cleave to Him” (Deut 10:20; cf. 11:22; 13:4; 30:20). The word is used to describe Ruth’s refusal to leave her mother-in-law Naomi: “Ruth clave unto her” (Ruth 1:14 AV).
In the sight of God, cleaving means wholehearted commitment which spills over to every area of our being. It means to be permanently glued together rather than temporarily taped together. You can separate two pieces of wood taped together, but you cannot separate without great damage two pieces of wood glued together. In fact, two pieces of wood glued together become not only inseparable, but also much stronger than if they were taped together.
Cleaving involves unswerving loyalty to one’s marital partner. Note that man is to cleave to “his wife.” This excludes marital unfaithfulness. A man cannot be glued to his wife and flirt or engage in sexual intercourse with another woman. The two are mutually exclusive.
In a marriage covenant, cleaving does not allow the “freedom to leave” when the relationship is no longer satisfying. If the “freedom to leave” is retained as a real option, it will hinder the total effort to develop a marital relationship characterized by covenant faithfulness. As marriage counselor Ed Wheat observes, “Keeping divorce as an escape clause indicates a flaw in your commitment to each other, even as a tiny crack that can be fatally widened by the many forces working to destroy homes and families.”4
Accepting the Biblical standard of cleaving means asking ourselves when contemplating marriage: Am I prepared to make a lifetime commitment to my prospective spouse, for better or for worse till death do us part? Once married, cleaving means to ask ourselves: Will this action, word, decision, or attitude draw us closer together or further apart? Will it build up or tear down our relationship? For a Christian committed to living by the principles of God’s word, any course of action which weakens the cleaving must be regarded as contrary to God’s design for a marriage covenant.
Many today scorn the idea of developing a close dependent relationship between husband and wife. They claim that it restricts their freedom and stifles their personal growth. What they advocate can be characterized as a “married singles” lifestyle where both partners continue to follow their independent lives while sharing the same roof and bed. It is not surprising that such marriages often fail, since there is no willingness to leave selfish considerations in order to cleave to each other “for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health.”
Summing up, we can state the second principle derived from the divine institution of marriage recorded in Genesis 2:24 as follows: To maintain a thrilling “one flesh” marriage covenant we must be willing to cleave to our marital partners, avoiding any thought, word, or action that could weaken our loyalty and commitment to them.
Becoming One Flesh. The third essential ingredient of a marriage covenant is that “they become one flesh” (Gen 2:24). Note the progression: leaving, cleaving, becoming one flesh. As husband and wife leave lesser relationships and learn to cleave to one another, they become a new entity, “one flesh.”
The phrase “one flesh” needs some explanation because it is frequently misunderstood to refer primarily to the sexual union. The phrase is closely parallel to our English compound word everybody. When we speak of everybody we do not think of bodies only. Rather, we mean every person. Or when God speaks of destroying all flesh (Gen 6:17; 7:21), obviously He does not mean all the flesh without the bones, but every person. Similarly, to become “one flesh” (Gen 2:24) means to become one functioning unit. H. C. Leupold explains that becoming one flesh “involves the complete identification of one personality with the other in a community of interests and pursuits, a union consummated in intercourse.”5
No theologian or scientist has ever yet explained how two people are able to so interpenetrate one another’s lives that they become “one flesh,” that is, one functioning unit. Yet we know that it happens! Couples who have been married for many years start to think, act, and feel as one; they become one in mind, heart and spirit. This is why divorce is so devastating. It leaves not two persons, but two fractions of one.
The phrase “one flesh” does also refer to the physical or sexual aspect of marriage. Paul explicitly uses the phrase in this way when speaking of sexual intercourse between a man and a harlot (1 Cor 6:16). Sexual intercourse per se, however, does not automatically assure that a man and a woman become one in a mystical, emotional, and spiritual unity. Genital intercourse without spiritual communion often leaves people divided, alienated, and bitter toward each other. Thus, sexual intercourse itself does not bring about real oneness.
To achieve the Biblical “one flesh” union, sexual intercourse in marriage must be the natural fruit of love, the crowning act of marital union. If sex is not the expression of genuine love, respect, and commitment, then it offers only a physical contact while keeping the partners mentally and spiritually apart. Sexual desire must become the desire for the total union and oneness of body, soul, and spirit between marital partners.
Gradual Process. A man and a woman who come together in marriage do not automatically become “one flesh” when they exchange their marriage vows. Their personalities are still free, independent and desiring assertive of their respective wills. But as they live together as husband and wife, they realize that they must safeguard their individuality while striving to become one. They must not allow their differences to divide them but must learn to accept their differences, viewing them not as antagonistic but as complementary. They can still be themselves and yet come into unity. The husband learns to accept his wife as she is because he needs to be accepted as he is. Their differences contribute to achieving their oneness because they are accepted as being complementary and not contradictory.
The becoming of “one flesh” is beautifully exemplified in the children of a married couple. In their children, husband and wife are indissolubly united into one person. Our three children, Loretta, Daniel and Gianluca, possess both my features and those of my wife. There is no way I could retrieve my features from any of my children nor could my wife retrieve hers. They are my flesh and my wife’s. Something marvellous and permanent happened when they were born: they became the sum total of what we both are. What happens biologically in children occurs psychologically in a husband/wife relationship as the two gradually become “one flesh,” a new functioning unity. This is why extra-marital sexual relationships are not only immoral but also destructive to the one-flesh relationship.
Continuity. Becoming “one flesh” also implies continuity. We cannot become one flesh with a succession of husbands and wives. This is why the modern practice of serial monogamy must be rejected as immoral: it defeats the Biblical purpose of marriage which is to develop a permanent “one flesh” relationship. The “one flesh” principle excludes polygamy and extra-marital relationships of all kinds, because no man can become “one flesh” with more than one woman. The Old Testament persons who violated the “one flesh” principle by taking more than one wife paid the price for their transgressions. Problems of all kinds developed in their families as their wives became jealous or felt exploited, degraded, or hated.
Summing up, the third principle we derive from the divine institution of marriage recorded in Genesis 2:24 is as follows: To become a “one flesh” functioning unit, husband and wife must learn to accept their differences as complementing their oneness and must reserve their sexual expressions exclusively for each other.
PART III: MARRIAGE: A SACRED COVENANT
The preceding study of the divine institution of marriage has shown that God intended marriage to be a sacred and permanent covenant. To appreciate more fully the Biblical view of marriage as a sacred and permanent covenant, we shall now consider briefly the teachings of the prophets, of Jesus and of Paul.
The Covenant Concept. The concept of the covenant stands out in Scripture among all the signs and symbols used by God to reveal His saving grace. In His mercy, God chose to enter into a solemn covenant of love, not only with individuals such as Abraham, but also with the whole household of Israel. They did not deserve His love which He freely manifested toward them. God’s covenant of love, though not always reciprocated, is everlasting, extending from generation to generation: “The Lord your God is God; He is the faithful God, keeping His covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love Him and keep His commands” (Deut 7:7-9 NIV).
To help His people understand and accept the unrelenting nature of His covenant of love, in the Old Testament God often used the metaphor of the husband/wife relationship. The obvious reason is that the marriage covenant, characterized by love, compassion, and faithfulness, fittingly exemplifies God’s covenant relationship with His people. A few examples will serve to illustrate this point.
Hosea’s Marriage. In the final days of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, when they were threatened with extinction by the expansionist policies of the neighboring nations, God appealed to His wayward people through a succession of prophets. Among these was Hosea, who was told by God to marry a prostitute, Gomer, and raise a family by her. Through this experience, Hosea was to act out God’s unrelenting covenant of love to His people. When Gomer went after her lovers, Hosea was sent to take her back and love her again.
Through Hosea’s marital experiences, God revealed Himself to Israel as a compassionate, forgiving husband: “In that day, says the Lord, you will call me, ‘my husband,’ . . . And I will betroth you to come to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness; and you shall know the Lord” (Hos 2:16, 19-20). By revealing Himself as a faithful, compassionate and unrelenting husband, God sets a pattern for the husband/wife relationship. What God does on a larger scale as Israel’s husband, a human husband is called to do on a smaller scale in his relationship with his wife.
Later Prophets. The imagery of the marriage covenant is used by later prophets to remind the people of their covenant relationship with God. For example, Jeremiah reminded the people that God had entered into a covenant with them and had become their husband: “my covenant . . . they broke, though I was their husband” (Jer 31:32). Even though they had broken the covenant, God remained a faithful husband who would make a new covenant with His people, working to transform their hearts (Jer 33:33). The implication is clear. Marriage is a sacred covenant in which the husband and wife must be faithful to their commitment as God is faithful to his promise.
Jeremiah’s message was ignored. Eventually Judah was captured by the Babylonians and all her leading citizens were taken into exile. There in exile, Ezekiel graphically portrays God’s unfailing love as that of a husband wooing and winning back an unfaithful wife: “When I looked upon you, behold, you were at the age for love; and I spread my skirt over you, and covered your nakedness; yea, I plighted my troth to you and entered into a covenant with you, says the Lord God, and you became mine. . . . But you trusted in your beauty, and played the harlot . . . Wherefore . . . I will judge you as women who break wedlock . . . I will deal with you as you have done, who have despised the oath in breaking the covenant, yet I will remember my covenant with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish with you an everlasting covenant” (Ez 16:8, 15, 38, 59).
On a similar vein Isaiah describes the final restoration of Israel in terms of a loving husband forgiving and restoring his unfaithful wife: “Your Maker is your husband . . . For the Lord has called you like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit, like a wife of youth when she is cast off, says your God. For a brief moment I forsook you, but with great compassion I will gather you. . . with everlasting love I will have compassion on you, says the Lord, your Redeemer” (Is 54:5-8).
The above examples suffice to show how the Old Testament prophets often describe God’s covenant relationship with His people in terms of an ever-loving, faithful husband who never tires of wooing back an unfaithful wife. This example of God as a faithful and loving husband reveals what God intends marriage to be: a sacred covenant where love and faithfulness prevail.
Malachi’s Teaching. Malachi, one of the last Old Testament prophets, fittingly sums up the Old Testament view regarding the sacred and inviolable nature of the marriage covenant. In his time, the Jews were languishing in a ruined Jerusalem and lamenting that God no longer accepted their offerings. Malachi responded by pointing out that the cause of their suffering was to found in their unfaithfulness to God manifested especially through their unfaithfulness to their wives: “You cover the Lord’s altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because He no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor at your hand. You ask, ‘Why does he not?’ Because the Lord was witness to the covenant between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant” (Mal 2:13-14).
Here the Scripture tells us explicitly that marriage is a covenant to which God is a witness.6 Since God does not break covenants (Lev. 26:40-45), the marriage covenant is all the more binding. This means that what we do to our marital partner we do also to the Lord. Christian commitment and marital commitment are two sides of the same covenant. For this reason, Malachi admonishes the people, saying: “So take heed to yourselves, and let none be faithless to the wife of his youth. ‘For I hate divorce, says the Lord God of Israel, and covering one’s garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts’” (Mal 2:15-16).
Note that God hates divorce, not the divorcée. As Christians we should reflect Christ’s attitude of loving concern toward those who have suffered marital disaster (John 4:6-26) while at the same time upholding the Biblical imperative of the sacred and inviolable nature of the marriage covenant.
Malachi admonishes the people that in the best interest of their families and communities they should not violate their marriage covenant by divorcing their wives. The reason is that divorce violates not only God’s original plan for marriage but also the marriage covenant to which the Lord is a witness. Divorce betrays life’s most intimate companion and as such is a grievous sin which God hates.
Christ’s Teaching. Malachi’s teaching on the sacred nature of the marriage covenant was reiterated and expanded four centuries later by Christ Himself. In response to the Pharisees’ question regarding the concession of Moses regarding divorce, Christ pointed back to the institution of marriage, saying: “For your hardness of heart he [Moses] wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder” (Mark 10:5-9).
In this memorable statement Christ appeals to the divine institution of marriage (Gen 2:24) to point out that marriage is the strongest human bond that transforms two people into “one flesh.” Moreover, Jesus affirms that God Himself is the one who actually joins a couple in marriage. This means that when Christian couples exchange their marital vows in the presence of witnesses, they are in actual fact uttering their vows of mutual commitment to God Himself. At the deepest level, marriage is a covenant between a couple and God, because God is not only the witness but also the author of the marriage covenant.
A man and a woman marry by their own choice; but when they do, God joins them together into one permanent union. Because marriage is God’s indissoluble union of the couple, no human court or individual as the right to put it asunder. It is evident that for Jesus marriage is not a mere civil contract, but a divinely ordained union which God alone has power to establish and terminate. The full force of this truth was explained by Christ privately to His disciples in these terms: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mark 10:11-12).
By this statement, Jesus declares unambiguously that the marriage covenant must not be violated by divorce and remarriage because it is a sacred inviolable bond. To do otherwise is to “commit adultery,” a sin clearly condemned by God’s moral law (Ex 20:14; Deut. 5:18). With a few simple words Jesus refutes the view that divorce is a viable option for a married couple. The covenant structure of marriage makes divorce an act of covenant breaking, a failure to keep a moral obligation.
Paul’s Teaching. Following the teaching of Jesus, Paul affirms in different words that marriage is a lifelong and indissoluble covenant. In Romans 7:1-3, Paul sets forth the principle that death ends the dominion of the law and then illustrates the principle through the marriage relationship. The point of the illustration is that death and death alone releases a person from the bond of marriage: “A married woman is bound by law to her husband as long as he lives; but if her husband dies she is discharged from the law concerning the husband. Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies she is free from the law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress” (Rom 7:2-3).
Paul’s illustration sheds light on his view of marriage as a lifelong covenant which can be terminated only by death. The same teaching is presented by Paul again in 1 Corinthians 7:39 where he declares: “A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives.”
The covenantal nature of the marriage relationship is expressed by Paul again in Ephesians 5:31-32 where he uses the marriage union to illustrate the covenant relationship between Christ and His bride, the church: “‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one.’ This is a great mystery, and I take it to mean Christ and the church.”
Just as the prophets in the Old Testament used the marriage covenant to portray the relationship between God and Israel, so Paul in the New Testament uses the marriage union to represent Christ’s covenant of sacrificial love and oneness with the church. Just as marriage unites two people when they commit their lives to each other, so the Gospel joins the believer to Christ as he trusts Him for his salvation. Since the marriage covenant represents the permanent relationship between Christ and His church, it must be permanent; otherwise it would be an inaccurate representation of the indissoluble relationship between Christ and His church.
The use of marriage in the Old and New Testaments to reveal God’s covenant relationship with His people serves also to demonstrate what marriage today should be like. We may call this “reciprocal illumination.” By revealing through human marriage His covenant of salvation, God has simultaneously revealed to us the unique meaning of marriage as a sacred and permanent covenant.
Our study of the divine institution of marriage and of the teachings of the prophets, Jesus and Paul, regarding marriage, has shown us how the Scripture consistently upholds marriage as a sacred and permanent covenant, witnessed and protected by God. We have found that as a sacred covenant, marriage was effectively used in the Old Testament to portray God’s relationship with Israel and in the New Testament to represent Christ’s relationship with His church. If God used marriage as a metaphor to represent His commitment to His people, He must surely have thought of it as a sacred, permanent covenant.
The recovery of the Biblical view of marriage as a sacred and permanent covenant, witnessed and guaranteed by God Himself, is indispensable in counteracting the secularization of marriage. This trend has influenced many Christians to view marriage as a temporary social contract governed by civil laws, rather than as a permanent covenant, witnessed and guaranteed by God Himself. To counteract this trend, it is essential for Christians to recover and accept the Biblical view of marriage as a sacred covenant. The conviction that it is God Who has united our lives in holy matrimony and Who will help us to stay together will motivate us to persevere in preserving the unity of the marriage covenant.
NOTES TO CHAPTER I
1. Emphasis supplied. See also Proverbs 2:17; Ezekiel 16:8.
2. Paul E. Palmer, “Christian Marriage: Contract or Covenant?” Theological Studies vol. 33, no. 4 (December 1972): 639.
3. Emphasis supplied.
4. Ed Wheat, Love for Every Married Couple (Grand Rapids, 1980), p. 38.
5. H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis 2 vols. (Grand Rapids, 1942), vol. 1, p. 137.
6. See also Proverbs 2:17.
By Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D., Andrews University.