What Is Marriage?

This week we kicked off a brand-new series called, I Do. For the next few weeks we are going to tackle the topic of marriage. What is it? What should we think about it? How can we practice it well? If we are going to talk about it intelligibly, though, we first have to know where it is. That’s where we start in this message. Keep reading to the end to learn what a solid, Biblical definition of marriage is. Then, come back next week as we unpack what it is for. Thanks for reading.

What Is Marriage?

I figured he could probably say it better than I could. Believe it or not, I’ve done a wedding in which I was asked to start with those lines in character. In any event, we are talking this morning and for the next few weeks about mawwage…er…marriage. In fact, we are kicking off a brand-new series this morning called, “I Do.”

This is a conversation I want to have with you for three reasons. First, while a lot of folks say, “I do,” not as many folks know what to do next. Many folks find themselves asking an important question: “I’ve said, ‘I do…’ so now what do I do?” Over the next several weeks—five weeks of the series punctuated by Baptist Men’s Sunday, Women’s Missionary Union Sunday, and Youth Sunday—we are going to try and answer that question. 

Second, marriage is hard, and we who’ve gotten ourselves into it need help from time-to-time. Indeed, one of the more important jobs of the church is to provide that help; to strengthen families. The family is the special, God-created institution in which the faith is most effectively passed on to the next generation. Weak and failing families result in that passing happening poorly at best. As a result, if we want a strong, Gospel presence in our culture in the next generation, if we want this church to have a strong, Gospel presence in this community in the next generation, strengthening marriages and families is one of the best ways that’s going to happen.

Third, we live in a culture that doesn’t know what to do with marriage. Supreme Court decisions of the not-so-distant past have helped create a climate of confusion around the topic. More than simply not knowing what to do with marriage, we don’t really even know what it is anymore. We have a sense that it matters, but exactly how and why we can’t say. Divorce rates are falling, which is a good thing, but the biggest reason for that is that not as many people are getting married in the first place anymore which is not a good thing. Marriage is a societal stabilizer unlike just about anything else and in many more ways than we might suspect. Bottom line: marriage matters, and if we are going to engage well with the culture around us on the issue of marriage, then we need to be relentlessly clear regarding what we think about it, why we think that, and why that’s the best way to think about it in the first place.

Let me offer one more comment here. Even if you aren’t married, this will still be a good series for you to catch. For starters, it may be that you will yet be married someday, and this will be important information to have when you get there. Second, even if that doesn’t fall in the plans God has for you, still, knowing how to think rightly about marriage is important because of the role it plays in our culture. It is important because you no doubt have friends who are married, and this will equip you to minister more effectively to them. You may have family members who are not yet married and this series will prepare you to give them some of the wisdom they will need in order to get them as prepared as they can for the journey that lies ahead of them. You may have opportunities to advocate for what is the right understanding of marriage, which, if fully recognized and adopted, will be to the benefit of everybody. Finally, the ultimate way to have a chance at doing marriage well is to submit ourselves wholly to Christ. And, since that is also the way to have a chance at doing pretty much anything well, the big ideas and themes of the next few weeks will be applicable to more of life than just marriage.

With all of this in mind, for five of the next eight weeks we are going to see just how many of these tensions we can resolve together. We’re going to spend the rest of this morning and the week after next (you have the great opportunity to hear Nate preach next Sunday and so you won’t want to miss that) talking about what exactly marriage is and what marriage is for. From there we’ll shift gears a bit to talking about how to do it well. 

So then, what exactly is marriage? When you get down to the brass tacks, what is its essence? What’s more: Why does knowing this matter? Does it matter? Well, for most of the last 2,000 years, followers of Jesus have believed that marriage is an ancient institution rooted in the creation of the world itself. They—we—have believed that marriage was not simply something made up by humans for the sake of convenience, but was in fact instituted by God in the process of making the world and everything in it. But lest you think this is only a Christian thing, most other human cultures and religious traditions have believed something at least similar to this.

In the ancient mythologies of the Greeks and the Romans, marriage was something practiced by the gods before people were created. Now, the gods weren’t very good at it, but the point is that marriage was around before people were. If we are going to get our minds around what marriage is, then, it would seem that the best place to start would be to go back to the beginning and look there. And so, if you will grab a nearby copy of the Scriptures and find your way to Genesis 1, we’ll do just that.

The first chapter of Genesis lays the groundwork for everything that follows in the Scriptures. From the words and images used here we can learn a great deal about the nature of the God we serve as well as some of His purposes in creation. We can see from the very beginning that God was here before creation was. This means that He doesn’t depend on creation. Creation depends on Him. That’s important. If He depended on creation, He wouldn’t be worthy of our worship.

We also see a glimpse of His power: Light lies at the heart of what makes life work in this world. God created light with a word. We marvel at the stars at night in all their splendor. Such awe comes entirely naturally. Recently I’ve been outside at night with both Noah and Josiah. Totally independently of one another they’ve looked up at the stars and reacted audibly to the splendor of what they could see. As marvelous as they are, though, God created them as almost an afterthought. Look at Genesis 1:16: “And God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule over the day and the lesser light to rule over the night—as well as the stars.” It’s almost like after creating the sun and the moon that God said, “You know what? Let’s add a little extra beauty here. Umm…Oh! I’ve got it: Stars!” And if outer space is too far away for you, look closer to home. All the millions of varieties of plants and animals in the world? God spoke them into existence with a word as well.

Genesis 1 reveals to us some of God’s character. Over and over again we hear His commitment to making a good world. He made light and said, “It is good.” He made the earth and the sky and called them good. He created dry land and the seas, and they were good. He made the flora and fauna of the earth good. On and on this goes. Only a God who is essentially good Himself could superintend the creation of such a good world.

We see in the creation story God’s commitment to beauty and variety. Just think about all the things we often call the “natural wonders” of this world. God created them. All of them. A more proper name would perhaps be to call them “supernatural wonders.”

Well, as God was creating the world and everything in it, He put bits of Himself in all of His work almost like an artist signing his paintings. As King David would later put it: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the expanse proclaims the work of his hands.” The apostle Paul would later put it like this: “For his invisible attributes, that is, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen since the creation of the world, being understood through what he has made.” If you take much time to study it and use the proper lens, you can see the evidences of God’s special creation of the world everywhere you look. But, just as an artist will sometimes go above and beyond in one particular work such that it becomes so iconic for her that in looking at it you can almost see into her soul, near the end of day six, God goes one step further and creates just such a piece of art; He creates His magnum opus.

From Genesis 1:26: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness. They will rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the livestock, the whole earth, and the creatures that crawl on the earth.’ So God created man in his own image; he created him in the image of God; he created them male and female.” God didn’t just put a simple reflection of Himself in this final part of creation. He inscribed in it—in us—His very image.

Now, this whole notion of our being created in the image of God is a rich and deep truth that we will have to explore in more detail another time. For now, one of the key aspects of this image bearing comes out a bit more clearly in the next part of the creation story. You see, God does not exist as a unity, but as a trinity. Now, the doctrine of the trinity can be a little fuzzy and hard to understand, but stay with me here. God exists as Father, Son, and Spirit. Three persons which are distinct from each other while at the same time sharing of the same essence. The trinity is not simply a convenient way of talking about the different experiences people have with God, but rather a true description of who God is.

In any event, because God is a trinity of Father, Son, and Spirit, He is an essentially relational being. He exists in a perfect, loving relationship with Himself. The Son and the Spirit love the Father, the Father and Son love the Spirit, and the Father and Spirit love the Son. In creating beings which bear His image, while He did not make us similarly triune in nature, He did make us similarly relational in nature. That is, He created us for relationships. Most notably, a relationship with Himself. And while there are several different relational contexts in which this can happen, God created one to stand out a bit from the others and did so by designing it into creation from the start. Turn the page or thumb your way over to Genesis 2 and we’ll see how this unfolds together.

The creation story in Genesis 2 is very much more intimate than the first. In the first part of the story we see God creating things from a distance. He speaks and it happens. Things feel very impersonal there. In this second part of the story, though, we see God getting down to our level. He forms the man Adam intentionally out of the dust with His own hands and breathes life into His lungs personally. Check this out: “Then the Lord God formed the man out of the dust from the ground and breathed the breath of life into his nostrils, and the man became a living being.”

Yet because the man—which in Hebrew is pronounced a’dam, thus the name we give to him—was created to be a relational creature, while things in these earliest days are good, they are not yet complete. They are not yet very good. God Himself was the one to raise this point. Look at v. 18: “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone.’” Again, we were designed for relationships with other people. This was, incidentally, the first and only thing that wasn’t good in all of creation. God’s solution? Keep reading: “I will make a helper corresponding to him.”

Now, let me offer a quick word on the idea of this person being a “helper” for Adam. That word is by far the most common and traditional English translation of the relevant Hebrew word ezer. There’s just one problem: The English word” helper “carries a range of possible meanings and cultural assumptions with it such that it just isn’t the best word available to capture the full meaning of ezer. A fairly new translation available online called The Net Bible uses the word “companion” instead of “helper.” But more importantly, the scholars contributing to the translation include this note on the word: “Usage of the Hebrew term does not suggest a subordinate role, a connotation which English “helper” can have. In the Bible God is frequently described as the ‘helper,’ the one who does for us what we cannot do for ourselves, the one who meets our needs. In this context the word seems to express the idea of an ‘indispensable companion.’ The woman would supply what the man was lacking in the design of creation and logically it would follow that the man would supply what she was lacking, although that is not stated here.” What’s more, their note on the phrase “fit for him” is pretty helpful as well: “The Hebrew expression…literally means ‘according to the opposite of him.’ The man’s form and nature are matched by the woman’s as she reflects him and complements him. Together they correspond.”

Well, finding a helper for Adam is a good plan that God quickly sets into motion. Adam experiences a virtual parade of potential matches. It was the very first speed dating session. The text describes it like this: “The Lord God formed out of the ground every wild animal and every bird of the sky, and brought each to the man to see what he would call it. And whatever the man called a living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all the livestock, to the birds of the sky, and to every wild animal…” These creatures were all formed out of the ground just like Adam had been. They were creatures which were in this sense like him. And yet, “…for the man no helper was found corresponding to him.” The lesson here: As an image bearer of God, no creature without that image could be an “indispensable companion” for you. That is, not even a dog is man’s best friend no matter how much we might love them. (Cats don’t even like us, so I’m not worried about that comparison.)

In any event, because there was no creature in the world that made a suitable ezer for Adam, God did something radical: He made one. In making this final creature, He brought creation to its perfect completion (ladies, feel free to take from that what you will). Verse 21: “So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to come over the man, and he slept. God took one of his ribs and closed the flesh at that place. Then the Lord God made the rib he had taken from the man into a woman and brought her to the man.” Now, at long last, Adam has another creature that is like him in bearing the image of God (although the text doesn’t talk about her bearing the image of God here, we know she does from Genesis 1:28). God sets this new creature before Adam and how do you think he responds? With awe and wonder. “This one, at last, is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh [in other words, she’s like me]; this one will be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken from man.” Adam’s response is this poetic refrain to make a simple point: “God, she’s amazing!” Gentlemen, can I get an, “Amen”?

But, if all of this so far has given us a helpful context of what God was doing in designing and creating us a certain way, what comes next is absolutely critical for our conversation. Look at v. 24 now: “That is why…” Stop there a minute. That phrase could also be rendered, “therefore.” Remember one of our basic principles of good biblical interpretation? When you see the word “therefore” in the text, what are you supposed to do? You go back and see what it’s there for. Well, what’s this particular “therefore” there for? It is explaining the result of this unique match, this bonding that has happened between the man and the woman. And, it is doing it from the position of one looking back at the creation story and explaining why something which exists at the time this was being written is the way it is. You see, because they were created so perfectly and uniquely for each other, because they alone in all the world completed each other as nothing else did… “that is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to…” who? His wife.

Now, the phrase there, “is united to,” may sound like it’s simply saying that a husband and wife should be committed to one another over and against anyone and everyone else. And that’s true, but there’s more to it. This is covenantal language. We can see an example of this kind of language in the book of Deuteronomy which takes the form of an ancient covenantal document. Deuteronomy is the text of the covenant God made with the people of Israel. When God through Moses commanded the people of Israel to be committed to Him and no one else in Deuteronomy 10:20, He said: “Fear the Lord your God and serve him. Hold fast to him and take your oaths in his name.” That phrase “hold fast” here is the same Hebrew word as in Genesis 2:24. Just like God was making a covenant with the people of Israel, the relationship between the man and woman in marriage is a covenant.

Even as I say that, though, we live in a culture that doesn’t really understand what a covenant is. We don’t use that word very often anymore today. A covenant is kind of like a contract, but stronger and more permanent. Perhaps the most notable difference is that contracts have end points while covenants do not. Entering into a covenant in the ancient world was serious business. One of the common covenantal rituals was to take several animals, cut them in half, lay each part, guts and all, on either side of a path, and then walk between them (this, by the way, is where we get our wedding tradition of having family members sit on opposite sides of a center aisle and having the couple walk out between them after the ceremony has ended). The meaning was essentially this: May what has happened to these animals happen to us should we break this agreement—or, in other words, leaving a covenant has painful consequences. In Deuteronomy God made this clear in the form of the promise of various curses if the Israelites left behind the covenant they were making with Him (curses they experienced to their fullest when they rebelled against Him).

Well, another thing about a covenant that makes it different from a contract is that the ability of each party to hold to the promises being made has no bearing on whether or not the other party honors the promises it has made. In a contract, if you fail to hold up your end of the deal, the contract is rendered void. In a covenant, though, each party says, “I’m going to keep these promises no matter what you do. You may leave the boundaries of the covenant and thus remove yourself from the benefit of my actions toward you which will be painful for both of us, but my commitment won’t change.”

This is what marriage was designed to look like from the beginning. Now, is this what it always looks like? You know as well as I do the answer to that question is a resounding no. Some of you have experienced that. Some of you are perhaps experiencing that right now. The fact is, we live in a sin-broken world and sometimes covenants get broken. Israel broke their covenant with God over and over again. Moses, Paul, and Jesus all acknowledge this can and does happen in the marriage covenant. Sometimes restoration is possible and that should always be our first goal, only rejected after a herculean effort has been made to see it happen. Sometimes, though, it’s not. This is never God’s plan, but it doesn’t change His love for us, nor does it affect His ability to work good in and through our lives as we submit ourselves to Him. It also doesn’t change what marriage is. And what is marriage? I think we have enough information to suggest a fairly clear definition: Marriage is a covenantal relationship between a man and a woman established by God in creation. Marriage is a covenantal relationship between a man and a woman established by God in creation.

Okay, but why does it matter whether or not we get this right? Well, for starters, when it comes to something as important as marriage which has been the fundamental social unit of all stable societies going back to the earliest days of humanity, wouldn’t you just want to get it right? But more than that, when this relationship was established between the first man and woman, something incredible happened. The text says in 2:24 that they became one flesh. Something new and beautiful was added to creation which did not exist before this relationship was established. And ever since, whenever a marriage happens, a new family is created. We are continuing God’s program of creation. We are being obedient to His command to be fruitful and multiply and I don’t just mean by having kids since that’s not something every couple experiences (although they should certainly strive for that in abundance unless God keeps them from it for some reason). We are creating families where there were none before and, again, families are the primary vehicle God designed for the passing on of the faith. There is also the joy that comes from getting marriage right. The text says that the first man and wife were “naked and were not ashamed.” They were of course physically naked since clothes hadn’t been invented yet, but it was more than that. There was no wall of separation between them. They were totally transparent before each other and not ashamed of what they found. Have you experienced that in your marriage?

If we don’t think about marriage rightly, none of these things will be a likely outcome for our lives. If we don’t think covenantally, but instead think contractually, we will always be looking to guard our own interests rather than giving ourselves fully to the interests of our partner. No intimacy can flourish in such an environment as that. If we think that gender does not matter, we will allow for situations in which the unique complementarity that only exists between a man and a woman cannot happen. Who does that benefit?

When we think about marriage rightly and understand properly what it is, we will also be able to stand and face a culture which is mired in confusion about marriage from a position of confidence and strength. This will not be to try and force our view in any way, but to stand and offer our lives and our marriages as an example of what this incredible relationship looks like when it is pursued properly. It will give us a foundation to stand on when we are attacked for holding to a view that no longer carries the blessing of cultural approval (and just so we’re clear: this particular definition doesn’t). It will allow us to have important conversations without feeling threatened or unsure of ourselves which always makes for a more levelheaded, more compassionate listener. In short: What we believe about marriage matters. It matters in our own lives. It matters in the lives of our kids. It matters in the life of our church. It matters in the life of our community. It matters in the life of our culture. It matters. What we believe about marriage matters. And if you’ll come back in two weeks (although be sure you don’t miss Nate next week), we’ll talk about what marriage is for, because that is just as important.  

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