This week we kicked off a brand-new teaching series called, Married for Good. For the next five weeks we are going to be talking about marriage: what it is, how it works, and how to do it well. If you are married, have been married, might be married someday, or even don’t have it on your radar at all, there is going to be something for you in this series. Let’s start today, though, by clarifying just what exactly it is. Thanks for reading and sharing.
Made for Each Other
Weddings are big business…marriages, not so much. This is because everyone loves the idea of getting married. Well, that’s not completely true. The idea of marriage itself has fallen on somewhat hard times of late, but nonetheless, most everyone enjoys a love story that ends with exchanged, “I dos,” at an altar. And, true to form, people will spend enormous amounts of money on a wedding. I did a bit of digging, and the best estimate I could find held that the U.S. wedding industry is worth about $78 billion this year. As much money as we are willing to spend on getting married, however, most folks are not willing to spend quite as much money on staying married. Once we get across that particular line, we tend to treat it like we have arrived. We’ve crossed the finish line and now we can sit back, relax, and enjoy the fruits of our many labors. Of course, if you are someone who has experienced any part of a marriage journey, you know that this isn’t perhaps quite so true as our culture makes it out to be—as indeed as we would like for it to be. Marriage can be harder than it is often made to seem.
Of course, part of the challenge nowadays is that the whole idea of marriage in our culture is in a state of chaotic transition. Most people today really don’t know what it is any longer beyond a committed relationship based on love and mutual affection. Even the idea that marriage is a relationship between two people is increasingly an open question in the minds of not a few folks. Many people wonder both with their words and their behavior why they should get married in the first place. The rates of folks living together instead of taking on all the baggage of marriage is higher than it has ever been. We watch a lot of Hallmark in our house. If you are also a regular Hallmark viewer, you will have perhaps noticed that fewer and fewer of their movies end with marriages—or at least proposals—relative to what used to be the norm. A decade ago, most of them ended with a ring. Now it’s 20-30% at most.
In spite of all of this, though, most people still get married at some point in their lives. Now, not everyone does. Some people, in fact, are called by God to singleness. That’s a good and honorable path through life that no less than the apostle Paul himself encouraged believers to take with pride if it is indeed their calling. Those folks should be honored and celebrated a great deal more than we usually do. Yet still, that is the path of only a few. Because of that and because of the chaos our culture is facing on the question of marriage, it is something we need to be talking about as a church. So, for the next few weeks, we are going to be.
This morning we are kicking off a brand-new teaching series called, Married for Good. The truth is that marriage is the single most fundamental building block of any society. It always has been. And the reasons for this are easy to see. Societies are built on people. People come from parents. There has never been a child who wasn’t brought into this world without a mother and a father. And the healthiest, most well-adjusted children (that is, the ones who are likely to contribute the most positively to the society) come from a mother and father who are in a committed, loving, long-term relationship with one another. And in case you’re curious where that idea comes from, it’s not me. It’s not even the Scriptures. That’s just modern sociology. Of course there are many exceptions that rule—and on both sides of the question no less—but the very existence of exceptions proves the rule.
There’s more here, though. If you survey the Scriptures on the matter, you’ll find there is a lot to say about marriage. Some of it is explicit. Some of it is more implicit. Some of it we learn by good examples. A whole lot of it we learn from bad examples. As a case in point on this last idea, there is not a single positive example of what marriage should look like in the Scriptures. Generally speaking, if you want to get marriage right, just read the Bible and do the opposite of what every single married person you come across did.
And yet, God invented marriage. He intended it to be a gift for us. He intended it to be a means by which we might come to better understand who He is and the relationship He longs to have with us. Because of all of this and more, we need to do everything we can to make sure we are getting it right. Over the next few weeks leading up to the Thanksgiving holiday, I am not going to tell you everything you need to know in order to get it right. But together, we are going to examine a few key ideas found in the writings of Moses, Paul, and Peter, and which point us toward some really basic things. If we can get these few things down, a whole lot of the rest of the challenges we might face won’t be quite so challenging as they were before.
Let me add one more thing here. Not everybody is married. We already talked about the fact that not everyone is called to it. But some folks who haven’t been called to singleness are nonetheless single. The reasons for this are many. Whether you are single, widowed, divorced, still a student, or still just waiting on God’s timing, though, this series is going to be for you. It may be that marriage is or will be again on your horizon. This series is going to give you some things to think about to get you ready for that day when it finally arrives. It may be that you are in a season when you can be offering some mentoring to younger married couples about how to get it right. Hopefully you will find some wisdom here you can pass on to someone else. And it may be that God is preparing you to be a voice of wisdom for someone who is married. The better you understand marriage—even if you’re not in it right now—the better counsel you can offer. That’s all to say: There’s going to be something in this series for everyone.
If we are going to talk about marriage at all, though, the first thing we are going to have to do is to come to a point of agreement on what exactly marriage is. That’s what we’re going to try to do today. There are lots and lots of ideas on the subject floating about in the world around us, but honestly, none of these are particularly helpful as they are generally not rooted in anything more objective than feelings. Now, feelings themselves aren’t a bad thing. God has feelings. We will too. But in terms of providing a foundation for doing much in the way of critical thinking about a tough subject, they’re not so helpful. If we are going to come to a clearer understanding of what marriage is, we are going to need to turn to a source we can trust to give us the whole truth even if we don’t always like to hear it. I can’t think of anywhere that fits that particular bill better than the Scriptures. And again, the guys who contributed to the Scriptures had a lot to say about marriage. In fact, marriage appears at the very beginning of the story.
If you’ve got a copy of the Scriptures handy, find your way just inside the front cover or right at the top of the story-selector drop-down menu to Genesis 2. Genesis 1, of course, is the first and grandest presentation of the creation story. We will save for another time what exactly we should do with that, but in Genesis 2, we actually find a second creation story. Whereas the first creation story offers us a 30,000-foot view of creation, the second story brings us in much closer to the action. Specifically, we are given a front row seat to the creation of the first man and woman and what their initial introduction to one another was like.
Check this out with me in v. 4: “These are the records of the heavens and the earth, concerning their creation. At the time that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, no shrub of the field had yet grown on the land, and no plant of the field had yet sprouted, for the Lord God had not made it rain on the land, and there was no man to work the ground. But mist would come up from the earth and water all the ground.” Now, contrary to what some critics will claim, this picture of creation isn’t contradictory to anything we find in the first creation story. It’s simply closer to the action and organized differently for literary purposes. More to the point, though, we are seeing here a creation that is not yet complete. Nearly everything was in place, but there was no one to keep and manage it. Verse 7: “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.”
Now, that’s just words on a page, but for just a second try to imagine what this moment was like. Did God take on a physical form to do this? Did dust and mud just start floating through the air like someone nearby was using a bit of telekinesis? This is intimate language here. For literally all the rest of creation to this point, God simply spoke things into existence. But when it came time to make us, He got down on His hands and knees, carefully sculpted us out of the dust of the ground, and then He gave us the kiss of life. Think about doing CPR on someone. You can’t breathe the breath of life into them from a distance. You’ve got to get all personal with them to do it. God has a vested interest in us that He doesn’t have in the rest of creation. Verse 7 here tells us why.
The next few verses of the story give us some specifics about this incredible garden God planted and where it was located. We assume from the description Moses gives us that it was somewhere in the Middle East, but that’s about all we know. Once the garden has been planted and grown and once God has created the man, He puts him in the garden to work and watch over it. “The Lord God took the man and placed him in the garden of Eden to work it and watch over it. And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You are free to eat from any tree of the garden, but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for on the day you eat from it, you will certainly die.’” God set the man to work, gave him some boundaries to work in, and let things unfold naturally for a bit.
In the very next words, though, something new is introduced to creation that had never been there before: a problem. Over the course of the creation story in Genesis 1, as each different part of creation was called into being, again and again and again God declares it all good. In the summary of our creation He says that it is very good. But in v. 18, something changes. “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone.’” Pause there for just a second because this is important. We weren’t made for isolation. That’s part of why the last three years have wrecked so much havoc on our culture. We were created in the image of a relational God and so we need relationships. Yes, marriage is one of those relationships, but it’s not the only one. We need relationships with one another and, ultimately, with the God who created us. But in this case, the man didn’t need just any relationship. Look at the second half of the verse: “I will make a helper corresponding to him.”
Now, this is one of those verses that irks a lot of ladies and not without good reason. Culturally speaking, this verse has often been used to suggest that women are somehow inferior to men. Nothing could be further from the truth. The word “helper” here is the Hebrew word, ezer. This is a word often used of God in the Scriptures who is definitely not our inferior. While “helper” is the best word we have in English, it conveys something different than ezer does. An ezer is someone who provides what you do not have and cannot obtain on your own. An ezer is your complement. He (or, in this case, she) completes you.
But before we get to the introduction of the woman, God first demonstrates just how necessary she is. Verse 19: “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; but for the man no helper was found corresponding to him.” In other words, in spite of his best efforts and a fairly thorough survey of all of creation in existence to that point in the timeline of the universe nothing satisfied the man’s loneliness. Nothing was like him in the way he needed it to be. There was no creature that was an ezer for him. So God made one.
“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.” God does a little anesthesia. He does a little surgery. And then He makes something…someone…new. In a manner just as intimate, but different from His creation of the man, God molds a woman from the man’s rib. Now, there is all sorts of symbolism we could draw out of the mechanics of the creation of these two that we’ll have to leave for another day, but in the end, a new and final creature has been introduced to creation.
And when God introduces her to the man, he is so awed and overwhelmed that he breaks out into poetry. “And the man said: This one, at last, is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh; this one will be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken from man.” In other words, “This one is like me. This is the one who out of all of creation completes me. This woman is my counterpart.”
And because these two were like each other, they stayed together, and one last new thing was created. Moses hints at it in v. 24 and makes it more explicit in v. 25. Writing from the perspective of hindsight during the Exodus, and offering an editorial comment to explain a custom people had been practicing ever since, Moses explains, “This is why a man leaves his father and mother and bonds with his wife, and they become one flesh.” What God separated to create is brought back together and the two are made one once again. Verse 24 is an editorial comment from the perspective of hindsight. Verse 25 brings us back into the immediate context to give us the rest of the story. It’s a bit of an “and they lived happily ever after” (at least until chapter 3 when they make a mess of everything). Moses writes that “both the man and his…” Hold that thought. He uses a new word here to describe the woman. No longer is she simply “the woman.” She is now his “wife.” The two had been joined together in a way that was different from and beyond any other kind of relationship the world had to offer. “Both the man and his wife were naked, yet felt no shame.” And of course they were physically naked because nobody had invented clothing yet, but this is talking about something more than that. There was a unique intimacy to their relationship. This was a soul-level bonding. This is why we talk about couples in love being “soulmates.”
Yet what kind of relationship exactly was this, this unique bonding of two individuals into one flesh together? Well, to get an explicit answer to that, we need to turn to the very end of the Old Testament to look at something the prophet Malachi had to say about marriage. Actually, he was talking about divorce, but he puts it in the context of what marriage should be. In Malachi 2, the prophet is calling the people out for not taking marriage as seriously as God does. He says this in 2:13: “This is another thing you do. You are covering the Lord’s altar with tears, with weeping and groaning, because he no longer respects your offerings or receives them gladly from your hands [hang on to that idea because we’ll come back to it in a few weeks]. And you ask, ‘Why?’ Because even though the Lord has been a witness between you and the wife of your youth, you have acted treacherously against her. She was your marriage partner and your wife by covenant.” (Emphasis mine.)
That word “covenant” there is a rich word in the context of the Old Testament. Our God, we discover, was a covenant making God. A covenant is like a promise, but stronger. Once a covenant is made, it is intended to exist into perpetuity until the point that its terms are completely fulfilled. This makes it different from a contract. A contract is short-term compared with a covenant. In a contract, each party works hard to quickly and accurately remit what they owe each other. In a covenant, on the other hand, the obligation that exists is not to the other party, but to the terms of the covenant. This means, each party is obligated to fulfill the terms regardless of what the other does or doesn’t do. We see this kind of thing over and over in God’s various covenants with Israel. He consistently stuck by the promises He made even when the people treated them like garbage and threw them in the trash. In making the marriage relationship between the man and the woman a covenantal one, our covenant-making God was giving us something to help us better understand the kind of relationship He desires to have with us. In a sense, then, marriage has a missionary purpose.
One of the standard ancient practices involved in making a covenant between two groups was to split a bunch of animals in half, lay the two halves on either side of a path with all the guts and gore hanging out, and for the parties involved in the covenant to walk between them. This communicated something like, “May we be like these animals if we violate the terms of this agreement.” This is why in modern wedding ceremonies the bride’s and groom’s families often sit on opposite sides of a center aisle down which the couple processes during the ceremony. And in calling marriage a covenant here, Malachi wasn’t introducing anything new. He was simply describing it as it had long been understood to be stretching all the way back to Moses. Marriage is a covenantal relationship between a man and a woman. This is what God designed it to be in the beginning and His criticism of the people on the matter after a few thousand years’ of history suggests rather insistently that He still thought of it then in the same terms. Marriage is a covenantal relationship between a man and a woman. We have all sorts of different kinds of relationships in our culture today, but it is only definitionally accurate to call one kind of relationship marriage. Marriage is a covenantal relationship between a man and a woman.
The missionary purpose of marriage that I mentioned just a second ago dare not be lost as we come down to the point of putting words to just what exactly marriage is. As you begin to get into the New Testament documents, especially the later ones that unpack the idea of the church (including the one we’ll spend the next two weeks talking about), guys like Paul and John consistently describe the relationship between Jesus and the church in marriage terms. The church is the “bride of Christ” we’re told. This is intentional because, as I just said, marriage was designed to reflect the kind of relationship God wants with us. The kind of intimacy and transparency the first man is described as having with his wife is exactly the kind of thing God wants to spiritually have with us and us with Him in Christ. If we are going to get marriage described rightly we are going to have to add this element to it. Marriage is a covenantal relationship between a man and a woman with the purpose of pointing people to Jesus. Marriage is a covenantal relationship between a man and a woman designed to point people to Jesus.
If you are married, this is the kind of relationship you are in. If you’re in some other kind of relationship but treating it like it’s marriage, you’re mistaken for one. But until you bring your relationship more in line with this creation-rooted reality, you won’t ever have the relationship you think you do. And, the longer you remain in that state, the less satisfying your relationship will be. If you’re not in a relationship yet, don’t accept anything else as a substitute for the real thing. It will feel fun and exciting at first to play at marriage, but it’s a little like comparing the haul you might get at Trunk or Treat next week with the Homecoming meal we enjoyed last week. The Trunk or Treat haul is sweet, sure, but in the long run, it’s not nearly as satisfying as that incredible feast was. And the only people who might not agree with that assessment are kids who are simply not yet mature enough to understand that the one really is better than the other. If you’re not married and marriage isn’t on the horizon for you, this is still worth understanding because, again, the kind of relationship that is marriage is a reflection of the relationship God wants with you. The better you understand the nature of marriage, the better you will be able to understand the kind of relationship God wants with you. Your relationship with Christ can be just that emotionally and spiritually fulfilling.
All of these things are true, but they’re only going to make a difference for us when we first understand what marriage is. Marriage is a covenantal relationship between a man and a woman designed to point people to Jesus. Come back next week, and we’ll start talking about how we can get it right.
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