Digging in Deeper: Hebrews 13:4

“Marriage is to be honored by all and the marriage bed kept undefiled, because God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterers.” (CSB – Read the chapter)

Next up in our closing lightning round: Marriage. Honestly, this sort of seems like it comes out of left field. There hasn’t been a word about marriage in the rest of the letter. That’s also the case for several of the other commands in this list, but it’s a bit easier to see how they fit within the theme of the rest of the letter. This one stands out. Let’s spend a few minutes this morning reflecting on why this is here and what it looks like to honor marriage.

The real key for understanding why the author includes this command is to remember that everything in this entire letter is about showing why the new covenant is better than the old covenant. In this final lightning round of commands, his focus is on calling his audience to live new covenant lives. Yesterday, as we pondered a bit about the opening command to let brotherly love continue, we came to the conclusion that our loving one another is the primary indicator that we are part of the new covenant in Christ. This next one is a little trickier as marriage isn’t something everyone is called to experience. Most people are, yes, but not everyone. That means this can’t be something that is totally normative like loving one another is. So, what’s the connection here?

I think the connection is found in understanding the nature of marriage itself. I happen to be in the middle of a teaching series on marriage with my congregation here. In the first part of the series (which you can review here if you would like), we took some time to define exactly what marriage is. From a survey of Moses’ description of the first marriage in Genesis 2, and with reference to a couple of other passages in the Scriptures, we clarified marriage to be a covenantal relationship between a man and a woman designed to point people to Jesus. One of the points I made several times and have continued to make since in the series is that marriage was designed to be the relationship that most closely approximates the kind of relationship God desires to have with us in Christ. Marriage done right, shows people a glimpse of how we can relate to God through Jesus.

If that is the case, then marriage is a vital part of the new covenant. It is vital not in the sense that everyone should experience it, but in that it shows people what a relationship with Jesus can be like. There is a missionary purpose to marriage. For those who are in it, they can experience a taste of that even sweeter relationship. For those who are not in it, they can get a picture of the kind of relationship they can have with God in Christ such that they are drawn to Him by it. This is why the author insists that marriage is to be honored by everyone.

There are two ways the author includes here for how we can do this. One is obvious; the other slightly less so. The first way to honor marriage is to guard the marriage bed. The sexual union of the husband and wife is a glorious gift from our good God. It is also the only place that kind of a union is morally appropriate. Within the context of the marriage relationship, the boundaries for how that union can be enjoyed are broad and spacious. I hesitate to say that anything goes, but the husband and wife are free to pursue the fruits of that union to the extent of their hearts’ desires as long as it is kept solely between the two of them.

On the other hand, the pursuit of the sexual union in any other context, is not morally appropriate. Or, as the author puts it here, “the marriage bed [should] be kept undefiled.” This applies in two different ways. First, if you are not married, don’t behave like you are. Period. And before you even start asking questions about where lines ought to be drawn, let me remind you that there is only one line that believers are called to toe: love one another as Jesus has loved us. Guys, her body is only to be enjoyed by her husband. Period. If you’re not her husband, it’s not for you. Ladies, the same thing goes for you. If you are enjoying each other’s bodies in a way that is sexual and you are not married, that enjoyment is illicit. That is, it’s sin. It is sin precisely because it is a failure to love one another as well as one another’s future spouse the way Jesus loves you. Second, if you are married, there’s only one body you can legitimately enjoy. To enjoy any other bodies (and that includes digital bodies) is a failure to love your spouse the way Jesus does and is thus sinful. And listen: God takes this stuff seriously. “God will judge the sexually immoral [that is, those who are pursuing sex outside the context of a marriage] and adulterers [that is, those who are pursuing illegitimate sexual activity from within the context of a marriage].”

Sexual intimacy is an incredible gift and an incredibly powerful one. As a result, God seriously wants us to understand how seriously He takes it. A misuse of this gift just nearly always has devastating consequences. And if you think you are going to get lucky and not experience any of those consequences, you’re probably wrong. This is a lottery you don’t want to play.

The second way to honor marriage is by treating it with the respect it deserves. This is something the culture of the early centuries of the church as well as our culture today both struggle with, but from opposite directions. In the early centuries of the church, Platonic thinking began to infiltrate the Gospel. Platonism and its ideological descendant, Gnosticism, held to a view that the material world was evil while the spiritual world was good. Because of this, anything that involved a pursuit of physical goods was viewed as less noble and good than those activities which were focused on the spiritual world and the spiritual life. Marriage and the sexual union that came with it fit squarely into the former category and was thus looked down on as a less holy way of living. The most righteous followers of Jesus were those who eschewed marriage and sex in favor of a monastic life. Getting married and having children was something for those who were spiritually inferior.

The trouble here is that all of this bled out of a complete misunderstanding of the nature and purpose of marriage. If marriage is a covenantal relationship between a man and a woman designed to point people to Jesus, then it is a good and righteous state of affairs. It is a necessary one. Marriages done well help advance the Gospel into places it might otherwise have a hard time penetrating.

Today, marriage isn’t looked down upon as a spiritually inferior state of affairs. Instead, it is more generally looked down on as an irrelevant one. Marriage doesn’t really matter anymore. If you want to get married, that’s fine for you. But if you don’t want to get married, that’s fine too. It is seen as simply one of a number of legitimate lifestyle options. Sex will of course be a part of whatever lifestyle option you choose, but marriage is only one of many possible arrangements in which sex can be enjoyed to its fullest. In fact, marriage might be one of the bottom rung options because of its inherently restrictive nature. It limits you to only one partner which leaves a whole world of other options off the table, and why would you want to so limit your enjoyment of the world like that?

And yet, the fruit of this thinking is littered all over our culture in a growing mess that hasn’t made anything or anyone better than it was before. The fruit of this view of sex and marriage is a string of broken relationships and broken people. There are countless children who have been deprived of the experience of growing up with a committed mother and father who are committed to one another. Fatherlessness is endemic and causing a whole world of social maladies. Sexually transmitted diseases and infections are on the rise. Depression and anxiety are everywhere. I defy you to find a single good thing that has come from treating sex and marriage as casually as they are treated in our culture today.

None of this points anyone to the new covenant God made with us in Christ. It only leads them away from it. Where we see strong, healthy marriages, though, there is an entirely different story being written. It is a story of life and abundance. It is a story of hope and joy. It is a story of peace and love. This is a story that can be enjoyed by anyone whether you are called to marriage or not. Marriage is indeed to be honored by all. It is worthy of it.

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