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In July 2015 I wrote four reflections presenting a biblical view of marriage. These can be found in full using the column to your right. This abridged version presents:
- consideration of the Hebrew Scriptures;
- what Jesus said about marriage as recorded in the Gospels;
- reflections on epistles written by the Apostle Paul; and
- marriage as a metaphor in the book of the Revelation to John.
Here I draw on only a small selection of biblical material. I invite you to read more deeply to learn for yourself what God requires of his people in respect of the institution of marriage in society today. Quotations are from the NIV translation of the Holy Bible.
From the Hebrew Scriptures:
… the LORD is acting as the witness between you and the wife of your youth, because you have broken faith with her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant.
Has not the LORD made them one? In flesh and spirit they are his. And why one? Because he was seeking godly offspring. So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith with the wife of your youth.
“I hate divorce,” says the LORD God of Israel … (Malachi 2: 14-16).
The Hebrew Scriptures consistently hold the institution of marriage in high regard. The LORD’s requirement for his people is presented in the first book of the Law:
For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh (Genesis 2: 24).
The divine intention for husband and wife is a monogamous relationship between a man and a woman for as long as they live.
Adultery was and is abhorrent to the LORD. He repeatedly instructed his people that they “must not live according to the customs of the nations …” (Leviticus 20: 23). Later the prophets used adultery as a metaphor for the unfaithfulness of the children of Israel as they chased after the gods of the nations around them.
The Law delivered through Moses permitted divorce but only under extenuating circumstances, the primary one being adultery (Deuteronomy 24:1 – there was some dispute between different schools of Hebrew thought as to whether “something indecent” referred only to marital unfaithfulness).
Mosaic Law placed limits on who could be married (Leviticus 20). Marriage between people in a close family relationship was forbidden. These laws remain valid today (The Marriage Act 1961, Section 23B, addresses “marriages of parties within a prohibited relationship”).
In summary, the LORD clearly and often presented marriage as a monogamous relationship between a man and a woman for as long as they live. Divorce for marital unfaithfulness is tolerated by the LORD. Adultery, describing not only unfaithfulness within a marriage but also unfaithfulness between his chosen people and their God, was sufficient reason for the LORD to permit their land to be conquered and his people to go into exile.
What Jesus said about marriage
Some Pharisees came to (Jesus) to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”
“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female’, and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.”
“Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”
Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery” (Matthew 19: 3-9).
It is evident that the devout Hebrew’s views regarding marriage had changed little between the return from exile (fifth century BC) and the time of Christ. The sin of adultery and constraints as to who could marry whom were proclaimed by John the Baptiser – to his cost:
For Herod himself had given orders to have John arrested, and he had him bound and put in prison. He did this because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, whom he had married. For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife” (Mark 6: 17-18).
Presumably the Pharisees who came to test Jesus had a good working knowledge of the Law. Jesus knew Hebrew Scripture better than they; he also knew his Father’s purposes in delivering a legal and a social system that would, despite human weakness, bring blessing to the nation including through the preservation of marriage. In attributing the union of a man and a woman to the will of God, Jesus strongly proclaimed the sacred character of marriage.
Yet Jesus received sinners and, as they repented, he forgave. John’s Gospel recounts further testing of Jesus when teachers of the law and Pharisees brought to him a woman caught in adultery. Avoiding their trap, Jesus then addressed the woman:
“Woman, where are they? Has no-one condemned you?”
“No-one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8: 10, 11).
Forgiveness for disobedience towards God is freely available to all who humbly repent and put their trust in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Reflections on epistles written by the Apostle Paul
Here is a trustworthy saying: If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer (bishop), he desires a noble task. Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach … (1 Timothy 3: 1-2).
A deacon must be the husband of but one wife and must manage his children and his household well (1 Timothy 3: 12).
An elder must be blameless, the husband of but one wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient (Titus 1: 6).
There is no departure from Jesus’ teachings on marriage in the epistles of the Apostle Paul. In his pastoral letters to both Timothy and Titus, as he encouraged them in their leadership roles, he clearly upheld the monogamous nature of marriage. In other letters he addressed the sins of sexual immorality (Galatians 5: 19), adultery (1 Corinthians 6: 9) and disobedience to the laws limiting marriage (1 Corinthians 5: 1, “A man has his father’s wife”).
Also in writing to the church in Corinth, Paul emphasised the implications of divorce:
But since there is so much immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband (1 Corinthians 7: 2) and
To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife (1 Corinthians 7: 10-11).
There is another dimension to Paul’s writings on marriage. He used marriage metaphorically to describe a divine relationship:
“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the church (Ephesians 5: 31, 32).
Paul introduced this “mystery” by way of a command,
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,
the Lord’s purpose being,
to present her to himself as a radiant church (as a bride) (Ephesians 5: 25, 26).
He spoke also of this image to the Corinthians as he wrote:
I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him (2 Corinthians 11: 2).
The Apostle Paul held God’s institution of marriage in high regard indeed!
Marriage as a metaphor in Revelation
Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting: “Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready.
Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.” (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints.)
Then the angel said to me, “Write: ‘Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!’” And he added, “These are the true words of God” (Revelation to John 19: 6-9).
The vision given to John included this climax, the in-gathering of the Church of God. The Church, depicted as the bride of Christ, has been prepared for her husband, the Lamb of God. John’s vision shares the metaphor used by the Apostle Paul. Such a union between Christ and his Church could only be celebrated in a bond of eternal faithfulness by both husband and bride.
As John continued to describe his vision, a new metaphor appeared:
I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God” (Revelation 21: 2, 3).
The new Jerusalem, the city where the people of God are to dwell and where God dwells with his people, was revealed to John by one of the angels:
“Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb” (Revelation 21: 9).
God has used his intention for marriage, a monogamous relationship between a man and a woman for as long as they live, to describe the marriage of Christ the King to his bride the church.
Addressing a Galilean crowd and his disciples, Jesus referred to this momentous event when he described his return, his coming again “in his Father’s glory with the holy angels”.
If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes … (Mark 8: 38).
As we consider what God requires of his people today in respect of the institution of marriage, we do well to pay close attention to Jesus’ warning.
A final warning
They rejected his decrees and the covenant he had made with their fathers and the warnings he had given them. They followed worthless idols and themselves became worthless. They imitated the nations around them although the LORD had ordered them, “Do not do as they do,” and they did the things the LORD had forbidden them to do.
They forsook all the commands of the LORD their God … (2 Kings 17: 15b-16a).