Marriage points to the great mystery of God's love for His people. God has provided forgiveness and restoration for our past sins, and His grace enables us to live as He intends. Alistair Begg explains how this truth applies to the marriage relationship. When a couple adheres to God's design for marriage, the love a husband has for his wife and the respect a wife has for her husband provide a glimpse of Christ's love for His Church and the Church's submission to the Savior.
I’m going to read from the Gospel of John and chapter 8, and if you care to follow along, I invite you turn there. John chapter 8—actually, reading from John 7:53:
“They went each to his own house, but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?’ This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, ‘Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.’ And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus stood up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, Lord.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.’”
And as we turn to the Bible, let’s turn to God and ask for his help:
Father, what we do not know, please teach us. What we do not have, please give us. What we are not, please make us. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Well, the verses to which I should like to draw your attention are the final three in Ephesians 5: “‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife,’” or be united to his wife, “‘and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.”
In each of these studies—and there’ve been a few of them—we’ve noted the way in which the instruction of Paul is not grounded in the culture of first-century Ephesus but is actually grounded in creation itself. The reason that is so important is in part because it is not uncommon for people, when we are willing to talk concerning what the Bible says—in this case about marriage and husbands and wives—for the response to be, “Well, of course, we know that that was written a long, long time ago in a very different place from now. It was all about first-century culture, and we live now in the twenty-first century, and therefore, presumably, we wouldn’t want to make application of it in the way that you suggest.” Well, of course, that’s why it’s very, very important that Paul is not arguing from the culture of the first century, but he’s arguing from the beginning of time itself.
In other words, he’s doing what Jesus himself did. You remember on one occasion the Pharisees came to Jesus, and they had a question for him about divorce. They were trying to trap him, as in the passage that we just read from John chapter 8. And they said, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?” And Jesus’ reply goes right to the doctrine of creation: “Have you not read,” he said, “that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two [will] become one flesh’? … What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”
Now, this is the realm of our study, and as I say, this, I think, will conclude it for the time being.
I found it helpful in my study this week to create an acrostic for myself just to try and keep my mind in line, and hopefully it will be helpful to you. It is simply one word, in plural, a springtime flower: TULIPS. TULIPS. Okay? That is T-U-L-I-P-S. I know some of you say, “toolips,” but that would actually be T-O-O-L-I-P-S, and so—but you gotta figure that out for yourselves. One of my grandchildren always wants me to say, “What day is it?” when it’s Tuesday, and I always say, “Tuesday,” she says, “No, it’s Toosday,” and I said, “Nah, it’s not Toosday. that would be T-O-O… It’s Tuesday, it’s…” Anyway, that’s by the way.
So, it’s TULIPS. TULIPS. T-U-L-I-P-S.
The first letter stands for the word theology. T for theology. All right?
One of the dangers in addressing marriage, particularly as we think of it in relationship to ourselves, is the temptation to divorce the practical from the theological or the biblical. When we use the word theology, we’re just talking about God, Theos, and the Word of God and the plan and purpose of God, viewing things, if you like, not from the perspective of ourselves looking up as much as viewing it from the revelation of God in speaking to us. It’s very, very important that we don’t divorce the two. And that is why on each occasion we have gone almost directly to the thirty-second verse, which gives us, if you like, the underpinning theological principle that Paul is driving home: “The mystery,” he says, “that I’m talking about is a profound mystery.” Marriage itself, of course, is profound in many matters. But he says, “I’m referring to Christ and to the church.”
He has prayed earlier for those who are reading his letter that the eyes of their understanding may be enlightened and that they might be enlightened by the Holy Spirit. In other words, it’s a reminder to us that we can read the Bible and we can understand English and we can see what it says and yet not be enlightened by it. We can just sit and go through it, and it doesn’t go over our heads, but it doesn’t really do very much at all. So it is a strange and wonderful day when suddenly the Bible starts to burn into us, starts to engage us, starts to call us to attention, if you like. And so Paul is praying that that might happen to them as they read this letter. And for us as we read the letter, we’re praying the very same thing. And so, as our eyes are enlightened—as the eyes of our hearts are enlightened—then it will enable us to think of marriage not simply in terms of the practicalities of it, which, of course, are important to us all, but rather, and more foundationally, to God’s plan and God’s purpose in marriage itself.
And what I hope has come home to us is that Paul, without doing a disservice to all that we enjoy in marriage, he is making the point that his focus is not on marital happiness as much as it is on the wonder of this ultimate marriage, the marriage that is between Christ and the church. And that’s why, earlier on, he has spoken about this amazing mystery that has been hidden from long gone by and now has been revealed, whereby people who were formerly enemies to one another—especially the Jew and the gentile—and who were by the same token enemies of God have now found themselves reconciled to God and reconciled to one another, and they are now a mysterious group of people. And the mystery is that God has taken what is diverse and different and antagonistic and has fused it in the wonder of the love of the Lord Jesus Christ. And so Paul is saying, here is the sort of embedded mystery within the mystery—namely, that in Christian marriage, when two forgiven sinners live together in harmony, then that relationship points beyond itself to the great mystery, which is the fact that God in Jesus would love those who had by nature turned our backs on him and were indifferent to him. What a great mystery, that he would then give himself up in order that we might find our life in him!
Now, it is this that he’s been driving home. One of my friends in England puts it very, very well in a brief quote. He says, “The power of the gospel to motivate a Christian wife to submissively support her husband and to motivate a Christian husband to sacrificially love his wife, despite their sins and their differences, provides a powerful witness in our earthly churches of the victory of God over the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” In other words, in a culture such as our own that is fractured and broken at the micro level, the very reality of a couple doing their best by the enabling grace of God to live as God intends provides a peculiar opportunity to give an answer to those who ask a reason for the hope we have.
And so often, I think, we’re tempted to mug up the necessary material for sort of evangelistic endeavor—which, of course, is all wonderful and good to do, and we should do—but I think many of us are tempted to miss the fact that just actually by conducting ourselves in a restaurant, or in a movie theatre, or in the context of public transportation, or in the dialogue of everyday life—that in an unwitting way people are going, “What’s going on with them? Does she really defer to her husband in that way? Does he apparently lead her with such kindness?” That’s the theology that underpins it.
T for theology, and then U for unity. Unity. You say, “Well, it goes without saying. We understand: you can’t have marriage without unity.” But, you know, if you think about it, our culture holds fairly lightly to that notion, if it gives any attention to it at all. Instead of the emphasis being on the union and the fact that we have now come together as a new unit in society, we tend to make sure that we are very keen to establish our own identity—you know, “I am my own person. I mean, don’t you forget. I may be your wife, but I am me!” Of course, that’s true. “I may be your husband. I did my exercise before I married you, and by golly, I’ll do my exercise now that I have married you. I have my own life; I have my own things to do. You do your thing, I’ll do my thing, we’ll try and get together once or twice every evening, and we’ll move on as best we can.” That doesn’t sound like a union, does it? Not a very good one.
You know, I know that certain people, for the matters of life and in a medical practice or in law or something, the wife for some reason may have determined that it is unhelpful to actually go under her husband’s name in marriage. I get that. But the desire on the part of the wife to neglect and to negate the very expression of union by not wanting to take the name of her husband is just another indication of a sort of fierce individuality. Instead of it being “we two are one,” then is “we two are two.” And it’s not that individuality is then lost in marriage but that our individual lives are transformed by marriage, because we’re no longer what we once were.
Now, this union, which is expressed here—“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife,” or “hold fast to his wife”—let’s just acknowledge what it is. First of all, it is a voluntary union. You don’t get married by an act of Parliament—someone tells you, “You go marry her.” No. Even in situations where there is arranged marriages, there is still the opportunity, in the best of cases, for a voluntary response to the influence of parental structure. By and large, most of us understand perfectly clearly that the union into which we have entered in marriage is a voluntary union.
It’s a voluntary union between one man and one woman. It’s a voluntary union between one man and one woman from different families. You can’t marry your sister. It’s a voluntary union between one man and one woman from different families, and it is heterosexual and it is monogamous. This is marriage, and nothing else is marriage. That’s what the Bible says.
In making vows to one another, the voluntary union is at the same time a public union—that the vows that are made in marriage are declared before witnesses. And it is in the context of those witnesses that the couple is married. And it is that public dimension which declares them married, not their private emotions. No matter what we feel on the day we are married—if you came down the aisle and you were scared to death, or you were thinking about buying a boat, or whatever was going on in your mind—the fact of the matter is, when the guy said to you, “Do you?” and you said, “I do,” and she said, “I do,” and you did, and you’re done. You are married. Now, whether you like it or not, you’re married!
That’s how marriage is. All marriage! That’s how marriage works, whether it’s Christian marriage or secular marriage or Muslim marriage. Everybody knows. Bill was single; Bill is no longer single. Why? Because he got married. So marriage is not some ill-defined notion of cohabitation—a sort of experimental liaison that lasts for a few months or a few weeks, whereby a couple can experiment in every dimension of life and then decide whether, having test-driven the automobile, they really want it or not. No. That is not marriage.
Here is the man; he left his mom and dad. Why? He loves this girl. He loves her enough to make a public, voluntary commitment before the world to live with her in lifelong faithfulness. That’s what marriage is! It’s not about sleeping with people. It is the public, voluntary union before God and before this congregation: “I now declare you what you have never been to this point in your life—namely, husband and wife.” The state acknowledges it, society acknowledges it, and the church acknowledges it. And so do your old girlfriends. And so do your old boyfriends. Everything has changed.
Theology. Unity. Thirdly, loyalty. Loyalty. You say, “Well, we don’t really need to say much about loyalty, do we?” Well, yes, I think we do. Because the loyalty to which he’s referring here is a new loyalty. You see, up until you get married, your loyalty’s to your mom and dad: “Honor your father and mother, that your days may be long upon the earth, which the Lord your God gives you.” Right? That’s the relationship. Your parents, as we’re going to see in Ephesians 6, stand in the place of God before you. And therefore, you obey your parents, and you love your parents, and you have a relationship with your parents that is distinct from any other relationship. But on the day that you are married, that changes. And from that day there is a new loyalty. A new loyalty. It’s not that marriage breaks the filial relationship between your mom and dad, but it changes it. Indeed, if it doesn’t change it, then your marriage is in for real trouble. Because in order for that loyalty to be both established and maintained, it involves the man and the woman doing what needs to be done—namely, leaving. Leaving. Leaving physically, emotionally, financially. And it involves on the part of the parents being prepared to renounce their rights and to relinquish their hold upon their son or their daughter.
Now, in forty years of pastoral ministry, I can give you chapter and verse, if you’re interested, in the craziness that ensues when one or both parties just flat-out refuse to do what the Bible says. And it would be a poor use of time to run through a litany of that. The point is straightforward: unless that loyalty is transferred there—unless, if you like, that umbilical cord is broken; unless those apron strings are cut between the boy and his mom; unless the peculiar affection between daddy and the daughter is clearly now changed so that the husband of that daughter, whom I as the dad have loved with a passion and continue to love, but I no longer have the same responsibility, I no longer have the same rights… all of that has changed. And as painful and as wonderful as it is, it is because they now have a new loyalty. Why? Because of the theology. Because of the unity. The loyalty.
I for intimacy. Intimacy: “A man [will] leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” Now, let me just point out to you that the order here is important. In fact, it’s vitally important. What is being made perfectly clear to us is this: that the public promise is to precede the private pleasure. Okay? The public promise precedes the private pleasure. You see, I don’t want to hear from somebody who’s telling me that he really loves my daughter—he really loves my daughter enough to sleep with her—but he doesn’t love her enough to stand up in front of the world and say, “I commit myself publicly, unequivocally, to a lifelong companionship with your daughter, resisting everyone and everyone else that would ever come to break and sever the loyalty that exists between us.” If you don’t love her enough to do that, you do not love her enough to do that, no matter what the culture says to you.
Because the Bible is perfect, and God’s way is perfect. The stop signs that kept you from collision this morning were not there to make your journey tedious and difficult; it was to make your journey safe. And all of the structure that is given in the context of the created order of the world is there by the design of God. The scientists that are here this morning have been able to do science because of the physical reality and boundaries that exist in the universe that God has made—that they are able to distinguish between one artery from another, that they’re able to move and to do these things. In the same way, God has created moral boundaries, and these moral boundaries are there in order that we might enter fully into that which he loves to provide for us in the context of marriage.
What does this mean? Well, it means at least this: that the only safe and satisfying place for sex is within the security of a lifelong companionship—not in the shifting shadows of a part-time, short-term experiment. And the havoc that is part and parcel of people’s lives, simply on account of being unwilling to bow the knee to the instruction of the Bible, is absolutely clear for all to see.
This is not the occasion—this is not the time in this kind of context—for me to work my way through this. I feel uncomfortable with youngsters here in addressing these things. But I want you to know that when we reject God’s perfect plan, then obviously—history teaches us this, and a morning newspaper, and certainly a magazine from the grocery store teaches us—that when we reject God’s perfect plan in this matter, we enter a world of chaos, of disease, of self-serving, self-satisfying sex. That’s the world. And that’s where people live.
In a quite fascinating book by a Jewish lady in the UK, Melanie Phillips, she addresses the issue of the cultural revolution. And she, writing as a Jewish person, observes at one point, in what she refers to as “The Attack on Western Civilization”—she’s commenting on when morality became privatized so that people said, “Well, it doesn’t really matter, you know, what you’re doing, as long as you’re doing it in the silence and privacy of your own home”:
When morality became privatized, [when] “what is right” and “what is true” turned into “what is right or true for me.” Instead [then] of the moral codes acting as [controls] on people’s appetites, “anything goes” became the only song in the secular hymnbook. With external authority rejected, it was feelings rather than reason that became the supreme arbiters of behavior. As taboos fell like ninepins, only religiously based moral judgment was deemed taboo. …
So behavior with harmful consequences for others or for society in general, such as sexual promiscuity or having children without fathers, was treated as normal. Correspondingly, those who advocated mainstream, normative values such as fidelity, chastity or duty were accused of bigotry because they made those who did not uphold these values feel bad about themselves—[which is] now the ultimate sin.
That is the only great sin now. You just can’t make somebody feel bad about themselves—especially if you’re going to hold any kind of moral order.
Alternative lifestyles became mainstream … the counterculture became the [culture]. … Because of the absolute taboo against hurting [other] people’s feelings, the very idea of normative behavior had to be abolished so that no one would feel abnormal.
That’s the only way you’re going to be able to do this. There can be no moral boundary, no moral norm, no absolute standard of moral rectitude, no understanding of who is married or who is unmarried or what marriage means, or anything at all. In order to make sure that we preserve the feelings of everybody who wants to do whatever they choose to do, then we’re going to have to make sure that since we don’t want anyone to feel abnormal, we’ll have to make everything normal.
Now, all of this sounds—it sounds tough, doesn’t it? And it is tough. It’s tough to say. People have been saying to me all the way through, “Do you know how tough it is to listen to these sermons?” And I told them, “Yeah, I’ve heard them, I have. I’ve been listening to them.” So let us, as we think about this, just make two points that are vitally important to make.
Number one, that God’s grace enables us to live as God intends. It is God’s grace that enables us to live as God intends. In other words, what we have in the Bible is not just a series of ethical demands—you know, “Try and do this and do that and do that and do that, and don’t do that and don’t do that.” No, what we have in the Bible is not a means, in the Ten Commandments, to climb up a ladder to God, but the Ten Commandments actually show us how desperately we’re in need of somebody to do for us what we can’t do for ourselves. And it is the enabling grace of God that helps us to live as he intends, all day, every day.
And at the same time, it is God’s grace that extends forgiveness and restoration for those whose sexual pasts are spoiled. So it is God’s grace that both enables me to live as he intends, and it is his grace which grants forgiveness and restoration when I look over my shoulder and realize where I’ve been.
But let’s not kid ourselves. All of us are guilty in this realm, by thought or desire, if not in deed. In other words—and that’s why I read from John 8—none of us should be reaching down into the ground to find a large stone. And the older guys will probably be leaving first.
Well, two to go. P. P for priority. Priority. What priority? Well, I think verse 33 is just, if you like, Paul’s summation—even here in English, with the introduction of it with the word “however,” comma. He’s gone through all of this, and then he says—I think essentially what he’s saying is, “In practice, what I’ve been saying to you amounts to this. Here’s your priority: love your wife; respect your husband. Love your wife; respect your husband. Instead of focusing on your status, your position, your rights, instead of thrusting upon your partner the obligations, make it a priority, husbands, to give yourself up in loving and leading your wife.”
Put that at the top of your notebook for tomorrow morning, Monday. What do we have in that big book that you all have? Maybe you don’t; now you have a phone or something. But anyway… I’ve never been good on that. I’m not a good lister. But I’m always impressed when I sit next to somebody on the plane, and they got their whole life organized, and mine is not organized, and… But put right on the top—what do you have on the top? Instead of, like, “Go to the gym,” you know: “Give myself up to lead my wife.” And put that in for March, April, May—the rest of my life.
Ladies, you prepared to take it out, write it up there on the thing? “What is my priority? I’m going to give myself up in deferring as a wife to my husband’s leadership—even though in the back of my mind I find myself saying, ‘I don’t want to.’” You know, or whatever it is—“He’s a pain in the neck.”
Well… No, you see, the issue in it is—and that’s why verse 32 is so important—it’s ’cause we’re all going to be gone. One of us will die, we’ll both die, the marriage will be over, the song will have been sung, the story will have been told, our gospel will have been written. And it will have been written for our children and for our grandchildren; it will have been written for our neighbors and our friends—not necessarily in our ability to exegete the Bible or to explain the peculiar natures of a theological principle. But the real test will be in the evangelistic thrust of a husband and a wife who said together on a routine basis, “Dear loving Lord, please help us to live as you intend, so that the love of Christ for his church may be displayed through my love for Sue.” That’s it there in a nutshell: that the love of Christ for his church might be seen in microcosm in the husband’s love for his wife, and that the submission of the church to Christ might be revealed in the submission of a wife to her husband. It’s just so vast. It’s so wonderful. It’s so possible, by God’s grace.
That brings us to S. S for sanctity. Sanctity. Which, of course, is a good word. You won’t find it used much these days, because it’s too challenging. Maybe we just give ourselves one verse as we draw to a close; that would be Hebrews 13:4: “Let marriage be held in honor among all … let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and [the] adulterous.” In other words, here’s the safety clause: “Don’t do this!” God is providing for our safety and for our enjoyment. The sanctity of marriage is grounded in the intimacy of the union.
And if you think that somehow or another God pays scant attention to this, then go read Song of Solomon, and realize what God has provided there in terms of the celebration of intimacy. If we are tempted to think that God is able to wink at the times when we simply disregard these things and that it doesn’t really matter at all—after all, we can do as we please—then not only Song of Solomon should be read, but the book of Proverbs should be read. And there we could ponder the devastation that accompanies every attempt to live a life outside the boundaries of God. Proverbs 5, the warnings of Solomon to his son; he says to him, “Son, you don’t want to do this. I mean, this is bad, it is wrong, it will harm you.” It’s Proverbs 5. You can read from 11 on: “At the end of your life you groan, when your flesh and [your] body are consumed.”
When he writes to his son, he says, “Listen, can you carry fire in your chest without your clothes being burned?”
The boy goes, “No, of course not.”
He said, “Well, listen. Listen. God’s way is best.”
No matter what our culture may contend, we know that we are actually hard-wired as men and women—we are hard-wired, constituted in such a way—as to want sexual loyalty. It’s built into us. The fact that there are people who want to talk in terms of polygamy—and you read these things in the press every so often—the deviation that is represented in that is so peculiar and so wrong that it is completely out of the mainstream. The average person knows in themselves, “I want her all to me! There is a Reserved sign on her. There is a Reserved sign on me.” And therefore, there is a distinct, embedded opposition to that which intrudes upon that very circumstance.
And apart from God’s grace—apart from God’s grace—then the story, which is represented in all kinds of ways… I mean, I remember when the when the movie Out of Africa came out, and everyone told me, “Oh, Out of Africa, what a beautiful movie, and beautiful music. Ooo, it was a nice music and everything.” The whole story was about adultery! The whole movie! I’d say, “What, you want to sit in there and tell me you think this is a good movie? What is good about this? What if she was your wife? What if he was your husband?” You say, “Well, now you’re going to start your talk all over again.” Well, maybe, yes! Because it’s theology! It’s theology!
No. We are constituted in that way. And when we violate that, then the story is the same everywhere and every day: jealousy, hatred, violence, misery, depression, suicide. Jealousy, hatred, violence, misery, depression, suicide. Take a magazine. Take any magazine. Read The Times, as I’ve read it this week.
The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.
The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart: the commandment[s] of the Lord [are] pure … and righteous altogether.
“As for God, his way is perfect.”
If you’ve been reading Murray M’Cheyne, you’ve been reading Job, as I have been. And perhaps you’ve found verses in there that you never noticed before. And I wrote one down this week so that I wouldn’t forget it, Job 22:21. And one of Job’s friends says to Job this: “Agree with God…”
Agree with God, and be at peace;
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Receive instruction from his mouth,
and lay up his words [upon] your heart.
Have you found the peace that comes from agreeing with God? You may today. Agree with God, what he says about the rebellion of our hearts—that we’re sinful. Agree with what God says about providing in Jesus a wonderful Savior—that although we’re sinful and separated, that he loved us enough to send us a Savior. Agree with what the Bible says about what it means not simply to be intellectually engaged with the idea but actually to entrust our lives to the God who loves us and who has sent his Son for us. Agree with God, and be at peace.
Father, we thank you that we can never exhaust the wisdom of your Word. And I pray now that the words of my mouth spoken and the meditation of our hearts may be found acceptable in your sight. Lord, you are our only strength and our only redeemer. Amen.
 Matthew 19:3 (paraphrased).
 Matthew 19:4–6 (ESV).
 See Ephesians 1:17–18.
 Exodus 20:12 (paraphrased).
 Melanie Phillips, The World Turned Upside Down: The Global Battle over God, Truth, and Power (New York: Encounter, 2010), 283, 286.
 Melanie Phillips, The World Turned Upside Down: The Global Battle Over God, Truth, and Power (New York, NY: Encounter, 2010), 283–86.
 Proverbs 6:27 (paraphrased).
 Psalm 19:7–9 (KJV).
 Psalm 18:30 (KJV).
 See Psalm 19:14.
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.