Marriage Series: 1) The Mystery of Marriage

The Mystery of Marriage

Text: Ephesians 5:18-33


As Paul defines marriage he quotes Genesis 2:24, which says ‘31 For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. (Eph 5:31)’ And then he says, ‘32 This is a profound mystery… (Eph 5:32a)’ I don’t know about you but sometimes I identify with that sentiment. Sometimes marriage seems a profound mystery. Sometimes marriage seems to be an unsolvable puzzle. I grew up with a mum and dad who loved the Lord, who loved life, and who loved each other. They weren’t perfect, but mostly they made marriage look easy. But my personal experience of marriage was anything but easy, in fact after only 5 years I ended up as just another divorce statistic, with a failed marriage to my credit. But God has been incredibly gracious to me, and Alice and I will be celebrating 10 years of marriage this Christmas. This morning I want to look at the fact that marriage is a profound mystery and in our culture I think it is becoming even more mysterious every year. In fact, many people in our society don’t understand the mystery of marriage, and so they avoid it, or eventually their marriage fails. The Bible says, ‘3 By wisdom a house is built, and through understanding it is established. (Prov 24:3)’ I believe we are facing so many broken homes because people don’t understand the marriage. I want to preach on marriage so that the young single people in our church will develop a biblical understanding of marriage, so that married people will find the strength and the courage to build god-honouring marriages, so that people who used to be married, but whose marriages have failed like mine did, can build a new foundation for the future. I want to preach on marriage to help you teach others about God’s purpose for marriage.


1) Modern Misconceptions about Marriage

And I want to start with the modern misconceptions about marriage. The truth is that marital health and satisfaction are in decline. In the last two decades we have seen an increase in divorce. At the moment every third marriage ends in divorce. At the same time we have seen a decrease in marriages, as more and more people opt for de facto relationships. While married people are twice more likely to have children than people in de-facto relationships, about one-third of children in Australia are born outside traditional marriage. About three-quarters of people who marry today lived with their partner for some time prior to getting married. The truth is our society is increasingly wary and pessimistic about marriage. And there are a number of misconceptions about marriage that has lead to an unhealthy view of marriage amongst many people in our society.

a) Marriage makes you unhappy

Firstly, many people believe marriage is a recipe for unhappiness. Many people reason that if so many marriages end in divorce, many of the remaining ones must also be miserable. And because of the rising divorce rate so many people today have seen the negative consequences and felt the pain first hand. One Comedian suggested that you only have two options, be single and lonely, or married and unhappy. But our society has come up with a third option, cohabitation. They presume that if you live together first it will improve your chances of making the right choice. You will discover if you’re compatible or not, if the chemistry is right or not. They think the only way to find true happiness is not to commit. The research actually proves the opposite. The stats actually suggest that those who live together before marriage, over the long term are more likely to be unhappy and to break up. The interesting thing is that the research actually suggests that married people are, on the whole, happier than unmarried people. People who are married consistently show higher levels of satisfaction with their lives than those who are single, divorced, or living with a partner. In fact, two-thirds of unhappy marriages will become happy within five years if people stay together and do not get divorced. And when it comes to kids the stats are scary. Children who grow up in married, two parent families have vastly more positive outcomes in life than those who grow up in single parent or de facto families. I’m not saying married people are always happy, just that the stability and support that marriage provides makes a difference. When God created marriage he knew what he was doing. He knew the best thing we needed was a life-long intimate connection between a man and a woman.

b) Marriage is all about me

The second misconception is that marriage is all about me. In the past marriage was all about creating a stable foundation for society, a social bond given to benefit the broader community. However, since the enlightenment, marriage shifted from the public sphere to the private sphere. Marriage became less about society and more about the individual. Marriage became about me, my good, and my gratification, rather than any ‘broader good’ such as reflecting God’s nature, producing character, or raising children. Marriage used to be about us, but now it’s about me.

The ‘meification’ of marriage is seen in the contemporary idea of finding a ‘soul mate.’ We want to find someone who is compatible. But what do people mean by the word ‘compatible.’ In a survey on ‘Why Men Won’t Commit,’ it meant someone who was physically attractive, or someone who wouldn’t try and change you. If marriage is about me, then I will look for in another person whatever will make me happy.

On one of our date nights, Alice and I got a little spontaneous and bought these two little books, ‘Don’ts for Husbands’ and ‘Don’t for Wives,’ published in 1913. And the interesting thing is that it presumes that marriage is meant to change you. Marriage was a place where your rough edges could be rounded off, where character flaws could be mended, and where men in particular could learn a few social graces. The purpose of marriage was to take two immature, predominantly selfish people and transform them into people who thought of others before themselves, and could make a positive contribution to society. In regards to men that meant learning to reign in their passions and desires and learn self-control. Here’s a quote for the wives, ‘Don’t manage your husbands too visibly. Of course, he may require the most careful management, but you don’t want your friends to think of him as a hen-pecked husband. Above all, never let him think you manage him. (Don’t for Wives, p14)’ And here’s one for the men ‘Don’t increase the necessary work of the house by leaving all your things lying about in different places. If you are not tidy by nature, at least be thoughtful for others. (Don’t for Husbands, p1)’ For most of Western history the primary and most valued character of manhood was self-mastery. A man who indulged in excessive eating, drinking, sleeping, or sex, who failed to ‘rule himself,’ was considered unfit to rule his household, much less have a position of authority in society. Unfortunately, Self-control has now been replaced by self-fulfilment. If you’re wondering why I’m only picking on the men, it’s because after 10 years of marriage I’ve learnt not to pick on women. But the point of marriage is that it’s not about me, it’s about the other, it’s about encouraging them to change, both husbands and wives. Today people are looking for their ideal mate, someone who is fun, intellectually stimulating, physically attractive, who shares common interests, who is supportive, and who has no personal problems. Never before in history have people had such high expectations of potential spouses. And ironically such idealism leads to pessimism about marriage. The problem with desiring a completely well-adjusted, happy, emotionally stable, attractive person with no character flaws is that they don’t exist.

c) Marriage should be easy

The third misconception is that marriage should be easy. Often people expect love should just come naturally, and they are surprised to find that it takes work. The truth is that anything worth while takes effort. If it was easy to write a concerto everyone would do it. If it was easy to be a professional sportsperson everyone would be. But those things take years of effort and dedication. And the same is true of marriage. What most people assume is that there is someone just right for them to marry, and if they look hard enough they will find the right person. Unfortunately, the truth is that we always marry the wrong person. On one hand we never truly know the person we marry, we just think we do. And on the other hand the person we marry doesn’t stay the same. The challenge is learning to love the stranger to whom you find yourself married. Of course some people can be more incompatible than others, but to some degree everyone is incompatible. The interesting thing is that often the things that we once thought complimented us so well when we were dating, eventually become the things that annoy us the most. The guy who seemed so relaxed, is now just lazy. The girl who seemed so organized, is now a control freak. The bloke who once had such strong convictions is now just opinionated. The woman who had such passion is now just combative. The truth is: marriage isn’t easy. In fact, there are no relationships that are easy, and the closer you get to someone the more difficult it can become. The only easy relationships are the superficial ones.


2) The Biblical view of Marriage

There are probably more reasons why people are struggling with marriage in our culture, but I want to just look at these three and see what the Bible has to say about them. We’ll start in reverse.

a) Marriage requires work

As opposed to the idea that marriage should be easy the Bible tells us that marriage requires work. Why, because there is no such thing as a perfect person. The Bible says, ‘1 …there is no one who does good. (Ps 14:1c)’ ‘20 There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins. (Ecc 7:20)’ ‘23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Rom 3:23)’ Jesus says, ‘19 …No one is good—except God alone. (Lk 18:19b)’ What that means is that your spouse isn’t perfect. Even more shocking it means that you’re not perfect. Marriage isn’t easy because it involves two broken sinful people coming together. And the heart of sin, is self-centredness. Marriage is hard because at the very core of our being we are basically selfish people. Marriage isn’t easy because we have a tendency to make marriage all about me. Me-Marriage sounds enlightened, and focusing on your personal happiness sounds like a good idea, the truth is that it is fatal for marriages. Marriage isn’t easy because the truth is you aren’t easy to live with. One author said ‘Why should neurotic, selfish, immature people suddenly become angels when they fall in love?’ A good marriage takes work, because the odds are naturally stacked against it. Some how we have to deal with our natural sinful tendency towards selfishness.  

b) Marriage is about the other

Which leads to our next point, opposed to the idea that marriage is all about me, the Bible teaches that marriage is all about the other. You can’t understand Paul’s teaching on the roles of husbands and wives unless you put that teaching in the proper context, verse 21, ‘21 Submit to one another… (Eph 5:21a)’ Marriage is about mutual submission. Marriage is about putting the other before yourself. Marriage is about ‘3 …in humility considering others better than yourselves. ‘4 …[and] looking to the interests of others. (Phil 2:3b,4b)’ For husbands that means laying down their lives for their wives. For wives that means submitting to their husbands. In sermon 5 we’re going to look at the different roles of husbands and wives, but today I want to make it clear that marriage is about mutual submission, it’s about putting your spouse before yourself. In fact, this sort of submission is really an act of love. We’re going to look at what biblical love is all about in sermon 3, but this morning I just want to use 1 Corinthians 13 to unpack what it means to love someone. Paul writes, ‘4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. (1 Cor 13:4-7)’ Of course this is how we ought to love everyone, but I want to unpack it in terms of what love looks like in the context of a biblical marriage. When you love your spouse you are patient with them. For you husbands that might mean that instead of getting upset when your wife takes so long to get ready to go out, you suck it up, you exercise patience, it’s not about you, it’s about them. For you wives it might mean that when you speak to your husbands you might have to wait for the light to go on inside their head. When you love your spouse you are kind to them. You speak and behave in a way that shows that you care, not about yourself, but about them. When you love your spouse you aren’t envious of them, rather you celebrate their successes. When you love your spouse you don’t boast in your virtues, you boast in theirs. When you love your spouse you aren’t defined by pride, but by an attitude of humility. When you love your spouse you aren’t rude, you are gracious and respectful. When you love your spouse you don’t seek your own interests, but what’s in their best interest. When you love your spouse you aren’t easily angered, because you don’t keep a tally of the ways they have wronged you because you are quick to forgive them. When you love your spouse you delight in the truth, even if that truth might be something painful about yourself. Being married means a willingness to sacrifice yourself in order to protect your spouse. Marriage means never giving up, it’s about persevering until the end.

As soon as we make marriage about me it is doomed to failure. But when both husband and wife make it about the other, marriage becomes possible. In Sermon 2 we’re going to look at where we find the strength to love our spouses like this. We’re going to look at the question: how do we overcome our natural sinful tendency towards self-centredness and become radically other focused? But today I want to make it clear that marriage isn’t about you it’s about your spouse.

c) Marriage is about holiness

Finally, marriage isn’t so much about happiness, as it is about holiness. Of course they’re not mutually exclusive, but if you think marriage is only about your personal happiness, or even the happiness of your spouse, you’re aiming way too low. When Paul declared that marriage is a profound mystery, he doesn’t mean that marriage is so mysterious that we can never understand it, rather he means that in marriage God is revealing something mysterious and wonderful. Paul uses this term ‘mystery’ to refer to the unveiling of the gospel, God’s plan of salvation in Jesus Christ. But in Ephesians 5 when he quotes Genesis 2:24, about how a husband and wife shall become one flesh, he literally says this is a mega-mysterion, an extraordinary great, wonderful and profound truth that can only be understood with the help of God’s Spirit. So what is the mystery about marriage? Paul tells us, he says, ‘32 …I am talking about Christ and the church. (Eph 5:32b)’ Earlier Paul said, ‘25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy… (Eph 5:25-26a)’ The mystery of marriage is not marriage itself, but the fact that marriage is a reflection of Christ’s love for the church. Marriage is all about husbands doing for their wives what Jesus did to bring us into union with himself. Marriage is all about two broken sinful people helping one another become more and more like Jesus Christ.

So what does it mean to become more like Jesus? Well, Jesus gave himself up for us. Jesus willingly went to the cross and paid the penalty for our sins, removing our guilt and condemnation, so that we could be united with him. Jesus gave up his glory and became a servant. Jesus died to his own interests and looked to our needs and interests instead. And that, Paul says, is the key not only to understanding marriage but living it. According to Paul when God designed the original marriage, He already had Christ and the church in mind. God’s purpose for marriage is to picture the relationship between Christ and his people. In fact, marriage only works to the degree that is reflects God’s self-giving love in Christ. If you want to know how to love your spouse it can’t be said any simpler than ‘do what God did for you in Jesus, give yourself, lay down your life for the sake of your spouse, not just to make them happy, but to make them holy. We’re going to look at how to do that in sermon 4 of this series.


The mystery of marriage is that in marriage we see a picture of Christ’s love for us. The gospel tells us that we are more sinful and flawed then we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope. Love with truth is shallow, it doesn’t grow us. Truth without love is harsh, it doesn’t draw people in, it pushes them away. But God’s love for us in Christ is marked by both radical truthfulness about who we are, but also a radical unconditional commitment to us. Marriage is meant to be a place where we can experience more of this kind of transforming love at a human level. Marriage is an opportunity to speak the truth in love, to be completely honest with another person within the safety of unconditional commitment to that person. Marriage requires work because we are all broken sinful people. Marriage isn’t about you it’s about your spouse. Marriage isn’t about happiness, but about holiness.

For you unmarried people here today my prayer is that you will see marriage as not just a place to find happiness, but that you will see it as an opportunity to encourage someone to become more like Jesus as you love them with the same selfless, sacrificial love that Jesus has shown you. My prayer for us married couples, is that our marriages might be a picture of Christ’s love for his church, that we might lay down our lives for our spouses, that we might die to ourselves for their sake. And for the rest of you I pray that you will teach people about the mystery of marriage, that in all your relationships you will love others as Christ has loved you. Amen.

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