Marriage Series: 3) The Essence of Marriage

The Essence of Marriage

Text: Ephesians 5:25-31


One of the most common contemporary views of marriage is that ‘it’s just a piece of paper.’ Many people today believe that having that piece of paper doesn’t make them love their partner any more than not having it. In fact, having a piece of paper actually puts a damper on love. They figure that to make a promise to love someone takes all the spontaneity and excitement out of love. Many people today think of love in such subjective terms that if there is any duty involved it is considered unhealthy.

Today relationships are thought of in terms of consumerism, where the relationship between the consumer and the vendor lasts only as long as the vendor meets your needs at a cost acceptable to you. If another vendor delivers better services, or the same services at a better cost, you have no obligation to stay in the original relationship. People stay in relationships only as long as they are meeting their particular needs at an acceptable cost. When we cease to make a profit, when the relationship requires more love and effort than we’re receiving, then we ‘cut our losses’ and move on.

But when the Bible speaks of love, it’s not talking about how much you want to receive but how much you are willing to give. Marriage is about how much of your precious time, emotions and resources you are willing to invest in your spouse. And for that, the marriage vows, aren’t just helpful they’re actually a test. When people say ‘I love you but let’s not get married,’ what they’re really saying is ‘I don’t love you enough to close off all my options, I don’t love you enough to give you my whole life.’ To say ‘I don’t need a piece of paper to love you,’ is basically saying, ‘My love for you hasn’t reached marriage level.’

Another series of attitudes in our society is that: firstly, romantic love is necessary to have a fulfilled life; secondly, that romantic love never lasts; and thirdly, marriage should be based on romantic love. Taken together those three convictions lead to the conclusion that marriage and romance are essentially incompatible. But the Bible doesn’t pit romantic love against marriage. The Bible doesn’t pit duty and desire against one another, instead the Bible unites both romance and duty, passion and promise. And to understand that you need to understand the essence of marriage.


1) Covenantal Love

The essence of marriage is that unlike so many people today that have a consumer mentality towards marriage, the Bible sees marriage as a covenant. The essence of marriage according to Scripture is covenantal love.

a) What is a Covenant?

So firstly, what is a covenant? Unlike a consumer relationship that is based on the needs of the individual, a covenantal relationship is binding. In a covenant the good of the relationship takes precedence over the immediate needs of the individual. The parent-child relationship is a classic example. A parent may get little emotionally out of caring for an infant, but giving up your children because rearing them is too hard and unrewarding is almost unthinkable in our society. For some reason society sees the parent-child relationship as a covenant rather than a consumer relationship. It’s not about what we get out of the relationship but about our responsibility towards the relationship.

b) Types of Covenants

As you read the Bible you find covenants literally every where. And there are primarily two types of covenants.

i) Vertical Covenants

Firstly, there are vertical covenants. Vertical covenants are covenants made between God and people. For example, God makes covenants with individuals, like Noah (Gen 6:18, 9:9-17), Abraham (Gen 15:18; 17:1-14), and David (2 Sam 7); but also with whole people groups like the nation of Israel (Ex 34:10-28). In fact, our relationship with God through Jesus is a covenantal relationship. Jesus actually refers to it as the ‘new covenant in my blood. (Lk 22:20)’ There is a sense of responsibility between us, that God will be our God, and that we will be His people.

ii) Horizontal Covenants

The other types of covenant in the Bible are horizontal covenants made between people. They are made between friends, for example David and Jonathan (1 Sam 18:3; 20:16), and between nations.

c) The Marriage Covenant

But probably the most significant covenant made between two people is the marriage covenant (cf. Mal 2:14). The Bible actually starts with a marriage ceremony. In Genesis 2 we read, ‘20 …no suitable helper was found [for Adam]. (Gen 2:20b)’ So ‘22 …the Lord God made a woman… and he brought her to the man. (Gen 2:22)’ Basically the image is of God walking the woman down the aisle and presenting her to her husband. And it’s in this context that we find the most well-known text regarding marriage in the Old Testament, ‘24 For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh. (Gen 2:24)’ The word that describes the marriage relationship is the Hebrew word Dābaq (qbd). In the NIV it’s translated as ‘united to.’ The husband is united to his wife. In the King James Version it uses the old English word, ‘cleave,’ the husband cleaves to his wife. The idea is of holding fast to someone out of love and loyalty. This word is also used of our relationship with God. For example, ‘20 Fear the Lord your God and serve him. Hold fast to him and take your oaths in his name. (Dt 10:20, cf. 11:22; 13:4; 30:20; Josh 22:5; 23:8)’ We are to hold fast, or cleave, to God. Surrounding this idea of cleaving to God are words like fear, which we saw last week meant to be in awe at God’s majesty, and words like serve, and love, and obey, to walk in his ways and keep his commandments. Basically, to cleave means to be united to someone through a covenant, a binding promise, or oath.

And what’s so significant about the marriage covenant is that it has both a horizontal element, between a man and a woman, and a vertical element between the spouses and God. Proverbs 2:17 describes a wayward wife ‘17 who has left the partner of her youth and ignored the covenant she made before God. (Prov 2:17)’ The marriage covenant isn’t just made between husband and wife, but also between them and God. To break faith with your spouse is to break faith with God at the same time.

That’s why in our wedding ceremony we ask each spouse ‘do you believe that it is the purpose of God for you to enter into this covenant and do you commit yourselves to fulfil your obligations to each other?’ And each spouse answers: ‘I do.’ But they aren’t speaking to each other, they are answering the minister. In effect what they are really doing is making a vow to God before they make their vows to each other. They are speaking vertically, before speaking horizontally. They get to hear the other person stand up before God, their families, and the church and swear their loyalty and faithfulness to them. The point is that their covenant with God strengthens their covenant with each other. What makes marriage ‘marriage’ is that it is a covenant, a binding promise made between two people before God.

d) How is a Covenant loving?

But the question has to be asked how is a covenant loving? It’s easy to see in this sort of covenantal relationship a dry legalistic duty, devoid of passion and desire. Who wants that sort of relationship? But making this sort of commitment to another person is actually the deepest form of love.   

i) It reveals depth of love

Firstly, the willingness to make a life-long commitment to another person reveals the depth of your love for them. The willingness to limit your freedom for the sake of someone else shows just how seriously you take your relationship with that person. In the first sermon we looked at how marriage is all about the other, and last week we looked at how love is all about submitting ourselves to someone else, well this morning I want you to know that the essence of marriage is all about committing yourself to someone else, above all else. It’s that commitment, which implies a sense of duty, that makes marriage so significant. It’s the total commitment of the marriage covenant that reveals just how much you love your spouse. You forsake all else for this person.

ii) It creates security

Secondly, this covenantal commitment to another person creates a sense of security within a relationship. Because you have made a public commitment to each other, you don’t have to keep proving to each other that the relationship is worth maintaining, because you have already committed to do so. You can give up the facades, you can be vulnerable, you can lay down your defences, because, for better or worse, you have promised to stick by each other. The marriage commitment gets rid of the question mark. Does this person love me? Yes. Will this person be there for me? Yes. Even when I’m old and wrinkly? Yes. Even when I stuff up, even when I don’t deserve their love? Yes. It’s not about their individual needs, but about their commitment to the relationship.

iii) It creates permanence

Thirdly, the covenant commitment creates permanence. When two people ‘fall in love’ we don’t just have a natural inclination to express affection, we also naturally make promises to each other, we say stuff like ‘I will always love you.’ We say that because real love instinctively desires permanence. The great biblical poem to love, the Song of Solomon says, ‘6 Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm; for love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave. It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame. 7 Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot wash it away. (SS 8:6-7a)’ Just like a tattoo is for life, so love is meant to be for life. When two people genuinely love one another they don’t want the situation to ever change. What we really want are assurances of enduring commitment, we want our relationship to last.

In fact, that’s why wedding vows aren’t a declaration of our present love for our spouses, but a promise of future love. We say, ‘I will serve you with tenderness and respect... Whatever the future holds, I will love you and strengthen you, as long as we both shall live. This is my solemn pledge.’

In the Greek Saga, the Iliad, it tells the story of Ulysses’ travels. When Ulysses sailed passed the island of the Sirens he knew their voices would send him mad, but he knew it was only temporary, so he put wax in the ears of his sailors, tied himself to the mast and told his men to keep him on course no matter what he yelled. The thing about marriage is that we will go through times of unhappiness and difficulty. In fact the stats say that two-thirds of unhappy marriages will become happy within five years if people just stay married and do not get divorced. But what keeps those marriages together during the rough patches? The answer is our covenantal commitment to each other. Our vows keep us ‘tied to the mast’ until we get through the rough patches. Our vows keep you in the relationship when your feelings flag, and flag they will. A consumer mentality to relationships can’t endure the inevitable tests of life, because neither person is ‘tied to the mast.’ Consumer relationships get lured away to ‘something better,’ but covenantal relationships stay the course because ‘it’s not about better, it’s about you, I am committed to you.’

The commitment expressed in the marriage covenant reveals the depth of our love, it creates security and a foundation for enduring permanence.

e) The issue of covenantal unfaithfulness

But does that mean there are no grounds for leaving a marriage? What about the issue of covenantal unfaithfulness?

i) Divorce

Well firstly, let’s look at the issue of divorce. In Matthew 19 the Pharisees ask Jesus ‘3 …Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason? (Mt 19:3b)’ They start with a consumer attitude towards marriage, ‘can you get out for any and every reason?’ But Jesus upholds a covenantal view of marriage. He says, ‘6 …what God has joined together, let man not separate. (Mt 19:6b)’ According to Jesus the marriage relationship is not a casual relationship that can be discarded easily, it’s a life long commitment made between two people before God. But Jesus does go on and say that there are serious conditions that do justify divorce. He says, ‘8 …Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But… 9 I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery. (Mt 19:8-9)’ Jesus only gives one exception clause, adultery, or marital unfaithfulness. In 1 Corinthians 7 Paul adds another ground for divorce – wilful desertion. These actions essentially break the covenant vow so thoroughly that Paul says the wronged spouse ‘15 …is not bound in such circumstances. (1 Cor 7:15b)’ Sometimes human hearts become so hard because of sin that it leads a spouse into a severe violation of the covenant without prospects of repentance and healing. In such cases divorce is permitted.

ii) Re-marriage

So what about the issue of remarriage? Well if the wronged spouse is not bound it obviously means that they are free to remarry, otherwise they would still be bound to the marriage vows. But what about marriages that have resulted in divorce on grounds other than adultery or wilful desertion? I believe that divorce is not an unforgiveable sin, and that were there has been true repentance that God gives even divorced people a second chance.

iii) God’s Example

I think it’s helpful to look to God as an example. As we saw earlier, God describes his relationship with us in terms of a covenant, it’s a binding relationship, based on love and loyalty, commitment and obedience. But God’s people broke that covenantal relationship and so in Jeremiah 3:8 God says, ‘8 I gave faithless Israel her certificate of divorce and sent her away because of all her adulteries. (Jer 3:8)’ God divorces his people because of their spiritual adultery. But the amazing thing about God is that he makes a new covenant with his people. God says, ‘31 The time is coming… when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel… 32 It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers… because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them… 33 This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel …I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 34 …For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more. (Jer 31:31-34)’ God knows what it is like to be divorced. He’s experienced covenantal unfaithfulness first-hand. But God is also merciful and gracious, and he gives his people a second chance.


2) The Power of Promising

Divorce is incredibly painful, even today, which is why, more than ever, marriage needs to be seen as a covenantal relationship. Our vows, our sense of duty, keep us from giving up too quickly on marriage. They give love a chance, they create stability so that love can grow stronger and deeper with time. Seeing the essence of marriage in terms of a covenant is so helpful because there is power in making promises.

a) Choosing to Love

In the first sermon of this series I made the comment that you always marry the wrong person, and one of the reasons for that is because the truth is you don’t really know the person that you’re marrying, and they don’t really know you. As people we tend to put on our best face, sometimes quite literally. I’ve met some women who never go out in public without their makeup on. In fact, their husband may be the only person who knows what they really look like. As people we don’t want others to know our faults and our flaws. And of course we can’t show our spouses the parts of our character that we aren’t even aware of. But of course all of this stuff eventually comes out in the context of marriage. When over the years someone has seen you at your worst, and knows you with all your faults and flaws, and yet is still committed to you, then you know true love. To be loved but not really known is comforting, but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is amazing. It liberates us from pretence, it humbles us from our self-righteousness, and it strengthens us to face anything that life might throw at us. In fact, that’s exactly what it feels like to be loved by God. God knows our every weakness and failing, and yet he loves us beyond or wildest imaginings. The power of promising is that you choose to love your spouse, even though you don’t actually know who they are yet. Like we saw earlier the marriage vows aren’t about our present love but our future love. Everyone at a wedding knows the happy couple love one another right then and there, but what they want to know is will they always love each other? Will he love her when she is grey? Will she love him when he gets a pot belly? Will they love each other when they aren’t happy, when life gets difficult? And that’s the essence of marriage, the promise that in those times they will chose to love each other.

b) Love takes time

Which leads us to the second power of promising, the fact that love takes time, and your promise gives you that time. The covenantal commitment of marriage enables two people to become people who truly love each other. Only with time do we really learn who the other person is and come to love them for who they truly are, and not just for the feelings and experiences they give us. Only with time do we move from the superficial love based on our feelings and our limited knowledge of our spouse, to a love based on commitment and a deeper knowledge of who they really are, warts and all.

c) Choosing leads to love

And the amazing thing is that choosing to love your spouse, to fulfil your duty to them, actually leads to love. Nearly everyone thinks that the Bible’s directive to ‘love your neighbour’ is wise and right and good, but often they fail to notice that it’s a command. Now God isn’t commanding our emotions, he’s not telling us to like our neighbour, rather he’s commanding our actions, he is telling us despite how we feel we are to act in a loving way towards our neighbour. It’s a mistake to think that you need to feel love in order to show love to someone. C.S Lewis wrote, ‘Don’t waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbour; act as if you did. (Mere Christianity, 130)’

As a pastor I am expected to care about people, in fact I’m paid to care about people, but the interesting thing is the more I care for people the more I care about people. When you love someone you don’t particularly like, eventually your emotions catch up with your behaviour. If you don’t give up, but continue to love the unlovely, over time they will eventually become lovely to you. When you choose to love your spouse, you will grow in your love for your spouse. You can’t promise to always feel loving towards someone, but you can promise to always act in a loving way.

In our text, Paul commands husbands to, ‘25 …love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. (Eph 5:25)’ But just in case us husbands didn’t get it he says it again, ‘28 …husbands ought to love their wives… (Eph 5:28a)’ Paul stresses the obligation we have to love our spouses. It is something that we ‘ought’ to do. Paul is saying that he doesn’t care how husbands ‘feel’ on any given day, or any given moment, they must love their wives.

In any relationship there will be frightening spells in which your feelings of love seem to dry up. And when that happens you must remember that the essence of marriage is that it is a covenant, a commitment, a promise of future love. So what do you do? You do the acts of love despite your lack of feeling. You may not feel tender, sympathetic, or eager to please, but in your actions you must be tender, understanding, forgiving and helpful. And if you do that, you will not only get through the dry spells, they will become less frequent and difficult.


So when people say ‘I don’t need a piece of paper,’ you can say, ‘Yes you do. If you love the way the Bible describes the love of two people who want to share their lives together, you will have no problem making a legal, permanent, exclusive commitment.’ Don’t look at marriage with a consumer mentality. It’s not about what you get out of the relationship but about what you put in to it. In a consumer relationship as soon as you discover that you’re not getting as much as you’re putting in, you do what anyone does in business, cut expenditures. If my wife is not being the wife she ought to be, I will simply not put in the effort to be the husband I used to be. The truth is: the less you feel love and the less you act loving, the less you feel loving, and strangely enough you eventually fall out of love. The essence of marriage is the covenantal commitment, the promise, to love your spouse no matter how you feel. Maybe you’re hearing this and you’re thinking, ‘I just can’t give love unless I feel it, I can’t fake it!’ I can understand that reaction, but Paul doesn’t simply call us to action, he also commands us to think as we act. He says, ‘25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. (Eph 5:25)’ We choose to love our spouse, as we ought to, but we choose it because we remember that’s how Jesus loved us. When Jesus was on the cross giving up his life for us, he wasn’t doing it because we were so attractive to him, rather he was showing us how much he loved us while we were rejecting him, and denying him, and abandoning him, and betraying him. Jesus loved us, not because we were lovely to him, but to make us lovely. Jesus’ commitment to us is what ought to motivate our commitment to our spouses. So I want to encourage you, don’t see marriage as a consumer relationship, what you can get out of it, but as a covenant, a commitment, a promise, to love your spouse. Amen.

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