Mystery of Marriage

In Paul’s letter to Ephesus, he makes explicit the connection between the natural reality of marriage and the supernatural mystery of faith. Within his discussion on how the Ephesians are to be “imitators of God, as beloved children,” Paul turns his attention to marriage. The call to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” is enacted by the wife and the husband. Wives are to submit to their husbands as their husbands are to love their wives. This is not, Paul makes clear, a matter of maintaining order or duty, but rather is a relationship bursting with gospel-proclamation. Just as Christ gave Himself up for and cherishes His body, so too are husbands to love their wives “as their own bodies” (Ephesians 5:28). Just as the church lives in submission to Christ, so too are wives to submit to their own husbands. The mutual self-giving of husband and wife displays the love of the self-giving Son of God who calls His body to “present [their] bodies as a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God” (Romans 12:1).

It is for this reason, the gospel-enlivened reality of marriage, that a “man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (Ephesians 5:31; Genesis 2:24). This quotation from Genesis originally followed Adam’s love song to Eve where he declared her to be “flesh of [his] flesh” (Genesis 2:23). In Ephesians, Paul quotes Genesis to say the one flesh-ness of husband and wife, even from the beginning of time, is because of Christ’s union with his church of which “we are members of his body” (Ephesians 5:31). “This mystery is profound,” Paul says, “and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:32).

Marriage is never the center of gravity for Paul, but instead points to the mysterious yet sure reality of the gospel.

Witness of Marriage

Paul’s instructions on marriage are situated within a gospel-shaped community ethic so that the church might “grow up in every into him who is the head, into Christ…so that it builds itself up in love (Ephesians 4:15-16).  The gospel-imaging nature of the relationships between the people of God is not solely a reality between two people, but rather is a mode of proclamation. The difference of man and woman in marriage bears witness to the difference between God and humanity. The union amidst such difference within marriage bears witness to the union of Christ and His body despite great disparity. The procreative possibility in marital love bears witness to the new life Christ births and sustains in His body. The life-long covenant of marriage is an opaque image of God’s eternal faithfulness to His bride.

In this way the mystery of the gospel as displayed in marriage is both profound and for the sake of others. The witness of marriage works itself out in hospitality. Just as Christ’s death and resurrection birthed His family, so too does the self-giving of husband and wife create family. This obviously (and joyously) happens in the birthing and adoption of children. But this also happens as the Christian family creates a home for their brothers and sisters, imitating the hospitable love of God which “sets the lonely in families” (Psalms 68:6).  To understand marriage and family in this way is to see the Christian life as always and only life  as a part of the family of God which transfigures the family into a rich image of Christ’s body.

Eschatological Limit of Marriage

The Bible consistently affirms the goodness of marriage as it mysteriously images the relationship between God and humanity, especially in its fullest display in Christ’s death and resurrection. However, the reality of marriage is not an eternal but rather a provisional state. In responding to the Sadducees’ trick question about marriage in the resurrection, Jesus throws a curveball saying, “those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage, for they cannot die anymore” (Luke 20:35-36).

To be a Christian is to hold the tension of the now and the not yet. We are one with Christ now, and yet one day will be even more fully united in Him. God’s kingdom is here now, and yet one day the earth will be ruled by God’s will as it is in heaven. In a similar way, the Christian holds marriage in tension. The gift of marriage envisages the union of Christ and His church, and yet in the resurrection this opaque witness will be replaced by the fullness of reality. This is what Paul means when he says, “the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none…. For the present form of this world is passing away” (1 Corinthians 7:29).

In this way the married and unmarried Christian both bear witness to the coming heavenly reality, albeit differently. As the married Christian bears witness to the very present union of Christ and His church, the unmarried Christian bears witness to the hope of eternal life inaugurated by the Christ’s resurrection.

Heavenly Bridegroom

In a world which both diminishes and idolizes marriage and its expressions of love, the word of God reminds us of its ground in creation and its proper end in Christ. Marriage, for the authors of Scripture, is an incarnate picture of the cosmic reality of the gospel, namely: the union of Christ and His church. This union is poetically described by John as he says:

And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. (Revelation 21:2-4)