Sacred MarriageRev. Philip Miller | July 16, 2023
Selected highlights from this sermon
What is the Christian understanding of marriage? Whether we’re single or married, we can immediately apply the Bible’s teaching about marriage to life.
In the last half of Ephesians 5, the apostle Paul lays out the shape, the call, and the purpose of Christian marriage. The biblical understanding of marriage is radically different from both traditional and modern views of marriage.
By viewing marriage through the lens of Christ and His bride, Pastor Miller shows how the Bible upholds the value of both singleness and marriage as a means of showcasing the love of Christ. Just as marriage displays the covenant-nature of God’s love, singleness displays the all-sufficiency of His love.
Marriage. We’re talking about marriage today. I thought about opening up with that moment from the Princess Bride where the impressive clergyman comes out and says, “Marriage— marriage is what brings us together today— marriage, that blessed arrangement… that dream within a dream.”
But I thought better of it. [laughter]
So, we’re in Ephesians, chapter 5, and the apostle Paul has been expounding for us the implications of the Gospel for the everyday life of the Christian. And here in the back half of Ephesians, chapter 5, Paul lays out the Christian understanding of marriage. And the Christian understanding of marriage we’re about to see is radically different from both the traditional and modern concepts of marriage.
In traditional culture, which is most of world history and, indeed, most of the global population to this day (some of you are from cultures that would be designated as traditional cultures. In traditional cultures, marriage is primarily understood through the lens of societal stability, societal stability. So stable societies need stable families, and stable families need stable marriages. And so, marriage in traditional culture is not just about two individuals getting married, it’s about two families coming together. It’s about the social fabric, the societal bonds being strengthened through that union, which is why in traditional cultures, unhealthy marriages have a tendency to hang together even though they are miserable because of the community dynamics at play. In traditional culture, marriage is about social stability.
In modern culture, in contrast, which is the West where we live today, marriage is primarily understood through the lens of personal fulfillment. Personal fulfillment. Instead of binding ourselves to the duties of marriage and family for the sake of community, as in traditional culture, in modern culture, community and marriage is all about individual fulfillment. Marriage is about all of our romantic, sexual, and emotional dreams coming true. It’s about finding our one true love and living out our own “happily ever after,” which is why in the West so many of our marriages tend to break apart. Because when the hard stuff comes, and it always does, and the fairytale is shattered, we have a tendency to give up and try again.
In modern culture, marriage is chiefly about personal fulfillment. But the Christian understanding of marriage is radically different from both traditional and modern concepts of marriage. It blazes its own unique trail, and there’s no better place to see that and understand it than in Ephesians, chapter 5. So, grab your Bibles. We’re going to be in Ephesians, chapter 5, verses 22 down to 33. You’re going to find today’s reading in the pew Bible there on pages 978 wrapping up at around 979. If you didn’t bring a Bible, grab that, and join us. Page 978 to 979. And again, this is Ephesians, chapter 5, verses 22 down to 33.
Now, we’re picking this up in the middle of Paul’s train of thought, which starts all the way back in chapter 4. So let me read just a handful of verses to help us get the train of thought, the flow, so we can understand where this passage comes. All right? So, I’m going to read just a couple of verses here and then we’ll jump in.
Ephesians 4, verse 1 says this: “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called.”
Ephesians 4:22–24: “[to] put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”
Ephesians 5:1 and 2, 18, and 21: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God...be filled with the Spirit...submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
Verse 22: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, so that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. ‘Therefore, a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast 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.”
Thanks be to the Lord for the reading of His Word.
This morning we’re going to see:
- The shape of Christian marriage,
- The calling of Christian marriage, and
- The purpose of Christian marriage.
The shape, calling, and purpose of Christian marriage. All right?
Let’s bow our heads. Let’s jump in and ask the Lord to be our teacher.
Father, we love you, and there are times when we read your Word and it doesn’t always connect immediately. Father, help us to see your wisdom, see the beauty of how you have made marriage. There’s so much confusion in our cultural moment. Give us clarity, and give us the courage to follow you, no matter what, for it’s [for] Christ’s sake that we pray, Amen.
So, first of all, the shape of Christian marriage, the shape of Christian marriage. This passage is the most extensive treatment on the subject of marriage in the Bible. What’s remarkable to me is how little this passage actually is talking about human marriage. You think about it. There are 215 words in this passage in English. Only a hundred of them are about human marriage. The majority of the words are about Jesus, and His covenant love for His bride, the church. In fact, Paul weaves back and forth between human marriage and the divine love of Christ almost effortlessly. Do you see it in the passage as if it’s one seamless conversation, because it is.
You could see it in the verses we just read. The commands to husbands and wives are patterned after Christ and His love for the church, how the love of marriage, as it is described, is likened to the sacrificial, self-giving, and redeeming love of Jesus; how the union of marriage is pointing to the glorious union between Christ and His bride, the church. And the highwater mark of this interweaving is found in verses 31 and 32 where Paul quotes from Genesis 2:24, which is from, in the context there, where Adam and Eve meet each other for the very first time in the Garden of Eden, and you have the very first human marriage, and we read, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” It’s a passage that is clearly about human marriage, but then Paul says in verse 32, “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.”
Paul is saying this mysterious one-flesh union, where two become one, isn’t just about the human institution of marriage. No! It’s certainly about that. We’re not denying that, but it’s not only about that. It’s also about something bigger, something grander. It’s about Christ and the church. Paul is saying that human marriage is designed to point beyond the earthly and physical to the cosmic and spiritual; that marriage is designed to be a mirror that reflects the covenant devotion of Christ, or better yet, marriage is meant to be a window through which we can glimpse the glories of the love of God, the light streaming in.
Now if you wind all the way back to Genesis, chapter 1, you can see the seeds of Paul’s logic even there. In verse 26 of Genesis, chapter 1, God says, “Let us make man in our image and our likeness.” Now, notice the plurals. Let US make man in OUR image. Why? What’s the plurals? Here you have the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the three persons of the one triune God, three persons, one in essence, having a conversation amongst themselves, these three persons, equal in every way and yet distinct and non-replaceable, unity in diversity, having a conversation, resolving to create humanity in their image and likeness.
And then you go down to verse 27, and it says, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” So here you have the triune God who is unity in diversity Himself, who has equality and distinction (Right?), who now creates humanity in His image and likeness, and what do you get? You get male and female that He creates in His image, unity in diversity, as God allocates His attributes to this binary pair, each of whom equally possess the image of God, and yet who each are distinctive in their own particular beauties as male and female. And so, when Adam sees Eve for the very first time he says, “This is bone of my bone. This is flesh of my flesh.” She’s just like me, but different. We were made for each other. We belong together. We’re family.” And then the Bible says, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” So, this binary pair of image bearers now come together, and as they come together, there is completeness and fullness and wholeness that is reflective of the triune God Himself. Unity in diversity.
Theologians describe the interior life of God with the word “perichoresis.” It is a dance of mutual indwelling, self-giving love, mutual indwelling, self-giving love. It’s the dance. From the fullness and overflowing love of the triune God, Father, Son, and Spirit who are eternally giving and receiving of one another into themselves, from that dance springs the wonders of all creation. And now the crown of that creation, humanity made in the image of God, male and female in marital union come together in loving self-giving and the wondrous creation of new life.
And do you see from the very beginning, the unity and diversity and self-giving union of marriage was designed to reflect the unity and diversity and self-giving union of the triune God Himself. The two-in-one dance of human marriage is imitating the three-in-one dance of the triune God. And you can get all of that from Genesis 1 and 2, but Paul goes even further in Ephesians 5. He says not only is marriage patterned after the abundant love that is within God Himself, it is patterned after the covenant love that Christ has for his bride, the Church, that is overflowing in redemptive love toward God’s people.
The eternal dance of mutual-indwelling self-giving love within God has now swept us up by grace through faith in Christ as Jesus comes and loves us and gives Himself up for us to reconcile us to the Father, that we might be filled with the Holy Spirit, so that Jesus’ prayer in John 17:21 might be realized.
As Jesus prays, “Father, I pray that they all might be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you that they may also be in us.” Friends, through salvation we have been invited to the dance. Do you see that?
Like little kids— Did you ever go to a wedding and they’re dancing, and those little kids are out there dancing with the bride and groom on their wedding? That’s the picture. We don’t get to enter the marriage of God, but we’re the little kids just hanging on, brought and folded into the love and joy and rapture of this God. Paul says the union of marital self-giving love is reflective not just of the interior life of God, it is also reflective of the overflow of Christ’s redeeming covenant love for His bride, the church. That’s the shape of Christian marriage. The shape of Christian marriage is patterned after Christ’s covenant devotion.
The shape of Christian marriage is patterned after Christ’s covenant devotion. Unlike modern culture where marriage is chiefly about personal fulfillment, and unlike traditional culture where marriage is about societal stability, Christian marriage is about God. It’s about the Gospel. It’s not about me, it’s not about we. It’s about Thee.
Amen? That’s what it’s about. Paul is telling us that for Christians, the primary lens through which we understand marriage isn’t societal stability, it’s not personal fulfillment, although those are valid and secondary lenses you can use. The primary lens is theological. Marriage is about God, and it’s about the Gospel. It’s about God and the Gospel. Marriage is a dance, inspired after the perichoretic love of our three-in-one God. Marriage is a mirror reflecting the redemptive love of Christ. Marriage is a window into the covenant devotion of Jesus Himself. It’s the shape of Christian marriage, and it influences the calling of Christian marriage. It influences the calling.
In light of this soaring theological vision for marriage, Paul now gives husbands and wives some very particular assignments, specific callings on their lives. And it’s woven all throughout this passage, but let’s just start— We’ll hop around a little bit, but let’s start with the husbands, why don’t we?
In verse 25, “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,” Verse 24, (Just jump up a bit.) “Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.” Back to verse 22, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior.” Verse 28, “In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body.” Verse 33, “However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.”
So over and over again, Paul emphasizes the Gospel calling within marriage for husbands and wives. And for husbands, you see it quite clearly. The husband’s call is to lovingly lead the way in sacrificial self-giving. A husband’s call is to lovingly lead the way in sacrificial self-giving. Paul says, “Look, I just called all of you to be imitators of God, as beloved children. I told you to walk in love as Christ loves you and gave Himself up for you as a fragrant offering to the Lord. I told you all to be filled with the Spirit. I told all of you to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
And husbands, now I’m going to tell you where you’re going to live that out. You get to begin with your wife. You get to sacrificially serve her in self-giving love just like Jesus. You get to lay down your life in love for her.
Husbands, let me talk to you just for a moment. Husbands, God has given you a role of leadership in your family, but it’s not about you. It’s not for your benefit. You’ve been given leadership so that you can serve and sacrifice for the sake of your wife.
Let me tell you what being the head of your family looks like. It means you’re the first to say you’re sorry. It means you’re the first to extend forgiveness. It means you’re the first one to take responsibility. It means you’re the first to go without when the money gets tight. It means you’re the first one at her side when she has a need. It means you’re the first one to have her back when she needs support.
Husbands, you will be the first one to stand before God and answer for how you led your wife in loving, sacrificial, self-giving love.
You’re the head. You’re just like Jesus. You are called to lay down your life for your bride. You’re not called to assert your own headship and leadership. If you have to assert it, you don’t deserve it. The only crown you get to wear is a crown of thorns.
Wives– For wives the calling, Paul says, is to respectfully submit and defer in self-giving love. Paul says, “Look, remember I just called all of you to be imitators of God, to walk in love as Christ loved you and gave Himself up for you. I called you all to be filled with the Spirit. I called you all to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ, and wives, now you get to begin to live that out with your husbands. You get to respectfully submit to Him in self-giving love, just like Jesus submitted Himself to His Father, and submitted His own needs for yours, and put you first and laid down His life in sacrificial love. You get to lay down your life for your husband.”
You see, the more you actually dig into these commands, these callings, the more you begin to realize how much overlap there is between them. Do you see that? That love is actually chock full of submission, and submission is chock full of love? They both require self-giving and sacrifice for the sake of the other.
In many ways, love and submission are two sides of the same coin. Love says, “You go first.” Submission says, “I’ll go last.” They are really the same basic muscle movement.
Now, what does this mean? Let’s bring it down to Earth. Let’s make it really practical. What does this look like in real life?
Well, let’s say it’s been a rough week, and husband and wife, you both had really stressful, heavy, exhausting weeks. It’s Friday night. You finally get a breath, and the wife thinks, “You know, I know what would be most— what would most fill my husband’s tank is to cook his favorite homemade meal. That would just help him in so many ways.” And the husband thinks to himself— He says, “You know what my wife most needs, what would really fill her tank, is a date night out at her favorite restaurant, so she doesn’t have to cook.” Right? And they both have been reading Ephesians, chapter 5. Right?
And so, the wife goes to the husband and says, “You know, honey, you have had a really hard week. I’m going to make your favorite dinner.” And the husband says, “No, sweetie, you’ve had a hard week. I want to take you out.” And she says, “No, honey, I’ll make your meal.” [laughter] And he says, “No, I’ll take you out.” And she says, “No, I’m cooking.” And he says, “No, I’m taking you out.”
That’s what Christian marriage looks like. You never decide anything. Right? [laughter] We joke, but there’s actually an order here in the passage, isn’t there? The husband is the head of the house, which means he breaks the tie. He wins and so they go out for dinner at her favorite restaurant.
I’m serious. That’s what godly leadership does. It sacrificially serves for the sake of his wife. And as he loves her in sacrificial self-giving and she submits to his loving care, their marriage starts to look a little bit like Jesus. It’s like a dance. Somebody’s got to take the lead. So, he takes the lead, and she follows, and if he does his job right, everybody’s looking at her, showing off how beautiful she is, and he fades into the background.
That’s the calling of Christian marriage. It is the imitation of Christ through love and submission. A Christian marriage is one in which both husband and wife everyday are seeking to outdo one another in love. “You go first, I’ll go last.” You see, they are imitators of God as beloved children, walking in love, as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God, filled with the Spirit, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.
So that’s the shape of Christian marriage. Now the calling of Christian carriage.
Have you noticed how, at the heart of this passage, it’s all about spiritual transformation? In the very blazing center, it’s all about spiritual transformation in a passage about marriage. Isn’t that weird?
Look at it. Verse 25, “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her that he might sanctify her, and having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing that she might be holy and without blemish. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes it and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body.”
Just look at all those graces piled up. Right? Christ loved the church. When we were lost in our transgressions and sin, He came for us, pursued us. And He gave Himself up for us. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. He gave His life in exchange for ours that He might sanctify her, make us holy, chosen in Him, His very own forever, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the Word. This is the imagery of a bridal bath.
Bathing. You do it every day. In the ancient world, it was kind of like a weekly thing maybe, and then you had a special bath before your wedding. It was not only to wash off the filth, but to pamper up. We are baptized, washed clean. We are sanctified by the Word so that He might present the church to Himself in splendor.
This is the imagery of marriage. He might present the church to Himself so he’s walking the bride down the aisle. He’s presenting her and then He turns around and receives the bride to Himself, her love from beyond the walls of the world, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing that she might be holy and without blemish, perfect in every way. For we are members of His body, Paul says, nourished and cherished by Christ himself. In this one flesh union we have in Christ, where we are in Him, and He is in us, He loves us as His very own body, for we are His, and He is ours now and forever and for always.
Now, why would Paul place such a glorious emphasis on spiritual transformation right in the middle of a passage about human marriage? Why would he do that? It’s because marriage is a vehicle of Christ’s transforming work. Marriage is a vehicle of Christ’s transforming work. Marriage is a pressure cooker in which Christ is preparing us for Himself.
You know, sometimes we think marriage is about happiness, but it’s less about happiness and it’s more about holiness. Holiness. Jesus is in the business of making us like Himself, in order that He might present us to Himself as His bride in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing that we might be holy and without blemish as we stand before Him. And Christian marriage, Paul is telling us is all about that vision, that vision of holiness before Jesus.
You’ve got to be able to look at the caterpillar and see the butterfly. This is what your marriage is about. Your spouse is a caterpillar. Right? And they will one day be radiant and beautiful and glorious. They will take wing and fly into the arms of Jesus forever. Can’t you see it? Can’t you see it as it begins, the glorious son or daughter of God that is just beginning to break through, that will one day grow into fullness to look like Jesus. Every so often you catch a glimpse of who they will be. If only the anxiety wouldn’t trump them up so much. If only their worries wouldn’t make them cower. If only their sinful habits wouldn’t dog them down. A glimpse of glory breaking through, a moment of courage, a glimpse of kindness, a little bit of generosity or mercy or wisdom. Glory breaking through, flashes of immortality coming through the cracks.
And you see that in your spouse, and you say, “I want to be a part of the glorious future of what Jesus is doing in your life. I want to be a part of that today and every day, and into eternity. I want to be a part of the synergy of God’s redeeming, transforming work by the power of the Holy Spirit.
“I can’t fix you. I can’t make you like Jesus. Only the Holy Spirit in you can actually do the metamorphosis, transforming work, but I can show you the Gospel. I can love you when you are unlovely. I can forgive you when you sin against me. I can live with you in humility and gentleness and patience. I can confess my sins and kneel with you before the cross of Christ. And I can help you look to Jesus, the author and perfecter of your faith who is calling you to Himself. I’m going to do everything I can to see you presented in holiness and splendor to Jesus in glory.”
Friends, a marriage like that is a window, you see, a window to the light of Christ that’s flooding in so your spouse can see it, your friends can see it, your kids can see it, your neighbors can see it, the world can see it, because the purpose of Christian marriage is growing in holiness to reveal Christ. That’s what the purpose of Christian marriage is, growing in holiness to reveal Christ.
Marriage is less about your happiness. It is more about His holiness. It’s about shining the love of Christ to each other and to the world. It’s about helping each other get ready to marry Jesus. That’s what your marriage is all about. It’s about helping each other get ready to marry Jesus.
You know, when I was a kid, my siblings and I would sometimes play dress-up. We had like a big trunk full of all kinds of random stuff, including some of my mom’s old bridesmaid dresses. And we would put those on. I’m not telling you who I was in the wedding. But we had everybody there, the bridegroom, the best man, maid of honor, flower girl, ring bearer, and of course, the pastor. You know? Don’t forget the pastor. But we were acting out, imitating ahead of time what we hoped would one day happen for real.
Friends, that’s what you’re doing in marriage. You are acting out, imitating ahead of time what you hope and know will happen one day, when you stand before Jesus as His bride, prepared in splendor to spend eternity with Him, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that you would be holy and without blemish, and you would fall forever into His loving arms. Your marriage today is getting ready for the marriage to come.
Friends, these fragile and momentary marriages are pointing to the ultimate and everlasting marriage. These fragile and momentary marriages, small “m”, are pointing to the ultimate and everlasting Marriage with a capital “M”.
It’s fascinating in Matthew 22, verse 30, Jesus tells us that at the resurrection in the glory of the new creation, people will neither marry nor be given in marriage. We’ll be just like the angels. It’s a fascinating passage, which means (Listen) your human marriage is a fragile and momentary thing. It will not last into eternity. Your friendship within the marriage will last for eternity, the love you share will last for eternity, but your marriage itself won’t last for eternity. Why? Because it's a signpost. It is pointing to the ultimate, true, and greater marriage that is coming when Jesus takes you in His arms, and holds you in His nail-pierced hands, and you will know the love for which you were made from the very beginning. At that moment, you will realize that all the human love you have ever experienced and ever known, all the covenant faithfulness, all the sacrificial, self-giving love— It was all pointing— it was a glimpse pointing you to the glories of the love you were made for.
And once you’re at your real wedding, you don’t have to play dress-up anymore. You just put those clothes away because the glory has overwhelmed it all.
You see, it’s this logic, this Gospel logic that drives Paul to say in 1 Corinthians, chapter 7, that he wishes everybody would be like him, single and unmarried, sold out for Jesus. Why would he say that? Think about it. If these earthly marriages are fragile and momentary pointers to the better marriage to come, why not devote yourself to the ultimate and everlasting marriage that’s coming with Christ?
Paul says, “Look, if you’re going to get married, do it for the right reasons. Have a Christian marriage to reveal the covenant love of Jesus for all the world to see. And if you are going to be single, do it for the right reasons. Live a Christian singleness to reveal the all-sufficiency of the love of Jesus for all the world to see.”
See, friends, marriage isn’t for everyone. Singleness isn’t for everyone. But standing before Jesus radiant and splendid is for every one of God’s children. Amen? [Applause]
Do you see how radical this is?
Traditional culture doesn’t have a category for singleness because it makes an idol out of family, and it makes marriage all about social stability. Modern culture doesn’t have a category for singleness because it makes idols out of romance and sex, and it makes marriage all about personal fulfillment. But the Bible upholds the value of both singleness and marriage because both can authentically showcase the love of Christ as we grow in holiness by the Spirit until the day that we fall into His everlasting arms. Marriage displays the covenant nature of God’s love, and singleness displays the all-sufficiency of Christ’s love.
We’re all playing dress-up. Husbands, wives, singles, every single one of us. We’re all playing dress-up for the real marriage that is yet to come. Amen?
Oh Father, this is a sacred marriage that you have described for us. We fall short of your glory minute by minute. We need your Spirit to take a controlling interest in our hearts and lives so that we can walk with Him into the glories of your calling. We want to live a life worthy of the calling to which we have been called.
Help us to have Gospel-shaped marriages in your mercy and grace as we rely on what only you can do in and through our lives. We surrender ourselves to you. We fall on your mercy and grace. This is our only hope. Point us to Jesus, for it’s in His name we pray. Amen.