Ephesians 5:31-33 “‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a profound mystery- but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.”
The Office for National Statistics published its Population Trends last month. It predicted that in 25 years’ time almost half the men in the British Isles would be unmarried – compared to 36 per cent today. The number of unmarried women would have increased from 28 percent to almost fifty per cent. The number of unmarried people cohabiting would have almost doubled to 3.9 million. More people are going to choose never to marry at all. The institution of marriage is being greatly undermined by man’s rejection of the Christian faith. God says it is not good that man should be alone. There is no way that these figures will be changed for the better unless there is a mighty outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Let me say something by way of introduction about the Scriptural foundation for marriage.
To know what marriage is, why it is desirable, and that men and women cannot function fully outside of marriage, it is necessary to turn to the opening chapters of the word of God where we learn how this divine institution began. According to the Christian faith God has established marriage as the human relationship that allows men and women to realize their full potential as image-bearers of God. Marriage was right there at the very beginning; it was not an arrangement that gradually came about through evolutionary development. The disparagement of the opening chapters of Genesis has already had a devastating influence on marriage, and now what has the Roman Catholic church done this past week? It has officially declared the Bible to be a flawed book.
On Wednesday October 5 the Roman Catholic bishops of England , Wales and Scotland published a document called The Gift of Scripture which warned Roman Catholics, “Don’t expect total accuracy from the Bible.” The bishops could not tolerate the idea that the first eleven chapters of Genesis could be a historical record, and then they went on in this statement to condemn fundamentalism for its intolerance. The Times gave the appearance of the book a one page spread.
The Roman Catholic secretary of the Catholic Action Group, Robert Ian Williams, was one of the people who wrote to the Times two days later expressing his alarm at the appearance of this document, saying that the bishops had “opened readers of the Bible to a minefield of subjectivism.” They have placed the inspiration of the Bible “on only a slightly higher level than that of Wordsworth, and have delivered a propaganda coup for all the enemies of the Roman Church, whether they be fundamentalists, Baptists, or secular humanists.”
An evangelical minister, Anthony Carr also wrote in saying this, “Before the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church allowed only the clergy to interpret the Bible to their flock. William Tyndale broke the power of the English [Roman] Church to interpret the Bible by translating from the Greek a beautiful edition of the New Testament (1525). The Roman Catholic Church again attacks the Bible so it can take back authority for its own interpretation. Christian believers can now pick and mix. For many Christians the written Word of God is their daily food and drink. There is an authority contained within its pages that surpasses the greatest scholar’s interpretation. To take away the trustworthiness of Scripture is to destroy the very basis of Christianity” (The Times, October 7, 2005).
How is a Christian to know what is true and what is false? Is that important? It is all important. What are we to believe and what are we to reject? Can we get a red high-lighter pen and colour all the parts of the Bible that are false, and then be confident that the rest is 100% true? Do the Roman bishops supply us with the code for all the bits of the Bible that they know to be false? They don’t. No such code can possibly exist. That is what alarmed that Roman Catholic who wrote to the Times that readers of the Bible have been plunged into a minefield of subjectivisim – “Is this bit true? I don’t know. Are these words true or not? We don’t know. Rome doesn’t tell us.”
The bishops are saying that it’s not important that there are errors in the Bible because you can always fall back on the pope, because whenever the pope speaks ex cathedra he is infallible in whatever he says, but there they greatly err. They also say that Jesus Christ the Son of God is infallible, and there these bishops are right, but what does our infallible Lord say about the Scriptures of the Old Testament? Does he say what the Roman Bishops of England , Wales and Scotland have said this past week? No, he does not. He says the very opposite. Who are you going to believe? Jesus Christ or the bishops? You’ve got to choose.
The Son of God treats the historical narratives of the Old Testament Scriptures as straightforward records of fact. “Your word is truth,” he says to his Father. “The Scripture cannot be broken,” he says. We have on his lips references to Abel, Noah, Abraham, the institution of circumcision, Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot, Isaac and Jacob, the manna, the wilderness serpent, David eating the showbread, David as a psalm-writer, Solomon, Elijah, Elisha, Jonah and Zechariah. He looks at the whole sweep of history from the foundation of the world to this generation and he sees it as God’s history true and one. He refers to Moses as the giver of the law, and frequent are his references to the sufferings of the prophets, and the popularity of false prophets. Though the Roman bishops do not set their approval on the truthfulness of Genesis 1 and 2 the Lord Jesus did, “‘Haven’t you read,’ he replied, ‘that at the beginning the Creator “made them male and female,” and said, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh”? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.’” (Matt. 19:4-6). These words are also repeated in Mark’s gospel in the tenth chapter, verses 6, 7 and 8. The infallible Son of God has given to those who call him Lord an infallible Scripture, but the fallible men in leadership in the Roman church have taken that truth away from the 5 million Roman Catholics whom they pastor and have given them instead a book which they warn is full of errors. They calm the fears of the faithful with the assurance that they are capable of telling men what we are to believe, but they don’t supply the code for detecting erroneous teachings. Mother church will inform me what is true and what is false. I am to believe her encyclicals and decrees, but I will reply to mother church with the words of Martin Luther when Rome put him on trial and asked him to repudiate his writings and their errors. Luther said this; “Since your majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer without horns and without teeth. Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God, I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.” Then they tried to break Luther down in a committee, telling him that if he continued like this there would be division. Luther told them, “The pope is no judge of matters pertaining to God’s Word and faith. But the Christian man must examine and judge for himself.”
The evidence is clear: to Christ the Old Testament was true, authoritative, inspired. To him the God of the Old Testament was the living God, and the teaching of the Old Testament was the teaching of the living God. To Jesus Christ, what Scripture said, God said.
It was not Jesus Christ alone who quoted from Genesis 2 as being authoritative and true, so does his apostle Paul in our text. Does Paul write with the authority of his Lord? Yes. Didn’t the Lord Jesus say to the Twelve, “As the Father has sent me so I have sent you?” Didn’t Christ promise them that he would give them the Holy Spirit that would lead them into all truth? Yes. Hasn’t he kept his word? What sort of Lord is Jesus if his most famous servant, the apostle Paul, taught error? Couldn’t Jesus keep Paul from teaching falsehood? If not he’ll certainly not be able to keep me or you!
Yet here in our text the apostle Paul quotes from the second chapter of the book of Genesis and verse 24. Paul copies out those words, “‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’” What have we here? The very same words that Paul’s beloved Lord quoted in Matthew 19 and Mark 10. Here are these same words but now backed by the authority of the man who saw the risen Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus . We are reading what the much blessed, and greatly used, yet extraordinarily humble apostle Paul wrote. He is telling us that we need to understand our origins as men and women made by God, where we came from, who created us and why, what is marriage, who designed it and what are its basic ingredients. If you reject the opening chapters of Genesis then you are ignorant of the God of Genesis one because the words are a pious fiction. We don’t know the answers to who we are, where we have come from, what is the origin of this universe, what went wrong to bring this world into the groaning dying state it is in today. Aren’t you glad that the Son of God has given to you a safe foundation for your marriage as he puts his imprimatur on the truth of Genesis two? I will challenge you again with the words of Jesus, “‘Haven’t you read,’ he replied, ‘that at the beginning the Creator “made them male and female,” and said, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh”? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.’” (Matt. 19:4-6). The God who created the universe and made us in his own image has also explained to us what is the meaning of marriage. The Roman church has tried to take over marriage by making it one of its seven sacraments, and then it claims it can give grace to those married by a priest. But marriage is not a sacrament; the Lord Jesus instituted just two sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Marriage is a creation ordinance. It is tied to Genesis 2 not to Rome . Its roots are in the origin of man and women being made in the image of God. So let us go to this text and ask what does marriage involve?
1. MARRIAGE INVOLVES LEAVING.
It is an entirely new way of life that makes it necessary to leave your old way of life behind. We must leave the family into which we were born in order to start another, new family. This must be done in spite of the fact that family relationships, ideally, are some of the most intimate there are. Children develop strong dependence upon and affection for their parents, and parents also become dependent upon their children. This was true in the days of the New Testament as well. Yet when they described marriage, both Christ and Paul went back to Genesis 2, and they said that marriage means leaving your father and mother.
When young people are married, they should no longer feel dependent upon their parents. This doesn’t mean that parents may not help their married children when emergencies arise. But if a man can’t stand on his own feet and earn his own living and make decisions for himself, he’s not yet ready for marriage. If this is true with respect to one’s father and mother, it is also true with respect to other social relationships people have before they are married. They must leave their families and the old gang too – the Friday night out with the boys, and the Monday night out with the girls. You leave all that when you are married, and if that is a sacrifice you find hard to make then you are not ready for marriage.
If you are not emotionally capable of making that kind of break with the old way of life, you will face many problems. Every marriage counsellor, every minister, everyone who deals with unhappy people whose marriages are collapsing will tell you that one of the most frequent reasons for the collapse is this: either husband or wife, or both, have never left home, or they’ve never really cut their ties with the old gang. They think marriage is simply rooming together in a relationship recognised by the law, while they continue living as before. Many marriages fail because the partners didn’t realize that they were supposed to be on their own.
2. MARRIAGE INVOLVES CLEAVING
The word of God says that marriage involves joining. The Authorised Version of the Bible uses the word ‘cleaving’. That expresses very nicely another important aspect of marriage that must be understood if your marriage is going to be a happy one. Cleaving is clinging; to cleave is to cling. In an ideal marriage the husband and wife cling to one another, not in desperation, but in the calm assurance that God wants them to face life together. They engage in the exciting business of living jointly; they live as if they were really one.
How many young couples never actually understand this aspect of marriage. Perhaps you have never really understood that God wants you and your marriage partner to be one in your basic ideas and ideals. He wants you to be united as you work together and pray together and live together. This, of course, would be impossible if you were not compatible in your religious life – yet there are thousands of people who try marriage even when there is no religious compatibility whatever. The Old Testament forbad marriage with the worshippers of Baals in the surrounding nations. The New Testament says marriage should be ‘only in the Lord.’ To marry someone who has no interest at all in the gospel of Jesus Christ indicates the weakness of your love for him.
Let me use this illustration. Suppose you are a young man who is travelling back on the train from London to Aberystwyth and you meet on the train a pretty young woman and engage in animated conversation all the way to Shrewsbury . You all get out of the train there and you ask the girl, ‘Where are you going?’ ‘I’m going to Inverness ,’ she says. ‘Well, isn’t that wonderful!’ you say, ‘I’m going to Aberystwyth; so let’s take the same train, shall we?’ Now if she is a fairly intelligent girl, she will immediately begin to doubt your sanity, unless, of course, you are joking. But obviously you’re not joking; you are serious. And so you try to persuade her that this is a perfectly reasonable thing to do, to climb aboard the same train as the one you are catching to west Wales . Suppose that she begins to agree with you as you tell her it will all be fine. You succeed in persuading her that this thing can really be done. I warn you that you’re going to come to a rude awakening when the train reaches Aberystwyth.
Well, that’s absurd, isn’t it? It’s simply is out of the question. The whole story is ridiculous. But this is what some people do with their marriages. Their boy-friends oppose their Christian convictions but they still marry them. I am saying that that is like two people with totally different destinations attempting to travel on the same train. You know how it is: here’s a couple who each have their own careers, their own bank accounts, their own cars, their own circle of friends, and they are incensed if anyone suggests otherwise. More than that, they each have their own god, their own chief end in life, their own view of what is right and wrong, their own beliefs about death and eternity, yet they live together in one flat.
The Bible says that marriage is a union in which husband and wife cleave to one another and become one – a social unit that responds to life efficiently and well. This doesn’t mean that there are never circumstances in which husband and wife will not have their own jobs and even have different interests. But basically they are on the same side, they are on the same team, they are on the same train heading in the same direction, talking and working together for the same purposes and goals. No circumstance short of death can separate them. Marriage, then, according to Scripture, involves leaving and cleaving.
Obviously, marriage isn’t like a temporary friendship; it demands a great deal of maturity. This is the reason so many students who decide to live together find the relationship ends in pain. It takes maturity to leave your father and your mother; it takes maturity to destroy your dependence on the old gang. Two people must be really grown up before they are able to forsake all others and cleave to each other. But today there are thousands of young people who move in together in spite of the fact that they have never grown up. They are unwilling to make the break necessary to abandon their old way of life. They are unwilling to make the sacrifices necessary as they begin their new life together. That is why they weep so much, and frustration as bitter as ashes destroys their joy.
3. MARRIAGE INVOLVES TWO BECOMING ONE FLESH.
What should we think about regarding this “one flesh” idea? Naturally we think of this as a reference to the sexual union that is part of marriage. We generally think of sexual intercourse as being rather “fleshly,” often in contrast to the more spiritual elements of our lives. And surely the union is very close and intimate, even to the point where the two people might be called one. And because this “one flesh” idea is so easily related to the sexual dimension of marriage, some have concluded that a marriage should not be dissolved, because once a couple has shared such intimacies, it would be improper for them to leave each other. The biblical idea of “one flesh,” however, is far stronger than this.
Twenty years ago John Stott wrote a helpful article entitled “Homosexual Marriage” in Christianity Today magazine. He referred to Genesis 2, where man recognizes that woman is “flesh of [his] flesh” and he says, “We may be sure that [the reference to ‘flesh of my flesh’ and ‘one flesh’] is deliberate, not accidental. It teaches that heterosexual intercourse in marriage is more than a union; it is a kind of reunion. It is not a union of alien persons who do not belong to one another and cannot appropriately become one flesh. On the contrary, it is the union of two persons who originally were one, were then separated from each other, and now in the sexual encounter of marriage come together again.”
Continuing, John Stott says, “It is surely this that explains the profound mystery of heterosexual intimacy, which poets and philosophers have celebrated in every culture. [It] is much more than a union of bodies; it is a blending of complementary personalities through which, in the midst of prevailing alienation, the rich, created oneness of human beings is experienced again.” Dr. Stott then asserts that this physical complementarity is a “symbol of a much deeper spiritual complementarity.”
Think for a moment about things that complement each other in the physical world—for example, a hand and a glove. They go together, and when the weather gets cold, they had better go together if a person wants to stay comfortable. What Stott is saying here is that a man and a woman complement each other in marriage; they do this physically in terms of the way God has made them, but they also do so on a deeper level, because, when God created man in his own image, he created him male and female. Moreover, woman was taken out of man. When they come back together in marriage, then, that “oneness” of being human is restored.
Dr. Stott, along with other Christian thinkers who, unlike the Roman Catholic bishops of England, Wales and Scotland, consider this biblical data to be divine revelation, declares that the only relationship that can be considered marriage is what occurs between a man and a woman who publicly enter the marriage state, and that those who enter this state have the obligation before God and before man to cling to each another for their entire life. They are, as the Bible says, “to cleave to one another”; as Jesus said, man must not try to separate what God has put together.
This, then, is God’s essential teaching regarding marriage. Joel Nederhood, in one of his radio broadcasts, pointed out to his listeners all over the world that marriage is far different from what people often view as marriage these days. Marriage is a bond between two people that is so deep and so profound that both of them are inescapably affected by it. It is so profound that once a person is married, everything he thinks about involves the person he is married to. A husband and wife are one flesh. One. One. One. This word must be stressed over and over again.
This idea is the foundation for what the apostle Paul says about marriage. “He who loves his wife loves himself” (v.28) says Paul. Isn’t this astonishing; this is what everything we’ve been talking about comes down to. Tell me, how many of us think of marriage in these terms? I’ll confess that if it weren’t for what we have here in Genesis 2, I probably wouldn’t think of marriage like this. We think of marriage in terms of the satisfactions of our needs. We think of it as a social convention that should be preserved, if possible. But what the Bible is saying is that God calls a husband and wife together and joins them in a union that is so deep and profound that it enables them to express the fullness of their personalities as God’s image bearers.
The two become one flesh. For a husband this means that his wife’s strengths are his strengths and that his strengths are her strengths. It also means that her weaknesses are his and that his weaknesses are hers. This is what makes marriage so awesome. I am thinking of a man I know who dedicated his life to caring for his sick wife. For decades he had to wait on her hand and foot. Some might say, “He shouldn’t have done that. He should have arranged for his wife’s care in an institution, got a divorce, and started life with someone stronger.” But, no, he shouldn’t have done that, because her sickness was his sickness. On the other hand, his strength was her strength. So together they lived out the fullness of their lives as God’s children. They were one; they were one flesh in the deepest and fullest sense of that idea.
How does all this sound to you? How does it sound when you hear that the Bible says, “Marriage is the union between a man and a woman whereby they become one flesh, and, as such, they express the image of God in their lives”? How can this be? One flesh? One? Image bearers of God? It sounds very strange, doesn’t it? These days so many ideas about marriage do not have the slightest resemblance to what the Bible is talking about. We are so far away from the Bible’s description of marriage that, when we hear it, it sounds as if it comes from another planet. Well, it probably sounds that way because it’s divine revelation. It is the infallible word of God.
Think what would happen, now, if more and more of us thought this way about marriage and acted accordingly. Could this ever happen? I don’t think it could happen until more and more of us accepted the Lord Jesus Christ. This is a religious view of marriage, as you can see, and we cannot really live this way unless we have a personal relationship with the God of the Bible and with his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.
To anyone whose marriage is on the rocks and who is far away from what we have been talking about today – I say, turn to Jesus; confess your sins, and ask Jesus to be the Lord of your life. Surrender to him. Stop living in rebellion against him. Believe in him, and begin to obey him. Marriage renewal begins with spiritual renewal. The power we need in order to renew our marriages by understanding what they really are can come to us only through the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. And this is where it begins: with faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Now, I don’t believe that marriage renewal can happen overnight. The ideas that we have discussed today are too deep for that. We have to emphasize them over and over again within our churches. We have to talk about them in the schools, and if the ordinary schools of the land won’t let us talk about marriage this way, we will have to build our own schools, in which our children can learn to think about marriage this way. And this process will take time. But we must work at it because other views of marriage are tearing our country to shreds.
And those of us who are married and who believe in Christ and are trusting in his Spirit to enable us must begin to look at our life partners in the light of the Bible’s teaching. When I look at my wife, I am not just looking at somebody else, but I am looking at myself, for our persons are intertwined to the point where we together enable each other to live as image bearers of God. And she must look at me the same way. Possibly you are saying, “This is nonsense; no one can look at another person that way.” Well, ordinarily we never look at other people that way; everyone else is objective, everybody else is “somebody else,” but not your wife, not your husband. When you are married, you are one flesh. You are one, and in the light of the Bible, it is possible to see this.
Have you noticed that, in all I have said thus far, I haven’t talked much about love? Isn’t that strange? Usually, when we talk about marriage, we talk about love first of all. But that isn’t the way the Bible talks about marriage. It talks about the marriage union as something which may be occasioned by love but which, in essence, is something that goes beyond love. The commitment, the loyalty, the faithfulness, the oneness are so basic and fundamental in marriage that when we do speak of love in marriage, we are practically speaking about loving ourselves. And that’s what the apostle said: “He who loves his wife loves himself.”
Life is very short. And it’s important that we make as few mistakes as possible during our journey. If you don’t want to make a mistake with your marriage, look at it in the light of the Bible and live within it in terms of the way Bible describes it. Marriage is a great adventure. It presents opportunities for self-fulfilment that are without parallel; no other social arrangement even comes close. It is so awesome that those of us who are well married can only marvel that we have received this priceless gift. I invite you to think about marriage in biblical terms and to live in the marriage bond the way God wants you to.
It is good to be young, but it is also good to be thirty, and middle-aged, and even elderly. Each age has its special advantages, and we married people try to help one another grow through the years and remain alert to the growth we observe in each other. So the investment that we make in marriage pays off handsomely. Our civilization idolizes the image of youthful love and affection, but those who have lived a decade together, or 25 years, or 40, or 50, often have an experience of love that is much, much richer than that which is of short duration. The shared experiences of many years, the triumphs, the heartbreak, the common concern for growing children, the strong tenderness that accompanies sickness and tragedy, the growing appreciation and understanding of one another, and the growth that each has experienced over the years—all these make long lasting married love indescribably rich.
One of the greatest deceptions presently perpetrated upon our country is the impression that young love is the greatest. It is great, in its own way. But those who live with the wife of their youth, and who have done so for many, many years, know that this privilege is extremely great, for there is nothing more beautiful than the love of two people who have grown together over the years and who have many wonderful memories. That love is indescribably precious.
What we need to hold our marriages together is the wisdom of the Lord Jesus Christ. Those who know him and who take his counsel seriously, are able to resist all the forces that corrupt marriages these days. They know marriage is for life, and it’s worth working at. And they receive strength from this Jesus to do just that. Today, when marriage is not taken nearly seriously enough, remember, there is a better way. It’s Jesus’ way. It’s the Bible’s way. Its rewards are very great.
9th October 2005 GEOFF THOMAS