Yesterday I watched a miracle take place. It was God’s work of taking two people and making them one. The wedding was one part of the event. The consummation of the marriage, in the privacy of the honeymoon suite, will have followed. Then in the communion of life that will unfold in days and years ahead—by God’s continuing grace—the miracle will carry forward. Marriage unites them in a host of ways for the length of their lives: spiritually, emotionally, physically, socially, and more.
Two preliminary remarks before I go on. First, the lead-in paragraph holds assumptions that aren’t necessarily current, even among Christians. In the 1950’s it would have been more common to have two Christians come to marriage as virgins intent on a lifelong marriage. There also would have been a vision for a progressive growth into full marital oneness centered in the nuclear family rather than today’s norm of paired pursuits of individual—and usually diverging—careers. Knowing their personal stories and commitments, this couple would want their traditional approach to marriage to be noted.
Second, as I write about marriage I recognize the irony of a perpetual bachelor taking up a topic he’s never experienced. Of course we are all observers of many marriages, and I was raised within a marriage, so there’s some measure of experience in that. But that’s not the basis for this post. My ambition here isn’t to offer readers a set of steps to better marriage. Nor to grouse about “good ole days” over against modern approaches.
Rather, here’s the question: why did God create marriage? I’ve noted this subject before in passing but let me take it up as a central focus in this entry.
The short answer is that God, the Father, determined to give his Son a suitable partner—a bride—for the rest of eternity. This purpose is supported by the many New Testament cues to our participatory union with Christ—of our being “in him” and “in Christ” and our having Christ “in us”. Let me engage the broad biblical frame for this theme.
First, the Bible begins with marriage in its very first pages: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” [Genesis 2:24]. It also ends in Revelation’s last pages with the celebration of the coming wedding feast of the Lamb: “The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come . . .” [Revelation 22:17]. This is what scholars call an inclusio: a single theme with two bookends, one introducing the theme and the other offering a final repetition. The point is that everything written in between the bookends will be informed by the theme. While an inclusio is normally limited to a local text, or to a single book at most, it applies here to the whole of revelation. God’s divine purpose is to achieve a marriage and in his cumulative work of inspiration marriage is his guiding motif. It must shape both our reading of the Bible and our understanding of how we live under God’s loving rule.
But, sadly, the theme is largely overlooked by Bible teachers today—relegated to a tertiary status within applied theology: a matter for pastoral care. But this myopia is more contemporary than historical. The first Protestant reformers were captured by the theme of our marital union in Christ. And before them it also informed the Augustinian tradition of Triune love and saving initiative.
We need to begin with God’s own eternal relationality—in the Father’s love for the Son, and the Son’s reciprocated love for the Father, facilitated by the communing activity of the Spirit. God then extends his Triune communion to his newly created humanity. Thus Genesis 1 reports God’s plan by declaring that humanity is created relationally in God’s own image and likeness: “male and female he created them.”
God’s work of continuing creation stands behind the motif of marriage. God first set out the union of marriage as organic—the single material of “one flesh”—inclusive, and procreative: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman [the feminine form of “man”], because she was taken out of Man” [Genesis 2:23]. She was the necessary completion to Adam, without which he was unable to live or to extend life as God intended. The interdependence is complete: she was made out of his being and only through her being would his being be extended. The oneness of their being was real, defined by their mutual participation in one shared life.
This unity was soon shattered, spiritually, by the Fall in Genesis 3. In the serpent’s guile Eve was convinced to pursue the option of becoming “like God” in order to gain the benefits he offered. She, in turn, convinced Adam to join her. As soon as they ate of the forbidden fruit the Spirit left them and they died—as God told Adam would be the case before Eve was formed.
By recognizing John 3 to be Christ’s commentary on Genesis 3, we find that this “death” was defined by the loss of the Spirit’s life-sustaining union with the first couple. This created the necessary solution of our being “born again” by the restoration of the Spirit’s presence and life if we are to live eternally. The spiritual bond between Adam and Eve was also broken—a reality Paul presumes in his commentary on unequal marriages in places like 1 Corinthians 7:14 and 2 Corinthians 6:14-18.
The fruit of the lost life and love of the Spirit in Adam was a new self-focus and defensive alienation, both towards God and Eve: “I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself . . . . The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate” [Genesis 3:10-12]. Fear, selfish inadequacy, and blame-casting became the fruit of death now found in all marriages.
God’s redemption, thankfully, is much a bigger plan than the simple restoration of a pre-Fall status quo. His plan from before the creation was unveiled by his disclosure that one would come—the “seed” of the woman—who would crush the serpent’s seed and end the rebellion.
But God’s plan would be a process. Adam, as a starting point, was confronted for rejecting God’s word on the basis of his wife’s serpent-stirred coaching: “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you” [Genesis 3:15&17]. We now hate the product of the curse—with all the ills that come through it—and long for a cure.
Jesus was the solution—the “blessing”—who fulfilled the promise of the unique “seed of the woman”, birthed by the Spirit in Mary as a recapitulation of Adam’s first creation. Jesus also came to reorder the matter of marital relationship that Adam despised, by disclosing himself as God’s own “Word” and in responding to his Father’s words; and in calling forth his collective bride by his Word which, alone, can “set you free” from sin.
As we consider marriage as an arch-motif of Scriptures we can start by asking an age-old question: would Christ have become a man if Adam hadn’t sinned? The proper answer is that Adam’s sin was fully anticipated by God—though not formed by him. This response, in effect, treats the question as invalid. Sin and the incarnation are not in some sort of competition—rather sin, a human event, sets up the incarnation as God’s expression of ultimate love.
Let me unpack this. God gives humans a real freedom. But we are mistaken if we speak of this freedom as volition-based: as our “free will”. That’s the serpent’s sort of language. It treats our autonomy—our “self-rule”—as the basis of our being. His invitation for us to “be like God” starts with that notion and it presumes a self-focused version of deity: the role he covets.
Instead we must start with God who, in his Triune communion, “is love.” We are also told that we were made as dependent beings—”apart from me you can do nothing”—who are meant always to be bonded to God and to each other in love. But love is never imposed on us. Why? Because love exists as response, rooted in our affections: we love God because he first loved us. It is not a responsibility—as in a self-activated duty—although it bears an immense capacity for responsibility once it comes to life. So our freedom is that he allows us not to love him. He will never force himself on us and call it love. In human terms we speak of this as rape.
So, in and with Adam, we became lovers of self, lovers of pleasure, lovers of the creation rather than the creator, and lovers of the fallen notion of “self-rule”. God knew this would be a certain outcome when he created us as lovers whose creativity would search out and test alternative loves. God, in his wisdom, determined to allow us to taste sin.
And we love it. Sin enslaves us through the thrill of being “like God”—and that thrill rules us. Or it does until we, by the Spirit’s illumination, begin to see that the fruit of sin—a fruit we see clearly in others but not in ourselves—is formed in and through our autonomy.
God, in his mercy, draws such people—those broken in their autonomy—to himself. He takes people who repent of our freedom-to-choose, with all the abortions it produces; who repent of trying to determine for ourselves what is “good and evil” that allowed us to ignore his words; who repent of having the pretence of religious obedience even though we don’t really care for him or follow him with whole hearts. In place of autonomy we become a people who trust God and entrust our live to him. We discover a faith working through love.
What motivates God in his creation-fall-and-redemption plan? The Son. He is God’s proffered bridegroom in waiting. One who comes to us in the marital motif that makes males flinch. God uses the imagery of male-female sexuality as his radical entrée and workshop for us to “hear” the depth and breadth of our calling. Yet this is only an entryway that anticipates our eternal and non-sexual union with Christ. As his collective bride—in the place where we will be “like the angels” and no longer engaged in our prior earthly marriages—we will discover the joy of complete devotion to others.
But this is only for those who find him so lovely that we are drawn out of the black hole of our self-absorption into a love for him. The Bible alerts us to an irony: repentance comes more readily to the poor, the blind, the sick, and the broken than it does to the educated, the powerful, the wise, and the wealthy. But the opportunity is free to all. So the present era—from Genesis to Revelation—is our “coming out” event: our chance to come and “kiss the Son” as we are invited to do in Psalm 2.
Let me end by reminding us that Paul twice wrote of our true—our ultimate—marital union as “in Christ” by citing the Genesis 2:23-24 account in 2 Corinthians 6 and in Ephesians 5. In the latter text Paul stuns the reader by his reversal of the order of nature: “I am saying that [Genesis 2:24] refers to Christ and the church.”
Sadly we tend to be deaf to all this today because we so boldly defend our actual behaviors. We read our “hardness of heart” version of things back into the Bible.
How so? By not only approving but celebrating serial marriages. By our treating marriages as legal functions and contracts rather than as God’s continuing creation: “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” [Matthew 19:6]. God has, in fact, created unbreakable unions that are as real today as the “one flesh” reality of Adam and Eve. As theologians, we remain deaf by not hearing the language of God’s covenants as part of the inclusio of marriage. They can only be read rightly in that light—as Malachi illustrates in his juxtaposition of the divine covenant and human marriage covenants. And we too often miss the repeated motif of whoredom—the opposite of marriage—in both Testaments, with Haggai as the most dramatic and poignant example.
Thankfully God is still at work. He is calling out a bride, making us to be “holy and blameless” by his “washing with the water of the word.” His Son rejoices in us, despite the expense we are to him as those who caused him to be crucified. And who are now crucified ourselves because of our response to such love.
So yesterday I watched a miracle take place. It was made possible by God’s gift to us, his Son. And the full dimension of this miracle is being unveiled to us in just one setting, at the cross.