The Honor of Marriage

The following is the second session in premarital counseling, regarding the duty that a couple has to the institution of marriage itself.

“Marriage is [to be] honorable among all, and the bed undefiled;
but fornicators and adulterers God will judge” (Hebrews 13:4, NKJV).

What is your duty with regard to marriage itself?

Perhaps this question has not occurred to you. Obviously you have obligations towards your beloved one, but to marriage itself? Just think. In choosing to marry a person, you have not only chosen a person, you have also chosen an institution—marriage. Therefore, it is important for you to understand what marriage itself is, as well as your duty with regard to marriage.

Whether we are married or single, young or old, according to Hebrews 13:4, we all have certain duties to keep with regard to marriage. Interestingly, only one of the duties mentioned there involves sexual purity:

1. Marriage itself should be “honorable among all.”

2. The marriage bed should be kept “undefiled.”

The order here is noteworthy. It is the significance of marriage that gives importance to its symbolic expression in the marriage bed. To honor the bed without honoring marriage would be like saluting the flag without a patriotic heart. It would be hypocritical. Therefore, we must honor marriage as well as keep its bed undefiled.

In our culture, both the marriage bed and marriage itself are questioned. Often due to having witnessed ugly divorce situations, many young people are now choosing to live with someone on a trial basis before marriage. One recent report claimed that about half the men and women between the ages of 15 and 44 have cohabited with someone (WORLD, March 27, 2010, p. 13). Cohabitation is not marriage. According to Jesus’ words to the woman at the well, having a man at home is not the same thing as having a man in marriage (see John 4:16-18).

Cohabitation dishonors marriage. Setting aside the controversial case of so-called same-sex marriage, consider these common examples of cohabitation:

A young mother lives with a man, even sleeps with him, but remains unmarried, in order to keep her state aid.

An elderly woman also lives with a man, unmarried—to keep her social security—but does not sleep with him.

In both cases, marriage itself is dishonored, even though in only one of the cases is the marriage bed defiled. A similar situation occurs whenever a man and woman choose to “play house” or to have a “family” apart from marriage. Even intimate conversations on a regular basis with someone of the opposite sex can cross the boundary defined by marriage. Marriage is symbolized, as the medieval saints used to say, by sharing both bed and board.

It is so encouraging that the two of you have chosen God’s idea as the expression of your life together. You have already begun to honor marriage. No matter what your background—even if you have lived together—your marriage can be a manifestation of God’s great grace in your lives. In your own marriage vows, you will express the wide range of circumstances you may share together—riches and poverty, sickness and health, death and life.

To better honor marriage, let us examine its origin, its essence, and some implications.

The Origin of Marriage

In Genesis chapter one, we see the origins of humanity, in contrast to the birds, the fish, and the beasts. In Genesis chapter two, we see the origins of marriage within the special creation of man as male and female.

After God had created man and had placed him in the outdoor park we call the Garden of Eden, He made this striking comment:

“It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him” (Genesis 2:18).

All throughout chapter one, God would look back at what He had made and say, “It is good;” but now, in creating and establishing man, God said, “It is not good.” And it is still not good for man to be alone! (Do I hear an “Amen” from the groom-to-be?) Even if a Christian man or woman were to remain single, that person’s relationship with the family of Christ will have to be quite strong in order to make up for the deficiencies. For most young people today, the Bible still seems to advocate marriage over singleness (cf. 1 Timothy 5:11-15). Therefore, God continues to fashion a woman for the man she is to marry.

Please observe the following implications from this profound text:

1. Marrying your spouse is a good thing. To remain “alone” is not a good thing.

“He who finds a wife finds a good thing, and obtains favor from the LORD” (Proverbs 18:22).

“Houses and riches are an inheritance from fathers, but a prudent wife is from the LORD” (Proverbs 19:14).

Your spouse is a gift. Learn now to give thanks often for the gift of your spouse.

2. This particular void cannot be filled with other forms of companionship, even the pets of Genesis chapter two.

The word “comparable” speaks of a complimentary match of opposites, such as lock and key. While it may be true that the verse speaks broadly of the complimentary nature of man and woman, it may also imply that God specifically crafts one woman for one man, just as only one key fits a particular lock. Opposites still attract!

Your spouse is supposed to be different from you. Learn now to give thanks often for your many differences.

3. Marriage really is God’s idea.

It was God who caused the “deep sleep,” took the rib, and “fashioned” it into the woman suitable for him. Man did nothing. Then God brought the woman back to him, with the intention that they would once again become “one flesh” (Genesis 2:21-24). In this transaction, we see how the woman completes the man.

Marriage is truly of God. Learn now to speak honorably of marriage, and to thank Him for this arrangement.

The Essence of Marriage

In commenting on the origin of marriage, the word of God notes:

“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24).

The word “therefore” implies that all marriages, in all time and in all cultures, are based on this first marriage. In other words, because Woman was taken from Man originally, every future husband shall leave his parents and be joined to his wife, so that they can become one flesh. Therefore, the morality of all future marriages is determined by its conformity to this original norm. (Incidentally, this fact is exactly why there can be no such thing as “same-sex marriage,” for not only was the original marriage of opposite sex, the complimentary reunion of the two sexes would be impossible otherwise. As one person once quipped, “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.”)

In practical terms, we derive two principles from the origin of marriage:

1. Leave and Cleave: “A man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife.”

Marriage truly is the foundation of a new family. The man leaves one home in order to found a new one.

The strength of this leaving-and-cleaving principle is illustrated by Ruth, who “clung” to Naomi, even when the older woman urged her to seek a husband in Moab. Using the language of a marriage vow, Ruth told her mother-in-law:

“Wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you lodge, I will lodge;
Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God.
Where you die, I will die, and there will I be buried.
The LORD do so to me, and more also, if anything but death parts you and me” (Ruth 1:16-17).

In Old Testament culture, such a relational bond sealed with an oath constituted the essence of a covenant relationship, where one person promises in some way to be true to another upon pain of death. Interestingly, in Hebrew, a person literally “cut” a covenant, which apparently came from the practice of cutting an animal in two to seal the deal (see Jeremiah 34:18; e.g. Genesis 15:10). In essence, the covenanter was saying, “May God
do this to me, if I break this bond between you and me.”

Do you see the strength of this union? Marriage is a covenanted bond for life between a man and a woman, in which God Himself is the witness (see Malachi 2:14). There is no contract here, or negotiated agreement, but a “bond in blood,” to borrow a phrase from O. Palmer Robertson.

With this covenanted bond in mind, now here the language of our culture’s traditional marriage vows:

Dost thou, John, take this woman, before God and these witnesses, to be thy wedded wife?

I do.

Wilt thou love her, comfort her, honor and keep her, in sickness and in health, and forsaking every other, cleave to her only, so long as ye both shall live?

I will.

At this point, the man says to the woman:

I, John, take thee, Jane, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part, according to God’s holy ordinance; and thereto I plight thee my troth.

At the close of this exchange of words, followed by an exchange of rings, the minister then pronounces:

Forasmuch as you, John, and you, Jane, have consented together after God’s holy ordinance of Marriage; and have plighted your faith and troth to each other in the presence of God and of these witnesses; and have confirmed the same by giving and receiving a ring; now, therefore, I pronounce you Husband and wife; in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Having made the pronouncement, the minister then echoes words of Jesus, who also based marriage on its origins in Genesis:

Whom, therefore, God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.

In the end, each marriage by covenant is just as supernatural as the first marriage: God joined the two together! And since God alone joins people, He alone has the right to separate them, which He does through death.

2. One Flesh: “They shall become one flesh.”

In the Hebrew text, the three verbs are in a step-by-step chain—the man leaves in order to be joined to his wife, and he is joined to his wife in order to become one flesh with her, which signifies the marriage bed. In one sense, marriage would be incomplete without the physical union, for woman was taken physically from man and then brought back to him. Moreover, the physical union is an outward manifestation of the inner union—in
a way, its seal. For this reason, the exchange of rings in the wedding is not nearly as important in signifying oneness as the kiss, which symbolizes the one-flesh relationship.

It is important to keep these principles separate. Leaving-and-cleaving is the invisible essence of marriage; becoming one flesh is the visible expression of marriage. Sharing a bed does not make a couple married, nor does violating that bed with an outsider break up a marriage. Marriage is one thing; the marriage bed is another. The essence of sexual immorality is becoming one flesh without a marital union (see 1 Corinthians 6:15-18).

Once the marriage is sealed in bed, the reunion of flesh is complete. According to the reasoning of Jesus Himself, “They are no longer two but one flesh” (Matthew 19:6). Note the words “no longer two”! Your life of independence is over. Once the unity candle is lit, blow out the other candles.


Now that you understand what marriage is—a covenanted bond in blood, for life—you can more easily appreciate the depth of human need for a partner, as well as the supernatural reality of God’s solution. Amazing! Far more than a contract, or a lifetime friendship, marriage is a divine act of uniting a man and woman together in soul and body for a lifetime. No wonder marriage should be honored, and the marriage bed kept undefiled!

Given this profound reality, ponder the following implications.

With regard to leaving one’s father and mother, there should be a break in both authority and intimacy. Though you are to honor your parents for a lifetime, even past their death, you are no longer obliged to obey them, as indicated by the term “children” in Ephesians 6:1 (cf. Numbers 30:3-8). Moreover, you should honor the confidentiality of your home as you would the bedroom. Remember, in order to cleave to your spouse, you first had to leave your parents’ house! Sadly, some newlyweds never leave their parents, emotionally or physically. You must. Listen to the wisdom of one Puritan preacher:

“As the young Bees do seek unto themselves another Hive so let the young couple another house…that whatsoever come, they may never fall into that unhappiest of all unhappinesses, of either being tormentors of their parents or tormented by them” (William Whateley, as quoted in Packer, Quest for Godliness, p. 356, n. 31).

With regard to cleaving, think through your vows carefully. If you use the traditional vows, do not parrot them in empty fashion. If you use some other vows, make sure they are at least as Scriptural in intent. Remember well what the wisdom of God has said: “Do not be rash with your mouth, and let not your heart utter anything hastily before God. For God is in heaven, and you on earth; therefore let your words be few” (Ecclesiastes 5:2).

Finally, with regard to the marriage bed, wait until you are first married, and then make it yours alone—an expression of having forsaken all others to cling only to this one special person. Remember, engagement is not marriage—you are not yet one. God will judge fornicators as well as adulterers (Hebrews 13:4). Therefore, even now, keep your future marriage bed undefiled. To do so, you will need a strategy and habit of fleeing temptation, which is the repeated wisdom of Scripture for fighting sexual sin (1 Corinthians 6:18; 2 Timothy 2:22).

Do you now feel the weight of marriage? If so, you will honor marriage, and this honor will help you to keep your vows, and not to break your bond. In the end, the duty is quite simple—to choose your love and then love your choice, as Puritan Henry Smith once quipped. In future lessons, we will learn how to keep this duty through the love that Christ gives the human heart.

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