In last week’s big question (Have we not all one Father?) I wrote, “As a mirror reflects a face, our relationships reflect our religion”. If last week’s devotion was about living together as God’s sons and daughters, today’s is about living as the Bride of Christ. Once we grasp the ultimate Marriage to which all human marriages point, it should radically shape how we view marriage and romantic bonds. In the same text from Malachi, we’ll look at why faithfulness in marriage is such a big deal to God.
Malachi 2:10-16. Have we not all one Father? Has not one God created us? Why then are we faithless to one another, profaning the covenant of our fathers? 11 Judah has been faithless, and a detestable thing has been committed in Israel and in Jerusalem. For Judah has profaned the sanctuary of the Lord, which he loves, and has married the daughter of a foreign god. 12 May the Lord cut off from the tents of Jacob any descendant of the man who does this, who brings an offering to the Lord of hosts! 13 And this second thing you do. You cover the Lord’s altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor from your hand. 14 But you say, “Why does he not?” Because the Lord was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. 15 Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth. 16 “For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the Lord, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.”
A consumer contract
Our social mentors on love, sex and marriage are training us in faithlessness. Our culture is not too different from Judah in 400BC. If TV is an indicator, it seems we’ve traded the solemn covenant of marriage for a frivolous game or consumer contract based on feelings, compatibility and self-expression. I’m thinking of shows like ‘The Bachelor/ette’, ‘Love is Blind’, ‘Married at First Sight’; ‘Say Yes to the dress’; ‘First dates’, ‘90 Day Fiancé’; ‘Love Island’, ‘Our Perfect Wedding’, ‘Boer Soek ‘n Vrou’, ‘Cheaters’, ‘Are you the one?’ and ‘Uyang’thanda Na’?
We’re obsessed with hunting down the perfect partner and arranging the perfect wedding, but no one is interested in what happens when the honeymoon is over! These series may be entertaining, but the inferences aren’t subtle: Dating and getting married is like picking out an outfit from the shopping mall. We can return or exchange it when it no longer suits our tastes. Customized vows are a celebration of how you feel about your partner at the altar, all decked out in white dress and tuxedo, but they’re as fluid as shifting sands. Falling in love, having sex and getting married appear to be no more than romantic games we play, while break-ups and divorces are the inevitable bruises we get along the way.
Like any transaction protected by the Consumer Protection Act, there’s the right to choose, to privacy, to a cooling-off period and the right to return defective goods and claim a full refund if they are “of inferior quality, unsafe or hazardous.” If Pete had married me on that basis in 1993, he would have returned me shortly after the wedding!
A covenant of one-ness
“Did the Lord not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union?” (Mal 2:14-16).
But, Malachi understood that marriage is a sacred, one-flesh covenant. Marriage and sex are God’s idea, with no resemblance to the consumer contract the people of Judah have made it. After all, it was God Himself who presided over the first perfect wedding between a man and a woman in a perfect Garden. He is the same silent witness to every marriage thereafter (Mal 2:14). That first marriage was based on serious, permanent, exclusive promises. When their bodies came together in sexual intimacy, they were one flesh, “naked and unashamed,” with each other and before God (Gen 2:24-25). No walls, secrets or fear of rejection came between them. No performance or defect in husband or wife altered their union. What a beautiful picture of one-ness in every sense, spiritual, physical, emotional and intellectual! It was not a contract based on feelings and convenience that Adam and Eve stepped into at the beginning of the world, but a covenant of lifelong companionship and committed love, regardless of feelings or circumstances. Marriage was designed for God’s glory and their good. Of course, everything changed when Adam and Eve rejected God’s order and sin came into the world, but Eden remains the prototype of what God intends marriage to be, and Jesus endorsed it (Mark 10:6-12).
We enter into the same covenant of faithful love when we make marriage vows to each other. Let these promises sink in for a moment:
“I take you to be my wife/husband, 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 law, in the presence of God I make this vow.”
Is this how we understand marriage and sex, or have we bought into the counterfeit version peddled by our culture?
Let no one separate
Jesus said, “So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate” (Mark 10:8-9).
Neither does the Bible allow us to separate our earthly marriage vows from our relationship with the Lord. Even our prayers may be hindered if we fail to honour our marriage partner (1 Peter 3:7). That’s because we cannot separate earthly marriage from the great love story between God and His people. Human marriage was created to be a living, tangible image of that ultimate Covenant of faithful love between the Lord and His ‘treasured possession’ (Mal 3:17).
This interconnection explains Malachi’s outrage that Jewish men were marrying pagan women and rejecting their covenant wives. Three times he calls for faithfulness to the “wife of their youth” (Mal 2:14; 15b). Their adultery is living proof of their treachery to the Lord, who redeemed them as a people, loved them as a husband and longed to rejoice over them as a bridegroom over his bride (Isa 54:5; 62: 5).
In fact, an entire book of the Bible personifies the Lord’s redemptive love towards his adulterous people, and it is written in the language of marriage:
“I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion. 20 I will betroth you in faithfulness, and you will acknowledge the Lord….The Lord said to me, “Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another man and is an adulteress. Love her as the Lord loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods and love the sacred raisin cakes” (Hosea 2:19-20; 3:1).
Judah had broken their relationship to God by looking for protection, fulfillment and pleasure in the arms of a foreign god, instead of returning to the one true God, the Lord who had always loved them (Mal 1:2).
Returning to the Groom
While it’s impossible to fully grasp the profound mystery of the ‘marriage’ between Christ and those who follow Him as Lord, we do know that Jesus described heaven as a wedding feast for God’s own Son and he invited everyone to come inside (Matt 22:2-13). We also know that Jesus himself is the Groom of the Old Testament and his bride is his people throughout history (Matt 9:15; Mark 2:19; Eph 5:27; 32). Like any loving husband, Jesus is jealous for our love and purity. He vows to present us spotless when He returns to take us home to live with him forever (Rev 19:7-9; Rev 21:2; 22:17). So it doesn’t matter whether we are single, married, divorced or widowed, every forgiven Christian is Christ’s treasured possession, his bride (1 Peter 2:9).
We can also be sure that we didn’t become Christ’s bride by performance, perfection or moral purity, but only because we responded in repentance to his greatest act of love towards us—his death on the cross. It was no commercial transaction, but a one-sided covenant of grace and forgiveness. All we had to do was repent, believe and receive his mercy (1 Peter 2:10).
Wearing the wedding clothes
We can be certain that God’s Son, our Bridegroom, is busy building a place in which his bride will live with him forever. Only the Bridegroom can provide the wedding dress of “fine linen, bright and clean” for the wedding supper (Revelation 19:7-9; Matt 22:11-13). That’s why we need to confess our sin and ask to be cleansed and made one of his own.
For Christian couples, our marriages are dim pictures of what’s to come, but they are powerful drafts of how we make each other ready for the wedding supper of the Lamb. Are you playing an active part in the Lamb’s wedding preparations? If the Bridegroom returned today, would you and your spouse be ready?
If grace and repentance are required to attend God’s heavenly wedding, they are also the only way to live as husband and wife. Each time we break the one-ness of our covenant by being selfish, harsh or disloyal it is only genuine repentance and forgiveness that can redeem our bond. Reaching out to one another in grace and repentance can be hard and painful, but not nearly as miserable as an estranged marriage, or the anguish of divorce. Of course, there are Biblical concessions for divorce, but it should never be a first resort (Mark 10:5; Matthew 19:9; 1 Cor 7:15).
Guarding the spirit
Malachi warns us to guard our spirit, not just our actions. That’s because faithlessness begins in the heart and mind, and runs much deeper than cheating on your spouse (Matt 5:22; 28). Through pornography, anger or sulking we can break faith with our marriage partner, even if we don’t take a step out of the house. We are all guilty of faithlessness in one way or another.
To guard our marriage, we need to turn back to the ultimate Bridegroom over and over again to receive his mercy. Only when our hearts are devoted to Jesus, will we listen to him and value what matters to Him. Only He can make you a considerate husband who honours, protects and helps your wife to become all that God intends her to be (1 Peter 3:7; Eph 5:27-32). Only reverence for Jesus can give a wife inner beauty and the grace to submit happily to her husband, even if he’s unbelieving or harsh (1 Peter 3:1-5). Only with Christ’s help can we raise children who love the Lord, as single or united parents. Only when a single person is faithful to Jesus as their Groom, can they be sexually steadfast and marry only a believer (1 Cor 7:39; 2 Cor 6:14). It is only the ultimate Bridegroom who can knit a faithless man and woman together as spiritual companions, so that they nudge each other a step closer to Him every day. The kind of self-giving love needed to make our marriages beautiful, is unnatural to us and flows only from Christ who submitted to his Father, even to death, that we may be saved.
Like a garden, a nurtured marriage will grow and be fruitful, but left to itself, it will grow wild or die. If our faithless, wandering hearts are prone to think the grass is greener on the other side, let’s get busy watering our own garden.
The feature photograph is of my grandparents, Charles and Muriel Brand, who lived to celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary. I distinctly remember watching them in their kitchen at the end of their lives, Grandpa at the Magimix blending ingredients so my blind gran could serve her famous chicken liver paté. She was his megaphone at the dinner table when his deaf ears could no longer follow the conversation! Although my gran was an eccentric nutcase, my grandfather showed us what it means to delight in the wife of his youth. Apart from a four-year separation during World War 2, they cherished each other till death parted them at the age of 96, within five months of each other.
“Marriage Supper of the Lamb” is the last in a series by Timothy Keller which greatly refreshed Pete and my marriage. Listen to all 9 messages with your spouse or the person you hope to marry, so that you don’t settle for anything less than marriage as God intended. (Click here)