The Marriage Covenant

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : Exodus 20:14

God is the faithful God who keeps his covenant promises. Blessed are all who, by his grace, keep theirs!

Welcome to the session # seven of our Ten Commandments series! This is about the marriage covenant. Remember again the background of grace here, that all God’s commands are given after he has already acted on our behalf in the most amazing love. So every command, we can be assured, is for our good always. That is true profoundly in this command, this calling to marital faithfulness, “You shall not commit adultery.”

The joy and blessing of true loving marriages can’t be calculated. And the full misery of broken ones is known only to those who have suffered them. God says in his word that he hates divorce, precisely because he loves people and wants their true joy.

As we saw two weeks ago, human history began with a wedding. Marriage between a man and a woman is God’s idea and can never be improved on or replaced. Let’s look first at how this union is related to God and his purposes.

The Covenant God

God is revealed throughout the scriptures as a God of covenant. In fact, the word we translate “testament”: “Old Testament,” “New Testament” means literally “covenant.” We have in our Bibles as Christians an Old Covenant and a New. We first read about a covenant in Genesis 9 after the flood, when God pledges he won’t again destroy all the earth with a flood and sets a rainbow in the sky as a sign. It’s an agreement to which God willingly binds himself, including a promise and a God-given sign. This one is all God’s doing. We do nothing except receive it gratefully.

Then you read in Genesis 17 about the covenant God made with Abraham. Again, he created the covenant. He promised to be a God to Abraham. He promised him a land. He promised him that through him and his seed all the families of the earth would be blessed. Numerous offspring, nations, kings, a land, a great name.

And then with Moses and the people at Sinai that covenant was renewed with the whole community, sealed in the blood of sacrifice. God promises to be their God. Their part is to worship and obey him.

But God’s people break this covenant again and again. And then comes the promise in Jeremiah 31 of a new covenant. This would not be like the covenant that he made at Sinai which the people broke. In this new covenant God would write his law on their hearts. He would be their God. They would know him. They would be forgiven. They would have a new heart and a new spirit. Still the response in their hearts was to be one of trust and obedience. Now a new inward power to obey would be given along with God’s free forgiveness.

Now it’s against that background that we understand how God sees marriage. Listen to these words from Proverbs 2:16 and 17. “You will be saved from the loose woman, from the adulteress with her smooth words who forsakes the partner of her youth and forgets her sacred covenant.”

And then again in Malachi, people wonder why God doesn’t honor their offerings. Why does he not? The answer is because “the Lord was a 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.”

The Covenant of Marriage

Marriage is a covenant, a solemn agreement. You remember how it goes, “Will you take this woman to be your wedded wife? Will you take this man?” And then the call is, “Don’t be faithless.”

You exchange promises. You commit yourself. Then the pledge is, “I, John, take you Mary to be my wedded wife and I do promise and covenant before God and these witnesses to be your loving and faithful husband.” Then the wife makes similar vows. It was Nietzche who said, “Man is the only being who makes promises.” Pierre Marcel: “Man is essentially a being who commits and engages his own future.”

We pledge ourselves. Our unique glory and dignity as human beings is found in our faithfulness to our promises. When we don’t keep solemn pledges and covenants, something of our real identity and personhood is lost. When you marry you make a marital vow to your spouse, before God and human witnesses, for the rest of your life to keep it, to be a loving and faithful husband.

But it’s faithfulness also to a person, a pledge to only one. You say to him or her, “You can count on me to stay with you, to be true to you, to love you, to care for you all my life long.” That’s huge.

And it’s a commitment to a relationship, to keep on working at that relationship, to treasure it. Many stresses and misunderstandings and conflicts come along in marriage but we commit ourselves never to stop working at our relationship, protecting it, nurturing it, no matter what it takes. We refuse to let anything create distance between us.

Adultery and Divorce

Now over against that is the tragedy of divorce. We’ve just read how God hates divorce because he loves people. Because we’re people who make promises and find identity and freedom in keeping them, it’s always a tragedy when those are broken. This is not to fix blame on this person or that one, but to lament the shattering of a covenant. Jesus told the persons who asked about the legitimacy of divorce that the very desire for it betrayed a hardness of heart, rejecting one partner to take another.

Divorce is not only the breaking of a covenant; it’s the breaking of hearts. As we saw earlier, God hates it because he loves people and hates what makes them suffer. Sometimes in a divorce where there’s been unfaithfulness or abuse, it may be the lesser of two evils, but it always wounds. It wounds everyone involved, not only family members but also friends.

Parents who wait and divorce when children go off to college may feel that’s a much easier time to do it, but I’ve seen how college young people torn apart inside, how families are devastated by this. I know of families where a spouse has been unfaithful and children bear the wounds of that. They find it difficult to believe ever in God’s fatherly love.

The Bible speaks with great bluntness about the madness of adultery. Proverbs 6 issues powerful words about what this means.

Do not desire her beauty in your heart, and do not let her capture you with her eyelashes; for a prostitute’s fee is only a loaf of bread, but the wife of another stalks a man’s very life.

Can fire be carried in the bosom without burning one’s clothes? Or can one walk on hot coals without scorching the feet?

So is he who sleeps with his neighbor’s wife; no one who touches her will go unpunished.

Proverbs 6:25, nrsv

All sin is a kind of insanity. This, it seems to me, is one of the chief. I’ve known of marriages that have been broken and hearts broken terribly by unfaithfulness. The soap operas may thrive on this and almost glorify it, but it’s always ugly and empty. It can bring no enduring happiness.

The Grace of Fidelity

On the other hand, think about the grace of fidelity. I think every day about my own mom and dad, their commitment to each other, their love that sought each other’s interests above their own. That gave me always a deep sense of security. We were going through the Great Depression but I knew that the foundation of my home was strong, and that becomes a kind of legacy inspiring my generation to be faithful in marriage. Often the children of divorce aren’t sure about their own stability in marriage, their own ability to hang in there. A heritage of faithfulness is an enormous gift that you pass on to your children.

It’s interesting that when Paul describes the fruit of the Spirit, the character of Christ, his life breathed into us, he begins with love and includes fidelity and self-control. In Christ, by his Spirit, we find the motivation and strength to be faithful marriage partners.

Wider Implications

The biblical views of marriage and faithfulness carry over into every expression of our sexuality. Not only adultery but all sexual activity outside of marriage is forbidden. “Marriage is honorable in all,” says the apostle, “and the bed undefiled, but fornicators and adulterers God will judge.”

Listen to Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11. Every kind of premarital, extra-marital and homosexual liaison persisted in and unrepented of, keep us from God’s kingdom, says the Apostle. Those to whom Paul writes had been involved in such things in their past. “Such were some of you,” he says. But now they are washed, sanctified, justified through Christ, transformed by the Spirit. Now they can live a new kind of life, leaving these old behaviors behind.

Here again, it is Jesus who reaches beneath the outward act of adultery to the look, the desire, the intent. None of us can ever claim to be without sin. With all of us, there’s the need for repentance, forgiveness and new beginnings.

Repentance, Forgiveness, New Beginnings

Perhaps the most powerful word about this whole issue is the word of the apostle Paul about our bodies being the temples of the Holy Spirit. Because Christ lives in us by his Spirit, our bodies become holy temples. It becomes unthinkable to think about any extra-marital, sexual relationships because this body of ours is a holy temple. Shall I take these members and involve them in that kind of activity? Paul says, “God forbid!”

Perhaps the highest and best view of the significance of marriage in God’s loving purpose is Paul’s word about marriage and the bond between Christ and his church. He says that a Christian marriage is expressive of the union between Christ and his people. After speaking of how husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the church, Paul says in Ephesians 5:31-32 that marriage is the picture, the image on earth of that bond. Christian marriage is our chance to give the world a glimpse of God’s great love in Christ, revealed in a loving, faithful marriage. That can be a mighty witness to Jesus Christ.