A Covenant Marriage (Ephesians 5:1, 2, 22-33)
Passage: Ephesians 5:22–5:31
God on Marriage
I. “The Devil’s Dictionary”
Ambrose Bierce was an American journalist and short story writer who lived and worked in the last half of the 19th century. He's best known for one of his short stories set during the Civil War called “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and for a collection of satirical definitions called “The Devil's Dictionary”.
Last week we talked about the importance of definitions, especially when it comes to our definition of marriage. Listen to how Bierce defined marriage in “The Devil's Dictionary”:
Marriage: The state or condition of a community consisting of a master, a mistress and two slaves, making in all, two.
Not a very positive description of marriage, is it? For Ambrose Bierce, the reality of marriage was a reality in which two people believed themselves to be in charge, but were, in fact, actually slaves.
Is that how you imagine marriage? Is that what it FEELS like sometimes?
Last week, we did something revolutionary. We acknowledged that our society, our culture, our world, has accepted and helped shaped a misinformed and dumbed-down definition of marriage, AND, in light of that we turned to the Designer of marriage to find out what He intended marriage to be.
What does God the Maker of marriage say about his original masterpiece? Based on God's word we learned last time that marriage is a divinely-forged oneness, a sacred bond in which kinship is created and through which our covenant faithfulness to the other points to the unshakeable and unconditional love of God for His people through Jesus.
Now, that's a mouth full, but like we did last time, let's work hard this morning at trying to unpack that definition a litte bit more.
Last week, I mentioned that I wanted to do three things in this series. First, in light of God's word, I wanted to define what marriage actually is. We did that last week. Then second, I wanted to talk about what WE should DO in light of that definition. That's what we'll do this morning. And then next week, we will consider a third area: what we should NOT DO in light of this definition.
So this morning, with our biblical definition of marriage in hand, let's continue to listen to what God has to say about marriage as we think about living in light of His design.
II. Laying the Groundwork: New Covenant Faithfulness
Now the phrase I want to focus on from our working definition of marriage is the phrase “covenant faithfulness”.
Last time, we learned from Ephesians 5:32 that marriage was originally designed by God, not first and foremost as a testimony of human love, but as a testimony of divine love; as a picture, as an enduring illustration of God's love for His people, of Christ's love for His church.
And so when it comes to human marriage and God's relationship with His people, the concept that ties these two things together is the idea of covenant. What is a covenant? In a very basic sense, a covenant is a binding agreement or compact between two or more parties. Covenants always contain promises and vows.
In some cases, a king or ruler would make a promise to one of his servants. The ruler would make a vow to keep his promise to bless the servant in some way. There was nothing the servant needed to do except receive it. We might call this an “Unconditional Covenant”.
Other covenants in the ancient Near East placed conditions on both parties. Both parties had to make vows to do whatever the covenant called them to do in light of what was promised. If one party failed to keep the covenant, the promised reward was forfeited, and in some cases, a penalty or curse was imposed. We might call this kind of covenant a “Conditional Covenant”.
This morning I’d like to look at several passages, but I’d like to begin with Jeremiah 31:31-37.
The reason we need to begin here is because this passage is monumental when it comes to biblical covenants. As I read, listen to what we learn here about God’s covenant faithfulness to His people:
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
35 Thus says the Lord, who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar—the Lord of hosts is his name: 36 “If this fixed order departs from before me, declares the Lord, then shall the offspring of Israel cease from being a nation before me forever.”
37 Thus says the Lord: “If the heavens above can be measured, and the foundations of the earth below can be explored, then I will cast off all the offspring of Israel for all that they have done, declares the Lord.” (Jeremiah 31:31-37)
Now, I want you to notice four things about this passage:
First, notice the connection from verse 32 between the idea of covenant and God being a husband to them. Second, this is the only place in the Old Testament where we find the phrase “a new covenant”. Third, this covenant replaces what is called the Mosaic covenant. The Mosaic covenant was a “conditional covenant”, and as we see here, the Israelites could not keep this covenant. But if they failed to keep this covenant, why is God making a new one with them?
Well, fourth, this “new covenant”, which is an “unconditional covenant” (no obligations listed; God’s language, “I will…I will…”) is promised because of another unconditional covenant, one that came before God’s covenant through Moses. This first covenant was the promise that God made to Abraham, often called the Abrahamic Covenant. A simple summary of this covenant might go something like this: “I will bless you, Abraham, and make you a nation, AND make you a blessing to all the nations.”
Now that’s a lot, but try to keep that in mind as we turn to Luke 22:14-20. Listen to what Luke tells us about the ratification of this “new covenant” that was promised long before through the prophet Jeremiah:
And when the hour came, he reclined at table, and the apostles with him. 15 And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. 16 For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” 17 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves. 18 For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” 19 And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 20 And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. (Luke 22:14-20)
Isn’t that amazing! What we see here in Luke 22 is the establishment of the new covenant by Jesus. Now notice a couple things about this passage. First, the setting is important. The Passover meal was connected with the old covenant of Moses that Israel could not keep. Jeremiah 31 explicitly mentions the old covenant and how God brought the people out of Egypt. Well, Jesus is fulfilling Jeremiah 31 right here at the dinner table, isn’t he? Through both the food and his words, He is moving out the old covenant and bringing in the new covenant.
Now, second (and here’s what is central to where we’re going this morning), this new covenant, this covenant that we enjoy as Christians, is ratified by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Verse 20 is the only place in the Gospels that Jesus mentions the “new covenant”. So we might ask, “Why here…why does he mention it here?” Well, notice the connection in verse 20 between this covenant and His blood.
Listen to what Hebrews 9 tells us about this connection:
Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant…24 For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. >>>
25 Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest [of the old covenant] enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, 26 for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. (Hebrews 9:15, 24-26)
Here’s what we need to see about God’s covenant faithfulness. God’s covenant faithfulness is seen most clearly in the cross of Jesus. (2x) God’s covenant faithfulness is on display, not simply in the fact that he kept his word, but the lengths to which He went to keep His word; the lengths to which He went for the good of the other. When God promised Abraham that He would bless Him, His descendants, and all the nations through him, Galatians 3 tells us that God was proclaiming the gospel. Why? Because Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of that covenant.
So in spite of the failures of God’s people, God kept His promise and sent Jesus to make a new covenant through His blood.
III. The Passage: “Be Imitators of God” (5:1, 2, 22-33)
Now, how in the world does all of this affect marriage?
Remember how we've defined marriage: marriage is a divinely-forged oneness, a sacred bond in which kinship is created and through which our covenant faithfulness to the other points to the unshakeable and unconditional love of God for His people through Jesus.
The incredibly profound and absolutely earth-shattering purpose of marriage is to reflect to the world the covenant faithfulness of our God. And as we’ve seen, God’s covenant faithfulness to His people is expressed most clearly through the servanthood and sacrifice of Jesus. Jesus went to the cross in order to bring about the covenant blessing that He, as God, had promised.
With that in mind, turn with me to Ephesians 5:1, 2. With the idea of covenant faithfulness firmly planted in our minds, listen to these verses:
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. 2 And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Ephesians 5:1, 2)
As followers of Jesus, we are called to be imitators of God, in every area of our lives, including in our marriages. And in these verses the very thing we are called to imitate is the very thing we’ve been talking about: covenant faithfulness expressed in servanthood and sacrifice. Here is the unshakeable and unconditional love of God for His people, displayed perfectly in Jesus.
Are you an imitator of God in your marriage? But someone might say, “Well all of this is wonderful, but we haven’t looked at one verse this morning that really talks about marriage. Isn’t all of this a little abstract and theological? I thought this morning was all about what WE should DO in light of God’s definition of marriage.”
And that’s exactly what we’re talking about. We’re simply asking, “As a husband or wife in the covenant of marriage, what can I learn from God about faithfulness to a covenant?” And just so you can see that our application to marriage is on firm biblical footing, listen to how Paul continues and applies this theme he began in Ephesians 5:1, 2. Skip down to 5:22…
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.
25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. 28 In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” 32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. 33 However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. (Ephesians 5:22-33)
There is no clearer passage in Scripture when it comes to what wives and husbands are called to DO in marriage. I want you to notice a few things about this passage:
First, notice that Paul, in verses 28-31, is doing the very thing we are doing.this morning. He’s explaining what husbands should DO in light of God’s definition of marriage, in light of the ‘oneness’ of marriage.
Second, notice that both of the instructions given here are expressions of servanthood and sacrifice. The loving submission of the wife to her husband and the sacrificial love of the husband for his wife are both expressions of the kind of covenant faithfulness that labors without limit to hold fast to its promises.
Third, notice that point of reference in both instructions is Jesus Christ: Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord… Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church…
Our demonstration of covenant faithfulness in marriage is only possible when we are looking to Jesus…when we are looking to Him, not simply as our example, but as our Lord, as our Savior, as our righteousness, as our hope, as our portion. Our servanthood and sacrifice in marriage are simply reflections of the love of Christ, who loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (5:2)
Now, let’s stop and think about this for a minute. Do you remember the definition for marriage that Ambrose Bierce gave us? He said: marriage [is] the state or condition of a community consisting of a master, a mistress and two slaves, making in all, two.
That’s actually pretty close to the mark, isn’t it? What Bierce meant as a humorous slight against marriage, actually expresses God’s beautiful design in Jesus: we are called as slaves of Christ to be servants in our marriage, servants inspired by God’s own covenant faithfulness. Is your marriage defined by servanthood and sacrifice?
IV. “I Pledge You My Faithfulness”
On August 21st, 1998, the State of Arizona enacted into law a new kind of marriage called “covenant marriage”. This “covenant marriage” is a legally distinct form of marriage in which the couple agrees to obtain pre-marital counseling and accept more limited grounds for divorce. Based on one study, about one fourth of one percent of marriages that take place in Arizona are “covenant marriages”.
But this morning, we have talked about the fact that every marriage is, in some sense, a covenant marriage, because every marriage has been designed by to tell us something about God’s covenant faithfulness to His people. But because of the curse of sin, only through Jesus Christ can we redeem marriage and let it shine, as it was designed to do.
What we desperately need to see this morning is the kind of covenant faithfulness we are called to imitate in terms of the kind of covenant to which we have committed. Listen to these words again, although for many of us, it’s been a long time since we spoke them: I take you to be my wedded wife…to be my wedded husband. To have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness or in health, to love and to cherish 'till death do us part. And hereto I pledge you my faithfulness.
The covenant to which marriage was designed to point is the unconditional covenant of God with His people. There are no requirements for us, no obligations we must meet or else we will somehow be penalized. Like the unconditional promise of a king to his servant, all we have to do is receive it.
Unfortunately, even though we might acknowledge all of this covenant language and shake our heads in affirmation, we too often treat our marriages as if they were conditional covenants. “I will love you as a I should, I will submit to you as I should, I will walk in servanthood and sacrifice, as I should…AS LONG AS YOU DO YOUR PART…as long as you are nice to me and meet my needs and make me feel special and do what you’re supposed to do...as long as our standard of living is high enough…as long as you let me keep my own hours…as long as you don’t judge me, or neglect me, or take me for granted.”
If you are married this morning, then you have taken vows. And you have pledged to be faithful to those vows…and here’s the key…just as God is faithful to His covenant with us. Praise God that His faithfulness to me does not depend on my performance! Praise God that His faithfulness to me does not require that I first measure up or do my duty or fulfill some obligations!
No, God is faithful to my good because of the new covenant…in spite of me! My goodness, we were His enemies when the covenant was ratified…when the servanthood and sacrifice of Jesus inaugurated the covenant through His blood. And even though He is changing us, by His grace, we still fail Him every single day, probably every hour. But He remains faithful.
You see, in a day and age when divorce is so rampant, so commonplace, we might be content to define covenant faithfulness in marriage as simply staying together, no matter what happens. That seems to be the goal of our state’s version of “covenant marriage”. And, of course, staying together is absolutely essential to the idea of covenant faithfulness.
But God’s definition of marriage takes us even deeper. God’s covenant faithfulness through Jesus must always be our reference point. There is no other standard. And if God’s faithfulness is our starting point, then we see that his covenant faithfulness is about duration AND devotion; it’s about perseverance AND servanthood.
And so the question, “Am I living in light of God’s definition of marriage?” cannot be answered simply by saying, “Yes, my spouse and I are sticking it out.” Praise God that you are! But is your covenant faithfulness to the other pointing to the unshakeable and unconditional love of God for His people through Jesus? …the same love that led Jesus to lay down his life for us? That gave up everything…for the good of the other…in spite of our sins against Him?
Remember what we concluded earlier? God’s covenant faithfulness to us in seen most clearly in the cross of Jesus.
In spite of what our world tells us, marriage is not ultimately about being “in love”; it’s not about keeping the flames of romance alive. It’s about living together in the reality of our oneness in such a way that God is glorified because His covenant faithfulness is on display in our marriage. This is what the world desperately needs to see.
And when I stand before God, I will accountable to Him for how well I lived in light of His definition, regardless of what my spouse did or did not do. That’ a sobering thought that should drive us back to Jesus and the grace in which we not only rest, but through which, we find strength to be imitators of God.