Marriage Matters (Hebrews 13:4)

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One of the glaring failures, in my opinion, of the evangelical church in our day is a failure to recognise that new covenant living, in the sense of ethics, is not much different than old covenant living. The result is that happiness, rather than holiness, is our pursuit. And for some, there will literally be hell to pay. We see this in the text before us.

When it comes to the pursuit of holiness, how we view marriage matters; perhaps far more than we might initially think. But, as a proper understanding of this verse will reveal, when it comes to the matter of marriage, there are far-reaching consequences, both for the church and for the culture. As William Lane points out over two decades ago, “Sexual responsibility affirms the lordship of God the Creator over the sphere of bodily life. Consequently, regard for marriage and for the physical intimacy integral to marriage is an essential aspect of the pursuit of holiness to which the community has been called by God.”1 If that was so then, how much more now?

So yes, marriage matters. It matters a lot. The community of faith must understand this and must be prepared to speak clearly about these matters to the watching world. Yes, God is love and so brotherly love continuing is a must (v. 1). But He is also holy and therefore pure fraternal love must lead to a commitment to pure marital love. Regardless of the opinion of the surrounding culture.

Francis Schaeffer once said, “Anything that an individual Christian or Christian group does that fails to show the simultaneous balance of the holiness of God and the love of God presents to a watching world not a demonstration of the God who exists, but a caricature of the God who exists.”2 Perhaps there is nothing at this point in history that is so countercultural than the biblical matters with respect to marriage. Yet, as R. Kent Hughes points out, when it comes to matters of marriage, “we Christians are called to be outrageously pure—to be a source of wonder and even derision to this glandular world.”3

In the words of the famed Band of Brothers, when it comes to such issues Christians often find themselves “standing alone together.” And this is precisely what the writer is saying: “Let brotherly love continue, in all spheres, including in matters of marriage.” Everyone in the church is responsible for this.

The three remaining practical applications of brotherly love—God-defined marital fidelity (v. 4); greed-rejecting contentment (vv. 5–6); and gospel-loyal living (vv. 7–17)—are very countercultural. They always have been and for the most part, they will continue to be.

An overview of the Old Testament highlights that these were the same areas for which old covenant saints were held accountable. And, sadly, the same review will reveal how dismally they failed. As the family broke down, so did faithfulness to God, and covetousness-driven idolatry resulted in apostasy from the God who had entrusted the gospel to them (Genesis 12:1–3; etc.).

It should therefore not surprise us that the writer reminds the new covenant saints of these same responsibilities to their thrice-holy God.4

In this study, we will continue to examine the holiness expected of those saved under the new covenant. And we will do so beginning with the matter of marriage, and thus the matter of sexual purity.

How we view marital love has everything to do with how we view fraternal love (v. 1). “Marital infidelity is inconsistent with the summons to fraternal love…. As a community they must respect marriage as the gift of God and support those who share the marriage relationship with empathy and affection.”5

Those who belong to God through the new covenant have the covenantal responsibility to avoid sexual immorality. We are responsible to submit to the seventh commandment.

New covenant Christians keep covenant. And therefore, among other matters, we honour the marriage covenant.

This morning we will examine the covenantal-ethical obligations for Christians when it comes to sexuality. The writer addresses at least three issues here.

We Must Respect Marriage as God Intended

First, we must respect marriage as God intended. “Marriage is honourable among all” (v. 4a).

What’s Love Got to Do With It?

It may seem like a sudden shift to move from exhortations concerning hospitality and empathy to an imperative concerning marriage and sexual purity. But as

Westcott helpfully notes concerning this transition, “From the widest duties of the social life of Christians, the epistle passes to the closest.”6 And, make no mistake, there is no relationship closer than husband and wife. Therefore, if we do not exercise fraternal love here, then marital love will suffer. What we are in our homes is the true indicator of what we are in the church. And so, as has been observed throughout history, as goes the home’ so goes the church. Yet, conversely, as goes the church, so goes the home. That is, if the church gets marriage wrong, then the home, of course, will suffer. And so will everything else to which the home is connected. It is for this reason that Christians must be faithful to keep covenant in their marriage.

Marital Respect

The institution of marriage, as if you didn’t know, is under attack. As Raymond Brown points out, “The political prisoner [v. 3] may seem more remote from our immediate environment, but everyone is in touch with someone for whom marriage breakdown has become the most tragic aspect of his or her life.”7

Of course, this is not the only heartache the church faces today with respect to marriage, for in our day the very definition of marriage is under assault. In fact, it has been taken captive by the enemy.

Listen to these words from the Sola 5 Core Values concerning marriage and sexuality:

God created mankind male and female, and ordained marriage as a life-long union between a natural man and a natural woman (Genesis 2:18–25).

We further affirm that marriage is by nature heterosexual, and that any expression of sexual intimacy is holy only in the covenant of marriage.

We deny the legitimacy and permissibility of homosexuality, lesbianism, fornication, adultery, pornography, paedophilia, bestiality, prostitution, incest and other forms of sexual perversion.

It is remarkable that a church confession has to be so descriptive about what constitutes a marriage. But if you are half awake, you will know such specificity is required. After all, if Bruce (Caitlyn) Jenner now wants to marry, what should be our response? Should he marry a woman or should she marry a man? I am being neither facetious nor unsympathetic. In fact, I have deep pity for Bruce Jenner. To have such a sexual identity crisis as he has struggled with is both tragic and, sadly, unnecessary. The Bible supplies the answers, and it is sufficient to deal with such conflicts. But I raise this to highlight that Christians need to think through these issues if we will faithfully function to the glory of God in our culture.

Why is This Here?

It seems clear that this issue was a pressing one in this church (see 12:14ff, 29). It was obviously something that the writer had to deal with.

Contemporary Jewish Views of Marriage

In New Testament times, there were two major, contrasting rabbinical schools of thought with regard to marriage and other ethical debates.

For example, there was a disagreement as to whether or not it was right to tell an unattractive bride that she was beautiful. One school said that it is always wrong to lie. The other said that all brides are beautiful on their wedding day.

When it came to divorce and remarriage, one school said that divorce could only be exercised in the case of a serious transgression, such as infidelity. The other said that a man could divorce his wife for just about any reason, such as burning a meal.

Celibacy Controversy

Flowing from this was the idea that celibacy was to be preferred to the marriage union. In fact, Paul warned in his day of a false teaching that was making the rounds that marriage is not good (1 Timothy 4:1–3).

The point to be made is that these were Hebrew Christians and therefore they would have been influenced by these different theologies with their respective ethics. No one comes to the Christian faith theologically neutral. And, for many, if not most in our culture, neither do they come to Christ with ecclesiological neutrality. Rather most have some theological or ecclesiological frame of reference.

So some of these Hebrews were coming to Christ having been influenced by a skewed view of marriage rather than as God intended it to be.

It should be observed that Christianity confronts culture and culture confronts Christianity. Culture can produce wear and tear on biblical worldviews. Certainly this is true with respect to marriage.

A recent article in USA Today noted that marriage in America is “going out of style,” and that this trend could ultimately “hurt” America. The reported, Trish Regan, concluded, “Marriage is going out of style and that’s a problem.” Her arguments are excellent, but she writes with an overriding concern for the economic impact of this trend, noting that “this decline in marriage is the last thing a fragile economy needs.”

The math is there and it would seem that her argument is watertight. The point to emphasise, though, is that since marriage is from God. Since marriage finds it source and legitimacy in God, we should not be surprised to discover that to dishonour it is to strike at the foundation of society.

Indicative or Imperative?

There is some debate as to whether the opening phrase is an indicative (a statement of being) or an imperative (a statement of doing). That is, is the author saying that marriage is honourable or that it is to be honoured? I will answer that like I recently answered by sister-in-law, who she asked whether I wanted chocolate cake or blueberry cobbler: Yes!

It is both an indicative and an imperative. The one implies the other. The indicative demands the imperative and the imperative implies the indicative. It is because marriage is honourable that it is to be honoured.

Why Should Marriage Be Respected?

The word “honourable” means “precious” or “something to be valued.” Why should we have so much respect for this institution? There are several reasons.

First, because it was created by God (Genesis 2:18–25), who hates any defilement of the institution, including divorce.

Second, because it is God’s chosen metaphor to picture Christ’s relationship with His church (Ephesians 5:22–33). In fact, it is probably not a stretch to suggest that God ordained marriage deliberately as a picture of Christ and the church.

Third, because Jesus chose a wedding for the performance of His first miracle (John 2:1–12) and because He further endorsed it in His teaching ministry (Matthew 19:1–10).

Fifth, because marriage has apostolic sanction (1 Corinthians 7; Ephesians 5; Colossians 3; etc.).

Sixth, because it is the means to propagate the earth with a godly seed. In other words, it is God’s primary means of fulfilling the Great Commission. Biblical marriage is the building block of family life as God intended. He gets to define it! And, yes, we are to declare, defend and demonstrate it (Genesis 1:26–28; Deuteronomy 6:1–9; Ephesians 6:1–4; etc.).

MacArthur summarises: “God honoured marriage by establishing it. Jesus honoured marriage by performing His first miracle at a wedding. The Holy Spirit honoured marriage by using it to picture the church in the New Testament. The whole Trinity testifies that marriage is honourable. No person, therefore, is justified in disparaging marriage.”8

So, to honour marriage is to give to it the priority that Scripture gives to it. It is good and, in most cases, it is to be pursued. Come on, men!

Practically, How Do We Honour It?

To honour marriage is to protect it as it should be. And legislating same sex “marriage” is not a way to protect it; it is a way to dishonour it. We must be committed to biblically defining it.

To honour marriage is to promote it. Perhaps this is part and parcel with the first issue (prioritising it). We need to be careful as Christians of demeaning marriage with tasteless humour—particularly at wedding receptions! I’ve never understood the reason for making fun of the bride and groom in wedding speeches.

To honour marriage is to practise it. That is, to pursue marriage. Christians should be actively pursuing marriage as a good thing. Far too many young Christian men are passive in this regard, with the result that young Christian women yearn to marry but cannot find a man with the same commitment. That is a shame.

To honour marriage is to publicise it. That is why it is good (apart from legal regulations) to have witnesses at a wedding ceremony. It is especially good for a Christian wedding to call the church as witness to the wedding.

To honour marriage is to portray the gospel in our marriage. We respect the institution of marriage and honour our own marriage when we seek to apply the gospel as seen in passages such as Ephesians 5:22–33. When Spirit-filled husbands love their wives as Christ loved the church then marriage is being practically esteemed. When-Spirit filled wives show loving respect to their husbands then marriage is being practically honoured.

But to do so requires that we be filled with the Scriptures (Colossians 3:16ff). In other words, when husbands and wives are saturated with the gospel then our physical marriage takes on a hue that is remarkably like our spiritual union with Christ. Forgiveness reigns and fidelity rules.

Of course, when this is the case, we avoid one of the major means to dishonour the institution of marriage: divorce.

The Bible clearly gives allowance for divorce on the grounds of adultery and desertion (with special reference to desertion in response to Christ-centred fidelity). In such cases, the guilty party has dishonoured marriage and the innocent party—the one who has honoured marriage—is free to remarry.

The point we should see is that marriage, as designed and therefore intended by God, is until death of one spouse. So we honour marriage as we strive to apply the gospel and to have a marriage that proclaims reconciliation in the same way as we have experienced it from God.

Let me now pull this together.

If our marriage is a shambles because we have refused to practically apply the gospel then not only are we guilty of infidelity in our relationship with our spouse but, more to the point, we are guilty of infidelity in our relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ.

Those who are not married must avoid dishonouring marriage by, among other things, making light of it. You are not to despise it. Rather, positively, you are to promote it. Be a blessing to those who are married, not a hindrance. Be careful of friendships that may hinder a marriage. Don’t badmouth marriage.

We Must Restrain Ourselves as God Intends

The second major issue relates to proper restraint within the marriage covenant. The writer speaks of “the [marriage] bed” being “undefiled” (v. 4b). Because God makes the rules, in addition to what has been said above, we honour marriage within the marriage bed.

The second part of the verse speaks of the need to keep the “bed” (a euphemism for sex within marriage) “undefiled.” He commands believers to avoid adultery (sexual violation by/with a married person) as well as fornication (a broad range of sexual sin by either married or unmarried persons). Restraint is called for.

In fact, the way this verse is structured, this is the very point the author is making. Marcus Dods points this out when he comments, “As a natural result of holding marriage in honour, its ideal sanctity will be violated neither by the married nor by the unmarried. Therefore the [“and”] links the two clauses closely together and has some inferential force, ‘and thus let the bed be undefiled.’”9

What if We Don’t Honour Marriage?

Fornication and adultery rule the day when marriage is either disparaged or deformed completely (as we are seeing today). The result is the implosion of society.

Under the old covenant, Israel failed her God. He likened this to adultery. In graphic language, the Lord charged His people with spiritual adultery, with the ugly sin of marital infidelity (Ezekiel 16). And small wonder, since God referred to Himself as their groom and they as His bride.

The book of Hosea graphically demonstrates this with its metaphorical use of adultery to depict Israel’s guilt before God. The semblance, though, is more than literary. Rather, the two often—usually—go hand in hand. Spiritual unfaithfulness often leads to sexual unfaithfulness as a corollary (cf. Romans 1; 2 Corinthians 5).

Briefly, if we properly respect marriage, which is what we are commanded to do, then we will take our responsibility to respect marriage seriously—and practically. This means that we will exercise self-control and restraint when it comes to sexuality.

Obviously, those who are married have the responsibility to honour God’s institution of marriage by exercising self-restraint. We do so by following our Lord’s rules for marriage. Obviously, this includes avoidance of adultery, but we need to think more deeply than physical adultery. There is a danger of us proving disloyal to our spouse and committing a form of emotional adultery by fostering unhealthy friendships with the opposite sex. Pornography and mental voyeurism are also dangers in this regard. Likewise, we must not allow ourselves to be entertained by anything that disrespects marriage.

Let me emphasise again that everyone (“all”) is called to respect, honour, and esteem marriage—including those who are not married.

In this regard, single Christians honour marriage by refraining from the act of marriage while they are single. Richard Phillips speaks of how this testifies to the power of the gospel as others see “the astonishing witness of Christian singles who keep the marriage bed pure through self-control and godly restraint.”10 To engage in pre-marital sex (fornication) is to despise the institution of marriage.

Whether married or single, we need to understand that pornographic voyeurism is action that disrespects marriage. Also consider that being entertained by TV shows and movies that promote fornication and/or adultery is to disrespect God’s institution of marriage.

We Must Revere God as He Intends

Finally, we must revere not only the institution of marriage and the marriage bed, but God Himself, because “fornicators and adulterers God will judge” (v. 4c).

Leon Morris wrote this grave warning several decades ago:

All forms of sexual sin come under the judgment of God. This was a novel view to many in the first century. For them chastity was an unreasonable demand to make. It is one of the unrecognized miracles that Christians were able not only to make this demand but to make it stick. The word “God” comes last in the Greek and is emphatic. Sexual sinners are likely to go their way, careless of all others. But in the end they will be judged by none less than God.11

Oh how we need to hear this in our day!

Fear of the Lord and Wisdom

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10). And we need wisdom if we will honour marriage as God intends. His Word must be our authority here.

We need the fear of the Lord if we will remain sexually pure in an increasingly promiscuous, lascivious and perverse society. Fathers need the fear of the Lord to drive them to know and to obey His instructions concerning protecting our children from sexual sin. Husbands and wives need the fear of the Lord if they will honour marriage and protect the marriage bed from defilement. Churches need the fear of the Lord to stand against a licentious culture.

Rick Santorum, a candidate for the American presidency, and one who is well-known for His Christian position on social issues, said this week concerning Bruce Jenner: “If he says he’s a woman, then he’s a woman. My responsibility as a human being is to love and accept everybody. Not to criticise people for who they are.” He later qualified this after receiving some criticism from his socially conservative voting base: “My comment affirmed Jenner as a person, made by God in His likeness as we all are. It was meant to express empathy not a change in public policy.”

But it would have been good had he made a further retraction. Consider the following.

Of course, we can agree that we are responsible to love and accept everybody. But his comments (and I would hope that he would agree) miss the very point of responsible love.

Consider the logic of what he said. For instance, what is the loving response to a person who says, “I am a dog”? Would the loving response be, “If he says he’s a dog, then he’s a dog”? Of course not. The loving response would be to help this person to embrace his identity as given to him by his Creator. So with Bruce Jenner. He may think he’s a woman, but God says that he is a man. That is why he was born anatomically as he was. The loving response is not to “accept” his confusion (and certainly not to celebrate it) but to compassionately help him to see who he is before God.

We must be prepared to deal with the sexual confusion that has arisen out of decades of sexual rebellion. Being biblically (and therefore compassionately) correct is our responsibility. Cowardly, culturally compliant political correctness is neither loving nor reverent; it is a therefore a far cry from being holy.

As we face the moral implosion of our culture, and of much of the world, what is our hope? What should be our response?

The answer is to continue to believe and behave like Christians. And this means that we must continue to believe and to preach the gospel. The gospel is powerful enough to transform lives, minds and cultures. And it may be helpful at this point to highlight that the answer is not merely a return to conservatism but rather to embrace a robust because biblical Christianity.

Conservative or Christian?

The two are not necessarily synonymous, and we need to understand this—perhaps especially when it comes to the matter of marital fidelity and sexual purity.

Sometimes we fall into the trap of holding to a traditional and therefore a so-called “conservative” position regarding some issues, such as being prolife, anti-homosexuality, anti-divorce, pro-death penalty, etc. Such positions certainly have biblical support and are correct positions. But one may hold to these views and yet be merely conservative without such a view being Christian. The difference is crucial.

Conservatism desires to maintain (conserve) a cultural norm. But this is not the motivation for the Christian. Rather, our desire and drive is to love God and to love our neighbour. And that makes all the difference in the world. For example, we might agree with skinheads on some social issue. However, God forbid our drive and demeanour is the same! And this is especially important when it comes to social issues such as abortion and issues related to marriage and sexuality.

Christians are called to be compassionately constructive.

The gospel will no doubt make us “conservative” in the eyes of progressives. However our conservativism is to be a compassionate one. And so, when it comes to issues such as transgender, as in the case of Bruce Jenner, we should be the last ones to mock, but we should also be the first ones to say, “There is a better way.”

Most well-known conservative media commentators in the United States are taking a hands-off stand concerning Jenner. One highly publicised conservative news commentator said this week, “If he’s happy then I am happy.” He is a conservative, but he is certainly not speaking like a Christian. No, the Christian says, if God is happy then I am happy. And since God is not happy with such a lifestyle—as clearly revealed in His Word—then I cannot be happy about it either. In fact, it should grieve us that Jenner can be happy. He needs his understanding opened by the Holy Spirit to the gospel. Then he would be truly happy, and so would every other Christian who understands what it means to continue in brotherly love.

What I am saying is that the difference between being merely “conservative” and being a Christian is the gospel. The gospel of God informs us what is right and what is wrong. And it tells us why it is so. It is a God-centred measure of righteousness. And once we are moved by this then we can stand against sin, proclaiming that a particular course of action is wrong, but with compassion for sinners. We will desire that they change for their good to the glory of God. And that will make all the difference between being a moralistic conservative and a merciful Christian. And in many, if not most, cases others will detect the difference.

Rosario Butterfield is a homeschooling mother who was once a practising lesbian. By the standards of many, was living a very good life. She had a tenured position at a large university in a field for which she cared deeply. She owned two homes with her partner, in which they provided hospitality to students and activists that were looking to make a difference in the world. There, her partner rehabilitated abandoned and abused dogs. In the community, Rosaria was involved in volunteer work. At the university, she was a respected advisor of students and her department’s curriculum.

For most of her adult life, Rosaria had considered Christianity to be a highly problematic, and sometimes downright damaging, faith. Vocal about her lesbianism, she received lots of mail, which she divided into hate mail and support mail. But one day she received a letter from a pastor that was not quite so easy to categorise. He was clearly opposed to her lifestyle, but not in a way that she could categorise as hate mail.

Over time, the pastor and his wife befriended her, and over time introduced her to the truth of the gospel. As she came to (reluctantly) embrace the truth that Christianity was true, she describes her journey to faith as a “train wreck.” She has recorded her story in her autobiographical The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert. And what made the difference was a pastor who stood for the truth but in a way that was not judgemental.

Finally, Christians are not to be judgemental; however, we are to make judgements and to be concerned about judgement. The writer says that “fornicators and adulterers God will judge.” This is serious. Though the world may mock, judgement will come.

Several Scriptures tell us that the sexually immoral will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9–10; Ephesians 5:5–7; Colossians 3:5–6; Revelation 21:8; 22:15; see 1 Thessalonians 4:1–8). Think about that, and then amend your ways if necessary. And be prepared to warn others.

Hughes soberly comments, “Anyone who imagines that unrepentant adultery and sexual immorality will go unpunished is in La-la Land. It is happening right now from every angle, and in addition a terrible judgement awaits, for all unrepentant sinners will stand before God, who is a ‘consuming fire’.”12 Count on it.

This should serve as a sobering reality check on our own behaviour, as well as an evangelistic motivation.

So, how should we respond to this verse? In many ways, I have no doubt. But let me close on this note. Marriage, as God has revealed, matters. It matters a lot. So be gospel centred in all that you do. And when we do, marriage will be honoured and God will be glorified.

May our brotherly love continue, in our churches and in our homes. This will be a powerful testimony. For as has been insightfully observed, “There may be no better gauge today for the spiritual health of a congregation than the health of its marriages.”13

How healthy are we?

Show 13 footnotes

  1. William L. Lane, Hebrews: Word Biblical Commentary, 2 vols. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1991), 2:516.
  2. Richard D. Phillips, Hebrews: Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2006), 590.
  3. R. Kent Hughes, Hebrews: An Anchor for the Soul, 2 vols. (Wheaton: Crossway, 1993), 2:217.
  4. Holiness is the only attribute of God ever presented in a three-fold formula, as in Isaiah 6:3.
  5. Lane, Hebrews, 2:516.
  6. B. F. Westcott, The Epistle to the Hebrews: The Greek Text with Notes and Essays (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), 431.
  7. Raymond Brown, The Message of Hebrews: The Bible Speaks Today (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2000), 252.
  8. John F. MacArthur, Jr., Hebrews: The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: The Moody Bible Institute, 1983), 430.
  9. Marcus Dods, The Expositor’s Greek Testament, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 4:375.
  10. Phillips, Hebrews, 591.
  11. Leon Morris, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 12:147.
  12. Hughes, Hebrews, 2:219.
  13. Phillips, 591.