We are here to witness the formation of a new marriage, a new household. But what is the nature of this institution? It is a question worth asking, because whenever we take anything for granted, it is easy to become unable to defend it when questioned, no matter how valuable it might be. Because we live in a time when this institution is very much being questioned, we want to make sure that we do not just go through the motions in our wedding ceremonies. We should know what we are doing, and why we are doing it.
Marriage is instituted by God. It is not of human creation. We have the authority from God to decorate it according to our varying cultures and customs, but we do not have any authority to raze it to the foundations in order to recreate it over again.
So how does the Bible define marriage? Right after the Lord created Eve—in a particularly singular fashion, I might add—the text says something that is quite surprising. Adam had found no helper suitable to him among all the beasts that he had named, it was not good for him to be alone, and so God caused a deep sleep to come upon him, removed a rib from his side, and fashioned a woman out of it. God then presented the woman to the man, and his first words—the first human words uttered in the Bible—were words of poetry in praise of the gift he had been given. As I said, this was a unique event in high antiquity. Nobody I met ever got together in this way.
And yet . . . what does the next verse say? It says that every marriage after that point should in some fashion be an imitation of this one. It uses the word therefore. Here it is: “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh” (Gen. 2:24).
First, let us note the four normative elements of marriage. It is an exclusive relationship. It says that a man shall cleave to his wife. The baseline pattern is one man, one woman, one time. Second, marriage is a social event; it is public. Notice that it says that a man shall leave his father and mother. This is something that people notice. It is public. Third, it is permanent. The text says that the man is united to his wife. He cleaves to her. And fourth, the relationship is consummated; the two become one flesh.
Taking all this in consideration, biblical scholar John Stott defined marriage this way: “Marriage is an exclusive heterosexual covenant between one man and one woman, ordained and sealed by God, preceded by a public leaving of parents, consummated in sexual union, issuing in a permanent mutually supportive partnership, and normally crowned by the gift of children.”
We define it this way because we are receiving a gift from the God who created all things. We are opening a gift, and it is our responsibility simply to understand what He has given us. Because God is infinitely wise, we will spend the rest of our lives coming to understand it. Because God is delightfully straightforward, a child can understand what marriage is.
But there is something else we must consider. It is one thing to define an activity, and it is quite another to consider what it takes to do it well. Unmarriages are obviously not what God had in mind for marriage. But neither are difficult marriages or poor marriages. However, marriages in this latter category are genuine marriages. They do exist, and the vows are obligatory, and so on.
We have all the ingredients of a marriage in what we see around us. In what I am about to say in my particular charge to Christopher, and then to Elizabeth, we have all the ingredients of a good marriage, a happy marriage, a healthy marriage.
Christopher, I am not going to over-engineer it. Love your wife. Love her when you feel like it and love her when you don’t feel like it. Love her when you are feeling altruistic, and love her when all your lower impulses are yelling at you that it is time for a little selfishness. Love her with your words. Tell her. Assume nothing. Tell her some more. Love her with your actions. Work your tail off. Scripture takes a dim view of lazy husbands. Put food on her table, clothes in her closets, children in her arms, and light in her eyes. The Bible says husbands should love their wives as Christ loved the church, and gave himself up for her. This means that the love I am urging upon you is the love of bleeding sacrifice.
Elizabeth, Christopher has just been charged to give you a lot. In fact, he has been charged to give you everything he has. Everything. All of it. Your charge is to receive from him everything that he has given, glorify it, and return it to him again. This is how God designed the world to work. The man brings things to his wife, and she bestows the glory. She does this because she is the glory of man, and he comes to her whenever he needs to have something glorified. Everything you return to him glorified is something that he can bring back to you again later, and you do it over again. God loves this kind of thing.
Both of you should see that your life together is therefore to be characterized by giving. You give to one another. Christopher, you give out of love, and Elizabeth, you give out of respect, and both of you will receive both love and respect. And the more you give to one another, the more God will supply you with more to give. What is true about life generally will also be true in your relationship with one another. “One gives freely, yet grows all the richer; another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want.” (Proverbs 11:24, ESV). The more you give to one another—really give—the more each of you will have. And it never stops. That is the foundation of a blessed union.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, amen.