November 10, 2013
Pastor Joe Wittwer
The Meaning of Marriage
#3—The Essence of Marriage



It’s been a quiet week here in Lake Woebegone.  Not exactly…

Most of you know that on Monday night, a young man drove his car through that wall, across the stage and into our auditorium, causing thousands of dollars of damage.  The good news is that it can all be repaired and no one got hurt.  This is just a building—you are the church.  And none of you got hurt, so we’re good.  We’re hoping to help the young man who did this.

Meanwhile, the jokes have been flying:

  • Life Center offers indoor parking.

  • Drive-through communion.

  • Drive-through confessional.

  • This gives new meaning to come and see.

Our insurance is covering the repair costs, and our contractor will make it look like new.  One bright spot: our worship team has wanted another stage door—so this seems like a good time to put one in!  Life gives you lemons, make lemonade.

Today we continue our series, “The Meaning of Marriage.”  We’re talking about covenants, promises and love.


Introduction and offering:

A man and woman were arguing on a TV drama about whether to get married.  He wanted to, she didn’t.  Finally she blew up and said, “Why do we need a piece of paper in order to love each other?  I don’t need a piece of paper to love you!  It only complicates things.”

Have you heard this before?  “We don’t need a piece of paper to love each other.  It only complicates things.”  Does it?  Or does that piece of paper—the marriage certificate—say something about our love?

And what is love?  

When a group of 4-8 year olds were asked what love is, one said: “When you love somebody, your eyelashes go up and down and little stars come out of you.”

Another said, “Love is when mommy gives daddy the best piece of chicken.”

Which one is closer to the truth?  

This is part 3 of our series, The Meaning of Marriage, based on the book by Tim Keller. (We have copies of the book available at the Info Center for $10.)  Today, we’re going to talk about the essence of marriage.  Here’s:

The Big Idea: The essence of marriage is a sacrificial commitment to the good of the other. Love is more action than emotion.  

We’re going to talk about marriage as a covenant, a binding public commitment made before God and people.  At the heart of the covenant are promises that we make to each other—promises not of present love, but future love.  And the love we promise is more action than emotion, although we’ll also think about the role of romantic love in our relationships.  Here’s our text:

Ephesians 5:31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.”  (Genesis 2:24)

The apostle Paul quotes Genesis 2:24.  At the end of the creation story, we find God creating marriage, and this verse says that marriage is:

  • Primary: we leave our parents—the most important relationship in our lives up to that time—to form a new primary relationship.

  • Permanent: we are united—we are glued together in a permanent bond.

  • Intimate: the two become one flesh.

The words “be united” translate a Hebrew word that literally means, “to be glued together, to stick together.”  It is used elsewhere in the Bible of uniting with someone through a covenant, a binding promise or an oath.  And it is used of our relationship with God.

Deuteronomy 10:20 Fear the Lord your God and serve him. Hold fast to him and take your oaths in his name.  

This passage and others like it (see also: Deuteronomy 11:22, 13:4, 30:20; Joshua 22:5; 23:8) ask the question, “What does the Lord require of you?” in the context of Israel’s covenant with God. The answer: God wants you hold fast to Him, cleave to Him, stick to Him like glue.

This is the word that is used in Genesis 2:24 of marriage.  Marriage is a relationship between two people who have promised to hold fast, to stick together, and as we’ll see, it’s the promise that makes us sticky and holds us together.

Marriage is a covenant between two people based on promises we make before God and keep with His help.

Let’s unpack this.


1. Marriage is a covenant.

The idea of covenant is at the heart of the Biblical view of marriage.  What is a covenant?  A covenant is a solemn agreement binding on all parties.  There are covenants all over in the Bible.  There are covenants between individuals (eg, David and Jonathan), and between nations.  And there are covenants between God and individuals, as well as with families and peoples.  

How does a covenant differ from a business contract?  Both are legal, public and binding.  But a covenant is far more personal and intimate than a business contract.  It blends law and love, duty and passion.  You can see this in God’s covenants with people.

Exodus 19:4–6 ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5 Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, 6 you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.”

Can you hear the love of God?  “I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.  You will be my treasured possession.”  God is describing what He has done for them and what He will do.  This is followed by the Ten Commandments, which describe how Israel is to express their love for God.  The covenant is a blend of law and love.

So a covenant is more than a legal business contract—it’s much more personal and intimate than that.  And this is especially true of the marriage covenant.

In his book, The Meaning of Marriage, Tim Keller contrasts consumer relationships with covenant relationships. A consumer relationship lasts as long as a vendor meets your needs at a cost acceptable to you.  If a better deal comes along, you take it.  The relationship exists only to meet your needs.  For example, you may have a relationship with Albertsons—you buy your groceries there.  But if Safeway offers a better deal, you ditch Albertsons and shop Safeway.  That’s a consumer relationship.

The problem is that the dominance of the market in our culture has “consumerized” many relationships that historically have been covenantal, including marriage and church.  We are connected to people as long as they meet our needs at an acceptable cost to us.  But when the relationship begins to cost us more than we are getting back, we cut our losses and drop the relationship.

In contrast, a covenantal relationship is binding on us; the good of the relationship takes precedence over the needs of the individual.  An example of this is parenting.  At times, a parent may get very little emotionally from caring for a child—in fact, it can feel like a one way street, all give and no get.  But society frowns on parents who give up because it’s too hard or unrewarding.  

ILL:  Think of the reasons we give for divorce, and then apply them to our children, and you can see the difference right away.

“I just don’t love him any more.  I don’t feel the way I used to.”  No one would accept that as a legitimate reason to abandon your kids.

“We’re not compatible.”  Who is compatible with a teenager?

“She doesn’t meet my needs.”  Are you kidding me?

What is the difference?  We treat our relationship with our kids as covenantal—we are bound whether we feel like it or not.  And we treat our marriages as consumers—we are bound only as long we like it.  But marriage is a covenant, and love needs that covenant if it is to survive and thrive.

The prevailing thought in our culture is that love is about feeling and affection, and this is incompatible with law or duty.  So the piece of paper only gets in the way of love.

“But the Biblical perspective is radically different. Love needs a framework of binding obligation to make it fully what it should be. A covenant relationship is not just intimate despite being legal. It is a relationship that is more intimate because it is legal.”  (p. 77).

If someone says, “I love you, but we don’t need to be married,” they may be saying, “I don’t love you enough to curtail my freedom for you.  I don’t love you enough to commit myself to you.”  The willingness to enter a binding covenant won’t stifle love; it will supercharge it.  

If we’re dating or living together, we have to prove ourselves every day.  You have to show that the relationship is fun and exciting or it will be over.  But when you are married, you create a safe space to be yourself.  You don’t have to keep selling yourself.  You can be vulnerable and real.  

This “safe zone” isn’t an excuse to get sloppy or lazy.  You see married couples who let themselves go to seed—the chase is over.  No.  The safe zone lets you drop all the facades and know that you will still be loved and accepted even though you are truly known.  I know that I am completely safe with Laina.  She knows me better than anyone and still loves me.  And this is the deep cry of our hearts: to be full known and still fully loved.  Covenental marriage makes that possible, something that consumer relationships can never do.

Love needs the marriage covenant to rescue it from the tyranny of immature emotions.  Most divorces happen in the first two years, when couples discover the stranger they married and want out.  They fell in love and they fell out just as quickly.  But if they understood the covenant, they could have weathered the storm.  

In the Old Testament, when a covenant was made, an animal was slain and cut in half and the parties walked between the two halves.  It was a way of saying, “If I don’t keep my promise, if I break this covenant, may I become like this animal.”  

I have considered rewriting our wedding service and making couples walk between a dead animal.  They’ve said, “We’d rather exchange rings.”  The rings are the sign of covenant—the reminder of the promises you’ve made.  Whether you kill an animal, jump over a broom, stomp on the glass or exchange rings, the important thing is that you are standing up in front of your friends and making a covenant before God and before people.  

So it’s not just a piece of paper.  It’s a covenant.  It’s a promise that is binding, legal and public.  Why is this important?  Because love needs a covenant to thrive.

Marriage is a covenant between two people based on promises we make before God and keep with His help.

Let’s talk about the promises.


2. The power of a promise.

Marriage is hard!  Anytime you take two sinners, two people who are innately selfish, and put them under the same roof for a lifetime, that’s a wicked soup!  That’s trouble.  Marriage is hard, and we do people a disservice by letting them think that a good marriage is easy or just comes naturally.  Good marriages are the result of a lot of hard work by two committed partners.  

Every marriage has hard times.  Can I see the hands of all the married couples?  Now let’s see the hands of married couples who have had hard times.  Looks like the same group!  Every marriage has hard times.  What carries you through the hard times?  Commitment.  We made a promise to stay together and love each other and make this thing work.  So we don’t give up.  We don’t quit.  We persevere and work through the hard times.  We work hard.

Good marriages are the result of a lot of hard work by two committed partners.  And good marriages require skill and will.  There are skills that you have to learn, and for most of us, we’ll take a lifetime to learn them.  What kind of skills?  Understanding the opposite sex, communication, conflict resolution, compromise, anger management, raising children, managing money, making love.  Many couples, lacking the skills, break up early on.  Did you know that nearly one half of all divorces happen in the first two years of marriage?  We marry without knowing how hard it will be and without many of the skills, and then we break up before we have a chance to develop the skills.  What carries us through while we’re learning the skills? Commitment. We made a promise: for better or worse till death do us part.  And that’s the glue that holds us together.

Our promises hold us together when our emotions want to tear us apart.  Our promises create stability so that our love, fragile at first, has a chance to grow strong and deep over time.  

In the book, Keller argues that promises are powerful because they shape who we are.  Our promises identify us.  I am the one who will be with you always.  I am the one who will always love you, always be with you, always be faithful to you.  This promise sets my course, and establishes not only who I am now, but who I will be.  Rather than a changing identity based on my ever-changing emotional reactions, I have a stable identity based on my promises.  I am the one who will be with you.

Immediately, someone will protest that such promises rob us of freedom.  They are restrictive.  Yes, it’s true—I promise myself exclusively to my wife.  But that restriction brings its own wonderful freedom.  You limit your freedom to experience a greater freedom.  Every choice does this—to choose one thing is not to choose others.  

ILL: If you choose to learn to play piano, you commit yourself to hours of practice.  This means saying no to other things, but it results in the freedom to play the piano.

If you choose to live in Spokane, you are choosing not to live somewhere else.  It limits you, but it sets you free to live—really live—right here in Paradise!

So your promise restricts you and yet sets you free.  By promising you create a sanctuary of trust in a sea of uncertainty.  You are no longer purely a product of your background, your family of origin, your DNA, or other external circumstances.  When you make a promise, you rise above all the conditioning that limits you and you become most free.  You choose who you will become.

A promise is a powerful thing.  If you think about it, all of our relationships are based upon promises.  We make commitments to behave certain ways.  At the store, I promise to pay for what I take.  At work, I promise to do my job.  On a team, I promise to show up for practice and do my best.  Relationships are based on promises, and when promises are broken, relationships break down.

In Christian marriage, I not only make the promises to my spouse, but to God.  Proverbs 2:17 warns against the adulterous woman

Proverbs 2:17 who has left the partner of her youth and ignored the covenant she made before God.  (See also Ezekiel 16:8, Malachi 2:14, Hebrews 13:4)

The covenant between a husband and wife is made before God, and therefore is a covenant with God as well as with the spouse.   I promise my spouse and I promise God, and I ask for His help—“So help me God.”

We call these promises the vows, and they are the steel framework that the marriage is built on.  These promises are worth repeating to each other regularly—more about that in a few minutes.

ILL: When Laina and I got married, we made promises to each other, for better or worse till death do us part.  We decided that divorce would not be an option for us.  We knew there would be hard times, but we believed that God wanted us together and wanted our marriage to last.  So we promised to stay together and work it out.  “God wants us to be together and He will help us work this out.”  We have never used the D-word as a threat, or thought of it as an option.

ILL: I love the story of Fernando Cortez, sent from Spain to conquer the mighty Aztecs.  He arrived in the Gulf of Mexico with 11 ships and 700 men.  When the men realized how impossible their task was, they began to talk of mutiny.  Cortez moved all the men and supplies on to the beach, and then sent a single man back out in a rowboat, and he torched all 11 ships.  Those 700 men stood on the shore of the Gulf of Mexico and watched their only hope of escape sink to the bottom of the bay.  Now there was only one choice left: not escape, but advance.  And they did.

When Laina and I married, we each arrived in our own ship of singleness, and at the wedding, we burned the ships.  There’s no going back that way.  We had to go forward…together.  If you leave a ship in the bay, you’ll probably use it.  When the going gets tough—and it will—that ship looks pretty inviting.  But if you’ve burned the ships, if you’ve made the commitment, there’s no turning back.  “We will work it out—I promise.”

Does this mean no divorce for anyone?  No.  I don’t have time to cover all the Bible says about divorce; I’ve done that in other messages.  Short version: Jesus allowed divorce for infidelity.  Paul adds desertion by an unbelieving spouse as grounds for divorce.  So there are Biblical grounds for divorce, but it should never be done lightly or quickly, and shouldn’t be our first option.  Those of you who have experienced the pain of divorce may find comfort in knowing that God understands—He has been divorced and knows what it is like.

Jeremiah 3:8 I gave faithless Israel her certificate of divorce and sent her away because of all her adulteries.

God understands the pain of divorce, and is there to help those who have been hurt by it.

But what if your love dies?  What if the passion is gone?  Are you stuck forever with someone you don’t love just because you made a stupid promise?  Maybe our vow should be, “I promise to keep this promise until I don’t feel like keeping this promise anymore.”  Which leads us to:

3. The nature of love.

In our culture we have confused romance and infatuation with love.  We think of love as something you fall into.  What do you call something you fall into?  A hole.  He’s fallen in and he doesn’t look happy about it.  It’s like a virus; you catch it.  You’re passive.  You can’t help it.  We think of love as something that just happens to us.  You’re minding your own business, when suddenly you see her.   Your palms get sweaty, your heart beats wildly and you’re short of breath.  It’s love at first sight.  Hey, you can run around the building once and feel that way!  

Love isn’t primarily a feeling.  It’s action.

Love is doing what is best for others no matter what it costs you.

Many of you have heard me say this, but it bears repeating.  Love is doing what is best for others no matter what it costs you?  How do I know this?

First, God commands us to love, and you can only command action not feelings.  I can command you to smile, but not feel happy.  I can command you to jump, but not feel jumpy.  So when God commands us to love, He is commanding us to do something, not feel something.  God commands us to love our neighbor, to love our spouse and children, and even to love our enemies.  If love is primarily affection (a feeling), how can you love your enemy?  You don’t feel affection toward an enemy!  But you can love him—you can do what’s best for him.

Second, I know that this is love because of Jesus.  

John 3:16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

Romans 5:8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

1 John 4:10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.

God’s love was demonstrated by Jesus on the cross. What did He feel while He was dying on the cross?  Pain.  Not romance, but pain.  But the Bible says that was love.  He was doing what was best for us no matter what it cost him.

Jesus didn’t look at us from the cross and feel romance.  “I find you so attractive—you’re just my body type!”  He didn’t die for us because we were lovely; He died to make us lovely.  He did what was best for us no matter what it cost.

If we think of love as primarily emotion—romance and affection, passion and sizzle—then love will come and go.  And when it goes, people feel free to ditch the relationship and look for love with someone else.  And we bounce from one relationship to another: sizzle, fizzle, change; sizzle, fizzle, change.  Marriage saves love from the tyranny of immature emotions.

ILL: Can you remember the first time you held your sweetheart’s hand?  The first kiss?  Oh my word!  The first time I held Laina’s hand, electricity shot up my arm and my whole body tingled!  Wow!

I hold Laina’s hand all the time now, and don’t get that same tingle anymore.  But there is no comparison between that and what it means to hold her hand now after all we’ve been through.  38 years of joy and sorrow, great mountaintops and the valley of the shadow of death.  We’ve fought, cried, repented, forgiven, laughed and reconciled…over and over.  We each know the other better than we know any other human being.  Is there passion?  Yes.  Sizzle?  Yes.  But it’s different—it’s deeper, stronger, richer than that first passion.

But many couples never experience that depth of love because as soon as the first sizzle is over, they start looking for a new sizzle with someone else.

But shouldn’t there be some sizzle?  Shouldn’t there be passion and emotion?  Of course.  But let’s not get the cart before the horse.  If you want to feel good for someone, do good for them.  Act in a loving way and you’ll begin to feel loving towards them.  C.S. Lewis wrote:

The rule for all of us is perfectly simple. Do not waste time bothering whether you “love” your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him. If you injure someone you dislike, you will find yourself disliking him more. If you do him a good turn, you will find yourself disliking him less…  

The worldly man treats certain people kindly because he “likes” them: The Christian, trying to treat everyone kindly, finds himself liking more and more people as he goes on— including people he could not even have imagined himself liking at the beginning.(Mere Christianity, pg. 130-1.)

This applies to all relationships, including marriage.  The more you love in deed, the more loving you’ll feel.  And vice versa: the more you treat people poorly, the less you will like them.  

Keller concludes: “Love between two people must not, in the end, be identified simply with emotion or merely with dutiful action. Married love is a symbiotic, complex mixture of both. Having said this, it is important to observe that of the two— emotion and action— it is the latter that we have the most control over. It is the action of love that we can promise to maintain every day.” (p. 95).


My Next Step.  

Married: Repeat your vows every day this week.  

Single: Do something good for someone you don’t like.


I promise to love you.  I promise to cherish you.  I promise to honor you.  I promise to be faithful to you.  I will keep these promises in good times and bad, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, for as long as we both live.  So help me God.