October 27, 2013

Pastor Joe Wittwer

The Meaning of Marriage

#1—The Secret of Marriage


ILL: When I was visiting my mother in Alaska in 1983, we spent a couple days in Anchorage.  While riding on a city bus, we saw a house a few blocks away painted fluorescent green.   Everyone on the bus was staring in disbelief.  Then as we passed the house, our shock turned to laughter.  On a piece of plywood propped in the front yard, painted in the same fluorescent green, it read, “My wife chose the color”.

Ah, marriage.  It’s a mystery!  Marriage takes two very different people—different genders, different backgrounds, different personalities, different tastes—and throws them together for a lifetime.  It’s glorious…and it’s hard.  It’s wonderful…and it’s maddening.  It’s a mystery.  And today we kick off this series on marriage by talking about the secret of marriage.  Don’t you want to know the secret?  It’s coming…wait for it!


If a man is alone in the woods and says something, and his wife is not there to hear it, is he still wrong?


    The Truth Project: video.  Starts next week; free, but register online or at the Info Center.

    Baptism classes today: baptisms next week.

    Fall back to Standard Time next Sunday!

    Ethiopia Team Sendoff: live at 9; pictures at 11, 5.

Video: It’s not about the nail.

Introduction and offering:

    Can you identify with that?  I’ve got a closet full of snagged sweaters!  Any relationship between two human beings is complex and difficult, and can leave us scratching our heads.  This is especially true of marriage, which I think is glorious…and hard.  Paul wrote:

Ephesians 5:31–32 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.

Anyone who has been married for more than a week will resonate with that word “mystery.”  Sometimes you fall into bed after a long hard day of trying to understand each other, and you can only sigh, “This is a profound mystery.”  

    For the next 8 weeks, we’re going to dive deep into what the Bible says about the mystery of marriage.  Let me tell you how we got here.

    I read a lot—I average a book a week.  Every now and then, I read a book that is so good that I wish everyone would read it.  Last year, I read two of those: Who is This Man? by John Ortburg, and The Meaning of Marriage by Tim Keller.  When I finished The Meaning of Marriage, I thought that it may be the best book I’ve ever read on marriage, and I’ve read a lot of them.  So I decided to turn this book into a series of 8 talks and share it with you.  Actually, Keller’s book is based on a series of talks that he gave in his church, Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan, in 1991.  80% of the members at Redeemer were young single adults!  He did a 9-week series on marriage for a church of mostly young single adults!  It remains the most listened to set of talks the church has ever produced.  Singles, I hope that encourages you to stick with us.  In fact, one of the things we’ll discover is that the Christian faith not only elevates and honors marriage, but it does the same with the single life.  This series is about marriage, singleness, the gospel and the Bible—so I think everyone will benefit.

    We’re going to take a chapter a week and unpack it.  The whole book is based on three of the most important passages in the Bible that deal with marriage: Genesis 2, 1 Corinthians 7, and especially, Ephesians 5.  

    Today we’re starting with two things: the state of the union (a look at the status of marriage in our culture), and two foundational truths from the Bible about marriage.

1. The State of the Union: marriage in our culture.

    I’m going to give you a summary; Keller covers this in depth in the book.

    Marriage is under attack and in decline in our culture.  

“Over the last forty years, the ‘leading marriage indicators’—empirical descriptions of marriage health and satisfaction—have been in steady decline. The divorce rate is nearly twice the rate it was in 1960. In 1970, 89 percent of all births were to married parents, but today only 60 percent are.  Most tellingly, over 72 percent of American adults were married in 1960, but only 50 percent were in 2008.” (p. 14) There is widespread wariness and pessimism about marriage.  

Sociologist and theologian Chris Rock asks, “Do you want to be single and lonely, or married and bored?”  Many people think those are the main two options, and so choose a middle ground: living together with a sexual partner. “Today more than half of all people live together before getting married. In 1960, virtually no one did.” (p. 14)

Many couples live together to determine if they are a good marital match—it’s a trial.  But their trial may be hurting, not helping, their chances for marital success.  “A substantial body of evidence indicates that those who live together before marriage are more likely to break up after marriage.”(p. 15) There are reasons for this that we’ll explore later in the series.

Some live together as a trial, but many others simply live together rather than bothering with marriage—it’s not a trial, it’s a substitute.  They have no intention of getting married.  Forty percent of Americans believe that marriage is becoming obsolete, a social artifact whose expiration date has passed.

But in spite of our culture’s pessimism about marriage, research underscores the surprising goodness of marriage.  Here are a few facts:

  • Marriage has economic benefits.  Rather than being a financial drain, as a rule, those who marry and stay married earn considerably more over their lifetimes than those who don’t.

  • Marriage has psychological benefits. Married people generally experience greater physical and mental health.  Spouses hold one another to greater levels of accountability, and provide a shock absorber in times of stress.  Nothing matures character like marriage.

  • Many people assume that most marriages are unhappy.  But almost 62% of married couples report being “very happy” in their marriages. “Most striking of all, …two-thirds of those unhappy marriages will become happy within five years if they stay married and do not get divorced.” (p. 18)  Not happy right now?  Stick it out and you’ll likely get happy.  

Marriage is good.  

Belief in the goodness of marriage was once universal, but that is no longer true. Where did this pessimism about marriage come from?  Keller suggests that the answer is counter-intuitive and surprising.  It comes from a shift in our thinking about the purpose of marriage.

“Marriage used to be a public institution for the common good, and now it is a private arrangement for the satisfaction of the individuals. Marriage used to be about us, but now it is about me.” (p. 21).  In other words, marriage wasn’t just about personal fulfillment, but about the stability of the family and community.  

“Both men and women today see marriage not as a way of creating character and community but as a way to reach personal life goals. They are all looking for a marriage partner who will ‘fulfill their emotional, sexual, and spiritual desires.’  And that creates an extreme idealism that in turn leads to deep pessimism that you will ever find the right person to marry. This is the reason so many put off marriage and look right past great prospective spouses that simply are ‘not good enough.’”(pp. 25-26)  We’ve created ideals that are unreachable.

    People want too much out of a marriage partner.  Men are looking for a woman who is “a novelist/astronaut with a background in fashion modeling.”Women’s expectations are no more realistic.  Men and women both are looking for someone who “meets your needs while making almost no claims on you.” (p. 27)

    Think about this: “A Me-Marriage requires two completely well-adjusted, happy individuals, with very little in the way of emotional neediness or character flaws. The problem is— there is almost no one like that out there to marry!” (p. 26) Including you!  We all hope to marry the perfect person.  But he doesn’t exist; she doesn’t exist.  There are no perfect people—just flawed and broken human beings like you and me.  

Here’s why the quest for perfect compatibility seems so impossible: no two people are perfectly compatible!    There are two reasons for this.

First, we are sinners.  Every one of us is fundamentally broken by sin.  Our rebellion against God has left us flawed, imperfect, and broken.  We are naturally self-centered.  When we’re dating, we can camouflage our selfishness for a while.  We can put our best foot forward—we can fool each other.  But marriage strips away the camouflage, and before long, our unvarnished selves come out.  That first year is full of surprises!  I tell engaged couples to expect this.  Anytime you put two selfish people under the same roof for a long time, that’s a wicked soup.   Expect trouble!  This is true of any human relationship: friendships, business, church, anything—but especially marriage.   No two people are perfectly compatible because we are selfish and sinful.

Second, marriage changes us.  Even if you could find the perfectly compatible person, it wouldn’t last long.  Marriage changes us in ways we can’t anticipate or predict.  I am not the same person Laina married in 1975; nor is she.  We’ve both changed, and we’ve had to learn to adapt to the stranger we’re married to!  One guy said, “My wife has been married to five men, and all of them have been me!”  So rather than trying to find the perfect person (who doesn’t exist), we have to learn to love the person we’re married to, who is different than the person we first married.

Perfect compatibility, the spouse who will meet all my needs while making no demands on me, is a myth.  But it remains the ideal of many, and burdens marriage with unrealistic expectations that doom the relationship.  So we find ourselves in a culture that is both overly idealistic and unduly pessimistic about marriage.  

But the problem isn’t with marriage. Marriage brings enormous benefits to adults, children and society alike.  And marriage is ubiquitous—it has been central to human life in every culture and century.  The problem isn’t with marriage, but with us.  

There has never been a more important time to lift up the Biblical understanding of marriage and give it prominence.  

2. Two foundational truths about marriage.

    A. Marriage is God’s idea.

    The Bible presents marriage as God’s idea. Marriage is not just a human social construct; it is God’s idea. In fact, God presided over the first wedding.  Here’s the story:

Genesis 2:18–25 The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”

19 Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. 20 So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.

But for Adam no suitable helper was found. 21 So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. 22 Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.

23 The man said,

“This is now bone of my bones

and flesh of my flesh;

she shall be called ‘woman,’

for she was taken out of man.”

24 That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.

25 Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.

The Bible presents marriage as God’s idea.  He created us male and female, and brought us together in marriage.  So if marriage is God’s idea, then perhaps we should pay attention to what He says about it.  Who better to describe how marriage works than the One who thought it up?

ILL: Imagine this: someone buys a new car.  They don’t bother with the owner’s manual or with the routine maintenance schedule found in it.  Rather than changing the oil every 5,000 miles, they just do it when they feel like it, or when they remember.  And they don’t bother with how much oil or what type—it’s just whatever’s handy.  Same with fuel.  They never change an oil filter, or air filter.  And when the engine dies, they get mad and say, “They don’t make them like they used to.  What a piece of junk!”

    But you know that if they had just followed the instructions in the owner’s manual, the car would have run for many years.  The ones who designed the car knew best how to maintain and operate it.  They didn’t print an owner’s manual to cramp your style; they did it so you could get the most out of the car.

In the same way, if marriage is God’s idea, then we should pay attention to what He says about it.  The God who designed us and thought up marriage has given us some very helpful instructions on how it works best.  

“The Bible begins with a wedding (of Adam and Eve) and ends in the book of Revelation with a wedding (of Christ and the church). Marriage is God’s idea. It is certainly also a human institution, and it reflects the character of the particular human culture in which it is embedded. But the concept and roots of human marriage are in God’s own action, and therefore what the Bible says about God’s design for marriage is crucial.” (p. 5)

    But what if you don’t share my assumption that the Bible is an authoritative revelation from God?  I say, “The Bible says that marriage is God’s idea.”  And you say, “I don’t buy it.  I don’t accept the Bible; I’m not even sure about God.”  Ok.  But why not at least give it a fair hearing and see what it has to say.  You might be surprised. In the Bible you have teaching about marriage that has been tested by millions of people over many centuries and in multiple cultures. So I invite you to see what it has to say and give it a try—put it into practice and see what happens in your marriage.  

    First, marriage is God’s idea, so we’re going to see what He has to say about it.

    B. Marriage is understood through the gospel.

    Here is the Big Idea for the whole book and the whole series, and this is the secret of marriage.  

The Big Idea: The secret of marriage is that the gospel of Jesus and marriage explain each other.  Do for your spouse what God did for you in Jesus, and the rest will follow!  

Paul explains this in Ephesians 5:18-33.  We began today with this:

Ephesians 5:31–32 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.

Paul quotes Genesis 2:24—the creation of marriage by God.  But Paul adds that this is a profound or great (mega) mystery.  Paul usually uses the word “mystery” to refer to revelations of God’s saving activity in Christ.  Here, he applies it to marriage.  Marriage is a mega-mystery.  Then he connects it to Christ and the church.

    What is he talking about?  We have to go back a few verses.

Ephesians 5:25-27 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.

The mystery or secret of marriage is that husbands should do for their wives what Christ did for the church.  Jesus gave Himself up for us to bring us into relationship with Himself.  Even though He was the Father’s equal, He gave up His power and glory, and became a servant.  He died to His own interests so that He could look to our needs and interests.  Jesus’ sacrifice and service brought us into deep union with Him.  And that is the secret not only to understanding marriage, but to living it.  

    The secret of marriage is loving your spouse like Jesus loved you.  If you feel overwhelmed by the demands of marriage and don’t know where to start, start here: Do for your spouse what God did for you in Jesus, and the rest will follow.  

    At weddings, I’ve said that Paul gives us a simple rule of thumb for the husband and wife.  The husband is to love His wife like Christ loves the church.  In other words, treat her the way Jesus treats you.  Do for her what Jesus has done for you.  Serve her, sacrifice for her, give your life to help her become all God wants her to be.  And the wife is to treat her husband the way she would treat Jesus—with the same love and respect we feel for Jesus because of what He’s done for us.  It’s the gospel in marriage.  It’s marriage shaped by the gospel.

    This is the secret: that the gospel of Jesus and marriage explain one another.  To make marriage work, you need to know the secret of the gospel and how it gives you the power and pattern for marriage.  

“The gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed than we ever dared believe, yet we are more loved and accepted in Jesus than we ever dared hope. This is the only kind of relationship that will really transform us.” (p. 40)  We need both love and truth if we hope to change.  Love without truth is just mushy sentimentality.  It makes us feel good, but leaves us in denial about our flaws.  Truth without love is harsh; it gives us information, but leaves us bruised.  But God’s love is marked by both radical truthfulness and radical commitment to us.  

ILL: Last Sunday, I talked with our Life Group leaders about grace and truth.  John 1:14 says that Jesus was full of grace and truth.  Not half and half; not a nice balance; full of both grace and truth.  

    You can see it in the story of the woman caught in adultery.  When all her accusers left and she was standing alone before Jesus, He said, “I don’t condemn you.  Go and sin no more.”  Grace and truth.  Grace—I don’t condemn you; you are forgiven.  Truth—what you did was wrong, so stop doing that. He didn’t say, “Well, adultery is no big deal so I’ll let you off the hook.”  Nope—he was full of truth, so He called it sin.  He also didn’t say, “Holy smokes!  You committed adultery!  I condemn you!”  He was full of grace, so He offered forgiveness.

This is the gospel: it’s full truth and full grace.  Here’s the truth: you are more flawed than you ever imagined.  Here’s the grace: you are move loved than you ever dreamed.  

    The secret of marriage is living the gospel in your marriage—living together in full truth and full grace.  

ILL: Early in our marriage, I had a bad temper.  I wasn’t a hitter—I never struck Laina.  And I wasn’t a yeller.  But I was hurtful in what I said.  Sharp-tongued—slice and dice!  After one of these episodes, Laina told me, “You scare me when you get angry.  It makes me clam up.  I don’t want to say anything to feed your anger.  I don’t like being afraid of you.”  That was like a knife to my heart.  I didn’t want Laina to feel that way.  She told me the truth, and still loved me.  That was the start of a long process of change.

    Another time, I made a stupid financial decision that cost us thousands of dollars.  What’s worse is that before I made the decision, I asked Laina’s opinion.  She told me it was a bad idea—she told me the truth.  I ignored her and did it anyway.  When it blew up, she told me the truth again: “I told you so.”  No.  She never said that—in fact, she said, “Well, we’ll get through this together.”  She just loved me—she knew that I already knew the truth and didn’t need a reminder!  She gave me grace and love.

Here’s the secret of marriage: do for your spouse what Jesus has done for you.  Full truth; full grace.  Live the gospel in your marriage.

My next step:  Live the gospel in your relationship this week: do for your spouse what God did for you in Jesus.