So how do we understand marriage now? Yes; the “tWorld” elevated Biblical tradition as a supreme value, but we must admit that not all marriages look the same even if they attempt to reflect the covenant that God established. How do we understand marriage in terms of the broad story of the Bible? We find our answer in the “rWorld,” the world of relationship.
MARRIAGE AS A SIGNPOST
In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we find Jesus performing miracles. These miracles reflect Jesus’ authority over the natural—and even supernatural—world. But in John’s biography of Jesus, Jesus’ miracles are called “signs.” Think of them as sort of supernatural performance art. Jesus’ miraculous works “make a statement,” if you will—pointing beyond the signs themselves to a greater and deeper reality. So when we find Jesus at a wedding in the city of Cana, the sign he performs points us beyond the earthly meaning of marriage to a greater story unfolding in the life and saving work of Jesus:
“On the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2 Jesus also was invited to the wedding with his disciples.” (John 2:1-2)
We need to pay careful attention here. If we were to read John’s original Greek, we’d see that his opening line could be just as easily read: “Three days later.” Three days later from what? If we rewind the tape a bit, we see that throughout the first chapter, John gives us a series of events that take place over a span of four days—each day marked by John’s repetition of the phrase “the next day” (John 1:29, 35, 43). If we do the math, that makes four days in chapter 1, and the “three days later” gives us a total of seven days. And if we go back even further, we note that John cribs his opening lines from the pages of Genesis: “In the beginning was the Word…” (John 1:1). So in both Genesis and John, we find a similar pattern: “In the beginning,” seven days go by, and there is a wedding.
|“In the beginning…” (Genesis 1:1)||“In the beginning…” (John 1:1)|
|Seven days go by (Genesis 1:3—2:3)||Seven days go by (John 1:15-2:1)|
|There is a wedding (Genesis 2:22-25)||There is a wedding (John 2:1-11)|
Granted, John’s parallels to Genesis aren’t precise, but they’re hardly accidental. It’s as if every so often John is trying to tell us that God is writing a new story, not through Adam but through Jesus.
“3 When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.”4 And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” 5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”
6 Now there were six stone water jars there for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7 Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. 8 And he said to them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the feast.” So they took it.9 When the master of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom 10 and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.” 11 This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him. (John 2:3-11)
When I was an undergraduate student in chemistry, I had a professor who came to the classroom to discover her table covered in a fine white powder. Intending to clean it up, she spritzed it with water—and it immediately burst into flames. The powder had been pure sodium metal. Mix it with water, and the reaction is violent—even explosive. The same is true here. A wedding, stone purity jars, wine—these things were all seemingly ordinary parts of Jewish culture, but mix them together in the presence of Jesus and the whole scene explodes into unprecedented joy.
Wine, you see, was a powerful symbol of the end of exile. “I will bring back my people,” God promises. “They will plant vineyards and drink the wine they produce” (Amos 9:14). Ultimately such promises point us toward the day when God restores the heavens and the earth—a day when the law will be written on our hearts (Jeremiah 31:33), leaving stone purity jars obsolete.
What is Jesus saying? He’s saying that the promise is being fulfilled through him. His first sign points far into the future. It’s as if Jesus is giving us the “happily ever after” in the same breath as “once upon a time.”
What does this mean for marriage, then? It means that marriage is a signpost. It points beyond itself to a grander story, one that begins with the marriage of man and woman, and culminates in the marriage of heaven and earth—when the heavens descend “like a bride adorned for her husband” (Revelation 21:2). The Church now stands as the bride of Christ (Ephesians 5:25ff), awaiting the day when we participate in the celebration known as the “marriage supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:6).
Because marriage reflects and points toward this greater reality, we treasure this signpost for all that it is—but also for the reality to which it points.
LOOKING TOWARD THE SIGNPOST
What does this high-minded theology mean for us practically? Paul seems to understand marriage as something of a “signpost” when addressing the church in the city of Corinth. There, he addresses several distinct groups of people—we ourselves will use his text to address the single, the married, and the dating.
- To the single:
We must remember that Paul was single—at least at the time he wrote 1 Corinthians. Though Paul stops short of issuing a “command” (1 Corinthians 7:6), his advice is that for singles, “it is good for them to remain single as I am. 9 But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (1 Corinthians 7:8-9).
Marriage and family—though a joyous design of God himself—represent an obligation that single adults lack. Therefore singles have unique opportunities to be devoted to the Lord. As a single person, I can attest to times when well-meaning adults have made me feel less than complete for lack of a marriage partner—an experience to which many single adults are currently nodding their heads in agreement. Being single in the church is a unique challenge. If you are single, I encourage you to stop looking to church expecting to “fit in.” Not to say you won’t, but these times will often be punctuated by many other experiences where you find yourself surrounded by married couples wondering if their dinner invitation was somehow doing you a favor. So I understand fully well how difficult it can be to be a single Christian without others questioning your maturity. Come to church anyway. Love anyway. Serve anyway. You may find there’s joy there you never expected.
- To the married:
Married life can take on all sorts of interesting variations. One of the most challenging is a relationship where the partners do not share a faith commitment. Paul says that “If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. 14 For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy” (1 Corinthians 7:13-14). Marriage is about nurturing one’s spouse and one’s children toward devotion in the kingdom of God.
And we should also remember that marriage isn’t forever. Even diamonds decompose eventually to graphite—to pencil lead. Jesus tells us that in God’s future kingdom, men and women “neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Matthew 22:30). Marriage is a temporary, earthly institution. We must look beyond its borders, and fix our identity as citizens of God’s greater kingdom.
- To the dating:
Finally, to the dating: there is no greater relational decision than the person you choose to marry. This person will be the most immediate shepherd of your heart, and the most influential shepherd in the lives of your future children. I’ve never met anyone in a spiritually mixed marriage who regrets marrying their unbelieving partner, but one can only imagine the nights spent wishing and yearning for their partners’ heart to turn to Jesus. Don’t let that be you. Find the man or woman who—like the signpost—points you to Christ and his gospel. Find the man or woman who will do the same for your children. If you are dating and that person does not match this description, if that person leaves you to your own devices on Sunday mornings, in prayer, in Bible study, it is time to move on. The temporary pain you feel now is nothing in comparison to a lifetime of grief.
- To all:
Jesus is the true and better Bridegroom. No one can ever know our hearts like he can; no one can ever nourish our souls like he can. Marriage is a signpost. Let’s value it for the greatness that it is, and let’s also ache for the kingdom that it promises.