Jesus on Marriage

marriagedifficultyThe secret to newlywed bliss? Irrational optimism about your spouse. If marriage is about compromise, as they say, then happy marriage is about self-delusion. So found scientists at the University of Buffalo, who followed 222 newlyweds through their first three years together. The ones who went into marriage idealizing their partners ended up happier together than those who went in with clearer eyes. …

The study is published in the April issue of Psychological Science, Dr. Sandra Murray, a professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo, the State University of New York recruited 222 couples as they applied for their marriage licenses in Buffalo, N.Y. They were, on average, about 27 years old, with family incomes of about $40,000 to $70,000 a year. One hundred and ninety three couples “finished at least three of the seven waves of evaluation, she said. (Eleven separated or divorced.) Participants completed surveys about themselves, their partners and their marriages every six months for three years.”

“The couples who initially idealized their partner extremely, experienced no declines in satisfaction in their partner. As long as both spouses have a positive attitude about their partner, they have likely to have a successful marriage and be very happy together.” (Source:

Is there an alternative to irrational optimism and rational cynicism in relationships? I believe there is. In our series on the privileges of church membership the last sentence reads:

“To uphold the standard of marriage entrusted by Christ to his Church and to care that children are brought up to love and serve the Lord.”

Jesus on Marriage from Stephen Sizer on Vimeo.

Upholding the standard of marriage does not mean wearing rose tinted glasses any more than reinforcing Victorian stereotypes or giving in to more contemporary secular prejudices. When we address such a controversial subject as marriage, we have to acknowledge we bring a certain amount of excess baggage. In any church family there will be singles who are content and those who are not. Some will be happily married and others not. Some may be living together, some will be separated, some divorced and some widowed. We also bring with us the subconscious baggage of our parents marriage, happy or otherwise. And we may already have witnessed in the marriages of our children or grandchildren, sadness and heartache for the same reasons. We each come to God with different needs, different hopes and longings, for ourselves and for those we love. So let us invite the Holy Spirit to speak to us, to teach us how, whatever our background, whatever our past experience, we can start again and live in right relationships as God intends. Please turn with me to Mark 10:6-9 and lets discover how Jesus speaks into our contemporary debate about marriage.

1. God Initiative in Marriage: A Creation Gift

“But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.”  (Mark 10:6)

Jesus is quoting from Genesis 1:27. Here is the full verse:

“So God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:27)

Unlike the religious leaders who liked to debate the precise interpretation of Scripture, Jesus simply declares the will of God. (James Edwards observes[1]) Jesus presumes a divine authority to pronounce God’s will. He declares Genesis to be God’s authoritative word and emphasizes four things:

1.  God created men and women
2.  God created men and women equal
3.  God created men and women in his image
4.  God created marriage for men and women

Now this may seem rather obvious but Jesus states categorically that marriage is the God ordained union a man and a woman. Not two men. Not two women. Not one man and two women or three or any other permutation.

From the very beginning of creation, God has intended marriage to be the union of a man and a woman. While in the preceding verses the Pharisees are looking for exceptions, or rather excuses for divorce, Jesus declares God’s original will for men and women. Now you can choose. You can dream up your own definition of marriage. You can accept the definition of marriage or civil partnership recognized in English law or, you can accept the Makers instructions. Jesus declares unequivocally that our maleness and our femaleness are equal and complimented in marriage. This is why the Anglican marriage service, begins with these words, “The Bible teaches us that marriage is a gift of God in creation and a means of his grace…” Marriage is rooted in the creative and loving initiative of God. Marriage between a man and a woman is God’s idea. Marriage was part of God’s creative plan.  While some are called to singleness, while some desire to remain single and others reluctantly find themselves single, marriage is nevertheless the norm. How do we uphold the standard of marriage? First, by recognizing that marriage is a gift.

God Initiative in Marriage: A Creation Gift.

2. God’s Intention for Marriage: A Public Event

‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife,  8 and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one.  (Mark 10:7-8)

Here Jesus develops the implications of his argument with the Pharisees. He quotes from another passage, from Genesis 2:24. Jesus declares that a husband’s obligation to his wife, and by implication, of the wife to her husband, surpass their obligation to their parents. Our responsibility to honour our parents is enshrined in the Ten Commandments and second only to the commandment to honour God (Exodus 20:12).

But Jesus teaches here that a husband’s obligation to his wife in the union of marriage surpasses his allegiance to his parents. By saying so, Jesus makes marriage second only to obedience to God in sacredness. There has to be a leaving – a public movement away from the authority and influence of  parents before there can be a uniting with one’s partner. “No longer two but one.” The ‘leaving’ of the one is necessary for the ‘uniting’ of the other. In very beautiful but profound language, the Anglican marriage service interprets and applies these words of Jesus:

“The Bible teaches us that marriage is a gift of God in creation and a means of his grace, a holy mystery in which man and woman become one flesh. It is God’s purpose that, as husband and wife give themselves to each other in love throughout their lives, they shall be united in that love as Christ is united with his Church. Marriage is given, that husband and wife may comfort and help each other, living faithfully together in need and in plenty, in sorrow and in joy. It is given, that with delight and tenderness they may know each other in love, and, through the joy of their bodily union, may strengthen the union of their hearts and lives.

It is given as the foundation of family life in which children may be born and nurtured in accordance with God’s will, to his praise and glory. In marriage husband and wife belong to one another, and they begin a new life together in the community. It is a way of life that all should honour; and it must not be undertaken carelessly, lightly, or selfishly, but reverently, responsibly, and after serious thought.”

By insisting that marriage is a public event as well as a physical act, God ensures the security and stability of family life in the community because it is clear to everyone who is married and who is not. Just drifting into living together or cohabiting or tolerating adultery is not God’s will. It is not synonymous with marriage. Why is God so opposed to divorce in almost all circumstances apart from adultery or desertion? Because in the public event and the physical act of marriage “they are” he insists “no longer two, but one” (Mark 10:8). How then can we uphold the standard of marriage?  First, by recognizing God’s initiative in marriage: a creation gift. Second, by recognizing God’s intention for marriage – a public event. And third,

3. God’s Insistence in Marriage: A Permanent Union

“Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (Mark 10:9)

On the question of marriage, the greatest difference between Jesus and the rabbis, is this: like many cultures today, by giving a husband principal control over his wife,

the Jewish divorce law made the man the Lord of the marital relationship. Not so, says Jesus. It is neither the husband nor the wife who controls the marriage, but rather God. God brings a couple together by his providence. He joins them. He is Lord of the marriage. There are profound implications that flow from this. Yes, we retain free will. Yes, we may consider certain marriages ill advised. Yes, we may regret decisions we have made. Yes, we may grieve at decisions others have made over which we had no control.  Yes, some pregnancies may be unplanned, and yes, some children are sadly unloved.
That is why God created us not just our physical family but also our spiritual family, the church. That is together why we must uphold the standard of marriage entrusted by Christ to his Church and to care that children are brought up to love and serve the Lord. It is our privilege to pray for, honour and support one another in our relationships, our marriages and families. So that if our family is under stress or fails, we have an extended family of brothers and sisters who will support and care for us.

Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a short story, “The Birthmark” in the 1800’s.[2] It is the intriguing story of a chemist named Aylmer. He marries a beautiful young woman named Georgiana. Her beauty was spoken of far and wide. But there was a single small blemish — a tiny birthmark on her cheek, in the shape of a small hand. Those who loved her said that it was the imprint of an angel’s hand at her birth. But after their marriage, Aylmer asks his wife if it ever occurred to her that her birthmark could be removed. She is offended because she has considered it a beauty mark. But he says to her that she is so near perfection that it is a shame to have something so small spoil her beauty. As time went on, when he looked at her all he could see was what had now become to him a hideous birthmark. No longer did he see her beauty, only her imperfection. It was not long until Georgiana began to despise the birthmark as well, and it became for her a source of shame, so that she now hated it more than her husband. One day Aylmer told his wife that, as a chemist, he could concoct a potion that would dissolve the birthmark and leave her face perfect. Out of a desire to please him, and be free from the thing he had caused her to hate, she agreed to drink the potion. As Aylmer watched, she drank, and the tiny birthmark seemed to slowly, and even miraculously, disappear. He was overwhelmed with joy at his success, and cried out in triumph over his accomplishment. But as the last fading pink disappeared from Georgiana’s cheek, her spirit slipped away along with it, and she breathed her last. In his attempt to remove the imperfection from his wife, he killed the one he loved.

Hawthorne’s tale of “The Birthmark” could be retold in countless homes, where one spouse has become obsessed with the imperfections of the other. No longer can they see beauty in the other, only the glaring imperfection. Eventually, the imperfection not only becomes despised by the partner, but by the person as well. Little do we realise that in attempting to perfect the flaw in the other person, we are killing them in the process.  Doesn’t the world do enough to tear us down and make us hate ourselves?  Shouldn’t our homes be the one place where we feel built up rather than torn down? Shouldn’t marriage be the place where we are loved for who we are — birthmarks, bumps and bulges and all? And is not this why God has placed us together as a church family to uphold the standard of marriage entrusted by Christ to his Church. Because we cannot do it alone.  We need one another’s support and help. Along the way, and usually the hard way,  I have learnt four simple lessons in marriage:

1. Be first, to say sorry when you blow it. Beat them to it.
2. Forgive your partner when they fail, as they will.
3. Forget to remember past hurts and wrongs.
4. Feed your marriage with time and thought and tenderness.

Be first to say sorry, forgive your partner, forget the past and feed your marriage. And if you are in an inappropriate relationship, or being tempted by one, and God has convicted you this morning, then realise God will not let you get away with it. The grass is never greener on the other side. When you get closer you’ll see the same weeds and bare patches. Repent before it is too late. This morning we have seen God’s initiative in marriage – a creation gift. God’s intention in marriage – a public event. God’s insistence in marriage: A permanent union. If you are married, I invite you to recommit yourself to your partner. And if you are single, I invite you support those who are married, so that together as a church family, we can indeed uphold the standard of marriage entrusted by Christ to his Church. Lets pray.

In September we will be running the Marriage Course. For more information see here

[1] I have relied on an excellent commentary by James R. Edwards The Gospel According to Mark (Pillar, Eerdmans, 2002)

[2] For this illustration, I am grateful to Rodney Buchanan, pastor of Mulberry Steret United Methodist Church, Mount Vernon, Ohio