The Meaning of Marriage: A picture of Christ and the church

November 3, 2019.

What does it mean to bear the image of God? In the opening pages of the bible we are given a creation story in which we hear God say “Let us create man in our own image, after our likeness…”, and then we read

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
Genesis 1:27

What does this mean, to be made in the image of God? That human beings bear the divine image is a core Jewish and Christian belief, yet it has meant various things to different people over the course of history. I’m sure many of you have your own thoughts on what it means to bear the image of God. However, in recent years, scholarship in ancient near eastern literature has brought to light what was likely the original context of this concept, so that we have a pretty good idea of what an ancient Israelite would have thought of when she was told that she was an image bearer of the Almighty. In the ancient near east, when a king or ruler would conquer another tribe or nation, often he would set up a statue, or an image of himself in the midst of the conquered people, to be a representation of himself and his rule, even when he wasn’t present. Thus, when God says that man is made in the image of God, what this means in context is that man is supposed to be God’s representatives in creation, acting, as one scholar puts it, as a mirror reflecting the glory of God to creation, and creation back to God. Humans are supposed to represent God to one another and to the world, giving us and creation a picture of who God is and what his will is for us.

God relates to us in pictures, metaphors, images. I believe this is because this is the only way our finite minds can even begin to grasp an infinite being. We need something tangible, something we understand, something we experience, to begin to understand God. The Bible is filled with images and pictures that God gives his people to help them understand who He is and remember what he has done for them. These images and reminders include the temple, sacrifice, the Passover meal, songs and poetry, the list goes on and on. But I want to focus on the picture that is most relevant to today.

When God wanted to relate himself to mankind and the rest of his creation, he started with a couple. Isn’t that interesting? Out of all the pictures God could have chosen, such as a mighty storm or earthquake, or a king and servants, or even a father and son, he chose instead to start with the picture of marriage. And not only does he start here, but this picture continues on in the narrative of scripture, initially with Adam and Eve, then with his people Israel and then ultimately in invitation to the marriage supper of the Lamb, were the church is pictured as the bride of Christ.

The picture of marriage is an important image that God has given us, calling us to a higher understanding of who he is and how he relates to us. But why emphasize this picture? I want to take a few minutes to look at Ephesians 5 and contemplate what Paul is really getting at.

Ephesians 5 is not a particularly popular passage in our culture today. Sure, it is still often read during weddings and some people reference it when discussing their marriage, but it has fallen out of favor in popular culture mainly due to the complementary roles it sets for a husband and wife in marriage, especially with the idea of the wife submitting to her husband. There is a lot to say about that and the idea of complementary roles in general, probably much more than we will have time for here, but in arguing over this I think we have actually missed the entire point of the passage. Towards the end of the passage, Paul says something very interesting:

This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.
Ephesians 5:32

Paul spends the latter half of the chapter giving instructions to married men and women, describing what their marriage should look like, ending with a quote from Genesis 2 about a man and woman becoming one flesh in marriage, and then throws in a twist at the end saying that this doesn’t actually have to do with marriage! At least not ultimately. And in case we missed the point (which we so often have), he emphasizes this by then returning to the instructions to the married almost as an aside, something akin to, “actual marriage is not what is really the point here, but nevertheless, your marriage should look like what I just described.”

So, what is the point? The passage is literally instructions to married people about how they should conduct themselves in their marriage and what a properly functioning marriage should look like. He gives instructions to wives to submit to their husbands and for husbands to love their wives. Seems relatively simple and straightforward. But there is something deeper going on here, something that Paul wants us to see in the very meaning of marriage. After giving instructions to each party, Paul then quotes a passage from Genesis 2, the first picture of God through the marriage of Adam and Eve that we noted earlier,

“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”
Genesis 2:24

This makes sense in the context since Paul is instructing married people. But then, unexpectedly, Paul tells us that this passage isn’t really about marriage, but rather that the very concept of marriage from the beginning was a mystery that was and is ultimately about Christ and the church. So what is the point? What is Paul getting at when he says “this mystery is profound…”? How does Genesis 2 actually refer to Christ and the Church, especially when neither Christ nor the church is mentioned in Genesis 2? God is giving us a picture! Or rather, our marriages are supposed to be living pictures, representations, of God’s love and will for mankind to the world, which is embodied in Jesus. Thus, our marriages speak for something deeper than themselves- they speak as a representation of Jesus’ love for his people.

Whereas it is good to have the marriage that Paul describes here, the good marriage is not the main point. The good marriage, rather, is the sign post, pointing us to God. Properly functioning marriages, as described in the chapter, help the world to see God and his love for them. They help us relate to God, giving us an image, a metaphor, a picture to look at and glimpse the divine. They give us a tangible picture of Jesus and his love for the church. This is why the instructions are rooted and grounded in what Jesus has done for us and our relationship with him. Let’s now back up and take the overall passage a little bit at a time and see if we don’t get a more beautiful, rich understanding, transcending the culture wars of our day.

“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”
Ephesians 5:25-31

Husbands are instructed to love their wives; but this is not just any kind of love. They are to love their wives with the love that Christ has for the church. Think about that. How does Jesus love us? This is a call to complete self-sacrifice. It’s a call to do good and love his wife, even when she may not be returning the favor, just as Jesus went to the cross to die for us while we were yet sinners. It is a love that puts his wives needs above his own, always seeking the best for her, pursuing her, lifting her up. It is a love that is supposed to display to the world, and to his wife, the love that Christ has for his people. Again, stop and think about that, about what is being instructed of husbands in this passage. If that’s not convicting, then you probably haven’t fully grasped Jesus’ love for you.

Now, it is in this context that we can go up a little further and read Paul’s instruction to wives:

“Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.
Ephesians 5:22-24”

This is where the culture balks, and perhaps for good reason. Perhaps the reason there is so much push back against wives being in submission to their husbands today is due to our failure to show the proper picture of God through our marriages. Perhaps it is because so many husbands have not accurately displayed the love of Christ in their marriages. Remember what we just said about the instructions that Paul gives to husbands (which is much longer, perhaps emphasizing the difficulty of the task that husbands have). They are to love their wives as their own body, sacrificing for them, lifting them up, always looking to do what would be best for them. They are to love their wives as Christ loves us. Who wouldn’t want to submit to that? If you know your husband truly has your best interests in mind, submission is no longer all that difficult. If you know your husband truly loves you with a sacrificial love, trusting him is easy. And this submission and trust is a picture of our submission and trust in Jesus, our Lord and our King. Just as the church submits to Christ, the wife is to submit to her husband.

So, both the role of the husband and the role of the wife pictures vital details of Christ’s love for the church. But we don’t even have to stop there! Before Paul addresses husbands and wives in particular, he addresses Christians in general:

“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous ( that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not become partners with them; for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
Ephesians 5:1-21

Do you see what is happening? God is giving us another picture! Our whole life is supposed to represent God. Why? Because we are made in his image! In particular, those of us who have entered into a covenantal relationship with God, who have been given his spirit, are supposed to represent Jesus to the world through the example of our life. We are are walking pictures of the divine. We, quite literally, bear his image to the world. (Note here that part of this picture involves submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ, an instruction given to all Christians, not just Christian wives.) So, in our individual lives, in the relationships we have with other people, and particularly in our marriage relationships, our calling is to image the love of Christ to the world. This should make us take our relationships very seriously.

How are we to understand God, the almighty and infinite one? God gives us pictures. And in this case, we are the picture. So, wherever we find ourselves today, in our marriages, in other relationships, in our individual lives in general, may we ever strive to accurately bear the image of God to the world.


One Comment Add yours

  1. J Pendergraft says:

    An interesting reasoning to why the 10 commandments include not to make Graven Images – the supposition being previously for me that no image of God was to be made that would be worshiped as the true God, but now perhaps He meant it so others might not be confused of the image that the Israelites (and ourselves) are supposed to be showing of the God Head Familiy in our mortal lives. Good thoughts Walt!

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