the Shadow of marriage
Is the modern, prevailing “Christian” idea of marriage a Biblical one? How well do our ideas of marriage and singleness reflect the Scriptures’? In many Christian circles, marriage is posited as the “norm” and goal that every individual should strive towards. Sure, these Christians acknowledge Paul’s exhortation on the unique aspects of singleness, but then they quickly return to discussing marriage as a goal all Christians should strive to achieve. It almost comes across as if these people are just paying lip service to the Biblical discussion on singleness, but they don’t actually believe it. Don’t get me wrong; I am most definitely in favor of marriage and view it as something all believers should strive towards. I whole heartedly agree with Proverbs 18:22’s exhortation, “He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the Lord.” Marriage allows believers to experience certain aspects of the Christian life to a greater degree than would be possible without. However, it appears that authentically Biblical ideas of the significance of marriage and singleness have been lost. I believe it is worth a discussion here. Because many Christian books have already been written on the subject of marriage, I don’t desire to replicate most of those discussions here. Rather, I want to focus on looking at what the Bible has to say on the topic of singleness and its significance for the believer.
First and foremost, what is the Biblical view of marriage? A variety of verses lend credence to helping us understand this subject. One such classic set of verses is found in Ephesians 5.
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. 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. – Ephesians 5:22-27
These verses are some of the most popular in explaining the relationship between husband and wife in the covenant of marriage. In it, we see that the way wives and husbands are to relate to each other is dictated by the way we relate to the Lord. A wife submits to her husband, as to the Lord, and a husband love his wife as Christ loved the church. These verses are rightly held up as model verses dictating the relationship between husbands and wives; however, I fear that the true significance of these verse is lost in our quest to esteem marriage. The significance of these verses isn’t in their showing us how husbands and wives should relate, but in showing us how marriage points to God’s relationship with the church. Wives submit to their husbands because the church submits to Christ. Husbands love their wives because Christ loved the church. The significance in the relationship between husband and wife lies in how it reflects God’s relationship with the Church. God’s relationship with the church doesn’t point to marriage; marriage points to God’s relationship with the church! Marriage is the shadow; God’s relationship with the church is the substance! Paul continues a few verses later; himself tying the marriage concept to the church:
“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” – Ephesians 5:31-32
Because the significance of marriage is in reflecting God’s relationship with the church, it should come as no surprise that in the new creation marriage no longer exist because the image to which it pointed has fully come.
“For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” – Matthew 22:30
Once the substance comes, the shadow passes away!
Another interesting and revealing pattern is how the creation mandate changes as redemptive history progresses. Throughout the duration of the Old Covenant, when God’s people was to be an actual, physical nation, the creation mandate was inherently bound up in physical procreation.
“And God blessed [Adam and Eve]. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’” – Genesis 1:28
“And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” – Genesis 9:1
“And God said to [Jacob], “I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply. A nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall come from your own body.” – Genesis 35:11
All the while God’s people was to be a physical nation, the procreation mandate rang out. However, once the church appeared, the true spiritual people of God to whom the physical Israel only pointed, the mandate changed. It was no longer one of physical procreation, but one of spiritual procreation.
“And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’” – Matthew 28:18-20
“So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He said to them, ‘It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.’” – Acts 1:6-8
Once the true people of God, the church, became manifest, no longer was physical procreation implored; spiritual procreation was!
It is in this context, where the mission of God’s people is spiritual, not physical, where we get Paul’s exhortation about singleness.
Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion…. Now concerning the betrothed, I have no command from the Lord, but I give my judgment as one who by the Lord's mercy is trustworthy. I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is…. I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord. – 1 Corinthians 7:6-9, 25-26, 32-35
In the context that the mission of the church is a spiritual one, Paul’s exhortation makes sense! To be married is good, but your interests and efforts are divided. To be single allows you to focus all the more on serving the Lord.
As I said earlier, I am most definitely in favor of marriage. My focus here has been to better appreciate the Scripture’s teachings on the mission of the church in regards to singleness. Why do we strive after marriage? Why do you strive after marriage? Why did you strive after marriage? That is a personal question that you must answer on your own. However, I can tell you right now that the fundamental reason could not have been that you felt incomplete or lonely. My friends, we are so, so satisfied in Christ! He is completely sufficient for all of his people!
“Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” – 2 Corinthians 3:4-6
“Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” – 2 Corinthians 12:8-10
“And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.” – 2 Corinthians 9:8
“I have received full payment, and more. I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God. And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” – Philippians 4:18-19
“and you have been filled in [Christ], who is the head of all rule and authority.” – Colossians 2:10
Every single one of God’s children are made complete in Christ. He is sufficient for us. He is the object of our affection, and our lives revolve around him. Single Christians lack NOTHING in Christ. Why are they treated as such? Why are they treated as if marriage is some higher level they have yet to attain to? I fear single believers misunderstand these truths as much as many married people do. I have seen many single Christians whose engagement in ministry drops off after getting into a relationship. It is as if these Christians were only serving in ministry for the sake of finding a significant other. My friends, let us not mistake the shadow of marriage for the substance that is our relationship with the Lord! The shadow is nothing compared to the substance. If you are a Christian, you have the substance in its initiated, yet to be consummated, form. In the new creation, we’ll have the substance in its gloriously full form! Let us live our lives in light of this truth and exhort others unto the same!