Sunday, October 30, 2022

Spiritual Leadership in the Church (Hebrews 13:7,17)

I think we all recognize that good leadership is important in almost every facet of human endeavor. Whether it’s a family, or a sports team, or a business, or a military unit, or a political party, you need good leadership in order for each group to obtain the maximum benefit. It should not surprise us, therefore, if this is true of God’s people. And it is. It was one of the lamentable and tragic effects of poor and wicked leadership in the nation of Israel that led the prophet Ezekiel to write, “Thus saith the Lord God unto the shepherds; Woe be to the shepherds of Israel that do feed themselves! should not the shepherds feed the flocks? Ye eat the fat, and ye clothe you with the wool, ye kill them that are fed: but ye feed not the flock. The diseased have ye not strengthened, neither have ye healed that which was sick, neither have ye bound up that which was broken, neither have ye brought again that which was driven away, neither have ye sought that which was lost; but with force and with cruelty have ye ruled them. And they were scattered, because there is no shepherd: and they became meat to all the beasts of the field, when they were scattered. My sheep wandered through all the mountains, and upon every high hill: yea, my flock was scattered upon all the face of the earth, and none did search or seek after them” (Ezek. 34:2-6).

Now some might think that the best solution to bad leadership is no leadership, and that the best thing is to go off by yourself and do your own thing. But that is not good for God’s people, either. In fact, one of the things that Ezekiel mourns is that this is the result of bad leadership, that the sheep end up fending for themselves. Our Lord made a similar observation in his day: “But when he saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion on them, because they fainted, and were scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd” (Mt. 9:36).

It is therefore to be expected that one of the very first things the apostles did when they constituted churches was to ordain elders, spiritual leaders, in every church. It was with respect to the apostle Paul’s first missionary journey that it is written, “And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed” (Acts 14:23). Paul didn’t wait until the second or third journey to do this; he ordained good leaders from the start. And Paul writes to Titus with a bit of urgency, “For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee” (Tit. 1:5). What this tells me is that a church without elders is a church out of order.

So it also should not surprise us that believers who are weak and wavering are believers who are not relating correctly to the spiritual leadership of the church. If, as it seems, elders are important for the health of the church, then to be without them, or to relate poorly to them, will only leave the church in a weak and unhealthy position.

This seems to be at least one of the reasons we have the verses before us. The Hebrew Christians in Rome were in danger of veering off the path of faithfulness to the Lord in part because they weren’t listening to and following the example of the spiritual leaders in the church. They were like sheep who didn’t believe there were any wolves around and so they went off to do their own thing, and lo and behold, they ended up getting chased around and wounded and killed by the wolves after all.

It is therefore important for us to ponder the meaning of verses like 7 and 17, for they tell us that a healthy church is a church with good leaders. But these verses are also important for at least a couple of other reasons. First of all, they are important because in pointing out their spiritual leaders, the author tells us who they are and what they do, and in doing so gives us a Biblical portrait of what a godly leader looks

like. In other words, these verses give us Biblical parameters for the expectations we are to have of our spiritual leaders. But this is important for a second reason: not only do these verses address themselves to the responsibilities of the shepherds for the flock; they also address themselves to the responsibilities of the flock towards the shepherds. The leaders are to lead, and the church is to follow, and these verses tell us both how the leaders are to lead and how the church is to follow. So it is to that end that we want to address ourselves to this text.

How the leaders lead

First of all, I think we need to address ourselves to the question of who these guys are. They are described as “them which have the rule over you” (7, 17). Who is this describing? Well, from what I have already said, you have probably guessed my take, that these are the elders of the church. I want to start by defending that interpretation.

Let’s begin with the word itself, for the phrase “them that have the rule” actually translates one Greek word, and it’s the root behind the English word hegemony, which, as you know, refers to the leadership of one group over another. This word is used in Acts 15:22 to describe Barsabas and Silas, who were chosen by the church to bring the decision of the church of Jerusalem to the Gentile churches abroad and are called “chief men” (KJV) or “leading men” (ESV). They were leaders in the church, and it is in this sense that the word is used in Heb. 13:7, 17, 24.

This word is also used in Mt. 2:6, where we have a quotation from the prophesy of Micah describing the birthplace of our Lord. It reads, “And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, art not the least among the princes of Judah: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.” Now in that text, the word Governor is the word which is translated in Hebrews 13 as “them that have the rule over you.” This fits well with the fact that a governor, according to Mt. 2:6, is indeed someone who rules: “that shall rule my people Israel.” But what I want to notice here is this other word which helps us to understand the function of a governor, and it’s the word poimaino, translated “rule” and which literally means to shepherd. This is what I’m interested here in this verse because that word (“to shepherd”) is used of elders in Acts 20:28 and 1 Pet. 5:2. Let’s look at those texts.

In Acts 20:28, Paul is speaking to the elders in the church of Ephesus, and this is what he says to them: “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed [that’s the word, to shepherd, trans. in Mt. 2:6 as to rule] the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.” Spiritual leaders are like shepherds, and the way they lead or rule is by feeding the flock and guarding them from the wolves. As Calvin put it, “The pastor ought to have two voices: one, for gathering the sheep; and another, for warding off and driving away wolves and thieves. The Scripture supplies him with the means of doing both.”

Then in 1 Pet. 5:2, the apostle Peter exhorts his fellow elders to “feed the flock of God which is among you.” Once again, we see that the word “feed” here means to shepherd. This is how spiritual leaders lead and govern: they do so by feeding the flock of God which is among them.

Incidentally, the verb to shepherd is poimaino; the noun shepherd is poimen, which is translated in Eph. 4:11 as “pastor.” A pastor is a shepherd; a shepherd is a leader. These are just all different ways of describing the elders of the church: elder, overseer (bishop, 1 Tim. 3:1; Acts 20:28), pastor-shepherd, leader.

But when we look at the way these leaders are described in the text, we see further that these guys (and they are guys, not gals) are the elders of the church. For one thing, they are men who preach the word. They are to remember their leaders, and they are described as those “who have spoken unto you the word of God.” They are told to follow and to imitate their faith. In verses 17, they are described as men who “watch for your souls.” In other words, the author is not describing a boss or a political leader here. He is describing their spiritual leaders, their pastors, their elders. These are shepherds who feed the flock of God which is among them.

So I don’t think there’s any question here that these are the elders or pastors of the church there in Rome. By the way, I find it interesting that it was only the spiritual leaders in the church of Rome who went by the title “them which have the rule” in later years. According to all the available evidence we have in later Christian ecclesiastical literature, no other church used this title for their leaders except the church in Rome, which gives credence to the argument that the epistle to the Hebrews was in fact written to a house church there.

Now, that having been established, let’s ask ourselves the question: what do these two verses have to say about how the leaders lead? To answer that question, I want to notice three things about them from these two verses: (1) their task, (2) their character, and (3) their authority.

The task of the leaders

There are two main tasks of the pastors. They are to preach the Word of God and to watch over the souls of God’s people. The pastor pastors in the pulpit and he pastors one-on-one. He pastors in the proclamation of the word of God to all the congregation and the pastors in personal discipleship. That is the task of the pastor.

First of all, he is a man who preaches, not his own word, but the word of God. Do you remember what Paul told Timothy? They are inspiring and convicting words: “I charge thee therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing and his kingdom; preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; and they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables” (2 Tim. 4:1-4).

According to Paul, a good minister of Jesus Christ (1 Tim. 4:6) is one who preaches God’s word, and he does so in a personal, convicting, experiential way. He speaks words of reprove, of rebuke, of exhortation, and he does this clearly and distinctly and lovingly, grounding his exhortations in the teaching of Scripture. He patiently explains the path the saints are to take by painstakingly showing them from God’s word that this is the way to go. A good minister is someone who doesn’t convince people to go down a certain path on the force of his own personality; he does so on the force of the authority of God’s word. He doesn’t rouse them into action on the basis of an emotional appeal but by the force of the power of the gospel. It’s what Paul is getting at when he told the Corinthians, “And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: that your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:4-5). I don’t want your faith to stand in my wisdom, for I have none to give you; I want your faith to stand by the power of God, as he witnesses by the Holy Spirit to the wisdom of his word.

Or think about the words of the prophet Jeremiah. They too are riveting, as they contrast the empty words of false prophets who only give people their own minds and the words of God: “I have not sent these prophets, yet they ran: I have not spoken to them, yet they prophesied. But if they had stood in my counsel, and had caused my people to hear my words, then they should have turned them from their evil way, and from the evil of their doings. Am I a God at hand, saith the Lord, and not a God afar off? Can any hide himself in secret places that I shall not see him? saith the Lord. Do not I fill heaven and earth? saith the Lord. I have heard what the prophets said, that prophesy lies in my name, saying, I have dreamed, I have dreamed. How long shall this be in the heart of the prophets that prophesy lies? yea, they are prophets of the deceit of their own heart; Which think to cause my people to forget my name by their dreams which they tell every man to his neighbour, as their fathers have forgotten my name for Baal. The prophet that hath a dream, let him tell a dream; and he that hath my word, let him speak my word faithfully. What is the chaff to the wheat? saith the Lord. Is not my word like as a fire? saith the Lord; and like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces?” (Jer. 23:21-29). Faithful, good pastors, preach God’s word which is like wheat to fill the hungry soul and like fire to burn away lies and sin and like a hammer to break the hard hearts of hard people. Why would you preach anything else? Don’t go for preachers who preach themselves or about themselves. Don’t go for preachers who entertain you with funny anecdotes or seek to move you through tear-jerking stories. Rather, listen to men who preach Christ and give you his word.

These are men who don’t preach themselves but Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:5). They don’t present themselves as the solution to the problems of others; they give them Christ, because they know both by experience and by the Scriptures that we are all sinners before God and that it is only by the free and sovereign grace of God given through the person and work of Jesus Christ, received by faith, that we can be saved and have our sins forgiven and be made members of the family of God.

Of course, behind every message should be a man of prayer. The apostles told the early church, “But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). In other words, you don’t want a company man, you don’t want a man whose primary interest is to promote denominational differences. You want a man of God, who knows God, who walks with God, and who preaches God’s word.

The other part of his task is that of personal discipleship, the one-on-one aspect of the pastoral role. This is described in the words, “for they watch for your souls” (17). They don’t just throw the feed out and then go back to doing their own thing, but they observe each sheep to know its state. So you don’t just want someone who is good in the pulpit, but someone who knows how to pray at the bedside of the dying. You want someone who can counsel God’s word to particular people in particular predicaments. You want someone who loves people and who is available. You want someone, in other words, you is like Timothy, whom the apostle recommends to the Philippian church in this way: “But I trust in the Lord Jesus to send Timotheus shortly unto you, that I also may be of good comfort, when I know your state. For I have no man likeminded, who will naturally care for your state. For all seek their own, not the things which are Jesus Christ's. But ye know the proof of him, that, as a son with the father, he hath served with me in the gospel” (Phil. 2:19-22). You want someone who doesn’t do this because he has to, but because, like Timothy, he wants to – it’s natural to him.

The character of the leaders

But you don’t just want men who fill a certain role well; you need men of character. You see this in the descriptions of these men in our text as well. Their lives are worthy of imitation: “whose faith follow” (7). It is noteworthy, I think, that in both lists of qualifications for elders in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, only one of the qualifications is related to a task, and it’s the fact that an elder needs to be able to teach. All the other qualifications are character qualifications. Thus, the apostle writes to Titus, “For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee: If any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly. For a bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God; not selfwilled, not soon angry, not given to wine, no striker, not given to filthy lucre; But a lover of hospitality, a lover of good men, sober, just, holy, temperate; Holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers” (Tit. 1:5-9).

In other words, they need to be men who are not only good in public but above all good in private. They are not something in the pulpit and another thing at home or when they are alone. What you see is what you get. These are the kinds of men that you want as pastors and elders. These are how the Bible describes spiritual leaders.

It is a common consensus among commentators on this text that verse 7 really is directed towards their past spiritual leaders, whereas verse 17 to their present. The reason for this is that in verse 7, their ministry of the word is spoken of in the past tense, “who have spoken unto you the word of God.” It also makes more sense to say of the past, “Remember them.” These were men, in other words, whose memory was worth preserving. Their lives were good to the very end. Like Paul, they had finished their course, fought a good fight, and kept the faith. So the author says that of such the church should consider, “to look back carefully upon,”“the end of their conversation” – that is to say, the outcome of their lives here upon the earth. They were men who were faithful to the end.

And certainly the present pastors were meant to be like that as well. We need men of such character that they are not like a shooting star that burns out and burns up. No, we need men of faith to the end. That is the kind of pastor you want as a shepherd.

The authority of the leaders

Now there is no doubt that these pastors are leaders because that is the very word that is used to describe them. Pastors are shepherds and shepherds lead. But there are right ways to lead and there are bad ways to lead. How then do godly leaders lead the church?

It seems to me that there is a problem in many churches in our day on just this issue. It stems partly from a reaction to the past. In the past, many churches had pastors that didn’t really lead and didn’t really provide spiritual oversight in any significant sense. So people, desiring to recover a Biblical vision of the church, looked at the text of Scripture and noticed that in the NT the churches has multiple elders who really did lead the church. So in response to this, some churches have gone to what is sometimes called an “elder-rule” policy. Now I believe in elder rule to a point, but I believe it has been abused in many churches. What has happened is that some churches have opted for a system of church government where the elders make all the decisions, and the congregation has no say. They’ve flipped the system, do you see?

But I don’t think this is wise. It’s like these churches have adopted the Presbyterian system on a local scale without any of the checks and balances of the global system of Session, Synod, and General Assembly. These churches have a cabal of elders who make all the decisions. All the authority is concentrated in the hands of a few men.

Now I don’t think that is wise or Biblical. The Presbyterians do have checks and balances for their system, but they do this by pushing the authority and the accountability up, ultimately to the General Assembly. In other words, the local elders are held accountable by other elders outside their own group. That is one way to do it. But I think the congregational model is best. Baptist churches are congregational churches. In our setting, we push the accountability down rather than up, down to the congregation. In the NT, the deacons were chosen by the church, not just by the apostles. Silas and Barsabas were also chosen by the Jerusalem church for their mission representing them, even though they were leading men. In other words, the elders, even though they lead, are ultimately accountable to the congregations which they lead. This seems to me to be the most Biblical and wisest policy.

So how do the leaders lead? How do they exercise their authority? Well, look at the text of Scripture. They don’t do it by beating the members of the church over the heads with the stick of authority. They do it by the examples of their lives and by persuading them from the Word of God. You see this here in Hebrews 13. In verse 17, the word for “obey” is a word which can often refer to the effort to persuade. Thus, the chief priests persuaded the crowds (same word in Mt. 27:20) to choose to release Barabbas instead of the Lord. In Heb. 13:18, in fact, the word is translated “trust;” here it has the meaning “to be persuaded.”

Now that doesn’t mean that the church is not to really submit to the teaching of the pastors. The text clearly says that. But it is not so much a submission to the authority of the pastor as it is a submission to the authority of the Word of God which they speak. They lead by persuading the people they lead that the path they are leading them down is not a path they have chosen but the path God has marked out for them in his word. Thus Peter exhorts elders in his day to take the oversight of the church (1 Pet. 5:2) – they really are to lead – but they are to do without abusing this authority. So he goes on to write, “Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock” (3).

A wonderful illustration of this is given in a book I’ve recently gone through.A group of tourists in Israel were told by their guide on a tour bus that in Israel shepherds always lead their flocks from the front; they never drive them from behind. But as he was saying this the people in the bus noticed some sheep being driven from behind. They asked about this, so the guide got out of the bus and went to investigate. He came back with a smile on his face and explained that the man wasn’t a shepherd; he worked for the slaughterhouse and was sending them there! Pastors don’t drive, they lead the way.

Another way to illustrate this is in the relationship between husband and wife. In Ephesians 5:22-24, wives are exhorted to submit to their husbands. Husbands are told, on the other hand, to love their wives as Christ loved the church (25-33). In other words, the submission envisioned here is a willing submission on the part of the wife to loving leadership on the part of the husband. In such a context, it seems to me to be quite incongruous for a husband to be always having to remind his wife of his authority. If he is having to do that, I would bet the problem is not with the wife as much as it is with the husband. Now I’m not saying that there aren’t women who might need to be reminded of this, but I would bet that nine times out of ten a wife that has a hard time submitting to her husband is because the husband has abused his authority in some way. In the similar way, a pastor who is always holding forth the stick of his authority and waving it in the faces of his people is probably a bad shepherd. Good pastors lead by example and persuasion so that the congregation willingly leads.

Now the opposite problem can occur too; congregations can take on an attitude that resists any effort on the part of the pastors to get them to change. This is probably in fact what had happened in this church in Rome, and which is why our author is having to remind them to obey and submit to the leadership of their pastors. There are people and even congregations that take on an attitude that no one is going to tell them what to do. Every pastor knows people like this, and it is incredibly sad. It is sad because they know what is going to happen to this person, and it is not good. A healthy congregation is one in which there is mutual trust and respect between the pastor and the congregation so that where the pastor leads the congregations follows willingly and joyfully.

It is really a bad thing when this atmosphere of trust and respect does not exist. It’s why we go on to read, “for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you” (17). Churches that refuse to follow their spiritual leadership make life miserable for their pastors. Now some in the church may just want to do that! But what this verse says is that you are not helping yourself when you do this; you are hurting yourself. It is not profitable for you to have a pastor or pastors whom you have made miserable in your task.

Now we are told that the pastors “must give account.” It is important to remember that here the account is not given to the church but to God (cf. 2 Tim. 4:1). But that does not mean that the church gets off scot- free, does it? We will all give an account to God. Beware how you treat God’s servants, for you will give an account of this before God.

This of course leads naturally to our next and final point.

How the faithful follow

First of all, respect them. This is the clear implication in the exhortation to remember them (7). Now this is a respect and a trust that is earned. It is not something that they can expect just because of their position. Verse 7 is really dealing with past leaders whose lives can be seen in terms of their total outcome. In other words, they had demonstrated by their very lives that they were faithful. It is such men that the church is to respect. But of course, even for present leaders, there must be some measure of trust in order for him to lead effectively. A church needs to constantly cultivate this spirit of mutual cooperation and trust and respect in order for the mission of the church in this world to be effective.

Second, follow their faith. Look at their lives, and in so far as they follow Christ, you follow them. As Paul put it to the Corinthians, “Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Their faith in Christ will also make them faithful to the words of Christ and will make for healthy preaching. You need to listen to Bible-centered, Christ-exalting, God-centered preaching. If I ever stop preaching the word of God, then you need to stop listening to me; in fact, you should remove me from this pulpit. But as long as I – or anyone else in this pulpit – is preaching the Bible, then you need to listen, regardless of how much you like it or not! Both Elder Bradley and I make it a point to always ground everything we say in the Scriptures. At the end of the day, we refuse to be wedded to a particular theological or denominational system, for our allegiance is to Christ and his word. Listen to God’s men who preach God’s word.

Remember that one of the main problems of this church in Rome is that they had stopped listening to God’s words, and one of the main ways they had stopped listening is that they had stopped hearing it communicated through their pastors.

So, brothers and sisters, “Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor. 4:1). The ministry does not exist for its own sake, but for the good of the church. Let us therefore work together. Hold us responsible to preach the Bible. And as the pastors of this church, we will faithfully seek to preach God’s word and live it out in faithful obedience to the Lord who gave his life for the church, who loves his church and has given her pastors and teachers so that it is built up in love and faith.

P. E. Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, (Eerdmans: 1977), p. 569.

Timothy Witmer, The Shepherd Leader: Achieving Effective Shepherding in Your Church (P&R, 2010).

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Sunday, October 23, 2022

Contentment in Christ (Hebrews 13:5-6)

 

Apostasy comes in many different flavors. One flavor is the flavor of doctrinal apostasy: the embrace of wicked and false ideas about God and his ways. Another flavor is the flavor of ethical apostasy: the embrace of wicked and false ideas about the good life and what it looks like. One way this ethical apostasy is lived out is in terms of verse 4, through sexual immorality. But another way this is lived out is in terms of verse 5, through covetousness. It has been observed that there is often in Scripture a connection between these two things, and that where you see the love of the flesh you will also see the love of money. The seventh and eighth commandments live next to each other. So, for example, the apostle Paul writes, “For this ye know, that no whoremonger, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God” (Eph. 5:5). Or, as he puts it to the Colossians, “Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Col. 3:5). The apostle, in fact, warns Timothy of the danger inherent in covetousness, and it is the danger of apostasy: “But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows” (1 Tim. 6:9-10).

So we must not divorce this text from the larger context of the book of Hebrews. This is still about warning these believers of the danger of apostasy. At the same time, I also want to be faithful to the balance of this epistle. The overwhelming emphasis of this letter is not on this or that particular sin or sins but upon the person, worth, and work of Jesus Christ the Son of God our High Priest. And the reason for this is that if you just focus on particular sins, you are cutting yourself off from the life that makes Christianity what it is. Christianity is not primarily about getting your life cleaned up. It is primarily about getting right with God and walking with him in worship and fellowship. Now this doesn’t mean that dealing with specific sins is not important – it is. But the reality is that you will never properly deal with the sin in your life apart from Christ. Unless your sins have been washed in his blood, unless you have been given his Spirit, you will never be able to deal with sins in a way that pleases God. And you will not protect yourself from the danger of apostasy primarily by focusing on keeping commandments but by embracing and believing the gospel, which is the good news that for all who repent of their sins and turn in faith to Jesus Christ his righteousness is credited to them, and their sins are washed in his blood.

On the other hand, we also have to be careful that we don’t water down the gospel so that it becomes just about believing right things about Jesus without having any practical effect upon the life. Jesus is Lord and you cannot come to him as Savior unless you are also willing to bow before his scepter and obey his commands. And to do that, we do at some point have to get concrete with sins. It’s not enough to say we are sinners. For if you cannot point to specific sins that you need to repent of, then the fact of the matter is that you don’t really at the end of the day believe that you are a sinner. Well, that is why we should thank God for the specificity of Scripture. It doesn’t just wax eloquent about sin in general; it points us to specific sins and calls us to repent of them.

And the specific sin that we are called to repent of in our text is the sin of covetousness. It is the sin of the love of money, this root of every kind of evil. However, I am thankful that our text doesn’t just tell us what we are to repent of, but it also tells us how and why, and then what this should look like in our lives. To see this, I invite you to look with me at Heb. 13:5-6 and to consider the following three things. First, we see a blessed resolve: “Let your conversation be without covetousness; and be content with such things as ye have.” Then we see a Biblical reason: “For he hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee.” Finally, we see a bold response: “So that we may boldly say, The Lord is my helper, and I will not fear what man shall do unto me.”

A Blessed Resolve

The resolve is this: to fight against covetousness and to fight for contentment. These are opposite states of mind. If you are covetous, you are not content. On the other hand, if you are content, you will not be covetous. Now in our version it says, “Let your conversation be without covetousness.” But the word conversation there is used in an archaic sense of the word. It doesn’t have reference so much to our manner of speech; it means conduct or way of life. The writer is telling his audience to make it their resolve to let their life be free from the love of money.

You can therefore see what covetousness is by considering what is its opposite, which is contentment. I call this a “blessed resolve” because to be content is to be blessed. To be content means to be satisfied with what God has given us, to really believe that you have enough. It’s what Paul is getting at when he tells Timothy, “But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and raiment let us be therewith content” (1 Tim. 6:6-8).

But contentment for the Christian doesn’t just mean that we have enough when we think we have enough. It doesn’t mean setting a goal for the way you think your standard of living should look and only being satisfied once you get there. It means believing that God is good no matter what your external circumstances are. This is certainly what contentment looked like to Paul. He writes to the Philippians, “Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me” (Phil. 4:11-13). To be content like Paul means that we are able to enjoy plenty when we have it in such a way that we aren’t desperately grasping on to abundance with a death grip so that it can’t slip away. It means that we are able to enjoy with an open hand all that God in his generosity gives to us. But it also means that we are able to trust God when the pantry is bare and when we are in want. It means that when we are abased, we aren’t questioning God’s goodness to us.

Jeremiah Burroughs, a seventeenth century English Puritan, wrote a whole book on this entitled The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, which I commend to you. Here is how he defines contentment: “Christian contentment is that sweet, inward, quiet, gracious frame of spirit, which freely submits to and delights in Gods’ wise and fatherly disposal in every condition.” But as he also points out, this doesn’t mean that we can’t try to better our condition. Poverty is not a necessary condition for it. Contentment is not an excuse either for laziness or for being a spendthrift. It doesn’t mean that we don’t work hard at our jobs or that we fail to try to improve our skills and our knowledge and our effectiveness. It doesn’t mean that we don’t try to be good stewards with what God has given to us.

What it means is that we aren’t grumbling against God at the state we are in. We aren’t murmuring against him. Instead, we are freely submitting to and delighting in God’s wise and fatherly disposal of us in every condition in which we find ourselves. It means that we aren’t anxious and fretful and so vexed by our circumstances that we are neglectful of our duty to God and to others.

I’ll tell you what contentment looks like. It looks like Jesus in John 13. Here is how the apostle John sets up the scene for us: “Now before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour was come that he should depart out of this world unto the Father, having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end. And supper being ended, the devil having now put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, to betray him; Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God; He riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel, and girded himself. After that he poureth water into a bason, and began to wash the disciples' feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded” (Jn. 13:1-5). Here was a man who knew that he was about to be betrayed by Judas, abandoned by his other disciples, and handed over to the Romans for crucifixion. But here was a man so content – a contentment that was not determined by his external circumstances, which couldn’t have gotten much worse, but one that was grounded in the love that his Father had for him – that he was not wrapped up in his own desperate situation but had the presence of mind and heart to meet a need created by dirty feet.

That’s convicting, isn’t it? Because often we beg off helping others and living sacrificial lives because we think our trials and problems are bigger than other people’s dirty-feet-sort-of-problems. You know how you learn to love people like Jesus? You learn to love them in part by being content in God. This was the secret of Jesus: “Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God.” This is what Paul had learned: “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.”

So let’s be clear: this is contentment in God. We are able to be content with such things as we have because we know that our lives don’t consist in the things we possess (cf. Lk. 12:15). This is what we are to resolve. For, as our Lord put it, “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon” (Mt. 6:24). Therefore, “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (6:19-21). So let us be content and “take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you” (6:31-33). This is the blessed resolve.

A Biblical Reason

The Lord generally doesn’t just tell us to do things; he gives us reasons in his word and explains why we are to do them. Here we have a reason to pursue contentment in God, and once again it is a Biblical reason. This is a quote from multiple places in the Old Testament: “For he hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee” (cf. Josh. 1:5, along with Gen. 28:15; Dt. 31:6; 1 Chron. 28:20). We can add to this the testimony of our Lord to his church: “and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen” (Mt. 28:20).

The author piles up negatives here to make his point, sometimes with double and even triple negatives, so that we have here an “emphatic future negative” (William Lane). This is about as strong a negation as you can get in Greek, and what the author is reminding us is that God will never leave or forsake his people or abandon them in trouble. It is utterly impossible that this should happen. It will not happen because it cannot happen. It cannot happen because God has given his word on it, and as we have already read in this letter, God is a God who cannot lie (Heb. 6:18).

Now think about both the meaning and the magnitude of this promise. We are not promised piles of money, nor are we promised the finest of health. We aren’t promised fame. We aren’t promised success in our business. We aren’t promised that our families will always give us reasons to smile. No, we are promised something infinitely better: we are promised God himself.

And of course, as Paul put it, if God is for us, who can be against us? If God is for us and with us, then we can be certain that whatever happens, it will happen for our good and his glory (Rom. 8:28-31). This is why our contentment must rest in God, for that is in fact the basis given here for it.

This is a superior blessing. There is no greater blessing than this. Take, for instance, the blessing of answered prayer. As great a blessing as answered prayer is, God is better. When we pray, the greatest thing is not that God gives us what we want every time and when we want it. Sometimes we pray for stupid things, not realizing that if he gave those things to us, it would hurt us in the long run. So God doesn’t always give us what we pray for, and that is a good thing. We shouldn’t therefore judge the benefits of prayer or the usefulness of prayer on the basis of whether or not God always says yes to us when we pray. Thank God that in prayer we don’t come to a cosmic Coke machine! No, the greatest blessing is that when we pray, God hears us. This is part of what it means that God is with us. There is no prayer, no matter how feeble, no matter how meager, offered by one of his people, that he does not hear. This is what the psalmist rejoices in: “I love the LORD,” he says, “because he hath heard my voice, and my supplications. Because he hath inclined his ear unto me, therefore will I call upon him as long as I live” (Ps. 116:1-2).

Now it is true that God very often does say yes to our prayers. He delights to do so. He does so for the same reason he says no: because he loves us and is with us. He will never leave us or forsake us. He hears our cries when we cry to him and we can be sure that he will always act for us with love and wisdom and grace.

Not only is this a superior blessing; it is also a strengthening blessing. When you look at the Old and New Testament passages that give us this promise, what you also see is that God will always enable his children to do what he has asked them to do. He doesn’t give us a task and then leave us to fend for ourselves. So when God addresses himself to Jacob who was fleeing out of the land of promise in order to avoid being killed by his brother Esau, God promises that he will be with him and part of that meant bringing Jacob back to the land of promise. This is exactly what happened. When Joshua was about to enter Canaan, he was entering into a land where he was vastly outnumbered and outgunned (so to speak), but God promises to be with him, and that meant giving the armies of Israel victory over their enemies. That is exactly what happened. When David gave Solomon the task of building the temple, one of the ways he encouraged his son was that God would be with him. And God was with him and enabled him to build that incredibly beautiful temple.

So when our Lord gives the Great Commission to his church in Matthew 28:18-20 and tells us to make disciples of all the nations, he immediately follows this by saying that he will be with us to the end of the age, meaning that he will always be present in the church enabling and empowering us to do what he has asked us to do.

Now how does this relate to contentment? It means that if, by believing the promise that he will be with us, we find our treasure in Christ and don’t go off, like Demas and Balaam and a thousand others, looking for it in human praise or earthly wealth or temporal comforts, then we are going to be truly content. We ought to find our contentment in Christ. As St. Augustine put it, our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God. And since he never leaves us or forsakes us, our contentment does not need to depend upon our external circumstances. This again connects to the overall theme of perseverance because few things will undo our commitment to Christ faster than the love of the world and the love of money (cf. 1 Jn. 2:15-17; Jam. 4:1-4). Those who are content in Christ will not quickly walk away from Christ.

Now, what does this look like? What we are exhorted here to do is to be content with what we have. And the reason why we are to do this is that God promises to give himself to us and never to leave us. This also gives us the how: we find contentment by finding it in God. But we now come to the question: how do we know that we have found this contentment? What kind of person does it make us? And that brings us to our last point.

A Bold Response

The result of believing the truth of verse 5 is verse 6: “So that we may boldly say, The Lord is my helper, and I will not fear what man shall do unto me.” The outcome is courage and boldness and fearlessness. Because God is with us, he will help us. We will find grace to help in time of need (Heb. 4:16). Those who know they have God for their help cannot help but be confident. It is not in ourselves but in the Lord that we are strong and in the power of his might (Eph. 6:10).

Now you would think that the author would go on to say, since this is about fighting covetousness and inculcating contentment, that the effect of believing that God is our treasure is that we are not afraid of losing our earthly possessions. In other words, you might expect him to say, “The Lord is my helper, and I will not fear what material things I can lose.” But that is not what he says. Instead, he says that we will not fear what man can do to us. Now why would he say it that way?

Well, one reason might be that he is quoting from Ps. 118:6, “The LORD is on my side; I will not fear; what can man do unto me?” The first part of this quote connects quite well with verse 5: because God is with us, he is on our side and we need not fear. So maybe he just completes the quote and that is the reason this thing about not fearing man is there.

But I think there is another reason. I think it is this: the things that produce covetousness in us are things that men can take away. What do we covet? It is more wealth? Well, men can take that away from us. Is it a better job? They can take that. Is it more fame, being better liked by others? You can get canceled. Is it more earthly security and comfort? People can take that from you, too. In fact, men can take your life: “For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter” (Rom. 8:36). Those who are covetous are those who are at the mercy of men. But when our hope is in God, when our contentment is in Christ, that is something that no one can take away. It is why our Lord said, “And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both body and soul in hell” (Mt. 10:28). He goes on to say, “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows” (29-31).

We often fear because we seek in men what we can only find in God. However, when we find our contentment in God, when we find sufficiency and strength and stability and sweetness in Christ, we obtain what no man can take away. And that is the kind of thing that makes for courageous Christians. These are the kinds of people who are willing to sacrifice for the Lord because they already have their most precious possession and it can never be taken away, not even by death.

What does a content person look like? Well, we’ve already considered the example of our Lord. Let us also then consider the apostle Paul, this man who had learned the secret of contentment. He put it this way to the elders of the Ephesian church: “Ye know, from the first day that I came into Asia, after what manner I have been with you at all seasons, serving the Lord with all humility of mind, and with many tears, and temptations, which befell me by the lying in wait of the Jews: and how I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you, but have shewed you, and have taught you publicly, and from house to house, testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ. And now, behold, I go bound in the spirit unto Jerusalem, not knowing the things that shall befall me there: save that the Holy Ghost witnesseth in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions abide me. But none of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry, which I have received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:18-24). I want to be like that, and I want you to be like that: men and women who do not count their lives dear to themselves in order to serve Christ and be his witness in a fallen world.

And at the end of the day, that is the test of whether or not we have truly attained this contentment and whether or not we have truly avoided the perils of covetousness. It is proved in a life of courageous faith for Jesus.

Now I wonder if there are some here for whom this is hardly appealing. I wonder if there is someone here who has no desire to seek this kind of contentment, at least not the kind commended in this text. You have no desire to seek contentment in Christ. You have no desire to say with Paul, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). You might think that loving money is just fine. In fact, you prefer money to God. Well, I have just one word to say to you: you are not saved. You are yet in your sins and if you die in that condition, all the money in the world will not alleviate the just punishment you will receive in the age to come. To turn your back on God, to yawn at his glory so that you can pursue the trinkets of this world is an evil of infinite proportions. Yes, there is a hell, and it is not only a hell for those who refuse to repent of their sexual immorality, it is also a hell for those who refuse to repent of their greed and love of the world: “But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition” (1 Tim. 6:9). Do you know to whom our Lord told the parable of the rich man who “in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments” (Lk. 16:23)? It was to the Pharisees “who were covetous” (16:14). May the Lord open your eyes to see your danger and above all to see the value of God and that in comparison to him everything else is dirt.

And if you are convicted this morning that you have not sought first the kingdom of heaven and that instead you have preferred the things of earth to the things of God, then praise the God of sovereign grace for that, and repent of your sins and turn to Christ in faith. For it is only his blood that can cleanse us from our sins and his righteousness that can put us right with God and only his Spirit who can give us holy desires and enable us to order our affections so that we will know true joy and blessing and contentment.

And that is what we should all do. Paul, having spoken about being content, said, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” We should all look to Jesus our Lord and find grace to help in every

time of need, to find the resolve to be content, to believe the reasons in Scripture given to motivate us to do so, and to find the holy boldness to live out a sacrificial life of joy and service in the name of Christ for others.

Sunday, October 9, 2022

The Value and Vandalism of Marriage (Hebrews 13:4)

What does marriage have to do with the book of Hebrews? Why would an epistle that deals with the supremacy of Christ as the Son of God and perfect High Priest for the people of God insert anything on the subject of marriage? Well, it has a lot to do with it, actually.

The burden of this epistle, this word of exhortation, is to encourage the saints to whom this letter was written to continue in their faithfulness to Christ and to his gospel, to not sell Christ out for this-worldly hazard-reducing, security-enhancing choices. But faithfulness to Jesus doesn’t just mean dotting all the correct doctrinal I’s and crossing all the correct doctrinal t’s. It also means conforming our lives to his will for us. Apostasy doesn’t just mean apostasy from pure doctrine; it also means apostasy from holy living.

And the vandalism of marriage through sexual immorality and unfaithfulness is one of the main ways rebellion from Christ and his Lordship is lived out. We see this in the example of Esau, who is held up to these believers as the example of Old Testament apostasy: “lest there be any fornicator, or profane person, as Esau, who for one morsel of meat sold his birthright” (Heb. 12:16).

But there is another connection between doctrinal faithfulness and holy living. Maybe not always, but very often one of the reasons people become heterodox in their doctrine is because they have already become unholy in their living. You see that connection in 12:16: profane people are the kinds of people who sell Christ out for morsels of worldly philosophy. Do you want a worldview, a philosophy of life, that will support an immoral lifestyle? You can’t be a Christian, at least not an honest one, and live in sin. If you want to sin and feel good about it, you are going to have to sell out the Christian faith. And so such a person will collect what he or she thinks are good reasons that Christianity is not true. And they will then celebrate their conversion to reason and science. But they have not succeeded in showing Christianity is not true; all they have really done is to justify themselves in their sin.

Marriage falls under the Lordship of Christ. It is valuable and precious and dear because it is ordained by God. Therefore, the vandalism of marriage through acts of sexual immorality desecrates what our Lord has honored; they are acts of defiance against his sovereignty over us. If we would be faithful to Jesus, we must be faithful to him in the arena of marriage.

But more than that: as Christians we are claiming that we can see the true value of marriage only as we see the supremacy of Christ. And as we’ve noted, the supremacy of Christ is a very big part of the message of this letter; it’s at its heart, actually. What do I mean by this? Remember what the apostle Paul wrote to the Ephesians: “This [marriage] is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church” (Eph. 5:32). The reason why Paul puts the church and Christ as models for the relationship between husband and wife is because marriage was meant to point to that ultimate and eternal relationship. Marriage points to Jesus and his love for the church and his saving and sanctifying the church.

Two things follow from that. First, it means that marriage must be really, really wonderful if it is God’s intended vehicle for communicating this reality. Paul is not saying that the church decided for marriage to mean this, for when he calls it a “mystery” he is explicitly saying that this is a revelation from God himself (cf. 3:4-5). Nothing is more wonderful and exciting and precious than the union the church has with Christ. And therefore the mystery of marriage must be meant to reflect that wonder and excitement and preciousness.

Second, it means that the desecration of marriage must be really, really bad. And it should not surprise us that when marriage is dishonored in individual lives or in the culture in general that it will bring with it some very undesirable consequences.

Both the value and the vandalism of marriage are addressed in the words of the text of Hebrews 13:4. The value can be seen in the words: “Marriage is honorable in all, and the bed undefiled.” The vandalism can be seen in the words: “but whoremongers and adulterers God will judge.” We want to admire the value and avoid the vandalism, and it is to that purpose that we will address ourselves in the rest of this message.

The Value of Marriage

What is marriage?

But what is meant by marriage? First of all, we must begin by saying that marriage is an institution given to us by God. This is what the Genesis text says, and it is how our Lord interprets the Genesis text. In Matthew 19, our Lord confronts the Pharisees on the issue of divorce. But to do that, he goes back to first principles and to the institution of marriage with Adam and Eve. Here is what our Lord says about that: “Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female, and said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh? Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder” (Mt. 19:4-6). Note the words, “God hath joined together.” God did this. And it wasn’t just for Adam and Eve; this is the template for every other human marriage since. Marriage is something given to us by God and God does not give cheap gifts.

And therefore only God has the right to tell us what marriage is. In other words, marriage is not just another human institution. It is not the result of men coming together and figuring out how best to flourish in society. It is a wonderful and valuable gift given to us by God.

Second, as we listen to what God has said about marriage, we see that it is the one flesh union of a man and a woman for life. The two shall be one flesh, and this is the result of God joining them together. It is between one man and one woman. God didn’t bring multiple women to Adam; he brought just Eve. God didn’t make a mistake here; this was intentional and purposeful. This is implied in the words of our Lord. A man shall leave his parents and be joined to his wife, not wives.

Of course we know that polygamy was allowed and regulated under the Law of Moses. But nowhere does Scripture indicate this was God’s original purpose or that this is best for human flourishing. In fact, the very first mention of it is in Genesis 4:19-24, and in the text there seems to be a conscious link between Lamech’s murders and his polygamy. Also, we can see throughout the history of OT Israel that polygamy is invariably linked with apostasy, hostility in the home, and innumerable other troubles. So when we get to the NT and our Lord’s teaching, it should not surprise us that he returns us to the original intention and institution: one man and one woman for life. And you see that reflected in the apostle’s teaching on the qualifications for elders. The elder is to be, literally, a one-woman man, “the husband of one wife” (1 Tim. 3:2). Since the elders are meant to be examples for the church – the believers are meant to follow their example (4:12) – it follows that monogamy, not polygamy, is God’s purpose for marriage.

It also follows that homosexual marriages are not marriages in any real sense of the term. God does not recognize them, whatever human courts may say. Again, we need to hear what God has to say about marriage since he is the one who created the institution for us.

It is for life. It is true that divorce is allowed in certain circumstances, but it is because of the hardness of men’s hearts (Mt. 19:8). “What God has joined together, let not man put asunder.” Or, as the apostle Paul put it, “The wife is bound by the law as long as her husband liveth” (1 Cor. 7:39) – and of course that goes both ways!

Why is marriage?

To see the value of marriage, however, we must not only ask what is it, but also why is it? Why did God institute marriage among men? Well, again we must go back to the beginning. In Genesis 1:27-28, where we have the record of the creation of male and female in God’s image, we read that they are told to be fruitful and multiply. Though marriage is not explicitly mentioned there, it is implied (since the Scriptures forbid sex outside of marriage), and it is therefore significant that the first mention of marriage is connected to the propagation of the human race. Certainly, one of the reasons for marriage is to have children, and then to bring those children up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.

Incidentally, sometimes you will hear well-meaning people push back against the Christian’s insistence that gay marriage is wrong. They will ask, “But why should you care, as long as they love each other?” And one of the responses to this, apart from the fact that it normalizes sinful behavior, is the fact that children flourish best in homes with a mom and a dad. Not a mom and a mom or a dad and a dad, but a mom and a dad. Thus sociologist Mark Regnerus, appealing to hard facts and empirical data, explains that “children appear most apt to succeed well as adults—on multiple counts and across a variety of domains— when they spend their entire childhood with their married mother and father, and especially when the parents remain married . . ..”This is a very unpopular idea, but not because it is false. It is unpopular because it goes against the grain of our culture’s program to push marriages and lifestyles forbidden in Scripture. However, the data should not surprise us because if God created marriage to be between a man and a woman, and if one of the reasons he created it is for the nurturing of children, we should expect children to flourish best when God’s institution is adopted, and in the way he intended it to be adopted. Why should we care about who gets married? Well, one reason to care is because we care about the next generation.

Incidentally, this explains why every human society up until two minutes ago has traditionally only recognized marriage as being between a man and a woman. It is because they all recognized that marriage is intrinsically designed and ordered to procreation and biological family and thus to be the place in which future citizens would be raised. You don’t want the state regulating your other relationships, do you? So why this one? States have a real interest in the institution of marriage (understood as the place where children are raised by moms and dads) because the state cannot exist without healthy and productive future citizens. And future citizens are best raised, not in homes with gay marriages, but in homes with moms and dads who are committed to each other for life.

But that is of course not the only reason marriage exists. If we keep reading in the book of Genesis and make our way to chapter 2, we see that another chief reason for it is companionship. God said of Adam, after he had created him, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him” (2:18). The text goes on to argue (in not so many words) that dog may be man’s best friend, but a dog – or any other animal for that matter – cannot be a wife for Adam (19-20). So we go on to read: “And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof; And the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man. And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man. Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh” (2:21-24). In other words, marriage is not just about the creation of a community of parents and children; it is first and foremost a community of husband and wife. Loneliness is not solved by having lots of kids; it is solved by a husband having a wife and a wife her husband. Thus, as one commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism puts it, marriage is “a society of labors, toils, cares and prayers, between persons living in a state of matrimony.”

It is interesting to me that in our day when marriage is so vilified, loneliness is a problem of epic proportions. Middle English didn’t even have a word for loneliness, and I wonder if one of the reasons for that is that in those days a person’s life inevitably centered around family. You couldn’t be lonely; it was simply impossible. It makes me wonder if a lot of people are lonely because they are running away from God’s solution to loneliness.

Now I know that a lot of people in our day assume that marriage makes people miserable. It can, of course; we all know that. But in general this is a myth, an urban legend, for the data actually demonstrates the opposite. Tim Keller, in his book The Meaning of Marriage (which I highly recommend), writes, “All surveys tell us that the number of married people who say they are ‘very happy’ in their marriages is high – about 61-62 percent – and there has been little decrease in this figure during the last decade. Most striking of all, longitudinal studies demonstrate that two-thirds of those unhappy marriages out there will become happy within five years if people stay married and do not get divorced.”2

Marriage therefore not only provides the happy place where children are born and nurtured, but fundamentally it is meant to be the place where some of us at least will find our truest and closest earthly companion, where our house is made a home.

I need to say here, however, that the Bible also makes it clear that marriage is not the only solution to loneliness. Our Lord and the apostle Paul also say clearly that it is the gift of God that some remain single and celibate throughout their lives. Paul in fact doesn’t just begrudgingly admit the point, he positively celebrates it. So I don’t want to give the impression that if you’re not married you can’t be happy. God’s gift to some is marriage, and that is to be celebrated. God’s gift to others is singleness, and that too is to be celebrated.

I will add one more thing to this. Marriage is not only meant for companionship and children, but it is also meant to be the safe place where men and women learn self-mastery in ways they could not otherwise. The apostle points in this direction when he writes to the Corinthians, “Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband” (1 Cor. 7:2). I think the principle in this verse goes beyond lust, though it certainly applies immediately to that. In general, marriage is that safe place which becomes for us a school for character.

I am ashamed to say it, but when I was a bachelor, I thought I was a pretty good guy. Marriage has happily – and I mean it when I say “happily” – divested me of those delusions of grandeur. Marriage has helped me to see how selfish I really am, and children are an even greater help in that arena. I thank God for that. I thank God that I am not the same man that married my wife; I hope I am better, and I hope my wife is better too, that we are more godly and Christlike as a result of our marriage.

For that reason, young men, don’t avoid marriage because you don’t want to be changed. The fact of the matter is that you should want to be changed. If you stay where you are you will probably remain a spiritual midget.

It is because people today have jettisoned this aspect of marriage that they actually do make it a miserable place. Today, people want to marry their soulmate, by which they mean that perfect person who will meet all their needs all the while placing little to no demands on their own agendas and plans. It’s all about self-fulfillment and self-actualization and self-love – which is to say, self-worship. But if this is the way you approach marriage, if you demand your spouse to put you in the place of God, you will destroy your marriage, for no one can bear that kind of burden. You are asking of your spouse what neither you nor any other merely human person can give.

Instead of this impossible program, let us find our joy in giving ourselves to others – first of all to our spouse. The God who made us knows what will give us true joy and fulfillment and happiness: it is to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and then to love your neighbor as yourself. And as Martin Luther pointed out long ago, as your spouse is your nearest neighbor, he or she ought to have your greatest and most constant love.

Here is how the apostle Paul put it: “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish. So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church: For we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh. This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church. Nevertheless let every one of you in particular so love his wife even as himself; and the wife see that she reverence her husband” (Eph. 5:22-33).

Marriage is undeniably valuable and precious because God made it, and because he made it for human companionship, for children, and as a school for character.

The Vandalism of Marriage

Unfortunately, man has marred this precious gift. And a couple of the ways he has marred it is given to us in the next words: “But whoremongers and adulterers God will judge.”

However, before I get to that, let me come back to the words, “and the [marriage] bed [is] undefiled.” Now there have been times in which the church has been unfaithful to this teaching and has taught a sort of asceticism that is false. Paul himself mentions this in his instructions to Timothy: “Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils; Speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron; Forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth. For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving: For it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim. 4:1-5). Marriage is good, and the marriage bed is good. The Bible is not squeamish about sex. It doesn’t teach that it is bad or that the celibate life is a more holy life. Married life is not the path to second-rate spirituality. The marriage bed is holy. In fact, part of what makes the marriage bed so sweet and wonderful is that it is the marriage bed. It is in the context of a life-long covenantal commitment that the one flesh union is experienced, and it is in that context that it becomes more than just the effervescent indulgence of physical desires. It is in the context of marriage that this becomes a physical expression of true and enduring love.

But the devil loves to try to replace God’s design with a cheap replacement. And that is what is being referred to in the words “whoremongers and adulterers.” These two words together refer to all sexual activity outside the God-ordained parameters of monogamous marriage between husband and wife. Of course, the world will tell you that this is unnecessarily prohibitive, and that true freedom is going wherever your passions lead. But sexual immorality is to the marriage bed what graffiti is to the Mona Lisa. It is the vandalism of God’s good design.

However, in the text that is not the main argument against this kind of sin. The main argument is that “God will judge” it. It doesn’t matter how pleased you are with your lifestyle; I can guarantee you that nothing will make standing under the judgment of God worth it. And if you are wondering what kind of judgment this is, let me refer you to the following passages.

“Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell” (Mt. 5:27-30).

“Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:9-11).

“But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints; Neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting, which are not convenient: but rather giving of thanks. For this ye know, that no whoremonger, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no man deceive you with vain words: for because of these things cometh the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience” (Eph. 5:3-6).

These passages stand alongside Hebrews 13:4 to teach that those who continue unrepentant in sexual sin will suffer the wrath of God in hell and will not inherit the kingdom of God.

Now it is true that no one gets into heaven because they are sexually pure. But I can tell you on the authority of God’s word that no one will get into heaven if they remain sexually immoral. There is grace for sins, all sorts of sins, sexual and otherwise. But as Paul put it to the Corinthians, salvation means being saved from sin, not only from its guilt but also from its grip. “Such were some of you” is the description of all who are washed, sanctified, and justified by Jesus and the Spirit.

On the other hand, there is no sin that cannot be washed away by the blood of Jesus. That includes the sins mentioned in our text. The reality is that we are all sinners, and we have all sinned and come short of the glory of God. No one gets into heaven because they are good enough. We are all worse than we think. Left to ourselves, we would all fall under the judgment of God. On our own, we are all justly exposed to his wrath.

But the amazing news given to us in the gospel is that Jesus Christ the Son of God came to live the perfectly righteous life that we couldn’t live and to suffer the just penalty for the sinful lives that we did live, and he did all this not for himself but for sinners. And he did it so that those who by his grace repent of their sins and believe on him can have their sins taken away and his righteousness credited to them. Free and sovereign grace is given to us in Christ, grace not only to forgive our sins, but grace to deliver us from the pollution and the power of sin.

So the words “God will judge” the sexually immoral and the adulterers are not words for self-righteous people to utter as if they were better, for apart from the grace and mercy of God in Christ, those are words for all of us. And in the same way, that judgment has fallen on Christ so that no matter how bad we are we can find grace and forgiveness in him.

So marriage is valuable, and the violation of the marriage bed is vandalism not only because of what marriage does but fundamentally because of that to which marriage points: it points us to the gospel, to Jesus. So as I close let me repeat the words of the apostle Paul: “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:25-27).

See https://www.markregnerus.com/_files/ugd/0595d1_f3ab7aff28744ad1af85b47353d90f7d.pdf

Timothy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage (Dutton, New York: 2011), p. 25-26.


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