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 . . ..”1 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).
1 See https://www.markregnerus.com/_files/ugd/0595d1_f3ab7aff28744ad1af85b47353d90f7d.pdf
2 Timothy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage (Dutton, New York: 2011), p. 25-26.