In a few months, my wife and I will celebrate our twentieth wedding anniversary. With this milestone approaching, I have found myself thinking more and more about the benefits of participating in the institution of marriage. While there certainly are many benefits to marriage that can be experienced by believers and unbelievers alike, I have found my mind occupied with the benefits of Christian marriage. More specifically, I have been meditating on certain spiritual benefits related to the revelation of God’s character and mission that can be learned within marriage.
The idea that sanctifying knowledge of the Lord may be gained through participating in the institution of marriage is both an experiential and a logical conclusion. While the Lord employs various analogies in the Bible to reveal himself and to communicate his mission to the world, there is none more prevalent in Scripture than the husband/wife marriage analogy. This can be seen in the Old Testament use of the marital relationship to depict the God/Israel relationship and the New Testament employment of the husband/wife union to describe the Christ/church union, as well as the many passages in both the Old and New Testaments that invoke the language of sexual sin to describe a breach in the spiritual relationship that exists between God and his people.
One specific aspect of the relational dynamics of the God/believer union that may be learned through the institution of marriage is the concept of God as the husband of his people. Scripture often uses this image in describing the relationship between the Lord and his followers. For example, when addressing God’s people, the prophet Isaiah writes, “For your Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is his name” (Isa. 54:5), and elsewhere, when pleading with his bride, God himself declares, “Return, O backsliding children . . . for I am married to you” (Jer. 3:14). While this revelation is available to any reader of the biblical text, it is only through participating in the institution of marriage that man can fully understand the depth of this teaching. To elaborate, within the institution of marriage, when a man feels the natural burden of being a husband (literally a “house-band”—one who holds a family together), which includes leading, protecting, and providing for his wife, it is then that he can truly appreciate the picture of God as the husband of his people. In other words, it is uniquely from within the institution of marriage that the biblical truth of God as husband can be practically realized and appreciated.
The relational dynamics of the God/believer union become even more evident when in the midst of marital difficulties—thankfully, a rarity for my wife and me—a husband embraces the biblical teaching that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). It is during times of difficulty that passages which call for a husband to display Christ-like love for his wife can have full impact. For example, when the prophet Hosea’s wife went astray, God commanded him, “Go again, love a woman who is loved by a lover and is committing adultery, just like the love of the Lord for the children of Israel” (Hos. 3:1). Later, perhaps with the Lord’s instructions to Hosea in mind, the apostle Paul wrote, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her” (Eph. 5:25). Recognition of the self-sacrifice needed in order to show love for a sinning wife—the same kind of love a sinning husband would desire to receive—can be incredibly revelatory in understanding the depth of Christ’s love for his bride, the church.
While trying circumstances are not pleasant and should not be actively sought, quite possibly it is those who experience marital difficulties who have the greatest opportunity to grasp the full truth of God as the husband of his people. Indeed, just as the only way for a husband to purify a sinning wife is through self-sacrificial love and washing with the Word of God, so the way in which Christ made possible the purification of his church was through his self-sacrifice on the cross (cf. Eph. 5:25–28). It is one thing to possess this knowledge in theory; it is quite another to gain it through the trials that are incumbent to marriage in a fallen world.
A complement to the relational dynamic of God as husband is the picture of the church as his bride. While this is not a truth about God per se, it is a corollary to the revelation of God as husband, and it informs the church how to interact properly with God. Throughout the New Testament the church is referred to as the bride of Christ, sometimes even being called the body of Christ. Moreover, as the bride, whose body is not her own, the church is frequently described as being under the authority of Christ, who is her head.
As with the doctrine of God as the husband of his people, the notion that the church is the bride of Christ is a truth accessible to any reader of Scripture. Yet, within the institution of marriage, a wife has a unique opportunity both to understand and to embrace the fullness of this teaching as she submits herself to her husband’s servant leadership. Furthermore, this aspect of the relational dynamics that exist between God and his people is available not only to wives through submission, but also to husbands who witness and benefit from such conduct. Indeed, as Peter notes, somewhat remarkably, the actions of a submissive wife may be so revelatory in regard to the character and mission of God that an unregenerate husband is won to Christ “without a word” (1 Pet. 3:1; cf. 1 Cor. 7:16).
A final aspect of the revelation of God as husband that can be learned through the institution of marriage is the reality of divine jealousy. The Bible repeatedly communicates the fact that God is jealous for both his name and his glory. Scripture even records Moses’ command to “worship no other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God” (Exod. 34:14). While the Lord is willing to share and give nearly all of his resources to his people, including the sacrifice of his Son, the one thing that God will not share is his glory. The prophet Isaiah reports the Lord’s declaration, “I am the Lord . . . My glory I will not give to another” (Isa. 42:8), and Jesus instructed his followers, “Pray then like this: Our Father in Heaven, let your name be kept holy. . . . For yours is the . . . glory forever” (Matt. 6:9, 13).
Given the primacy of God’s glory and name, it stands to reason that the Lord would be jealous for his people, for they are created in order to glorify his name. Indeed, this is what Scripture records as in reference to his people God proclaims, “I am jealous for Zion with great jealousy” (Zech. 8:2). Additionally, a host of passages demonstrate the truth that when the Lord’s people begin to glorify other gods, it is then that his jealousy is most clearly aroused.
Within the institution of marriage, spouses have the unique opportunity to experience relational jealousy, thereby enabling them to understand the truth of God’s husband-love for his people, as well as the intensity of divine jealousy. In fact, the potential for jealousy in marriage is so great that the Old Testament civil law contains procedures for regulating a husband’s jealousy toward his wife (cf. Num. 5:11–31).
Of course, it is possible to feel and to express relational jealousy outside the bonds of marriage, as well as to experience unrighteous jealousy within marriage. Yet, knowledge of the righteous relational jealousy described in Scripture between God and his people can best be gained through participating in the institution of marriage. Indeed, when marriage partners desire to be with their beloved and to protect the purity of their marital relationship there is great opportunity to learn about the depth of the Lord’s love for his people. Viewed from the perspective of marriage, then, passages that detail God’s righteous jealousy for his bride can potentially take on new meaning. This is all made possible through the sanctifying revelation of God that has been incorporated into the divine institution of marriage.
In conclusion, then, through being a husband—indeed, a Christian husband—for nearly two decades, my knowledge and understanding of God’s role as husband to the bride of Christ has deepened. The self-sacrifice, servant leadership, and godly jealousy I have experienced within the institution of marriage are benefits for which I am grateful. May those of us who have been called to and blessed with Christian marriages reap the benefits of this divinely designed institution, and display our individual marriages to the watching world in such a way that the marriage of the Divine Bridegroom to his people is properly revealed.