31 “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” 32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.
Ephesians 5:31-32 (ESV)
“Your love is your own private possession,” wrote Christian martyr Dietriech Bonhoeffer to a young couple from his prison cell in 1943. “But marriage is more than something personal—it is a status, an office. Just as it is the crown, and not merely the will to rule, that makes the king, so it is marriage, and not merely your love for each other, that joins you together in the sight of God and man. . . . It is not your love that sustains the marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love.”[i] What a stark contrast to the contemporary, sentimentalized view of marriage!
One of God’s purposes for marriage is to illustrate the relationship of Christ and the Church. Just as in the old covenant, Israel was Yahweh’s bride (e.g., Jer. 2; Ezek. 16; Hos. 1-2), so in the new covenant, the Church is Christ’s bride (Eph. 5:22-33; Rev. 19:6-9). This divine marriage encompasses all of time, from eternity past to eternity future. It is not as if Paul is casting around for an illustration of what it means to live a godly married life and thinks of Christ and the Church. Quite the reverse: marriage is the illustration. Christ and the Church are the ultimate reality.
Furthermore, while marriage is a creation ordinance (Eph. 5:31, quoting Gen. 2:24), the relationship of Christ and the Church is prior to creation. We were chosen in Him before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4); and this is the mystery now revealed in the gospel. While human marriage is merely lifelong (Mark 12:25), the marriage of Christ and the Church will last for all eternity.
Just as marriage is public (“a man shall leave his father and mother”), intimate (“the two shall become one flesh”), exclusive, and lifelong (“[he shall] hold fast to his wife”), Christ’s relationship with the Church is public, intimate, exclusive, and lasting. The Lord Jesus is a faithful husband. His commitment to His bride is seen in that He laid down His life for her in order that she might belong to Him (Eph. 5:25-27). He did this even while she was an idolatrous sinner. His promise is that He will lose none of those the Father gives Him (John 6:39). His commitment to His bride sustains His love for her, even when she sometimes strays.
By taking a bold stand for lifelong, monogamous, heterosexual marriage, pastors and their churches inoculate Christians against an overly sentimentalized view of marriage that pervades the culture. And by committing themselves to marriage as a covenantal institution, Christians reflect the commitment of Christ to His Church and, thereby, proclaim the gospel in their very unions—making marriage a blessed tool of evangelism.
[i] Dietriech Bonhoeffer, quoted in Richard John Neuhuas, “The Public Square,” First Things 113 (May 2001): 67-88, http://www.firstthings.com/ftissues/ft0105/public.html (accessed March 8, 2006).