That was the case in Jesus’ day as well. When Jesus gave a glimpse of the magnificent view of marriage that God willed for His people, the disciples said to Him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry” (Matthew 19:10). In other words, Christ’s vision of the meaning of marriage was so enormously different from that of the disciples, they could not imagine it to be a good thing.
If that was the case then—in the sober, Jewish world in which they lived—how much more will the magnificence of marriage in the mind of God seem unintelligible in a modern Western culture. Jesus would probably say to us today, when He had finished opening the mystery for us, the same thing He said in His own day: “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. … Let the one who is able to receive this receive it” (Matthew 19:11–12).
So I start with the assumption that my own sin and selfishness and cultural bondage makes it almost impossible for me to feel the wonder of God’s purpose for marriage. The fact that we live in a society that can defend two men or two women entering a sexual relationship and, with wild inconceivability, call it marriage shows that the collapse of our culture into debauchery and anarchy is probably not far away.
I mention this cultural distortion of marriage in the hopes that it might wake you up to consider a vision of marriage higher and deeper and stronger and more glorious than anything this culture—or perhaps you yourself—ever imagined. The greatness and glory of marriage is beyond our ability to think or feel without divine revelation and without the illuminating and awakening work of the Holy Spirit. The world cannot know what marriage is without learning it from God.
The most foundational thing to see from the Bible about marriage is that it is God’s doing. And the ultimate thing to see from the Bible about marriage is that it is for God’s glory.
Marriage Is God’s Doing
There are at least four ways to see this explicitly or implicitly in Genesis 2:18–25.
1. Marriage was God’s design.
Marriage is God’s doing because it was His design in the creation of man as male and female. This was made plain earlier in Genesis 1:27–28: “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.'”
But it is also clear in the flow of thought in Genesis 2. In verse 18, it is God Himself who decrees that man’s solitude is not good, and it is God Himself who sets out to complete one of the central designs of creation, namely, man and woman in marriage: “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” Don’t miss that central and all-important statement. God Himself will make a being perfectly suited for him—a wife.
This text ends in verses 24–25 with the words: “They shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.” In other words, this is all moving toward marriage.
2. God gave away the first bride.
Marriage is also God’s doing because He took the role of being the first Father to give away the bride. Genesis 2:22 says: “And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.” He didn’t hide her and make Adam seek. He made her; then He brought her. And now, though she was His by virtue of creation, He gave her to the man in this absolutely new kind of relationship called marriage, unlike every other relationship in the world.
3. God spoke the design of marriage into existence.
Marriage is also God’s doing because He spoke the design of marriage into existence. He did this in verse 24: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”
Who is talking in verse 24? The writer of Genesis is talking. And what did Jesus say about the writer of Genesis? He said it was Moses (Luke 24:44). He also believed that Moses was inspired by God, so that what Moses was saying, God was saying. We can see this if we look carefully at Matthew 19:4–5: “[Jesus] answered, ‘Have you not read that he [God] who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said [Note: God said!], “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh?'” Jesus said that the words of Genesis 2:24 are God’s words, even though they were written by Moses.
Therefore, marriage is God’s doing because God spoke the earliest design of it into existence—”A man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”
4. God performs the two-become-one-flesh union.
The fourth way that marriage is God’s doing is seen in the fact that God Himself performs the union referred to in the words “become one flesh.” That union is at the heart of what marriage is.
Genesis 2:24 is God’s word of institution for marriage. But just as it was God who took the woman from the flesh of man (Genesis 2:21), it is God who in each marriage ordains and performs a uniting called one flesh. Man does not create this. God does. And it is not in man’s power to destroy. This is implicit here in Genesis 2:24, but Jesus makes it explicit in Mark 10:8–9. He quotes Genesis 2:24, then adds a comment that explodes like thunder with the glory of marriage. “‘The two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”
When a couple speaks their vows, it is not a man or a woman or a pastor or parent who is the main actor—the main doer. God is. God joins a husband and a wife into a one-flesh union. The world does not know this. Which is one of the reasons why marriage is treated so casually. And Christians often act like they don’t know it, which is one of the reasons marriage in the church is not seen as the wonder it is.
Marriage Is for God’s Glory
Marriage is not only from Him and through Him, it is also for Him. Marriage is designed by God to display His glory in a way that no other event or institution does. The way to see this most clearly is to connect Genesis 2:24 with its use in Ephesians 5:31–32. In Genesis 2:24, God says, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” What kind of relationship is this? How are these two people held together? Can they walk away from this relationship? Can they go from spouse to spouse? Is this relationship rooted in romance? Sexual desire? Need for companionship? Cultural convenience?
In Genesis 2:24, the words “hold fast to his wife” and the words “they shall become one flesh” point to marriage as a sacred covenant rooted in commitments that stand against every storm “as long as we both shall live.”
But that is only implicit here. It becomes explicit when the mystery of marriage is more fully revealed in Ephesians 5:31–32. The Apostle Paul quotes Genesis 2:24 in verse 31: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” Then he gives it this all-important interpretation in verse 32: “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” In other words, marriage is patterned after Christ’s covenant commitment to His church.
Christ thought of Himself as the bridegroom coming for his bride, the true people of God (Matthew 9:15, 25:1, John 3:29). Paul knew his ministry was to gather the bride—the true people of God who would trust Christ. His calling was to betroth the church to her husband, Jesus. Paul puts it like this in 2 Corinthians 11:2: “I feel a divine jealousy for you, since I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ.”
Christ knew He would have to pay for His bride with His own blood. He called this relationship the new covenant—”This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). This is what Paul is referring to when he says that marriage is a great mystery: “I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” Christ obtained the church by His blood and formed a new covenant with her, an unbreakable “marriage.”
The ultimate thing we can say about marriage is that it exists for God’s glory. That is, it exists to display God. Now we see how: Marriage is patterned after Christ’s covenant relationship to His redeemed people, the church. And therefore, the highest meaning and the most ultimate purpose of marriage is to put the covenant relationship of Christ and His church on display. That is why marriage exists. If you are married, that is why you are married. If you hope to be, that should be your dream.
Keeping covenant with our spouse is as important as telling the truth about God’s covenant with us in Jesus Christ. Marriage is not mainly about being or staying in love. It’s mainly about telling the truth with our lives. It’s about portraying something true about Jesus Christ and the way He relates to His people. It is about showing in real life the glory of the Gospel.
Jesus died for sinners. He forged a covenant in the white-hot heat of His suffering in our place. He made an imperfect bride His own with the price of His blood and covered her with the garments of His own righteousness. He said, “I am with you … to the end of the age… . I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Matthew 28:20, Hebrews 13:5).
Marriage is meant by God to put that Gospel reality on display in the world. ©2009 John Piper
John Piper is founder of desiringgod.org and former pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minn.
This article is adapted from the book, “This Momentary Marriage,” by John Piper, ©2009 by Desiring God Foundation. used by permission of crossway, a publishing ministry of good news publishers, wheaton, ill. Scripture quotations taken by permission from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, ©2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.