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Topics: Divorce & Remarriage, Marriage

JBMW 21.1 | Marriage: A Portrait of the Gospel from the Beginning

May 18, 2016
By Dale Johnson

Dale Johnson | Assistant Professor of Biblical Counseling
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Fort Worth, Texas

The dismal state of marriage in the United States is a well-documented reality. The growing trends in marital and related statistics cause concern on many levels. Sociologically, the strength of a nation depends, to a large degree, on the strength of its families.[1] Theologically, those who fear God recognize that the divide between God’s design of the institution and its current form is troubling. A tumultuous cultural wind necessitates the Christian to anchor in the past and fix his eyes upon the future, as a lighthouse, in order to remain steadfast in truth and practice. The apostle Paul does exactly this in his explanation of marriage in Ephesians 5.

Paul is forward in his thinking about marriage in the Kingdom, but his progressive focus is not severed from the past. The apostle typically viewed everything through eyes fixed on the gospel, but this time he adds creation and eschatology as vantage points. This essay will utilize the apostle’s appeal to creation and consummation within Ephesians 5:31-32 to demonstrate that marriages, from the beginning, were to portray the grand story of the gospel from creation design to eschatological union.

In Paul’s urge for husbands to love like Christ, he concludes the section by anchoring his paradigm within the metanarrative of God’s redemption. First, Paul tied his view of marriage in verse 31 to creation by quoting Genesis 2:24. Second, he carried the thought through to consummation in Ephesians 5:32. These pillars, at both ends of time, are to serve as guides for understanding the intimate marital union.


Creation and Consummation

Give and Take

God presented the first bride to her husband. In Genesis 2:22, the Lord God made the woman from the rib of the man and “brought her to the man.” Immediately following the man’s naming of the woman as his very bone and flesh, God established the principle of man leaving and cleaving to his wife in order to form a one-flesh union. Before considering the elements of the marriage union involved in the leave and cleave principle, one must also acknowledge God’s presentation of woman to the man.

In the Genesis narrative God established a pattern for biblical marriages; namely, that a daughter is to be given in marriage and a man is to take a wife (Gen 2:22-24). God is not revealed as father to his people until Deuteronomy 32, but he certainly qualifies as progenitor of humanity as described by the creation narrative. Therefore, it can be said that God, as father, gave the first bride to her husband setting a pattern that was to be followed in succeeding marriages.

The pattern of giving and taking in marriage can be viewed as a foreshadowing of the Marriage Supper of the Lamb in Revelation 19. Following the established pattern, Christ takes a bride to be his wife. God also gives the church as the bride of Christ. Jesus testifies that all that the Father gives to him are his (John 6:37, 10:29, 17:6, 9, 24). Those who believe form the body of Christ, the church, and it is they who have been given to Christ by their Father. At the marriage supper Christ will take his bride—those whom the Father has given to him (Rev 19).

Leave and Cleave

The one flesh union was established in order to constitute a new family unit. After the woman was given to the man, God said that man was to, “leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife and the two shall become one flesh” (Gen 2:24). This was not such a shift in locale, as often the Israelite male would remain a member of his father’s house, but, the man settled as head of his own household by cleaving to his wife. The wife also was to leave the authority of her old house and be given by her father to the husband. Both human parties involved in the covenant marriage were intended to leave their previous households in order to establish a new institution before God.

Within the action of leaving and cleaving, Adam became the primary burden-bearer of this newly formed institution. Adam bore the burden of responsibility for the family, a role he abdicated as he stood by while his wife delighted in and ate the forbidden fruit. The man’s newfound role, as the burden-bearer, was demonstrated as God sought him first to answer for the sin in the garden. Romans 5 further evidenced Adam’s blame in the fall. In contrast, Christ took on the full responsibility of sin even when he was not guilty. As the bridegroom, Christ did not passively sit awaiting the judgement of the bride. Rather, he left the glories of heaven and took on flesh to dwell among us in order that he may take the burden of our fall.

Genesis 2 is not simply a description of the first marriage, but it is intended as a template for all subsequent marital unions.

Jesus quotes this verse in His discussion with the Pharisees on the subject of divorce. Paul then quotes it twice in his epistles, once when discussing the one-flesh relationship of a husband and wife as a parallel to Christ’s relationship to the church, and once, surprisingly enough as a reason to abstain from sex with a prostitute.[2]

The reason both Jesus and Paul use this verse as a guiding principle in marriage is to demonstrate God’s design, from the beginning, of leaving and cleaving was to hold fast to one’s spouse as a presentation of Christ securely holding his beloved.

The well-established ideology of marriage throughout Scripture is intended to encourage human understanding into the depth of union between Christ and his bride. The context of the awaited Marriage Supper provides insight into the leaving aspect of the union, especially for the bride. The bride must be distinguished from strangers and have singularly focused affections, directing her mind to the bridegroom alone. The desiring bride must leave all previous commitments and wants in order to secure the union. The Marriage Supper of the Lamb is the consummation of a secured covenant between lovers. The husband has devotedly loved his bride, and the bride has forsaken all to be joined together with him. Covenant marriage between man and woman is intended to depict such a glorious leaving and cleaving as will be realized ultimately at the consummation.[3]

Two Become One

The union is not complete in the mere leaving of prior endearments. The cleaving of marriage is to establish a covenantal commitment fully realized in God’s design from the beginning, “. . . the two shall become one flesh.” The one-flesh union is exemplified by physical intimacy, but its purpose seems to strive at something deeper. The married parties are two distinct bodies, but assuredly now one in essence and commitment. As Scripture progresses in revelation, Paul added a hint as he repeated the phrase from Genesis 2:24.[4] In earthly marriages, the two people become one as expressed by Moses’ phrase, “and they were both naked and not ashamed” (Gen 2:25). Paul’s more profound meaning is bound in the emblematic nature of the earthly marital union for the heavenly union between Christ and his bride. The great unification of Christ with his church will surpass the one-flesh union veiled by the natural world as we are one in Spirit with him (1 Cor 6:17).

The Husband Protects the Bride

One text used to admonish a man to protect his wife is 1 Peter 3:7, “Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.” This is not the only text that teaches a man to protect his wife. Biblical support for the idea that the man is responsible to protect his family is found in Deuteronomy 20:7-8; men go forth to war, not women, here and in other Old Testament passages.[5] John Piper claims the Scriptures propose God’s design is for males to protect females:

The “mystery” of marriage is the truth that God designed male and female from the beginning to carry different responsibilities on the analogy of Christ and his church. The sense of responsibility to protect is there in man by virtue of this design of creation, not by virtue of the marriage covenant. Marriage makes the burden more personal and more intense, but it does not create it.[6]

Paul implied this same type of protection in his demand of husbands to love their wives, “like Christ loved his church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). No greater love can be shown on this earth than for someone to lay his life down for another (John 13:15). Isaiah 53:1-6 is most descriptive concerning Christ’s atoning death on behalf of his bride. He has “borne our griefs and carried our sorrows . . . pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities . . . and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” The atonement, foreshadowed in the Old Testament sacrificial system, demonstrated the need for an appeasement of God’s wrath for the sin of man.[7] From an eschatological point of view, the atonement secures the bridal garment. In the atonement, Christ endured the wrath of God due his bride and provided her with a garment purchased with his own blood (Rev 19:8). Patterson described the significance of the fine linen given to the bride at the marriage:

How radiantly beautiful the bride of Christ appears as she has prepared herself to be presented to the Lamb. However, her beauty is bestowed beauty, for John is also informed that the clean, bright linen she is wearing ‘was given her to wear.’ Again the emphasis on grace and redemption is brought to the fore. In almost every conceivable way, the Apocalypse magnifies the grace of God in salvation. The righteousness of the church and those who make up the bride of Christ is not an acquired righteousness but a bestowed righteousness.[8]

The protection a man is to provide for his bride is not necessarily accomplished by guns and brawn, but by humility, compassion, gentleness, and personal holiness.[9] The man must respond to the selfless call of Philippians 2 in order to protect his wife in the manner modeled by Christ. Christ bore the wrath of God against man in order to demonstrate love and provide atonement, but this could have never been possible without his mind of selflessness.[10] A husband can in no way obtain redemption for his bride, but he is to willingly lay down his life for her sake in order to exemplify the work of Christ.

Christ is known as the Lamb for his wedding day because this is the title given him as the purchaser and protector of his bride. The triumph of Revelation does not change the name of Christ. Although the angel identified Jesus as “the Lion” in Revelation 5:5, John’s favorite identity of Jesus is as the Lamb. One could agree with Spurgeon’s assessment, “This term— ‘the Lamb’—seems to be the special name of Christ which John was accustomed to use.”[11] The Lamb purchased the bride through his atoning death on the cross.[12] The depth and meaning of Christ’s love was displayed while “we were yet sinners” (Rom 5:8).

The character and duty associated with this image of the husband radically alters the way one views the roles of a man in Christian marriage. Christian love can only be known from the actions it prompts. This was not a love drawn out by any excellency in its objects but is continually expressed by a constant interest towards the unworthy. It was in love that Jesus purchased his Bride[13] and so it will be on that wedding day the Lamb will appear in love’s greatest triumph.[14] There is no greater title by which the husband should be known.

In contrast, Adam had opportunity to protect his wife. The text in Genesis does not explicitly say where the man was during the woman’s dialogue with the evil one. But, it seems clear that he was with her when she ate the fruit. Adam did not protect his bride from deception and self-destruction, but witnessed her indulgence and thereby joined her in sin. Husbands cursed by sin will opt for one of two ditches skirting their responsibilities of servant leadership and sacrificial protection. They may respond passively, as Adam, to avoid conflict by preferring disengagement or perhaps they will attempt to lead by tyrannical rule. Neither of these poles reflects the protection and security provided by Christ. The expression of love through sacrifice and servanthood ameliorates the meager display of manhood by the first Adam.

If the bride is with Christ, she has no reason to fear. The greater context of Revelation discloses the harsh reality of the great and terrible Day of the Lord. The judgments of God are poured out in the form of bowls, seals, and trumpets on the earth. Then, the seat of judgment is to follow where Christ will be the judge of both believer and unbeliever. The fact that believers will face judgment should never cause fear that they will be eternally condemned.[15] “He who hears my words,” says Jesus, “and believes him who sent me, has eternal life; he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.”[16] The bride does not fear judgment of her husband, because she is already accepted. She is to reflect gratitude of that acceptance and adorn herself with the character of a pure bride. Christ has already provided the wedding garment of his righteousness in works prepared beforehand.[17]

Implications for God’s Design of Marriage

The deep doctrine of union with Christ is intended to motivate our worship in corporate gatherings. The grace revealed in the husbandly work of Christ demands response, but that response is not limited to Sundays. The implications of this doctrine are to alter living room conversations, protect bedroom relations, and permeate family meals. If we believe this doctrine, the stakes in rearing our sons and daughters to be men and women are incalculable. Our momentary interactions become opportunities of worship, to glorify God by displaying his union with sinners washed clean. We will never fully display the clarity of the gospel, but the portrait we paint with our marriages should be a reflection, however dim, of the consummation.

At the end of Ephesians, the apostle gazed with a cross-tinted lens to make sense of the marital design. “‘Therefore, a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and His church” (Eph 5:31-32). Paul intended the reader to look in two directions. First, the reader is to look back to creation design and the work of Christ on the cross. The apostle also directed the reader’s attention forward to the culmination of the eschatological union.

Since the beginning, the enemy has been attempting to thwart the plan of God.[18] The serpent was told by God that he would be placed on his belly and his head crushed as a result of his deceiving the woman. It was foretold that the seed of woman would crush the head of Satan. The seed would come through a family union. In the story of redemption, God chose a family to bring forth the promised one. “Ultimately, we human beings, whether we realize it or not, are involved in a cosmic spiritual conflict that pits God and Satan, with marriage and the family serving as the key arena in which spiritual and cultural battles are fought.”[19] The fruit of family unions were intended to populate the earth with worshippers, which further explain why the assault on the family is an epic spiritual battle for the integrity of the gospel. The distinctions in gender roles are important because they are rooted in the eternal complement between Christ and his bride. Are we preparing our daughters and sons for gospel integrity? Do our marriages depict an accurate portrait of the gospel we herald?

Marriages on earth herald a gospel. Marriages either reflect the union of Christ with his bride or the union between the Babylonian harlot and the beast.[20] Like the harlot, those who are wed to the beast will be abused and deceived. The harlot is dressed luxuriously in fine linen and jewels. The character of the beast is revealed in the end as he will hate the prostitute, make her desolate and naked, and devour her flesh.[21] Her adornment and lucrative living were not enough to secure his faithfulness. The beast, consistent with his faithless character, left her destitute, naked, and ashamed.

The noticeable contrast of the character of Christ is that of the husband being faithful and true to his bride.[22] Sinners find themselves naked and ashamed, or at best in filthy rags. Christ is a better husband because he takes the unworthy bride and clothes her in fine linen bright and clean. She is adorned with the righteousness of her beloved. The doctrine of imputation captures the husband’s acceptance of the bride in her wedding garment.

God’s plan was that Christ, slain before the foundation of the world, would be wed to those who believe. God, therefore, designed marriage to illustrate the beauty of the gospel of Jesus Christ. A proper theology of marriage and family must not neglect the purpose of gospel revelation as it pertains to marriage. Any tinkering with the temporal institution that was to portray the gospel of God is to tinker with our view of that gospel. The church should teach husbands and wives to live in relationship as is becoming of the good news. Marriage is forever tethered to the consummated truth the union was intended to portray. In Christian theology, the eternal union between Christ and his bride charts the course for earthly genders and unions.


[1]  Jennifer Roback-Morse, Love & Economics: It Takes a Family to Raise a Village (San Marcos, CA: Ruth Institute, 2008), 6.


[2] Robert Andrews, The Family, God’s Weapon for Victory (Rice, WA: Sentinel, 1995), 61-63.


[3] Thomas Watson, The Godly Man’s Picture (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1999). 239ff.


[4] Eph 5:31-32.


[5] Num 1, Judges 7, and 2 Sam 23.


[6]  John Piper and Wayne Grudem, eds. Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism (Wheaton: Crossway, 1991), 43-44. Also see 16 on page 476.


[7] Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 830.


[8] Paige Patterson, Revelation, vol. 39. The New American Commentary: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture, ed. E. Ray Clendenen (Nashville: B & H, 2012), 344.


[9] Voddie Baucham, What He Must Be… If He Wants to Marry My Daughter (Wheaton: Crossway, 2009), 144-145.


[10] Phil 2:3-5, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus…”


[11] Charles H Spurgeon, “The Marriage Supper of the Lamb” NO. 2428 Accessed on August 30 2013,


[12] Patterson, Revelation, 344.


[13] John 3:16; Rom 5:8; 2 Cor 5:14; Eph 2:4.


[14] Spurgeon, “The Marriage Supper of the Lamb.”


[15] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan), 1142-1145.


[16] John 5:24, also see Rom 8:1.


[17] Rev 19:8 and Eph 2:10.


[18] Gen 3:15.


[19] Andreas Köstenberger and David Jones, God, Marriage and Family: Rebuilding the Biblical Foundation (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 15.


[20] Rev 17–19.


[21] Rev 17:16.


[22] Rev 19:11.


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