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As sexual preferences and practices multiply within our culture, Christians can become desensitized to the immorality that surrounds us. Believers may begin to minimize or even to rationalize the severity of sexual sin. The Scriptures teach several reasons to flee sexual immorality, especially to warn us against incurring guilt, shame, and wrath in our relationships with God and our neighbors. Additionally, the Scriptures teach a positive motivation for sexual purity, in that our marital faithfulness provides a powerful testimony to the world of God’s covenantal faithfulness in creation, providence, and redemption.

Bearing witness to God’s covenantal faithfulness, in fact, is at the heart of God’s purpose for marriage. Paul reveals this purpose in his pastoral advice for marriage in Ephesians 5:22–33. Grooms and brides regularly ask me to read or to preach from that text when I preside over weddings, but in verses 31–32, Paul makes an abrupt transition: “‘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 the church.” Thus, the institution of marriage communicates something important about Christ’s relationship to the church. This statement, though, raises an impor­tant question. As Paul was writing about the profound mystery of marriage, was he really talking about human marriages at all?

To answer that question, it helps to take a closer look at Genesis 2:24, the verse Paul quotes. The word there for “hold fast” (sometimes translated “cling”) is the Hebrew word dabaq. In the Old Testament, this word not only describes how (human) husbands hold fast to their wives but also expresses how God’s people must hold fast to their covenant Lord: “You shall fear the Lord your God. You shall serve him and hold fast to him, and by his name you shall swear” (Deut. 10:20; see also Deut. 11:22; 13:4; 30:20; Josh. 22:5; 23:8; 2 Kings 18:6; Pss. 63:8; 119:25, 31). Since the beginning, God intended to take His people in a spiritual marriage in which He will be their God and they will be His people (Ex. 6:7; Jer. 31:33).

Moreover, the Lord extended that marriage imagery to proclaim that He would be a “jealous” husband (e.g., Ex. 20:5; Deut. 32:21; Zech. 1:14) who would deal severely with the “adultery” and “whoredom” of His people (see Jer. 3:6; Ezek. 23:37; Hos. 1:2). In the book of Jeremiah, the Lord laments what might have been:

For as the loincloth clings [dabaq] to the waist of a man, so I made the whole house of Israel and the whole house of Judah cling to me, declares the Lord, that they might be for me a people, a name, a praise, and a glory, but they would not listen. (Jer. 13:11)

When the world looked at Israel’s faithlessness, it could not learn the truth about the Lord’s faithfulness.

Marital faithfulness portrays to the world the gospel.

Still, the connection between human marital infidelity and covenant faithlessness to the Lord runs deeper than mere symbolism in two major ways. First, the Scriptures alert us that sexual immorality leads us away from the Lord. Most directly, God forbids adultery in the precept of the seventh commandment (Ex. 20:14). Therefore, sinning against our spouses by committing adultery more fundamentally constitutes sin against the Lord (Ps. 51:4). Solomon’s life also serves as a major example of this point. The Bible closely connects Solomon’s “clinging” (dabaq) to foreign women as the primary catalyst that turned his heart away from the Lord and toward his wives’ foreign gods (1 Kings 11:2).

Second, the Scriptures insist that sexual sin leads the Lord away from us by defiling us spiritually. In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul again quotes the “one flesh” principle of Genesis 2:24 to explain that “he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her” (1 Cor. 6:16). Whereas the Lord intended our souls to enjoy “one spirit” union with Him, sexual immorality defiles our bodies and renders them unfit for serving as temples for the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit (vv. 17, 19).

Providentially, though, the Lord redeemed our spiritual adultery to magnify the extraordinary salvation that Christ has accomplished for His unfaithful bride. In the Old Testament, God sent the prophet Hosea to take a “wife of whoredom” (a prostitute named Gomer) to symbolize Israel’s “great whoredom by forsaking the Lord(Hos. 1:2). Hosea faithfully bought back his wayward wife after she had been “loved by another man and is an adulteress, even as the Lord loves the children of Israel, though they turn to other gods” (3:1–2). In a greater way, “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,” laying down His own life to purchase back His adulterous bride (Eph. 5:25). Though we were guilty, polluted, and defiled, Jesus cleansed us by His own blood and by the washing of water with the Word (vv. 25–27).

It is here that we return to Paul’s pastoral advice for marriage in Ephesians 5. Immediately after declaring that Christ’s relationship to the church is an arranged marriage that God had planned from eternity past, Paul concludes with instructions for human marriages: “However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband” (v. 33). So at one level, Paul was indeed writing to reveal the mystery of Christ’s relationship to the church. Then, at another level, he was also unfolding the implications of that mystery for human marriages. By God’s grace, when we conform our marriages to Christ’s pattern of faithfulness to the church, we bear witness to a faithless world of God’s original design for marriage in creation. That is, marital faithfulness portrays to the world the gospel of Christ’s own faithful, covenantal redemption of His people at the cross.

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