By Cary Cox
God designed the institution of marriage as a living sermon proclaiming his gospel to the world. The intimacy and love shared between a husband and wife is a small taste – a glimpse! – of the great joy and pleasure of being united to Christ forever. In the presence of God is fullness of joy; at his right hand are pleasures forevermore (Psalm 16:11). All marriages, whether Christian or not, point the watching world, the angels and demons, and all of creation to the great salvation of God in Christ for his covenant people. Paul makes this clear in Ephesians 5:25-27, where he calls husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, for the purpose of presenting her to himself. When a husband tenderly loves his wife and puts her needs ahead of his own he is preaching about the love of Christ for his church. In verses 31-32 Paul goes even further. He quotes from Genesis where God said that a man should leave father and mother and be joined to his wife, becoming one with her. “This mystery is profound,” Paul writes, “and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (v32). A great mystery is being revealed in these words! God has ingrained a picture of his great salvation – Christ and the church joining together in love and shared joy forever!! – into the very fabric of the institution of marriage.
This is what makes sexual sin so unique, and so heinous. A bad marriage preaches a false gospel. We distort the gospel picture when we step out of our roles in marriage. An abusive husband preaches through his actions that Christ is not a tender Savior to his church. A woman who will not follow the loving leadership of her husband thereby proclaims that the church should not respect her Lord. Homosexuality distorts the gospel picture, as man uniting with man presents a Christ-with-Christ image (selfishly keeping his love for himself rather than pouring himself out for the rescue of his bride), and woman uniting with woman displays a Christ-less church-to-church relationship. Divorcing your spouse when things get hard proclaims to the world that Christ can give up on us when loving us becomes inconvenient. And adultery invents a false gospel of a cheating Christ or church. We quickly begin to see that there is more at stake in our marriages than our personal happiness. It has to do with the glory of God.
A Biblical Theme
The theme of marriage as a picture of God in Christ uniting with his people in joyful relationship runs throughout the whole Bible. God proclaims himself the great husband to his covenant people and speaks his love for her. And sin begins to be spoken of in terms of spiritual adultery! When God’s people give other things first place – the place that God alone both deserves and demands – we have committed adultery against our Lord. God is passionate about both his own glory and the good of his covenant people, and this passion is seen in his divine jealousy. Rather than a petty human jealousy, the jealousy of God for his people is both good and right. Because of the glory of his Person, God is glorious and is worthy of all worship. And as the Creator and Redeemer of his people he alone deserves our loyalty and love. Therefore, God’s highest and greatest commandment for his people is to love him with all our heart, soul and strength. To love anything or anyone else before him is to commit spiritual adultery. We see this idea in both the old and new testaments of Scripture.
In the Old Testament God proclaims to Israel that their Maker is their husband (Isaiah 54:5). He will take pleasure in his people, rejoicing over Israel as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride (Isaiah 62:5)! As a husband is pleased with his wife, finding joy in her love and beauty and friendship, so God delights in his covenant people!
We also see sin presented in terms of spiritual adultery in the Old Testament. In fact, God uses very strong and shocking language to describe Israel’s unfaithfulness. He refers to them as prostitutes, harlots and whores, who give their sexual love to almost anyone. God, through his prophets, uses this strong language to reveal the extreme filthiness, wickedness and treachery of his people’s sin. He calls them to repent of their adultery and return to him.
The language of spiritual adultery begins almost as soon as Israel enters into covenant with God at Mt. Sinai. In Exodus 34:13-16 God warns Israel of the dangers of falling into idolatry when they enter the promised land. They must destroy the idols in the land lest they be tempted to “whore after” the false gods of the land (v16). In Numbers 15:39 the Jews are instructed to make tassels on the bottom of the men’s robes to remind them of God’s laws, that they will not “whore after” other things. And before Moses died, God warned him that after his death Israel would break their covenant with God and “whore after the foreign gods among them in the land they are entering” (Deuteronomy 31:16).
When Israel did enter into the land they failed to drive out all the sinful nations as God had commanded. And, just as God had warned, they found themselves overcome by the strong spiritual and cultural temptation toward idolatry. “They whored after other gods and bowed down to them” (Judges 2:17). This became the pattern throughout the time of the judges and into the time of the kings. Israel’s songs of worship reflected on their tendency to ‘cheat on’ their God. Psalm 106:35-41 tells the sad story of their idol worship, “which became a snare to them.” Their entrapment to these “demons” (v37) even caused them to sacrifice their children in worship of strange gods! In doing this, God said “they played the whore” (v39).
Yet it is in the prophets where this language of adultery is at its strongest. Through Jeremiah God tells Israel that he remembers the love they used to have for him in their youth, which was “as a bride” (2:2). But then he recounts their unfaithfulness to him: “On every high hill and under every green tree you bowed down like a whore” (2:20). God goes on to describe Israel as a camel or donkey in heat, sniffing the wind and looking for lovers (2:23-24)!
In Ezekiel God’s language becomes more and more shocking. In chapter 16 he tells the story of his relationship with Israel. Israel was like an unloved baby, thrown in a field to die. God passed by and found the baby, kicking in its blood, as good as dead. He spoke life to the child, who grew into a beautiful young lady. The Lord treated her with tenderness and kindness, giving her elaborate gifts. But she trusted in her beauty, forgot what the Lord had done for her, and began to offer herself to other lovers. Through the prophet Ezekiel, God says that Israel “lavished your whorings on any passerby” (v15), “offering yourself to any passerby and multiplying your whoring” (v25, where the Hebrew literally says “spreading your legs”). “Adulterous wife, who receives strangers instead of her husband!” (v32).
Ezekiel takes this language even further in chapter 23, describing Israel’s idolatry as the fondling of her breasts (v3) and lusting after her lovers (v5). Her lovers, who are the surrounding nations, are described as having “whoring lust” (v17) and genitals the size of donkeys, “and whose issue was like that of horses” (v20). This language is meant to disgust Israel and shame them as they realize what they have done by forsaking God.
Though there are many more examples of this in the prophets, Hosea is a unique book. God called Hosea to more than just a message. His very life would be a living prophecy! God commanded Hosea to go and marry a prostitute who would cheat on him, because Israel has committed adultery against their Lord. Things deteriorated to the point where his wife has became a slave. Hosea purchased her and spoke tenderly to her (ch3) despite her wickedness, just as God is calling Israel to return to him in repentance.
God warns Israel and calls them to repent through the prophets, and he disciplines them for their wicked unfaithfulness. Ultimately he sends them into exile in Babylon for seventy years. Yet, in all of this we see the tender and patient, steadfast love of God for his covenant people. He brings them back from exile and they wait for 400 years for Messiah.
It is into this context that Jesus Christ came, proclaiming that he himself is the bridegroom! He uses the well-known language of God as the husband and points it to himself (Matthew 9:15; 25:1-13). John the Baptist also refers to Jesus as the bridegroom (John 3:29). Christ is “God with us” (Mat 1:23), the Old Testament husband of Israel who has come down to rescue his bride! At the cross Christ poured himself out for his people, the church (Eph 5:25), who is no longer ethnic Israel but believers from every tribe and tongue. Through his blood Christ has entered into a new covenant with his bride.
In the epistles, the apostles also use the ‘marriage as picture of God and his people’ theme to call the church to faithfulness to Christ. Idolatry is still spiritual adultery, and the church must be devoted to Christ alone as we wait for his return.
In 2 Corinthians 11:2-4 Paul speaks of his planting the Corinthian church in these terms. He says he “betrothed” them to “one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ.” But the church has become willing to receive false teaching, and this concerns Paul. “I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it readily enough.” We hear in Paul’s words the same heart we heard in God’s words to Israel. In fact, Paul describes his feelings as “a divine jealousy.” Paul shares the love of God toward his people and he is compelled to warn them against spiritual adultery. The church must reject fake Jesus’ and different spirits and false gospels. We must fight our tendency to wander from a pure devotion to Christ. He is first place, and he is enough.
James also uses this language, warning believers that friendship with the world (by which he means a love for the world system in place of God) makes us an “adulterous people” (4:4). The people of God in every generation are still in danger of committing spiritual adultery.
When we get to the final book of the Bible we get a glimpse of the consummation of God’s great plan. The God who has declared himself to be the bridegroom of his people, who has pursued his covenant people through all their wanderings and failings, is at last united with them in glory and joy! In the final pages of Scripture we hear these words: “the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure – for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints” (Rev 19:7-8). Here at last is the pure church for whom Christ died! The great story has come to a joyful conclusion, as “the dwelling place of God is with man” (21:3). We are shown “the Bride, the wife of the Lamb” coming down from God, “having the glory of God” (21:9-11). When this day dawns, the institution of marriage is no longer needed. The picture is obsolete, as we enter into the joy of what marriage pictured: Christ and his people, united together in shared love and joy, forever!
A Picture We Can Understand
We can understand the heartache of adultery. When we hear God speak as a husband who has been cheated on, we are moved in our affections. We understand the anger and hurt of betrayal. Marriage is something we “get.” Even imperfect marriages know something of the joy of two people sharing love. Perhaps God has ingrained this gospel picture into the common experience of marriage to help us understand more clearly both his great love for us, and the extreme wickedness of our spiritual adultery.
Have we too committed spiritual adultery against the Lord? We must admit that our hearts are “prone to wander, Lord I feel it; prone to leave the God I love.” How quickly does our gaze move from Christ and his glory, being captivated by lesser things! Idolatry is a very real and dangerous threat. May we confess it and forsake it, repenting of our spiritual adultery and renewing our love for Christ, by his grace.
Jesus praised the church in Ephesus, but had one thing against her: she had forgotten her first love (Rev 2:1-7). He called her to repent and do the works she did at first. May the Lord restore to us the joy of his salvation! May we be a faithful church, clinging to Christ in single-hearted devotion until he comes!