Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Gospel Marriage: Covenant

Above is a clip from Disney Pixar's Up chronicling the marriage of Carl and Ellie. In 4 brief minutes it encapsulates a beautiful union and I doubt you will find yourself so moved by another animated short - especially one where not a single word is uttered. I am convinced that the reason why it tugs at our heart so powerfully is because we are not just seeing the enduring love shared between a husband and wife but we are also witnessing a small glimpse of God's great love towards us -- a love each and every one of us were created to receive.  

In my previous marriage posts (found HERE) I have attempted to stress that God’s central purpose for creating marriage was that it might be a picture of Christ and the Church, for our good and for His glory. I understand that this might sound nice for the “theologically-inclined” but you're probably thinking "What relevance does this have for my marriage today?" Well, in very practical terms I think one of the most profound ways in which a marriage between a man and a woman can picture Christ’s love for the Church (i.e. me as a believer) is in the way we view and honor our marriage covenant.

When you think about weddings what is the first thing that comes to your mind? Perhaps it’s the flowers, the music, the tuxedos? Maybe it’s that dress, the procession, or the rings? But beyond all the pageantry what do you think is the most important part of that wedding day? It’s not when the father hands his daughter over to the groom. It’s not when the preacher gives a poignant sermon. It’s not even when the newlyweds kiss to seal the deal. There is really only one part of that special day that if you removed it from the program, it would no longer qualify as a wedding, and that is…..the “exchange of vows”.

This is that salient moment where the husband and wife look into each other’s eyes and while standing before family, friends and most importantly God Himself – they make a sacred promise to one another – a “covenant” in fact. It often goes something like this:

“I, ____, take you, ____, to be my (husband/wife). I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. I will love you and honor you all the days of my life. I, ____, take you, ____, for my lawful (husband/wife), to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.”

What do you notice there? Not all vows are the same but what nearly all share in common is that they involve a long list of circumstances in which both parties promise to be faithful to one another despite whatever might come their way in the years ahead.  Therefore, the purpose of the wedding ceremony is not for the groom and the bride to publicly proclaim their love for one another – but rather to publicly promise their love to one another – no matter what troubles may lie ahead. 

Mike & Leslie
Some dear friends of mine, named Mike and Leslie, found their own vows tested a few years ago like they had never before imagined. Mike was struggling with a severe nerve pain that began in his esophagus and subsequently spread all over his body – a pain so great that it debilitated him physically, mentally and emotionally. He was forced to go on indefinite medical leave from his job as a partner at a law firm, and his condition only worsened over time. Perhaps the greatest challenge in all of this was that despite having seen numerous doctors, psychiatrists, and pastors, no one was able to diagnose and treat the problem let alone find a cure. There he found himself spiraling into a vortex of hopelessness and depression.

This is one of the strongest Christian couples I know, but they will be the first to tell you that Mike’s condition had pushed the very limits of what they thought their marriage could endure. On their anniversary, Leslie confessed her struggle in a very public and powerful way on a blog post she wrote entitled 8 Years Ago Today”. In it she recalled her wedding day and portions of her vow to him and reflected upon them in the midst of their darkest trial. I can’t say it better than her so I have reprinted it below with their permission:

“I, Leslie, take you, Mike, to be my wedded husband. To have and to hold, from this day forward…”

Today is our anniversary. I remember so many things about that day. It was truly meaningful and a ton of fun for me. I remember saying my vows and having my voice go two octaves higher as I lost control and sobbed through them. I felt so blessed to have found such a good guy; he was my diamond in the rough….our new life together was filled with adventure and the promise of good things to come.

 ”…for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer…”

And good things came. Mike had a super job lined up. We moved to the great city of Chicago. We became part of a diverse, mission-minded church that has become family to us. We had two adorable boys who light up our lives every single day. We have become a part of a neighborhood and school community full of wonderful people and friends. Life could not get any better.

 “…in sickness and in health…”

You know where we are now. Mike continues to have pain, no specific causal diagnosis, no signs of improvement. The longer this goes on, the more he feels cursed. The longer this goes on, the deeper he slips into darkness. I think I can handle his physical ailments. I think I can handle the uncertain future and whatever changes may have to come however drastic. I think I can even handle some anxiety and sadness. But dealing with the growing darkness that has consumed him so that he has almost become a different person altogether makes me miss the man I married 8 years ago. It is hard. And I am failing in so many ways when it comes to loving him as I should. But like him, I am trying. We are both trying so hard even if it seems impossible for him to hope and see beyond himself and impossible for me to be encouraging and patient.

“…to love and to cherish, ’till death do us part. I pledge you my faithfulness.”

In times of testing, words are not just words. They go beyond formality, way beyond lip service. I think of these vows spoken 8 years ago in a different time and a different place. Whether on the mountain top or in the deep valley, I still mean them. Now I know that I really do because I can say them here in the barren wilderness. I still live and swear by them. Michael, YOU CANNOT GET RID OF ME. We are in this war together and I will fight with you till the end, love of my still very blessed life.

What a powerful model and testimony of the very purpose of the marriage covenant! As they were faithful to their vows God proved faithful to them and I’m happy to say that they are doing well and their marriage has never been stronger.  In moments like these, we come to realize why the covenant is so important – they serve as the very glue in holding the marriage union together.  It is here that you realize that you are not holding the promise you made on that day, but rather the promise is holding you. And contrary to what Hollywood would have you believe, LOVE is not the bond that holds the relationship together - rather the COVENANT is. Mike Mason articulates the power of these vows so well in his book, The Mystery of Marriage”:

The impact of love may be felt as an exclamation mark, but vows ask a question. “How bright is the sun!” exclaims love, while the vow asks, “How dark a night are you prepared to pass through?” Marriages which are dependent on good feelings fall apart, or at best are in for a stormy time of it. But marriages which consistently look back into their vows, to those wild promises made before God, and which trust Him to make sense out of them, find a continual source of strength and renewal.” (Mason 117)

But while vows look back for strength to endure difficult seasons in a marriage, when they are first made and consecrated on the wedding day they are looking forward as they are promises for an unknown future. And so vows are predicated on FAITH because they place trust in a promise yet to be fulfilled in the future. I believe this is why when a husband or wife violates their vows it is described as being “unfaithful” or “infidelity”. Even the world recognizes that faith is at the very center of this sacred promise.

Well, if, as Paul says, the marriage union between a husband and wife was designed by God to profoundly picture to the world the gospel (Eph 5:32) which is the relationship between Christ and the Church (i.e.”me”), then what can we learn about the gospel in regards to these covenant vows and how should it affect my marriage?

If you read through the Bible you will quickly realize that God loves making promises to His people and God loves keeping His promises to His people.  But despite all his covenants to Noah, Abraham, Moses, David and others, I think the greatest covenant He made was to us (the Church).  It is the new covenant which was prophesied by Jeremiah (Jer 31:31-34) that not only fulfills but supercedes the old covenant. In fact in Romans Paul describes the unbreakable love found in this new covenant that Jesus has vowed to those who come to him by faith:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? ….for I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  –Romans 8:35,38-39

Do you notice anything here? In many ways these verses read just like a traditional wedding vow however it goes above and beyond any wedding vow I’ve ever seen, because it promises a faithful love that goes beyond the physical (“neither height nor depth”), beyond the metaphysical (“neither angels nor rulers”), beyond even the dimension of time (“nor things present nor things to come”). Where marriage vows promise "til death do us part" Jesus' vow goes beyond even death itself (“neither death nor life”) – these are all promises no earthly marriage would dare fathom. God is communicating one truth here: nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing, can separate us from the love of Jesus – this is His covenant promise of love to us and it need only be received by faith. 

So in much the same way that a man pursues the woman that he loves for marriage, Jesus, as the bridegroom, initiates his love relationship with us - a love relationship that was broken by our sin. He professes his unconditional love for us and proposes an eternal union with us – his bride – which is the Church. And in the same way that a husband and wife make vows to one another on their wedding day, he has made a solemn covenantal promise to love us without conditions and without end.

 "Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you." -Hebrews 13:5b

…and surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” -Matthew 28:20b

Therefore as a married couple, you will never project a more powerful picture of the covenant love found in the gospel than when you hold on to your vows even in the midst of great marital hardship especially when your spouse doesn't deserve it. 

Why? Because you are modeling to a watching world the faithful and enduring covenant love God has for you when you didn't deserve it. Ray Ortlund writes, “It is the heavenly marriage that warrants and dignifies an earthly marriage. In Paul’s reasoning, therefore, human marriage is not the reality for which Christ and the church provide a sermonic illustration, but the reverse. Human marriage is the earthly type, pointing towards the spiritual reality.”

Let me tie this back to the video that opened this post. The reason we are so moved by Carl and Ellie in the movie "Up" is because we are bearing witness to a love that is faithful to a covenant. A love that has endured through both good times and bad. A love that holds true to a promise made many years ago. In fact, the entire movie is essentially about Carl's quest to fulfill his promise to Ellie of taking their house to Paradise Falls - against near impossible odds - just as he promised her as a child. 

What a profound picture of Jesus' covenant love towards us! His is a love not dependent upon our performance but upon His promise. His is a love that found victory against impossible odds. His is a love that endures until the end. This supernatural love and sacred covenant should serve as both the model and the motive for our own marriages. 

May our earthly marriages be a faithful picture of our divine union with Him. 

For His glory and for our good.

Peter & Kim

My next post on The Gospel Marriage will likely be a "touchy" one. I will attempt to show how the biblical model of "male headship" as designed by God in marriage was meant to be a powerful picture of the gospel. Yes...I am going where "angels fear to tread". =) Pray for me, stay tuned and thanks for reading....


  1. Great reminder. No individual fact was "new" to me, but to put it altogether like this is truly inspiring. "Lord, help me be the Husband you want me to be. The one you see in me"

    1. Thanks Bernie! I like to think it's "inspiring" because it's coming straight from the inspired word of God. ;)

  2. This is a beautiful post, and a great reminder on what it truly means to be bound by covenant. Thanks for sharing this! Looking forward to your next post! =)