Last week I shared three articles titled A Picture-Perfect Marriage. That short series looked to Ephesians 5 and the great mystery that is marriage. I showed from that text that marriage is, and always has been, a portrait of Christ and his church. But at the end of it all I was left with a question: What is the role of the sexual relationship in this great mystery? I had to take a shot at answering that question at a recent conference and want to share today how I understand it.
We have established that marriage is a portrait of Christ and the church and that both husband and wife have a part to play in this portrait. The wife completes her part when she joyfully submits to the leadership of her husband and the husband completes his part when he joyfully and lovingly gives himself up for his wife. But how does the sexual relationship fit into God’s good design for marriage? I will admit from the outset that the answer isn’t quite as clear in Scripture as I might have expected, but I will give it a try and eagerly await your feedback.
God’s Good Design
It ought to go without saying that the Bible knows no good in sex outside of the marriage relationship. In love God says that within marriage sex is to be enjoyed and to be enjoyed freely and regularly; in love God says that outside marriage, sex of any kind is strictly forbidden. Why? Because God designed sex for a specific purpose and that purpose can only be expressed within marriage. Any other expression of sexuality, whether that is adultery or fornication or any kind of self-centered sex—all of these things ignore God’s design for sex and reinterprets it according to our sinful designs.
To understand why God says that sex is to exist only within marriage, we need to look at the covenantal nature of the marriage relationship. Marriage is a covenant that a husband and wife enter into, a covenant in which they come together before God and before other people and are made one. It is not the rings or the white dress or even the sexual union that makes marriage, but the covenant (which is why, in older times, betrothal was considered as unbreakable as marriage). While husband and wife obviously remain two individuals, two independent life forms, there is now a sense in which God regards them as one entity. Each is now responsible to the other and joined to the other to such an extent that in some mysterious way God now views them as being one. In Ephesians 5 Paul goes all the way back to Genesis 2 and reminds the reader that “a man shall leave his mother and father and be joined to his wife and the two shall be one flesh.”