The following sermon was preached at FBC Benbrook on Sunday morning, March 14, 2010.
The last three chapters in the book of Hebrews have been dealing with quite heavy stuff. Beginning with chapter 10, the apostle has been encouraging the Christians in Rome to continue in their faith despite how difficult it has become to be a Christian in Rome. He urged them to hold fast to their confidence in Christ (Hebrews 10.19-25), to persevere and do the will of God (Hebrews 10.26-39), to take radical steps of obedience in light of what they cannot see but know to be true (Hebrews 11.1-40), to run the race marked out before them with perseverance (Hebrews 12.1-3), to endure hardship as discipline (Hebrews 12.4-12), and to make every effort to be holy (Hebrews 12.13-17). The last three chapters have been a full frontal assault to encourage the Christians to endure and persevere in the faith.
Which makes the transition in chapter 13 seem rather abrupt. At first glance, Hebrews 13 seems to be a collection of unrelated exhortations. It almost feels like the apostle has moved from the topic of persevering faith onto some specific applications and closing words. But instead of seeing chapter 13 as a disconnected addendum or a random collection of commands, I think it would be more fitting to see the exhortations of chapter 13 as specific applications of persevering faith. In other words, if you want to live your life as a Hebrews 10-12 believer, with that kind of faith, here is what it looks like. This is what persevering faith looks like in real life.
We will not have time to examine each of the exhortations that are found in chapter 13. There are probably eight to ten different topics found in chapter 13, so we will choose just a few of those to focus on in the next few weeks. Let us begin by reading the first six verses of Hebrews 13,
1Keep on loving each other as brothers. 2Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it. 3Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering. 4Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral. 5Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” 6So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?” (Hebrews 13.1-6 NIV)
In just these six verses, we already have five different applications of persevering faith: keep loving each other as family in the faith, show hospitality to strangers, visit the believers who are in prison, honor marriage, and stay free from the love of money.
This morning, I would like for us to concentrate on verse 4, “Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.” The apostle literally says, “Marriage should be precious.” The word means something of a great price, esteemed, held in high honor. Marriage should be precious to all, and the “marriage bed kept pure.” Literally, the “bed kept unspoiled,” the bed being the place of intimacy. The reason is that God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral. Adultery is easy enough to define. Adultery is sexual relations with anyone other than your spouse. The other word is pornea is a word used in Scripture to speak of any kind of unlawful sexual activity. The KJV word is “fornication,” a word which speaks of any kind of sexual activity other than in the context of marriage. So “sexual immorality” is a broad term that includes pre-marital sex, adultery, homosexuality, prostitution, pornography, abuse, etc.
Marriage should be precious to all, and the marriage bed kept pure. We have such a hard time talking about marriage and sex in the church, which is strange. God created us to be sexual beings and marriage was His idea. The world around us seems quite comfortable speaking about sex but those who worship the Creator do not. It seems that the only acceptable way to deal with this subject is to either totally avoid speaking of sex because it is the “proper thing to do.” Or, we go to the other end and speak about it way too much. (I am thinking of the churches who have challenged their married members to have sex so many days in a row.)
As we talk about “honoring marriage” this morning, I want us to have a conversation about marriage and sex that flows out of Hebrews 10-12 where the focus is on persevering faith. Remember, the apostle has been talking about holding unswervingly to the hope we profess, persevere to do the will of God, run the race marked out before us with perseverance, and enduring hardship as discipline. I want out conversation about marriage to take place in the context of a Hebrews 10-12 type of faith.
I want to make four observations. First, I want to talk about what the phrase does not mean, and the to speak about what it does mean.
What “Marriage Should Be Precious To All” Does Not Mean
First, can I mention a couple of things that “marriage should be honored by all” does not mean? First, it does not mean that everyone ought to be married. To honor marriage does not mean that there is something wrong with you if you are not married. In fact, the apostle Paul, in 1 Corinthians 7, makes a very strong case for a believer to not get married. Listen to what he wrote,
29What I mean, brothers, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they had none; 30those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; 31those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.
32I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. 33But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife—34and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. 35I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord. (1 Corinthians 7.29-35 NIV)
By reading the rest of 1 Corinthians 7, we know that Paul is not commanding believers not to marry, but he does make a strong case for a believer to remain unmarried so that they can live in undivided devotion to the Lord. So, to say that marriage should be precious to all is not to say that everyone ought to be married. As we read this today, if you are not married, this passage should not heap condemnation upon you at all.
Secondly, to say “marriage should be precious to all” is not to say that all types of marriage are to be precious. We live in a culture that is pushing tolerance above all other values, that we should accept people who are different regardless of their religious preference or their sexual orientation. The public school system and the colleges are pushing this on our children to accept people of all faiths and all sexual orientations. The entertainment industry is pushing this idea everyone should have the freedom to be religious as they see fit and to exercise their sexuality as they see fit. Every TV show and every movie has at least one person with a different sexual orientation (meaning homosexual, bi-sexual, etc.) because our culture is trying to desensitize us to immorality so that it will seem more acceptable. And this is really nothing new. Sexual immorality and false religious have been part of humanity since the very beginning. And the city of Rome was no exception. In fact, the city of Rome was leading the way for idol worship and sexual immorality. They were charting the course.
What that means is that to be a follower of Christ, to be a person of faith, to live like Hebrews 10-12 is challenging us to live, means to live counter cultural lives. Because we follow Christ, we are going a different direction. All of these five exhortations in Hebrews 13.1-6 are counter cultural. Love one another as Christ has loved you, show hospitality to strangers, visit those in prison, be content with what you have, all of that is going a different direction.
And the Bible is very clear that a Christian marriage is between one man and one woman. The world around us may define marriage with all sorts of other boundaries, but for followers of Christ, Christian marriage is between one man and one woman. Whenever the Bible speaks of marriage, whether it is in the Old Testament law, or whether it was Jesus in Matthew 19, or the apostle Paul in Ephesians of 1 Corinthians, or the apostle Peter in 1 Peter 3, it is always between one man and one woman. And to embrace that means to go against our culture.
If the unbelieving world wants to live differently, I am not shocked by that. The world around us does not recognize Christ as their Lord, and it should not surprise us that they live their life with a different set of values. And it’s the Holy Spirit’s job to convict them of sin; I don’t have to scream at them of their sin. These words are written to people with Hebrews 10-12 kind of faith, to those who want to persevere and do the will of God, to people who are so convinced of what they cannot see but know to be true that they take radical steps of obedience. And people of faith will honor marriage as defined by the Bible.
And it is important for young people to understand that when you are considering marriage that you need to know that the ideal Christian marriage is between one man and one woman who are both followers of Christ. Don’t fall into our culture’s mantra that faith is a private matter and it is OK for you to be married to a Mormon or a Muslim or a Buddhist because they will practice their faith and you can practice your faith. But reading Hebrews 10-12 we understand that faith is not just what we choose to do with ourselves for one hour on a Sunday morning. Faith in Christ is taking radical steps of obedience in light of what we cannot see but know to be true. You cannot live like that with someone who does not share that same faith. This is what Paul was writing about in 2 Corinthians,
14Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? 15What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? 16What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: “I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.” (2 Corinthians 6.14-16)
If you are trying to live a Hebrews 10-12 kind of faith, what do you have in common with someone who is not?
Paul does speak to the issue of a marriage where one spouse is a believer and the other is not in 1 Corinthians 7. And he very clearly says that the believer is not to divorce the unbelieving spouse because of his or her unbelief. And it is an entirely different issue when speaking a couple that is already married where one has faith and the other does not than to speak of a young adult that is considering marriage. If you are considering marriage, to honor marriage means to take seriously that marriage is to be between one man, one woman, who are both believers.
What “Marriage Should Be Precious To All” Does Mean
What does it mean to honor marriage from the context of Hebrews. May I suggest from the context of Hebrews 10-13 two things that honoring marriage might mean.
First, to keep marriage precious means to embrace whole heartedly the Lord’s teachings about sex. The Bible is quite clear: God created us to be sexual beings and that sex is intended for the context of a biblical marriage. All other avenues of sexual expression, whether it is sex outside of marriage, sex before marriage, sex without marriage, homosexuality, prostitution, or pornography, abuse, all other expressions of sexuality are outside of God’s will for us. They are sinful and living in rebellion against His Lordship. They are a perversion of His plan for creation. To keep marriage precious means to reserve sexuality for the confines of marriage.
If you buy that, then you will be living in a Hebrews 10-12 kind of faith, persevering to do the will of God. Teenagers, the vast majority of the people you go to school with do not believe that sex is to be reserved for marriage. They will look at you like you are from the 1700s and Victorian England. They will not even know what to do with you. College students, the vast majority of the people who are sitting in your English class are convinced that living together is a wise way to choose your future mate. They have bought that hook, line, and sinker. That you would even suggest that as “unwise,” much less “sinful,” would provoke from them such anger that it might end your friendship. And you will know what the writer of Hebrews meant when he wrote about “opposition from sinful men” (Hebrews 12.3).
And, if you live your life in such a way as to make sure that you are not in a position to be tempted beyond what you are able to resist, or to live as Paul said in Romans, “Make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lust (Romans 13.14 NASB),” you will be laughed at, ostracized, and thought to be a weirdo. Because the people you go to school with don’t get persevering faith. They get “immediate gratification.” They get “do what makes you happy.” They get “if it feels good do it.” They get that, but they don’t get someone who would take radical steps of obedience based upon something they cannot see but know to be real.
If you honor marriage by reserving your sexuality for the context of marriage, then you will be thought of as weird. And the faith that chooses that path must persevere to do the will of God. It is hard work to swim against the stream. That’s why I think it is important to read these words in the context of Hebrews 10-12. The writer of Hebrews is not saying that if you will honor marriage and keep sex for marriage that it will make you so happy and make life so easy. Life will be like a Hallmark Romance Movie all the time! No. The apostle is telling you to persevere to do the will of God, to run the race marked out before you with perseverance, to hold fast to your hope. It is not easy, but it is worth it because you will receive what was promised.
But there is also a word to the married persons here. Keeping the marriage bed pure means to avoid adultery and pornea. It means to live a life of Hebrews 10-12 faith means to avoid lust and pornography, to avoid places like Hooters and Cinemax movies, to refuse to allow your mind to be carried away with unrealistic fantasies of Harlequin Romance Novels. It means to take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ so that you can do everything to keep marriage precious and unspoiled.
Second, keeping marriage precious means to embrace the mystery of marriage. Faith is the evidence of what we cannot see, and one of the things that we cannot see in marriage is the mystery of marriage. In Ephesians 5, where the apostle Paul leaves us with some of the most in-depth teachings about marriage, he wrote,
28In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church—30for we are members of his body. 31“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband. (Ephesians 5.28-33 NIV)
In a section of Scripture where Paul is describing in detail how a husband and wife ought to live each other, he lays forth this very odd statement: this is a profound mystery, but I am talking about Christ and the church. What is the profound mystery? Is it how Christ loves the church? Or is it that marriage is a reflection of Christ’s love for the church? It seems that the profound mystery is that there is something very “unseen” in the Christian marriage covenant.
Individually, we are members of the body of Christ. But the body of Christ is a plural body. We are, as a group, the living temple of God where God dwells by His Spirit. And as the body of Christ, Christ loves us individually and as a group. And as a group, we are all objects of His love and are following the head of the body. And within that larger body of Christ, a man and a woman enter into a marriage under as part of the larger body of Christ. Just as I am in Christ individually and my wife is in Christ individually, so are we in Christ as a couple. Our marriage is in Christ. Our marriage is one with Christ. We have become one, and one in Christ.
I think Paul is right, that is a profound mystery. There are depths to explore in that which are way beyond my pay grade. But we do get some hints of it in Ephesians 5. Paul says that the husband is to love his wife they way Christ loved the church. At least part of this profound mystery is that marriage is a reflection of Christ’s love for us. In marriage, the mysterious union of two into one takes place, and in marriage, the love of Christ is experienced. What that means is that in marriage we are living out the gospel story of grace, forgiveness, and redemption. The marriage relationship is a microcosm of Christ’s relationship to the church. It is a profound mystery.
How does this relate to Hebrews 10-12? We have been saying that God is more concerned about your holiness than your happiness. His goal in your life is to be molded into the image of Christ. And we are to endure hardship as discipline so that we can share in his holiness and reap a harvest of peace and righteousness. Consider this possibility that your marriage becomes one of the primary tools that the Savior will use to mold you into His image. Why should marriage be honored? Because the Lord uses marriage, this profound mystery, to discipline us into His image and to declare the gospel story to the world.
We get married because we think we have found someone who will make us happy. We think this person is going to fulfill my life and meet my every need. But if it is true that God is most concerned that you share in his holiness and be conformed to His image, then marriage becomes a tool in the Master’s hand to shape you as He sees fit. Our question is, “Why is my husband such a jerk?” The Hebrews 10-12 answer is, “Endure hardship as discipline.” Our question is, “Why are women so strange?” The Hebrews 10-12 answer is, “Endure hardship as discipline.” To honor marriage is to see marriage as a tool in God’s hand to mold you into His image. And to do that, you have to be passionate about a Hebrews 10-12 kind of faith. Otherwise, this does not seem like a “profound mystery” but profound silliness.
In Malachi 2, the prophet speaks the words that we quote so often in the church. “I hate divorce” says the Lord (Malachi 2.16). But listen to the context; listen to the other stuff around it. The prophet writes,
13Another thing you do: You flood the LORD’S altar with tears. You weep and wail because he no longer pays attention to your offerings or accepts them with pleasure from your hands. 14You ask, “Why?” It is because the LORD is acting as the witness between you and the wife of your youth, because you have broken faith with her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant. 15Has not the LORD made them one? In flesh and spirit they are his. And why one? Because he was seeking godly offspring. So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith with the wife of your youth.
16“I hate divorce,” says the LORD God of Israel, “and I hate a man’s covering himself with violence as well as with his garment,” says the LORD Almighty. (Malachi 2.13-16 NIV)
Why did the Lord make man and woman “one” in marriage? Because He was seeking godly offspring. This could mean that God wants us to raise our babies in church to be godly boys and girls, but I think He is speaking of us as His children. Why did He make us one in marriage? Because He wants godly children. He wants you and me to be godly, holy, Christ-like. The faith of Hebrews 10-12 sees all of the hardship of marriage, all of the conflict, all of the struggle, and all of the challenges are the hardships that we are to endure as discipline “so that we may share in His holiness” (Hebrews 12.10).
I know there is a whole other conversation about the parameters for divorce as Paul laid out in 1 Corinthians 7. I don’t think to “honor marriage” means that divorce is never an option where there is abuse or unfaithfulness or abandonment. But what I am saying is to “honor marriage” is to see marriage as part of persevering faith.