Christ / Church / Culture / October 6, 2006

A New View of Marriage in the New Testament

For more on a Christian perspective of marriage, see: What Did You Expect?: Redeeming the Realities of Marriage by Paul Tripp; God, Marriage, and Family by Andreas Kostenberger; and Sacred Marriage by Gary Thomas.


Marriage is different in the New Testament than it is in the Old Testament. There are two foundational shifts that occur in the New Testament which distinguishes its view of marriage from the one we find in the Old Testament. First, while marriage in the Old Testament was primarily a cultural concern for ethnic Israel, it is now a theological concern for spiritual Israel (the Church in Christ). Second, while marriage was the central human institution in Israel, its primacy is relativized in the New Testament by something greater…the coming of the kingdom of God.

The Gospels on Marriage

The gospels present a multifaceted view of marriage. Marriage is relativized in the gospels. Marriage and family become secondary to the gospel. The gospels declare that something more important than kinship is now here. While Israel’s kinship was ethnic and tribal (by the blood of family), there is a new kinship that is theological and spiritual (by the blood of Christ).

So, for instance, we see Jesus (in Matthew 12) proclaiming that his mother, brother and sister are not those united with him by family blood but those united to Him by doing the will of God. Marriage is also relativized by the fact that it is not an eternal institution (Matthew 22:30). The temporality of marriage on earth must be seen in light of the eternality of our union with Christ.

Marriage is internalized in the gospels. While the Old Testament law was designed to guide and protect the external aspects of the institution of marriage, Jesus establishes new expectations for marriage that focus on its internal aspects. So, as Jesus declares in Matthew 5:27-28, adultery is not something that only happens externally. Instead, He interiorizes the command to make it an issue of the heart. Jesus will not stand for even internal thoughts that corrupt our view of marriage because it corrupts our view of Him. In essence, Jesus extends the importance of marriage by making it an internal issue.

Marriage is celebrated in the gospels. At the beginning of the gospels, we follow the story of Mary and Joseph’s betrothal and marriage. Jesus performs his first miracle at a wedding ceremony. Marriage is demonstrated as the norm throughout the gospel narratives while divorce is condemned. And the disciples are married (including Peter, but not Paul). All of these things point to a culture in which marriage is celebrated as important. Though it is relativized by the coming of the Kingdom, it is still venerated in the gospels.

Paul on Marriage

Paul expands on the teachings of the gospels to demonstrate that marriage, in all its aspects, is a gospel issue. Paul teaches that marriage reflects the relationship between Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:22-33). In fact, male leadership (5:23) and female submission (5:22, 24) within marriage are not an accident but are designed by God to most accurately reflect this relationship. The sacrificial love of the husband in the marriage is intended to point to the sacrificial love of Christ in the cross (5:24). This passage also affirms that the purpose of marriage is sanctification (5:26-27). Marital union is not just about making us happy but about making us holy.

Sexuality is a gospel issue. What we do with our body betrays what we believe about the gospel. We show who we are with what we do with our bodies. This is best seen in 1 Corinthians 6 & 7. Sexual immorality is a sin against the body (6:18-20). It is using the body in a way that violates the gospel by destroying the picture of one flesh union between man and woman which is supposed to point to our one flesh union with Christ.

Paul also portrays sex as spiritual warfare (7:1-4). Monogamous marital sex is a firewall against sin. Marriage is the natural outlet through which we are to find sexual satisfaction. This helps us to resist the schemes of the devil. Paul presents this idea in a revolutionary way in 7:4 when he insinuates that the woman has rights over the man’s body. The idea of female authority or ownership was a foreign concept in that culture, so Paul is teaching sex as spiritual warfare in a way that radically breaks from the traditional gender roles of that time period.

Celibacy is a gospel issue. Celibacy is defined as chastity in an unmarried state. It is always for a kingdom purpose. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul makes it clear that, while most people will marry because it is normative and they need it because they burn with passion (7:9), God has given a gift of singleness to others (7:7). This gift of singleness is given by God for the purpose of undivided devotion to the Lord (7:32-35). So, even long-term singleness is a gospel issue because it is for undivided devotion to kingdom purposes. The concept he puts forward in 1 Corinthians 7 is radically different than the way we view singleness in America (but that’s a different post for a different time).

Divorce is a gospel issue. Divorce destroys the union between man and woman in a way that perverts the picture of Christ’s union with the church. In other words, divorce as the permanent separation of a man and woman betrays the possibility of a permanent separation of Christ and the church (which is patently false). So, in 1 Corinthians 7:10-16, Paul calls us to remain married, even in the hard situations for the sake of this picture of the gospel and for the purpose of evangelism and discipleship within the family unit.

The Rest of the New Testament on Marriage

The rest of the New Testament is instructive about marriage. From Acts, we learn that marriage is normative. Marriage is common in the early church as it continues to display the breaking down of ethnic barriers by the transethnic power of the gospel. We also find that marriage is shaped by its current cultural context. While Old Testament marriage occurred within the setting of ancient Israel, New Testament marriage occurs within the setting of the Roman Empire. Therefore, Roman custom has a growing influence on the look of marriage in the early church.

From Peter, we learn that marriage is a spiritual issue. 1 Peter 3:1-7 teaches that marriage is an issue of the heart. The spiritual impact that marriage can have is best seen in 3:7 when he implies that the way husbands love their wives impacts the effectiveness of their prayers.

From Hebrews, we learn that marriage is an ethical issue. Hebrews 13:4 presents the best passage in scripture for dealing with why we should not engage in premarital sex. The call to keep the marriage bed undefiled does not begin whenever we say ‘I do’. Instead, it prohibits any form of non-marital sexual excitement, including pre-marital sex.

From Revelation, we learn that marriage is an eschatological issue. Revelation 19 describes the marriage supper of the Lamb which is the final picture of the union of Christ and the Church. All marriage on earth is intended to point to this final marriage in Heaven. Therefore, we should live out our temporary marriages on earth in light of this eternal marriage in Heaven.

The New Testament teaches us so much about marriage. Marriage is relativized in the gospels. Marriage is internalized in the gospels. Marriage is celebrated in the gospels. Marriage is a gospel issue. Sexuality is a gospel issue. Celibacy is a gospel issue. Divorce is a gospel issue. Marriage is normative. Marriage is a spiritual issue. Marriage is an ethical issue. Marriage is an eschatological issue.

The New Testament breaks with the Old Testament concept of marriage as an ethnic institution of tribal Israel to focus on the transethnic reality of marriage in the light of the union of Christ and the Church.


For more on a Christian perspective of marriage, see: What Did You Expect?: Redeeming the Realities of Marriage by Paul Tripp; God, Marriage, and Family by Andreas Kostenberger; and Sacred Marriage by Gary Thomas

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1 Comment

Nov 19, 2010

I was trying look for whether marriage between cousins is allowed in the New Testament ? Did Christ talk about it ? I know that in Levictus 18:6 it clearly says that no one shall have any sexual relations with a close relative , which would include all relatives which however can be interepreted in various methods and has been but would still like to know that did Christ also specify who one could marry who one could not marry?

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