Sermon preached on Hebrews 13:4 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 3/3/2019 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
Honoring Marriage and its Bed
Today we are going to talk about marriage. If you are not currently married and tempted to think this will be a sermon that doesn’t apply to you, let me correct you from the start. I point out that this verse says this marriage is something to be honored among all. So, whether you are married or not, this is information you need to know about, and an institution that you need to think biblically about. This is true, in general. And it certainly has been a hot topic in our culture today. We would all be edified today to be refreshed on the Bible’s teaching on marriage.
Let us begin then considering how marriage is an honorable institution and how we all ought to honor it accordingly. This is how verse 4 starts out. Our translation states it as a fact but in context we should understand this as a command. “Let marriage be honorable among all.” This language rightly understands marriage as an institution. And we learn much about this institution in the Bible. We see in the opening chapters of Genesis, that marriage is an institution that God created. He is the one who saw that it was not good for man to be alone and created the woman as a suitable helper for man. There in Genesis 2:24 we read of this institution, saying, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” In marriage, a man and a woman are united together in a wholistic union to form a new social unit, husband a wife.
From there, Scripture continues to explain further what all this institution of marriage includes. For example, we see in Malachi 2:14 that marriage is a covenant – a covenant relationship between the man and woman. We see in Romans 7 that this marriage covenant is for life — until death do they part. In other words, they are to have this exclusive marriage relationship until one of them dies, and only then does the marriage covenant come to a normal end. They are not to separate or divorce or to break their marriage covenant in adultery because marriage is ultimately something God has done – Matthew 19:6 says that God joins couples together in marriage. The marital union is meant to be a blessing in general, Proverbs 18:22. And the physical component, described here in Hebrews as the marriage bed, is given by God for multiple reasons. It given as the means for producing offspring, for example, 1 Timothy 5:4. But it is also given for the enjoyment and pleasure of the husband and wife, as we see for example in passages such as Proverbs 5 and in the Song of Solomon. Furthermore, we see in passages like 1 Corinthians 7 and Ephesians 5 that this physical union of husband and wife means they are to treat each other’s body as their own, in the sense of caring and nurturing it. This also means they are to keep its physical fruits exclusive to each other and share those fruits freely with each other.
Sadly, the institution of marriage has been attacked and thus not honored today by so many in our culture. It has been dishonored from various angles. When couples live together before marriage as husband and wife when they are not yet husband and wife, that dishonors the institution of marriage. When society decriminalizes adultery and/or allows for divorce without cause, they dishonor the biblical institution of marriage.
Or let me speak for a few moments about the effort by some to promote so-called same-sex marriage. By attempting to redefine marriage, it dishonors the real institution when it tries to coopt the term to apply it to something different. Some try to make the Bible support such thinking, taking a passage like this her in verse 4 and trying to stuff their new definition of marriage into it. And yet, from an interpretation standpoint, that doesn’t work. The word here in this verse for marriage could only have been understood in the traditional sense of a union between a man and a woman. In response, the other side tries to point to some isolated examples in the culture at the time to suggest a wider interpretation. They point to some cases where there were records of so-called “marriages” between men. The hyper-immoral Emperor Nero is one infamous example back then. Such advocates have tried to use such accounts to justify that same-sex marriage should be included in the scope of this verse – that we should also hold such unions in honor. But if you look at the ancient records they refer to, a couple important things stand out. First, in such ancient so-called marriages, one of the men always dressed up and acted the part of a woman. So, if anything, it was a transgender sort of thing, more than saying there could be two husbands in a marriage. Second, all these ancient records speak of such practices with disdain and ridicule, not honor. They considered such things as perverse behavior. That is of course how the Bible describes such as well.
When you preach a passage like this, you never know who will hear it, whether it be in person or over the internet. So, I want to make clear that I’m not trying to be offensive or hateful to people who advocate this so-called same-sex marriage. I also understand that some people struggle with same-sex attraction. And many don’t struggle with it all, they just have decided that homosexuality is morally acceptable and even something to celebrate. I am not unaware of this. But, I hope such people will also not be unaware that the Bible stands in opposition to that viewpoint. I hope such people will not show hatred to Christians who believe that the Biblical institution of marriage is to be honored as we see here.
So then, let us indeed honor the institution of marriage as God has defined in his Holy Word. To honor something is to assign value to it. Let us honor and value it as something to keep in society. That’s not something that we can take for granted because there are certainly different dystopian novels out there that present a future without marriage. The book The Giver is one that comes to mind. And frankly all the forces that I mentioned a moment ago in society that have attacked and dishonored marriage have already served to weaken it. At what point does such weakening result in an institution that actually doesn’t exist anymore? Think about it. If these forces keep going the way they are going, we get the following: Marriage that is no longer lifelong, where you can get a divorce at any time for any reason. Marriage where neither the physical union or the bearing of children is something exclusive to marriage. Dwelling together and making a home together is no longer something exclusive to marriage. They even want to say it’s not even between a man and woman, anymore. On this trajectory, whatever is left of marriage, its no longer anything that even resembles the biblical institution. In contrast, today’s verse commands us to honor and value what marriage is, according to God’s institution of it.
Another aspect of properly valuing the institution of marriage includes speaking against two incorrect reactions to marriage. On the one hand, there have been people who forbid marriage in the name of religion. Still today you have, for example, Roman Catholics who forbid their clergy to marry. Yet, scripture clearly and repeatedly speaks against any such imposition on conscience that would forbid godly marriage – see 1 Timothy 4:3, for example. On the other hand, there are people who also in the name of religion basically demand marriage. They give the impression that you are sinning if you don’t marry. Yet, though Scripture shows that it is ordinary and typical for people to marry, there are certainly acceptable reasons why someone might not get married. For example, both Jesus and Paul speak commendably of how one might decide to forgo marriage for the sake of the kingdom.
But honoring marriage goes beyond the general theory of marriage. It also involves the specific application of it. That means married people need to cultivate their marriage while forsaking any other relationship that would be inappropriate. Likewise, others should respect marital bounds and not try to solicit a relationship with a married person that would be inappropriate.
It’s that specific application that comes into view in the second half of this verse 4. There, we find a second, closely related command. Our translation puts it in the form of a statement, but it should also be interpreted as a command. Let the marriage bed be undefiled. The marriage bed is to be honored by not defiling it. How would it get defiled? Well, the verse goes on to list two specific examples: through either fornication or adultery. Fornication and adultery both bring defilement to the marriage bed and make unclean what is intended for the purity of an exclusive relationship between a man and woman joined in marriage.
The Greek word here for fornication is most literally and specifically enjoying the act of the marriage bed outside of the bounds of marriage. That’s the primary definition of the word in English as well. It thus speaks against things like cohabitation and prostitution. But, by extension, this word is also used to speak against any forms of illicit sexual expressions. Any sexual expression not able to be expressed inside the context of marriage between a man and a woman, would be excluded based on this word fornication. Thus, the extended use of this word fornication speaks against all sorts of sexual perversions. That grammatical usage is why some translations translate this word more broadly as sexual immorality.
The Greek word here for adultery is about enjoying the physical benefits of marriage with someone is who married to someone else. Similarly, Jesus applied this even to people who marry someone who was unlawfully divorced (Mark 10:11-12). Someone who got a divorce that shouldn’t biblically have gotten a divorce isn’t free to remarry; to do so would be adultery. This too would defile the marriage bed, as it says here. As a related side note, in the concession Moses granted for a certificate of divorce in the Deuteronomy 24, it speaks there too of this concern of defilement. The point being is that adultery breaks the exclusive purity that is supposed to exist between a man and a woman in marriage.
So then, this verse says that such things incur the judgment of God. This is another reminder in this book that God takes sin seriously. It is another reminder of the final day of judgment. It is also a reminder that we need to seek the forgiveness and grace of God that is held out to us in Jesus Christ. The language of God’s judgment here brings a call to look to Christ for divine pardon for such sins. Maybe you’ve committed the sin being dealt with today. There is forgiveness and grace in Jesus Christ. Though such sins can have real and lasting consequences in this life, one can yet know the forgiveness that will grant them relief from the judgment that is described here. This gospel truth is not meant to give us license to sin – do this then ask for forgiveness. In fact, that’s surely why this statement is here about the judgment of God. Should we try to mock the grace of God, we should be reminded of the terrifying judgment of God. But for those who truly come to God with a contrite heart seeking forgiveness, there is indeed such grace available because of the cross of Jesus Christ.
Well, as we have thought today about marriage and about these sins that defile marriages, I would like to point out a sobering truth. This verse was written first and foremost to Christians. And not only that, it was in the context of verse 1 that situates all this under the way we are to show brotherly love to our fellow Christians. We are to show brotherly love to our fellow saints by respecting the marriages in our midst. By not engaging in such defilement in the church like we talked about today.
This is a sobering statement when we remember how much we talked today about the secular, worldly view of marriage compared to the Christian’s view. We might mistakenly think that the types of sins we talked about today are something that the world does, not people in the church. But if that were true, then Hebrews wouldn’t need to exhort the church to this here in verse 4. I tell you what, the world knows this true in the church. Too often the world takes the preaching of Christians against various sexual sins and puts it back in our faces. They hear Christians, for example, condemn them for homosexuality, and they in turn point to an adultery that just happened in a church that the church tried to sweep under the rug. At least they would have the consistency to say that they don’t believe the sexual sin they practice is wrong; whereas too often the Christian says such sin is wrong and then goes and does it anyways. Who is the worse offender in that comparison? This is a real temptation in the church. It doesn’t take much work to hear in the news about another church scandal of this sort. I suspect if we took a poll among Christians, that the vast majority of them have known about at least one such incidence in their various Christian circles. This is not just a problem for the world. It’s a problem that faces Christians.
Why? Why do we fall into such marital defilement? Jesus gave the answer when he was here on earth. In Matthew 15, when dealing with the Pharisees’ tradition about the washing of hands, Jesus talked about the source of defilement. Jesus told them that they acted like defilement started on the outside and worked its way into the inside of man. But Jesus said it’s the other way around. Jesus went through a list of sins in Matthew 15:19 that included both adultery and fornication. And he said those evils come out of the heart of man and that’s what defiles a person. And so, when today’s verse talks about how adultery and fornication defile the marriage bed, recognize how the defiling is happening. It’s not that doing those sins will then defile your heart. No, you do those sins because your heart is defiled, and that defilement is spilling over into people’s marriage beds.
For this command then to be given to the church, says that we need to reckon with the reality that born-again Christians still have struggles of the heart. Yes, for the born again Christian there has been a real change inside them. But until we go to be with the Lord in glory, we will still have struggles of the heart. There yet remains some corruption in our hearts. I don’t say this so that we just throw up our hands and say I guess we’ll have to accept in defeat that there will be such sexual sin among Christians. God forbid! Rather, we need to be reminded that Jesus not only exposed that this is a problem of the heart, but that Jesus came to solve our problems of the heart. He is the Great Physician. Yet, Jesus’ work of sanctifying hearts is something that is ongoing for the Christian life this side of glory. So, we need to be reminded of this remaining corruption in our hearts to promote humility within us and be driven daily back to Jesus. We need to be on guard thinking that we stand lest we fall. Remember, pride comes before a fall. We need to be reminded today of the real temptation that is before Christians too, because our hearts are not yet perfected. So, we can be watching and praying for help from above in the midst of these powerful temptations.
These sins today against marriage illustrate the bigger point that the book of Hebrews has been making. This is one example of the concern Hebrews keeps raising. Hebrews has been telling us we need to continue in the faith from the heart (10:22). The alternative is to harden our heart and turn away from faith in God (3:8, 12). May we recognize the sinfulness of sin. Sins against marriage are sins that start from the heart. Instead of indulging them and feeding them, may we each day reaffirm that God’s ways are true, and good, and beautiful. May we lament each day over those remaining sinful desires that we see in our hearts. As we daily come to an honest recognition of the temptation of such sins, the remedy is to lean more into Jesus. Trust in his grace more. Repent more specifically. Look afresh to him for help. Remember, we have his sympathy as the Great High Priest who was tempted in every sort of way that we are. On this issue, may we especially pray for him to shape both our thoughts and our desires to see the value and beauty of the institution of marriage. May that bend our wills more and more to seek the purity of ourselves and our fellow saints.
This then too is part of the Christian pilgrimage of faith. We fight in faith against that old, hard-hearted man, looking forward to the day of Christ when finally that victory will be complete. Let us go again now in prayer today for help on the way. Amen.
Copyright © 2019 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
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