By Shane Scott
When Kristi and I were about to get married, we asked one of the elders where we worshiped to do some pre-marital counseling for us. I will never forget the first thing he said when we got together.
“Marriage is temporary.”
My initial reaction was probably like yours when you read the title of this article. What do you mean that marriage is temporary?!? It’s permanent! One man for one woman for life! Didn’t Jesus say in Matthew 19:6, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate”?
Jesus did indeed say that human beings are not to shatter the union made by God in marriage. To do so, and then to remarry, is actually adultery in the eyes of God according to the Lord’s teaching (Matthew 19:9). This teaching is as controversial now as it was then (see Matthew 19:10).
But this has to do with the choices husbands and wives make. Yes, it is true that spouses should not choose to break the one-flesh relationship God intends for marriage to be. But it is also true that marriage is not permanent. For while we are not to break the bond of matrimony, death can, and inevitably does.
A few chapters later in Matthew, Jesus responded to a scenario offered by the Sadducees about a woman who had been married to seven brothers. You recall that they wanted to know whose wife she would be in the resurrection, something they denied but Jesus affirmed. Jesus’ response was simple:
“But Jesus answered them, ‘You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven'” (Matthew 22:29-30).
Marriage ends at death, and in the world to come, there will be no such thing as marriage. Marriage is temporary.
Why is this the case? Well, in the immediate context of this debate with the Sadducees about the practice of levirate marriage and the legal obligation to produce descendants in the family line, Jesus’ point is that in the resurrection state there will be no need for reproduction, for continuing the family line, because there will be no death to threaten that lineage. In Luke’s account, Jesus spells this out: “The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage, for they cannot die anymore” (Luke 20:34-36).
So, one reason marriage is temporary is because its goal of producing children to perpetuate future generations will be unnecessary in the age to come.
But isn’t marriage about more than procreation? Isn’t it also about the physical pleasure that sexual intimacy brings? We will have bodies in the resurrection, so we could still enjoy that aspect of the one-flesh relationship, couldn’t we? And what about companionship? Surely that’s another purpose behind marriage, and there’s nothing inconsistent with heaven and having a soul-mate, is there? Isn’t it bad for man to be alone?
But these questions assume that it isn’t possible for God to create a new sort of companionship in the resurrection that’s even closer than marriage, or a new kind of pleasure that’s even more satisfying than the marriage bed. But if we don’t think God can do these things, then – to quote Jesus – we “know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.”
Everything the Bible says about heaven points to a reality that is inexpressibly more beautiful, more noble, more loving, more intimate, than anything we can fathom. And by the way, it does so using the language of marriage. “Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready (Revelation 19:7). Indeed, the glorified church is said to be “prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Revelation 21:2).
When Scripture speaks of heaven as having streets of gold, we understand that there won’t literally be golden pavement in heaven, but something much greater. And by the same token, when it says that heaven will be like a marriage, it is using an image of something great to point to something even greater. And so we can be certain that the fruitfulness, pleasure, and companionship of marriage will be infinitely exceeded by what heaven offers – which is ultimately God himself.
In the meantime, God intends for us to use marriage as a means of sanctification, of preparing ourselves to be the sort of people who long for life with him forever. In marriage we model the gospel, what Paul calls “the mystery,” God’s plan to unite all things in Christ (Ephesians 1:9-11). That same reconciling work takes place on a personal level in marriage, as God unites two and makes them one.
“’Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:31-32)
And knowing that marriage is not permanent, but that heaven is, helps us approach marriage in the God-centered and gospel-modeling manner the Lord intends. Marriage is not the end; it is the means to the end of eternal and loving union with God. Knowing this, we will not place unreasonable expectations on our spouses to “be our everything,” as so many ill-conceived love songs do. Only God can fill that vacuum, and he will do so perfectly and endlessly in heaven.
And if you are single, keeping marriage in this eternal perspective will help you to seek contentment in Christ. Marriage lasts only for this vapor of a life, but heaven is forever. Even if you never find someone to marry, you have an eternity of glorious love to look forward to.
And if you are widowed, you keenly feel the transient nature of marriage, but you also know the fervent hope of the glorious day when you will be reunited with your loved one and be with the Lord forever (cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:17).
In the months since I have lost my wife, I have tried to envision what this will be like. And I’ve been thinking about a statement Paul made to Philemon regarding his relationship with his run-away slave, Onesimus. After explaining that Onesimus had become a Christian, and that he was sending Onesimus back to Philemon, Paul then said: “For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother”(Philemon 15-16).
Kristi may be parted from me for a while, but I have the same hope Paul expressed to Philemon that some day, I can have her back forever, no longer as just my wife, but as much more than my wife, a beloved sister sharing with me in an eternal union of love with God. And knowing what we had, and knowing that God has plans for something even better, thrills my grieving heart.
Marriage is not permanent – or, in the language of the traditional vows, it is “til death do us part.” But the Christian hope says that this parting is only temporary, and that the reunion will be like transposing an already glorious melody to an even higher key. “As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you” (Isaiah 60:5).