Marriage is a mystery! Empirically speaking, this is proven every time blissful lovers get married and discover the unforeseen realities of married life. A young wife may think, “Why didn’t I see that his charming idiosyncracy in courtship is actually a really annoying habit in marriage?” In every generation and with every marriage, the mystery proliferates, because woven into the fabric of humanity is God-given peculiarity associated with sexual differentiation. This was implicit in creation, and has been exaggerated by the Fall. All the same, it is part of God’s plan. Solomon captures this creational profundity, when he writes, “Three things are too wonderful for me; four I do not understand: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a serpent on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a virgin” (Prov. 30:18-19). From elementary school playgrounds, to high school dances, to twenty-five year anniversaries, the relationship between boys and girls that matures into the coupling of husband and wife is a profound mystery.
Biblically speaking, marriage is also mystery; but in the Bible, the term “mystery” does not connote obscurity or uncertainty. Instead, it is used to depict a reality hidden now revealed. In Ephesians, Paul calls the ingathering of the Gentiles a mystery, describing the way in which nations outside the covenantal people Israel, were made “fellow citizens with the saints and the household of God” (2:19). He also describes marriage as a mystery (Eph. 5:32). In both instances, what was once only seen in types and shadows, has now been explained and made clear (cf. John 16:29-30). The Old Testament promised salvation to gentiles but until Christ’s incarnation, the full plan of salvation for the nations had gone unnoticed. Just the same, the pattern of men and women leaving and cleaving, coupling one with another in marriages has been patterned since Adam and Eve (cf. Gen. 2:24); yet, only in the fullness of time did the significance of this holy institution become known. Pertaiing to marriage, it is important for us to understand that God’s telic purposes did not come after the first marriage, but rather they preceded the first marriage.
J.V. Fesko has called this kind of understanding proleptic understanding of history, “protology,” meaning that in the beginning, God imbued significance to people, events, and institutions that in the fullness of time would find ultimate meaning in Christ and the effects of his redemptive work. Looking backwards from the fully disclosed canon of Scripture, this could be called typology, but since it is prophetic and future-oriented, it seems better to call it protology (see Fesko’s Last Thing First). In the case of marriage, when God brought Eve to Adam, he was taking strides to accomplish his eschatological goal of Christ and the church. As Isaiah writes about our covenant Lord, “God declares the end from the beginning” (Is. 46:9), and in the case of marriage this is absolutely true.
Consider the words of New Testament scholar, George Knight III, as he described the eternal purposes of God in marriage:
Unbeknownst to the people of Moses’ day (it was a ‘mystery’), marriage was designed by God from the beginning to be a picture or parable of the relationship between Christ and the church. Back when God was planning what marriage would be like, He planned it for this great purpose: it would give a beautiful earthly picture of the relationship that would someday come about between Christ and His church. This was not known to people for many generations, and that is why Paul can call it a ‘mystery.’ But now in the New Testament age Paul reveals this mystery, and it is amazing.
This means that when Paul wanted to tell the Ephesians about marriage, he did not just hunt around for a helpful analogy and suddenly think that “Christ and the church” might be a good teaching illustration. No, it was much more fundamental than that: Paul saw that when God designed the original marriage He already had Christ and the church in mind. This is one of God’s great purposes in marriage: to picture the relationship between Christ and His redeemed people forever! (George Knight III, “Husbands and Wives as Analogues of Christ and the Church” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, edited by John Piper and Wayne Grudem [Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1991], 175-76)
Marriages that embrace and embody this truth, of seeing themselves as miniature portrait studios of Christ and the church are blessed with knowing the reality for which they were united in covenant love. Those who do not know this mystery are tragically living in the dark. Still the saddest group of all may be those who know Christ and his salvation, but do not know how his relationship with the church should shape and inform their marriage. By choice or ignorance, they embody an egalitarian marriage, and chaff against the gospel. Scripture’s wise design for marriage as a parabolic representation of Christ and the church, that includes male headship and female submission is not a product of the curse, but a divinely-revealed mystery that God promises to bless.
May we who love God’s wise design in marriage and the gospel that it “mysteriously” reveals, pray for a vision to see God’s design for marriage incarnated in our own marriages and in those around us, so that the world may see a mosaic of marriages within the chruch that illustrate the mystery of Christ and the church.
Sola Deo Gloria, dss