Let Marriage Be Held in Honor (Hebrews 13:4)
Every year the Queen gives a speech around Christmas. I’m just waiting for the day that they come out with a movie called The Queen’s Speech. In any case, the speeches are fascinating. If you listen to all these speeches, you’d learn a lot about history. You’d also learn a lot about the Queen, just like you would about yourself if you made a recording of yourself speaking once very year for fifty years. Surprisingly, you can learn a lot about accents. A scholar has completed an acoustic analysis of fifty years of the Queen’s Royal Christmas messages for the Journal of Phonetics – you may not subscribe – and has concluded that even the Queen’s accent has changed along with that of the nation over these years. All of this to say: even the Queen is a product of her times. You can’t help but change along with the world as it changes.
Accents are a funny thing. When I visit Boston, someone always eventually mentions my accent. I’m not aware that I have an accent, but neither are they. When you live in a certain location, that becomes normal to you. You adapt and blend in and even begin to speak like those around you.
The passage we’re looking at this morning touches on this issue. We’re looking at the book of Hebrews this morning. It’s written to Christians who are struggling in their devotion to Christ. We don’t know what situation these Christians were facing, but it appears that they were wavering in their faith. Hebrews encourages them to hold on, to endure throughout trials and to grasp the uniqueness of their faith in Christ.
The passage we’re reading is found at the end of the book in what’s sometimes called the “concluding exhortations and remarks.” The writer touches on five areas in which these Christians may have picked up an accent, so to speak, from the surrounding culture. They may have been so influenced by the culture in these areas that they needed a correction. This would actually make a great series someday, because all five are actually issues that I think we struggle with today as well.
The fourth area that the writer tackles is found in verse 4: “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous.” Think about this. Why would he write this? The author is addressing the fact that these Christians had probably picked up an attitude about marriage from the culture that was less than what it should be.
When Hebrews was written, marriage was under attack from two sides. One group felt that marriage was too restrictive. They believed that chastity in marriage was an unreasonable standard. In some corners of society, men were expected to take on mistresses and confidantes and as sexual partners. Their beliefs line up very well with the CEO of a website that’s designed to facilitate extramarital affairs. Log on and you have immediate access to thousands of men and women willing to kick their vows to the curb for a no-strings-attached sexual tryst. The CEO said, “People cheat because their lives aren’t working for them.” He went on to insist “humans aren’t meant to be monogamous.” That’s exactly what many people believed back then. And it’s possible that the recipients of this letter were beginning to be influenced by this mentality.
But marriage was also under attach from another side. There were others who were into asceticism. This one seems a little unusual to us today. There were some who devalued marriage because they say marriage as too indulgent. They believed that it’s better to deny oneself.
Whatever the thinking, the recipients of this letter were in danger of being influenced by a low view of marriage within society. It’s the same danger that we face today. A 2005 study found that 1 in 5 married Canadians between the ages of 35 and 54 wish that they could go to bed married and wake up single. One in ten would cheat on their partner if there was no chance of getting caught. Love is highly valued in our culture, but marriage is not. Listen to the plot of a recent movie: “A married man is granted the opportunity to have an affair by his wife. Joined in the fun by his best pal, things get a little out of control when both wives start engaging in extramarital activities as well.”
Here’s the danger: just like you can pick up an accent without knowing it, you can also pick up a low view of marriage. So the writer to the Hebrews says that this is one of the key issues that we need to deal with. What can we do about this? The writer says that there are three things that we can do. They’re just as important today as they were back then. One: honor marriage. Two: keep the sexual relationship pure. Three: remember that God will judge.
Let’s look at each of these.
First: Honor marriage.
You’ve probably heard a few marriage jokes. A man bragged on his marriage once and said, “In our marriage, my wife and I have decided to never go to bed angry. We haven’t been to sleep in three weeks!” I know, not very good. There are lots like that. I think I’ve heard them all.
There’s nothing wrong with telling a good joke. But the writer to the Hebrews cautions us against crossing a line and treating marriage as commonplace, of treating it flippantly. You can joke about marriage – but be careful that you don’t slip across the line and begin to treat it with contempt.
Hebrews 13:4 says, “Let marriage be held in honor among all.”
When these words were written – as today – many people weren’t holding marriage in honor. You’ve heard already that some thought of marriage as too restrictive. They looked for pleasure and intimacy outside of marriage. Others went to the other extreme and dismissed marriage as indulgent. When society dishonors marriage, it’s possible for us to begin to dishonor marriage without even realizing it.
Hebrews confronts us. It calls us to buck the trend in society and to honor marriage when others are not.
I want you to notice what he says. “Let marriage be held in honor.” What does it mean to hold something in honor? The word honor connotes respect. It attributes preciousness and value to someone or something. Occasionally I’ll go home and find that someone has accidentally left the door open. Sometimes when this happens I’ll go and check to see if certain things are missing. I never go and check to see if someone’s stolen the pots in the kitchen cupboard, because frankly, they’re not valuable to me. You could say that I don’t honor my pots. But I do honor things like our old photo albums. They’re the things I’d pull out of the house in case of fire.
Hebrews tells us that this is how we should think of marriage. John Piper puts it this way:
The Bible is telling us: Let marriage always be thought of as precious. Let it be treasured like gold and silver and rare jewels. Let it be revered and respected like the noblest, most virtuous person you have ever known. Let it be esteemed and valued as something terribly costly…In other words, when you think of marriage, let yourself be gripped by emotions of tremendous respect and sanctity. In relation to marriage cultivate the feeling that this not to be touched quickly or handled casually or treated commonly. In God’s eyes marriage is precious and therefore he says, “Let marriage be held in honor among all.”
Honoring marriage means that we see marriage as precious. If you’re married, it means seeing your marriage as precious. But it also means that you see other people’s marriages as valuable as well. It means that we speak well of the institution of marriage.
Honoring marriage means that we don’t take the easy road when our marriages get into trouble. Every marriage – every one – is a marriage of two sinners. I’m no prophet, but I know that when two people marry each other, problems are inevitable. There will be times when it’s easier to pack it in. Honoring marriage means that we pay the cost to preserve what’s valuable, even when the cost is high.
Honoring marriage means that we’re careful how we speak of marriage. It means that we don’t trash-talk marriage – our own, or about marriage in general. Personally, I don’t ever want to joke about divorce. When I joke about divorce, I feel like I am making light of something that isn’t funny at all. I want the way I speak to show that I am holding marriage in honor.
Notice also that he says, “Let marriage be held in honor among all.” I usually struggle a little when I’m preaching on marriage, because I realize that not everyone here is married. Usually when I’m preaching on marriage, I’m not talking to everyone. But this is one message on marriage that applies to all of us. Whether you’re single or married, young or old, let marriage be held in honor by all. This command applies to everyone. One of the people in my life who’s been the most supportive of our marriage is someone who’s single. This command applies to all of us.
If you travel down the road about an hour, you’ll reach the vineyards of Niagara. In order for a vine of grapes to become fruitful, the branches of the vine must be elevated. The branches are tied to a post for support. As grapes develop and grow, the vine will become too heavy and begin to droop and drag on the ground. Elevation not only keeps the fruit off of the ground but also helps them to get the full benefit of the sun. After a time the branches begin to spread along this post to which they have been tied. Having been made stable, they are then free to climb or to spread.
In the same way, marriages cannot grow until marriage itself is elevated and respected. Honoring marriage allows our marriages to be lifted off the ground. Our marriages are then free to flourish, to climb, and to be fruitful.
So honor marriage. Let marriage be held in honor among all. We are to highly value this divinely ordained union and to support those who are married in every way that’s possible. But that’s not all. There’s a second thing that the writer tells us we should do:
Second: Keep the sexual relationship pure.
Verse 4 says, “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous.”
If there is any area in which we can be guilty of treating the marriage relationship with dishonor, it’s in the area of sex. Sex is one of the greatest trouble spots in marriage. We’re bombarded with sexual temptation. Sex is one of God’s gifts to us, but sin is eager to take this gift and turn it against us.
I love what the writer to the Hebrews says here. One of the ways that we can go against the cultural grain, and one of the ways we can hold marriage in honor, is to pursue sexual purity. He gives us both the positive and the negative side of this. First, the positive: “Let the marriage bed be undefiled.” He’s saying here that the integrity of the sexual relationship in marriage must be kept. The implication is that sex within marriage is acceptable to God. It’s a good thing. One person I read this week put it well:
Surely it was God’s full intention for the physical joining together of a man and woman to be one of the mountaintop experiences of life, one of those summit points of both physical and mystical rapture in which He Himself might overshadow his people in love, might come down among them and be most intimately and powerfully revealed. How horribly tragic, therefore, that it is here at this very point, here at this precious male-female encounter which ought to be overflowing with holiness, that godless people have succeeded in descending to some of the most abysmal levels of human degradation…Sex is sacred ground. (Mike Mason)
The call to “let the marriage bed be undefiled” is really a positive one. There’s a negative side – what not to do, which we’ll see in a minute. But it’s a call to joy. It’s a call to receive one of God’s greatest gifts to us. All through Scripture you see a call to delight in sexual pleasure within marriage. It’s a good thing. Tolkien, the author of the Lord of the Rings, once wrote to C.S. Lewis, author of the Chronicles of Narnia, and said, “Christian marriage is not a prohibition of sexual intercourse, but the correct way of sexual temperance–in fact probably the best way of getting the most satisfying sexual pleasure…” It is a gift. It’s the best and most satisfying way to enjoy the sexual relationship. “Let the marriage bed be undefiled.”
But there’s a negative part to this command as well. There are a couple of things we need to avoid in verse 4: sexual immorality and adultery. The first is a more general term for those sexual acts outside of marriage, while adultery is used of those who are unfaithful to their marriage. Together the two terms cover all who engage in illicit sexual behavior. Taken together, you have things that destroy sexual intimacy in marriage.
We need to be clear about this. These things distort a good gift from God and turn it into something harmful that can be used against us. The Inuit used to kill wolves in a strange way. They’d put out a knife in the ice, blade up. They’d take animal blood, put it all over the knife, and freeze it. A wolf would smell the blood and come and begin to lick the knife. It tasted good to the wolf so the wolf would lick faster and faster and harder and harder, not realizing that the knife had now cut its own tongue. It would keep licking. The next day the wolf would be dead. It had eaten its own blood because it just couldn’t get enough. Commenting on this, Tony Evans says:
We are eating ourselves alive today with sex. We can’t get enough. We can’t get enough on the TV. We can’t get enough on cable. We can’t get enough on Playboy channels. We can’t get enough on HBO. We can’t get enough of the magazines. We can’t get enough of Victoria’s Secrets. We can’t get enough. So, since we can’t get enough, we keep licking harder and faster…We can’t get enough and the judgment for this sin is built in to the disobedience.
What we need to realize today is that there are a lot of us who are licking the knife. What we don’t realize is that every time we lick the knife, we’re hurting ourselves. We’re killing the joy that could be ours in this area. To use the phrase from Hebrews, we’ll be defiling the marriage bed, the very bed that’s supposed to be a place of intimacy and guilt-free joy.
I realize this morning that there are a lot of people who have already failed in this area. There are a lot of people who are struggling. In just a few minutes I want to talk to you. I don’t want to leave you struggling. I want to give you some hope. But please understand how serious this is. A council studied the effects of pornography and concluded that pornography “corrodes the conscience, promotes distrust between husbands and wives and debases untold thousands of young women.” They conclude that pornography is “a quiet family killer.”
So honor marriage. If you’re married, keep the sexual relationship pure. There’s one more thing:
Third: Realize that God will judge.
This is sobering. Verse 4 concludes, “…for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous.” This is sobering. We may get away with something here and now. Not everyone gets caught. We’re licking the knife and damaging ourselves, it’s true, but the writer says that’s not all. God is also watching. God takes notice. And God takes this very seriously. We live our marriages before God, and God cares very much about this area.
At this point you may be thinking that God is a great spoilsport. Who is God to judge? The answer, of course, is that God is God. He has every right to judge. But we also need to realize that God is not judging because he’s a spoilsport. We need a God who is wrathful. N.T. Wright explains:
The biblical doctrine of God’s wrath is rooted in the doctrine of God as the good, wise and loving creator, who hates—yes, hates, and hates implacably—anything that spoils, defaces, distorts, or damages his beautiful creation, and in particular anything that does that to his image-bearing creatures. If God does not hate racial prejudice, he is neither good nor loving. If God is not wrathful at child abuse, he is neither good nor loving. If God is not utterly determined to root out from his creation, in an act of proper wrath and judgment, the arrogance that allows people to exploit, bomb, bully and enslave one another, he is neither loving, nor good, nor wise.
If God did not judge adultery, he would not be holy. If God did not hate pornography and the destruction that it brings, then he would not be good. We need God to act as judge in this matter – but it also terrifies us, because we know we’re in trouble. We know that if God opened our hearts, he would find lots there that isn’t right. If God examined our actions, we know that we would fail his judgment.
That’s where I want to end this morning. I want to close by considering what exactly it is that we need to do as a response to this very short verse.
First, some of you have been dishonoring marriage. You may be doing it because you’ve picked it up like a bad accent. You may be doing it out of hurt. It has to stop. It may be that God is calling you this morning to honor marriage like never before. This is going to be costly for some of you. Honoring marriage vows, for instance, is incredibly costly. But Scripture is calling you to go against the flow and to take this seriously, starting today.
Second, some of us here need to stop defiling the marriage bed. Tim Chester’s new book, Closing the Window: Steps to Living Porn Free
, offers up five key ingredients that must be present and in place for someone to win the battle with pornography.
- An abhorrence of porn. You have to hate porn itself (not just the shame it brings), and long for change.
- You must adore God. Why? Because we can be confident that He offers more than porn.
- You must be assured of God’s grace. You are loved by God and are right with Go through faith in the work of Jesus.
- You must avoid temptation. Be committed to do all you in your power to avoid temptation, starting with the controls on your computer.
- You must be accountable to others. You need a community of Christians who are holding you accountable and supporting you in your struggle.
Tim Chester never claims it’s easy. This isn’t a “take these five steps and everything will be just fine” treatment. No, life is messy. And this is a messy battle. It’s a battle we must understand, engage in, and fight with long-suffering intensity. We need to take this seriously so that we stop polluting what is meant to be holy and joyful.
Finally: some of us need the cleansing that can come only from God. Paul writes some very harsh words in 1 Corinthians 6:
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-10)
Harsh words indeed. But then he says:
And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:11)
I love how John Piper puts it: “Lay hold on your forgiveness, and take it with you to the marriage bed. Christ died for your sin that in him you might have guilt-free sexual relations in marriage.”
We’re coming to the communion table this morning. Today is a great day to receive the forgiveness and cleansing that Christ can offer, to receive the forgiveness that we can take with us into our marriages.
Think about this. Think about a group of people who don’t pick up the accent of our day. Think about a group of Christians who hold marriage in high honor – not in a political crusader type of way, but in their behavior and in their respect. Think of people who are washed and cleansed and sanctified from their past, and who are living lives of purity and joy in their marriages. That’s the invitation that’s open to us this morning. Let’s pray.
Father, thank you for this invitation to go against the grain of culture. We pray that as we come to the table today that you would meet us where we are. Please change us so that we are transformed and cleansed to do what is written here. Change us and cleanse us, in Jesus’ name. Amen.