If you were here last week, one of the things I said was that it is important that the people charged with passing on God’s word, God’s message to his people, do not duck or modify the things that God has to say but that are hard for us to accept or hear. Then we come from there to the material before us this morning, and I am immediately met with a passage that it is extremely tempting to skip, and to jump straight from halfway through Malachi 2 to the beginning of chapter 3. The trouble is I preached a sermon last week that says to me: “if you find bits that are not going to be very easy for people to listen to, you’re not allowed to skip them”. So I’ve slightly stitched myself up because I’m not actually allowed to skip it. So we’re going to have to do it anyway.
I also keep hoping one day that I’ll find a passage in Malachi that we are able to cover and tackle in a single Sunday. Unfortunately, this week is not yet going to be that moment. That’s because the material here is extremely sensitive for us, and it’s really important therefore that we tread carefully and explain things carefully. Otherwise, we might mishear what’s here, and that could do great damage. So it’s actually important that we take long enough to look at this, that we do it right.
So, once again, we’re going to take two Sundays to do it.
I’m going to leave to next week everything that is in here on the subject of divorce. Now before you make a mental note therefore not to come next week, let me just give you a little teaser as to where that will go. By telling you that what we find in this passage is that God is enormously compassionate, gracious and kind to people who have experienced pain as a result of divorce for whatever reason. However, God is utterly uncompromising when it comes to speaking to those who cause that pain in others. Hopefully that makes you want to come next week, rather than want to not come next week.
For this week what I want to do is to look together at what this passage has to say on the subject of marriage, because this is one of the most positive passages on the subject of marriage in the whole bible, and it’s a really good one to look at together. I’ve got three things for us from this passage on the subject of marriage, and they all begin with the letter ‘c’.
Number one: Commitment. Marriage is a commitment. Here’s the end of verse 14: “… though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant”. Only here in the bible is marriage specifically called a covenant. The word covenant means a commitment that has been founded on public promises. Marriage is a commitment.
Number two: Companionship. Again, verse 14: “… though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant”. That word “partner” is only again only used here in connection with marriage.
Elsewhere in the Old Testament it is usually used of two, or a group of, male friends who have a great deal in common, and therefore support and look out for one another in life, in business partnership, or in friendship, or whatever it is. It is the word for the closest possible friendship and companionship. And here that word is pressed into service to describe marriage. It’s a companionship.
Now we in the West take for granted that marriage is built on the foundation of friendship. That’s not particularly radical for us, but back in that day it was actually fairly counter-cultural and here it is: Malachi chapter 2 — the closest possible friendship is part of God’s beautiful design for marriage.
Both Commitment and Companionship
Before I tell you what the third ‘c’ is, let me just pause to make the point that it’s both together.
You see, if marriage was just commitment, but no companionship, then that would leave space for it to be a cold lifeless legal agreement. Nothing more you get that in history at various points, for example in the royal courts of Europe in the 16th, 17th and 18th century, when purely for political expediency various parties get married off to ensure legal alliances between various countries are favourable, but that is all it is — it’s a legal expedient arrangement. That’s if you just have the commitment but not the companionship.
If you just have the companionship but not the commitment, you get something that keeps going only for as long as the sense of companionship lasts. When it doesn’t, you just move on.
But no: What we’ve got here is both together — commitment and companionship. That combination is absolute dynamite. because what you’ve got is a close friendship coupled with a lifelong commitment. Close friendship, but where the commitment to the marriage and to the other person is not conditional on how well that friendship is working out at that particular moment in time.
Commitment, and companionship, and third children. Children.
Here’s verse 15: “Has not the one God made you? You belong to him in body and spirit. And what does the one God seek? Godly offspring.” So God’s way of raising the next generation to know him, to love him, to fear him, is a committed loving marriage.
Now of course many children grow up incredibly well balanced and healthy, including knowing and loving the Lord Jesus, having been raised in all kinds of other situations. Of course that happens, wonderfully! But God has specifically designed stable and loving marriage to be the ideal environment for this to take place. It’s one of the purposes for which he created it.
Companionship. Commitment. Children.
A Beautiful Picture of Marriage
What we have here is a beautiful, beautiful picture of marriage: a committed friendship that grows, rather than fades, as the years pass. A faithful friendship to the wife or husband of your youth.
It’s a very different picture from our prevailing culture in which marriage, if people bother with it at all, is simply a relationship of convenience, that will only be for as long as the spark lasts.
It’s a beautiful picture.
A Painful Picture
But it also has the potential to be a very painful picture, because the reality is always short of the ideal. So some of you may be thinking this morning: “God’s plan for marriage is beautiful, but my experience of it is not.”
But then we have to remember that the ideal is not actually any human marriage. The ideal is the relationship between God and his people, that is a relationship marked by the most incredible commitment on God’s part, and it’s marked by companionship.
So here is John chapter 15 verse 15: “I no longer call you servants”, says Jesus “because the servant does not know his master’s business. Instead I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my father I have made known to you.” Human marriage is simply a reflection of that ultimate relationship.
Remember too that all of the problems Malachi is addressing stem from the fact that the people are doubting God’s love. Is God still committed to loving us, his people? Or has he got bored and moved on? They don’t really believe God still loves them, and all of the problems they had in their human marriages flowed from that doubt.
So as we put all of this picture together, we realize that no matter what our experience of human marriage, we can all experience the ultimate marriage, because God offers each and every one of us in the person of Jesus to commit himself to loving us – not just for this life, but for eternity.
Now, as they doubted God’s love for them, problems were creeping in in two areas. As I say, we’ll look at the question of divorce next week.
Problem: Marrying Outside the Faith
But there’s one other problem that needs mentioning before we finish this week, and that is the problem of marrying outside the faith. So here’s verse 11: “Judah has been unfaithful. A detestable thing has been committed in Israel and in Jerusalem. Judah has desecrated the sanctuary the Lord loves by marrying women who worship a foreign God.”
Notice the problem is not marrying women of a foreign race. This is not racist. It’s not about race. There’s a long history in the history of Israel, for example Ruth, of people who joined the people of God, worship their God, and so were free to enter into marriage with others who worship the same God.
No the problem is not race. The problem is that the women they were marrying worshiped different gods. At the very least at that point the companionship dimension will get strained. How can you walk that closely through life with someone whose number one value (the God they serve) is different from yours? And the children as well. I mean they will grow to be ambivalent as to which God to serve. Are we meant to worship Mum’s God, or Dad’s God? Does it actually matter?
Now before you get this wrong, 1 Corinthians chapter 7 in the New Testament is very very clear: If you’re already married to somebody who is not a Christian, your commitment and responsibility at that point is to make it work, to make it flourish, to make it the very best marriage that you can make it. This is not an excuse to walk away.
But 1 Corinthians 7 is also explicit if you are one of those people who is free to choose who you marry (and in our culture that’s most people; in some cultures it’s not everyone) but if you’re in that fortunate position, and if you are a Christian then you need to choose a fellow Christian. On that, Malachi and the apostle Paul agree absolutely.
God’s love for his people is a beautiful thing, and God invites us all to enter that relationship with him.
Then having done that, whether you are young or old, married or singled, hurting or flourishing, he then calls us as his people to support one another in living out our human marriages in a way that reflects God’s great, great love for his people.