In Scripture marriage always points to union with God in Christ. In saying this, I want to be quick to affirm that Scripture by no means downplays marriage and family in its natural sense. Far from it, it elevates these things. But its elevation occurs because of marriage’s deepest meaning. From the beginning, marriage always signified God’s union with humanity in Christ.
This is a big claim. So let me cite and comment on a number of biblical passages that, I think, naturally lead to the conclusion that I have stated in my opening sentence.
When God created humans in his image, he joined male to female together through marriage. The joining of the sexes carries symbolic meaning that reveals a deep mystery embedded in creation. Paul explains, “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Eph 5:32).
In the previous verse, Paul cited Genesis 2:24: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” So he interprets God’s providential arrangement of the union of the sexes as a mystery. A mystery Paul means, simply put, a previously unrevealed truth about the Gospel.
That is what marriage is. It is a sign that symbolizes the reality of Christ’s union with the church. It points to the reality that “we are members of his body” (Eph 5:30). We have become one flesh with Christ. And through him, we have access to God.
Sarah And Hagar
Given marriage’s mysterious nature, it makes sense that Paul reads the story of Sarah and Hagar, in the apostle’s own language, “allegorically” (Gal 4:24). The ESV may slightly underplay Paul’s wording here by saying: “Now this may be interpreted allegorically” (Gal 4:24). There is, however, no ambiguity in Greek. Paul cites the story in Genesis 16 and 21, “which is allegorical” (ἅτινά ἐστιν ἀλληγορούμενα).
To our ears, allegory sounds like an unhitched and unfounded interpretation. Yet for Paul here, that is not the case. He understands that Abraham’s marriage of Sarah and Hagar fulfills not only historical-redemptive promises to Abraham (cf. Gal 3) but also to the mystery of marriage (Eph 5:32). So his allegorical reading of Scripture ties closely to the historical and redemptive storyline of the Bible.
Abraham married Sarah through whom the Messiah would come to bless the world. But out of a lack of faith, Abraham and Sarah decided to have a child through a slave woman Hagar. Yet as Paul notes elsewhere, only Isaac was the child of promise (Rom 9). And so these two women represent the chosen and non-chosen line for the messiah—the first a free woman and the second a slave woman.
They represent two alternatives in redemptive history according to Paul. Hagar, like the covenant of Sinai, enslaves and corresponds to the earthly Jerusalem of Paul’s day. The other woman is free and so like the new covenant. She represents the Jerusalem above (Gal 4:25). These notions of mountains, freedom, and covenants have deep history in Scripture and are not arbitrary—though perhaps unfamiliar to our modern sensibilities.
Marriage as pointing to our spiritual marriage with God—a kind of covenant with God—naturally, for Paul, fits into the contrast between Sarah (married freewoman) and Hagar (enslaved woman) which allegorically speak of two kinds of relationship people can have with God: one of freedom in Jerusalem above or one of slavery here below.
The book of Hosea begins by symbolically telling the story of God and Israel’s marriage through the historical characters of Hosea and Gomer. Hosea symbolizes God, and he takes an unfaithful woman as his wife who continually cheats on him. Yet Hosea stays faithful and even has children with Gomer. The prophet and his wife allegorize God’s relationship with Israel through the notion of marriage.
The prophets commonly portray Israel’s relationship with God as one of marriage. Jeremiah says that God divorced Israel due to her unfaithfulness (Jer 3:8–11) whereas Ezekiel 16 spends the whole chapter considering Israel as an unfaithful wife to God. The point is that God’s covenant with Israel is conceived as a marital relationship. That deep meaning of marriage that points to our final union with God in Christ by the Spirit casts a long shadow across the Old Testament.
Song of Songs
Before the modern era, all interpreters (to my knowledge) read Song of Songs like Hosea: Solomon and the Shulamite, though historical figures, symbolized Christ’s relationship with his people. As I have noted elsewhere, the Song of Songs references the story of God’s marriage with Israel at Sinai through the love story of Solomon and the Shulamite.
While many today find this reading unsatisfying, I should note that it is no less plausible in my view than is Hosea and Gomer symbolizes God and Israel. The deep meaning of marriage, already defined at creation, should in any case always lead us to understand marriage as a mystery of a greater union. It is here, and I think explicitly so.
As Genesis 2 begins world history with a marriage to point to the greatest of all mysteries—union with Christ, so Scripture ends with a marriage. Throughout the book of Revelation, saints are encouraged to be virgin martyrs. Their deaths gain them white robes. And when Christ returns, they celebrate a marriage feast. John records heaven singing: “for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready” (Rev 19:7).
We are the bride of Christ, and marriage is our destiny. In fact, John identifies the New Jerusalem from above (remember Paul here) as the Bride of Christ, us: “And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev 21:2).
Scripture begins and ends with a marriage. The first recorded marriage always pointed to and has its fulfillment in divine union with humanity when the Jerusalem above descends as the bride of Christ to marry the Lamb. That is why the virgin saints dress in white as we await our final vision of God.
Marriage has always meant union with God in Christ—that is why God invented it. And this grand purpose gives weight and stability to the institution of human marriage rather than damaging it. Our marriage imitates divine marriage, and its stability and our faithfulness to our partners evince the faithfulness of God—the mystery of the Gospel. Marriage means the Gospel.