A podcast listener named Hannah writes in to ask this: “Pastor John, I often hear people and pastors say that sex between husband and wife is a picture of the love between Christ and his church. When this comparison is given, I almost always see people or the pastor speaking blush as well as the audience as if it is an awkward and unexpected comparison.
I believe this picture of sex and Christ with his church to be true, but I am one of many who has a hard time wrapping my mind around it and would have a hard time describing it to someone else. I have two questions regarding this. (1) How is sex between a husband and wife a practical example of Christ and his church? (2) Why is this truth something many are so uncomfortable with?”
Three Reasons for Discomfort
Well, I am not blushing and I am excited. I like this question.
“We need a robust vision of the beauty and sacredness of sexual intercourse as God designed it.”
So in answer to the second question, why is this truth something many are uncomfortable with, my guess is there are at least three reasons. There are probably more, but here are my three:
1. We don’t have a robust enough vision of the beauty and depth and sacredness of the actual event of sexual intercourse as God designed it.
2. Our own experience of sexuality is so tainted with selfishness and pornographic corruption either in our heads or in the media that we can scarcely have a thought about sex without the presence of those corruptions.
3. And to be fair, there is a third factor that creates discomfort. Very often when this comes up, there may be children present. I am thinking of a worship service, for example. Or a sensitive older person who is just not at all comfortable with saying some of the things I am going to say in this answer, or single people or divorced people or somebody else who just for various reasons might really be put in an awkward position by explicit talk about what happens in the marriage bed and its relationship to the relationship of Christ and his church.
So our theology of marital intercourse is lame. Our experience of sex is tainted. And our situations in which we speak about this often have audiences that make it awkward for them to hear, if not for us to speak.
So I want to have some patience and mercy upon pastors who might appear like they are awkward. Maybe they are not awkward for valid, deep reasons, but maybe for more audience-oriented reasons.
Now before I say anything about the answer to the first question: What is the real analogy here? let me draw the text out that Hannah is referring to, so we get at least some of it on the table. Because I am sure some listeners are just not familiar with it. Here is the text she is talking about:
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. (Ephesians 5:25–27)
In other words, Christ is after a beautiful, splendid, spotless, wrinkle-free, holy, blemish-free, gorgeous wife. And then verses 31 says, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” That is, in the sexual act of intercourse.
Verse 32 adds, “This mystery” — this union, this leaving, cleaving and sexual union — “this mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” Now there it is. There it is. The one-flesh union of man and wife are Christ and the church in emblem, in metaphor, in foretaste.
Genesis to Revelation
Let’s just make it as explicit as we can. You could stir in here the Song of Solomon, where the sexual pleasures of the man and his wife are described with such remarkable graphicness, we have to blink and say: Is this the Bible?
Marriage — including sexual intimacy — portrays Jesus’s relationship with the church.
For example, in Song of Solomon 7:7 he says to her, “Your stature is like a palm tree, and your breasts are like its clusters. I say I will climb the palm tree and lay hold of its fruit. Oh may your breasts be like clusters of the vine, and the scent of your breath like apples.”
So that is the whole-Bible portrayal of the marriage bed that Christ and the church are being pointed to. So for those familiar with the Bible, not to mention the ordinary experience of married couples, we cannot escape the truth that Jesus is not ashamed to describe his relationship to the church in terms of a marriage, including its one-flesh union in the sexual act of the marriage bed.
Hannah asks in the first question: How is sex between a husband and a wife a practical example of Christ and his church? And I will mention three things. And I do not doubt that these are the lowlands of the Himalayas of glory that better people than I could climb into and explain.
1. Beautiful and Complex
First, very prominent in Ephesians 5 is the asymmetry, lack of symmetry, between the roles of husband and wife.
She is to submit to his Christ-like, loving, sacrificial headship. But there is, just as clearly, a mutuality and reciprocity in seeking to bless and satisfy the other as leadership and submission find their way toward maximum mutual pleasure.
In 1 Corinthians 7:4, Christ says that the man does not have authority over his body, but the woman does, and the woman does not have authority over her body, but the man does, which creates, if you are a logic-chopper, a total stalemate.
But Paul clearly doesn’t mean for there to be a stalemate in the marriage bed. The point is that the wife often has desires, and the husband in love should want to satisfy them and labor to. The husband often has desires, and the wife in love should want to satisfy them.
But as they proceed, the way the man pursues the satisfying of his wife is in the capacity of a head and the initiative taker. And this doesn’t rule out her own particular kinds of initiatives, but it does set the tone and establish a context in which he is felt to be the strong, caring, loving, creative leader in this event which is what Christ and the church are about.
And so my first answer is that, in the act of sexual relations in marriage, the beauty and the complexity and the mystery of headship and submission in their most satisfying expressions are being realized.
2. Foretaste of Pleasure
Second, the reason the rare and extraordinary pleasure of simultaneous orgasm is as great as it is, is not only to point us to the ecstasies of knowing Christ, but also to give us a very taste of those ecstasies.
“Sexual pleasure in marriage is precious, but not as precious as what it signifies in relation to Jesus.”
In other words, when Jesus says that he is the bread of life (John 6:35, 48), he means for us to taste something of his life in our favorite bread, some good German bakery. The pleasure of the emblem when it is consecrated to God becomes a foretaste and a pleasure of the thing itself: Christ in the bread.
So it is with the pleasures of the marriage bed as an emblem of Christ and the church in fellowship. When a couple loves each other and brings that love to climax in sexual consummation and lie there still, restful, thankful at the end, their hearts should be brimming with how wonderful Jesus Christ is: that he would give them such pleasures and that he would show them in those pleasures what he is like and how precious is the church’s relationship to her husband.
3. Only a Metaphor
Third, I would say that the metaphors in general are always lesser realities than what they are metaphors of. So a wedding ring is precious. I still have mine on. I think I have only had it off two days because of surgery and something else in 46 years of marriage. So my wedding ring is precious to me. A wedding ring is precious, but it is not as precious as the marriage and the pleasures of the marriage that it signifies. And sexual pleasure in marriage is precious, but not as precious as what it signifies in relation to Jesus.
Jesus said that in the age to come there will be no marriage or giving in marriage (Luke 20:35). Now that may seem like a colossal disappointment for those of us who have enjoyed the pleasures of the marriage bed. But what if someone said: In the future I am going to take away your wedding ring, and all you are going to have is heightened ecstasies that it stood for. Would you be disappointed? Well, a little bit, but not very long. Not very long. No, you wouldn’t.
In other words, the sexual pleasures in marriage point not only to the present pleasures of knowing and loving Christ, but they also point to the age to come where the ring, that is, the pleasures in this analogy, will be taken away, and we will experience the reality in such greater measure of pleasure that we will wonder how we could have ever been satisfied with the best sex in the world.