Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 2 “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), 3 “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” 4 Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
I have tried to show from Scripture that the main meaning of marriage is to display the covenant-keeping love between Christ and his church. In other words, marriage was designed by God most deeply, most importantly, to be a parable or a drama of the way Christ loves his church and the way the church loves and follows Christ. This is the most important thing for all husbands and wives to know about the meaning of their marriage.
Marriage Portrays the Magnificent
The key passage has been Ephesians 5:23-25: “The husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Don’t be so familiar with this that it doesn’t strike you as amazing. Where in all the world would anyone talk about marriage this way? In three verses, he says it three times:
- Verse 23: marriage: even as Christ is the head of the church.
- Verse 24: marriage: as the church submits to Christ.
- Verse 25: marriage: as Christ loved the church.
What is the most important meaning of marriage? It is found in the words: “as Christ . . . as the church . . . as Christ.” The ultimate meaning of marriage is not in marriage itself. It is not in the husband and not in the wife and not in the offspring. The ultimate meaning of marriage is in: “as Christ,” “as the church,” “as Christ.” Marriage is a magnificent thing because it is modeled on something magnificent and points to something magnificent. And the love that binds this man and woman in marriage is a magnificent love because it portrays something magnificent—“as Christ loved the church” and “as the church submits to Christ.” The greatness of marriage is not in itself. The greatness of marriage is that it displays something unspeakably great, Christ and the church.
Filling the Earth . . . With Worshipers of Jesus
Now what I want to add today is that marriage is for making children . . . disciples of Jesus. There is a double meaning that I hope will help you remember the point. Marriage is for making children—that is, procreation. Having babies. This is not the main meaning of marriage. But is an important one and a biblical one. But then I add the words disciples of Jesus. “Marriage is for making children disciples of Jesus.” Here the focus shifts. This purpose of marriage is not merely to add more bodies to the planet. The point is to increase the number of followers of Jesus on the planet.
The effect of saying it this way is that couples who cannot make children because of issues of infertility can still aim to make children followers of Jesus. God’s purpose in making marriage the place to have children was never merely to fill the earth with people, but to fill the earth with worshipers of the true God. One way for a marriage to fill the earth with worshipers of the true God is to procreate and bring the children up in the Lord. But that’s not the only way. When the focus of marriage becomes, “Make children disciples of Jesus,” the meaning of marriage in relation to children is not mainly, “Make them,” but, “Make them disciples.” And the latter can happen, even where the former doesn’t.
Where We’re Heading
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Here’s where we are going. First, I want us to see that God’s original plan in creation was for men and women to marry and have children. Having children is God’s will. Second, I want us to see that in the fallen world we live in, not only is marrying not an absolute calling on all people, but producing children in marriage is not an absolute calling on all couples. Normal, good, painful, glorious—but not absolutely required of all. Thirdly, we will focus on what Ephesians 6:1-4 says about how marriage becomes the means for making children disciples of Jesus.
1. Having Children Is God’s Will
First, the meaning of marriage normally includes, by God’s design, giving birth to children and raising them in Christ. Genesis 1:26-28:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
After the flood we read in Genesis 9:1, “God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.’” This was God’s original design. Marriage is the place for making children and filling the earth with the knowledge of the Lord the way the waters cover the sea (Habakkuk 2:14). It has never ceased to be a good thing. “Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth. Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them! He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the gate” (Psalm 127:4-5).
And in the New Testament no one is more positive about children than Jesus himself. Mark 10:13-14 says, “They were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.” So from beginning to end, the Bible puts a huge value on having and raising and blessing children. If you are among the many at Bethlehem with large families, be affirmed! It is a magnificent calling. We will come back to it in a moment. This is one of the great meanings of marriage—to bear and raise children for the glory of God.
2. Having Children Is Not Ultimate
But the second main point I want to make is that, while the meaning of marriage normally includes giving birth to children, this is not an absolute. In this fallen, sinful age, in desperate need of knowing the Redeemer, Jesus Christ, nature by itself does not dictate when or whether to beget children. The decision about whether to conceive children is not ultimately a decision about what is natural, but about what will magnify the Redeemer, Jesus Christ.
In other words, there’s an analogy between the singleness question and the children question. God said in Genesis 2:18, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” So it sounds, at first, like marriage is always the way to go. Then the unmarried Paul said in 1 Corinthians 7, verse 7 and verse 26, “I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. . . . I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is.” So there are different gifts and different callings. Marriage is not absolute.
So it is with conceiving children. In the beginning, God said to mankind, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” That’s normal. That’s good. But it’s not absolute any more than marriage is absolute. What is absolute is to pursue spiritual children, not natural children. Marriage is not absolutely for making children. But it is absolutely for making children followers of Jesus. Consider a few passages.
Having Hundreds of Children
In Mark 10:29-30, Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.” Here Jesus shifts the absolute from having children biologically to having hundreds of children through the family of Christ and through spiritual influence. It might include adoption. It might include foster care. It might include making your home a place for backyard Bible clubs. It might include hospitality in a neighborhood where your home is every kid’s favorite place. It might include your nursery job or your care for your nieces and nephews or the Sunday School class you teach. The point is: Marriage is not absolutely for making children; but it is absolutely for making children followers of Jesus one way or the other, directly or indirectly.
Being “Children of God”
In Romans 9:8, Paul said, “It is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.” In other words, in God’s kingdom, bringing “children of the flesh” into being is not absolute, but seeking to bring into being “children of God” is absolute.
The Most Important Family
In 1 Corinthians 4:15, Paul says, “Though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” This is the most important family in the Christian life, and this is the main way we have children, not by natural birth, but by supernatural birth. For many marriages they go together. But not for all.
Begetting Spiritual Children
One more verse on this point—Romans 16:13: “Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; also his mother, who has been a mother to me as well.” Here is motherhood extending out beyond the son of birth to the son of affection and care. So I conclude that among Christians mothering and fathering by procreation is natural and good and even glorious when Christ is in it. But it is not absolute. Aiming to bring spiritual children into being is absolute. Marriage is for making children. Yes. But not absolutely. Absolutely marriage is for making children followers of Jesus.
3. Making Marriage a Place for Making Disciples
Now in the few minutes we have left, let’s focus on God’s calling on marriage to be a place for making children followers of Jesus. We will focus this week on mother and father, and next week on the father, both because the father gets special focus in this text and because next Sunday is Father’s Day. Here’s the text again:
“Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’ (this is the first commandment with a promise), ‘that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.’ Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”
Five Brief Observations
The father has a leading responsibility in bringing the children up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. Notice that verse 1 says, “Children obey your parents.” Both. Not only father or only mother. But parents. But when the focus shifts from the duty of children to the duty of parents, the father is mentioned, not the mother. “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” So my first observation that we will unpack next week more closely is that in the marriage, fathers have a leading responsibility in bring up the children in the discipline and the instruction of the Lord.
Nevertheless, both mother and father are called to this together. Both are mentioned as the special object of the child’s honor. Verse 1: “Children, obey your parents (mother and father) in the Lord.” You can hear this truth in Proverbs 6:20-21: “My son, keep your father’s commandment, and forsake not your mother’s teaching. Bind them on your heart always; tie them around your neck.” And you recall that Paul reminded Timothy to hold fast to what his mother and grandmother had taught him as a child (2 Timothy 3:14; 1:5). So both mother and father bear responsibility in this marriage to bring the children up in the Lord, with dad having the leading responsibility.
It is important that mother and father be united in this effort. It is not always possible because sometimes one spouse is not a believer, and then you do the best you can in finding practical common ground, for example, in the way the children are disciplined. But God’s design is a united front. Both have one goal: This child is to grow up in “the discipline and instruction of the Lord”—grounded and shaped and permeated by the Lord, aiming to honor the Lord. God does not design that we be divided on this. The children need one united front coming from mom and dad. Don’t confuse the children. Work through your differences of what to teach, and how and when to discipline, and then stand united before the children. Don’t let the children manipulate you against each other. Make that a hopeless ploy. God is one.
Which leads to the fourth observation. The most fundamental task of a mother and father is to show God to the children. Children know their parents before they know God. This is a huge responsibility and should cause every parent to be desperate for God-like transformation. The children will have years of exposure to what the universe is like before they know there is a universe. They will experience the kind of authority there is in the universe and the kind of justice there is in the universe and the kind of love there is in the universe before they meet the God of authority and justice and love who created and rules the universe. Children are absorbing from dad his strength and leadership and protection and justice and love; and they are absorbing from mother her care and nurture and warmth and intimacy and justice and love—and, of course, all these overlap.
And all this is happening before the child knows anything about God, but it is profoundly all about God. Will the child be able to recognize God for who he really is in his authority and love and justice because mom and dad have together shown the child what God is like. The chief task of parenting is to know God for who he is in many attributes and then to live in such a way with our children that we help them see and know God. And, of course, that will involve directing them always to the infallible portrait of God in the Bible.
Finally, God has ordained that both mother and father be involved in raising the children because they are husband and wife before they are mother and father. And what they are as husband and wife is where God wants children to be: As husband and wife, they are a drama of the covenant-keeping love between Christ and the church. That is where God wants children to be. His design is that children grow up watching Christ love the church and watching the church delight in following Christ. His design is that the beauty and strength and wisdom of this covenant relationship be absorbed by the children from the time they are born.
Parents Pointing to Christ and the Church
So what turns out is that the deepest meaning of marriage—displaying the covenant love between Christ and the church—is underneath this other meaning of marriage—making children disciples of Jesus. It is all woven together. Good marriages make good places for children to grow up and see the glory of Christ’s covenant-keeping love.
May the Lord give us a united focus on what really matters in marriage: Husbands and wives loving like Christ and the church, and the children seeing it, and by God’s grace, loving what they see.