This video segment is one of six lessons in the “Creating a Gospel-Centered Marriage: Foundations” seminar.
The GCM series are marriage preparation and marriage enrichment level resources. If your marriage needs restoration level care consider one of the other options available at summitchurch.com/counseling, or visit bradhambrick.com/findacounselor for help finding a counselor near you.
If you are interested in the pre-marital mentoring program built around these materials, you can find everything you need at www.bradhambrick.com/gcm.
NOTE: Many people have asked how they can get a copy of the GCM seminar notebooks. You can request a copy from Summit’s admin over counseling at email@example.com (please note this is an administrative account; no individual or family counsel is provided through e-mail).
When something becomes common, its meaning and significance is often forgotten. This can easily be true for marriage and the wedding ceremony. Weddings have been in so many movies, we begin to think they are just good cinema. We begin to compare the pageantry of the bride’s dress and wedding venue more than we reflect on the meaning of marriage.
In this lesson, we want to learn what it means for marriage to be a covenant by examining the symbolism in a traditional wedding ceremony. If you are engaged, this should be exciting. If you have been married, this should be a sweet call back to marriage fundamentals.
We rarely use the word covenant today. So, we need to define the term. If not, we will use our closest cultural equivalent – a contract – to understand what God designed. This results in two errors: (a) thinking of marriage as a contract and (b) believing that the Bible only speaks about marriage in a few select “marriage passages.”
The first error creates a profound shift in how we think about marriage. Consider the differences between a covenant and a contract listed in the chart below.
|A contract is…
|A covenant is…
|… a common, legal document regulated by the state.
|… a sacred, moral agreement overseen by God.
|… based upon mistrust between two people.
|… based upon trust between two people and God.
|… written to create limited liability.
|… accepted to embrace unlimited responsibility.
|… demanding joy through mutual benefit.
|… seeking joy through mutual sacrifice.
Perhaps the last covenant our culture holds as sacred is the parent-child covenant. A parent who forsakes the parent-child covenant (abandoning their child) is viewed as having done a bad thing; not having made a good choice towards self-actualization or expressing their rights according to legitimate preferences.
Because we still view the parent-child relationship as covenant (whether we use the language or not), we expect parents to do whatever is necessary to learn to love and bond with their children. A lazy, neglectful parent cannot at the same time still be viewed as a “good person.” We should enter marriage with the same level of commitment.
The second error truncates how much of God’s wisdom we see as relevant for our marriages. God has more to say about marriage than is recorded in Genesis 1-2, a few passing references in the gospels, Colossians 3, and Ephesians 5. The Bible teaches on marriage every time (a) we see God the Father fulfilling covenant promises, (b) in the sacrificial example of Jesus, and (c) in the constant presence and strengthening of the Holy Spirit. Faithfulness, sacrifice, and presence are covenant themes.
The Wedding as Covenant Making Ceremony
We will now walk through the wedding ceremony asking one question – how was the wedding ceremony designed to teach us about covenant? As we answer this question, we should understand better the nature of the marriage we live.
Seating of the Family
Family and friends of the bride typically sit on one side of the church. Those of the groom on the other. As bride and groom enter and leave the wedding ceremony, they pass through the middle of the two families. This creates two covenant images, one modern and the other ancient.
First, as the couple passes between their families, they act like the tongue on a zipper uniting two families. As the husband and wife become “one flesh,” both families share something precious enough (i.e., son or daughter, brother or sister) to create a common identity as family.
Second, this seating arrangement gives a portrait of God’s covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15. The Hebrew word for covenant, berith meaning “to cut,” is most clearly seen in this passage. God had Abraham cut several animals in half and make a lane between their carcasses. God passed down this lane to say, “So shall it be to me, if I don’t keep my word.”
While gruesome, this image reminds us of a central theme of covenant relationships – death brings life. God kept his covenant with us. We broke covenant with God. But God accepted the consequences of covenant being broken – Jesus’ death on the cross – in order to restore relationship. As husband and wife pass through their families, they are also visualizing a death (leaving) that brings life (cleaving). Those in attendance instinctually understand the profound paradox as they experience the simultaneous emotions of sadness and joy.
White Wedding Dress
The bride, dressed in white, comes to meet her groom for the entire world to see. She is coming to have her name and identity changed. She is drawn by love. She is lovely in the eyes of her groom, and everyone in attendance sees her through the eyes of her beloved. Her eyes are fixed on his and no one else’s opinion matters. Love triumphs over any fear and any insecurity that might otherwise be present: covenant is giving love the power and beauty it was always intended to have.
The white dress is a picture of the righteousness given to us by the Groom – Christ. We do not come to Christ in our own white garments but in His righteousness gifted to us. This is one of the most essential truths to remember in a marriage. When we begin to wear our own righteousness in marriage, shame will bring lying, insecurity will bring hiding, comparison will bring competing, and pride will bring judging.
Read Ephesians 5:27 and Revelation 21:1-4. Notice, in Ephesians, that Christ presents His bride “to Himself in splendor.” His bride is as pure as He sees her because He has made her pure. Notice, in Revelation, that the bride is again adorned for God (v. 2), and God takes her to Himself (v. 3). But, notice further that God takes the initiative in removing all the painful things that would impede their relationship (v. 4).
Father Gives Away the Bride
“Who gives this woman to be married to this man?” asks the pastor. “Her mother and I do.” responds the father of the bride. This is more than just a way to change the arrangement of how people are standing at the altar. It is a picture of God’s design for marriage and demonstration of the four major commitments of the marriage covenant.
Commitment One – Receive: We must realize that our spouse is a gift. We cannot earn our spouse by our good looks, earning capacity, charming personality, or other desirable attributes. You cannot “earn” a person. A spouse is a gift. We should never feel entitled to our spouse or take them for granted.
Commitment Two – Leave: The bride and groom are severing the bond of primary allegiance and dependence with their parents to form that bond with each other. Here again, we see the primary image behind the Hebrew word for covenant, “to cut.” This commitment has at least three implications
- You establish an adult relationship with your parents. This adult relationship should be marked by honor. But you are no longer a child for whom it is disrespectful to relate to your parents as a peer. You are not “asserting your independence.” You are merely living with the independence this stage of life and covenant require.
- You are not controlled by your parent’s affection, approval, or assistance. In life, there are times when you cannot please everyone. When it is a matter of preference between your spouse and your parents, leaving and cleaving means that you defer to your spouse’s preference.
- You eliminate any bad feelings toward your parents that tie you to them emotionally. Both adoration and bitterness can be an obstacle to leaving home. This is not a call to “just get over it” but to forgive and appropriately deal with whatever hard feelings linger. Marriage is not forcing you to do this. Marriage is just another step towards what has always been healthy and best for you.
Read Genesis 2:24; Matthew 19:5; Mark 10:7-8; Ephesians 5:3. This is the most repeated verse in the Bible. That makes sense because it addresses the two most influential relationships in life (spouse and parents) and is a portrait of the relationship God wants with every person (covenant).
Commitment Three – Cleave: It is easy for the negative command (leave) to get more attention than the positive command (cleave). It is as important to cleave to (pursue) your spouse as it is to leave your parents. The healthiest way to leave your parents is by pursuing your spouse.
Commitment Four – Become One Flesh: This commitment will be unpacked in the other GCM seminars: communication (the method of unity), finances (sharing the same treasure; Matt. 6:21), decision making (the practice of unity), and intimacy (the joy of unity). For now, realize that “oneness” in each of these areas is an essential expression of your marriage covenant.
As the bride and groom stand face to face, preparing to take their marriage vows, the pastor takes a moment to remind the audience about the significance of this sacred celebration.
We are here to observe something that is not just beautiful and joyous, but also profound. [Groom] and [Bride] do not stand before one another as perfect individuals. But they are making an unending choice to cover the faults of the other with their own sacrificial love. They pledge to respond to each other as perpetual examples of Christ’s sacrifice for them. This choice is not a burden to them, but rather a joy, because of the delight they take in one another. Their delight is meant to be the clearest earthly representation of God’s abundant love for us and our joyous response to Him.
[Groom] and [Bride] are here today to make their covenant known publicly to family, friends, and the world. This covenant is marked by the physical symbol of a golden ring. Gold because it is the only metal that does not tarnish and is the standard of value for all other commodities. A ring because it, like all true covenants, has no end point.
Once this covenant is established, [Bride] will take [Groom]’s name in the same way that each person who covenants with God takes His name as “Christian.” From that point forward they will live for the joy of the other and take their deepest satisfaction in seeing the dreams of the other fulfilled, in the same way God delights in His people and we find our greatest fulfillment in Him.
In this ceremony, let us see not only the beautiful uniting of our dear friends [Groom] and [Bride] in marriage; let us also see a picture of what God established as a picture of the relationship He desires with each one of us.
Now, the pastor calls the groom and bride by name as he gives both the opportunity to tell the world of their commitment.
[Groom], I want to ask you a series of questions that you are not hearing for the first time. As you hear them again today, I want you to respond to them with the words, “I do.” [Groom], do you promise before God and this community to receive [Bride] as your wife? Do you promise to love her and to care for her? Do you promise to seek with God’s help to love and honor [Bride]? Do you promise to listen to her, to respect her, and to care for her for the unique and special woman of God that she is? [Groom] “I do.”
[Bride], I want to ask you a series of questions that you are not hearing for the first time. As you hear them again today, I want you to respond to them with the words, “I do.” [Bride], do you promise before God and this community to accept [Groom] as your husband? Do you promise to love and to care for him? Do you promise with God’s help to love and honor [Groom]? Do you promise to listen to him, to respect him, and to care for him as the unique and special man of God that he is? [Bride] “I do.”
The wedding pledge is a declaration that this couple has found something better than personal freedom and wants the entire world to know. This is the nature of covenant, it makes us unashamed to identify with our covenant partner (Rom. 1:16, 2 Tim. 1:12, Heb. 11:16). We want to tell the world what we’ve found.
Read Luke 9:26. Jesus calls on his bride, the church, to make a public statement of her covenant loyalty to Him. When we realize that the sacrifices associated with a covenant to Christ are better than anything else the world has to offer (Luke 9:23-25), we are eager to proclaim our covenant-loyalty. This same statement, that the sacrifices of marriage are sweeter to us than any of their alternatives, is the message of the marriage pledge.
Now the couple transitions from making a public pledge to taking personal vows. The audience is invited to overhear words that are directed only towards each other. Line after line the couple repeats after the pastor the essence of their covenant.
I _____ take you _____ to be my wife / husband.
I promise before God and these witnesses that I will love you and be faithful to you.
I promise to stand with you in sickness and in health,
in good times and in bad times,
and forsaking all others,
I promise to give my life to you fully and faithfully
as long as we both shall live.
“I now pronounce you husband and wife.”
Covenants are made. Therefore, they have a definite beginning. It would be inaccurate to say, “We have always been married.” Similarly, it would be inaccurate to say, “I have always been a Christian.” Saving faith is a covenant made with God that has a beginning. Before that covenant was made, we could not claim any of the special benefits of Christ’s death on the cross – forgiveness of sin, assurance of heaven, or the fruit of the Spirit.
Similarly, before the marriage covenant is made, we have no claim on the special benefits of the marriage covenant – living together and sexual intimacy. In the same way that good intentions towards God do not merit heaven, we should not assume that good intentions towards marriage merit presuming upon the benefits of the marriage covenant.
The veil is not a coy means of flirting with her groom or a trendy piece of wedding paraphernalia that has yet to go extinct. It is another piece of covenant imagery. In the Old Testament, within the temple, there was a veil that separated the holy place from the holy of holies (Exo. 26:33). Only the High Priest could enter this place, and he was only allowed to enter once per year. When Christ died on the cross, this veil was torn from top to bottom (Matt. 27:51) signifying the unlimited access we have to God through Christ.
During the wedding, the groom, representing Christ, removes the veil from his bride. Now, by virtue of the marriage covenant, they have gained access to a level of intimacy with each other they did not have before marriage. In the same way that Christ came to reside in our hearts upon removing the temple veil, the husband and wife come to reside in the same home and discover a whole new level of intimacy after removing the wedding veil.
“You may now kiss your bride.” Those in attendance respond in celebration.
Much of the ceremony to this point has been a sober celebration. If this tone did not change, it would give the impression that marriage was solemn. In the kiss, we see another element of God’s design for marriage – pleasure. There is no reason, outside of God’s gracious design, why marriage had to be more than functional. But God created affection, arousal, and intimacy to be enjoyed in marriage.
The corporate response of celebration is a vital aspect of the wedding message. The congregation is invited to enthusiastically affirm the goodness of God’s design.
Presentation of the Couple
“It is my honor to present to you Mr. and Mrs. [Groom] and [Bride] [Last Name].”
As the couple turns to face family and friends, the pastor speaks these words to the world. A true covenant will always change the way the world sees you. No one enters a covenant in order to remain the same. The couple walks out of the church as new people, with a new name, and a new identity (husband and wife).A true covenant will always change the way the world sees you. No one enters a covenant in order to remain the same. Click To Tweet
Now that you’ve reconsidered what it means to establish a marriage covenant, can you imagine thinking of marriage as a 50-50 relationship? Saying, “I’ll do my part, if I see you doing your part,” or “I’ll meet you halfway after I see you start moving towards me.” Does that fit the Christ-church prototype of which marriage is to be a living picture?
There are two times when our selfishness tempts us to treat our marriage as less than a covenant – conflict and fatigue. These are the times when our commitment to treat marriage like a covenant should be most clear. The following exercise is designed to raise your self-awareness and intentionality to honor one another in these moments.
- Print a picture of you and your spouse on one side of a piece of heavy stock paper. On the other side, print the puzzle edition of the wedding charge, pledge, and vows.
- Cut the picture into its 25 pieces – “experts” say doing something 21 times makes it a habit.
- Look for those moments when your fatigue or approach conflict would harm your marriage.
- Each time you navigate one of these moments in a way that honors your covenant, add a piece to the portrait.
- Each time you neglect your covenant commitment through laziness or poor conflict remove a piece.
- Your goal, by God’s grace, is to create a lifestyle of:
- being aware of the moments you are tempted to treat your marriage as less than a covenant, and
- intentionally loving your spouse as your own body (Eph. 5:28) in these moments of temptation.
- Keep the picture as a reminder of God’s grace in your life and of your covenant commitment.
Repeat this exercise whenever you can tell you are falling into bad habits of neglecting your marriage. The second most frequently repeated command in Scripture, just behind “fear not,” is “remember.” God knows in the busyness and toil of life we are prone to forget what is most important. This exercise is a way to remember in the key-but-mundane moments what it looks like to honor our marriages as covenants made before God.
When studying this lesson as a small group it is recommended that: (a) each participant read the lesson during the week, (b) watch the 15 minute lesson as a group, and then (c) discuss the following questions:
- What is your favorite memory from your wedding? Or, what part of the wedding ceremony are you most looking forward to?
- What are the factors in life that make it easier to think of marriage as a contract instead of a covenant?
- How does understanding marriage as covenant reveal that more than a few isolated passages that use the word “marriage” instruct us on how to care for one another as husband and wife?
- Which of the four marriage commitments is strongest and weakest in your relationship? When do you see the blessings or challenges that emerge from these assessments?
- Which aspect of the marriage ceremony helped you get a more complete or fresh understanding of what it means for your marriage to be a covenant relationship?
- What are recent examples of when fatigue or conflict caused you to treat your marriage as less than a covenant relationship? How would greater self-awareness about the significance of those moments help you treat your marriage like the gift that it is at those times?
- In light of this lesson, what changes do you need to begin making to experience more of what God intended marriage to be?