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What does it mean that marriage is honorable among all?

The book of Hebrews closes with a sequence of instructions for Christian living. Hebrews 13:4 focuses on marriage: “Marriage is honorable among all, and the bed undefiled; but fornicators and adulterers God will judge” (Hebrews 13:4, NKJV).

The significance of the phrase marriage is honorable among all is somewhat obscured in older Bible versions. In more modern translations, the sense of exhortation is more evident: “let marriage be held in honor among all” (ESV), “marriage should be honored by all” (NIV), and “marriage must be respected by all” (HCSB). In the first century, as in today’s culture, the sacred institution of marriage was becoming compromised by permissiveness, promiscuity, and sexual immorality. But God’s people are held to a higher standard in which marriage—the foundational relationship of strong families—is regarded as a holy, covenantal bond.

When God created humanity, “in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). God intended to bring couples together in marriage to reflect His image (Ephesians 5:22–33), to provide for companionship and mutual benefit (Genesis 2:18, 20–22), to fill the earth and raise children together (Malachi 2:15), and to form families, which are the basic units of society. Wherever marriage is honorable among all, both the couples and the broader communities flourish. God calls all Christians to honor and respect marriage as a divinely established union between one man and one woman in which absolute moral purity and fidelity are safeguarded at all times (Ephesians 5:3).

Sadly, marriage is far from honorable among all. In many cultures around the world, marriage has long existed as a broken and distorted version of its God-intended design. The author of Hebrews explicitly cites fornication and adultery as behaviors that are dishonoring to the marriage union. God created sexual intimacy as a gift shared exclusively between a husband and wife who pledge their lives and love to each other in a lifelong relationship (Genesis 2:24; Matthew 19:4–6; 1 Corinthians 7:2–5; Ephesians 5:31).

Marriage is dishonored when the marriage bed is defiled, or, in other words, when a husband and wife do not keep themselves sexually pure, uncontaminated, and set apart exclusively for one another. Sex outside the bounds of marriage is forbidden. Some examples include sex before marriage, adultery, homosexual behavior, prostitution, and pornography.

Divorce is another tarnishing element on God’s plan for marriage. Jesus challenged the lackadaisical attitude many rabbis of His day had toward divorce (Matthew 19:1–12). Christ endorsed the biblical concept of marriage as a lifetime commitment (Mark 10:6–9; see also Genesis 1:27; 2:24; Malachi 2:15–16; Ephesians 5:31). But because of human weakness and sin, Scripture does permit divorce, but only as a last resort (Matthew 19:8–9; cf. 1 Corinthians 7:10–15).

Historically, marriage has also been dishonored by some extreme ascetic groups who forbid it (1 Timothy 4:1–5; see also 1 Corinthians 7:1). Such groups teach that anything concerning the flesh is corrupt or evil; therefore, adherents must practice rigorous self-denial of physical pleasures and needs.

A recent challenge to maintaining the honorability of marriage is society’s attempted redefinition of the institution. Courts everywhere are legalizing unions that no longer reflect the image of God or His purpose in marriage. As people’s minds become “governed by the flesh,” they turn “hostile to God” and no longer “submit to God’s law” (Romans 8:7). Today, same-sex marriages are legally binding in at least fifteen nations. Instead of keeping marriage honorable among all, humanity has further corrupted it from God’s original design.


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