Marriage and the Covenant of spirits
by Guest Author
Article by John Yates: Preface by Michael Fewson
The following article by John Yates touches on a foundational matter as he speaks of ‘the Father of spirits’ specifically within the context of marriage. This fits well with what I have been meditating on and speaking about from Heb 13:5-6 “God has said… therefore we can say with confidence…” The precursor to this (Heb 13:4) is the mandate; “Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.”
I pray you are enlightened by this article:
Marriage is a covenant involving a union between the Spirit of God and the spirit of husband and wife. “Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth..”"(Mal 2:15). The spiritual union of married people is a more than physical reality. (J. Yates)
After recently encountering a string of very disturbing situations to do with marital dysfunction, I began to meditate on what is breaking down around us at a foundational level. Surprisingly, the answer I found is in Hebrews 12:9, “Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live?” (Heb 12:9). God is our Father and in every circumstance of life he is working to perfect our deepest personhood – our spirits.1
The context for this intimate Fatherly relationship with humanity is broader than we may at first think. In the widest circle God is the Creator – Father of all humanity 2 in the next circle is the divinely instituted (pre- Fall) order of marriage3. Finally, there is the relationship God has with us in Christ. Whatever the differences in these relationships, they are bound together by the reality of covenant. A covenant involves promises whereby two parties are to love/honour each other unconditionally.4 This means a covenant is NOT a contract, which is a mutual bargain of a conditional, “if….then”, sort. Relational breakdown in marriage, including that between Christ and his Bride, witnesses to a failure to understand and live in the intimacy of covenant love communicated by the Fathering of spirits.
Marriage and the Covenant of spirits
Marriage is a covenant involving a union between the Spirit of God and the spirit of husband and wife. “Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth..”(Mal 2:15). The spiritual union of married people is a more than physical reality.7
The “one flesh” nature of marriage (Gen 2:24) is well known to Christians, but few realise that God is “the God of the spirits of all flesh” (Num 16:22; 27:16). In Hebrew thought “flesh” does not exclude “spirit”. The “one flesh” of marriage incorporates a spirit- spirit bonding actualised by the Spirit of the Creator God in all marriages.
When Jesus said, “So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Matt 19:6), he was warning against attacking that supernatural act of God which created the intimacy of married love in all its dimensions. Since adultery is an attack on a God ordained covenant, it is an attack on God himself! The failure to grasp this explains the absence of the fear of God in the many Western churches where sexual immorality is a regular feature of life.
It is not by accident that the same Old Testament book (Malachi) that speaks so richly of the spiritual union of marriage and warns so directly against infidelity also speaks so clearly of the fear of the Lord. “If then I am a father, where is my honor? And if I am a master, where is my fear? says the Lord of hosts” (Mal 1:6). At the deepest level, it is ignorance and rejection of God as the Father of spiritual union in marriage that is behind the appalling marital breakdown in Western Christianity.8 Only a revelation of Christ as God’s one faithful covenant partner can deliver us from sin.9
Jesus and the Father of spirits
In seeking to understand how Jesus has redeemed all covenant relationships, and marriage in particular, we must begin with the reality of his human spirit. As God of the spirits of all flesh (Num 16:22; 27:16), God is the God of the spirit of the flesh of Jesus (John 1:14). The Father of our spirits (Heb 12:9) is first of all the Father of the spirit of Jesus.
This is most evident in the suffering of the cross for here the vocabulary of “spirit” finds its intensest expression. At the point of death, the Gospels record Jesus’ “yielded up his spirit.” (Matt 27:50), prayed “I commit my spirit!”(Luke 23:46) and “gave up his spirit.” (John 19:30). In each case the receiver of the spirit is the Father.
Since Jesus is made “perfect through suffering” (Heb 2:10; 5:9), then this must include the perfection of his spirit. John’s description of the passion points us in this direction.
“After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished (τετέλεσται), said (to fulfill (τελειωθῇ) the Scripture), “I thirst.” …When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” (τετέλεσται) and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” (John 19:28, 30).
The words in Greek include a sense of completion or fulfilment; the spirit of Jesus has become completely all that God ever desired of the human spirit in its relationship with him
Accepting that the human spirit of Jesus was perfected in his death, we need to ask how this happened and for what purpose. The answer is found in his dying prayer, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34) In taking the place of covenant breakers who despise God as their Father and Husband,10 Jesus perfectly reflects the intimate heart of God in his act of forgiveness. In praying for the forgiveness of his persecutors he shows that the new covenant promise is real, “I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”" (Jer 31:34). It is pre-eminently Jesus forgiving that reveals that in him the union of the human spirit, the Holy Spirit and the Fatherhood of God have come to perfection.11
Returning to our basic text, “be subject to the Father of spirits and live” (Heb 12:9) we are now in a position to understand how resurrection life flows from the cross. Jesus is “put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit” (1 Pet 3:18 cf. 2 Cor 13:14) because his obedience in sacrificially forgiving means that a human being has loved as unconditionally as God loves. Such a human being is eternally united to the life of God.
The resurrection is not a mere “reward” for his obedience,12 the resurrection life of Christ is the manifestation of the complete union between his spirit and the Spirit of his Father.
Receiving the Spirit of Jesus
To receive the Spirit of Jesus13 is to be immersed in the most intimate covenantal relationship with God in Christ. Paul expresses this union in the context of discussing sex outside marriage, “Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.” But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.” (1 Cor 6:16,17). How then do we become aware of this spiritual oneness?
If we would experience true spiritual intimacy and resurrection power14 we must love as God loves – by the suffering that is involved in forgiving our covenant partners. Whether these are our fellow human beings who likewise have God as their Creator – Father, our brothers and sisters in Christ, or, for the purpose of this article, our life- partners in marriage.
It is our failure to forgive as Christ forgives15 that has drawn the strong discipline of God upon the Western church. Wherever we see men and women measuring the performance of their partners, pastors, parents, politicians etc., in terms that are contractual, legal and unforgiving, we must recognise that we are living in a spiritual atmosphere unpleasing to God. Understood in this way, whatever the profession of our lips, in our lives we have abandoned the gospel of Christ.
Has there ever been a society that has put so many performance demands on God and marriage partners as ours? How conditional is our affection! Little wonder God is so poorly known as Father! We have deeply grieved “the Spirit of grace” (Heb 10:29; Eph 4:30). No surprise that there is so little intimacy at the level of holiness16 and such an inability to sustain deep relationships when suffering is involved; and suffering is inevitable in every intimate relationship.
Haggai 4:6 has become a popular text in our days, “And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a curse.”(Mal 4:6). I do believe this is a text for our time, but Australia will never be released from the curse of apparent Fatherlessness 17 until we have many spiritual fathers18 who can teach the sort of spiritual truths19 I have been outlining in this article. Such men and women will be nothing less than practical expositors of covenant love.
Our need is plain, our path is clear. God our Father calls us to be subject to him at the level of our spirits (Heb 12:9), that is, at the deepest level of our being. All of us need to prayerful consider20 to what degree we treat our relationship with God as contractual. If we are married, we need to examine ourselves as to what degree our love for our life partner is unconditional
Of course, to live in the way I have been suggesting in this paper is humanly impossible, apart from our looking to Jesus (Heb 12:1). The total possibility of unconditional submission to God as the Father of spirits is found in Christ and Christ alone. Yet, this is exactly the divine glory; this is what pleases our Father. Jesus is eagerly waiting to pour out his Spirit on those who want to live in forgiving resurrection power as he lives. May this be you, may it be me.
- I am using “spirit” in a dynamic relational sense in this article, not as a “part” of humanity. ↩
- “as even some of your (Greek) poets have said, “For we are his offspring”‘ (Acts 17:28). ↩
- Note the covenantal terminology, “who has left the partner of her youth and ignored the covenant she made before God.”(Prov 2:17) ↩
- Many biblical covenants are made unilaterally, e.g. God’s covenant with Noah and his descendants (us), which encompasses divine mercy and stipulations for state and family (Gen 9:1-17) ↩
- As in the biblical sense of “know” = intimate encounter, e.g. Gen 4:1; Amos 3:2; John 17:3; 1 Cor 13:12. ↩
- Obviously covenantal because the promises made, by believers or non – believers, are unconditional, better…worse…richer…poorer”. ↩
- By “metaphysical” is meant something beyond material reality. ↩
- Although these observations are drawn from Old Testament texts they maintain their relevance because they are grounded in a creational order. Paul in fact develops these principles in 1 Corinthians 6:16 -17. ↩
- As an Israelite, Jesus is “born under the law” (Gal 4:4), this makes him part of the bride of Yahweh. ↩
- Israel as the Bride of God is revealed in Isa 54:5; 62:5; Jer 2:1; Hosea etc. ↩
- The essence of covenant is unconditional love, and the essence of this love is unconditional forgiveness. ↩
- As, for example, paradise is for Islamic jihadis. ↩
- Acts 16:7; Phil 1:19 etc. ↩
- “The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. 14 And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power.” (1 Cor 6:13- 14). ↩
- “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (Eph 4:32) ↩
- With both God and spouses. ↩
- God is in everything essentially Father, and Christians share essentially in the sonship of Jesus (Matt 28:10; John 20:17). When this is not known, we know we are under strong discipline. ↩
- A non – gendered expression e.g. 1 Cor 4:15. ↩
- “Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. 13 And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.” (1 Cor 2:12 -13) ↩
- 1 Cor 11:28; 2 Cor 13:5 ↩