There’s No Denying It: Jesus Says Marriage Is for Man and Woman Only
“Jesus never said marriage was just for a man and a woman.” Gay activists have been pushing that line for years. I look through the Gospels, and I go, “Whoa, you’re right! Jesus really never said, ‘Marriage is only for a man and a woman!’ Boom! They win, we lose!”
No, not really. They don’t win that way. They do love playing the “Jesus” card, as if the rest of God’s word weren’t also God’s word. It’s bad practice to start with, since Jesus also never said it was wrong to hijack your neighbor’s wifi signal. Biblical ethics come from scripture-wide principles, not just the four Gospels.
Is the claim even true, though? Did Jesus never teach that marriage was for man and woman only? In Matthew 19:3-9 He says quite clearly it’s for man and woman. “But wait!” the activists fire back. “How do you know He meant it could only be for a man and a woman. You don’t see that word in there, do you? Hah! Gotcha!”
They try so hard.
“Yes, yes, you’re right,” we answer. “He didn’t use the word only, but seriously, can you doubt that’s what he meant? Did He have to spell it out?” They reply (in so many words), “Of course we can doubt that’s what He meant! We’ve been doubting the Bible’s sexual ethics for so long, we’ve developed special skills at it. We can doubt anything, if it suits what we want the Bible to say.”
I wish I were exaggerating. I’m not. Yet I’m also here to put that special skill to the test, using another teaching of Jesus that lands that word “only” square in the center of His view of marriage. You won’t actually see the word, but the idea is there; in fact, it’s the only way the passage makes any sense at all.
Making Sense of Marriage, Jesus’ Way
We’re in Luke 20:27-40. I’ll start with some necessary background on this passage. Jewish leaders had been trying to set verbal traps for Jesus, hoping to make Him look wrong, or foolish, or like an enemy of Rome. This attempt, brought by a Jewish leadership sect called the Sadduccees, was their last one. As verse 40 says: “They no longer dared to ask him any question.” From then on they switched to the raw use of power, finding another way to finish Him off (or so they thought), having Him killed on a cross.
They gave up on their verbal attacks for a reason: They couldn’t win through debate. Yet there’s something odd in this exchange, for us who read it today. Jesus’ answer has obvious holes in it. That’s how it looks from here, anyway. So why didn’t the Sadduccees press Him on that? Why did they think His answer was so good, there was no point even trying anymore?
Let’s look at the challenge and Jesus’ answer, with an especially close look at what appears to be wrong with it. If we can figure out what’s going on here, we’ll know Jesus’ full answer to the question of same-sex marriage.
The Sadduccees’ Challenge
The Sadduccees brought Him a question about marriage from the Torah. (Read the passage here if it’s not already familiar.) Thankfully we need not worry about the Old Testament details behind that challenge. It’s enough just to note that this group of Jewish leaders believed firmly in the Law of Moses, the first five books of the Bible, but not in the Resurrection or the afterlife.
They posed a scenario for Jesus in which a woman following the law of Moses might end up married to and then widowed by seven successive husbands. If the Resurrection were real, she’d have seven husbands forever. Or she’d be something like a divorcee with six ex-husbands. Either way, these Sadduccees thought, the Resurrection couldn’t possibly make sense.
Jesus’ answer comes in two parts. Both wings of His answer must have been total victories, because they don’t dare try a comeback to either one. The first half of it is the part that looks strange; it’s the part that I said looks like it has a huge hole in it. There’s no marriage in the Resurrection, He says, because people cannot die anymore:
The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage, for they cannot die anymore, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection.
They thought that was the game-ender? Didn’t they miss an obvious answer? It sure looks like it from here!
Clarifying His Point
We need to parse out the details a bit at this point in order to be sure we’re really getting Jesus’ point. He said there’s no marriage in the resurrection because:
- People in the resurrection will be like angels.
- They will be sons of God.
- They will be sons of the resurrection.
- They cannot die any more.
That’s His whole answer. He didn’t say sex differences go away in heaven. He didn’t say anything here about our physical bodies. Don’t let the part about being “like angels” confuse you. Angels in the Bible come in many different shapes and forms and ranks and meanings. Some have six wings and six eyes (Isaiah 6); some of them look like wheels in wheels, (Ezekiel 1), and some of them come to earth looking exactly like humans.
So if Jesus wants to say we’ll be like angels, He has to be more specific; He has to spell out in what way we’ll be like them, and that’s exactly what He does. He says we don’t die. I think it’s fair to conclude that’s also the point behind His other comments, that those in the resurrection will be sons of God and sons of the resurrection. There’s no marriage because there is no death.
And I look at that and wonder, “What’s the point, Jesus? Why would eternal life be any kind of problem for marriage?”
Eternal Marriage is a Problem?
I’m thinking of my own marriage now. On the day I proposed to my wife on Valentine’s Day, 1987, I told her, “I love you forever.” I meant it when I said it that day, and I still mean it. I love my wife forever. There’s a lot I don’t know about heaven, but when I said that, it was a promise I intended to keep – forever. I’m still planning to keep it. If God doesn’t want me telling her that, He sure hasn’t given me any hints that I shouldn’t.
“What’s the point, Jesus? Why would eternal life be any kind of problem for marriage?”
And that’s the part in Jesus’ answer that seems weak these days. He said there’s no marriage because people live forever, as if that’s some kind of problem. Meanwhile I’m thinking, “That’s just the way I thought Sara’s and my marriage could last forever.” If we go to heaven and never die, well, so much the better for my promise to love her forever!
I know I’m not the only one who’s thought about love that way. Listen to some good sappy love songs or go to the right movies, and you’ll find a lot of other people have that same idea in mind.
Why Marriage Doesn’t Mix With Eternal Life
The Sadduccees didn’t see any hole in His argument, though. They’d have pounced on Him for it if they had. Why didn’t they?
Let me start by giving some wrong answers. First, Jesus didn’t say, “There’s no marriage in heaven because if there was, happy couples could stay happy couples literally forever.” That would have been, well, silly. (I was just talking about sappy love songs, so silly thoughts do come to mind. Forgive me.)
He also didn’t say, “There are no enduring friendships in heaven.” As far as we can tell from this passage or anywhere else in scripture, friendships can continue in heaven. There’s certainly nothing that says that can’t happen. But Jesus says quite clearly that they can’t be marriages.
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That brings us to the first key turning point that explains what Jesus was thinking about the resurrection. Enduring friendships are not impossible, and as far as we know, forever-love relationships aren’t impossible either. But marriage is impossible. If the one thing is possible but the other thing is impossible, that tells you they’re not the same thing. (It’s impossible for one thing to be both possible and impossible at the same time.)
But what they describe as “marriage” is the same thing we’ve just shown is not synonymous with marriage, in Jesus’ mind. At best it’s friendship. It’s not what He calls marriage.
Same-Sex Marriage’s First Mistake: Marriage is Not Synonymous with Forever-Friendship
So that means that in Jesus’ mind, enduring friendships aren’t synonymous with marriage; in fact, not even forever-love relationships are the same as marriage. They’re not the same thing. The Sadduccees obviously understood things the same way, or else they’d have pressed Jesus on the point..
Homosexual activists look at marriage and say, “Why can’t we have what they’ve got? They’ve got love, they’ve got companionship, they’ve got all the legal ties that bind them together, they’ve got social approval for their love. Why can’t we have that, too? Why can’t we be married like they are?” And then they add, “Jesus never said we couldn’t marry.”
But what they describe as “marriage” is the same thing we’ve just shown is not synonymous with marriage, in Jesus’ mind. At best it’s friendship. It’s not what He calls marriage. That’s the first mistake gay activists run into when they claim Jesus for their side.
What We Think Marriage Means Today
That’s just half the answer we can glean from Jesus here, though. We know that Jesus doesn’t define marriage simply as a “forever friendship.” We know that what He does think about marriage is that it’s incompatible with living forever. What could that mean?
If you’re asking that question — and I’ll bet you are, just the way I have asked it — it’s because you’re a child of your age. Seriously. You and I can imagine marriage being a forever-friendship with full romantic benefits, two people in love, happily ever after. People in Jesus’ day? They never could have thought of it that way. Neither could vast majority of humans who have ever lived. For them, marriage was never just for a couple; it was always for the couple and the family they would bear.
Granted, there are childless couples due to medical reasons, and there are older couples who marry knowing they can’t have children. In the first case, these couples undoubtedly entered into marriage expecting to have kids. It would have been part of their plan. The disappointment, crushing as it may be, would only come later.
As for older couples, this is just part of the fuzziness that comes when you try too hard to pin down human relationships as if they were math expressions. Just because a small number of couples can marry, knowing they won’t bear children, that doesn’t change the fact that marriage has always overwhelmingly been a child-bearing relationship.
To Get Married as a Couple Is To Plan on Being More Than a Couple
For the great, great majority of married couples, if you got married and (I’ll be discreet) acted as if you loved each other, then you expected to have kids. It was part of the plan. You couldn’t possibly go into marriage planning to be just a happy couple. You expected your marriage to bear fruit, that is, that you would have children. You couldn’t think of marriage any other way, except as an exception to the overwhelmingly frequent rule.
So in the minds of nearly everyone who’s ever lived until very recently, was an institution of love between two people with the expectation that if all is normal, they would have children. There are two parts to that way of understanding marriage, and both parts are essential to what marriage means.
And we can even show that this is right at the heart of what Jesus thought of marriage: It’s the missing thought-link that explains the connection between “There is no marriage” and “nor can they die anymore.”
What Jesus Thought Marriage Meant
When God instituted marriage in Genesis 1:26-27, He told the first couple to “be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth.” Heaven won’t need filling; not by childbirth, anyway. People enter the resurrection through faith in Christ on this earth. That’s how it’s populated, and by God’s design, that’s how it will be fully populated that way. No one leaves — there is no death — so it stays fully populated. There is no longer any need to “be fruitful and multiply.”
So now we can pull it all together:
There is love in heaven. We know that from the nature of God, and especially from 1 Corinthians 13.
Looking at marriage the way Jesus did, the idea of some new kind of “marriage” in which every such “marriage” is necessarily childless wouldn’t just be wrong, it would be impossible, a complete contradiction in terms.
There is also at least the possibility of strongly enduring friendships. There is also no reason to think maleness and femaleness will totally disappear into sameness. I think it’s very likely that these things will endure, because if not, then I think Jesus would have made that part of His answer to the Sadduccees: “You err, because you do not realize there is no longer male or female in heaven.” He could have said that if it were true, but He didn’t.
This is why I think it’s very likely God will allow me to keep my promise to Sara, and that I will love her forever. We won’t be married, though. Marriage isn’t the same as forever-love. That’s why I’m sure that when Jesus thought of marriage, He thought of it as a strong, enduring, love relationship that normally, typically leads to bearing children.
Jesus Would Have Laughed at the Question
Looking at marriage the way Jesus did, the idea of some new kind of “marriage” in which every such “marriage” is necessarily childless wouldn’t just be wrong, it would be be impossible, a complete contradiction in terms.
So how would He have answered the question, “Can same-sex couples be married?” I think He would have laughed at it. He’d have laughed the way He laughs in Psalm 2:4-5.
He who sits in the heavens shall laugh;
The LORD shall hold them in derision.
Then He shall speak to them in His wrath,
And distress them in His deep displeasure.
Don’t Make Him Laugh
But I’d better cover a couple of final points before we go. Maybe someone will say, “That was then, though, and this is now. Maybe times have changed?” Human nature hasn’t, though, and neither has God. Just because we have Novocain and deodorant, that doesn’t make us a different species from our ancestors. Besides that, Jesus was already speaking of the future, wasn’t He?
That finishes it, as far as I can see. If you want Jesus’ answer on same-sex marriage, there you have it. For Him it’s a non-starter, a thing that actually isn’t a thing. There’s no such thing as same-sex marriage.
And that, I think, leaves only one last door open to those who want to claim Jesus’ support for same-sex marriage. They could say, “That was a long time ago, and if Jesus knew then what we know now, He’d have answered differently.” But that’s really no different than saying, “I never believed in Jesus in the first place; I was just using His name because I thought I could pull some rhetorical points from it.”
Watch out when you hear anything like that. Stay very, very clear of it. Be very humble, but be very wary. Don’t make God laugh that way. Count on it: He will “speak to them in His wrath, and distress them in His deep displeasure.”
Tom Gilson (@TomGilsonAuthor) is a senior editor with The Stream and the author or editor of six books, including the recently released Too Good To Be False: How Jesus’ Incomparable Character Reveals His Reality.