The relatives and friends are seated. The organ is playing softly while candles flicker in the background. The attendants are standing in place. The father has said, “Her mother and I.” The soloist has just finished.
The audience is silent. The minister speaks. “Please join hands and repeat after me. I, James, take you, Susan . . .”

Expectation moves into reality through the exchanging of vows. The man and woman make solemn promises before God, family, and friends that they will “love, honor, and cherish” one another until “death us do part.” By repeating vows and signing the license, a man and woman enter into a covenant relationship that embodies all that God intended for marriage.

Exchanged vows also anticipate those times of married life that are always more than we bargained for. The covenant anticipates those experiences of life in which marriage, with its unexpected twists and turns, reaches deeper, becomes more absorbing, and pulls more out of us than we ever anticipated. “Worse,” “poorer,” and “sickness,” do happen.

And when they do, we can go back again and again to the promises we made to one another. Understanding what the Lord intended those vows to mean—at a depth we could not have anticipated when we made them—will help us over and over again as we experience all that marriage is.

A Lifetime Commitment.
When a man and woman say, “I do,” they are vowing to each other before the Lord that they will stay together until one of them dies. The Lord Jesus clearly taught what God expected when He said: “Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matt. 19:4-6).

“But what about divorce?” someone asked the Lord. “Isn’t that always an option? Can’t I keep a back door open just in case it doesn’t work out?” Jesus replied: “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery” (Matt. 19:8-9).

The marriage vow is the verbal expression of a lifelong commitment made in the mind and heart. That’s God’s design. The richest fulfillment of the promise of marriage is anchored in that concept. When we say in the vow, “from this day forward,” we mean a lifetime. This promise is not made to be broken (Eccl. 5:4).

Yes, such commitment is limiting. But it also sets a man or woman free to concentrate on the task of living out and adjusting and improving a loving relationship through the sincere give-and-take of life. Such a covenant allows husband and wife to give one another the gift of a vowed love—a lifetime promise—that will carry them through physical illness and divergent interests and job pressures and problems with teenagers and unbelievable stress in the relationship. So complex—yet so simple. “I made a promise, and with the help of God I intend to keep it. I’m a person of my word. I’m in this for life.”

A Shared Identity.
In the fulfillment of the marital covenant, two become one. The man no longer lives only for himself, nor the woman only for herself. A new unity, a new diversity, a new family is established. Both remain distinct persons. Yet, from the Bible’s point of view, two now share a mystery of oneness. The apostle Paul wrote:

So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church. For we are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church (Eph. 5:28-32).

As the church is united to Christ, so woman and man become one. They walk up the aisle a diversity—a man and woman apart. They come back down the aisle as one flesh—a shared identity. Different backgrounds, families, educations, hurts, habits—yet now, in covenant, they are one . . . When he is stationed in the Middle East and she must stay in New Jersey; when she is struggling through the first trimester of a difficult pregnancy; when he is told that his job has been phased out and she gets a promotion; when she contracts MS or he hears the words, “I’m sorry, but the cancer is inoperable”; when he must devote a lot of time to caring for his aged parents.
Yes, the man and woman are one. These two unique people have promised to walk the pathway of life together as one in a new, shared identity.

An Exclusive Relationship.
The covenant relationship the man and woman enter when they say their vows calls for total faithfulness. Husband and wife are to love and be true to and cherish each other—exclusively! The man is to be true to his wife and she to him. The Bible gives no ground on this point. “Can a man take fire to his bosom, and his clothes not be burned? Can one walk on hot coals, and his feet not be seared? So is he who goes in to his neighbor’s wife; whoever touches her shall not be innocent” (Prov. 6:27-29). Current social practices notwithstanding, the covenant of marriage is with one person only.
Paul told Titus to have the older women of the church at Crete teach the younger women “to love their husbands, to love their children, to be discreet, chaste” (Titus 2:4-5).
The seventh commandment given at Sinai is, “You shall not commit adultery” (Ex. 20:14). Jesus repeated this commandment (Matt. 19:18). And Paul named adultery first in his list of the sins of the flesh (Gal. 5:19).
“I pledge you my faithfulness.” About these words, Mike Mason wrote, “This is how we must love one another, with a vowed love that is not dependent on happiness nor any of the external hallmarks of success. Where is such love to begin if it does not begin with the one closest to us, the life partner whom we have chosen out of all the other people in the world as the apple of our eye?” (The Mystery Of Marriage, p.106).
From this commitment onward, the man and woman are expected to be true to each other. This is God’s expectation for marriage. And if they follow it, they will experience the wonderful promise of marriage. Because of this . . . We will concentrate our love on our mate; we will not be disloyal; we will not initiate nor encourage flirtations; we will flee temptation.
Oh, we will be tested. From within our own deceitful hearts, and from outside, will come urges to ignore that vow. The promise of marriage is built on a covenant, on the integrity of our word still being intact when one of us is called home.
Only by remaining true to our word, and only by a deep desire to trust God’s plan, can we weather the next important phase of marriage.