P. T. Barnum made a fortune based on his philosophy, “There is a sucker born every minute.” Con artists have always thrived on schemes to bilk unsuspecting people out of their money. Sometimes they have to invent new tricks and find new people, but they manage to do a thriving business.
Our enemy, Satan, has a con game that he has used for centuries. He never changes it, but it still works like a charm. He uses it to wreak havoc among God’s people and to thwart God’s work. The scheme is so simple that you would think that even the most naïve of God’s people would have caught on by now, but they haven’t. What is Satan’s ingenious con game? To get God’s people to marry unbelievers.
I have seen spiritually vibrant young people throw their lives away by marrying unbelievers. Usually, it seems to be Christian young women who marry unbelieving men, although occasionally the pattern is reversed. When you ask why they are doing this, you hear rationalizations, such as:
“I love him, and love is what matters the most.”
“He promises to go to church with me and the children.”
“If I break up with him, he won’t have anyone to lead him to Christ. Besides, I’m sure that he’s going to become a Christian.”
“I’ve prayed about it and feel a peace that this is God’s will.”
I want you to hear me loud and clear: It is never God’s will for a Christian to marry a non-Christian! Period!! No exceptions!! You should no more pray about marrying a non-Christian than you should pray about whether it is God’s will for you to commit adultery or murder your neighbor. God has made it abundantly plain that it is sin for His children to marry an unbeliever. It is never God’s will for you to sin!
Someone may be thinking, “But I know of cases where a believer married an unbeliever and everything has turned out fine. The unbeliever came to faith in Christ and today they have a fine Christian family.” Yes, God is often gracious in using even our sins for good when we repent. I’ve heard of people who tried to commit suicide, but God spared their lives and saved them. But that should not encourage us to sin that grace may abound!
For a believer to marry an unbeliever is to sin grievously against God and God’s people.
That is the message of Malachi 2:10-12. As we saw last week, the priests had failed to live and teach God’s truth, causing many to stumble. From the contemporaneous books of Ezra (9, 10) and Nehemiah (13:23-29) we learn that one of the ways the priests had set a bad example and thus had led the people astray was in this sin of marrying foreign women who did not follow the Lord. In fact, they were even divorcing their Jewish wives to marry these foreign women (Mal. 2:13-16). Through the prophet, the Lord warns His people against the sins of marrying unbelievers and divorce.
Our text unfolds four aspects of this sin:
“Father” may refer to Abraham (Calvin), but probably it refers to God, who is the Father of the Jewish nation as His chosen people (1:6). He created and formed the nation (Isa. 43:1), not only in the sense that He created all people, but also in the sense that Israel was to be a special people for His possession. He entered into a covenant with the fathers of the nation, singling them out from all others on earth. As their all-wise heavenly Father, God has the right to tell His people whom they can and cannot marry.
If you know Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, you are not your own. You have been bought with the blood of Christ. You are only free to marry as the Lord directs in His Word. As I’ll show in a moment, He does not leave room for doubt. His will is always that you marry a believer, not an unbeliever.
God is holy, meaning that He is totally separate from sin. He calls His people to be holy also (Lev. 19:2; 1 Pet. 1:16; plus many others). Here the Lord charges Judah with profaning the covenant (2:10) and the sanctuary (2:11), literally, “the holy thing.” This probably refers to the people themselves. God had said that He would dwell among them and they would be His people (Lev. 26:11-12). By marrying those who worshiped foreign gods, the Jews had defiled themselves as God’s dwelling place.
You may think that marrying an unbeliever is unwise, or perhaps a minor sin. But God calls it an abomination (2:11). That Hebrew word is used elsewhere to refer to idolatry, witchcraft, sacrificing children to idols, and to homosexuality (Deut. 13:14; 18:9-12; Lev. 18:22). It is not a gray area!
To underscore how grievous this sin is to the Lord, I want to take you on a quick tour through the biblical witness against it. The principle runs throughout the Bible: God wants His people to be separate from unbelievers in life’s important relationships. Throughout history Satan has used marriage to unbelievers to turn the Lord’s people from devotion to Him.
In Genesis 6, however you interpret “sons of God,” the point is the same. Satan used wrongful marriage to corrupt the human race, leading to the judgment of the flood. In Genesis 24:1-4, Abraham made his servant swear by the Lord that he would not take a wife for Isaac from the Canaanites. Two generations later, the godless Esau married two unbelieving wives. It is emphasized repeatedly (Gen. 26:34-35; 27:46; 28:8) that these women brought grief to Isaac and Rebekah. Later (Gen. 34) Jacob’s daughter, Dinah, got involved with a Canaanite man. His people invited Jacob’s sons to intermarry with them and live among them (Gen. 34:9). Later, Jacob’s son, Judah, married a Canaanite woman and began to live like a Canaanite (Gen. 38).
If Israel had continued to intermarry with the Canaanites, it would have sabotaged God’s plan to make a great nation out of Abraham’s descendants and to bless all nations through them. So God sovereignly had Joseph sold into slavery in Egypt, resulting in the whole family of Jacob moving there, where they eventually became slaves for 400 years. This drastic treatment solidified the people as a separate nation and prevented them from intermarriage with the heathen.
Later, through Moses, God warned the people not to intermarry with the people of the land (Exod. 34:12-16; Deut. 7:1-5). One of the most formidable enemies that Moses had to face was Balaam, who counseled Balak, king of Moab, against Israel. God prevented Balaam from cursing Israel. But Balaam counseled Balak with an insidious plan: Corrupt the people whom you cannot curse. Get them to marry your Moabite women. The plan inflicted much damage, until Phinehas took bold action to stop the plague on Israel (Num. 25:1-9).
Throughout Israel’s history, marriage to heathen women created problems. Samson’s ministry was nullified through his involvement with Philistine women (Judges 16:4-22). Solomon’s idolatrous foreign wives turned his heart away from the Lord (1 Kings 11:1-8). The wicked Jezebel, a foreign idolater, established Baal worship during the reign of her weak Jewish husband, Ahab (1 Kings 16:29-22:40).
Jehoshaphat, who was otherwise a godly king, nearly ruined the nation by joining his son in marriage to Athaliah, daughter of Ahab and Jezebel (1 Chron. 18:1). The terrible effects of this sin did not come to the surface during Jehoshaphat’s lifetime. His son, Jehoram, who married Athaliah, slaughtered all of his brothers and turned the nation to idolatry. God struck him with disease and he died after eight years in office. His son Ahaziah became king and lasted one year before being murdered.
Then the wicked Athaliah made her move. She slaughtered all her own grandsons (except one, who was hidden) and ruled in wickedness for six years. The Davidic line, from which Christ would be born, came within a hair’s breadth, humanly speaking, of being annihilated because of Jehoshaphat’s sin of marrying his son to an unbelieving woman (1 Chron. 17:1-23:15)!
After the captivity, when Ezra heard that some of the returned remnant had married women of the land, he tore his garment, pulled some of the hair from his head and beard, and sat down appalled. This was followed by a time of national mourning and repentance (Ezra 9 & 10). Just a few years later, Nehemiah discovered that some Jews had married Canaanite women. He contended with them, pronounced a curse on them, struck some of them, and pulled out their hair, calling their actions “a great evil” (Neh. 13:23-29)! One of the priests had married the daughter of Sanballat, one of Nehemiah’s chief enemies in the project of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. Malachi’s ministry fits into Nehemiah’s time or shortly after.
The New Testament is equally clear: “Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness? Or what harmony has Christ with Belial, or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever? Or what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God” (2 Cor. 6:14-16a).
When Paul gave instructions for those in Corinth who were married to unbelievers (1 Cor. 7:12-16), he was not endorsing entering such a marriage. Rather, he was giving counsel to those who had become believers after marriage, but whose spouses had not. In 1 Corinthians 7:39 the apostle gives a clear word concerning entering a new marriage: “A wife is bound as long as her husband lives; but if her husband is dead, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord” (emphasis mine).
My point is, there is a principle that runs throughout the Bible: God wants His people to be set apart unto Him. This especially applies to the major life decision of whom you marry. It never is His will for His people to join in marriage to unbelievers.
Thus for a believer to marry an unbeliever is to sin grievously against the God who made His people, who calls them to be holy.
“Judah has profaned the sanctuary of the Lord which He loves” (2:11). Remember the theme of Malachi, “I have loved you,” says the Lord (1:2). It is because of His love that God sets forth such strong standards of holiness for His people. Sin always causes damage. Holiness brings great joy.
We often forget that God’s motive behind all of His actions toward us is, He loves us! We’re like rebellious children, who don’t want to eat nutritious food or brush our teeth. So we run away from home, where we can eat all the junk food we want and never brush our teeth. After the first few days of this “freedom,” we defiantly say, “See, I’m still healthy, my teeth haven’t rotted and fallen out like my mother said, and I’m having a great time! My mother was wrong!” Just wait!
Satan always tempts you with the promise of immediate gratification and the lie that God really doesn’t love you or He wouldn’t keep you from all this pleasure. Here’s how this works: You know that God doesn’t want you to marry an unbeliever, but then the most adorable hunk asks you out. You hesitate, but then rationalize, “What can one date hurt?” Besides, your phone hasn’t been ringing with Christian guys asking you out. So you say yes, you’ll go out to dinner. You plan to witness to him, but the opportunity just doesn’t come up.
You’re pleasantly surprised that he isn’t a rude, crude pagan, as you’d been led to think all unbelievers would be. He’s a decent, caring, sensible young man. So you go out again and again. Then, there’s a polite goodnight kiss at the door. Your feelings for him are growing stronger. The kisses become more passionate, and they feel good. You feel loved and special. Soon, your physical involvement has gone too far and your conscience bothers you. But you brush it aside, thinking, “He’s going to become a Christian and we’ll get married. It will all work out.”
At the start of this subtle drift away from God was your rejection of God’s love, as expressed in His commandment for your holiness. As a Christian, you need to make an up-front surrender of your life to God, trusting that He loves you and knows what is best for you. That includes His commandment for you not to marry an unbeliever. If you don’t want to go to the altar with an unbeliever, don’t accept that first date. As Garrison Keillor has the pastor in Lake Wobegon say to young couples, “If you don’t want to go to Minneapolis, don’t get on the train!”
God’s love is not incompatible with His discipline. In fact, it stems from it: “Whom the Lord loves, He disciplines” (Heb. 12:6). If I love my child, when he does wrong I will correct him strongly enough to deter him from taking that course of action again.
In verse 12, there is a difficult phrase, translated, “everyone who awakes and answers” (NASB), “being awake and aware” (New KJV), or “whoever he is” (NIV). It is probably a Hebrew idiom meaning “everyone.” So the verse means, “Whoever sins by marrying an unbeliever, whether he does it defiantly or ignorantly, may he and his posterity be cut off from the covenant people of God.” God often lets us experience the natural consequences of our sins. The man who marries outside the faith is, in effect, thumbing his nose at God and God’s covenant people. So, God declares that he and his descendants will be cut off from God’s covenant people.
It’s the principle of sowing and reaping. If you sow corn, you don’t reap peaches. If you marry an unbeliever, generally, you won’t have children who are committed to the Lord. They will see your half-hearted commitment, seen in your disobedience in marrying an unbeliever. They will also see the pleasure-oriented, materialistic lifestyle of the unbelieving parent. They will conclude, “Why commit myself fully to the Lord?”
Thank God, there are exceptions, especially when the believing parent repents. But no one should disobey God and hope for their case to be the exception! If the believing partner thinks that he (or she) can disobey God and then “bring his offering” to take care of things, Malachi says, “Think twice!” Such offerings will be of no value. God looks for obedience, not sacrifice. Your children will suffer for your disobedience.
This leads to the other part of Malachi’s message. For a believer to marry an unbeliever is not only to sin against God. Also,
We never sin in private. Our actions are interwoven with the fabric of society. If we defile our part of the fabric, the whole fabric is affected. Malachi states that God’s people are one (2:10). To sin against God by marrying an unbeliever is to sin against our brothers and sisters in God’s family. It’s as if we’re all in the same boat and you think that you have a right to bore a hole in your part of the boat. “What’s it matter to you how I live in my part of the boat?” you ask. It matters a great deal, of course! There are three ways that you hurt other believers if you marry an unbeliever:
Malachi asks, “Why do we deal treacherously each against his brother so as to profane the covenant of our fathers?” (2:10). The Hebrew word “treachery” is related to their word for “garment” or covering. The idea is that treachery involves deceit or cover-up. To marry foreign women covered up Israel’s covenant relationship with God. When one Jew saw his neighbor act as if there were no such relationship, he would be tempted to act in a similar manner.
That’s why I maintain that for a believer to marry an unbeliever should be a church discipline matter. If a believer marries an unbeliever and there are no consequences of being put out of the fellowship, then lonely believers in the church will think, “She seems to be happy, but I’m still lonely. No Christian guys are available. Maybe I’ll date some non-Christians like she did.” “A little leaven leavens the whole lump” (1 Cor. 5:6).
“Judah … has married the daughter of a foreign god” (2:11). The Jews had a saying, “He that marries a heathen woman is as if he made himself son-in-law to an idol” (cited by E. B. Pusey, The Minor Prophets [Baker], p. 482, in Barnes’ Notes). You may be thinking, “I would never marry a pagan idolater. Even though he isn’t especially religious, my fiancé is a decent man. He doesn’t set up statutes and bow down before them!”
But if he doesn’t follow the Lord Jesus Christ, then he follows other gods. It may be the god of self or money or status. But he is not following the living and true God. By joining yourself to him in marriage, you link God’s people by marriage covenant to an idolater, no matter how nice a guy he may be.
This is the implication of verse 12. These people thought that they could disobey God on this most important matter and then cover it up with a few sacrifices and go merrily on their way. But Proverbs 15:8 says, “The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord.” You cannot rebel against God in an area as important as this and then go on about life among God’s people as if nothing happened, expecting God to ignore it.
What does commitment to God mean if it does not affect life’s most significant human relationship? Apart from your relationship to Jesus Christ, nothing else matters as much as your choice of a marriage partner. If you go to church and sing, “Oh, how I love Jesus,” but go out the door and marry an unbeliever, it tells others that commitment to Christ doesn’t make a bit of difference as to how you live. You’ve greatly damaged your witness for Christ to your family and friends.
If you, as a Christian, have already married an unbeliever, then you need to sincerely repent before the Lord, grieving over the fact that you sinned against Him and His people. The true sacrifice to God is a broken and contrite heart (Ps. 51:17). Then you should follow the guidelines of 1 Corinthians 7:12-16. Paul instructs believers in mixed marriages not to initiate divorce. There is the possibility that your mate and children will come to faith in Christ through your presence. You must seek to demonstrate Christ in the home by your life, not by your sermons (see 1 Pet. 3:1-6)! You will probably reap some of the seed that you’ve sown by marrying outside of the will of God. When those seeds sprout, you need to submit to the Lord’s discipline, being careful to acknowledge that His ways are right.
If you are currently involved in a romantic relationship with an unbeliever, break it off immediately, before you get entangled further! You have stepped into spiritual quicksand. Don’t linger and think about how good the warm mud feels between your toes! Marriage is difficult enough when both partners are committed to Christ and God’s Word. You are only heading for a life of pain if you marry an unbeliever who is living for self. You may say, “But if I break it off, how will he hear about Christ?” Line up a Christian to share the gospel with him, but break off your relationship!
If you know a Christian who is dating an unbeliever, share this message with her or him. If you care about this person, about the Lord, and about His people, you can’t remain silent! Parents, impress on your children the importance of marrying only a person who loves and follows Jesus Christ. Pray for your children’s future mates, that they would be godly young people. Don’t fall for Satan’s age-old con game. Too much is at stake!
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2003, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation