I have never been very good at using visual aids. I am not a very practical person. On the other hand, my great friend, Nicky Lee (who, together with his wife Sila, has pioneered The Marriage Course and other courses for couples and parents), is extremely practical and often uses visual aids.
When he is speaking at weddings he sometimes uses a visual aid to illustrate the passage in Ecclesiastes 4, where the writer says, ‘Two are better than one… A cord of three strands is not quickly broken’ (vv.9,12).
As a picture of marriage, Nicky Lee takes two strands of different coloured wool and weaves them together. Together they are stronger and yet they can quite easily be broken. Then he takes a third strand of nearly invisible fishing line. With this third strand, it is almost impossible to break the two pieces of wool. (I did try to use this illustration once but, for reasons I cannot remember, it went horribly wrong!)
The point that he makes so well, and that comes out of the passage in Ecclesiastes, is that while friendships and marriages are wonderful gifts, having God at the centre of a friendship or marriage provides an invisible thread of enormous strength.
In today’s passages, we see how two are stronger than one in marriage, mission and ministry.
Marriage: two become oneProverbs 5:15-23
This is a wonderful picture of marriage as a source of blessing (v.18a), rejoicing (v.18b), love (v.19a), grace (v.19a), satisfaction (v.19b) and romance (v.19c).
It is a beautiful description of marriage in which two people ‘become one flesh’ (Genesis 2:24). Part of its beauty lies in its exclusiveness. The writer uses the evocative image of a spring, well or fountain to describe the delight of sexual union. It is a delight that is grounded in exclusiveness though, and he stresses this four times (Proverbs 5:15–18).
The greatness of the emotional and physical love between a husband and wife (‘enduring intimacies’, v.19, MSG) is compared to the ‘cheap thrills’ of ‘dalliance with a promiscuous stranger’ (v.20, MSG).
That is why the writer warns so strongly against adultery. Be aware, he says, that God is watching (v.21). And the path that leads to adultery is ‘evil’, ‘wicked’, sinful, foolish and leads to death (vv.22–23). We see an example of this in the New Testament passage where it was Herod’s adultery that led to him murdering John the Baptist (Mark 6:14–29).
While the fact that our ‘ways are in full view of the Lord’ (Proverbs 5:21) is a warning against adultery, it is also a reminder of the strength that comes from having ‘the Lord’ involved in a marriage, as the third strand of the cord.
God’s love for us is the best example and central guiding principle of how we should love our spouse.
Thank you, Lord, for the difference that the third strand, the presence of Jesus, makes to a marriage. Thank you that two are better than one and that a cord of three strands is not quickly broken.
Mission: two by twoMark 6:6b-29
Marriage is not the only answer to aloneness. Although marriage is a great blessing, we are reminded here that we do not need to be married to know community or completeness. Jesus was not married and he was the most complete human to have ever walked this earth. He modelled another way of wholeness.
Jesus went around ‘doing the stuff’ (to coin a phrase used by John Wimber). Then he sent his disciples out to do the same. They went out and preached, drove out demons and healed the sick (vv.12–13).
It is significant that he sent them out in pairs: ‘two by two’ (v.7). This kind of mission can be very lonely if you are on your own. It is so much better to go out in pairs.
It must have been great fun and deeply satisfying to go out together and preach the gospel, drive out demons and anoint the sick with oil and see them healed as a result (v.13).
‘They preached with joyful urgency that life can be radically different; right and left they sent the demons packing; they brought wellness to the sick, anointing their bodies, healing their spirits’ (vv.13–14, MSG).
They did it together. By contrast with these disciples, poor John the Baptist had been on his own in prison. We see in him a striking example of moral courage. He had been saying to Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife’ (v.18). He did not hesitate to incur the wrath of the great and powerful as often as was found necessary.
Herod liked to listen to John (v.20). He felt better after a good sermon! But there was one thing in Herod’s life that he refused to give up: his adulterous relationship with Herodias. This made him morally weak, and it stopped him from enjoying a relationship with God.
Herod, like Pilate with Jesus, was not keen to order the death of John the Baptist. But Herod made a foolish offer and found himself in a position where he would have lost face had he not gone ahead and ordered John the Baptist’s execution.
While John the Baptist had followers (John 1:35), he had to face prison and execution alone. Jesus sent his disciples out ‘two by two’.
Jago Wynne, author of the book Working Without Wilting, talks about pastoring mid-week gatherings for people working in London. He says that those who came by themselves from their workplace as isolated Christians generally looked weary, struggling with the pressures of working life.
On the other hand, those who had found other Christian colleagues and who came to the services in groups of two or more were almost universally far more upbeat and radiant.
Jago writes, ‘If we are isolated Christians in our day-to-day environments, whether that is the workplace or school or university or home, it is good to pray for the Lord to provide us with another brother or sister in Christ. Even their mere presence can be a source of encouragement to keep going in serving the Lord in life and in mission.’
As the writer of Ecclesiastes says, ‘Two are better than one… If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up! … Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken’ (Ecclesiastes 4:9–12). This verse is often used to illustrate the importance of friendship and unity in marriage – but the original context of this verse is actually that of friendship.
Thank you, Lord, for friendship. Thank you that you do not send us out on our own. Thank you that as we go out, two by two, we know that there is a third cord also. You said, ‘Go and make disciples of all nations… and surely I am with you always’ (Matthew 28:19–20).
Ministry: two lambsExodus 29:1-30:38
The elaborate ceremonies we read about in this passage emphasise the meticulous care with which a holy God was to be approached. It was the outward adorning that gave the priests glory, beauty and holiness. In the New Testament, the garments that lead to inner beauty and holiness come from God’s Spirit in your heart.
In these Old Testament ceremonies, everything had to be multiplied. That is why they needed two rams (29:1,3), two gold rings (30:4) and, most significantly, two lambs (29:38). The multiplication of implements and sacrifices was a sign of God’s greatness. They pointed to the inadequacies of any animal sacrifice or ritual to truly bring us to God. Two is better than one – but it is still not enough.
The writer of Hebrews tells us that all these regulations have been set aside: ‘The former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless’ (Hebrews 7:18). Instead of two lambs, one perfect lamb was sacrificed for us – Jesus. ‘He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself’ (v.27). We no longer need a multiplication of sacrifices.
Atonement was necessary (Exodus 29:33,37; 30:10,16) and required ‘the blood of the atoning sin offering’ (30:10).
Jesus shed his own blood for us. Paul describes his death on the cross as a ‘sacrifice of atonement’ (Romans 3:25).
It was only through sacrifice that the priests could approach the altar ‘to minister’ (Exodus 30:20). ‘Ministry’ means service to God. It is the one sacrifice of Jesus on the cross that enables you to be involved in ministry (service of God and of others).
Thank you, Jesus, that you are the one perfect lamb who was sacrificed for my sins once and for all. Thank you that I no longer need a multiplication of sacrifices. Thank you that, as the great hymn puts it, I am ‘ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven’.
‘The king was greatly distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he did not want to refuse her.’
It is not good to go back on an oath, but better than doing something so wrong. Herod should have been prepared to be humiliated in front of his dinner guests and break his oath or find a way around it. Are you ever tempted to do the wrong thing just to save face?
Verse of the Day
‘… I will meet you and speak to you’ (Exodus 29:42).
Jago Wynne, Working Without Wilting, (Inter-varsity Press, 2009)
Unless otherwise stated, Scripture quotations taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version Anglicised, Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 Biblica, formerly International Bible Society. Used by permission of Hodder & Stoughton Publishers, an Hachette UK company. All rights reserved. ‘NIV’ is a registered trademark of Biblica. UK trademark number 1448790.
Scripture marked (MSG) taken from The Message. Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.