Ah Ephesians 5:21-33: widely quoted, widely taught, most often out of context, and most often twisted to fit the teacher’s opinion – rather than let our opinions be straightened out by God’s Word!
So, let me remind you of the context – where are we in the letter to the Ephesians, and what comes just before these verses.
Where we are is in the “describing what a Christian life looks like” part of the book. We have been saved from darkness and brought into the light. We were dead, but now we are alive.
But we don’t know how to not be dead, and left to our own devices we’d keep living the way we always have – as spiritually dead people. So God in his mercy tells us how to live as LIVING people. Stop lying, but tell the truth. Stop sinning sexually, but be pure. Stop breaking people down with your words but build them up. Stop stealing but work hard. Stop living like a drunkard, stumbling through life with no plan, no purpose, but instead be filled with the Spirit, the wisdom and knowledge of God, and live like the wise man, making the most of every opportunity.
Live intentionally, examining your life carefully to see where you are out of step with God’s spirit, where you need to repent and give it over to God.
It’s living faith. Oops, I’ve been living like I was dead in this area, I have not trusted your word here, I repent and give it over to you.
Nowhere is this more apparent with marriage. We all have our own ideas about marriage, indeed whether marriage is even a good thing or not, and certainly about what makes it work. And the words of v22 “wives, submit to your husbands” is so grossly counter culture, sounds so harsh and backwards to our ears, that we are probably tempted to dismiss it as rubbish, or as some form of foolish thinking by Paul, the apostle, stuck in his 1st century ways.
But, if we belong to Christ, we can’t just dismiss his word because we don’t like it. In fact, it’s often those areas where his Living Word is so difficult to accept – it’s those areas that are most important that we grapple to understand, and that we submit to.
We can’t very well call Jesus our “Lord” if we only obey him when he agrees with us. He is our Lord, our Master, we obey his words even when they are hard, even when we don’t understand them, because we trust him. That is faith. That is being in a loving relationship. Obedience is the evidence of faith.
So let us resolve to put aside our initial reaction and allow God to speak to us through his Word first, before we decide how we will respond.
Because this passage is not primarily about women submitting to their husbands – or indeed men loving their wives even to the point of dying for them. It’s not even primarily about marriage!
It is firstly about Christ and the church. So that’s what we’ll look at first. Then we’ll look at the calling to husbands, and finally the calling to wives.
1. Christ and the church
It’s all over the place in this passage, did you notice?
V21 submit…because you revere Christ. He is our motivation!
V22 submit…as to the Lord. V23 Christ is the head of the church. He is the Saviour of his body, the church. V25 love… like Christ loved the church. He gave his life up for her to make her holy. v29 just as Christ cares for the church. And finally, v32 really poorly translated in the NLT This is a great mystery, but it is an illustration of the way Christ and the church are one – actually says This is a great mystery, and it is about Christ and the church. That is, the mystery of marriage is not marriage – but Christ and the church. Marriage is the shadow, Christ and His Church is the reality. Marriage will pass away, but we will forever be united in Christ, being perfectly known, perfectly knowing him and each other, and perfectly loved.
Isn’t that what marriage strives towards? That perfect love, perfect acceptance. Deep, true intimacy. To be deeply known by another – and loved, accepted. That is the new Creation. That is what we are NOW in Christ. He knows us perfectly, yet still loves us. We now know him in part, and soon will know him fully. A good marriage is a glimpse towards that perfect Reality.
What do we learn about our relationship with God through this passage? We are the church, the wife. He is Christ, the husband.
So how does Christ, the perfect husband, love his wife, the church? (By the way, guys, if you’re offended by being part of the “wife” – don’t be. It’s a great blessing. And anyway, the ladies have had to put up with being called sons!)
Christ, the perfect husband. V23 He is the Saviour of his body, the church. He saves us by v25 He gave up his life for her 26 to make her holy and clean, washed by the cleansing of God’s word. 27 He did this to present her to himself as a glorious church without a spot or wrinkle or any other blemish. Instead, she will be holy and without fault.
Christ is our Saviour. To belong to Christ is to be loved with an indestructible love. To belong to Christ is to BE holy and clean, washed by his word (like we’re doing now). We are being made holy, made clean through the power of his word, a glorious church without a spot or wrinkle or any other blemish. Indeed, we WILL be holy and without fault.
It’s guaranteed. That’s our destiny. Holy. Faultless. Perfect. Remember that’s what we need to be to get into the kingdom of God: perfect. Only perfect people allowed in the Kingdom. And by being married with Christ, we get his perfection.
It’s like the Royal Wedding: Kate Middleton was a commoner, but when she married Prince William she got his titles. She is now a princess, a duchess, royalty by marriage. They are one.
Or like when Debby and I got married: I brought in a study loan, Debby brought in a car! She shared in my debts, and I shared in her wealth. We were one. She took on my debt – I received her car.
Like us with Christ, he takes upon himself our sins, and we receive his perfection.
Christianity, at its heart is a Marriage, the King who married the poor homeless girl. Actually, no, it’s better than that – he is the King who marries the rebel, the girl who spat in his face and screams “I hate you” when he comes near, the girl who scrabbled in the dirt, who gave her body to everyone and anyone who came by. This prostitute, this rebel, this unlovable wretch – she’s the one he came for, washed clean with his blood. Redeemed. That’s what we are.
We are united into one new body. So close is our intimacy with Christ that we can be described as one new man, one person, one body (earlier in Ephesians) or here in 30 And we are members of his body. 31 As the Scriptures say, “A man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.”
His body. And so he cares for us, as his body. 29 No one hates his own body but feeds and cares for it, just as Christ cares for the church. Never doubt the love of Christ! If you belong to him, then you are part of his body. And he cannot help but look after his body, and that includes you! Just like you feed, clothe, wash, care for your body, you are compelled to do it, so he looks after and cares for us. We are his body.
How does the church, as the wife of Christ, relate to her husband? She submits to him. She puts his desires before her own. That’s what we do if we are to be the perfect church. A church in rebellion and disobedience to God’s word is not a great church! The evidence is unfortunately all around us: churches that have drifted from the word of God, refusing to obey Christ – and the result is disaster!
24 As the church submits to Christ, so you wives should submit to your husbands in everything. Everything. It is a whole-hearted obedience. We hold nothing back. And why should we? He loves us, died for us and knows what is best for us (including in marriage). So let us submit to him in EVERYTHING!
Christ is our perfect husband, who loves enough to give up his own life for us, He cares for us, nurtures us, loves us. And we are the church, his bride, his wife, joyfully submitting to his wise care for us, his leadership, our eyes shining with love and joy when we hear his voice, and we run to him saying “I am yours, all of me, you have me completely, do with me as you will”.
Right, that’s the ideal, that’s what our marriages are supposed to reflect, supposed to advertise to the world! So let’s look now at the role of the husband, and the role of the wife.
Be Christ to your wives. Put yourself aside, your own selfish ambitions, and serve her.
This means caring for her the way you care for yourself, your own body, just as Christ cares for the church (v29). In fact, caring for your wife IS caring for yourself. 28 For a man who loves his wife actually shows love for himself. When you are married you are joined together as one, one flesh, one new person. To look after your wife is like looking after your leg, your arm, your heart. She is part of you.
But what does “care for you wife” actually mean? Note what the GOAL of the perfect husband is. It is not to make the wife happy! 25 For husbands, this means love your wives, just as Christ loved the church. He gave up his life for her 26 to make her holy and clean, washed by the cleansing of God’s word. 27 He did this to present her to himself as a glorious church without a spot or wrinkle or any other blemish. Instead, she will be holy and without fault.
What is the goal of the Christian husband? To see holiness in his wife. Her holiness, her godliness, her relationship with the Lord Jesus – that is the goal of the Christian husband. Mind-shift, eh?
Have you ever thought that that is your goal? We’ll see next Sunday that it’s the SAME goal with raising children. Because at the end of the day nothing else matters as much as knowing Christ. He is the be all and end all of life. In Him is found all wisdom and understanding, all light and love and happiness, in Him is found every spiritual blessing.
So resolve to aim for godliness, not happiness in your marriage – and you will find that godliness is the pathway to happiness. Whereas aiming for happiness will mean that you miss both. Trying to make her happy will just end up giving in to whatever she wants. And for sinners like us getting what we want all the time does not make us happy and fulfilled, but makes us greedy and discontented!
So, husbands, this does mean that sometimes you will say “no” because you care more for her godliness than momentary happiness. You will gently reveal sin in her life – after all you know her deeply and can see where she needs to repent. You will pray for her regularly, pleading with the Lord for her. You will read the Bible with her, teaching her the words of truth – not because you’re necessarily a gifted Bible teacher (and she might be better!) but because it is your responsibility to cleanse your wife with the Word (v26).
You might want to take some time after the service to apologise to your wife for areas you have failed to be a husband like Christ, where you have made it difficult for her to submit to your leadership – or where you have not been leading, but been lazy, shirking your responsibilities. And pray together for the power of Christ within you to enable you to be more and more a Christian husband. Because to be a Christian husband is impossible without the Holy Spirit!
By the way, servant leadership is never harsh, never cruel. It does not belittle, or crush. It is not violent or angry. It may be firm, it sometimes may infuriate your wife, you may clash – but Christ is a servant leader, deep love and compassion underlies everything he does. You be the same.
The picture I have in my mind of being a husband is caring for a beautiful delicate flower. To water her, to nurture, to occasionally clip a piece off – but always support her striving for the light, letting her bloom, reveal more and more of the glorious flower that she is.
Be the church to your husbands. Submit to him in everything. Respect him.
24 As the church submits to Christ, so you wives should submit to your husbands in everything. Now this does NOT say “submit to him when you agree with his decision”. It does not say “submit, when he’s loving like he should”. It says “submit”. You think that’s hard? Well, how about being called to love your wife, to die to self for her – also unqualified. Also not “if she submits” “if she respects” but love her when she nags you, love her when she’s bitter, love her when she cuts you down, love her when she’s bossy and takes over everything and shuts you out of your own family. Love her, and stop her doing those things (eventually). It’s hard being a husband, and it’s hard being a wife. Being married to a sinner is going to be difficult!
So submit, in everything. That doesn’t mean be a silent doormat, but it does mean that you know AND he knows that he has the responsibility of leading the family and that you support him in that. This is especially important for those with non-Christian husbands. You are still to honour and respect him. In fact 1 Peter 3 says that you will win him over with your submission. Why? Because it is so completely against the way of the world. IN our selfish natures we fight for our rights. But suddenly there you are supporting him. Loving him. Honouring him. Making him feel special, respected, like the king in his home. What a witness of living for Christ!
Ladies, trust the word of Christ. Honouring your husband as your husband, honouring his position as head of the family, and letting him lead. It really works. It is the way God has designed us. So trust his word. Trust yourself to him. And if your husband is making a real hash of things – don’t nag or manipulate or sulk, make things difficult – pray. Pray to his head, the Lord Jesus, and ask Him to change things. And that goes for non-Christian husbands too – Christ has all authority in heaven and on earth, and has authority over your home too. So pray to Him, and trust your First Husband to look after you. Do not be afraid – he is with you.
Again, you might want to take some time after the service to talk with your husband, apologise for areas where you have tried to take control from him, where you have made him feel useless or unwanted, disrespected. And pray together for the power of God to enable you to lovingly and joyfully submit to your husband. Because that is impossible, and only the Holy Spirit can enable you to be a Christian wife!
32 [Marriage] is a great mystery, and it is about Christ and the church
Dear friends, our relationships should reflect Christ: with our wives, our children, at work. And especially marriage: marriage is designed to reflect the relationship Christ has with his church. Our marriage is an advert for Christ’s love and the church’s loving submission.
What message does your marriage teach? Do people see Christ willing to give up everything – to become nothing, to die, even to die a criminal’s death on the cross – love so deep it will bear any cost in order to save his people – do people see that in the way you treat your wife? Love your wife?
Do people see the church with a joyful submission, a servant heart, a willingness to do anything for the glory of Christ – a heart that moves swiftly to obey, swiftly to serve, to give, to honour, to build up, to praise – do people see that in the way you treat your husband? Respect him, honour him, follow his lead, even when it’s difficult, even when you think he’s wrong.
Isn’t this a noble calling? We show Christ and the church. Us! God has entrusted us with advertising his love for us. And he has empowered us by his Spirit, so that we CAN do this.
What a joy! What a privilege! Everything we do, everything we are, is for his glory. Even our marriage echoes into eternity. Praise God.