Editor’s Note: This blog is the second of a two part series on Paul’s discussion of biblical roles in marriage in Ephesians 5:22-23. Be sure you read the second post in this series.
In Ephesians 5:22-33, Paul reveals a profound mystery: the mystery of … MARRIAGE! Marriage is designed by God to proclaim the most profound mystery in all of history. Before we unpack this mystery of marriage in Ephesians, let’s consider a common occurrence in twenty-first century America. Under the influence of story books and fantasy romance movies aimed at entertaining children, many young ladies grow up dreaming of being married to “Prince Charming.” While anticipation of being married one day can be a good thing, often childish creativity and culturally driven ideology produces an expectation of marriage that supersedes God’s divine design for marriage. The result is that once married to “Prince Charming”, he loses his charm! Over the course of time he fails to meet her “royal” expectations. Marriage becomes trick or treat, and she feels increasingly tricked, for her “Prince Charming” isn’t perfect after all. How could what felt so right, go so wrong?
As we look at marriage throughout history, there is indeed much that has gone wrong. In fact, as Paul writes to the church in Ephesus, he gives 12 verses specifically to marriage. Here are a few reasons why he focuses on marriage:
1. The PERVERSION of marriage was rampant!
The institution of marriage has been under the assault of the evil one ever since Genesis 3. Concerning the general culture into which Paul wrote, some husbands married for the sake of having children legitimately and for having a vested guardian to watch over their home. In addition to having a wife — or many wives — it was fairly common for husbands to be frequently engaged with prostitutes and concubines. It is upon this dark backdrop that Paul paints a radical, anti-cultural picture of a Christian marriage. In Ephesians 5:3, Paul addressed the church concerning the rampant immorality of the culture as he wrote that “sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you.” In other words, he is telling the church not to be like the culture, for Christ through his own blood had betrothed the church unto himself. The church is called out from adultery with the world to fidelity with Christ. That brings us back then to this “mystery” theme that runs through the book of Ephesians.
When it comes to understanding the greatest mystery in all of history, God does not leave us to scratch our heads and throw up our hands in despair. Rather, God has revealed, disclosed, displayed, defined, and defended the mystery of marriage. Therefore, if we are to escape the perversion of marriage in our day, then there is something we must understand and embrace.
2. The PURPOSE of marriage (Eph 1:3-14, 5:26, 27, 32, 31-33)
In Ephesians 5:31-32, Paul reveals the purpose or mystery of marriage: “‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” What is this “mystery” that Paul is talking about in verse 32? Well in verse 31, Paul is quoting Genesis 2:24 where God brings together Adam and Eve as husband and wife. They are then united together as … ONE. In Ephesians 5:32, Paul says this one flesh marriage union is a profound mystery, which “refers to … Christ and the church.”
That then raises the question: What is the connection between a husband and wife union and the union of Christ and the church? In Ephesians 3:6, Paul defines the mystery of the Gospel as he writes: “This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”
In Ephesians 3, Paul is saying the mystery once hidden has now been revealed, in that God has united Jews and Gentiles into the same body, the Church — even as he has made the Church ONE with Christ -— who is the Church’s Bridegroom.
So “The Mystery of Marriage” is that Christian marriages are to display the relationship between Christ and the Church. Kent Hughes summarizes the mystery of marriage well as he writes:
“The spiritual mystery which was hidden in the creation of Eve as the first Adam’s wife, and in their becoming one flesh, is revealed in the creation of the Church to be the Bride of Christ, the second Adam. Thus the union of Christ and his Church is partially illustrated by the marriage union. This is why he publicly identified himself as the Bridegroom … It is also why he did his first miracle at a wedding.”
So how then does the marriage union of a husband and wife relationship reflect the relationship between Christ and the Church? In looking at Ephesians 5:22-33, we see the purpose of marriage put on display through God’s DIVINE design — through God’s blueprint.
3. The PATTERN of Marriage (Eph 5:22-24, 33)
In the pattern of marriage, we immediately note that the roles that God gave to Adam and Eve before the Fall are still the universal roles for the husband & wife in Christ. As Paul was apparently a gentlemen, he lets the ladies go first in the discussion of roles. Ephesians 5:22-24 says, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.”
The Wife’s Calling: SUBMISSION (Eph 5:22-24; Col. 3:18)
Perhaps you’ve heard the story of the wedding day, where the bridegroom is at the front of the aisle by the altar, trembling in joyful anticipation as the processional music begins. The doors open — he beholds his bride and can not help but to think about how beautiful she is. All the while, what is the bride thinking about the husband … as she proceeds down the aisle to the altar? It is but three words … “I’LL ALTER YOU!”
This desire to alter or change one’s spouse is nothing new. It originated in Genesis 3 as sin entered into the world. In Genesis 3:16, God says to the wife, “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.” Wives, have you ever succeeded in truly changing your husbands by being … contrary? Those married for any length of time have discovered that they simply do not have the power to truly change one’s spouse! Try as you may, time and time again you will throw your hands up in the air in despair!
Wives, in the marriage relationship, there is only One who is perfect! Perhaps to state the obvious, that perfect person is not your spouse; but neither it is you. The only perfect person in your marriage is … CHRIST. It is interesting to note that some 14 times in this passage on marriage, Christ is referred to by direct name or pronoun, as is the Church. This is significant because it indicates that your marriage is not about … you and your preferences. Rather, your marriage is to be about Christ and how you are to submit to your husband as the Church submits to Christ. Might your husband need to change? Sure. But the change that is needed will not take place through a wife’s efforts to be contrary or controlling. If a wife wants her husband to change, she must entrust him to the Lord even as she seeks to relate to him according to God’s Word. 1 Peter 3:1-2 says, “Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct.” As a wife submits herself to Christ and her husband in this way — whether he is a believer or not, she invites the blessing of God upon her marriage. While her husband may not change, her attitude and contentment certainly can (Phil 4:4-13). So a wife must look ultimately to Christ in her marriage — the only One in the marriage who is perfect. Christ alone can bring true change to the wife, and may just use her to win over the husband.
Looking again at Ephesians 5:23, why is the wife to submit to husband? “For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church.” “Head” in Scripture is synonymous with authority. So as Christ is the head or authority of the church, so the husband is the head or authority of his wife.
Related to this, the word “submission” in verses 22 and 24 means “to be subject to” and always implies a relationship of submission to a God-given authority, which in this case is the husband. That said, in our culture it would be wise to clarify that biblical submission does not mean the wife is to be passive. Submission does not mean the wife is to enable the husband’s sin. Submission does not mean a wife is to stay in a house where her husband abuses her. When Paul writes that “wives should submit in everything to their husbands,” the context means everything AS TO THE LORD — as the church submits to the call of Christ. To that end, Calvin wrote that “Headship can never command what God forbids or forbid what God commands.” That said, unless a husband tries to lead his wife into sin, she is to willingly and joyously place herself under his authority as the church should willingly and joyously place itself under the authority of Christ.
Another point worth noting is that biblical submission means that the wife is equal to her husband in value before the Lord. Galatians 3:28 says “male and female are all one in Christ Jesus.” As with our Triune God, there is equality in the different persons even while there is a distinction in roles. Both the husband and wife are heirs of the grace of life (1 Pet 3:7), and both need God’s grace to fulfill their respective roles in marriage to the glory of God and the harmony of their marriage.
4. The PRACTICE of Marriage (Eph 5:22-33)
The wife’s calling in the marriage relationship is, with reverence and respect, to submit to her husband as the church submits to Christ (Eph 5:22-24, 33). This passage on marriage concludes in Ephesians 5:33 with “and let the wife see that she respects her husband.” Christ is exalted as a wife honors and affirms her husband’s headship, looking for ways to encourage and compliment him with her own gifts and abilities.
When the temptation comes for the wife to critically focus upon her husband’s shortcomings, she must choose instead to focus above all else on Christ’s perfection and her union with Christ. In Christ, the wife is perfectly loved. In Christ, the wife has all that she could ever need and exceedingly more (Eph 1:3; Phil 4:19). In Christ, her own sin has been forgiven though she deserves only eternal condemnation (Rom 6:23; Rom 8:1). In Christ, by the enabling grace of the Holy Spirit, she can not only be content in living with an imperfect husband (Phil 4:11-13) but even able to be kind, tenderhearted, and grateful for him (Eph 4:32; 1 Thess 5:18).
So rather than resembling a dripping faucet in being constantly critical, a wife can reverence her husband by looking for ways to continuously complement him. Richard Baxter encouraged wives to with the following: “Draw out the fragrance of that which is good and delectable (in your husband) … and then you shall find that even your faulty [spouse] will appear more pleasant to you.”
Wives, how can you encourage and compliment your husband through your conversation and conduct? If you are not sure, why not ask him? Perhaps pick up a good book (like “The Excellent Wife” by Martha Peace) that will help you in the great calling you have to make much of Christ in the way you relate to your husband. Christ is most worthy, and your husband will be blessed!
Note from Bryan Gaines: This series is adapted from the sermon found here.
Bryan Gaines is Pastor of Family Discipleship at Grace Community Church in Glen Rose, Texas. He regularly teaches classes to encourage and equip parents, works in the Student Ministry, leads an adult Care Group, and oversees Grace Preschool. Bryan also leads Grace Biblical Counseling, LLC. He is certified biblical counselor with the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC, formerly NANC).
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