The Mystery of Marriage
Topic: Pauline Epistles Passage: Ephesians 5:21–5:33
Some time ago a friend told me that while vacationing in Los Angeles, he walked past a store with a sign in the window that read, “We rent wedding rings.” When he told me that, my immediate thought was what a sad commentary that was on the state of marriage in our time. If two people are able to enter into a marital contract that has an “escape clause,” then it would seem that the system is badly broken.
There is little doubt that marriage has fallen on hard times. To many it has become the subject of jokes, while to others it is the source of disappointment and pain. And while it is true that for the past several years the number of divorces in our country has been on the decline, the reason seems to be that fewer people are marrying and are choosing simply to “live together” instead. Ipso facto, the fewer marriages, the fewer divorces.
If we go back to the earliest chapters in Genesis, we discover that it was God—not man—who instituted marriage. It was God who established its boundaries. And it was God who defined its purpose. But it is not until we get to the New Testament that we are able to see that the marital union between a man and a woman was intended all along—by God—to illustrate an even greater truth.
As with many of God’s good gifts, sinful man has corrupted and perverted the will of God regarding marriage to the point where we are barely able to recognize what it originally was meant to be.
The antidote, of course, is to return to the Book. As someone put it, “When all else fails, read the instructions.” It would seem in our day that “all else” has failed. So, this morning, we are going to look at what I believe the singlemost important passage on marriage to be found anywhere in the Scriptures. We are in Ephesians 5, and I will begin reading at verse 21:
...21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.
22 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 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. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.
25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. 28 In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” 32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. 33 However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.
You may be wondering why I began at verse 21 by breaking in mid-sentence to Paul’s discussion about “be(ing) filled with the (Holy) Spirit.” It is because there is no verb found in verse 22. The verb “submit” is implied from verse 21, so it is obviously a part of the ensuing discussion about marriage.
When we looked at verses 15 through 21 last week, we observed what a local church gathering looks like when it functions under the control of the Holy Spirit. Today we are going to see what a Christian marriage looks like when both partners are being controlled by God’s Spirit. You see, marriage was given by God to display the Gospel to the world. It is a “training ground” for experiencing the Gospel at deeper levels than we would have without it
In fact, the main point of this passage is that loving husbands and submissive wives demonstrate the relationship between Christ and His Bride, the Church.
As the apostle builds his case, let us recall that Paul’s exhortation flows out of the command found in verse 18 to “be filled with the Spirit.” If we miss that, we miss a critical aspect of his argument. So, with that in mind, we begin with...
The instruction (verse 21)
...found in verse 21. There we find that we are to be “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” We spent some time in this verse last Sunday, so I will not repeat myself except to say that the “submission” being discussed is reciprocal, which implies that all of us—male and female—have called to live under authority.
A couple of Sunday evenings ago, I shared with you from Paul’s often-misunderstood passage from 1 Corinthians 11(:2-16) dealing with women’s head coverings. There we saw that the Lord has established a “line of authority” that originated within the Trinity itself. Both in that passage and this one, submission to authority is not arbitrary, but rather according to the principle ordained by God. And while there is an incontrovertible “line of authority” established by our Creator, there is also a clear sense in which we have been called to “submit to one another.”
There is no need to be overly “rigid,” on one hand, or too “soft” on the other when interpreting that statement. It is a bona fide truth of Scripture. One commentator has expressed it this way: “Each for the other, and both for the Lord.” Andas another has reminded us, lest we take it too far, “equality of value does not mean identity of role.” In other words, both the man and the woman have been assigned their respective complementarian responsibilities within the marital relationship.
So even though we are to be “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ,” there are commands that are addressed specifically to wives, as well as those addressed specifically to husbands. In verses 24 and 25, we find...
The imperative to wives (verses 22-24)
Let’s read the instruction to the wives once again: “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.”
Please notice that “wives” are to “submit to their own husbands.” It is important to point this out, lest one be tempted to cast every woman in a subordinate role to every man. The “submission” being referred to here is limited to the marital relationship, where the husband is said to be the “head” or designated leader by divine appointment within the home. And just as the Church submits to the authority of its Head—that is, Jesus Christ—so the wife is to submit or subject herself to the leadership of her husband.
I realize those are not popular words in this “politically correct” era. In fact, to many they must seem quite radical. And yet they are God’s words that have never been revoked since the time they were first stated. But let’s be clear about something. They do not imply that the wife is to assume a passive posture in which she is able to be manipulated by her husband’s every selfish whim and desire. Let us not lose sight of the fact that the point of comparison which defines the wife’s role is that of the Church’s submission to Christ.
So what does that imply. You will notice that the text identifies Him as the “Savior.” That title suggests many things, including “provider” and “protector.” As our “Savior”—as well as our Lord—Jesus always acts in a manner on behalf of His Bride that is best for her. That also means—as we shall see—He is her “lover.” The wife’s “submission,” therefore, is to be given to a “lover”...to one who cares for her and meets her needs in a way that models Christ’s love for His Church. One would think that a Godly woman would have little trouble submitting to a husband who patterned his husbandly role after Jesus.
Therefore, the imperative to “wives” is that they “submit to (their) own husbands, as to the Lord.” And in doing so, they demonstrate to the world how the Church is to submit to her Bridegroom, Jesus Christ.
Following immediately on the heels of Paul’s imperative to the “wives” we find...
The imperative to husbands (verses 25-30)
...in verses 25 through 30. It has been pointed out that the instruction given to the “husbands” with regard to the marriage relationship is more than twice as long as what we find being given to the “wives.” While “wives” are commanded to “submit to (their)...husbands,” the corresponding command to “husbands” is to “love (their) wives.” And once again, the pattern for that relationship is Christ’s love for His Bride, the Church.
In Paul’s day, when a female child was born, she was considered to be the property of her father. Under Roman law, she would live under his authority until he arranged for her to marry. And even after the marriage she would remain the father’s property until a year had passed. It was only then that legal proceedings could be enacted so that she could become the property of her husband.
Even then, divorces were relatively easy to come by. Therefore, a woman’s security was largely dependent upon first her father and then her husband. Paul’s instructions within these verses would, therefore, have been as radical and revolutionary as they seem to us today. But what is important for us to realize is that what we read here in Ephesians 5 was actually neither radical nor revolutionary. It had been God’s design for marriage all along.
The fact that the Church is referred to as “the Bride of Christ” in the New Testament (cf. Revelation 19:7 and 22:17) is merely an extension of the same word-picture that was used of the people of God in the Old Testament, especially as the experience of Hosea the prophet is told to us (1:2). And if you were to trace the history of marriage throughout the Scriptures, you would discover that the “ideal” marriage has not been found on the earth since Genesis 2(:18-25) when God brought the first man and the first woman together.
Therefore, it is quite clear that what the Scriptures are describing for us here are not instructions for “making the best out of a broken system.” Instead, what the Lord is doing is bringing forth a brand new creation. Sin entered the world and destroyed the first creation, but now redemption has entered by the blood of Christ and He is “making all things new” (Revelation 19:5). And just as Christ in His “love” for the Church is the pattern for, so “husbands” are charged with following that example and modeling sacrificial “love” toward their lives.
Listen again the language that is used to describe this kind of “love”:
First, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” The command could not be clearer. “Husbands” are to be willing to “give themselves up” for their wives. This suggests counting their lives as more precious than our own. Remember, it is Christ’s pattern of “love” we have been called to follow.
Second, in addition to “loving” His Bride and “giving up Himself” for her, there are three other action words that tell us what Jesus did for her. We are told that He “sanctified” her, or set her apart as His exclusive possession.
Then he “cleansed her by the washing of water with the word.” And while “baptism” may be the first thought that comes to our minds with that description, I don’t think that is what Paul has in mind. He used a similar expression in Titus 3:5 in referring to “the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.” I believe what He is referring to is the forgiveness we as His Bride receive when we believe the Gospel and respond to it in repentance and faith. In short, it refers to the forgiveness of sins. Similarly, every debt the bride had accumulated became the responsibility of her new bridegroom.
The other verb that he employs is in verse 27, where the purpose for Christ’s action on our behalf is stated this way: “So that he might present (that’s the verb) the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” It is nigh unto impossible for us to conceive that those words might one day ever be spoken of us. And yet they will. In fact, positionally, they already have been! Remember from chapter 1(:3-4) of this epistle that we were “blessed...in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” from “before the foundation of the world.”
As His chosen bride, Christ has loved us with an unfailing love. He has given His life for us. He has set us apart as His prized possession. He has forgiven us every sin. And one day soon He will present us as His beautiful Bride, perfect in every respect because we are inseparably identified with Him (cf. 1 John 3:2). At that time we will fully realize the reason for which we were both created and recreated.
Until that day, however, there is a task for us to fulfill. We are not “home” yet. In spite of cultural attempts to weaken it, redefine it, or do away with it altogether, marriage continues to serve a God-ordained purpose that we all often overlook. So let me reiterate something I said at the beginning of this message...it is the main point of this passage: loving husbands and submissive wives demonstrate the relationship between Christ and His Bride, the Church.
Therefore, verse 28 adds, “In the same way (that is, in the same way that Christ demonstrates His love to His Bride, “husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.” The wording of this verse may strike us as strange at first glance, which is why verses 29 and 30 are there to help explain. So, let’s read those as well: “For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church because we are members of his body.”
Whatever else the Lord has for us to see in this section, one thing is obvious. Make sure you get this: Jesus Christ loves the Church not as if it were His Body, but because it is in fact His Body. The ramifications of such a statement exceed what we are able to fully flesh out this morning. But by putting it the way He has, Paul is showing us the inseparable link that exists between the Head and the Body—that is, Christ and His Church.
Therefore, “in the same way” that Jesus relates to His Bride, we “husbands” are to relate to our “wives.” And if perchance any of us men may be thinking that our wives are somehow not worthy of such love and care, then take a fresh look at the Church as it exists today. We are all unworthy, chocked full of “spots” and “wrinkles” and all manner of defects. But because our Savior is also the One who sanctifies and who ultimately glorifies, we will one day be presented “faultless” (cf. Jude 24, KJV) as His glorious chosen Bride.
There is nothing more beautiful than a bride adorned for her wedding day. This past year we hosted two weddings in this sanctuary, and on both occasions the bride arrived early at the church and literally spent hours—with an entourage of attendants—preparing herself to meet her bridegroom. And when the doors opened and she appeared, every eye in the room was fixed upon her. Even now, Jesus is preparing His Bride for that great day when He will appear to take her home to live with Him forever.
“Husbands,” Jesus has provided for us the pattern in terms of relating with our “wives.” We are to love them as Christ loves His Church.
The illustration(verses 31-32)
...given in verses 31 and 32 reinforces this point. Here Paul takes us back to the very beginning of the marriage relationship by quoting from Genesis 2:24: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”
When Paul says that “a man shall leave...father and mother,” he uses the word for “mankind” (“ανθρωποs”) and not the more specific term meaning “male” (“ανηρ”), indicating that both are to leave their homes and families and form a brand new union. In addition—and this observation is subtle—in the original Genesis passage, the word “two” does not appear. The text simply reads, “they shall become one flesh,” suggesting that this “oneness” was God’s pattern from the beginning. Marriage was meant to depict the relationship between the Lord and His people, but sin destroyed that bond so that now “the two”—God and sinners—needed to be reconciled. And if that sounds like a Christmas theme, then you are thinking correctly.
You see, in order for God and sinners to be reconciled, God would have to be the One to do it. And that is precisely what happened through the incarnation. Jesus Christ—the Son of God—left His eternal home to come to earth and win for Himself a Bride. And her purchase came at a great cost. In love that can only be illustrated but never duplicated, the Son of God became the Son of Man in order that sons of men might become sons of God. In historical terms, that process was set in motion on that first Christmas day.
All of this defies our ability to comprehend fully. In fact, Paul says as much in verse 32, writing, “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” As important as the marriage relationship is—and as it should be—we must not forget that it was instituted by God to depict the union that exists between Him and His people. Within that depiction come many blessings and benefits as we live out our lives as “husbands” and “wives.” But there is coming a day when the temporal unions of this life will be surpassed by the eternal one with Christ Jesus. Even now the Bridegroom has gone “to prepare a place” for His Bride, and as He told us in John 14:3, He will “come again” and take us to live with Him forever.
This passage concludes with...
The implication (verse 33)
...found in verse 33. Although Paul has been explaining for us the divine purpose for marriage, he is also displaying for us the supreme example. And because God has given us the prototype through the Lord Jesus, Christians have been charged to order their marriages in a way that reflects the relationship that exists between Christ and His Church. Thus, he adds in summation in this final verse, “Let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.”
There are those who attempt to make an issue of the fact that “husbands” are told to “love” their “wives,” but “wives” are instructed to “respect” their “husbands,” as if the two were in opposition. I assure you, that is not the case at all. In fact, “love” is expressed by showing “respect,” is it not? And with regard to “submission,” which was the earlier command given to “wives,” John Calvin has pointed out—no doubt referring back to verse 21—that “Where love reigns, there is mutual submission.”
I am aware that as we discuss the husband-and-wife relationship in this way, there is a tendency to shrug it off as “idealistic” and “unattainable.” To do that, however, indicts us rather than the text. You and I need to take a step back from our contemporary—and often less-than-serious—views of marriage and revisit God’s original purpose for it. And while it is true that God created a perfect union between the first man and woman, sin entered into the world shortly thereafter and everything—including the marriage relationship—was badly marred. And, apart from God’s grace, we have been making a mess of it ever since.
The first thing to go—and only what divine revelation helps us to recover—is the recognition that although marriage was created for the pleasure of man and woman, it also served a greater purpose...to display the relationship between God and His people. And it is only when we rediscover that aspect that human marriages are able to rediscover their ultimate purpose.
Having admitted that, we must conclude that Paul is speaking exclusively of “Christian” marriages in this passage. Unless both the husband and wife know Christ and are seeking to honor Him through their union in the manner described in Ephesians 5, they will not be able to find and live out this greater purpose. If you happen to be without Christ today, the place to begin is by acknowledging that you are a sinner and confessing your need for Him to apply to your life the work of salvation He accomplished on Calvary. I earnestly pray that you would do that without any further delay.
Marriage was given by God to display the Gospel to the world. It is a “training ground” for experiencing the Gospel at deeper levels than we would have without it. So allow me to close with a couple of brief exhortations to those of you who profess to know Christ. In the first place, I need to remind you that two Christians who are married do not necessarily make a Christian marriage. It is entirely possible for both husband and wife to sincerely know Christ and yet be ordering their marriage in ways that either reject or neglect the biblical imperatives for a Christian home. The psalmist has written, “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Psalm 127:1). If you are a Christian couple but yours is not a Christian marriage according to biblical criteria, let me suggest that you spend some time—just the two of you—and admit to God where you have gotten “off track.” Confess your own failures, and not cast the blame on your spouse. Recommit yourselves to one another, and vow to begin modeling your marriage after the divine pattern from this day forward.
Closely linked to that, let me propose that the best Christmas gift you can give to your spouse is to be a loving husband or a submissive and respectful wife. Don’t allow personal pride or the culture of a fallen world to stand in the way. Unlock “the mystery of marriage” and discover the potential that may have been locked away far too long.
I realize that I have primarily been addressing those who are married this morning. I am aware that not all of you fall into that category. Paul addresses the single state elsewhere in the New Testament (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:8), and I encourage you to give serious study to those texts. But let me just add a closing word for those of you for whom marriage remains a possibility in your future: first, don’t rush God...wait on His timing. And then, should he lead you to become a husband or a wife commit to following His instructions.
Regardless of your current marital status, may we never forget that Christian marriage is a “mystery” ordained by God and intended to display the Gospel to the world. There is more at stake than meets the eye.