Please read Ephesians 5:21-33 in your favorite Bible.
(Image by James Best, (C) 2019, https://www.behance.net/gallery/82544295/Sermon-Illustrations-2019.)
Some social commentators express grave concern over the state of marriage in our culture. I believe there is good reason for our concern as several cultural shifts have weakened our national commitment to marriage.
However, we don’t hold a candle to the depravity of the culture in which the Apostle Paul lived. In Greek culture, wives were kept in the house, their sole function to bear and raise children and manage the household. Prostitutes met the husband’s desires for intimacy and companionship. In the first 500 years of the Roman republic there was not a single recorded case of divorce. Under the emperors, Roman culture degenerated to the degree that marriage was a revolving door. The historian Jerome wrote of a woman who was married to her 23rd husband and she was his 21st wife. Juvenal told of a woman who had eight husbands in five years. Against the backdrop of such depravity, our situation seems rather tame.
Into that setting the Church arose and dared to say that marriage was a life-long union between one man and one woman for their mutual love and joy! You can imagine how some received that teaching.
CONTEXT = Having set forth the principles of godly relationships in 3:14-5:20, now he uses three types of relationships to illustrate what difference all that teaching makes. He used the relationship between husbands and wives (5:22-33), children and parents (6:1-4), and slaves to masters (6:5-9) as examples of how the principles of unity and maturity work in each set of relationships.
But there’s something about the marriage relationship that sets it apart from the other two kinds of relationships: Paul used the marriage relationship as a symbol of the relationship of Jesus Christ and His Church. Our title uses Paul’s plain statement in v. 32: I AM TALKING ABOUT CHRIST AND THE CHURCH.
This will be our approach this morning. Rather than waste time trying to resolve the “battle of the sexes,” we want to draw out the theology of the Church that Paul taught by using marriage as a metaphor. In order to understand the metaphor, we have to look at it from that point of view, not from our cultural perspective.
God’s standard for marriage is related to Christ’s relationship to His Church.
- Christ is the Head of the Church. (21-24)
We demonstrate our REVERENCE FOR CHRIST in mutual submission. This is a statement of general principle and there is no distinction of gender or any other factor. Mutual submission is the counter-cultural norm in the churches that worship Jesus Christ. In mutual submission, everyone submits to everyone else, putting the needs of the church and the other believers ahead of their own needs.
Mutual submission is motivated by REVERENCE FOR CHRIST. Because we put Jesus first, we put His people second, and self last. Any rearranging of these essential priorities exposes a claim to faith as false.
The word SUBMIT is key: let’s understand it the way Paul understood it. It meant giving voluntary subordination to someone deserving RESPECT (v. 33). The phrase AS TO THE LORD (v. 22) sets a high standard for the one deserving respect and it casts the whole teaching in the brighter light of the Church’s relationship with Christ.
In Paul’s culture, the submission of the wife to the husband was normal. Verse 22 calls all believers to submit to the lordship of Jesus Christ. Sometimes we think submission will be easy because Jesus is an “absentee landlord;” He’s in heaven, removed from earth. Not so. Jesus is very involved in all our lives. In the same way that a wife’s submission to her husband’s authority was required in order to form a marriage, so is submission to Jesus’ lordship a prerequisite to true faith.
Verse 23 sees a husband as a symbol of Jesus Christ in two ways. First, they saw the man’s decision to take a wife as the first cause of the formation of a family. Similarly, the word HEAD means the Church exists because Jesus decided to form it.
Second, the word HEAD carries a sense of authority. No one disputes that Jesus is HEAD OF THE CHURCH in much the same way people of Paul’s day assumed the husband to be “head” of the family.
But there’s a theological element in v. 23 as well: Christ is the SAVIOR of the Church, whereas the husband is not the savior of the wife. This theological element prevents us from turning Paul’s use of metaphor into a legalism that determines marital relationships in our own time.
In verse 24 Paul reversed the metaphor. In vs. 22+23 he started with marriage as a metaphor of faith. In v. 24 he started with faith and used it as a metaphor of marriage. The way he intertwines and compares the two, Paul’s intent is clearly to talk about more than marriage. In all this, he’s explaining how the standard of mutual submission is similar to the marriage relationship.
His purpose is certainly not to establish a law for marriage, as that would be contrary to all the clear statements that are contrary to the law that he made in numerous places in his letters. He’s merely using marriage as it was known to himself and his readers as a reference point to explain that submission to Jesus is what’s expected.
- Christ demonstrated his love by self-sacrifice. (25-30)
As the husband is the symbol for Christ, he is appealed to in v. 25. Paul’s appeal is to practice a self-emptying love, a sacrificial love that puts the beloved before self: HE GAVE HIMSELF UP FOR HER. Verses 26-27 list specific ways Jesus enacted His sacrificial love.
TO MAKE HER HOLY is the first. The word HOLY has different meanings, but based on the context, I’d say Paul is emphasizing HOLY as moral/spiritual purity.
People assume the phrase CLEANSING HER BY THE WASHING WITH WATER THROUGH THE WORD refers to baptism. I don’t believe so. Instead, I believe Paul referenced Ezekiel 16:1-7, a touching passage where God found orphaned Israel, cleaned her up, and took her as His bride.
Jesus’ ultimate purpose in this is to PRESENT HER TO HIMSELF as His bride (Revelation 19:6-9). Through a process similar to the one allegorized in Ezekiel 16, she will be a RADIANT CHURCH, not aglow from anything in herself, but reflecting the glory of God. The Church will be WITHOUT STAIN OR WRINKLE OR ANY OTHER BLEMISH, being forgiven all her sins and everyone cleansed from all unrighteousness. Set apart to Christ alone, the purified Church will be HOLY AND BLAMELESS.
In vs. 28-30, Paul returned to the use of the HUSBANDS as a symbol of Jesus. As men, husbands practice self-care. Most men attend to matters of hygiene and health on a daily basis. As husbands, most men attend to providing for their family’s needs on a daily basis. 0 In a similar way, Christ cares for His Church (29). He provides for us and protects us, and nurtures life for our sake. We are all – both male and female – MEMBERS OF HIS BODY (30).
- Saving faith requires us to leave the world and love the Lord. (31-33)
Verse 31 quotes Genesis 2:24, the portion of the creation account where God instituted marriage. The phrase FOR THIS REASON does not refer to the reasons any of us have for getting married, that’s relatively trivial. When we go back to Genesis 2 the context gives us the reason: God created men and women to relieve loneliness and create a partnership that would facilitate humanity fulfilling His command to BE FRUITFUL AND INCREASE IN NUMBER (Genesis 1:28).
This means the Church fulfills similar functions: the Church was created to relieve loneliness and be a partnership that extends the Kingdom of God all over the world. Becoming ONE is not an end, it is a means to that end. Unity and maturity are virtues, but they are means to fulfill our mandate to make disciples.
In v. 32 Paul used the word MYSTERY, a word we explored back in chapter 3. It means something that was previously unknown coming to light. Anyone who is married will acknowledge that marriage is a MYSTERY, but Paul made it plain this teaching is about something more PROFOUND when he wrote I AM TALKING ABOUT CHRIST AND THE CHURCH. (This is our Key Verse.) In the next two sections, Paul does not analogize the relationships as he does in this marriage section.
This sets the marriage section apart and proves that Paul has more in mind here than instructing married couples. There is both theological and relational teaching here. The analogy is completed in v. 33, where LOVE is what Christ (as the “husband”) bestows upon the Church and the Church (as the “wife”) returns His love with RESPECT.
God’s standard for marriage is related to Christ’s relationship to His Church.
The best way to understand the Bible is to first understand what the words meant to the writer and his original audience. We have to get into their culture, their language, their situation to really appreciate what these words MEANT to them.
Having been diligent in that first step allows us to recognize the eternal truths that are conveyed in that original context. With these principles in hand, we can apply them to our own situation, using words and symbols that convey that meaning to people of our own time and culture, in language that best communicates those principles.
Paul is clearly calling husbands and wives to a higher standard of relationship. By using marriage as a symbol of Christ and His Church, Paul exalted the marriage relationship above that of the parent-child relationship and the master-slave relationship, which he mentions but does not use as a theological illustration.
Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, Ephesians, Clinton E. Arnold