Last week we began taking a look at what I promised would be some of the most important, but also the most challenging words on marriage we can find in the Scriptures. Paul’s counsel on how to get marriage right for the Ephesian believers starts with the command for wives to submit to their husbands and doesn’t get any easier from there. Without context, it just sounds like an ugly mess we rightly want to avoid. So, we started out this look last week with context. We explored the larger purpose and theme of the entire letter and came to the conclusion that something entirely different from what the world sees in these words is what Paul actually meant. This week, we are exploring Paul’s counsel itself and seeing what kind of sense we can make from it in light of the proper context. Keep reading to see how we did.
Love Lived Out
Have you ever done one of those hidden image pictures where you have to essentially color-by-number in order to discover what the image is? If you just look at it without doing any work on it at all, it looks basically like a bunch of random shapes all jammed together. At least, that’s the case if they’re done right. Until you begin filling in blanks, you aren’t able to really understand what you are seeing. If they’re created really well, you have to get several blanks filled in before you begin to get a clue. But at some point a picture starts to emerge. Once you’ve gotten a sense of where you’re going, then, the energy and intensity to work on it begin to increase. As you have a clearer and clearer sense of the end toward which you are working, you can move in that direction with greater diligence and speed.
This is all a little like what we are going to be doing today.
This morning we are in the third part of our teaching series, Married for Good. The whole idea for this journey is that everyone is impacted by marriage. Everyone. Whether you are married, divorced, widowed, a student, or even never married, marriage affects your life in some way. If not your own marriage, then someone else’s will or—more likely—already has. The impact of a good marriage is pretty profoundly positive, while a bad one can sow all kinds of chaos in not only our own lives, but also the lives of everyone around us. Yet in the midst of all of this, there is a simple truth we dare not miss: Marriage is a good gift from our gracious God. He gave us marriage as a way to meet some of our deepest relational needs. He gave it to us to create the single best context for the rearing and raising of kids who are emotionally, relationally, and spiritually healthy. He gave it to us so we could better understand the kind of relationship He wants to enjoy with us. Because of this and more, it is important for us to be getting marriage right. We need that for our own marriages if indeed you are married. We need it so we can pour into the marriages of the people around us as well. That’s what this series is all about. I want for us to learn together not merely how to be married, but how to be married for good.
Two weeks ago, we got started by defining what marriage is. The reason for this was simple: It’s hard to know how to do something right if you don’t know what it is. We discovered with Moses’ help that marriage was actually something woven into the very fabric of creation. As the crown jewels of creation, God made the first man and first woman uniquely, and then brought them together in what was the very first marriage relationship ever. He built marriage to be the single most foundational unit of all human societies. More than even that, though, and as I just said, marriage is the relationship by which God helps us to understand how He wants to relate with us in Christ. What we learned in this is that marriage is a covenantal relationship between a man and a woman designed to point people to Jesus.
Last week, then, we began to get more practical on how to actually do marriage right with what I promised would be a two-part look at one of the most challenging, but also most important, passages about marriage in the entirety of the Scriptures. This passage begins with Paul’s command for wives to submit to their husbands. Our culture hears that and recoils like it has been burned. Because of this, we didn’t actually get past that command. Instead, we took all of our time together trying to get our hearts and minds around its context, so we could better understand exactly what Paul meant by it. After zooming out to take in the big picture of Paul’s letter to the Ephessian church, we could see that v. 22 sits firmly in a context of his encouraging believers to live up to the high calling we have in Christ. More specifically, it comes in the context of his calling us to the Spirit-filled practice of mutual submission which was something first demonstrated to us by Jesus Himself. Understanding that, here’s what we know about Paul’s call to submission: When our lives are submitted to Christ, we can submit to one another. That context is critical. Any submission Paul encourages to any other person is necessarily subsequent to our first submitting our own lives to Jesus. Without that context, it really will be the negative thing our culture automatically assumes it to be.
Given that context, then, let’s dive right into what Paul says here about marriage to see what kind of sense we can make out of it. And as we do, let me make a couple of things clear from the start: There is going to be some tough stuff as we go. Paul’s words are important here, but they are also pretty challenging. We all need to be ready to have our toes stepped a bit on as we go. The second thing is this: Paul’s goal is to encourage marriages that are thriving, and the Holy Spirit inspired him to write this. If God wanted us to have this particular perspective on marriage, there’s a reason for it. If we’ll lean in, I suspect we can figure out why.
Paul starts here with wives, and so we will with him. If you have a copy of the Scriptures with you this morning, find your way to Ephesians 5:22, and let’s finally see what he has to say here. “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord, because the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church. He is the Savior of the body. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives are to submit to their husbands in everything.” Now, let’s be honest with each other here: That seems pretty clear and more than a little uncomfortable. Without any further context like we uncovered last week, that really does sound pretty bad. Without that context, it sounds like Paul is telling wives simply to do whatever their husbands tell them. With our context filter in place, though, a different perspective begins to emerge.
For starters here, Paul commands wives to submit to their husbands (and not anyone else’s husband—don’t miss that) as to the Lord. This does not mean the husband sits in the place of God over his wife. Only God sits there. This means that her submission to him—that is, her intentional attempts to place his needs and interests ahead of her own so she can see him moved in the direction of Jesus—is to be patterned after her submission to God in Christ. And that’s the key to understanding these three verses. Wives are called to submit themselves to their husbands as a function of their larger and higher submission to Christ.
Paul also does something else here, though. He describes husbands as the head of the household. Doesn’t this just mean husbands are in charge at home? Again, no. Jesus is. But what this does make clear is that God has called husbands to take a leading role in the marriage relationship. Yeah…that sounds like they’re supposed to be in charge. It does, but only if you’re thinking about it through the lens of the world rather than the lens of the kingdom of God which Paul is using here.
Okay, so the husband is supposed to be the leader in the relationship. What did Jesus have to say about leadership? Matthew tells us about that in Matthew 20:25. After the disciples got into a little spat because John and James asked to be given leadership roles above the other guys in their imagined version of Jesus’ kingdom that was never actually going to exist, Jesus called the whole group over to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles [that is, people who didn’t believe in God or seek to live their lives after His ways] lord it over them, and those in high positions act as tyrants over them.”
Now, come on, let’s keep being honest with each other here. When we react to Paul’s identifying the husband as the “head of the wife,” isn’t this kind of thing what we have in mind? We imagine a husband acting like a tyrant over his wife and kids, ruling over them like a dictator, and making their lives miserable as he demands they serve at his beck and call. That vision is a huge part of why we react so negatively to this passage. And, if that were the kind of situation Paul was envisioning—one which exists in far too many homes around the world—the critics would be right. But listen to the rest of what Jesus said to the disciples in that moment: “It must not be like that among you.” In other words, if you are going to be a leader, don’t be a leader according to the rules of the world. Be a leader according to the rules of the kingdom. “On the contrary, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
When Paul calls the husband the head of his wife, this is what he has in mind and nothing short of it. The position of head, or leader, does not mean the husband gets whatever he wants and the wife simply has to go along. It means instead that he is the first one to give up what he wants in favor of being able to move her in the direction of Jesus. She may be called to submit to him, but if he is really living up to the ideal of living toward her as Christ lives toward the church (something we’ll talk about more in just a second), then the whole time he is submitting himself to her. Indeed, what Paul is calling for here is mutual submission and nothing less. And, come on, ladies, if your husband is really getting this right, you’re going to want to submit to him. You’ll submit to him in order to elevate him toward Jesus at the same time he is trying to submit to you in order to elevate you toward Jesus. Have you ever lived or worked under a leader who got all of this right? Submitting to such a leader is easy because you are thoroughly convinced he has your best interests at heart and is working diligently to see those interests realized even at the expense of his own. When someone treats you as if you are more important than they are in spite of their obvious confidence that your respective values are equal, there is something naturally attractive about that.
So, yes, there is an ought here. Wives ought to submit to their husbands in the same sort of way they submit to Jesus. But when their husbands are following Jesus’ example of love for His bride, the church, in their leadership of their wives, this is no heavy burden to bear. It is a sweet pleasure. Of course, husbands don’t always…or even often…get this right (nor do wives, for that matter), but we’ll talk next week, Lord willing, about those kinds of situations. For now, the thing to know is that godly wives are called to submit to their godly husbands to the mutual benefit of them both.
If that is all what Paul has to say to wives, what does he have to say to husbands? A lot, actually. In fact, if you do a quick word count of this whole passage, Paul spends 75% of it talking to husbands and only 25% talking to wives. Wives, in being called to submit to your husband who is the head, or leader, in the relationship, you are actually being given the lighter duty here. So then, guys, let’s talk about what Paul has to say to us.
Come back to the text with me in v. 25: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her to make her holy, cleansing her with the washing of water by the word. He did this to present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or anything like that, but holy and blameless. In the same way, husbands are to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own flesh but provides and cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, since we are members of his body.” And at this point, Paul quotes from the tail end of Genesis 2 that we looked at a couple of weeks ago. “‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, but I am talking about Christ and the church. To sum up, each one of you is to love his wife as himself, and the wife is to respect her husband.”
Now, if as a husband, those verses don’t make your blood run at least a little bit cold, you probably weren’t listening closely enough. And you thought Paul’s words to wives were tough! Wives may be called to submit to their husbands as to the Lord, which is a tough thing because of the way sin messes up our desires and our relationships, but the standard for husbands when it comes to loving their wives is Jesus’ own love for the church. And just in case it isn’t clear how radical of a standard this is, ask yourself a simple question: What did Jesus’ love for the church lead Him to do? He died for her, didn’t He? Nothing short of a willingness to lay down our very lives is acceptable for godly husbands endeavoring to live up to their calling in Christ toward their wives.
But before you go thinking that of course you’d be willing to die for your wife, so your duty is fulfilled in this regard, let’s up the challenge here just a bit. Jesus’ death was a sacrificial offering for the purpose of making the church perfect in His image. In other words, it wasn’t simply that Jesus died for her. He sacrificed Himself for her. He laid down all of His desires and plans and interests in submission to those of the Father in order to elevate hers. Your obligation to lay your life down for your wife as a reflection of Jesus’ love for the church means far, far more than cultivating a willingness to do something heroic like taking a bullet for her. It means sacrificing your desires, plans, and interests on a daily basis for her. Let’s be clear: That’s harder.
Let me give you an example. Let’s say you’ve worked hard all day long, it’s the end of the day, and you’re tired. Perhaps she does most of the cooking because you’re just not very good at it. That’s okay. It’s simply wise to let the person who’s best at cooking handle that daily duty. But after dinner, when you’re ready to go collapse in your chair and zone out in front of the TV, you instead get up, and handle all the dishes. Then, when it’s time to put the kids to bed, you don’t leave that to her. You get involved. You take all your plans, desires, and interests in a quiet, easy evening, and you put them to death in favor of helping to ease whatever burdens she might be carrying. Or perhaps this: You come home and are ready to zone out for a little while to refresh yourself before engaging more with the family. Well, there’s a good chance, your wife is going to be looking to reconnect emotionally after being apart from you all day. So, you put those desires to check out to death, and give your first fifteen minutes to intentional and focused conversation with her. Better than even these: Keep an open dialogue with your wife about the ways you can best serve her and express your love for her in ways she will actually hear you, and then you make a point of serving her and expressing your love in those ways. Put your selfishness and insecurities and fears to death in order to lift her up. This kind of thing is what Jesus did and does for the church, and so it is what you must do for your wife.
And what is the goal of all of this? Nothing short of making her more reflective of the image of Christ. That’s what Jesus does for the church. Everything He does toward her—toward us—is with the goal of making us more like Him. Actually, that’s not quite a strong enough observation. Our call here is not simply for our love to result in our wives becoming more like Jesus, but in their becoming perfect in His image. And this is where that whole leadership thing we talked about a second ago becomes extra uncomfortable for us. Being the leader sounds really cool and exciting until you realize that as the leader, the success or failure of the venture you are leading is your responsibility. The buck stops with you. The failure of the venture is going to be perceived as a failure on your part. In this case, someday we are all going to have to stand before God. If you are a husband standing there, God is going to look at the spiritual shape of your wife, then look to you for an explanation as to why she’s in the spiritual shape she’s in. Maybe you’ll be able to look with entirely appropriate pride on the ways your sacrificial love has moved her in Jesus’ direction, but maybe that conversation will be entirely more uncomfortable than that. Whether it is or isn’t depends a great deal on you and your efforts to love your wife like Jesus loves the church.
Paul goes on from here to explain why this matters so much. We see this in v. 28: “In the same way, husbands are to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.” Remember that whole two-becoming-one-flesh thing Moses told us about? Let’s apply that here with Paul. Because of the nature of marriage, loving your wife well and moving her in the direction of Jesus is actually an entirely self-interested thing to do. Because the two of you share one flesh, things that benefit her will naturally benefit you. No one in their right mind does things that will cause themselves unnecessary harm. Well, falling short of loving your wife after the pattern of Jesus’ love for the church will cause you totally unnecessary harm.
The next couple of things Paul says in vv. 29-32 are centered on the idea we’ve already talked about that the marriage relationship is intended to be a model of the kind of relationship Jesus desires to have with us as the church. Finally, in v. 33, he offers a closing summary statement. Husbands are supposed to love their wives, and wives are supposed to respect their husbands. This does not at all mean husbands don’t need love nor that wives aren’t also deserving of respect. This is simply a summary statement in light of the way he’s approached everything else in this little section. A wife’s submission to her husband is going to come off like showing him respect; respecting his position and authority, again and always as a reflection of her larger and prior submission to Christ. Meanwhile, the command for husbands as the ones vested with leadership and authority in the relationship is to handle those gifts after the pattern Jesus commanded and set for us. This looks like our loving our wives with humility and sacrifice. Nothing less will do.
In the end, then, when we get all of this right, both the husband and the wife are moved because of their marriage relationship in the direction of Jesus. When we get marriage right, both the husband and the wife become more like Jesus. And when the husband and wife are becoming more like Jesus, the odds that the people around them, starting with their kids, become more like Jesus too go way, way up. This is that missionary purpose of marriage I mentioned a couple of weeks ago put into action. When we get marriage right, both the husband and the wife become more like Jesus.
So then, what do we do with all of this? Well, to put what I hope isn’t too fine a point on it, we put it into practice. If you want a marriage relationship that is everything you want and God intended for it to be, what Paul is talking about here is a huge part of how you get there. It starts with giving yourself to Jesus as a faithful follower. Now, hear me well: This doesn’t mean unbelievers can’t also have happy, successful, fulfilling marriages. They certainly can, but it will be because they are borrowing on these ideas without perhaps even realizing it. No marriage is going to experience long-term success without an intentional commitment on the part of both the husband and the wife to practice mutual submission with one another. And, absent the greater and prior submission to Jesus first being in place, the odds that sin is going to sneak in and mess with the whole mutual submission thing are really high. They’re still really high without Jesus, it’s just that without Him there’s not even a safeguard against it. Because our goal is moving each other in the direction of Jesus, if we don’t start with Him, the rest of it won’t work right. When we get marriage right, both the husband and the wife become more like Jesus.
Ladies, this all means that you need to be intentional in your efforts to lift your husband up by your voluntary submission of yourself to him as a function of your greater and prior submission of yourself to Jesus. Encourage his godly leadership. Find ways to celebrate when he gets it right. Call him with gentleness and humility back to the right path when he deviates from it (because he’s going to deviate from it). Now, don’t follow his lead into sin. Don’t accept anything less than his full embrace of your value. Don’t ever forget that your first priority is Jesus. He is your second priority. Your kids come after these two. One of the very best gifts you can give your children is a picture of a godly marriage, and that will never happen if you put them first in your relationship. But understand all the while that your aim is Jesus. When we get marriage right, both the husband and the wife become more like Jesus.
Guys, this all means that you need to be prepared to sacrifice everything you have including your comfort and convenience in order to love your wife like Jesus loved the church. You need to be the leader God has called you in Christ to be. That means setting the spiritual and relational direction of your marriage (with generous amounts of thoroughly considered input from your wife), and then the initiator of the active steps it will take to move the both of you in that direction. You need to pray for your wife. You need to look for ways to highlight and celebrate her value. Don’t ever forget that this is God’s little girl you’re married to. He fully expects you to handle His gift with care and compassion and concern. He fully expects you are going to lead her closer to Him. When we get marriage right, both the husband and the wife become more like Jesus.
And here’s the thing: The more we come to reflect who Jesus is, the more we will come to experience the life Jesus lives. And the life Jesus lives is the eternal life of God’s kingdom. When we get marriage right, nothing short of the pure joy of God’s kingdom is our reward. Now, marriage isn’t by any means the only way to experience this joy. It is accessible to all of us through Christ. But marriage is a way that a great many of us can experience it. And, if you’re married and not getting it right, your full enjoyment is going to be cut short. Husbands lead, wives follow, both after the pattern of Christ and the church, and when we get this right the outcome is lives that are more like Jesus. When we get marriage right, both the husband and the wife become more like Jesus. So, let’s get marriage right. We’ll all be glad that we did. And if you’ll come back next week, we’ll talk about one of the ways this can go wrong and what to do then.