Saturday 19 May 2012

A marriage made in heaven (Ephesians 5:21-33)

One of the clearest texts on Christian marriage in the one we are looking at today. It is the longest found in the bible on the subject of marriage. It is the most direct - addressing wives and husbands about their marriage. And yet, I wonder if it is also the most unpopular. Thinking back to weddings I’ve attended in past years, none have chosen this text as a bible reading. Almost all refer to 1 Corinthians 13, emphasising love. “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud... Love never fails.” 1 Corinthians 13 is a marvellous passage, don’t get me wrong. Only there, the bible isn’t speaking about marital love in particular - the love between a husband and a wife - but rather, Christian love amongst all believers. Indeed, if we understood the context of 1 Corinthians, we would know that Paul was writing to an unloving church, teaching them about what it means to love and rebuking them for not displaying such love in Jesus Christ.

No, this is the passage to read, to have preached, to commit to memory and to apply in our daily lives, if you are at all serious about marriage. Whether it is because you are married, or that you are thinking about getting married, or even if you have chosen not to get married - yes, the bible is speaking to you also. Because Paul begins by speaking not just to the married couple, but to the entire church.

Submit to one another out of reverence to Christ.
Ephesians 5:21

The theme is submission. That is the heading for this entire section of Paul’s letter to Christians in Ephesus: Submit to one another. What follows are three examples of submission - the wife to her husband (Ephesians 5:22-33), children to their parents (Ephesians 6:1-4) and slaves to their masters (Ephesians 6:5-9); three relationships characterised by submission, three relationships expressing submission to Jesus Christ as Lord. “Out of reverence to Christ,” Paul writes.

That is hard. If you are the wife, the child or the slave, you might say to me, “That is impossibly hard!” More likely, you might say to me, “That is unfair.” I want to convince you that instead of being unfair, burdensome or old-fashioned, what we have here is real, helpful and demonstrable love. What I mean is this: Paul doesn’t just leave things at verse 21. Otherwise, I wonder if we might invest all kinds of meaning into that command to “Submit to one another,” from either being touchy-feely and superficial in our submission (like the way Chinese people fuss over the bill at the end of a meal in a restaurant), to being overbearing and abusive in our relationships by reminding others to be submissive (like telling off the teenagers for not helping to serve tea after church).

What Paul does is illustrate for us what it means to submit to one another in Jesus, as if to say, “This is what it looks like.” Immediately, Paul turns and addresses the women, saying, “Wives...”

Submissive wives

Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour.
Ephesians 5:22

Paul speaks directly to the wives; the married women in the church. “Ladies,” he says, “I want you to know that you are not following some sort of tradition, some old-fashioned ideas cooked up by men to oppress women in the workplace and in the bedroom. You are following Jesus.” Meaning, Paul isn’t simply giving good advice. He is helping married women to work out what it means to be a Christian believer in their marriage. As far as we can tell, Paul himself was single and unmarried. So, he isn’t saying, “Look at how successful my marriage is. Why, yours can be, too!” What he is saying is, “This is God’s word to you as married women who follow Jesus Christ as Lord: Submit to your husbands.”

Now, submission does not mean servitude. Submission does not mean you allow yourself to be abused physically and emotionally by your husband. Submission does not mean you participate in sinful acts with your husband. But submission does mean that you recognise your husband as the head of the household. He has authority and responsibility over you and your family, just as Jesus has authority and responsibility over the church. It is recognising an order in creation and salvation.

For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour.
Ephesians 5:23

Some would argue that this submission goes both ways. After all, verse 21 calls on all of us to “Submit to one another,” advocating a kind of mutual submission. Therefore, the husband, too, ought to submit to his wife. I must admit how attractive this idea of mutual submission is, as elsewhere, Paul does tell us to humble ourselves before one another (Philippians 2:3). Having said that, to conclude that submission is generically the same in every direction (without any distinction between husband and wife) would be to misunderstand the nature of the word “submission” and to misinterpret the phrase, “one another”.

Firstly, submission (Greek: hypotasso) means putting yourself under another person’s authority, or as Paul puts it, another person’s headship. Hence the headship of Christ over his church becomes the basis of the headship of the husband over his wife. This headship is embedded in creation, going back to the opening chapters of Genesis, where God gave authority to the man and woman to “subdue” the earth and “rule” over all living creatures (Genesis 1:28). This is a headship that is seen in God’s authority over man and man’s authority over creation. When the man and the woman sinned, they reversed the order of headship, seen in the serpent (representing creation) deceiving the woman, the woman taking the fruit and giving it to the man, and the man putting the blame on God. In other words, sin results in the reversal of the God’s original design. In his rebellion, the first man Adam set himself over God. In salvation, Jesus Christ comes as the second Adam, the true man who humbles himself before God his Father and willingly goes to the cross. The result is a new creation, one where Jesus reigns as Christ and Lord, and all creation is put in submission under his feet. Ephesians Chapter 1, verse 22 says “And God placed everything under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body.” Just as Christ submits himself under God, so Christians submit themselves under Jesus as Lord. This is seen in our relationships to one another as the church. This is reflected in our marriages as husbands and wives under Christ.

Secondly, submitting to one another does not - and cannot - mean mutual submission. Nowhere does Christ submit himself under the authority of the church. Nowhere does it say that God submits himself under the headship of Christ. And in our passage today, husbands are not called to submit under the authority of their wives. So, when Paul calls upon the church to “submit to one another in reverence to Christ”, he isn’t therefore instituting a flat organisational structure, abolishing all forms of authority within the Christian community. If anything Paul establishes Jesus Christ as first and foremost, Lord over his the church, his body. And out of reverence, literally fear of him (referring to his final judgement and return), we are called to submit to his word and to the authority of leaders whose chief responsibility is to preach his word in the church (see Ephesians 4:11 on apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers, also Hebrews 13:17, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority”). Submitting to “one another”, far from abolishing all forms of authority and hierarchy, actually assumes visible loving leadership in the church.

But what does this look like in the home, for the wife? In short, it means that the godly wife allows her husband to be the man in their marriage. It means letting him take the lead - on matters to do with money, on matters to do with the children, on where you will live - and submitting to those decisions in love and full support under Christ. Again, remember the events before and after the fall in Genesis: the woman was created as companion and helper to the man but after the fall, God pronounces the curse on Eve, saying, “Your desire will be on your husband and he will rule over you.” It is the desire to usurp the role of the man. To take charge and diminish the headship of the man. Submission is the reversal of this curse that comes salvation in Christ. Jesus frees you from sin to serve him as Lord, but also to serve your husband in your marriage.

This is God’s word to the Christian wife. But what if your husband messes up? What if he doesn’t take charge? What if he’s a good-for-nothing bum? Paul will speak to him very soon, but right here, right now, he speaks to you. “Wives,” he says. This is about your walk with Jesus and what it looks like in your marriages. But I think Paul does sense how hard this will be for the married women he is speaking to, and I get this from what he says next.

Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
Ephesians 5:24

He says, “Look at the church.” The rest of you here today who are going, “Phew! I’m glad I’m not a married woman. Submission sounds hard!” Well, know this. Paul is telling these same married women to look at you to gain insight and encouragement to be submissive to their husbands. The question is, therefore: How is your submission? Does your own life display continuing, growing, loving submission to Jesus? Or are you using your singleness and freedom as an excuse to be selfish? Paul is saying to the wives in our church, look at how your brothers and sisters put Jesus first in their life decisions. I hope that’s true here in the Chinese Church. I hope the married sisters and mums come here, look at all of us and see that submission is not something that only they have to struggle with at home, but that submission characterises our daily walk with Jesus. We are always seeking to please him, to serve him and to love him.

Another important point we learn from verse 24 is this: Your husband doesn’t save you, only Jesus does. The NIV has “Now as the church submits to Christ,” comparing the submission of Christians to Jesus to the submission of wives to their husbands, when the word is actually “but” (Greek: alla). Meaning, yes, there is a comparison with Jesus, but also a contrast between husbands and Jesus. Earlier, Paul says that Christ “is himself its Saviour” (ESV). But. There is a turning point. Jesus saves the church. Jesus is head over the church. The church is the body of Christ. And because of all this, wives ought to submit to Jesus and submit to their husbands. But only Jesus saves.

Why labour on this point? Look around you. Here in the Chinese Church, and in most churches in the UK and around the world, most converts are women. Most Christians who continue coming to church are women. There are more women following Jesus than men. There are more wives coming to church, telling their kids about Jesus, than their husbands. This situation results in two heart-breaking problems: (1) unmarried Christian girls who can’t find a faithful life partner; and (2) Christian wives whose husbands do not know Jesus. The bible is saying to both, your husband cannot save you, only Jesus can, and the command still stands: Submit yourselves to your husbands. To those who are unmarried, it is very unwise to enter into a relationship with someone who isn’t a Christian. I have heard every excuse there is, including the one that says, “He will have more opportunity to hear about Jesus.” The truth is, you are putting yourself between him and knowing God. To enter into a relationship with a non-believer would be unwise and moreover, unloving. To the married, the bible is reminding us of our first devotion to Jesus, which ought to make us more faithful, not less to our spouses; more loving, not less to our spouses - irrespective of their own walk with Jesus; irrespective of their own faithfulness to Jesus. Your obedience is not contingent on theirs. If you are married Christian woman, these verses are speaking directly to you, reminding you to continue in obedience, love and faithfulness to Jesus, trusting him for your salvation, and entrusting him with the salvation of your loved ones.

You might say to me, “You don’t understand, Calvin. This is so hard.” And the bible recognises that, encouraging you to look Jesus as a loving Saviour, reminding you that he is the true head whom you are submitting yourself to. He makes you part of his body, the church, giving you brothers and sisters who are all, likewise, living their lives in submission to him. But I do want to emphasise how the bible is helpfully clear on the subject of submission and that there is joy to be found in living dependently on God’s grace. It teaches us patience, humility and hope. It makes our hearts long for Jesus.

What is surprising is that the bible doesn’t say to wives, “Love your husbands,” neither here nor anywhere else in the New Testament for the matter. Rather, the command to love is specifically given to the men.

Loving husbands

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing of water through the word.
Ephesians 5:25-26

“Husbands,” Paul says directly to the married men, “Love your wives.” He says it again, “In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives,” and again, “He who loves his wife loves himself” (verse 28). And again, “Each of you must love his wife” (verse 33). Paul never says this to women, but four times to the men, he commands them to be loving. Love is not an emotional response. It’s not something only the women do (like watching the Great British Menu). Paul says love is manly. Christian husbands must be loving husbands.

What does that mean? Buying flowers. Taking her out for a nice dinner. Doing the dishes. Looking after the kids so that she can have a night out with her friends. Reminding her how much you love her. Waiting outside M&S holding her shopping bags while she tries on the clothes. Yes, it means all of these things - certainly not less - but the bible gives us more, providing us with one clear comparison on what loving your wife looks like. It looks like Jesus dying on the cross. “Just as Christ loved the church and gave himself (paredoken) up for her.” We encountered this phrase a couple of weeks ago near the beginning of Chapter 5. “Jesus Christ loved us and gave himself up (paredoken) for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:2). It means to die. Husbands, your job is to die. To sacrifice yourself for the good of your wives. That is what it means to love.

It is a privilege that Jesus bestows upon us as men. Marriage is the opportunity to give ourselves fully and sacrificially for the good of our wives. Headship is a responsibility. It is your job to provide for her. It is your job to protect her. It is your job to serve her. More than that, as husband and head of the household, you are responsible for the spiritual leadership in your family. It is not the wife’s job to say, “I think we should pray about this,” it’s yours.  It is not the wife’s job to bug you about sleeping early on Saturday night so that you can get up in time for church. It is yours. Earlier on, Paul said to the wives: Let the husband be a man. Now, the bible is says to you: Be the man!

The model the bible gives us for this manhood - for male headship - is Jesus. It’s a strange picture because Jesus was single throughout his earthly life. Yet some of us might recall how the bible continually refers to Jesus as the bridegroom. And here in Ephesians we see that it is the church that is being described as his bride - “Jesus loved the church and gave himself up for her (a feminine article, again speaking about the church)”. But more than just dying for the church, Paul says that Jesus’ love actually makes her more beautiful. Or to be precise, it makes her radiant!

To make her more holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.
Ephesians 5:26-27

Most single guys, when thinking about marriage, look for the most attractive, the most compatible girl with whom they have “chemistry”. In other words, we go all out to look for beauty but this passage says that Jesus goes all out to make us beautiful. He makes her holy (or another word would be “exclusive”, again symbolising marriage) and cleanses her. That’s what Jesus did and Paul is saying, that’s what a true marriage ought to do. It makes our wives beautiful, not through make-up and cosmetics; Jesus didn’t cover up the stains and wrinkles and blemishes. No, what he did was wash her with water of the word. He purified the church and he did this with the gospel. You see, men, if you make the gospel the centre of your marriage it changes you and it changes your wife and it transforms your marriage. It doesn’t just make her look good, it makes her absolutely radiant. The gospel has the power to make your marriage beautiful.

Paul is using an Old Testament picture, specifically from the prophet Ezekiel, where God is described as the bridegroom who clothes his bride. We find similar language from the prophetic writings of Hosea. Now when you do read such passages in the Old Testament, the striking thing you find isn’t simply that God would compare himself to the experiences of a husband, providing for his wife, loving his wife and caring for his wife; but also that in many of these instances, God equates himself with the husband whose love has been rejected by his wife. In Ezekiel Chapter 16 - which Paul is likely referring to when he uses this language of the cleansing and washing with water here in Ephesians - God begins by declaring his love for his bride, but then exposing her shame for having taken advantage of that love and being unfaithful to his love. So, when Jesus came declaring himself to be the bridegroom (Luke 5:45, also see John 3:28), he is, on the one hand revealing his identity as the God of the Old Testament, but on the other, revealing himself as the one who restores the beauty, the love and the faithfulness of his bride. Do you see how powerful these words are in Ephesians? It is God saying to husbands, I know how painful and sacrificial it is be a husband. I even know the pain of you rejected husbands. But in the gospel lies the power to restore love and to restore beauty - through the death and sacrifice of Jesus Christ - he brings healing, forgiveness, restoration. The bible is saying, "That’s what Jesus did in his love for the church, his bride," then turns to husbands and says to them, "Now you do the same for your brides." “In the same way...” Paul says.

In the same way, husbands ought to love their wives, as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church.
Ephesians 5:28-29

There is a kind of warped reasoning not uncommon in today’s culture that reads these verses and somehow concludes: We must love ourselves more; that says: the key to loving others is to learn to love yourself. It is the kind of rationale that thinks of marriage as kind of self-fulfilment exercise. It is popular because, in part, it is true. Marriage is a blessing given by God, not just to Christians, but to men and women in the created order. It was instituted by God between the first man and woman before the fall. We were made for companionship, partnership and love; marriage is God’s gift to a man and woman to be able to express that lifelong relationship to one another in emotional and physical intimacy.

Yet Paul is not telling us to love ourselves more - and therefore, find a life-partner to be fulfilled. Far from that. He assumes that we already love ourselves, that we care for our needs; and using that as a basis, he says, “Care for your wives.” If anything, Paul is saying to us, “It’s no longer just about you.” This is where the analogy of the body comes in. In verse 29, he says, “After all, no one ever hated his own body.” The ESV has, “no one ever hated his own flesh (sarx)” And that’s a significant switch - from body to flesh - because of the very next verse.

“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh (sarx).”
Ephesians 5:31

The quote comes from Genesis Chapter 2, verse 24, where “one flesh” is picture language of physical intimacy - one of the clearest bible teaching that sex is God’s gift to be enjoyed in marriage and only in marriage - but is picked up here by Paul to bring across another point. He is saying to the husband: You and your wife are now one in God’s eyes; not two individuals who happened to sign a legal document; not two people living separate lives under one roof. You are one. Notice, that Paul says this to the husband (Verse 28: “In the same way, husbands...”), meaning: Husbands, you are no longer your own. Your money is not your money. Your time is no longer your time. Your life is no longer your own. She is now part of your life. Use your money to serve her. Use your time and energies to love her. Use your life - sacrifice it even - to love her.

Paul’s instruction to husbands, saying, “He who loves his wife, loves himself” (verse 28) ought to be a familiar one. After the first commandment to love God, the second greatest, according to none other than Jesus himself, is to “love your neighbour as yourself "(Mark 12:31, quoting Leviticus 19:18). It’s not talking about self-fulfilment. It is a response of obedience to God, expressed in service to someone else, not ourselves. The bible is saying to husbands, your wife is your primary ministry: Serve her needs. The reason you have a job is not to buy a nicer car, to advance your career, to make more money. It is to serve the needs of your wife. The best way of using your gifts, talents, time and resources is firstly to meet the needs of your spouse. This is so far from self-fulfilment and self-centredness. To be married is to be other person centred.

This is a profound mystery - but I am talking about Christ and church.
Ephesians 5:32

By “mystery”, Paul isn’t throwing his arms in the air and going, “Ah! But who knows how to do this... it’s a mystery!” He isn’t saying that this is mysterious! Rather, “mystery” in the bible is something previously hidden that has now been uncovered. “Secret” would be a better word. Psst! Here’s the secret, Paul seems to be saying: It’s Jesus.

A few moments ago, I said to the wives, “If you feel discouraged, look to the church.” But do you know what this verse is saying? It’s saying to the whole church, “If you feel discouraged, look to the husbands.” A husband who is godly, who loves his wife sacrificially, becomes a display of Jesus’ love for his church that is so powerful, it reveals the gospel. In part, this is why God entrusts the care of his church into the hands of ordinary, faithful, loving men who know what it takes to care for their own family. These men display God’s saving love in Jesus Christ.

However, each of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.
Ephesians 5:32

Finally, Paul talks to both the husband and wife. “Each of you,” speaking to the husbands, “must love”. Both husband and wife are in the same room, sitting next to one another. The bible address both together; but God also speaks to each individually. Meaning this: You don’t need to tell the other to get this done. Husbands, it’s not your job to remind your wives after service today, to nag less, to be more submissive, to be more obedient. You have your own job to get done: Love your wives and meet her needs! Wives, it’s not your job to point out how your husbands have not been loving enough, to say to them, “Aha! Did you hear what today’s passage was saying to you today? (Wink, wink!)” You have your own word from God, too: Be submissive to your husbands.

What this means is, for those of us who are married, your relationship with your spouse is an expression of your faith and trust in Jesus Christ. The NIV has the instruction to wives as “respect [your] husband”. More accurately, the word is “fear” (phobeomai), the same word used at the beginning of our passage, “Submit to one another out of fear of Christ.” I can understand why most translations would rather not use that word. “Fear” sounds negative. When applied towards husbands, it sounds absolutely horrifying. But it’s not talking about fearful husbands. Rather, the bible is addressing God-fearing wives who submit themselves under loving, sacrificial husbands. It is pointing us back to the original theme verse, addressing all Christians in the church to recognise the lordship of Jesus Christ and to walk obediently in his love.

Submit to one another out of reverence to (or, fear of) Christ.
Ephesians 5:21

I began by saying that though this is the clearest passage on marriage, it is also the most unpopular. It is not hard to see why. Words like submission, fear, sacrifice and death don’t exactly feature in most wedding sermons. And yet, for all the complexity of today’s bible text, isn’t it rather clear? Wives, submit. Husbands, die... I mean, love sacrificially. The problem isn’t that non-Christians will misunderstand the meaning of the bible. Quite the opposite, in fact. The problem is the bible is crystal clear on the role and responsibilities of the husband and wife, and that’s why we avoid texts like these. We are afraid of offending our guests. If so, it is worth repeating Paul’s opening statement to all Christians in verse 21, to fear Christ. He is Lord.

Then again, Paul isn’t addressing the bridegroom and the bride on their wedding day. These instructions are to the husband and the wife who are already married. And these instructions were written to a gathering of people who were already believers in Christ. And that’s an encouraging thought. It means the proper setting to learn and to understand this text is right here, on a Sunday like this, in the Chinese Church. It means that husbands and wives will continue to struggle with issues of submission and loving leadership, in every marriage in every church (that’s why we have similar instructions in Colossians 3 and 1 Peter 3) but also that they can keep coming back to God’s word for guidance, comfort and strength. But most of all, it is encouraging because it reminds all of us that Jesus loves us - he is the source of our humility and the true example of submission; he is the true bridegroom and head over the church. Jesus loves us fully and enables us to respond in loving obedience to him and even to one another. As husbands and wives. As brothers and sisters. As sons and daughters of God.

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