It’s that time of year when children come home announcing, “I’m a shepherd” or ‘an angel’ or even ‘Mary’ or ‘Joseph’ – as roles are given out for Nativity plays. And in our series in Ephesians, we come tonight to a passage where God gives out the roles that he wants Christian wives and husbands to play in marriage. Which, if you’re single, may leave you thinking, “That sounds low on relevance to me”, but it’s not, because many of you who are single will have the opportunity to marry. And in deciding whether and who to marry, you need to know what role you’d be playing, and what role you’d be looking for someone else to play.
But being married isn’t a certainty for any of us. Some of us, in God’s sovereignty, will stay single. Some of us are single again through divorce. And half of us who are married will be made single again through bereavement. Which is why I want to say straight away that this passage isn’t first and foremost about marriage. It’s about our relationship with Jesus.
Because the big idea of this passage is that Christian wives and husbands are to model their relationship on the relationship between Jesus and his church. So that just like a Nativity play tells the Christmas story, a Christian marriage will reflect the story of the relationship between Jesus and the church. So before we go on, let’s pray:
You know each of us, and that we come to this subject of marriage from such different places; single or married, happily or strugglingly; some bereaved of partners, some divorced; some hopeful, some fearful. So please use this part of your Word to make us wise for present or future marriage. But above all, to deepen our relationship with Jesus.
In his name we pray.
So if you have a Bible on you, please would you turn to Ephesians 5.21. That’s where we left off last time, in a passage on what it looks like to be filled with Jesus’ Spirit – in other words, shaped by Jesus’ Lordship in our lives. And Ephesians 5.21 says one result of that will be:
submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Now there are two words in this passage we really need to understand. And the first is ‘submit’. Because it means ‘to recognise and accept where there’s a certain order in a relationship’. So when you play hockey under a referee, or sit in a classroom under a teacher, or come under Government lockdown restrictions, those relationships are calling for you to submit – to recognise and accept that there’s an order where others are in some kind of leadership over us.
And next up in Ephesians, the apostle Paul spells out what that will look like in certain key relationships. And the first one is marriage. And he’s going to say there’s a God-given order in Christian marriage, where the husband is the ‘head’ – with responsibility to take a lead – and where the wife is called to submit to that by recognising and accepting his role. Now having said just that much, I realise this may be very new to you, and that I may have just begged lots of questions, and that this is counter-cultural. But as my previous vicar used to say, “When part of the Bible seems at first to be difficult or even unwelcome, step one is to let it in the room with you.”
So we’re going to do that tonight with Ephesians 5. It’s got a message for wives (and future wives), and a message for husbands (and future husbands).
And running through all that is the message that, married or single, our most important relationship is with Jesus. So first up, here’s the message for wives (and future wives):
1. Wives: submit to your husband in a way that reflects a Christian’s submission to Jesus (Ephesians 5.22-24)
So look at Ephesians 5.22:
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.
To which our culture would probably reply, “That’s not something you should ever say – because you’re telling the husband that he can treat his wife as less than equal, that he can tell her what to do and get her meeting his needs, with no sense that he should meet hers”. But actually these first verses are not telling husbands to do anything, and certainly not telling them to make their wives submit. These verses are to wives. And submitting is a role wives are called to play freely and willingly. And notice that’s only, Ephesians 5.22:
to your own husbands.
So if you’re a Christian woman, this is not calling you to submit to all men; or to all Christian men; or to your boyfriend; or even to your fiancé – yet. The submitting here is only in the marriage relationship. So let’s read Ephesians 5.22-24:
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord [ie, Jesus].
For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Saviour.
Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.
So that’s where Paul lays out the big idea of this passage, that the relationship between Jesus and the church is the model for the marriage relationship. So let’s start with Jesus and the church. And Ephesians 5.23 says Jesus is ‘the head of the church’. Which is the other word in this passage we really need to understand. And to find out what Paul meant by it, let’s look back to Ephesians 1.20. Because in Ephesians 1.20-22, Paul wrote about the power:
that he [that’s God the Father] worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.
[Which is the ultimate position of leadership and authority.]
And he [God the Father] put all things under his [Jesus’] feet and gave him as head over all things to the church
So after Jesus died for our forgiveness on the cross, God his Father raised him from the dead, and returned him to heaven, where he’s now in the ultimate position of leadership and authority in the universe. And the big question for anyone in a position of leadership and authority is: Who is he or she going to use it for? So, who is Joe Biden going to use his position for?
For himself? Or for the good of the American people? And Ephesians 5.22 tells us who Jesus is going to use his position for:
And [God the Father] put all things under [Jesus’] feet and gave him as head over all things to the church
So as the Father raised Jesus and returned him to heaven, it’s as if he said to us, “My Son now has all the authority in heaven and earth, and I’m giving him to you, to use his authority for your good. So, you need your sins forgiven – he’ll use his authority to do that for you. You need power to become more like him – he’ll use his authority to do that for you. You’ll one day need raising from the dead yourself – he’ll use his authority to do that for you”. You get the picture? Jesus being head of the church means God his Father has given him a position of authority to use for our good. So now what does it mean for a Christian to submit to Jesus as ‘head’? Well, remember: to ‘submit’ means to ‘recognise and accept where there is a certain order in a relationship’. So in submitting to Jesus, I recognise that he’s my rightful Lord. And I freely and willingly accept his Lordship because, by dying for me, he’s shown that he loves me and is trustworthy. So that’s the relationship between Jesus and the church. And Paul says that’s the model for the marriage relationship. So, just like Jesus is the head of the church, Ephesians 5.23:
… the husband is the head of the wife
Which means that God has given husbands a position of leadership in marriage to use for the good of their wives (and any children they have). So here’s one writer’s definition of that:
‘Male headship is where, in the partnership of two spiritually equal human beings, man and woman, the man bears the primary responsibility to lead the partnership in a God-glorifying direction.’
So notice no inequality is implied. Just like when the Bible says, (1 Corinthians 11.3) ‘the head of Christ is God (the Father)’, no inequality is implied, either. And notice the husband only has primary responsibility to lead, not sole responsibility, he’s leader of a team of two (plus any children), and meant to foster teamwork. And wives are called on, Ephesians 5.22, to:
… submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.
In other words, to recognise that God wants their husbands to take primary responsibility for leading the team, and to accept and encourage them in that role. Now the immediate qualifier to Ephesians 5.22 is that if you’re a wife, your husband is not Jesus. You may have noticed that from living with him. He’s not Jesus, and unlike Jesus he’s sinful and capable of failing to lead and even misleading. For example, maybe he’s not getting you (and any children you have) opening the Bible or praying. Maybe he’s not being responsible with money. Maybe he’s passing off use of pornography as something trivial. And when a husband fails in headship like that, submitting doesn’t mean keeping quiet and doing nothing. It doesn’t mean agreeing with him when he’s wrong. It includes challenging and seeking to correct him, but with an attitude that doesn’t want to take over, but wants to encourage him to be a better Christian and leader.
One obvious question is “Does headship mean the husband takes all the decisions?” To which the answer is no. It means he has the primary responsibility to make sure that, together, they’re discussing and taking all the decisions they need to, from sorting out giving to thinking about schools for children. But he won’t always manage that. And when his wife takes the initiative to say, “We need to talk about something”, he’ll be wise to listen.
Now of course our sinfulness means we can mess these roles up. So husbands can either abdicate leadership, or distort it into control and even abuse. While wives can either try to take over the lead, or distort submission into passivity and acceptance of unacceptable behaviour. But, if an albeit sinful husband is sincerely trying to play this role of head, it will only be good for a wife to accept and encourage that. So that’s the message to wives (and future wives): submit to your husband in a way that reflects a Christian’s submission to Jesus. And then the message to husbands is this:
2. Husbands: love your wives in a way that reflects Jesus’ love for his church (Ephesians 5.25-33)
So up to now, husbands haven’t been told to do anything. They’ve just been told what they are namely, ‘head of the wife’. But now they’re told how to exercise that leadership role. And again, the relationship between Jesus and the church is the model for that. So look on to Ephesians 5.25:
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her
So there’s the standard of the love which husbands are called to show their wives: ‘love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her’. In other words, think what Jesus was willing to go through for us at the cross, and that’s the standard of love we’re to show our wives So husbands are called to love our wives romantically and sexually. But fundamentally we’re called to love them self-sacrificially, maybe painfully, and at the cost of however much time and energy it takes.
So for example, we should be the ones taking the initiative to do the worst jobs – like unblocking a drain or cleaning up after a child’s been sick. We should be coming home from work not expecting a work-free haven, but accepting that the most important work and responsibility of the day is now beginning. And we should accept that our vows to love, ‘for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death us do part’ may test us to the limit. Certainly, as I’ve watched godly husbands love wives through things like terminal illness and dementia, I’ve realised I’m only paddling in the shallows. So that’s the standard. Then next there’s the goal of the love which husbands are called to show their wives. Ephesians 5.25-27:
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,
[and here’s the goal he had in mind:]
that he might sanctify her
[which means, ‘make her holy for himself’],
having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word,
[which means, ‘having forgiven her as she believed the word of the gospel’]
so that he might present the church to himself in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.
[which is talking about when we finally meet Jesus beyond this life,
and he makes us sinless and able to serve him perfectly.]
That’s Jesus’ ultimate goal for his church. So that’s what we should be practising for and getting ready for. And so the goal of a husband’s love for his wife should be in line with that. Which means praying for our wives to grow in their holiness and serving of the Lord, and encouraging them in that, first and foremost by our example in that.
So husbands, do you remember the moment your wife walked up the aisle to meet you on your wedding day? Do you remember looking back, and seeing her having made herself beautifully ready for you? Well, we should now be saying, “My job is to help her be spiritually ready for that day of which our wedding day was just a picture – that day when she finally meets Jesus face to face, as part of his bride the church.” Which means one goal of our love should be to help our wives grow spiritually. So, for example, are we opening the Bible and praying with our wives and children? Are we encouraging and helping make space for their own Bible reading and prayer, especially if children have come along? Are we setting an example of holiness ourselves? And that’s why, elsewhere in the Bible, the Lord says he wants those who trust in him only to marry someone else who trusts in him. Because he wants the closest person in your life to be encouraging you spiritually, not pulling a different way.
Then finally there’s the one-flesh-ness of love which husbands are called to show their wives. Look on to Ephesians 5.28:
In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies.
Which sounds odd at first. Until you think how people talk about their spouse as their ‘other half’. And read on to Ephesians 5.32, and we find where that truth ultimately comes from. So, Ephesians 5.28-30:
In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies.
He who loves his wife loves himself.
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.
Which all means that husbands should see their wives as somehow part of them, as their own flesh. And what makes that true is in Ephesians 5.31 (which quotes Genesis 2.24, the Bible’s foundational verse on marriage):
“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”
[Which includes sexual one-ness, but means much more. It means that when two people marry, God creates a union and makes them one in a profound way that only he can break through death.]
And then in Ephesians 5.32, Paul says:
This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.
Which brings us back to the big idea of the whole passage, which is that the relationship between Jesus and the church is the model for the marriage relationship. And that’s because from the very beginning God planned that marriage would reflect the relationship between Jesus and his church. So this last bit is saying just as Jesus sees those who trust in him as part of him, one with him, and cares for them accordingly, so husbands are to see their wives as part of them, one with them, and to care for them accordingly. That’s what I mean by the one-flesh-ness of a husband’s love. It means the end of separate thinking – like thinking, “Well that’s her problem.” Because one-fleshness means her problems are your problems to work on, her upsets are your upsets to take to heart, and her needs are your needs to meet. And finally, Ephesians 5.33:
However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.
Which seems a bit of a come down after the profound things Paul has said about marriage. But if our marriages are to reflect the relationship between Jesus and the church, it’s not saying profound things about marriage which will make that happen, but the kind of love and respect, headship and submitting, that Paul’s been on about.
Let me end by saying three quick things. The first is that I haven’t said everything that’s important about marriage – I’ve just tried to teach one important passage about it. The second thing is to say, again, that that this passage is first and foremost about our relationship with Jesus, and how that’s the model for any marriage. Which reminds us that, whether we’re married or single, the most important thing is our relationship with Jesus, because that will outlast marriage – which is only till death do us part.
And the third thing is that for those who are part of JPC locally, we’re having a zoom question and answer tomorrow night at 8pm, where you can join us to think more about this passage and the things it raises.