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“The Glorious Potential of Marriage”

Ephesians 5:21-33
Bob DeGray
May 29, 2016

Key Sentence

Marriage gets gloriously better when cooperate to do our parts.


I. Submit . . . out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:21)
II. Wives in loving submission . . . as to the Lord (Ephesians 5:22-24)
III. Husbands in loving sacrifice . . . as Christ loved (Ephesians 5:25-27)
. . . as your own body (Ephesians 5:28-30)
IV. Like Christ and the church - a profound mystery (Ephesians 5:31-33)


I really like the meme “You Had One Job.” Apparently it originated years ago in the movie “Oceans Eleven.” In the opening sequence these guys are about to pull off a fantastic theft, and then, “ [bell] you tosser, you had one job.” The meme took off after someone noticed in the credits for Jurassic Park that Phil Tippett was the dinosaur supervisor. They said “Phil, you had one job; look how many people you got killed.” Since then, when someone fails spectacularly, the phrase “You Had One Job” pops up. Whether a spelling mistake, a misplaced road sign, construction errors or labeling errors, someone had one simple thing to do and they messed up the most important part of that one simple thing.

This week we’re studying Paul’s instructions to married people. On one level these are simple. To husbands he says “you have one job: love your wife.” And to wives, “you have one job, submit to your husband.” And that’s true, though we know from Scripture and experience that this one job is far from simple. We want to look into Paul’s instructions today and see what doing your one job implies. When I’ve preached this passage before I’ve tended to focus on one implication of this truth and that’s that you just need to do your part. You are called to do your part even if your spouse isn’t. But what I want to say today is that your marriage will thrive when you do your parts together, when it is truly cooperative. I want to cast a vision for a glorious marriage, one that gets gloriously better when we cooperate to do our parts.

I keep thinking of a classic “you had one job” situation, the Mars Climate Orbiter. On one level, two organizations each had one job to do. A piece of Lockheed Martin software didn’t do its job, because it described the total impulse produced by firing thrusters on the spacecraft in English units, pound-seconds. A second piece of software, written by NASA to calculate trajectories, did its job, but it assumed the data it received from the other program was in the right metric unit, newton-seconds. As a result, the spacecraft approached Mars 100 miles lower than predicted by the software, and the craft burned. The post incident investigation blamed communication errors and oversights for letting this blatant non-cooperation between the two programs pass uncorrected. The same thing can happen in marriage. If one of us is doing our part, and the other one isn’t, quite, then it’s not enough to just say “I’m going to do my part.” No, this is a cooperative venture, an usness, and marriages survive these things and gloriously thrive when we cooperate to both do our parts.

The section begins with a single header verse, Ephesians 5:21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

This is the topic verse for the next several sections, but it is, pointedly, not an independent thought. Instead it’s one more helping verb for the main verb up in verse 18, “let yourself be filled with the Holy Spirit.” “speaking, singing, making music, giving thanks,” and “submitting” The ability to submit comes from the presence and filling of the Holy Spirit. The expectation that husbands will lovingly lead and wives lovingly submit. that children will obey and parents not exasperate, that slaves will whole-heartedly serve, and masters compassionately employ, these expectations cannot be achieved in merely human power. It requires the filling of the Spirit. Do you get this? You can’t do this marriage thing right apart from God.

And when Paul says ‘submitting to one another’ he doesn’t mean what many in our politically correct culture have said. He doesn’t mean that everybody must submit to everybody else. Everyone can and should love everyone else with a Christ-like love. But everyone cannot submit to everyone else in every arena. This is obvious if you think about the military: if the general was required to obey the private just as the private is to obey the general, there would be chaos.

It's also obvious from the way Paul develops it: He talks about wives submitting to husbands, but he gives a different command to husbands. He talks about children obeying parents, but not parents obeying children, slaves obeying masters, but not masters slaves. There is a God ordained order in which some have the responsibility of authority and leadership and some the responsibility of submission and followership. Yet it’s right for Paul to say everyone must submit, because even if someone is a husband, a father, and an employer, still he is under the authority of the church, the government, and ultimately Christ. Everyone is under authority. No one can avoid learning submission.

That’s why this submission is learned out of reverence for Christ. The Greek verb ‘reverence’ is ‘phobw,’ fear, or sometimes, respect. Paul recognized that all of us are under the authority of Christ and need to be in submission to Christ. When we submit to any human authority, it is more than submission to people, it is part of our submission to our Lord, done in order to respect Him as Lord.

But the first application is to wives. Verses 22-24: Wives, submit to your husbands, as to the Lord. 23For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. 24Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.

Paul makes it clear that marriage will thrive, church will thrive when the head and the body work together. In this analogy he describes the wife’s responsibility with the word ‘submit.’ But that word is hard to hear in our culture. Kent Hughes expresses the hesitancy we may feel.

He says: “The word ‘submit,’ is an incendiary word. . . Talk about ‘submission’ is today seen as counter cultural and [taken as equivalent to] ‘oppression,’ ‘subjugation,’ or ‘dominance’”. He says that we will often be misunderstood by those who do not see the true meaning or the beauty of God’s design.

But Hughes also says “The truths of this text have been perverted and abused by sinful men. . . . I have seen ‘couch potatoes’ who order their wives and children around like the grand sultan of Morocco - adulterous misogynists with the domestic ethics of ‘Jabba the Hut’ who cow their wives around with Bible verses about submission - insecure men whose wives dare not go to the grocery store without permission. But the fact that evil men have perverted God’s word is no reason to throw it out.” I’ve known those people as well, those who abuse the word, and those who discount it. I don’t want us to be in either camp, but rather to wrestle with the word of God seriously.

Wives, then, are told to submit to their husbands as to the Lord. This does not mean, as some abusers have practiced, that wives are to treat their husbands like a Lord, but rather that their submission to their spouse has already begun in their submission to the Lord. If you’ve given Jesus permission to be in charge of your life, you can trust him to provide leadership through your husband. If you haven’t trusted Jesus, then trusting your husband is way more difficult.

And these verses don’t mean the wife is in any way inferior to her husband. Any serious reading of the Bible, especially the Gospels, convinces you that God loves women and men equally. Both are made in his image. Both receive the same salvation, the same promises, the same Holy Spirit. As Paul says “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

But while there is an equality in worth, in dignity, and before God, there remains an order within marriage. Verse 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.” I love this image because it shows the reality of both husband and wife doing their part in a marriage. You can’t imagine a head thriving without a body nor a body thriving without a head. They are deeply inter-dependent. Neither can a marriage thrive without a unity, an usness, between the two parts.

The husband, Paul says, has a God-ordained task, to be the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church. But notice that the aspect of Christ’s leadership emphasized here is Christ’s salvation. He is the church’s Savior by virtue of his self-giving sacrifice. “For the Son of man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” That is the kind of leadership to which the husband as head of the wife must aspire.

The husband is the head and is called to responsible and loving leadership, and the wife is called to responsible and respectful submission. Verse 24: “Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.” What does submission look like in real life? How is it practiced? I’ve asked this question of many couples in the church and the first answer I get is usually the same: When decisions need to be made or a position or action taken in the family, the wife chooses, voluntarily to accept and support the decision of her husband, even when it isn’t the decision she would have made.

Gail and I have found, though, that on most significant decisions, where it’s obvious we’re deciding something important, God will lead us to an usness, through communication, prayer and patience. We decide together. We’re not always happy. Sometimes we’re scared of the implications of a hard decision, but we’re in it together. As a husband I’ve found that though Gail will submit to my decision, the path of wisdom is let the Spirit lead us together into what God wants. Therefore, though I agree that voluntary acceptance and support of the husband’s leadership is at the core of submission, the place I think a wife has to work hardest is not in the big decisions, but in the details of daily life. In many things not clearly sin, wives will need to accept a husband’s spoken and unspoken choices, and resist the temptation to manipulate.

But, you will ask, what if those choices are ungodly? What if they are sinful? These verses do not compel the wife to follow her husband into sin. Stott says it this way: “the submission required is to God’s authority delegated to human beings. If, therefore, they misuse their God-given authority, for example by commanding what God forbids or forbidding what God commands, then our duty is no longer conscientiously to submit, but conscientiously to refuse to do so. To submit in such circumstances would be to disobey God.” Kent Hughes says: “The fact that a wife wants to honor her husband’s leadership does not mean she will sit in mute silence. Examining his reasoning, and even acquainting him with error, if done with a humble loving spirit, is evidence of love and honors his headship. Refusing to support his moral folly is not sin.”

There is obviously much more that can be said, and will be said if you seek godly counsel in this kind of situation. But this morning I want to focus the other way. A marriage can survive when one spouse is neglecting all or part of their responsibility, but it can only thrive when both partners are doing their stuff. Husbands, your wife will be much more at peace following your leadership if she is deeply convinced of your unconditional love. And wives, your husbands will be much more likely to follow God’s leadership in your marriage, be the spiritual leader you want, if they know that their efforts will be me not with a degree of scorn but with gentle, loving helpful submission.

The longing of my heart is that both wives and husbands would be living in direct response to these verses, building a marriage that brings joy to your heart, honors Christ, is a lighthouse to the world, and blesses your children.

Paul does have one more word for wives. It’s found down in verse 33, his summary. “However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.” The word respect is the same word used of our respect for Christ, and it comes where we would expect to see the word submission. Many wives will tell you, some with plain evidence, that they are not respectful because their husbands aren’t respectable. That’s hard. But it doesn’t give a wife permission to act with disrespect by lashing out, name calling, manipulation, or nagging. Just as his love is supposed to be displayed in sacrificial actions, your respect has to start with how you act.

So Paul’s instructions to wives are challenging. They call for a humility that can only be found in the Holy Spirit. As Gary Thomas, author of Sacred Marriage says “If marriage is the union of one person who stumbles in many ways to another person who stumbles in many ways, occasionally have little people who stumble in many ways, why are so many people surprised when they discover how difficult marriage can be?” You can’t do this on your own. It requires God’s help. Yet when two really become one in marriage, it is glorious even in the midst of difficulty. It gives the world a picture of Christ and his church.

Let’s read Paul’s instructions to husbands, verses 25-30: Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water through the word, 27so that he might present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29For no one ever hated his own body, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church, 30because we are members of his body.

Husbands are called to the highest ideal of self-sacrificing love. Kent Hughes says that “taken seriously the naked force of these words is staggering. There is no honest Christian husband who can hear or read these words and not feel the punch.” Christ’s love, Christ’s self-sacrifice is an unattainable model, but trying to be like Jesus is a worthy pre-occupation for every husband and every future husband. In pre-marital counseling I emphasize this enough to be able to point to the guy and say “Yeah, but your verses tell you,” and he says “to love my wife as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” You have to have one or two overarching principles in your marriage. For me this and the principle of companionship, oneness or usness are the whole list.

This is a dying to self. Not the romantic ideal of battling to death to protect your home from invasion, but the practical reality of living for someone else. A widely quoted article says: “It’s a wise groom who has to be dragged to the altar. He knows what love is. It’s death. . . . Never will you have your way again. You can’t be happy, if this other person isn’t. And no matter who wins the argument, you lose. Love is an exercise in frustration. You leave the window up when you want it down. You watch someone else’s TV program. . . . You learn to be patient without sighing or sulking. In marriage two become one but the one isn’t you. [because] you love this other person more than you love yourself. Love is funny. Its growth doesn’t depend on what someone does for you. It’s in direct proportion to what you do for him or her.”

However imperfectly, we need to be imitators of the self-sacrifice of Christ. He loved the church and gave himself up for her, the text says “that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water through the word.” Christ had a clear purpose, to make the church holy by his sacrifice. He cleansed us, as the church, and as individuals, by his death. And this cleansing is applied through the Word - the word of the Gospel, which leads to faith in Christ, and the word of Scripture that empowers our Christian lives. Thus he presents her “to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” If anything, this is more challenging. Not only do you die to yourself, you die to yourself with a purpose, to help your wife become the best person, follower of Christ, glorifier of God that she can be, a holy person, a blameless person, a pure person, a radiant person. Think about that: the woman whose husband truly loves her becomes radiant.

Notice too that Paul has begun to teach deeply about Christ and the church. The church is the bride, Jesus is the bridegroom. And like a bride the church is to come to her wedding having been cleansed, perfectly clothed in white, and radiant. In this wedding though, because it is all of grace, the bridegroom is the one who has cleansed her, clothed her and prepared her for the wedding.

There is a second way of looking at love for our wives. Verse 28: “In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.” This is the Golden Rule, ‘do unto others,’ applied to our love for our wives. Some might see this as anti-climactic after the powerful call to imitate Christ’s love. But Paul is practical. We can’t fully grasp the love of Christ. It surpasses knowledge. But we know how we love ourselves. We care for ourselves physically, looking for the next meal or treat, clothing ourselves, caring for our looks, trying to be healthy. We care for ourselves emotionally, withdrawing or engaging as we think best. We care for ourselves spiritually, listening to God’s word and responding in prayer. Or at least I hope we do.

Now, we get to lavish the same care and concern on our wives, caring for them physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually. Kent Hughes says that loving your wife as yourself includes sensitivity to her environment, feelings and non-verbal signals, courtesy in putting her first even in so simple a thing as opening a door, and communication, being willing to listen or speak honestly, in gentle love. To that I would add ‘praying with your wife.’ She wants that.

But again, it is as Christ loved the church. Christ nourishes and cherishes the church because we are members of his body. These phrases jumped out at me recently and left me awed. Jesus cares for us, his own body. Do we believe as a church and individuals how much Jesus cares for us? He nourishes us, through the word, and cherishes us, through the Spirit. He cares for us as his very own.

I’ve also been struck recently by the essential connection between the head and the body. Whether talking about Christ and the church or husband and wife, this connection is everything. The body is nothing without the head. The head is nothing without the body. Blood, oxygen, nutrition, direction and feeling all go back and forth ceaselessly. This is how essential you are to your wife. This is how essential you are to your husband. It’s a oneness, an usness. The difference between the glorious life of two become one and the tripping over a corpse when each does not do its part is profound, and yet observable all around us, and probably unobservable but real in some of the marriages here.

So what have we said? The wife’s responsibility is to submit, and she’s called to it regardless of her husband’s attitude. In the same way the husband is called to love his wife no matter what. But it’s way more glorious, way better if both are doing our parts. In fact, Paul says, it shows the world the love of Christ and the church. Verses 31-32: Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” 32This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.

Paul quotes what has to be the Bible’s most fundamental verse on marriage, Genesis 2:24, which he has been alluding to all along. As I said to the kids in Awana, Genesis 2:24 is a progression. “A man shall leave his father and mother” That’s the first step. “And be united to his wife” - that’s the wedding, the moment of eternal commitment. “And the two shall become one” - that’s the process. Two people become one, not just physically, though that’s a wonderful and joyful part of mature married love. But also emotionally, spiritual, intellectually, socially and in any other way you can name. The two become one. When a couple growing in mature married love walk into the room, you are no longer seeing two separate individuals, but one person with two complementary expressions, a unity whose cords are stronger than life.

And this gets gloriously better if the husband and the wife are conspiring together to do these impossible things: love like Christ, submit as to Christ. Husbands, wives, conspire together to do this. Don’t try to do it on your own. Work with each other, communicate with each other. Confess and forgive and pray.

Because the outcome is glorious. It’s a model of Christ and the church, and Paul says it’s a profound mystery. But many of the godly couples that I’ve counseled with over the years have wanted this, to model the reality of Jesus for those around who cannot see the invisible God but can see each married couple.

Think about how this works. The husband is to love as Christ loved. Christ is a perfect example of sacrificial and caring love. The husband can’t perfectly imitate his model, but a husband with this model will bring a flavor of Christ into his marriage that the world rarely sees. The wife, on the other hand is to be like the church, and the truth is that the church has done extraordinarily badly at showing submission, at becoming holy. So the world looks at the church with disdain. But if a marriage shows what the right relationship is to be between wife and husband, body and head, Christ and the church then that draws the world’s eyes upward to see the sacrifice and patience of Christ in its glory. This is a profound mystery and a profound witness, a glorious witness that we can have if we will work together to do our parts.