Text: Ephesians 5:22-33
As we have been working our way through Paul’s letter to the saints at Ephesus, we have seen how Paul is determined to help the saints there and everywhere to gain a full grasp on what it means to be a saint. Just before this passage, Paul has been talking about the new way believers are to live based on what they had been learning about God. They were to put away their former life and choose instead to imitate God in the way they conduct their lives.
This portion of God’s Word we are examining today is one that is all too often unused, misused, or abused. Certain portions of Christianity really love to take a large stand on verses 22-24, others would rather have them excised from the Bible. Those who are staunch supporters of verses 22-24 often go on to ignore the following verses,25-31. And they are often completely neglectful of the immediately preceding verse, number 21. That verse sets the course for the rest of Ephesians 5 and the first third of Ephesians 6.
On Wednesday nights, we have been working through George Guthrie’s book, Read the Bible for Life, and one of the first chapters covered the topic of reading the Bible passages in context. It is always easy to make the Bible say what we want it to say. “Judas hanged himself” the Bible tells us. It goes on to say, if we are choosy about what we we want to read, “Go and do likewise.” But that’s not the way to read Scripture. We must read those passages and all passages in the context in which they are given.
What does it mean to read a passage in context? It means that we allow all of the things that might influence the way we read and understand a passage to have their say. So we read what comes before and after a passage we’re studying. Perhaps a verse or two, perhaps a paragraph or two, perhaps a whole chapter before and after. That sets the background and makes sure that we are tracking (to use a modern term) with the backstory. We understand the passage based on what has led up to the point and where things are going to go from here.
We must keep in mind not just the immediate surroundings of the text, but also how the passage and book we are reading fits into the grand scheme of the whole biblical narrative, from creation, fall, and redemption on to the final recreation of the world. In other words, we need to read any one passage in light of other passages of Scripture that speak to the same idea, topic, theology, and themes.
Much of modern interpretation and discussion of the end of Ephesians 5 focuses on gender roles, and in particular on the role of women in the family and in society. There is much to be learned about gender roles from these verses of Scripture, but even Paul himself, in this very portion of Scripture, declares that it is not his purpose to delineate gender roles. In verse 32, he describes his purpose as that of painting a portrait of Christ and the church. This passage is not primarily about marriage relationships and gender roles. It is instead a picture of who we are as believers in relation to Christ.
But we would be remiss to exclude what we can learn about marriage and the relationships of men and women from this passage understood in its context. So before we get to the main point of the passage, let’s look at that context for just a few minutes.
We are first introduced to gender roles in Genesis 2, where the woman, Eve, is created from the rib taken from Adam’s side so that he might have someone on whom he can release his natural hormone-determined impulses and needs to dominate and control. That’s what it says, right?
Of course not! Genesis 2 tells us that Eve was created because, when Adam – and God – looked out on all of the animals that were inhabiting the Garden of Eden, not one of them was found to be a suitable helper to him. So God created Eve. She was the same kind of helper to Adam that God would later be to Moses, who named one of his sons Eliezer, which means God is my help, because God had been a helper to him. You can read about that in Exodus 18. God was not a servant or slave kind of helper to Moses, obeying his every command and wish. Neither was Eve created to be that kind of slavish helper for Adam. She was created to partner and contribute, not serve and obey.
In 1 Samuel 25, we are introduced to a man named Nabal and his wife, Abigail. David and his men provided much protection to Nabal’s shepherds and flocks. So on one feast day, David’s men came to Nabal’s servants and asked for help and provision in celebrating it. Nabal refused their request. David became enraged and sent his men to avenge the insult by destroying Nabal and his property.
Abigail heard of it and stood in Nabal’s stead before David, seeking to assuage his anger. She deliberately defied her husband and provided for David, despite knowing that Nabal would disapprove. In fact, Abigail interceded and provided for them without telling Nabal anything about it. Because of Abigail, David spared Nabal. Abigail does go on later to tell Nabal about the turn of events, and Scripture says that Nabal’s “heart died within him” and ten days later, Nabal died. David then took Abigail to be his wife.
Wives submitting to their husbands must include times when the husband’s explicit desires are defied, because the wife knows that the interests of her husband – physically, spiritually, and emotionally – are better served another way. Sometimes husbands live up to Nabal’s name, which means “fool.” Our understanding of Paul’s of Paul for wives to submit to their husbands must include the contexts of Genesis 2, Exodus 18, and 1 Samuel 25.
In addition, Proverbs 31 describes the excellent wife. She is one who buys and sells her own property, makes her own merchandise to sell for profit, stays up all night to take care of her interests, gives to the needy of her own things, provides for her household and the poor, possesses her own strength and dignity, and is praised by her children and her husband for all that she does. She does all this while looking after the good of her husband and not seeking his harm. Proverbs 31:11 says, “The heart of her husband trusts in her.” We must consider Proverbs 31 also as we seek to understand what Paul means in Ephesians 5.
What, then, within the context in which it is written and with the background of these and other scriptures, does Paul mean when he says in Ephesians 5:22, “Wives, submit to your husbands, as to the Lord. … wives should submit in everything to their husbands.” I think we can say it best this way: wives, do everything you do so that you serve your husband’s best interest, even if he is ignorant of what those best interests are.
Sometimes, the best interests of an abusive husband are served when a wife and mother leaves him. Sometimes, the best interests of a husband are served when a wife listens to and obeys his every word. Wives, it is up to you to know your husband so well that you know what is in his best interests and do that. Your life is not your own, you are joined to your husband as one flesh. Submit to him by making his goals your goals, by doing everything you do for the purpose of serving your husband’s best interests, not your own.
This is precisely what we as a church are to do. We, the church, are the Bride of Christ. Revelation 19 declares the marriage supper of the Lamb and how blessed are those who are invited to it. This is who we are. We are the bride of Christ, and Paul’s image of a wife submitting to her husband by doing everything she does in his best interest is what we as individual Christians and as the church as a whole are to be doing for Christ. We are to do everything we do as a body of believers in the best interest of our Lord and Savior, whom we are to know so well. Wives, submit to your husbands. Church, submit to your Lord.
But Paul has much more to say about the husbands. I personally think people should be much more up in arms about verse 25. “Husbands, love your wives.” Then Paul qualifies that. “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Ouch. Husbands! We have the harder job! It is our task that is more giving, more self-abasing, more detrimental to ourselves than the wife submitting to her husband. We are the ones encouraged to give ourselves up for her, not the other way around. Jesus gave up the throne of God in order to show his love for his bride. In other words, husbands, we can hold nothing back for ourselves in showing love to our spouse. We are allowed to reserve nothing, as Christ reserved nothing when He left heaven. We must give ourselves utterly and completely to this one thing: loving our wives.
How many of you who love your college team want to see them annihilated on the football field? How many of you who love your job make sure to go in late every day, leave early, never finish a task, and strive to prevent sales and the growth of the company? How many of you who love your car make sure the first thing you do when you buy a new one is to take a key and go up and down and all over the paint job? We do none of these things, because those aren’t actions of love. We know what it means to love something. We care for it. We provide for it. We serve it.
Husbands, there is no secret. There is only a long, hard road of loving our wives and giving ourselves up for her. I won’t go into long descriptive exegesis of other stories of the Bible, but let me highlight a few. Jacob, working for Laban for 14 years to earn Rachel’s hand. Or choosing at the end of his life to be buried not by Rachel whom he loved dearly, but by Leah, who was so steadfast to him. Both are pictures. Hosea, given by God the burden of loving a prostitute. Or a man named Joseph, a noble, honest, hardworking carpenter who does not want to see his pregnant betrothed overrun by a zealous society and desires to divorce her quietly. But then, despite the heavy shame that would come upon them both, he marries her anyway. And, though he was no obstetrician, gynecologist, or midwife, he stood by her side in that Bethlehem stable as she bore a child that was not his own.
Husbands, love your wives.
But again, Paul’s purpose is not on the relationship of a man and his wife. Paul is telling the Ephesians and others who will read this letter about who they are in Christ. We are the bride of Christ. This is how God in Christ loves us. We are Christ’s wife, and he loves us intimately. Completely. Overwhelmingly. Like a husband loves his wife. Christ has given himself up in ways we can barely understood for his bride – for you and for me.
Wives, submit to your husbands. Make it easy for him to love you. Don’t make him come off his throne to rescue you, the way Christ came off his throne to rescue us. Do all that you do in the best interest of your husband.
Husbands, love your wives. Make it easy for them to submit to you, because they know that no matter what they do, you will come down off your throne faster than a heart can beat in order to rescue her. That you will always be there for her in her hour of desperate need and celebrate her greatest triumphs. Love your wives.
For those who are single, this message is for you. Love God. Serve him. Live your life in the best interest of the one who has loved you and given himself up for you. And if marriage does come your way one day, remember that it is a picture of Christ and the church, so strive hard to make it an accurate one.
Christians, show the world through our relationships as husbands and wives just what it means for God to love his creation. Remember that we are the bride of Christ, so live your life in the best interest of Him. And if you are not yet a believer in Christ’s awesome work on your behalf, then hear this. Our God has already descended from on high in order to rescue you. He loves you. There is nothing you can do to thwart that love. He chooses you. Will you submit to him as his bride?