Ephesians 5:21-33

Ephesians 5:21-33

There are a few times when it helps to start at the end and read back to the beginning.  Did you know that copy editors are trained to read a page backwards? Otherwise, they get caught in the flow of a thought and their mind skips over the errors and fills in the blanks.  This is a good example of starting at the end and working backwards. Paul writes in verse 32 that “this is a profound mystery” and we could have a few responses to that if we started at the beginning and worked our way to the end.

“Well, if all of this is a mystery then why did you spend so much time on it?”

“If this is a mystery then it doesn’t really matter does it?

“If marriage is a mystery then that explains why I’ve never been able to understand it.”

“I really like happy endings and saying at the end it is all a mystery is not very satisfying.”

No, let’s first be clear about what Paul means by mystery here in Ephesians. The word does not mean “mystery” as we think as in “strange,” “enigma,” “weird,” etc. It means a “secret”– something kept hidden, something previously unrevealed. Paul used the term to describe the meaning of the risen, ascended, glorified Lord revealed to him. God alone can keep such a secret and He had kept these revelations hidden until He chose to disclose them. 

Mystery is the great FACT behind all the smaller facts we can know. Gravity is a fact. This building is a fact. The sun that came up this morning is a fact. But there is something behind all these smaller facts. There is something that holds them all together and makes sense of them. 

We can see evidence of it but cannot see it because it is hidden from us.  When Einstein discovered his theory of relativity, very few people grasped it or understood it. But when people began to operate on its basis, even though they didn’t fully understand it, they began to change the world. Our whole modern era was brought about by the discovery of a secret which was hidden in nature until the time when Einstein stumbled upon a few hints of it. And there is much yet to be learned, even in this realm. But how much more are there great riches in store for us who will give some time and thought and effort to grasping this great secret which Paul sets forth before us here — the ultimate secret behind all things: the mystery of Christ.  Ray Stedman

Paul called these doctrines “secrets” for that was what they were. What were these secrets that Peter and the other apostles knew nothing about?Paul alone taught the Body of Christ. How did Paul learn about it? The ascended Lord revealed the truth that the Church (1 Corinthians 12.12-27; Ephesians 1.22-23; Colossians 1.18, 24) was His body and that its nature was that Jew and Gentile were equal in Christ (Galatians 3.26-29). The Lord did not reveal this truth to the prophets or patriarchs or to Peter and the Twelve. Search the Scriptures–one will find no word about the body of Christ from anyone but Paul. Paul wrote the Ephesians:

“When you read this you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit; that is, how the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” (Ephesians 3:4-6 RSV)

In other words, all of creation is connected.  All of creation comes from the same source. All of creation reflects Christ. The glue that holds all of creation together is not the binding energy of atoms but Christ. Look what he says in Colossians:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.  Colossians 1:15-20

So, while we see science and faith, secular and sacred, holy and profane, black and white, Jew and Gentile, as separate – even opposites – Paul is saying that everything we see is created to be connected in some way as part of a body.  That is the great FACT that we cannot see but we have hints of it. As Paul says in 1Corinthians 13:

“For now we are looking in a mirror that gives only a dim (blurred) reflection [of reality as in a riddle or enigma], but then [when perfection comes] we shall see in reality and face to face! Now I know in part (imperfectly), but then I shall know and understand fully and clearly, even in the same manner as I have been fully and clearly known and understood [by God].” Amplified Version

So now we can go back to 5:21 and start with more understanding of the lens through which Paul sees marriage.  It is not that he is taking the symbol of marriage and using it as an illustration of the relationship between Christ and the Church but he is starting with the mystery that has been revealed to him – that all of creation functions as a body.  Everything is connected. Everyone has a role to play and that even when we do not understand it completely we can begin to conform our behavior to the truth of this secret. We don’t understand the theory of relativity but it makes sense of the world we see.  What then will make sense of marriage? How is it a reflection of the world functioning as a body and not separate parts or things being in conflict just because they are different.  

Functioning as a body begins with the proper understanding of submission. “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”  As Paul says in Philippians, “Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”

Whenever we wonder why the world is not working the way it was created to we can find the answer here.  The world was not created to have one part of the body win and another part lose. It was not created to be in conflict – even between opposites.  It was created to have us all practice submission to one another. 

Now the word does not mean lose yourself and your identity to the other person.  Rather, it means learn to adapt yourself to the other person. While this is certainly true in all healthy relationships – we learn to adapt to people with whom we work or with whom we are friends – it is especially true in marriage.  But, for some reason, it is especially hard. We want to change the other person from the outset. We laugh about it and we all have stories about how we have spent our entire married life being surprised that our spouse continues to be the way they have been all these years even after seeing and being patiently taught the right way of doing things. As a result, we tend to move in three different directions as we age together.  Either we learn to adapt or we learn how to win the contest or we give up and go along in resentment.  

So, we begin with adapting ourselves to our spouse because we understand that part of the mystery is we were created to be connected to each other – as opposite as we might be – and that we are to be a living example of what it means to be a body of different parts and different roles.

The wife adapts not to the whims of her husband but to his calling.  She is to be his partner – not his trophy or his employee or his master but his partner who helps to keep him on course and encouraging him to maturity. More and more young men I meet have what I call the “Peter Pan Syndrome” as they don’t want to grow up.  They want someone to take care of them in the same way their mother did. They do not want a partner who will press them toward maturity as an equal but an enabler who will make life more enjoyable for them. They want their wife to submit to their irresponsibility and immaturity.  Like Adam, they want someone to whom they can shift the blame when they fail.

The husband adapts to the wife by accepting his responsibility – not just to be the provider but to be responsible for the family.  Christ as the head does not take days off from his responsibility for the Church. He is permanent and fixed. He is dependable and reliable.  He provides protection, love, and loyalty. He brings all things together and establishes peace. 

Ray Stedman writes that “no husband is playing his proper role in marriage until he learns to give himself up to his wife, to open his heart to her, to share his emotions and dreams, his thoughts and disappointments, his joys, to fully expose himself to his wife.”  

Paul then says that the husband does this in the same way Christ does the Church in order to “make her 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.”

How in the world can a husband do that?  Here is one way of thinking about it. Just as Paul says husbands are to love their wives – wives are to respect their husbands.  Husbands have a need to be respected and wives a desire to be loved. Respect is earned by loving. This is not romantic love, is it?  It is the love that values the wife and brings out the best that is in her. Paul uses the word “radiance” and that is more than superficial beauty.  Each wife has a particular kind of radiance that the husband is to protect and help grow – and not to destroy with sarcasm, disloyalty, neglect or abuse.  The husband is responsible to grow what God has planted in his wife that will be presented to God. Just as the Master says to the servants, “What did you do with what I entrusted you?” I believe he will say to husbands, “How did you love your wife to bring out the radiance that I created in her?’ Did that part of her grow and mature or did it shrink and shrivel up?

Of course, I think he will ask something of the same to the wife.  What did you do to help your husband become worthy of your respect and of others?  What did you do to help him make the most of whatever gifts and talents I gave him?  What did you do to encourage him toward accepting responsibility and gaining maturity?

The only way we can understand mutual obligation to each other is to first understand the mystery at the heart of it.  We are created to be connected. We are shaped to be a part of each other. What holds everything together and keeps it from flying apart is a relationship that is built on the mutual submission that comes from reverence for Christ. Yes, there are ways for us to get along with each other but nothing other than the mutual reverence for Christ will make a marriage what it is intended to be.  This is different from a civil union, isn’t it? It is different from a common law marriage. It is different from being married to avoid loneliness. It is an understanding of marriage as part of the greater mystery of the universe.

Paul was not, as far as we know, married.  He may have been or not but I don’t think he was writing from personal experience.  I do not think he was writing with other marriages from Scripture in mind. Scripture does not idealize marriage as many of those marriages were difficult:

Abraham and Sarah

Isaac and Rebekah

Jacob and Leah

David and Michael

Hosea and Gomer

I do think he was writing partly from revelation and partly from observation.  Who would he have observed? I think it was Aquila and Priscilla. Theirs may have been the best example of  marriage as a partnership of strong equals that we have. They worked together. They were flexible and adapted to new circumstances together. They were hospitable. They were both spiritually mature with different gifts and were respected and loved by everyone – stars like Apollo and Paul as well as people in the congregations.  In other words, they brought out the best in each other and in doing so accomplished the purpose of God in their lives together. Marriage is not just a relationship but it is a calling. It has a purpose in creation.

For most of us, the truth is we are not likely to change our patterns much. We are not just starting off in this journey together and we have heard these words about marriage for decades.  We are at a different stage in our marriages now so maybe Paul’s words are not as practical or useful as they might have been years ago. Maybe our relationship has become more like Tevye in “Fiddler On The Roof”  asking his wife Golde if she loves him:

Do I love you?
For twenty-five years I’ve washed your clothes
Cooked your meals, cleaned your house
Given you children, milked the cow
After twenty-five years, why talk about love right now?

Do I love him?
For twenty-five years I’ve lived with him
Fought him, starved with him
Twenty-five years my bed is his
If that’s not love, what is?

Maybe…or maybe not.  Maybe there is never a time when we cannot understand that our marriage is a reflection even now of God’s desire to connect all things and for us to see there is a purpose for our being together.  Maybe there is still opportunity for men to become even more of what God intends in our sense of responsibility, maturity, and earning the respect of others and our wives. Maybe there is still time to ask what we can do to bring out the unique radiance of our wives. Maybe there is still the opportunity for us to learn to adapt to each other and not just compromise, give in or insist on winning.  Maybe there is time for us to be more like Aquila and Priscilla – two strong people whose personalities and talents worked together for the glory of God.

You know the old song, “First comes love then comes marriage.”  Maybe it’s just the opposite for some. We are married but we have never learned to truly love in the way that brings out the radiance of our wives.  We are married but we have not helped our husband become worthy of respect. But, it’s never, ever too late. Yes, it will always be a mystery but today would be a good time to start.



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