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Lesson 12--Husbands and Wives (Ephesians 5:21-33)

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How do you view marriage?
That is not an idle issue.
For those married decades, it becomes a foundation of life, which seems natural.
For a couple standing at an altar to say vows, the stars in their eyes glimmer and may prevent them from seeing much reality.
Others, even though they exchanged rings and said their “I do’s” see the rings as changes of bondage.
You cannot talk of life without talking of marriage. It is the prevalent state of most people. It was given by God for the good of man. And yet, man’s desires have twisted much of it into something else.
Paul is not shy about talking about human relationships, but for a different reason. He sees the Christian’s relationships with others as part of something larger.
As we shall see, in this lesson, Paul teaches that you can best see a Christian’s relation to Christ through the lens of his relations in life. This includes how parents raise their children and how slaves reacted to masters.
But the most personal relationship of all is the one Christ had with his church, the relationship of marriage. What does a Christian marriage reflect?


The Big Picture

Today’s lesson begins with a curiously broken spot that needs reconnecting to help us make sense of it.
“submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Ephesians 5:21, ESV)
This hanging verse belongs to what comes after but is part of something already said. That whole thought comprises what we will study today.
To get the flow, go back a few steps to verse 18.
“And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit,” (Ephesians 5:18, ESV)
Paul contacts the cultural influence with that of the Spirit’s influence. A person and a church filled with the Spirit exhibit several things.
It determined how they would worship and praise God. It also expressed itself in gratitude, where it sees God’s hand in all things and gives thanks for them.
But the final is in relationships. And our first verse today is what completes the triad.
So Paul says, “submitting to one another.”
This is a global use for the church, not an individual use for individuals, as we will see further in this passage.
But what is submission?
First, it is not many things people assume it to be. It is not subjection where someone is made to comply. Neither is it subordination where one person has less value than another. And finally, it is not the ugly word of “subjugation.” Someone under subjugation is so dominated as to be enslaved.
Tragically, the misunderstanding causes many problems in society.
Then what is this word?
For Paul, it is a positive word that encompasses all Christians. It first marched onto the tarmac, where soldiers assembled in rank order. The picture tells us the concept. It is not about status but order. There has to be someone in front and someone behind them for there to be order. Anything else is chaos.
While subjection, subordination, and subjugation describe force submission volunteers. It explains how Christ came to earth and how Christians are to behave in general.
It is taking your place for all to prosper. It is an “us” experience instead of a “we” one.
I find this in some of the most mundane places. One is at a dinner table. Order is required. When we have our family in our house, we all comprise 10 people. The food is put out, the blessing offered, and then it is time to eat. But who goes first?
The host or hostess stands back while others fill their plates and they go at the end. Does that make them unworthy or second-class? No, it simply means this is the best way for a family to function. Each gives of himself and receives what he needs in return.
Imagine what happens if there is no one to wait for another. It would look like a pigpen at feeding time. The food poured out, and all would fight each other for the food. Some would eat, and some would not.
It is only through submission that all get their needs met.
It is not easy. Jesus had to admonish even his disciples to put aside their self-centeredness. In Matthew 20, Jesus is making his way to Jerusalem when James and John have a hushed conversation with Jesus. They have a request, but “let’s keep it between us” seems to be the sense. They want to be in positions of power in God’s kingdom. They want to bark orders and demand compliance. In Luke, they want to teach the ungrateful Samaritans a lesson with thunderbolts to crush their cities. They loved position and power.
But quiet conversations are spoken loudly enough for competitors to hear. The other disciples learned of it and were irate. It is apparent from the context that each had entertained the same thoughts of power, prestige, and control.
So Jesus has a Dutch Uncle’s talk with them.
“But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave,” (Matthew 20:25–27, ESV)
He said you want to be “over people.” In his kingdom, the servant was master, and the master was a servant.
So as Paul lays out his section on the social dynamics of the day, he starts with the overarching principle. When we give to others, we get what we need.
The aboriginal hunting weapon, the boomerang, gives this idea its concept. When thrown, its curved shape creates a wing that causes it to return to the one who threw it. We call it the boomerang effect.
In life, when we give up on ourselves, we get so much more in return. When we truly listen, we find ourselves enriched. When we teach the gospel to another, we find ourselves growing. The more we give, the more we get.
That is the principle the Christian brings to life. Give and let God give back.
This principle of submission affects the critical relationships in a Christian’s life. It changes marriages, strengthens children, and helped slaves work with masters.
So, how does it work in marriage?


I am sure you have heard the passage we studied this morning dozens of times.
Is this a passage concerning…
Wives Husbands Christ and the church?
The answer is (drumroll)…YES.
It is really about all three.
When I was growing up, the cultural climate of the church took one verse and elevated it above everyone. And since church leaders were male, they hit the emphasis on the wife.
“Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.” (Ephesians 5:22, ESV)
I constantly heard that wives needed to be in submission. In fact, it was said wives were often in subjection to their husbands.
Yet, when Paul spoke these words, they were liberating. Nothing liberated women more than Christianity.
The ancient world was brutal to women. Jewish men prayed morning prayers that thanked God that they were not a Gentile, a slave, or a woman. For the Jewish woman, she had no legal rights. She was a possession, just a step up from a donkey. She was there to do domestic chores and please her husband.
It was worse for the Greeks. The Greeks, too, wanted wives as free slaves to keep the house and run the household. But husbands were not bound to them. They sought pleasure in prostitutes and extramarital affairs. The wife had no voice in this inequity.
The Romans believed they could simply do away with them. Roman emperors would have wives killed on a whim and marry another. According to Eusebius, the evil emperor Domitian, who caused so much bloodshed for Christians at the end of the first century, had his wife and daughter beheaded because they became Christians.
So Paul haves them agency over their lives. They choose to submit. But it is not because of the brute force of their husbands or fear of losing their status. Paul says it is “as to the Lord,” a phrase he will repeat.
Why does a woman voluntarily submit to the leadership of her husband? Because she has already bowed her heart to someone more important. She serves Christ. Her marriage is simply an expression of this service. In her marriage, she acts as a servant who cares for others.
She does it because of God’s order, not man’s caprice.
“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. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.” (Ephesians 5:23–24, ESV)
Paul uses terms we have laden with tortured meaning. Head is not about power. It is authority and direction. As a body without a head is dead, a marriage in which the head is removed is chaos.
The husband is not the boss but the head. A wife submits to her husband in the same way that the church submits to Christ.
It could be asked, “what if she disagrees?” This verse makes her neither doormat nor rebel. She cannot decide to submit to her husband any more than a rebellious Christians can ignore Christ. On a practical level, submission can speak up, raise concerns, and have conversations. But in the end, it respects the order God has provided.
In short, a wife’s reaction to her husband becomes the mirror of how the church submits to Christ. They become the models for the church to follow. Are Christian wives willing to take that responsibility seriously?


I told you that when I was growing up, the emphasis was on wives’ submission to husbands. However, while we might have stopped teaching there, Paul did not stop writing.
Instead, he spends more ink in this passage on husbands than wives. That is because wives can submit to husbands who obey God as well. In fact, we read of a much more sobering and much more difficult task given to husbands, one that has been overlooked.
The rest of the chapter is about husbands, while a single verse is dedicated to wives.
“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. 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. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.” (Ephesians 5:25–33, ESV)
Take a close look at that passage. Watch the comparisons. Husbands find their model in Christ. It is a high standard for husbands. You are to treat your wife the way Christ treats the church.
No wonder we tended to omit this. It is difficult and daunting. While the church is the example for wives, Christ is the example for husbands.
The question for husbands is can you treat your wife as well as Christ treats his church?
Verse 25 seems to be an obvious answer.
“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,” (Ephesians 5:25, ESV)
I find it interesting in this passage that the language in which he addressed “husbands” has the tenor of “now, you men.” It grabs by the lapels and shakes sense into them.
He says, “what’s the matter with you fellow? Love your wife.”
Many men will say, “I love my wife.” But what does that mean? I know one many who needed to hear this lesson the most. He told his wife, “I told you I loved you when I married you. If I change my mind, I will let you know.”
I wanted to say, “trust me…she really does know if you love her.”
Love is never an emotion in scripture. It is not how I feel but how I act. Love is demonstrated, not held. We don’t love people. We show love for people, for that is what love is.
Also, the kind of love Pauls speaks of is not circumstantial but continual and habitual. It doesn’t depend on whether you feel loving at the moment. It just keeps loving all the time in all circumstances.
Paul is not shy about defining the love a man must-have for his wife.

It is sacrificial love.

The first marker of Christ-inspired husbands comes at the end of verse 25.
“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,” (Ephesians 5:25, ESV)
It says that Christ gave himself up for her.
Paul’s instruction sits on the dark backdrop of ancient society. It was more of a business decision than anything. Marriages were arranged, and dowries negotiated. The man gave a woman protection, and she gave him the freedom to do as he chose. And with loose morals, he could choose anything he wanted.
Jesus doesn’t look at himself. Instead, he comes to earth in the restrictive costume of human weakness. His body is serrated by a scourge, slashed open by a spear, and pat upon by barbarians. He experiences the worst of humanity and the brunt of brutality.
He gave up respect, self-care, and dignity because the church was more important.
The “just as” is the tent peg in the masculine heart. Husbands can give all of it because a wife is more precious, meaningful, and eternal. He doesn’t mind sharing because of the needs his wife has.

It is a Purifying Love

One of the traditions of an ancient wedding was cleansing the bride. She was washed with water to be made clean and ready for the purity of a new relationship.
It is captured in verses 26-27:
“that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” (Ephesians 5:26–27, ESV)
Through a series of terms, Paul takes us to the tender purification of his bride.
She is sanctified, set apart to be different. This was done through the preaching of the word and the obedience of baptism. Jesus gave his bride the instruction and method of meeting him.
This is done so she could be ready for him without spot or blemish. It is a word that describes what might be called the “perfect face.” It is one in which perfect symmetry is achieved with glowing skin without the ridges of wear.
Paul describes it as “splendor.” Splendor is when beauty is so impressive that nothing but glowing admiration and attention is given.
For husbands, this kind of life means he is responsible for his wife’s spiritual life. Think of it this way. As life goes on and age creeps up, the day will come for a wife to be taken from her husband in death. Every husband needs to fast forward to that day in his mind and ask, “would God say I have made her ready for heaven?” And then, do what it takes now to care for her spiritual life. Help her to get to heaven. Do all you can to make that happen, for that is how Christ created the church.

It is a Caring Love

Care is hard to define. What level of care does a husband give his wife? Listen to Paul:
“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.” (Ephesians 5:28–30, ESV)
Paul argues that the human tendency is to care about the self at all costs. Unless someone has a psychological condition, this is a primary human response. When cold, we find a way to get warm. When hungry, we eat. Fatigue forces us to rest.
The kind of care a husband provides for his wife is the same level of concern he has for his own health, life, and safety.
When small, a child is awkward and tender. It is best captured with two twin terms: nourish and cherish. The first comes from how a parent treats a child.
When my daughter was about 2, he had a habit of getting on our bed and running to the end and expecting me to catch her. Many times, this happened without warning. I remember that she did this many times without warning. I had to just react. I can honestly say I never dropped her. I wanted her to grow up strong and sound so I would do anything to ensure she was safe.
That is the sense of nourish.
But the second means literally, “to soften with heat.” When someone is cold, you can help warm them up by wrapping your arms around them, giving a bear hug, and sharing body heat. This is what happens when you cherish them. You gave them the warmth of your care to keep them comfortable.
When a man treats his wife as he would treat himself, he will do everything in his power for her. He won’t hurt feelings because he doesn’t want to feel that either.
The best rule for husbands is, “how would I want someone to treat me if they were treating me well?” Then, treat your wife that way.

It is Permanent Love

Paul returns to the inception of marriage for his last instruction to husbands.
“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”” (Ephesians 5:31, ESV)
The sense of this verse is focused on “hold fast.” It speaks of a man being glued to his wife. While the one flesh describes the physical relationship, it is also a reflection of the spiritual relation. When lives are woven together, they are fused to where you cannot tell one without the other.
Divorce could leave a woman abandoned in a terrifying moment. It happened in the ancient world and remains true today. The reason God hates divorce is because of the damage it does to people afterward but also to the damage it does before.
Before Vickie and I got married, we had a friend who would get angry. She would say to her new husband, “I’ll just divorce her.” One day I grew really bold and said, “cut that out. If it is in your mind, the intention is already set. It is then only a matter of time.”
We need strong spiritual adhesive in marriage.
Shortly after my father retired, my mother developed Parkinson’s and neuropathy. She could not walk. They wanted to travel, and he worked his entire life for the opportunity, but now it was crushed. I have been privileged to see this in action.
He cared for her at home for a long time until she needed more care. He then made the difficult and expensive decision to put her in assisted living at Appletree Court.
Within a few years, he falling required us to move her to a nursing home. She could not stand us. She refused to talk to us for three months.
I would not have blamed my father for staying away. Instead, he got up every morning and went to my mother’s room. She would not talk to him, so he read his paper. He stayed there even when it would have been easier to not go. He stayed in there….all the way to the Sunday morning when she died with him by her bed.
For me, that drew the portrait in the flesh, which Paul writes in words. He captured everything Paul said.
But then Paul does something that perplexes.
“This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” (Ephesians 5:32, ESV)
Does this mean that all Paul has spoken of is not really what he is talking about?
If you look at the context, the following verses are relational. Instead, Paul talks of a “profound mystery, “something that cannot be discovered naturally and must be revealed.
In this passage, he has spoken of a husband’s responsibility as that of Christ and the church. He seems to be wrapping them together to say, “men, you can’t understand this yourself. You have to see Christ and the church to have it shown to you.”
God’s mind conceived both the church and marriage. They share common values that cannot be segmented and separated into neat categories.
Paul senses that the reader might be confused, so he brings it together in the final verse of our lesson.
“However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.” (Ephesians 5:33, ESV)
With “however,” he says in any case and then summarizes his instruction. Husbands love your wife as you love yourself, and wives respect their husbands.
What fascinates me is the intricate interplay of this final verse. It uses a principle that can be stated as:
In marriage, the more you give, the more you receive.
If a husband wants submission and respect from his wife, he gives as Christ gave. And if a wife voluntarily submits, it makes it easier for the husband to provide sacrificial love.
Who goes first? Both of you.


In this lesson, one idea is inescapable.
The strength of y our marriage is a barometer of the condition of your spiritual life.
The same behaviors and attitudes that create strong marriages create strong churches. God puts you onto a smaller stage to let you live out the essential building blocks of spiritual vibrancy. If you cannot do it in your marriage, what makes you believe you can do it to Christ?
And you can look at the condition of the marriages in a church to determine where the church’s future is. Will it be vital? Then those who are married are showing it now.
Never forget. The church is made up of people, and they will act in the church as they do at home.
The truth is, in a marriage, there are three partners. A wife that submits, a husband that loves…and Christ that guides.
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