Paul’s theology of marriage starts with the word of God: the Word of God who is Jesus Christ; and the word of God, which is the inspired Old Testament. And since God is not a God of confusion, his word is coherent. It has unity. So when Paul wants to understand marriage, he looks to the word of God — to Jesus and to the Scriptures. When he brings Christ and Scripture together to hear God’s word on marriage, what he hears is a profound mystery with intensely practical implications. And what I would like to do with you this morning is to explore that mystery and apply two of its practical implications to our lives.
Marriage in Genesis
Ephesians 5:31 is a quotation of Genesis 2:24: “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife and the two shall become one flesh.” Then Paul adds in verse 32, “This is a great mystery, and I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church.” Paul knew something about Christ and the church which caused him to see in Genesis 2:24 a mystery in marriage. Let’s go back to Genesis 2:24 and look more closely at the context of this verse and its connection with creation.
“God created us not to be cul-de-sacs of his bounty, but conduits.”
According to Genesis 2, God created Adam first and put him in the garden alone. Then in verse 18, the Lord said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make a helper fit for him.” I don’t think this is an indictment of Adam’s fellowship with God; nor is it a hint that the garden was too hard to take care of. The point is that God made man to be a sharer. God created us not to be cul-de-sacs of his bounty, but conduits. No man is complete unless he is conducting grace (like electricity) between God and another person. (No single person should conclude that this can only happen in marriage.)
It must be another person not an animal. So in Genesis 2:19–20 God paraded the animals before Adam to show him that animals would never do as a “helper fit for him.” Oh, animals help plenty! But only a person can be a fellow-heir of the grace of life (1 Peter 1:4–7). Only a person can receive and appreciate and enjoy grace. What man needs is another person with whom he can share the love of God. Animals will not do! There is an infinite difference between sharing the northern lights with your beloved and sharing them with your dog. Therefore, according to verse 21,
The Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh; and the rib which the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.
Having shown the man that no animal would do for his helper, God made another human from man’s own flesh and bone to be like him — and yet very unlike him. He did not create another man. He created a woman. And Adam recognized in her the perfect counterpart to himself — utterly different from the animals: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.”
By creating a person like Adam yet very unlike Adam, God provided the possibility of a profound unity that would otherwise have been impossible. There is a different kind of unity enjoyed by the joining of diverse counterparts than is enjoyed by joining two things just alike. When we all sing the same melody line, it is called “unison,” which means “one sound.” But when we unite diverse lines of soprano and alto and tenor and bass, we call it harmony, and everyone who has an ear to hear knows that something deeper in us is touched by great harmony than by unison. So God made a woman and not another man. He created heterosexuality, not homosexuality. God’s first institution was marriage, not the fraternity.
Notice the connection between verses 23 and 24, signaled by the word “therefore” in verse 24. In verse 23 the focus is on two things: objectively, the fact that woman is part of man’s flesh and bone; subjectively, the joy Adam has in being presented with the woman. “At last this is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh!” From these two things the writer draws an inference about marriage in verse 24: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.”
In other words, in the beginning, God took woman out of man as bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh, and then God presented her back to the man to discover in living fellowship what it means to be one flesh. Then verse 24 draws out the lesson that marriage is just that: a man leaving father and mother because God has given him another, a cleaving to this woman and no other, and discovering the experience of being one flesh. That’s what Paul saw when he looked at the word of God in Scripture.
The Mystery of Marriage
But Paul knew another Word of God — Jesus Christ. He knew him deeply and intimately. He had learned from Jesus that the church is Christ’s body (Ephesians 1:23). By faith, a person is joined to Jesus Christ and to other believers so that we “are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Believers in Christ are the body of Christ — we are the organism through which he manifests his life and in which his Spirit dwells. Knowing this about the relationship between Christ and the church, Paul sees a parallel here with marriage. He sees that husband and wife become one flesh (according to Genesis 2:24) and that Christ and the church become one body.
So he is willing to say to the church, for example in 2 Corinthians 11:2, “I feel a divine jealousy for you, for I betrothed you to Christ to present you as a pure bride to her one husband.” He pictures Christ as the husband, the church as the bride, and their conversion as an act of betrothal which he had helped bring about. The presentation of the bride to her husband will probably happen at the second coming of the Lord. That’s described in Ephesians 5:27 as well. So it looks as though Paul uses the relationship of human marriage, learned from Genesis 2, to describe and explain the relationship between Christ and the church.
But when we say it like that, something very important is overlooked. This brings us back to where we started at Ephesians 5:32. After quoting Genesis 2:24 about the man and woman becoming one flesh, Paul says, “This is a great mystery, and I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church.” Marriage is a mystery. There is more here than meets the eye. What is it? I think it’s this: God didn’t create the union of Christ and the church after the pattern of human marriage; just the reverse, he created human marriage on the pattern of Christ’s relation to the church.
“Husbands and wives should consciously copy the relationship God intended for Christ and his church.”
The mystery of Genesis 2:24 is that the marriage it describes is a parable or symbol of Christ’s relation to his people. God doesn’t do things willy-nilly. Everything has purpose and meaning. When God engaged to create man and woman and to ordain the union of marriage, he didn’t roll dice or draw straws or flip a coin. He patterned marriage very purposefully after the relationship between his Son and the church, which he planned from eternity.
And therefore marriage is a mystery — it contains and conceals a meaning far greater than what we see on the outside. What God has joined together in marriage is to be a reflection of the union between the Son of God and his bride the church. Those of us who are married need to ponder again and again how mysterious and wonderful it is that we are granted by God the privilege to image forth stupendous divine realities infinitely bigger and greater than ourselves.
Imaging Christ and the Church
Now, what are some of the practical implications of this mystery of marriage? I’ll mention the two, which seem to dominate the passage in Ephesians. One is that husbands and wives should consciously copy the relationship God intended for Christ and his church. The other is that in marriage each partner should pursue his or her own joy in the joy of the other; that is, marriage should be a matrix of Christian Hedonism.
First, then, what pattern did God intend for husbands and wives when he ordained marriage as a mysterious parable or image of the relation between Christ and the church? Paul mentions two things, one to the wife and one to the husband. To the wife he says in verses 22–24,
Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands.
According to the divine pattern, wives are to take their unique cue from the purpose of the church. As the church submits to Christ, so wives are to submit to their husbands. The church submits to Christ as her head. Verse 23: “The husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church.” Headship implies at least two things: Christ is supplier or Savior, and Christ is authority or leader. “Head” is used two other times in Ephesians. Ephesians 4:15, 16 illustrates the head as supplier and Ephesians 1:20–23 illustrates the head as authority.
Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and builds up itself in love.
The head is the goal to which we grow and the supply to enable the growth. Then consider Ephesians 1:20–23:
God raised him from the dead and made him sit at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above every rule and authority and power and dominion and above every name that is named not only in this age but also in the age to come, and he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
When God raised Christ from the dead, he made him head in the sense of giving him power and authority over all other rule and authority and power and dominion. Therefore, from the context of Ephesians, the headship of the husband implies that as far as possible he should accept greater responsibility for supplying the needs of his wife (including material needs, but also protection and care) and he should accept greater responsibility of authority and leadership in the family.
Then, when it says in verse 24, “As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives be subject in everything to their husbands,” the basic meaning of submission would be: recognize and honor the greater responsibility of your husband to supply your protection and sustenance; be disposed to yield to his authority in Christ and be inclined to follow his leadership. The reason I say that submission means a disposition to yield and an inclination to follow is that the little phrase “as to the Lord” in verse 22 limits the scope of submission. No wife should replace the authority of Christ with the authority of her husband. She cannot yield or follow her husband into sin.
But even where a Christian wife may have to stand with Christ against the sinful will of her husband, she can still have a spirit of submission. She can show by her attitude and behavior that she does not like resisting his will and that she longs for him to forsake sin and lead in righteousness so that her disposition to honor him as head can again produce harmony. So in this mysterious parable of marriage the wife is to take her special cue from God’s purpose to the church in its relation to Christ.
Now to the husbands, Paul says, take your special cue from Christ. Verse 25: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” If the husband is the head of the wife as verse 23 says, let it be very plain to all husbands that this means primarily leading out in the kind of love that is willing to die to give her life. As Jesus says in Luke 22:26, “Let the leader become as one who serves.” The husband who plops himself down in front of the TV and orders his wife around like a slave has abandoned Christ in favor of Archie Bunker. Christ bound himself with a towel and washed the apostles’ feet. If you want to be a Christian husband, copy Jesus not Jabba the Hutt.
It is true that verse 21 puts this whole section under the sign of mutual submission. “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” But it is utterly unwarranted to infer from this verse that the way Christ submits himself to the church and the way the church submits herself to Christ are the same. The church submits to Christ by a disposition to follow his leadership. Christ submits to the church by a disposition to exercise his leadership in humble service to the church.
“A husband and wife should pursue their own joy in the joy of each other.”
When Christ said, “Let the leader become as one who serves,” he did not mean, let the leader cease to be leader. Even while he was on his knees washing their feet, no one doubted who the leader was. Nor should any Christian husband shirk his responsibility under God to provide moral vision and spiritual leadership as the humble servant of his wife and family.
So the first implication of the mystery of marriage as a reflection of Christ’s relation to the church is that wives should take their special cue from the church and husbands should take their special cue from Christ. And wherever you find a marriage like that, you find two of the happiest people in the world, because their lives conform to the word of God in Scripture and the Word of God in Jesus Christ.
Pursuing Joy in the Joy of the Other
One final, practical implication of the mystery of marriage: a husband and wife should pursue their own joy in the joy of each other. There is scarcely a more hedonistic passage in the Bible than Ephesians 5:25–30. This text makes very clear that the reason there is so much misery in marriages is not that husbands and wives are seeking their own pleasure, but that they are not seeking it in the pleasure of their spouses. But this text commands us to do just that because Christ does just that. First, notice the example of Christ in verses 25–27:
Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, [Why did he?] that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, [Why did he cleanse her?] 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.
Christ died for the church in order that he might present to himself a beautiful bride. He endured the cross for the joy of marriage that was set before him. But what is the ultimate joy of the church? Is it not to be presented as a bride to the sovereign Christ? So Christ sought his own joy in the joy of the church. Therefore, the example Christ sets for husbands is to seek their joy in the joy of their wives.
Verse 28 makes this application explicit. “Even so, husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh but nourishes and cherishes it.” Paul acknowledges one of the foundation stones of Christian Hedonism: “No man ever hates his own flesh.” Even those who commit suicide do it to escape misery.
By nature we love ourselves, that is, we do what we think in the moment will make us happy. And Paul does not build a dam against the river of hedonism; he builds a channel for it. He says, “Husbands and wives, recognize that in marriage you have become one flesh; therefore, if you live for your private pleasure at the expense of your spouse, you are living against yourself and destroying your own highest joy. But if you devote yourself with all your heart to the holy joy of your spouse, you will also be living for your joy and making a marriage after the image of Christ and his church.”
Not that my personal testimony could add anything of weight to the Word of God, yet I want to bear witness anyway. I discovered Christian Hedonism the same year I got married, in 1968. For fifteen years Noël and I, in obedience to Jesus Christ, have pursued as passionately as we could the deepest, most lasting joys possible. All too imperfectly, all too hardheartedly at times, we have stalked our own joy like a hunter, in the joy of each other. And we can testify together: that’s where the prize is found. And we believe that in making marriage a matrix of Christian hedonism, each fulfilling the ordained role, the mystery of marriage as a parable of Christ and the church becomes manifest for his great glory. Amen.