Ephesians 5:21-33

We finished last week with what it looks like to be filled with the Spirit. How we are to speak, sing, and make melody not to mention that we are to give thanks for everything. But there was one additional attribute of a Spirit filled person, that of being submissive to others and Christ.

Paul spends a lot more time on the topic of submissiveness in verses 5:21-33, which makes sense if you think about it. The church at Ephesus (and indeed other churches in Asia and elsewhere) had an eclectic mix of people, namely Jews and Gentiles. This mix had an inherent side-effect of introducing differing understanding of doctrine and how to worship God. The Jews had their ceremonies and rituals whereas the Gentiles had no ceremonies and rituals. The Gentiles were not worried about those things. This caused problems and (gasp) disunity in the church. This disunity is also evident in other churches as Paul had to address this on multiple occasions, Galatians 3:28:

28There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Paul in this section wants to squash that disunity. Therefore he dives deep into our submissiveness, not only to Christ but also to each other. But what Paul writes here (as he is carried along by the Spirit) is somewhat nuanced and beautiful. Essentially, Paul is discussing two distinct things while at the same time showing us how we are to relate these two things in the context of submission. Notice where Paul talks of the relationship between the husband and wife and then extends this to the relationship between the church (us) and Christ.

Ephesians 5:21:

21and be subject to one another in the fear of Christ.

This verse is the connecting verse between what it looks like to be filled with the Spirit and our submission. That is, we should be willing to be submissive to each other under the fear/reverence of Christ who is the head of the church.

Ephesians 5:22:

22Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord.

I wanted to call out this verse as it is usually divisive. In fact, we see the “love and obey” from wedding vows many times shorted to just “love”. But here Paul is telling the wife that she must be submissive to her husband. This seems a little brash and uncaring for the wife…right? Well no, but to understand we first need a little more context.

First, Paul is talking to a believing wife bound to a believing husband (remember that this letter was written for believers). He will go on to show what God’s perfect plan for that union looks like under Christ.

Don’t forget to read the whole verse. This verse ends with “…as to the Lord.” Therefore, the wife is to be subject to her husband as she is subjecting herself also to the Lord of both her and her husband.

But husbands (and I’m looking at myself even more-so) do not ever take this verse as a license to lord your own will over your wife. The husband should read this verse with the utmost humility and love for his own wife! Beware husbands (and myself), what follows in the rest of this passage is mostly for us. In fact, if we fail God’s commands (through Paul) we fail our wives.

Ephesians 5:23–24:

23For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. 24But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything.

Paul continues his thread of why the wife is to be subject to her husband in verses 23-24. The way God has structured marriage is that the husband is to be the head of the wife just like Christ is the head over the church. And then Paul explains it in verse 24 in the reverse. He states that the church must be subject to her bridegroom, Christ, just as the wife is subject to her husband. And this verse ends with “…in everything” and everything consists of all things.

Now you might be saying to yourself, “Yeah, didn’t Paul just say the same thing above…wives be subject to your husbands?” Well, there are some nuances here. First, in verse 22 it says that wives are to be subject to their husbands AS to the Lord. This word “as” is a conjunction (in Greek) that shows a comparison to how wives are to be in subjection to their husbands. Wives are to be in subjection to their husbands in a similar manner as to Christ. Not that we fallible husbands are on equal footing with Christ. No! We ourselves are also commanded to submit to Christ. But notice something else. It never says that husbands are to make, require, or force our wives to be subject to us. No! That is not right. It is the wife who must willingly and lovingly be subject to her husband. This puts the wife’s subjection as the responsibility of the husband, not the wife. Although this might sound like a contradiction to what I said previously, it is not. Let me explain. The husband cannot and should not demand this subjection; rather he (we) (I) must act in such a way as to earn it (we’ll talk about this shortly). I hope all the husbands out there are now seeing that Paul is putting the responsibility of the marriage onto the shoulders of the husband. Granted, the wife has a responsibility too, but the focus of Paul’s commands here are going to be towards the husband. For how can the wife be holy if the husband is not?

I want to point out the word “as” in verse 23. The husband is to be towards his wife “as” Christ is towards the church. Again, this word “as” is used to make a comparison between how we husbands are to act towards our wives with how Christ acted towards the church. Does any other husband out there read these verses and feel as though the weight of our responsibility just tripled? Just wait, it gets even more difficult for us husbands, but bear with me to the end.

Now we know that Paul is talking about the relationship between husbands and wives. But here Paul introduces a new parallel concept, that of the church being subject to Christ. Paul continues to expound on this unique parallelism between wives and their husbands with the church and Christ. So wait; this sounds like a double whammy for us husbands. We are not only responsible for enabling our wives to be willingly and lovingly subject to us, but we husbands must also make ourselves willingly and lovingly subject to Christ. Wow, God, through Paul, has placed so much on our shoulders. I’m wondering how it is possible to successfully carry this immense weight of responsibility on our shoulders. Just wait; Paul is not done. It gets even more difficult for us husbands.

Ephesians 5:25–27:

25Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, 26so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless.

Here it is. The command to “love our wives” in verse 25. Make no mistake. The verb “love” is in the imperative form as a command. Paul then expounds on how we are to follow this command. This is where the rubber meets the road (as the saying goes). We are to love our wives just as (this is another comparative) Christ loved the church! But Paul adds, “…and gave Himself up for her”. That word for “gave” in Greek gives the sense of sacrificially giving something up. In this case that something is Christ Himself. Thus, we are to act towards our wives according to how Christ acted towards His church (His bride). We are to sacrificially give ourselves up for our wives. This doesn’t just mean that we would physically die to protect our wife; it means so much more than that. It means our daily decisions and our actions and words towards our wife must always sacrificially place her above our own needs and wants.

Picture this. We as husbands lead our households, especially our wives, in a manner worthy of Christ. That is in the same way that Christ leads the church…with unbounded grace, mercy, and love…filling all the needs of the church. But there is also Christ’s sacrificial love towards the church that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. Therefore, we as husbands need to die daily not only towards our own sins but we need to die daily for our wives placing their needs above ours, their wants before ours, themselves before ourselves.

This picture of God’s desire for the husband and wife paints a whole new picture of verse 22, “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord.” If the husband would act in the manner God desires, then the wife would naturally and lovingly want to be subject to him as her husband. Or to put it in the first person, “If I would just act as God desires me to act, my wife would naturally and lovingly want to be subject to me.” So, husbands, the onus is on us to walk in love with our Lord and to walk in love with our wives. Everything else will fall into place. This is the unequivocal definition of harmony.

But don’t forget to notice the parallelism between the husband’s and wife’s harmony and the harmony between Christ and His church. Christ acts as the perfect husband to His bride, the church. We are to imitate our Lord as He loves and sanctifies His church, Ephesians 5:1: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children”. Christ’s motives are pure and gracious in His sanctification and cleansing of the church. In the same fashion, we as husbands should mirror this and make it our duty to always be sanctifying our wife. Of course, this does not mean we try to force the issue of sanctification on our wife but that we allow her to willingly desire to be sanctified.

But how do we do this? It seems impossible. But what is impossible with us is possible with our Lord. Remember the prayer Paul just prayed in Ephesians 3:14–21:

14For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, 16that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. 20Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, 21to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

This is also a prayer that we, as husbands, should be praying daily in order to love our wives as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for it. Focus on verse 3:16 where Paul asks that we be strengthened with power through His Spirit. The Spirit is who gives us the power and strength to be able to lead our household and to love our wives and to submit ourselves to Christ as the ultimate head over all.

Ephesians 5:28–32:

28So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; 29for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, 30because we are members of His body. 31For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and shall be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. 32This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church.

These verses show the unity between the husband and his wife. If we love ourselves and take care of ourselves, so should we do to our wives in kind. If I love my wife then I show that I love myself. This is not a selfish type of self-love; rather, it is a selfless love that is reflected back to us by our wives. Read the next verse (31) where it talks of the man leaving his parents and being joined to his wife. The husband and wife are one. Verse 31 even goes so far as to say the husband and wife are one flesh. The two cannot be separated under God. Therefore, if I love myself in a God honoring manner then I love my wife in that same exact manner as if we were one flesh. Likewise, if I love my wife in a God honoring manner then I love myself in that same God honoring manner. This is in no way a selfish love. This is the selfless and self-sacrificing love that Christ desires in our marriages!

I don’t know how many times I’ve read this before, but I never fully understood the “one flesh” idea in such a deep way as I do now that I’ve really studied this section in Ephesians. I pray that all husbands would truly stop here and study this passage deeply for as long as it takes in order to fully understand the “one flesh” concept. It is so powerful and enriching for our marriages.

Now in verse 32 Paul seems to trip us up. He says this is yet another mystery he is revealing to us. But remember the parallelism between the husband and wife and between Christ and the church. Yes, this section reveals to us husbands how we are to love our wives, but it also reveals how Christ loves the church. You see, Christ is the perfect husband to His church. He sustains and feeds us (i.e., nourishes) the church, and He also treats the church with great tenderness and affection (i.e., cherishes). As Paul says, we the church are members of Christ’s body. That is, we are one with Christ just as the husband and wife are one with each other.

This is why Paul says that he is speaking of Christ and the church. Paul first shows us what the relationship between a husband and wife should look like and then compares that to what the relationship looks like between Christ and us (His church).

Ephesians 5:33:

33Nevertheless, each individual among you also is to love his own wife even as himself, and the wife must see to it that she respects her husband.

This “Nevertheless” verse is a clarification on the “mystery” that Paul spoke of in reference to Christ and the church. Paul did not want us to think that we should understand Christ’s relationship to the church and forego our responsibilities as husbands. No! Here, Paul specifically states (as an imperative, or command) that each husband is to love his own wife as he loves himself. That is the command in this verse. Oddly enough, there is only one command in this verse and it is directed towards husbands. The verb “respects” in the phrase “the wife must see to it that she respects her husband” is not an imperative but a subjunctive. A subjunctive can covey doubt, expectation, intention, among other things. Here, it conveys an expectation. That is, if the husband fulfills the command to love and respect his wife then the expectation is that the wife will naturally love and respect her husband. They are one flesh after all.

I hope this has been as eye-opening to the other husbands reading this as it has been to me. This small section of scripture has revealed my failings as a husband, which I take to heart. Do I make it easy for my wife to love and respect me? Am I truly living a self-sacrificial life to and for my wife? Do I truly see her and myself as one single flesh? Am I truly leading my wife in a way that is sanctifying us and bringing us closer together? These are tough questions to honestly answer, and I don’t like some of my honest answers.

These questions can also be asked of my relationship to Christ. As I am a member of the body of Christ, do I subject myself to Him daily in a sacrificial manner? Do I truly see myself as one with Christ as a member of His body? Am I sanctifying myself in order to be closer to Christ? Again, these are tough questions to honestly answer.

I’m very blessed to have my wife. She is way more than I deserve. I need to pray more for the Spirit’s empowerment in order to love her deeper and to make more generous sacrifices for her. We are after all one flesh, just as we are all one in Christ.