Ephesians 5:31–32, “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.”
There are many reasons why a wife must submit to her husband’s authority and a husband must love his wife as Christ loves His church (Eph. 5:22, 25). Not least of these is God’s absolute authority (Rev. 6:10). His decrees are right and we are to follow them simply because He gives them. But there are other reasons why we are to heed the Lord’s will for marital roles, as we see in today’s passage.
Paul explains in Ephesians 5:31–32 that the relationship between a husband and wife is a picture of the bond between Jesus and His people. He bases this understanding on a pervasive Old Testament metaphor. Especially in the prophets, God’s relationship to Israel is likened to that of a bridegroom to His bride. Jeremiah 2:2 recalls the devotion the Israelites had for their covenant Lord when He called them out of slavery. Hosea 1–2 emphasizes the love of God for His people, a love so deep that it persisted in the most difficult circumstance of His bride’s unfaithfulness.
The metaphor of God as the husband of His people shows us that human marriage displays eternal truths. As husbands and wives fulfill their God-given roles, they join general revelation in showing the world truths about our Creator and humanity’s appropriate response to Him.
Husbands who sacrifice themselves for their wives depict the self-sacrificial nature of the Lord in redeeming His people. Wives who rightly submit to their own husbands’ authority remind all people that they must live under God’s Word. We proclaim God’s glory and our responsibility to the world as we fulfill our rightful duties as husbands and wives.
Only Jesus has kept God’s will perfectly, so we will sometimes fail in our marital roles. Still, we endeavor by the Holy Spirit to keep His will, and the husband’s love for his wife, no matter how how unlovable she (or the husband) might be at times, is particularly important. His love in the hardest times shows the unfailing, persevering love of Jesus for His church. Thus, husbands cannot use their wives’ refusal to submit properly as an excuse not to love their wives to the end. After all, “that’s not how Christ loved the church. Christ loved a church that was not submissive to him. Christ died for a church that was in rebellion against him” (R.C. Sproul, The Purpose of God: Ephesians, p. 137).
Husbands, your calling is to pursue your wives in love to the ends of the earth. Single men, your calling is to become the kind of men who, should you get married one day, will love your wives in a way that serves their needs. Wives, your calling is to pray for your husbands, that they might love you in this manner, and to do all you can to make it easy for them to love you. Single women, your calling is to become godly women whom godly men yearn to love.
A sanctifying process enables us to become what God intends. What does God intend for husbands to be? He intends for us to be complete, as mature in personal and spiritual development as we can be before we are with him (James 1:2–4). But how will this wholeness come about? Paul says, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh” (Eph. 5:31). This is a reference to the physical union of a man and woman in marriage—but much more also.
The language of verse 31 puts before us the creation plan to make us whole persons. The wife was made to complement and complete the husband. Lest this sound too demeaning for her, think of what it connotes for him. Unless the man is gifted for celibacy, he is ever incomplete—incapable of realizing the divine potential God intends for him in this life—apart from the ministry of his wife in his marriage. Further, because the two are to be one, if one of those parties to the union is damaged, demoralized, or degraded, then neither will be completely whole. Just as a basketball deflated on only one side still cannot fulfill its purposes, so a marriage with one side diminished will deprive both persons of the full potential God intends.
How can we live so? How can we sacrifice so? By recognizing that ultimately the resource provided for Christian husbanding is not simply self-sacrifice, but Christ’s sacrifice. It may seem disingenuous that Paul—so obviously speaking in this passage about Christian marriage—nonetheless says, “This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church” (Eph. 5:32).
The mystery then is how Christ, through the gospel, calls a bride to himself, and how Christian marriage is to illustrate this great sacred act. For this husband, this ultimately means that a husband’s love for his wife is intimately tied to his knowledge of Christ’s love for us.
If a husband or a wife is not secure in Christ’s love—if we need control over another to have some confidence in ourselves—then we cannot love as Christ requires. We will have no resources to serve another if we are not sure of our standing in him. His love is our relational fuel. If we are running on empty (not filled with the knowledge of his love for us), then we will inevitably suck personal energy from the life of our marriage.
Only when our hearts are brimming with the knowledge of his grace do we have the resources we need to maintain a Christian marriage. Without a sure relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ, we simply do not have the security or strength necessary to sacrifice for the good of another. Ultimately the only resource we have that enables us to love as Christ requires is his own love. That is why Paul is so careful in this passage to spell out the assurance we have of God’s love for us through the sacrifice of his Son. Only when we rest in his love can we reflect it. The degree of confidence we have in the strength of his care for us will largely determine the measure of selfless tenderness we can express.
When Robertson McQuilkin recounted in Christianity Today his decision to resign his leadership of one of the nation’s prestigious evangelical institutions to care for his wife, the response was overwhelming. Husbands and wives who read the account renewed their marriage vows; pastors told the story to their congregations; young people attested to a rekindled desire for a marriage commitment their culture had previously taught them to minimize and devalue. McQuilkin said, “It was a mystery to me [how so many were responding] until a distinguished oncologist, who lives constantly with dying people, told me, ‘Almost all women stand by their men, but few men stand by their women.’”
How curious that in dying to self and becoming a servant to his wife this man became a leader of men and women throughout this nation. But then, it is not really curious at all. It is really only the heart of the gospel, a mirror of Christ’s ministry that should be reflected in all of our marriages: we lead most clearly, most effectively, most authoritatively, and most like Christ when we live most sacrificially.
God calls us to believe that just as this one husband became a leader to many when in active obedience to Christ he applied his gifts, talents, authority, and calling to the nurture and care of a loved one, so also we become leaders in our families when we exercise our gifts, abilities, and rights in the service of our loved ones. The Lord who submitted himself to the cross in your behalf calls us husbands to servant/leadership no less submissive to his will in our homes. There, too, taking the lead in dying to self are our Christian mission, our marital joy, and Christ’s glory. The path to Christian leadership in the home is always the way of the cross.
The dignity of a Christian wife shows not only in the sacrificial calling she shares with all God’s people, but also in the glory of purpose God grants her. By her gifts and calling, she completes her husband and enables him to fulfill God’s purposes for himself and the family. To understand the dignity of this “completing-another” purpose, consider the goals our society often advocates for women. In contrast to the biblical perspective that a woman fulfills heavenly purpose in marriage, the modern perspective, taken to extreme, shackles women’s (as much as men’s) worth to mere standards of income, title, and accomplishment. This perspective teaches women that if they have not sufficiently risen in corporate stature or professional recognition, then they are less valuable than those who have achieved more. Worth becomes directly tied to a row of figures in a bankbook or a line of ink in a year-end report. Additionally, a subtle, yet spiritually debilitating, change occurs in a woman when her dignity is measured by wealth, number of children, size of house, personal accomplishments, or a husband’s prestige. Such measurements turn a woman’s attention from God’s purposes to her own. When Christian women know they are respected for honoring their biblical responsibilities, then they are fulfilled and dignified by the expression of their gifts in behalf of another.