Sacred Marriage (Ephesians 5:21-33)

Good morning! We’re in a series called Family – God’s Way. We’re looking at what the Bible says about our families. We’re looking at gender, marriage, singleness, parenting – what the Bible says about having relationships with those closest with us in a way that’s closest to what he designed for us. Today we’re looking at marriage. If you have your Bibles with you, please open them to Ephesians 5.

Today I want us to look at what Ephesians 5 says about marriage. But I wanted to begin by acknowledging that if you are married, your marriage is probably the most challenging relationship that you will ever have. It’s rewarding; it’s satisfying. But it’s also tough. Marriage is both the hardest and potentially the most satisfying relationship that you will ever have. In fact, only about 1 in 20 – five percent – claim to have happy marriages. If you’re one of the 19 out of 20 who isn’t in a happy marriage, the good news is that it’s possible to change that, and the passage we’re going to examine today will help us learn how. This is graduate level Christianity. Somebody has said that the toughest job that you will ever have in this life is to stay happily married, and the good news is that if you can make it in marriage, you’ll probably do all right in the other areas of your life.

I’m still learning in this area. I don’t have a perfect marriage – mainly because no marriage with me in it will ever come close to perfect. We have difficulties and challenges. We even have fights. It’s hard work – but it’s worth it. I wouldn’t change it for the world.

A couple of weeks ago we looked at gender differences – that God created us male and female. Our gender is a central part of who we are. We also looked at the fact that the relationship between the sexes mirrors, in some way, the relationship that God has with himself in the Trinity. We looked at Genesis to discover that God created us to be a source of joy and longing to the other sex, but because of the Fall, our relationships have become sources of conflict and tension.

Somebody has written, “We must never be naïve enough to think of marriage as a safe harbor from the Fall…The deepest struggles of life will occur in the most primary relationship affected by the Fall: marriage” (Dan Allender and Tremper Longman III). One of the tragedies of the Fall is the way that it’s affected our relationships. We will never experience what God designed marriage to be. As good as your marriage is, it will never be everything that God intended it to be, because our relationships have been damaged by our sin. When sin entered the world, it destroyed the potential of our marriages to be everything that they could be. Whatever we will experience now falls short of what our marriage could be.

If you’ve studied the Bible, you know that Jesus came to undo the effects of the Fall. He did this for us personally – he dealt with our sin problem by dying for our sins so that we could be forgiven and have eternal life. One of the consequences of sin is that we were born into sin, that we have this thing called a sin nature that not only leads us to do wrong, but has separated us from God and condemned us to hell. But Jesus came to undo that damage – to forgive us, to give us new life, to give us peace with God. His free gift is available to everyone.

Jesus didn’t just come to change us as individuals. Jesus also changes our relationships. Ephesians 5 describes how living by the Spirit’s power changes our marriages. It moves us in three directions that will help return our marriages to what God originally intended for them.

What we’re about to read is called a household code. It’s a description of our duties within our households as families. It isn’t unique to the Bible – the Jewish and pagan religions of that day also had their household codes that described the relationships that they wanted people to have in their families. But what is unique is what the Christian household code says. The Gospel places our relationships on a revolutionary new footing.

The basis of our relationships as Christians is found in Ephesians 5:21: “And further, you will submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” The basis of all our relationships becomes reciprocal submission – to subordinate our rights to the rights of others. We’re called to reject self-centeredness and to work for the good of others. It involves deciding about the worth of others – that others are worth so much that we must put their rights ahead of our own rights. It goes completely against the way that we would naturally act. It’s only possible by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Then Paul begins to spell out what this means in marriage. Subordinating our rights to each other will move us in three directions – each of which was revolutionary when this passage was first written, and I believe is still revolutionary today. The basis of our relationships as Christians is reciprocal submission – to subordinate or rights to the rights of others. The Gospel moves our marriages in three directions::


Ephesians 5:22-24 says:

You wives will submit to your husbands as you do to the Lord. For a husband is the head of his wife as Christ is the head of his body, the church; he gave his life to be her Savior. As the church submits to Christ, so you wives must submit to your husbands in everything.

This is probably one of the most abused and misunderstood passages in the Bible. When we read this passage, it smacks of hierarchy and male chauvinism. People have misinterpreted this passage to say that women should always be subservient, and that husbands should always make the decisions. Misinterpretations of this passage have led to demeaning attitudes toward women, and sometimes even to abuse. We’ve placed so much emphasis on the male as the head that we’ve missed the main point of this passage. What does this passage actually say about the relationship between men and women, between husbands and wives?

When Paul wrote these words, women were viewed very poorly. Attitudes toward women were absolutely awful. One writer said that women were the worst plague Zeus ever made. Another said, “The two best days in a woman’s life are when someone marries her and when he carries her dead body to the grave.” In the Jewish religion, women were not counted in the quorum needed for the synagogue. One Jewish rabbi said, “Do not talk much with a woman.” Another rabbi added, “Not even with one’s wife.”

Women in that day were viewed as inferior, and were given very little freedom. They could not act as witnesses in court, could not adopt children or make a contract, and could not own property or inherit. The philosopher Aristotle and the historian Josephus both said that women were, in all respects, inferior to a man. They were seen as less intelligent, less moral, the source of sin, and a continual temptation.

It’s in that context that the apostle Paul wrote in Galatians 3:28, “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. For you are all Christians-you are one in Christ Jesus.” To say such a thing was scandalous at the time. Jesus has destroyed the inequality between the sexes. In a day in which women had few rights, Paul taught that women had freedom of religion – that they didn’t have to automatically take their husband’s religion (1 Corinthians 7:15). He gave them equality in the sexual area of their relationships in 1 Corinthians 7:3-4:

The husband should not deprive his wife of sexual intimacy, which is her right as a married woman, nor should the wife deprive her husband. The wife gives authority over her body to her husband, and the husband also gives authority over his body to his wife.

That women were allowed to meet together in a house for worship and share the Lord’s Supper, and to have men give up their rights to their wives, would have been seen as revolutionary, even scandalous in that day.

There are a few reasons I think that this pass age is teaching equality between husbands and wives. The first is the underlying principle of this passage – that we are to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21). You can’t understand this passage until you understand that both husbands and wives are to submit to each other. Marriage is about a wife giving up her rights to her husband, and putting his rights ahead of hers – but it’s equally about a husband submitting to his wife, and putting her needs and interests ahead of his. It’s a relationship of mutual or equal submission.

Another reason is because what Paul wrote in this household code was completely different from what you would read in any other household code of the time. What is shocking to us today is that Paul calls the women to do – to submit. For the original readers, what would have been shocking is what Paul said to men. It would have been seen as radical and strange. He does call women to submit, but he doesn’t call men to lead or to rule, but to love. Paul pushes the boundaries for men by not just focusing on the responsibilities of the wives, as other codes did, but on the responsibilities of husbands. This was unheard of.

We live in a day in which women have many more rights than back then. But it may be that some of us still carry attitudes and behaviors that see the man as superior and the woman as subservient in a marriage. Jesus calls us away from inequality and into a relationship of equality in our marriages. That doesn’t mean that men and women are identical in a marriage – they aren’t. Men and women are wonderfully different. But they’re equal. One isn’t more privileged or authoritative than the other. Jesus calls us to see each other – both men and women – as different and yet completely equal, and to submit to each other out of reverence to Christ. The gender wars began at the Fall, but they end at the cross of Jesus Christ.

The Gospel moves our marriages in a second direction:


Jesus moves us from inequality to equality, but he doesn’t leave us there. He moves us even further away from equality to something even better. He moves us to submission. Our society emphasizes equality, but mutual submission is a much stronger idea. With equality, you still have a battle of rights. You can have equality without love. But Christ calls us to something more – to a relationship of mutual submission, in which we give up our rights and love the other person. Mutual submission is love in action.

Ephesians 5:22 says, “You wives will submit to your husbands as you do to the Lord.” Many of us know this verse so well that we miss what it says. It doesn’t say that wives must obey their husbands. It doesn’t say that wives must serve their husbands. It doesn’t say that men have a right to demand submission from their wives. It does say that women are called to submit to their husbands, because submission is the basis of all Christian relationships.

Verses 23-24 say, “For a husband is the head of his wife as Christ is the head of his body, the church; he gave his life to be her Savior. As the church submits to Christ, so you wives must submit to your husbands in everything.” There’s been a lot of debate over what it means for the husband to be the head of his wife, but Paul gives us an important clue. He doesn’t define headship as authority. It doesn’t call men to be the boss. In fact, boss isn’t even a Christian term.

Headship isn’t about being boss; it’s about self-giving love. It’s about helping our wives to become the very best women that they can be. It’s about loving our wives the same way that Jesus loves the church. How does Jesus act as the head of the church? By providing for its needs. By dying for it. By giving up his rights for the good of the church. That’s what husbands are called to – not to being a boss, but to be a servant.

Verse 25 says, “And you husbands must love your wives with the same love Christ showed the church.” Paul didn’t ask the husbands to rule or to lead their wives. He asked them to love their wives. We take the concept of love for granted today, but back then, this would have been radical. Husbands were expected to provide food and shelter for their wives, and nothing else. They were free to do as they pleased. But Paul changes the picture. He tells them that instead of being guided by their self-interests, he is to place the well-being of his wife first, and to give himself to caring for her. It elevates our love to the highest standard of love possible – to the love that Jesus Christ has for the church.

In essence, men are being asked to switch from a position of privilege which they enjoyed in that society, to a position of submission to their wives. They’re being asked to move even beyond the radical idea of equality to the idea of subordination – that a husband puts his wife’s rights and welfare before his own. Men are called to express to their wives the love of God that’s been expressed to the church. Verse 28 goes even further. In a society in which women were seen as property, Paul says, “In the same way, husbands ought to love their wives as they love their own bodies. For a man is actually loving himself when he loves his wife.” So intimate is the relationship between a man and a woman that it’s like they become a single entity. For a man to love his wife is to love himself. She’s an extension of him – part of himself. He’s called to love her and to give up his rights for her.

Ephesians 5:33 concludes, “So again I say, each man must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.” I happened to marry somebody very different from myself. I don’t think any marriage is completely easy, but some are easier than others. Because we are so different, and because people are naturally self-centered, it’s a constant battle to put this into practice. I don’t want to submit. I don’t want to put her welfare above my own.

But that’s the beauty of marriage. It continually pulls me away from making myself the center of my universe. It calls me out of the shallowness of my ego into the depths of relationship. It reminds me that I am most myself when I lose myself in service to another. Marriage, like God, abhors self-centeredness, and calls me to something deeper, richer, more satisfying. I will be held accountable one day for how much I’ve given up for my wife so that I could love her, and bring out the best in her. Jesus calls me from thinking I’m superior to seeing my wife as an equal, and then he calls me from seeing her as an equal to seeing myself as her servant; to loving her as Jesus loves the church.

The Gospel moves us in a third direction. It moves us:


Your marriage is not just a relationship between you and another person. Our marriages are a reflection of God’s love. We act the way we do in our relationships “out of reverence to Christ…as you do to the Lord…with the same love Christ showed the church” (Ephesians 5:22-25). Our marriage relationship is a reflection of the relationship that God has with himself in the Trinity. It’s a reflection of the love that Jesus Christ has for the church. Marriage isn’t just a relationship with two people; it’s a reflection of the divine.

Somebody has said, “No other relationship so mirrors God’s relation with us and his purpose for us. The marriage relation is the most revealing of who we really are, and for those who are married, it is the primary relationship for discipleship [Christian growth]” (Klyne Snodgrass). God has a deeper purpose for your marriage than your happiness, and that is your holiness. “Our marriages are the testing ground for God to win us to himself. Our marriages are basic training for the one Marriage that will not disappoint” (Dan Allender and Tremper Longman III).

Ephesians 5:31-32 says, “As the Scriptures say, ‘A man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.’ This is a great mystery, but it is an illustration of the way Christ and the church are one.” If you’re married, you have the privilege of mirroring the tremendous and profound relationship that Jesus has with the church. The love of Christ changes everything, including your marriage. You’ve been called to the highest form of relationship possible – an imitation of the divine love. You’ve been called to a sacred marriage.

Years ago, a man who lived from 580 to 662 with the name Maximus the Confessor said that the love we have for God and the love we have for others are not two distinct loves, but “two aspects of a single total love.” Maximus was right. The great thing is that we get to practice this love no matter what our spouse is like – whether they choose to cooperate or not.

I don’t know anybody who lives up to what this passage says. I know that I don’t. But I do know it’s not too late. I do know that for those of us who are married, we get to wake up every day and live up to the high calling of the deepest, most intimate human relationship that we will ever experience. We get to wake up every day and forgive our spouses and submit to them and to love them as Christ loved the church. It’s not easy -but it’s worth it.

As we close today, I want to address those of us who are married, who know what their marriages could and should be, but you’ve fallen short. It’s not what it could be. I don’t know all the reasons, but you realize that despite your spouse’s flaws, you haven’t lived up to your end. You want to make changes today – to move from inequality to equality, from equality to submission. You want to mirror the divine relationship that Jesus has with the church.

Some practical steps you can take: First, say sorry. When my wife gets home tonight, I’ve got some apologizing to do. In getting ready for today, I kept on realizing that I had let her down – that I haven’t been close to the husband that she deserves.

The other week we had a disagreement. I’m not even sure whose fault it was completely. I think both of us were to blame. But in the middle of the disagreement, she broke down, and I could tell that she was feeling a hurt that went much deeper than the disagreement we were having that moment. As she expressed something that I tend to do that hurts her, I realized that she was right. It may be that we have to go home today and profoundly apologize for letting our wives down, for letting our husbands down. One of the healthiest things you can do is to apologize – not to focus on what they’ve done wrong, but to acknowledge the ways that you’ve hurt the relationship.

Second, ask for help. Sometimes we act as if marriage is supposed to be easy. It’s not. Even in the best marriage, you will still occasionally look at your spouse after many, many years of marriage and see a stranger – sometimes a complete stranger. Even the best marriage partner will occasionally vacillate between separateness and involvement. Marriage is rigorous and demanding. As I said earlier, the toughest job you will ever have in your life is to stay happily married. It’s not supposed to be easy. If you find it easy, you are extraordinarily blessed, because the rest of us have to work at it.

What I’m trying to say is this: there’s no shame in admitting that you don’t have it all together. There’s no shame in getting help for a marriage that’s wobbly. I want to be part of a church in which we can admit to our struggles – that we don’t have it all together. I want to be able to admit that I continually mess up my marriage, that sometimes I need help. We need to be honest with ourselves and with others about our struggles. If you need help, we can refer you to a Christian counselor. If the cost is an issue, we can even help there. You can fill out the communication card and just write down, “I need counseling in this area.” There’s no shame in asking for help.

The last thing I would like to do today is to pray for your marriages. I’d invite everyone to participate in one of two ways. I’m going to pray for a few different areas. As I pray, if you would like me to pray for you in that area, I’d invite you to stand to say, “Yes, I’d like prayer in that area.” I’d also invite you to join me in praying for those around you.

“So again I say, each man must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.” (Ephesians 5:33)
Father, there is no relationship on earth with the potential for good than our marriages, but there is also no relationship on earth that can drastically miss what you intend it to be. Today, Father, we want to elevate our marriages – to recognize that they’re a union of two equals, that we have the privilege of submitting to each other, that we have the privilege of mirroring your Son’s love for the church. Thank you for the privilege of this mysterious, intense, demanding relationship that has so much potential for good or for evil.

I want you to join me in praying for those who have messed up. There may be people here with deep regrets over mistakes they’ve made in their marriages. It may even be that there are some here whose marriages are only a shell of what they could be. They may have to go home and make things right, even to go for help. Would you pray for strength for them this morning – that they would do what God wants them to do.

There may be some today who have been deeply wounded by their husband, by their wife. There may be some here who have experienced the pain of an affair, of abuse, of some deep wound in their marriage, from the pain of divorce. Would you pray for God’s comfort for them today.

For those who are newly married, or for those who are about to get married, would you pray for them, that their marriage would have God’s blessing, that they would follow God’s will for their marriages.

Father, none of this is possible without the saving work of your Son. Thank you that he came to earth to undo the effects of sin – to not only forgive our sins, but to transform our relationships. Thank you that you are the leader, the forgiver, the re-creator of our lives.
In the name of the one who died for our sins, who is ready to forgive and to give eternal life, who is able to transform broken relationships and to heal broken hearts, in the name of Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.
Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash

I'm a grateful husband, father, oupa, and pastor of Grace Fellowship Church Don Mills. I love learning, writing, and encouraging. I'm on a lifelong quest to become a humble, gracious old man.
Toronto, Canada