For the months leading up to Easter, we were looking at the unfolding mystery. Jesus, we read, is on every page of Scripture. It all leads to him. We began to see many of the signposts that point to Jesus all throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament. The problem is that we often read Scripture and focus on the individual scenes, while losing track of the main storyline, which means that we lose track of what it’s all about.
We’re back in Ephesians now, where we’ve been since September for the most part. You’d think that we’re back in the New Testament now, so there’s no danger of forgetting the storyline. Jesus is literally on almost every page, so you’d think we would be okay, that we’d apply Jesus to everything. But you’d be wrong. This is especially true when we get to practical topics, like the one we’re looking at today. It’s easy to start handing out practical tips that are helpful, but have nothing to do with Jesus and the gospel. What do those have to do with marriage anyway?
It’s here that the Apostle Paul comes along and says: Jesus has everything to do with your marriage. Jesus is on every page of Scripture. And in today’s passage, Paul says that Christian marriage is all about Jesus. This blows me away. Do you remember how we said that the story of Abraham and Isaac on Mount Moriah is a picture of Christ, just like the Passover and the rock in the desert were pictures of Christ? Paul says here that your marriage is also a picture of Christ. It’s a signpost. Just as all these stories and types point to Jesus, you are called to apply the gospel in such a way that your marriage points to Jesus.
Paul’s not writing to ideal people who have perfect spouses and no stresses. He’s writing to real people in the real world. He’s applying the gospel to how we live our lives. And in the passage before us today, I’d like for us to see three things. First: what Paul says about Jesus. Second: how Paul applies this to marriage. Third: one way that we could miss Paul’s message, and one way that we can get this really right.
So let’s look at this. Let’s begin with what Paul says about Jesus in this passage.
As we begin to look at what Paul says about Jesus, I want to tell you about something that’s changed recently. The penny has dropped in my life so that I now understand something that I’ve never understood as clearly as I have before.
How in the world do we change? The surprising Biblical answer is that we change as we see Jesus and the gospel in new ways and apply that to our lives. Somebody has compared this to a Coke machine. You put the money in, and sometimes nothing comes out. You have to bang the machine a couple of times until the coins drop and the Coke comes out. It’s that way with the gospel. We get it, but we don’t always see the results. So what we have to do is to bang the gospel into ourselves until the coins drop, and we get the results. Our biggest challenge is to get the gospel to drop into our lives.
In other words, the best way for us to change isn’t to focus on the changes; it’s to focus on Jesus. It’s to see and understand and appreciate who Jesus is and what he has done for us. When we have a vision of the loveliness and perfection of Christ, we’ll long to be like him. When we understand that right now he is making intercession for us, and that the gospel changes us so that we have the power to obey, then we’ll be ready to live changed lives.
So notice that when Paul begins to talk about marriage, he turns our focus to Jesus. The reason is that nothing will change our marriages like seeing Jesus and understanding what he’s done for us. You could talk about the needs of men and women, and good communication skills, and all kinds of other good things. And they are good. But Paul knows what’s going to change us. We’re changed as the beauty and value of what Jesus did for us is grasped by our hearts and applied to our marriages.
So Paul gives us a vision in verse 23 of “Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior.” If you read that and yawn, you haven’t really understood what Paul is saying here. If you looked at the recipients of Paul’s letter in Ephesus, they wouldn’t have looked like much. To be honest, churches seldom look like much. But Paul says that the church is much more than we normally think. It’s a new humanity, he’s explained. It’s a key part of what God has been up to for all of history: creating a people for himself. The church is part of the new creation that God is creating, experienced in advance. Here, Paul says that the church is actually the body of Christ. We’ve heard that term so often that we miss the significance of it. He’s saying that the church is somehow the physical presence of Jesus Christ himself in this world. And Jesus has authority over the church as its head. He himself is the Savior of the church.
Then you see exactly what Jesus Christ has done for the church in verses 25 to 27:
Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.
Paul here is describing the extent of Jesus’ love for the church, and it’s amazing. He loved the church, Paul says. How so? He gave himself up for her. Jesus, who is God and is eternally praised loved the church so much that he came to offer up his life and die out of love for the church. He loved the church so much that he died for it. Hebrews 12:2 puts it this way: “For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame.” Jesus loved the church so much that he willingly suffered through not only the physical agony of the cross, but the agony of bearing our sins and the wrath of God, so that he could make us holy, setting us aside for himself.
You then get the beautiful picture of the results of this. What does it mean, this washing with water and the word? This may be, in part, a reference to baptism, and to hearing the and being changed by the word of the gospel. But it’s probably also a reference to the Jewish custom of a bridal bath. Ezekiel 16 gives a beautiful picture of the Lord entering into a marriage relationship with Israel:
I gave you my solemn oath and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Sovereign LORD, and you became mine. I bathed you with water and washed the blood from you and put ointments on you. (Ezekiel 16:8-9)
So you have this beautiful picture of Jesus loving the church so much that he dies for it, that he enters into a relationship so intimate and tender that it can only be compared to marriage. And the result is, according to verse 27, that we are going to be presented “to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” The church is blemished and wrinkled right now, but we will be presented to him at his return completely unstained, completely unwrinkled, completely unblemished. We will be dazzling because of what Christ has done for us. I love the way that Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones puts it:
The Beauty-Specialist will have put his final touch to the church, the massaging will have been so perfect that there will not be a single wrinkle left. She will look young, and in the bloom of youth, with color in her cheeks, with her skin perfect, without any spots or wrinkles. And she will remain like that for ever and for ever. The body of her humiliation will have gone, it will have been transformed and transfigured into the body of her glorification.
This is taking some work for the men, but that’s okay. You can work at this picture of being the bride of Christ while the women work on the picture of being sons of God! What Paul is saying is that the church, which looks so blemished and imperfect here, will be completely transformed by what Jesus has done for it, that it will become and remain more stunning than the most beautiful bride you’ve ever seen.
Not only that, but verse 29 says that Christ feeds and nourishes the church in the present. Christ is providing everything needed for the nourishment and growth of his church. He wholeheartedly, tenderly, and completely cares for the church out of his love.
What Paul describes here has two implications for us. The first is that it really changes our view of the church. Don’t ever make the mistake of devaluing the church. We’re not much in ourselves. We sure don’t look like much. But we are much because Christ loves us and is at work within us, transforming us so that we will one day be stunning. We need a much higher view of who the church is, not because of who we are in ourselves, but because of who we are becoming in Jesus Christ.
But this also means that we need to be amazed, stunned, by Jesus and what he has done for us. This is a picture of how much Jesus Christ loves us, and it leaves us amazed and speechless. When we see Jesus and what he has done for us, and when we really get it, then it leaves us speechless, amazed, and worshiping. “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.” When we get this – when we really get it – it will change everything about us.
So that is what this passage tells us about Jesus. Paul goes in an unusual direction with this, because he takes what is true about Jesus and applies it to marriage.
So let’s look at how Paul applies who Jesus is, and what he has done, to marriage.
The big picture is this: that our marriages, if we are his followers, are to become reproductions, in miniature, of Christ and his church. We are called to make our marriages reflections, types, parallels of the kind of relationship and radical love that Christ and the church have for each other. When we apply the gospel to marriage, we become models of the ultimate relationship we could ever have.
Remember that Paul isn’t writing to ideal people with ideal marriages. This is more than just idealism here. Paul is saying that the way to transform our marriages is for us to see Christ clearly, so that he becomes not only the motivation but also the model for how we live in our marriages.
This gives incredible value to women. When Paul wrote this, women were viewed very poorly, just as they are still today in far too many cases. Jewish men at this time used to pray every morning, giving thanks that they had not been born “a Gentile, a slave, or a woman.” Jewish law didn’t see women as persons, but as things. They had no legal rights whatsoever. And it was even worse in the Greek world. Men were not always expected to be even be friends with their wives.
Paul comes along and turns this upside down. He says that marriage is a model of the ultimate human relationship, and that women are to be loved just like Christ loves the church. In fact, Paul spends most of his time here talking to the men about the way they are to love their wives, selflessly, sacrificially. Husbands are to be committed to the total well-being of their wives, especially spiritually, so that she becomes exquisite in her splendor, unsurpassed in her beauty. This is how Christ loves the church.
We’re going to talk about this in a minute, but notice that Paul tells the wives, “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:22). I know you have questions about this. We’re going to get to those in a minute! In light of telling the wives to submit, what do you think Paul is going to say to the husbands? You would expect that Paul would say, “Husbands, exercise authority over your wives. Rule over your wives.” But he doesn’t! Not once. Not even close. Instead, he says, “Husbands, love your wives” (Ephesians 5:25). And then he gives the model: Jesus. Husbands are to love their wives just as much as Jesus loves the church. They are to give themselves to her, and the standard is Jesus. I hope you see how radical this is, how much it speaks to the value of our wives.
We usually choke on verse 22 that speaks of women submitting to their husbands. But notice carefully what it means. The word here does not speak anything of value, because Scripture clearly teaches that both men and women are equally valuable before God. It does not say that women should submit to every man, only their husbands. And it’s given in the middle voice, which means that it is voluntary, not demanded. It’s a free and voluntary choice, not a demand. And it’s not a demeaning thing. It’s so that the marriage relationship can reflect the relationships of Christ to the church, the ultimate relationship that any of us could ever have.
I realize that there’s still all kinds of questions that you may have, and I hope we will get to some of them. But I hope you see what Paul is getting at here. He wants our marriages to be changed, not by trying harder or communicating better, although those are good. He wants us to be changed because we see how Jesus loves us, so that Jesus’ love becomes the model and the motivation for our own marriages.
Let’s look as we close at two ways we can miss what he’s saying, and one way we can get it.
Our real challenge when we read the Bible, especially a passage like this, is to say all that it says without saying any less or more. I have to confess that I’ve fudged on this passage in the past, trying to soften what it says, especially because parts of it are hard to hear in our culture and our day. We miss out on what this passage says when we say less by softening it too much, or when we say more by saying things that aren’t really here. I imagine I’m not alone this morning. There are some of us who want to take scissors and cut parts of this out. There are others of us who want to add parts that we think Paul missed that would give what’s written here even more bite.
The real question for us this morning if we are going to have marriages that reflect this amazing relationship that Christ has with the church is this: will we listen to what God says through Scripture, even if it contradicts what we want him to say? Think of it this way: if God is God, wouldn’t you expect him to contradict you at points? If God agrees with you on every point, then he’s really not the true God. You’ve made him in your own image. Will you hear God speak, even when what he says is not what you’d like him to say?
There are parts of Scripture that don’t say what we like them to say. They’re out of step with the times. But here’s what I know about the times: the things we’re saying now are going to be embarrassing to your grandchildren one day. When we set up our times as the arbiter of truth, as the ultimate standard of truth, then we’re setting something up that is going to be an embarrassment in fifty years. It’s far better to allow God to speak, rather than to set ourselves up as the authority. What God says is above the currents and fashions that change. So please come prepared to hear what God says, even if it’s challenging at times. If it’s challenging, that’s a sign that maybe it is God who is speaking.
We’re going to return next week to the practical implications of this passage for our marriages. But let me close this morning with one way that we can really get this: think about Jesus. Begin to think of all that he has done to save us. Think about the extent of his love, that he willingly offered up his life for you. Think of what you are becoming, what the church is becoming. He is changing us. C.S. Lewis said that “the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship.” Think and meditate on the gospel and the extraordinary love of Jesus Christ, and it will begin to change you. And the more we’ll want our own marriages to be models of that relationship, the ultimate human relationship we could ever have. The best way to improve your marriage is to become gripped with the love of Jesus Christ for the church.
Father, I pray today that you would help us see Jesus. Help us to see the extent of his love. May we truly grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge.
And I pray that this love would begin to shape our marriages, as we become models of the relationship that Christ has with his church. May Christ’s love begin to transform our marriages even as we think about it right now. And please help us as we come back next week and look at some practical applications of this in our lives. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.