Ephesians 5 contains instructions for wives and husbands, but it applies to every Christian, married or single. In this sermon, Alistair Begg explains that the love commanded of husbands denotes self-sacrifice rather than self-interest, providing a safeguard against both tyranny and abdication. By walking in obedience to God’s Word, Christians and Christian marriages will be a beacon for the Gospel as they reflect Christ’s selfless love for His bride, the Church.
We’re going to read from the Bible, from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, in chapter 5, and reading from verse 22 to the end of the chapter. Ephesians chapter 5, and beginning to read with the twenty-second verse:
“Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.
“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so 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. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. ‘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. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.”
Let’s ask God’s help:
We have prayed, essentially, heavenly Father, that the Holy Spirit will come now and illumine the page to us. And so we ask earnestly that that may be the case. Save me from error or misguidedness. Grant that the words of my mouth, the mediation of our hearts, may be found acceptable in your sight, for Lord, you are our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Well, we’re picking things up where we left off a couple of weeks ago, having looked at Paul’s word to the wives in 22, 23, and 24. We said on that occasion that it is important for us, in working our way slowly, as we’re doing, through this passage, to make sure that we have the complete passage in view. In fact, we could then say it is important that we have the complete book of Ephesians in view, and then we could say it’s important that we have the complete Bible in view—in other words, that the context of a verse is within the verses, the verses within the chapter, the chapter within the book, the book within the genre, the genre within the Bible. In other words, it takes a whole Bible, as we say, to make a whole Christian. And when we return to a passage like this and move not even an inch at a time—it’s more like a millimeter at time—then it’s very, very important.
To keep in mind, too, that, as we’ve said, this is not a passage in the Bible just for married people. Because Paul is making clear that in addressing marriage in this way, the great issue to which he’s referring is the matter of Christ and the church, and the love of Jesus for his own. In many ways, the Bible is a story of God choosing a wife for himself. In the Old Testament prophets, you find this, as God comes to the people in the wilderness in Ezekiel, and he spreads his love over them, and he takes the initiative with them, and even though they’re rebellious and so on, he takes them and molds them into the people he wants them to be.
And in the new covenant, in Christ, we find that this is then picked up and fleshed out. And astonishingly, those who are chosen as the bride of Christ are people like you and me—individuals who have not actually gone out looking for God but have been on the receiving end of the wonder of God’s initiative. And he is now fashioning his people into a beautiful bride that will finally appear on that great day when all is brought together according to his eternal purpose.
Now, I want us to make sure that we get this. And so, let me turn you for a moment back just to chapter 3, where Paul has already mentioned and explained the nature of “the mystery.” Paul says here in Ephesians 5, the great mystery here is “Christ and the church.” And he’s been building towards this, if you like. And in chapter 3, as he explains his responsibility and privilege as a minister of the gospel, he explains that this “mystery was made known to [him] by revelation”—that’s in verse 3. He then identifies it in verse 6: “This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” And it’s this gospel, he says, that he has been called upon to proclaim. He’s amazed at it, because he was “the very least,” he said, “of … the saints,” and yet he has been given the privilege of preaching “to the Gentiles”—verse 8b—“the unsearchable riches of Christ”—and here we go, verse 9—“and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.”
In other words, what Paul is saying here is that in the church—in the company that God is assembling from tribes and nations and languages and peoples throughout the world—in that church, the wisdom of God is displayed. And how is it displayed? Well, it is displayed as sinful men and women are reconciled to God and as those same individuals are reconciled to one another. So that the relationships that exist within the body of Christ are relationships that are grounded in the initiative-taking love of God. And, of course, the great mystery for these individuals was that now the wall of partition between Jew and gentile has been broken down, and out of the two God has made one new man. And that one man is then the bride of Christ, and it is here that the focus of the Lord Jesus is found.
Now, why is that significant in relationship to marriage? Well, simply because every Christian marriage, Paul is going on to say—every Christian marriage, with its stresses and its strains, with its difficulties, with its disappointments, with its faults, and with its failures—every Christian marriage points, by God’s grace, to the ultimate marriage, if you like, made in heaven, which is the marriage between Christ, the Bridegroom, and the church, his bride.
So in other words, the great focus from all of eternity is that God would put together a people that are his very own, and that it is the undeserved—utterly undeserved—privilege of all who are in Christ—included in Christ—to be part of that company. And that company then is made up of individuals, some of whom are married, some of whom are single, some of whom are widowed, and so on. And the instruction of this section is not to alienate those to whom it is not immediately applicable, but it is to involve everybody in their commitment to marriage, in light of the fact that it is a microcosm of that which God has purposed from all of eternity.
Now, when you think about this and you ask yourself the question: Why is it that marriage is under such unbelievable attack? Why marriage? And it’s not a twenty-first century question. It’s a garden of Eden question. For as soon as the Evil One insinuates himself in the garden, it is to disengage, dislodge, the relationship between Adam and Eve, cause them then to be immediately opposed to the very design and role for which they have been fashioned, and as a result of that, down through that line and down through the ages, marriage itself remains under attack.
Now, you see, that’s why when he says here in chapter 3 that “the manifold wisdom of God might … be … known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places”—in other words, that the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places look down, and they say, “This is not going as well as we had hoped. Because people are actually believing in this Jesus.” People are coming out of Muslim backgrounds to believe that Jesus Christ is the only Savior. Jewish folks are actually coming to trust in Christ as the Messiah. People whose background has been born in a sort of scientific naturalism—atheism—somehow or another are bowing the knee, and they’re believing this book. And in the similar way, every time that a Christian marriage is both fashioned, formed, framed, and sustained, it is another reminder to the authorities and the rulers in the heavenly places of God’s manifold wisdom.
You see, when we study the Bible together as we do, and when you read it on your own, a number of things are happening simultaneously. A number of horizons are being fused, if you like. When we read the Bible, when we read Ephesians, it’s set in first-century Ephesus, and we’re in twenty-first-century Ohio. Then there has to be some fusing of our understanding—that “this was not written to us, it was written to them, it is relevant to us because…” The other horizon—and there is a horizon—between the one who teaches the Bible and those who listen to it being taught. It is one thing to say it, it’s another thing to hear it, it’s another thing to understand it, and there needs to be a fusion there that needs to be brought about by the Holy Spirit.
At the same time, there is a fusion of the horizon of a secular culture with the biblical world. So that we don’t study the Bible in a vacuum, but we study it in light of the fact that the world in which we live is largely alien to the world into which we come, by grace, in Jesus, and framed for us in the Bible. So that every day of the week, as you continue to try and put into process, for example, let’s say, what it means to submit to your husband, wives, you can walk out into the community and be given plentiful reasons as to why you should not pay one bit of attention to that kind of dreadful thinking. And in the same way for husbands.
Now, I don’t have to go looking for this stuff. I just read. I don’t read trying to find the material; I just read. And in my reading at the moment—I’m reading various books at the moment—but in my reading at the moment—and I scribble in my books—amongst my scribbling, it just so happens that I had scribbled this week a couple of quotes, and one was from the Sex Information and Educational Council of the United States of America, 1964. And in 1964, they set up this sex education council to deliver sex education in the schools. And in doing so, it was to support the idea of the “merging or reversing [of] sex roles,” of “liberating children from their parents and abolishing the traditional family.” That’s 1964.
So don’t kid yourself that when you put your kids in that school and Miss Primrose is instructing them, that she’s there to reinforce a biblical view of sexuality and of marriage. Under the disguise of the autonomy of the individual, they may choose not to teach sexual continence, not to teach the place of marriage, not to preach the notion of right and wrong, but at the same time to be prepared to freely endorse the notion of celebrating any kind of lifestyle choice that you want.
That’s 1964. 1946, Brock Chisholm, the first director of the World Health Organization—I know you think I went looking for this, but I didn’t go looking for this—the World Health Organization, in his opening address, he viewed parents as “dictators and suppressors of children’s better nature.” Okay? 1979, the Gay Liberation Front Manifesto: “We must aim at the abolition of the family,” founded on the “archaic and irrational teachings” of Christianity.
Okay, so let’s be clear. Let’s just have clarity. Now you come to this: to the archaic and irrational teachings of the Bible. You see why I said a few weeks ago, this is an issue about the Bible. This is an issue about whether we believe that the Bible is the Word of God—that Paul is not preaching here from some kind of weird cultural context in the first century, but he is actually grounding what he’s saying in the very creation of the world itself. That’s why all that he says before he gets down to about verse 31 is hinging on, if you like, verse 31—to which we’ll come in about another four months at the rate we’re going now.
Okay. So if that’s the case, what are we supposed to do? Let me tell you what we’re not supposed to do. We’re not supposed to “take arms against a sea of troubles.” Okay? Some of you, your immediate reaction is, “I’m going to write to somebody. You know, there’s gotta be a 1-800 number for this. I’m going to blog this one, tweet this one, do this one,” whatever else it is. Well, do whatever you choose, but let me tell you, that wasn’t… Paul is laying this instruction down; he doesn’t follow it up by saying, “You know, Ephesus is a royal mess, therefore…” No. So we don’t take arms against a sea of troubles. We take our place within the culture, we exercise our democratic privileges, but we don’t turn it into a war. Nor do we circle the wagons and hide from the issue. Nor do we curse the darkness.
So what do we do? We do what Paul says to do. You don’t need anything other than chapter 5 to help you on this. Chapter 5, remember, he begins about the importance of love, and grounds that love, again, in the atonement. This is not a funny feeling in your tummy. Love: “Walk in love, as Christ loved us,” he “gave himself up for us,” he was “a fragrant offering and [a] sacrifice to God.” And then immediately he says, “But sexual immorality … impurity” and so on “must[n’t] even be named among you.” And then he says, verse 6, “Let no one deceive you.” Then in verse 7, “Do not become partners.” Well, what should we do? 8b: “Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord.”
Okay, that’s what I have to do. I shouldn’t be deceived, I shouldn’t become a partner, I should walk in light, I should read my Bible, and I should try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Wives, what is pleasing to the Lord? “Submit to your husbands.” “Husbands, love your wives.” Love your wives.
You say, “Well, finally we’re getting to the text.” Yes. You know we will always get there eventually. But the reason I delay so purposefully is to try, if you like, to remove this from the realm simply of Christian ethics and how-to books and to ground it as Paul grounds it in theological terms. Paul is not arguing here in the way in which many of us would like him to argue, or he’s not providing a list here, in the way in which many of us think, “If you could just give me a list. If you just tell me what I’m supposed to do. Tell me the six things I’m supposed to do and the six things I’m not supposed to do.” Now listen, I’ll give you a list with twenty-six things, but if my attitude and your attitude is wrong, the list is worthless. And unless we have the liberating power of the gospel to fuel us in relationship to obedience, then it becomes pure externalism.
You see, the real question about marriage is, “Is my marriage pointing to the ultimate marriage between Christ and the church?” Because as Paul has already said here in Ephesians, it is the purpose of God ultimately “to unite all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on [the] earth.” So the union that is supposed to exist amongst the body of Christ, that transcends race—black, white, orange, yellow, blue, green, Scottish, Irish, Welsh, whatever you like… And if you watched the Six Nations Rugby yesterday, you will know that you can say what you like about multiculturalism, but when Wales played Scotland and Scotland were annihilated by Wales, it was very much, “We will drive you into the ground, you miserable little Scotsmen.” And they did it. And later on today, we will try to do the same to England.
But that’s by the way. The point is simply this: that it is only in the gospel that the great quest for this kind of unity actually ever is going to take place. The only answer for the equation in the Middle East is the gospel. The only answer for Bosnia-Herzegovina is the gospel. The only answer for the invasion of Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula is actually in the gospel. So what is the point? The point is very straightforward: if our marriages do not display the union that God intends as a result of paying attention to the instruction God provides, then you cannot have a united church with disunited husbands and wives.
You see, it’s actually not about our marriages. You take the marriage of Wesley, for example. There’s gotta be a reason he rode off on his horse as much as he did. I mean, when he was home he fathered a lot of children, there’s no doubt, but nevertheless…
You see, marriage is tough. Marriage is a slog to the end. And every time that we’re enabled to say sorry, to say, “Forgive me,” to stay, as it were, within the framework that God has intended, the rulers and authorities look down and say, “This isn’t working. Our plan to destroy this is not working.” You see, because the chief end of marriage is “to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”
The husband’s role, just to jump ahead, is not ultimately to make sure his wife is physically and emotionally sustained. That is part. But the real objective is that his wife will be prepared to meet Jesus on that day when she takes her part in the great company of the bride, where there are no wrinkles, where there are no spots, where there are no stains.
You see, that’s why C. T. Studd made his wife, remember, say the little doggerel every day to herself when she did her Bible reading. He wanted her to understand this. So she had to say,
Dear Lord Jesus,
You are to me,
Dearer than Charlie
Ever could be.
’Cause he wanted her to know there was gonna be a time when he wouldn’t be there. And unless he was preparing her to love Jesus wholeheartedly—if she loved him more than she loved Jesus—then when he went, she’d be stuck.
“Husbands, love your wives.” Three times it comes: verse 25, and verse 28, and verse 33. In fact, in Greek the instruction Paul gives to the wives is 40 words; to the men there’s 115 words. Which is the harder challenge? I’m not going to debate that one with you.
But I want you to notice that the word which Paul uses here for “love” is important. In fact, the word itself is important, and then the picture that he provides is important. Or, if you like, the meaning of the word is important—the meaning of love—the model that he gives us of that love in Jesus is important, and the motivation in all of that is important. We won’t get beyond the meaning here, for your encouragement.
“Husbands, love your wives.” Now, the word that he uses safeguards, if you like, the husband from the temptation to tyranny. See, the great temptation for the husband is, under the disguise of “I’m just giving leadership,” to become bossy, judgmental, cruel, selfish, and domineering. In other words, to become like the epitome of Higgins in My Fair Lady. Do you remember that wonderful piece in My Fair Lady? I can’t believe that audiences can still tolerate it now in our politically correct world, but, you know, the thing begins, “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” If you don’t know it, you can look it up—but don’t sing it out loud with your wife in the kitchen. Just deal with it on your own. But he’s a complete clown; he really is. And George Bernard Shaw initially was making the point that this is absolutely reprehensible. So, the temptation, then, is to domination, or perhaps on the other side to abdication. So in other words, we turn our leadership into a sort of demanding, bossy approach, or then we just abdicate from leadership altogether. And Paul says, “No, you mustn’t do that. You must love your wife.”
Now, the word that he uses there—and he obviously chose to use this word; it’s a favorite word—is the word agape, agapao. And it’s a familiar word to us. Those of us who don’t know any Greek at all, we usually know this word. Paul has used it at the beginning of the “practical section” at the head of chapter 4: “Walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you[’ve] been called … with one another in love.” He comes back to it in verse 15: to speak “the truth in love.” At the beginning of chapter 5 here: “Walk in love.” In other words, this love relationship within the body of Christ has a mutual dimension to it. And he now applies it expressly to the husband; he says, “Now, husbands, you have to expressly make sure that you love your wives.”
So the word is a word that is expressive of self-sacrifice and of self-abasement. This kind of love does not focus on what I’m getting; it focuses upon what I’m giving. It’s not about what I’m due, what I deserve; it is about what I owe. It is not about my self-satisfaction; it is about giving myself up for the satisfaction of another.
That is why Paul is going to go on, as we will see later, and say, “It is this love which is embodied in Christ’s love for the church.” It’s patient, it’s kind, it doesn’t insist on its own way. So by setting this high standard, Paul is not only, on the one hand, exercising a safeguard, if the husband will pay attention to it, so that he does not become tyrannical; and he is at the same time providing a safeguard for the dignity and the well-being of the wife. So that this wife, who in committing herself to marriage has said, “Okay. This is God’s way. I will go God’s way. I plan on doing this, God being my helper. Now, how about you? Are you going to love me? Love me?”
This is a husband question now: Do you love your wife? People say, “Yeah.” Well, I don’t think any of us would say no. But I wonder, do we really love our wives in this agape kind of self-giving love?
If you listen to country music, first of all, I forgive you; and secondly, I’m prepared to join you from time to time. But here’s the test for husbands. I call this the Garth Brooks Test. Don’t worry. Remember:
Sometimes late at night,
I lie awake and watch her sleeping,
And she’s lost in peaceful dreams,
So I just turn out the light and lie there in the dark.
And the thought crosses my mind,
If I never wake up in the morning,
Would she ever doubt the way I feel
About her in my heart?
If tomorrow never comes,
Will she know how much I loved her?
Do I try in every way to show her every day
That she’s the only one?
And if my time on earth were through,
And she must face this world without me,
Is the love I gave her in the past
Gonna be enough to last
If tomorrow never comes?
You say, “Well, that’s just a bunch of country western sentimentalism.” Doesn’t need to be. Let’s just use the agape question: Does she know? Well, how would she know? Well, that gets into the Gary Chapman love languages, to which we can come on another occasion.
But here’s the point: Paul uses this word purposefully. There is a couple of other words that he might have used. The fact that he doesn’t use them is not because they are inconsequential or irrelevant but because, I think, they’re assumed—that he assumes that these other factors are in place in relationship to the self-giving love which he calls for in this way.
What are the other two words? Well, phileo, which means to be fond of, or to be affectionate, or the love within a family, or the brotherly love that is to be represented in Philadelphia. Why doesn’t he use that word? Well, I take it he assumes that. You know, if people are going “to have and to hold from this time forward, for richer, for poorer” and so on, it’s actually really important that they’re fond of each other. I don’t know if you’ve figured that out. But in other words, you’re supposed to be friends. Friends!
Do you know how many marriages you have to deal with in pastoral ministry where you’ve got a huge backlog to try and start with, because the couple prematurely committed themselves to one another physically without ever actually determining whether they liked each other? Whether they were friends. Whether they had any affinities. Whether they liked the same things. Whether they’d had a decent conversation. You’re supposed to be friends.
Incidentally, in male-female relationships, as in other, we never ought to assume that a friendship is more than a friendship when it begins. It’s just friends. The pressure of our culture to make things different from that is addressed clearly in verse 31: “Therefore a man [will] leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two [will] become one flesh.” You come home and you tell your mom, “I’m going to leave you.” Well, you might not put it like that. But your mother says, “You can’t leave me. I’m your mom.”
“Yeah, I know you’re my mom, but I found someone.”
“You mean you’re gonna love her more than me?”
“Okay. So you’re gonna leave?”
“And you’re gonna cleave?”
“You haven’t been cleaving before you started leaving, have you?”
I don’t know why that’s funny. Because that’s the other word. The other word is eros, which is a selfish love. Gives us the word erotic. It is carnal. It’s about desire. The fact that it’s selfish doesn’t mean that it is inevitably wrong. You’re supposed to have a selfish, erotic desire—but only for one. And that is why Paul, what he’s doing here, is making it absolutely clear that the nature of the love that he calls for is a self-giving love, which is not set against the erotic natural affections. It assumes those things. It assumes those things. Do not fall foul of the idea that, you know, all that really matters is that “we are spiritually, you know, in tune.”
“Well, really? That’s nice. But do you enjoy their company?”
“No, not really, but we read the Bible usually on Tuesdays.”
“Whoo, good. Good. Do you fancy her?”
“Well, you mean like in a sexual way?”
“Well, no, not really. But we are reading the Bible.”
Well, you’ve got a real problem, sir, I’m telling you. Because you’re supposed to have affection. You’re supposed to have attraction. You’re supposed to have the agape love which fuels it, then, and saves eros from becoming that which is merely godless and phileo which becomes that which is sheer sentimentalism, because we’re taking seriously what it means to really love our wives.
Now, don’t misunderstand this. God is interested in all marriage. Marriage is a creation ordinance. With men and women enjoying attraction and affection and temperamental engagement, it is clearly possible for them to have a happy and an enjoyable marriage. It would be wrong to say that that is not the case. Frankly, if we’re honest, some of us know some of our friends and neighbors who have no knowledge of the Bible or of Jesus or of agape at all, and they seem to actually put us to shame by their affection and love for one another.
No, you see, what Paul is addressing here is that these natural physical elements are, if you like, grounded in and founded in this distinctive factor, which is the love of the Lord Jesus Christ. In fact, Martyn Lloyd-Jones puts it just wonderfully when he asks the question in one of his books, “How many of us have realized that we[’re] always to think of the married state in terms of the doctrine of the atonement?” To think about my marriage in relationship to the doctrine of the atonement. In other words, to think about my marriage in relationship to what we remember when we come together, as we will tonight, for Communion: “Lord Jesus Christ, you love me, even though I’m unlovable. Lord Jesus Christ, you took the initiative. Lord Jesus Christ, you have forgiven me again and again and again and again and again and… I guess that’s how you want me to love Sue.”
Yeah. In other words, the standard of a husband’s love is the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Well, we’ll come back to this.
Father, thank you that we can go back to our Bibles and, like the Bereans before us, search the Scriptures to see if these things are so. Thank you that you are the God who makes up to us the years that even the locusts have eaten, that you are the God who forgives us again and again. And so we pray that the standard of our relationships with one another may be nothing less than, nothing more than, that which you lay before us in the work of Jesus. Help us to remember in all of this that the great mystery is Christ and the church. And we pray in his name. Amen.
 See Psalm 19:14.
 See Ezekiel 16:8.
 Melanie Phillips, When the World Turned Upside Down: The Global Battle over God, Truth, and Power (New York: Encounter, 2010), 291.
 Phillips, 291.
 Quoted in Phillips, 290.
 William Shakespeare, Hamlet, 3.1.
 Ephesians 5:2 (ESV).
 Ephesians 5:3 (ESV).
 Ephesians 1:10 (ESV).
 The Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q. 1.
 Norman P. Grubb, C. T. Studd: Cricketer and Pioneer (Harrisburg, PA: Evangelical Press, 1943), 91. Paraphrased.
 Alan Jay Lerner, “Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?” (1964).
 Ephesians 4:1–2 (ESV).
 Ephesians 4:15 (ESV).
 Ephesians 5:2 (ESV).
 See 1 Corinthians 13:4.
 Kent Blazy and Garth Brooks, “If Tomorrow Never Comes,” (1989). Lyrics lightly altered.
 D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Life in the Spirit in Marriage, Home and Work: An Exposition of Ephesians 5:18 to 6:9 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1976), 148.
 See Acts 17:11.
 See Joel 2:25.
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.