Paul had related to the Ephesian Christians the great and glorious works of God: every blessing has been given to believers in Jesus, predestination, election, adoption, an inheritance, the Spirit; all were lost in sin, but God showed great love, grace, and mercy in Christ; in Christ God killed the hostility between Jew and Gentile, and reconciled them into one body; the mystery of the Gospel is the inclusion of the Gentiles (Ephesians 1:1-3:12). Paul had prayed for the Ephesian Christians to have their hearts enlightened to perceive the great love God has manifested in Jesus according to the power at work in them (Ephesians 1:15-20, 3:14-21). On account of all this Paul encouraged the Ephesian Christians to walk worthily and consistently with this calling, striving to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, building up the body of Christ, the church, turning aside from the ways of darkness, renewing the spirit of their minds, dedicated to honesty, kindness, patience, and forgiveness toward one another (Ephesians 4:1-32).
Paul continued his exhortation to the Ephesian Christians: imitate God and walk in love as Christ has loved us and gave Himself as a pleasant offering before God (Ephesians 5:1-2). God has given us of His image in Jesus, and the love we are to share is not abstract or disembodied but manifest in what Jesus did for us, understood by Paul according to the sacrifices offered before God according to the Law of Moses (cf. Leviticus, John 14:6-9, Colossians 1:15-21). To this end Christians can no longer participate in sexually deviant behavior, reckless behavior, greed, foolish talk, or any kind of unprofitable talk, since they are now saints; they ought to give thanks to God instead (Ephesians 5:3-4). Indeed, those who participate in such forms of wickedness have no inheritance in the Kingdom of God in Christ; anyone who would suggest otherwise attempts to deceive Christians, for God’s wrath comes upon the disobedient on account of these things (Ephesians 5:5-6). Christians must not share in such ungodliness, for they must walk as children of light, not of darkness; Christians ought to expose such dark and evil deeds to the light of God in Christ in the Gospel (Ephesians 5:7-13). Paul then quoted a declaration known to the Ephesian Christians, perhaps as some part of hymn to Christ, exhorting the sleeper to awake and arise from the dead so Christ can shine on him (Ephesians 5:14). Thus Paul warns the Ephesian Christians against participation in the common transgressions of the Gentile world around them, encouraging them to recognize such behaviors as darkness and to resist them.
In order to imitate God and walk in love Christians must watch how they walk, and walk wisely (Ephesians 5:15). Christians must redeem, or make the best use of the time, because the days are evil (Ephesians 5:16); life is short, and we must make the most of what God has given us. Christians must not be foolish, but to understand the will of the Lord: to not be drunk with wine but filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in song, giving thanks to God, submitting to one another in reverence for Jesus (Ephesians 5:17-21). God does not intend for the Christian to be filled with distilled spirits but with His Spirit; Christians manifest the Spirit when they speak to one another in song, communicating the message of God to each other as the people have God have done since time immemorial, thanking God always for what He has done in Jesus, and considering the needs of each other as equal or greater than one’s own needs in mutual submission (cf. Philippians 2:1-4, Colossians 3:16-18).
In what follows Paul will speak of husbands and wives in terms of Christ and the church, and Christ and the church in terms of husbands and wives (Ephesians 5:22-33); the beginning of the discussion is dependent on Ephesians 5:21, and we are to understand that Paul continues to speak regarding the will of the Lord and in light of the imperative of mutual submission. The wife is to submit to her husband as to the Lord just as the church submits to Christ (Ephesians 5:22-24). People today bristle at such instruction, imagining its abuse and distortion. These verses have unfortunately been used to justify abuse; we must emphasize that Paul does not command the husband to make his wife submit, but that the wife’s submission is a freewill decision and offering which ought not be coerced. Ephesians 5:21 does not contradict Ephesians 5:22-24, and vice versa: wives are to submit to their husbands while both mutually submit to one another in reverence toward Christ.
While people bristle at the suggestion of wives submitting to their husbands, few bristle at the prospect of the church submitting to Christ: it is understood to be natural and expected, since Christ deeply loves the church, having given Himself for her, and has rescued her from sin and death (Ephesians 5:22-24); in a similar way husbands are to love their wives, as Christ has loved the church (Ephesians 5:25). Any discussion of the wife’s responsibility to the husband without noting the husband’s responsibility to the wife is incomplete and distorted; the husband is called upon to sacrifice himself, to absorb whatever hostility or invective comes his way, and to willingly give himself for the wife of his youth. Paul presumes a level of self-care: no one hated his own flesh but nourishes and cherishes it, and thus the husband should nourish and cherish his wife as his own flesh (Ephesians 5:28-29). Paul summarizes his instruction by exhorting the husband to love his wife and the wife to respect her husband (Ephesians 5:33). In this way Paul identified the woman’s greatest need as love and the man’s greatest need as respect; the husband who loves his wife as himself and gives himself for her does well, and the wife who submits to her husband and respects him does well, and those who resist such things will struggle and fall short.
While Paul speaks regarding responsibilities within the marriage relationship in Ephesians 5:22-33, his primary concern is Christ and the church. The church submits to Christ in all things, for He has proven Himself loving and faithful, the Savior of the body, suffering and dying for her, having cleansed her through the washing of water (baptism) with the Word (Gospel), presenting to Himself the church in splendor, holy and without blemish (Ephesians 5:22-27). The purity of the church does not derive from its own effort but the cleansing received from its Lord; nevertheless, the church must preserve that purity, and have excised from itself all those who would remain in sin without repentance (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:1-13). Christ loves the church as His own body, and thus nourishes and cherishes it; the life of the church is sustained and upheld by Jesus (Ephesians 5:28-30; cf. John 15:1-7). Paul quoted Genesis 2:24, in which Moses establishes God’s purposes for marriage, and called it a profound mystery, referring to Christ and the church (Ephesians 5:31-32): as a man and woman join together and become one flesh in marriage and intercourse, no longer two, but one flesh, so Christ and the church are to be “married” and become “one flesh,” to share in full relational unity (cf. Matthew 19:3-6, John 17:20-23). Paul envisions marriage and its intercourse as a dim physical shadow of the relational unity which is manifest in God Himself and which God not only desires to have with the redeemed in Jesus but expects the redeemed to have with Jesus in the church (cf. Revelation 21:1-11).
Paul has much to say about imitating God, walking in love, and understanding the will of the Lord, and we should pay strong attention to it. We must avoid the works of darkness, love one another, be filled with the Spirit, singing the songs of the people of God, thanking God for all He has done for us in Jesus, submitting to one another in reverence for Christ, serving the Lord in the church as His bride and in our marriage relationships accordingly. May we walk in love as Jesus has loved us, suffering with Him so that we may be glorified in Him, and obtain the resurrection of life!
Ethan R. Longhenry