(An adapted sermon from 3/12/2003 at Hood River Alliance Church in Hood River OR)
One of my desires as an intentional interim pastor is to seek to maximize a congregation’s understanding and insight into how to read the Bible to best understand its context which will help to inform our response and application of the text.
I have a friend who is the Chair of Preaching and Communication at an east coast seminary, who has served as an advisor for VitalChurch in preaching. Several years ago, I submitted one of my sermons to him to be critiqued. When I began reading through his comments, he was being quite kind and generous, and I started to get a little cocky until I read the final sentence of his critique where he said something like, “But I don’t think what you preached on is what the text is actually saying.”
Context really really matters! In preaching classes and workshops, the refrain, “context is king” is often heard.
It’s also good to keep in mind there are multiple genres, scattered throughout the Bible, including… Narrative (or historical), Poetry, Wisdom, Prophecy, Gospels, Parables, Apocalyptic literature, and Epistles, like this letter to the Ephesians. It’s quite helpful to identify the genre of a text in order to interpret it correctly along with the context. What is the author intending to say to the people to whom the letter is written? And then what can we learn in our context?
Fortunately, with the internet, we have more resources available to identify the genre and cultural context than at any time in history. One resource that has recently made a huge difference is The Bible Project. Their video overviews of the various books and doctrines of the Bible are excellent. They will help us to see the genre and the historical context as well as how that book or doctrine fits into the overall objective of pointing us to Jesus Christ as the Redeemer King of Humankind.
It should also be said that the divine genius of the Bible is that even though it was written by about 40 authors over about 1,500 years in three different languages, in several different cultural contexts, every book from Genesis through Revelation points to Jesus – either through describing the coming messiah, a plethora of allegorical images pointing to Jesus, or through celebrating who Jesus Christ is, what He taught, and what He has accomplished on our behalf.
By way of review: The overall context of Eph 5 is, now that we are actively finding our true identity in Christ (the truest thing about us), we can now seek to Be imitators of God (5:1).
Verses 3-14 describe how NOT to be imitators of God.
In verses, 15-21 Paul tells us how TO BE imitators of God and how to live a life of sacrificial love…
- Make the most of your time (v. 16). Meaning to buy up or ransom, fig. to rescue from loss.
- Don’t get drunk but be filled with the Holy Spirit (v. 18) Why, because we leak! Chuck Swindoll made this statement… “I don’t know of a more important verse in the NT for the Christian than Ephesians 5:18.” John MacArthur has said, “If we do not obey this command, we cannot obey any other.”
- Always give thanks for all things (v. 20). As Ruth Bell Graham well said, “We can’t always give thanks FOR everything, but we can always give thanks IN everything.”
- Submit to one another. Genuine mutual submission from the heart is not possible apart from the Holy Spirit’s filling and empowering. As we’ll see, this admonition to be mutually submitted to one another is the main theme and context for these verses.
There is a disagreement between studied and godly people regarding portions of this passage. I would also mention that this passage has been abused to generate coercive control over women — in the church as well as in the home.
Big Idea: God provides the grace to grow a strong marriage and family through mutual submission and sacrificial love.
As we move toward looking at our passage for today, my desire is to help us to know God better as well as strengthen our marriages and parenting strategies. If you are not married or a parent, there is also a bigger picture for us to see that will help us to worship.
As we prepare to look at the passage, I’d like for us to consider two things:
- Some historical context
- What appears to be Paul’s main point in this section
Let’s consider these two thoughts…
Historical Context… Starting in about the 4th century BC, the Greek philosopher Aristotle taught the use of “household codes” to instruct the male heads of homes how to rule their household, specifically their wives, their children, and their slaves. And Paul is using the same sequence that Aristotle used. So, what Paul is doing in this passage is reinterpreting Aristotle’s “household codes” that had been taught in the Greco-Roman world for centuries. And what we’ll see is that he’s turning these “household codes” on their head…
Whereas the “household codes” normally instructed the male householder how to rule, Paul, in this section of Scripture, frames his household codes with mutual submission (see 5:21 and 6:9). Paul is instructing husbands, not how to rule their households but how to love them sacrificially (5:25) and he also calls for gentleness with children (6:4).
We see Paul’s main point in v. 21: Mutual submission is the primary context of this passage: “and be subject to one another in the fear of Christ.”
Many Bible translations begin a new paragraph with v. 22: “Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord.” Some Bible commentators argue that vs. 1-21 are for the larger congregation but would be different for marital relationships. Here’s the problem with that interpretation: The word “subject” is not used in v. 22. Here’s a more literal translation of vs. 21-22:
21“submitting to one another in the fear of Christ. 22 Wives, to your own husbands as to the Lord.”
This may not initially seem like a big distinction, but it is. What these two verses do is make mutual submission to God and one another the main context for ALL of Paul’s reinterpreting of the cultural “household codes.” I would argue that what we have in these verses is a withering critique of “traditional” patriarchal gender roles. When Paul writes that males and females ought to be subject to one another that would have blown the minds of the Ephesians—especially the men. What Paul is doing in these verses is reframing submission. He’s moving from a top-down hierarchical form of submission to what we’d call today, a teamwork approach.
“It is wrong to read hierarchy into this verse or into the passage which follows. Rather, we see the development of a sensitivity to others that frees us from pride and enables us to act at all times in loving, caring ways.” (Larry Richards, The Bible Reader’s Companion).
Mutual submission is both husband and wife placing themselves at the disposal of the other. It is, according to a well-regarded and reliable Greek lexicon, a mutual “voluntary yielding in love”
Ephesians 5:21-24: “And be subject to one another in the fear of Christ. 22 Wives, to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. 24 But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything.”
Still somewhat of a stinging passage for some. So now, we need to unpack the word “head,” or what is called “headship” in Christian circles.
“Headship” (Gk: kephalē) has three perspectives in Scripture:
The first is a no-brainer and refers a physical head: “For a man ought not to have his head covered…” (1 Cor. 11:7).
The next two views are where there is disagreement among godly and studied theologians and bible commentators…
- A second view would see headship as the source or origin, think fountainhead, as in the order of creation, or what we see in: “[Jesus] is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything” (Col. 1:18).
- A third view would see headship as the authority: “And He put all things in subjection under His feet and gave Him as head over all things to the church.” (Eph. 1:22).
So, which is it in v. 23? “For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body.”
To respond to this, I would take us back to v. 21, which identifies the overall context for this whole rearticulation of the “household codes”: “And be subject to one another in the fear of Christ.” I see this verse identifying Jesus as the primary and final authority. I might add that, this is the only place in the NT where this phrase, “fear of Christ” is found. I would see the calling of each spouse to honor, respect, and cherish Jesus Christ and seek to do what pleases Him.
One theologian and author says, “When first read, it would have been the men in that church who [likely] felt threatened by this counter-cultural teaching of Paul.”
Certainly, some would disagree with my exegesis here. Here’s a way to frame thoughtful theological dialogue…
In essentials of the faith, we must have unity (Eph 4:4-6), in non-essentials there is liberty (Rom 14:1-6), in all things we must have charity (1 Cor 13:1-3).
Let’s now consider how God would have us function in our family relationships, what’s obvious is that Paul is addressing…
Let’s look at them one at a time…
Wives – “Wives, to your own husbands as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. 24 But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything.” –Eph 5:22-24
Paul maintains a fairly conventional expectation that Greco-Roman wives are called to voluntarily submit. The gospel twist is, with Paul’s reinterpretation of the cultural “household codes,” wives now have a mutual voice. Again, Paul grounds this submission in the mutual submission to Christ (as mentioned, the verb “submit” is actually borrowed from v. 21).. His words to wives were relatively unremarkable, apart from the Christian reframing of mutual submission.
Husbands – “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, 26 so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless. 28 So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; 29 for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, 30 because we are members of His body.” –Ephesians 5:25-30
Again, Paul’s words to husbands would have been mind-blowing to his audience. This is likely why Paul spends more time and more ink addressing husbands. This thinking is validated by the fact that Paul uses only 40 words to address the wives while using 116 words to address the husbands. Let’s unpack a few of these…
Husbands, love your wives… (v.25) The Greek word for love is agapaō, and refers, specifically to sacrificial love. It’s the same kind of love Jesus loved us with when He hung on the cross. Paul uses the word “love” 6-times in his 116 words to husbands!
Cleansed her by the washing of water with the word (v.26) When I have the opportunity to speak to men I will often go to this verse and ask the question, “What does it mean to wash our wives with the water of the word?” The Gk word for “word” here is rhēma and refers to the word of the Lord for the moment. Here’s how that plays out for Linda and me… Linda feels washed when she knows that I am prayerfully seeking God’s will for our lives and our marriage. If I‘ve studied and/or prayed and share with her what I’m learning, or if I have a sense of God’s calling or direction for us, I can almost visibly see her being washed. I wouldn’t say this is a universal principle, but I do think it’s a worthy conversation between those of us that are married.
So, husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself. (v. 28) This verse reminds husbands again to love our wives with a sacrificial love, yet with a different twist. We are to love our wives as our own bodies. Why? Because Jesus loves the Church as His own body, and this union of Christ and the Church is the basis for the union of husband and wife.
Here’s a summary thought about the marriage relationship…notice in the text that it does not say who should have the final say in important marital decisions.
Children – “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 2 HONOR YOUR FATHER AND MOTHER (which is the first commandment with a promise), 3 SO THAT IT MAY BE WELL WITH YOU, AND THAT YOU MAY LIVE LONG ON THE EARTH.” –Ephesians 6:1-3
These household codes, are given a new gospel twist. The obvious words to define are “obey” and “honor.”
The Greek word for obey (hupakouō) means to listen from below or underneath. So, it’s not talking about a mindless obedience. It’s talking about a deep and thoughtful listening and processing from underneath the covering of your parents (or parent). So, children are to think deeply and ask questions respectfully, because, as a reference to the 10 Commandments, this is the first Commandment with a promise attached to it.
The Greek word for honor (timaō) means to treat with reverence and service. To manifest consideration towards, and to treat graciously. Simply stated, to honor means to show positive regard for parents through words and behaviors.
Fathers – “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” –Ephesians 6:4
The word provoke (parorgizō) suggests deliberate provocation—perhaps out of frustration or some sense of training. Yet, Paul says this is unwise. Here’s a thoughtful way to describe the discipline and instruction Paul is calling for:
“Discipline is a drawing of our children into the unimaginable delight of heaven.”
This requires that we have the bigger picture, the end goal in mind, realizing that we only have them for a little while.
And If I could provide my best advice on parenting, it would be better to pay more attention to heart issues than behavior issues.
I’d like to go back and use Eph 5:31-32. Paul quotes Gen 2:24, in vs. 31: “FOR THIS REASON A MAN SHALL LEAVE HIS FATHER AND MOTHER AND SHALL BE JOINED TO HIS WIFE, AND THE TWO SHALL BECOME ONE FLESH. This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church.”
What is the mystery? Certainly, marriage is a mystery, yet I don’t think this is what Paul is talking about…
Jesus left the perfection, beauty, and majesty of heaven—the place where He was at home, to go in search of a Bride. And that bride is you and me. We would do well to contemplate the many-sided ways in which the truth about God and the truth about how we live out our most precious relationships, intertwine and create a God-given beauty the world can only dream about.
 There are more than 1500 imperative commands in the NT, so we will have many opportunities to learn to depend on the Holy Spirit’s filling and empowering!
 NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes, Eph 5:21-6:9.
 Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, ed. Frederick W. Danker, 3rd ed. University of Chicago Press, 2000:1042.
 A thoughtful overview of perspectives: https://www.cbeinternational.org/resource/meta-study-debate-over-meaning-head-kephale-pauls-writings/
 Kevin Giles, unpublished lecture notes. See his related comments in his essay in this volume, and his discussion of “An Egalitarian-Complementarian Reading of Scripture” in The Trinity & Subordinationism: The Doctrine of God & the Contemporary Gender Debate, InterVarsity Press, 2002: 203-08.
 Attributed to Rupertus Meldenius. The phrase occurs in a tract on Christian unity written (circa 1627). The saying has found great favor among subsequent writers such as Richard Baxter and has since been adopted as a motto by the Moravian Church of North America and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.
 Adapted from NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes.
 Adapted from N.T. Wright. For Everyone Commentary Series, Eph 531-32.