The Grace of God Changes our Marriages: Ephesians 5:21-33

God’s grace comes, not just as a ticket to heaven, but as a way to make all things new. That certainly includes forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and a righteous standing before God, who has become our heavenly Father. But God’s grace also changes our personal relationships, and Paul details three of those relationships toward the end of his letter to the Ephesians: marriage, parent and child, and bond-servant and master. Today, we’ll examine how God’s grace changes our marriage.

“Submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. 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.”–5:21-24

You may have wondered why verse 21 wasn’t included in the previous two posts, as part of the section usually titled “Walk in Love.” This is one of those times where dividing what is meant to be read as a letter into sections hurts. Verse 21 precedes the subsequent section by bringing the reader’s mind to the topic of submission.

As a church, we submit to others. We won’t fully understand or appreciate God’s commands regarding submission in marriage, to our parents or to authorities until we understand the truth that as believers, we submit in humility to everyone, out of reverence for Christ, who submitted Himself to the point of death on a cross.

The million-dollar question that’s always asked when these passages are discussed is: What is “submission?” What does that mean; what does that look like in my life?

To submit means recognizing that I am not my own. If we belong to Christ, we belong to the body, which means my life is not simply lived for own sake, but for the sake of others. I have a role to play, and it does not revolve around me, but around the Lord and other people.

“For even the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many,” Mark 10:45 says. We follow our Savior’s lead, realizing that we work for others, not the other way around.

That character trait must be understood before it is applied to specific situations. So what does it look like in marriage?

For the wife, it means loving submission to her husband. This is not a simple acquiescence to whatever her husband asks, but an attitude of love, trust and respect that seeks to help her husband lead the family. As a believing woman, she submits to God’s will for her life, and, in doing so, submits to her husband and his leadership. Wives submit to their husband because they submit to the Lord.

Does that mean, as some unfortunately take it to mean, that “a woman’s place is in the home?” Or that women ought not speak in the presence of men? Or that a woman should never speak her mind? By no means! Paul is not advocating that women silently go along with their husband down ungodly paths, or that women never contribute to the home or to society as a whole. As the son of a hard-working woman, who worked tirelessly to raise me by herself while working a demanding, full-time job, I’m proud of women who get up early and stay up late to help lead their families. The subject of whether or not a woman should stay at home isn’t discussed anywhere in this passage, and as such, isn’t really up for debate from this text. A woman’s submission to her husband should exist regardless of what job she holds or who brings in more money, just as a husband’s love should exist regardless of those conditions as well. Submission doesn’t mean silence. Submission means respect; submission means trust and, for the wife, submission means respecting her husband’s authority while seeking to humbly offer wisdom and input into important family decisions.

Now, for the husband:

“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 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.”–5:25-33

Notice how much more Paul says to men here. The role of a husband is not to dominate the marriage and rule with an iron fist, but, like Christ, to sacrificially love, serve and lead his wife and children.

Submission, for the husband, means considering his wife’s needs before his own. Ungodly husbands do this, so how much more so should godly men? Sacrificial love, for Christ, meant bearing a cross to take away our sin. Sacrificial love, for husbands, means seeing your wife’s needs and meeting them. Sacrificial love means we’re more concerned with how our family is doing than we are with the score of the ball game. Sacrificial love means coming home, and instead of expecting our wives to take care of everything, actively seeking ways to love our wives and make them more like Jesus.

Marriage, according to Paul, should be a lifelong growth in holiness. As great as it is to experience life together, the goal of marriage, as is the goal of everything else in the Christian’s life, is to glorify God by becoming more like Christ and fulfilling God’s will for our lives.

I know I struggle with making everything in my life about me. It’s very subtle, because it plays out in how I spend my time, how much time I spend talking to others, and what I expect out of other people. I can be extraordinarily selfish. And if that doesn’t get killed by God’s grace, it will ruin my marriage. So, by God’s grace, I seek to kill that so that I can love my wife in a Christlike way that will honor God and sanctify us.

If I expect my wife to submit to me, I ought to be a man worthy of that trust and submission. See the beautiful picture Paul describes: A man loves his wife more than he loves himself. He sacrifices daily to meet her needs and lead her closer to Christ. The wife lovingly trusts her husband and allows him to lead her and seeks to help him fulfill God’s plan for their lives. This is a wonderful picture of the gospel.

Christ lovingly humbles Himself, serves us, meets our need of forgiveness and salvation, and now calls us to humbly and lovingly submit to Him, listening to Him, following His lead as we live lives that glorify Him. Marriage is a picture of the gospel. Believe the gospel, let it sink into the depths of your heart, and let your marriage be changed by it.

Lord, may we seek to honor you in our marriages. May we be godly husbands who lead our wives, and may we be godly wives who submit to our husbands. May we glorify you in all things, and may we let the gospel and your grace change everything about us and our lives.

God bless,

Neal E.

Faithfulness: Matthew 5:31-37

This is the fifth in a series of posts on the Sermon on the Mount.  This series generally runs every Monday, but, due to extenuating circumstances, this week, and next week, the post will come in the middle of the week.

Today’s post deals with faithfulness for followers of Christ, particularly in the areas of marriage and promises.  Given the recent political decisions that have been made, this post is well-timed.

Divorce is a nasty word.  Much like cancer, divorce rips apart families, destroys lives, and leaves scars on multiple people for the remainder of their lives.  Divorce certainly is not the way God intended marriage to end.  Even as fallen humans, we understand that divorce is something we’d rather avoid.  But, unfortunately, it is a reality that impacts not only non-Christians, but also those inside the church.

As someone who comes from a home impacted by divorce, this issue is much more personal and emotional than some other passages of Scripture.  Let me clear the air before diving into Scripture: This post is not intended to attack anyone who has gone through a divorce.  This post is not intended to heap guilt on those who have already repented for an unbiblical (key word alert) divorce.  The purpose of this post, and all my posts, is to shed light on what God’s Word says regarding our lives, and what we need to do in response to it.

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

It’s important to understand the background of this passage before drawing out implications.  Jesus is quoting the Pharisees’ interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1-4, which reads:

“When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination to the LORD.  And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance.”

In essence, a marriage that ended on the grounds of infidelity ended in the eyes of God, and both parties were allowed to remarry, so long as the woman was given a certificate of divorce.  Here’s how the Pharisees interpreted Moses’ words: I can divorce my wife for any reason, as long as I give her a certificate of divorce.

Before sin corrupted the world, and us, divorce was not a reality.  It was not in God’s original, perfect design for marriage.  It is an evil, unfortunate result of a fallen world.  It is not an issue to be taken lightly.  Jesus calls out those who would seek an easy divorce, simply because their spouse is no longer attractive, no longer as much fun to be around, or they “just don’t love them anymore.”  Understand that the fact that Jesus has to give commands regarding divorce is in itself an indication that everything and everyone is fallen and in need of a Savior.

So what does Jesus say?  When is divorce acceptable?  Jesus echoes Moses’ words, which he received from God the Father: Divorce is acceptable ONLY if sexual immorality has taken place.  Sexual immorality includes any sexual activity outside the marriage relationship.

Both marital infidelity and wrongful divorce are an abomination to God, for God is a God of faithfulness, a God of commitment, a God who puts others needs before His own, and in being unfaithful to our spouse, or in leaving a marriage because it is hard or we just “don’t feel like it anymore,” fails to honor God as those made in His image, as those called to walk as He walked.  Christ did not leave Earth before it was time, even when it got hard.  Christ did not become unfaithful to God, even when tempted by the devil himself.  And so, as His followers, we are commanded to be faithful in our marriage.

I made a note of how this post is timely given the recent political decisions that have been made.  Let me be clear: The Bible clearly states that same-sex “marriage” is sinful, that same-sex behavior is sinful, and that those with same-sex attraction are sinners in need of a Savior.  But lest we forget that God’s law applies to heterosexuals as well, let’s be clear in saying this: Wrongful divorce and pornography are just as much, if not bigger, issues for our world than same-sex “marriage.”  Wrongful divorce rips apart God’s design for marriage and faithfulness, while pornography supports the sex slave industry.  How dare we rage against same-sex “marriage” without raging against the sin in our own lives!  Romans 3:23 says that ALL have sinned and ALL fall short of the glory of God, and praise God, verse 24 says that ALL are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.  There is no room for boasting at the cross.  We all need to repent and trust Christ.  We all need to trust Christ to come forgive us and make us new, whether homosexual or heterosexual.

Furthermore, we need to check our attitudes about divorce, and marriage in general.  If our questions to God about marriage and divorce end at “When is divorce okay?,” we’re asking the wrong questions.  We don’t need to be concerned with the bare-minimum.  No, you shouldn’t cheat on your spouse.  No, you shouldn’t get a wrongful divorce.  But there are pagans who abide by those standards.  As believers, clothed in the righteousness of Christ and under His Lordship, shouldn’t we be concerned with honoring God in all things, not just appeasing Him so He doesn’t get mad at us?  We use the example of a “line” in romantic relationships.  We don’t want to cross the “line,” where we fall into sin.  But so often, our attitude is, “We’ll get right up to the line and not cross it,” instead of, “Jesus, what actions/thoughts/beliefs should we take to fully honor you in our relationship?”  That betrays an attitude of still wanting to please self and glorify self, instead of being pleased with God and glorifying Him.  In marriage, I hope we aren’t just satisfied with not crossing the line of infidelity and wrongful divorce.  It would break my heart if, some day in the future when I am married, my wife was asked, “What’s the best thing about your relationship with your husband?” and she answered, “Well…he doesn’t cheat on me, I guess that’s good.”  That would absolutely crush me.  Why?  Because there are awful, evil people who don’t cheat on their wives.  That’s like saying, “At least I’m not like Hitler.”  I would certainly hope you don’t want to exterminate an entire race of people and take over the world, but that doesn’t even come close to making you an ideal man or woman!

We ought to be focused on honoring God in our marriages by being loving, serving, Christlike, forgiving, patient, kind, etc.  I would hope that my wife one day says, “The best thing about our relationship is that he pushes us to trust, love, and look more like Jesus Christ.”  That’s a whole lot better than, “At least he doesn’t cheat on me.”

As believers, the question of, “When is divorce acceptable?” should never come up.  Divorce isn’t an option, because unfaithfulness is not an option.  Should unfaithfulness happen, yes, you have the right to get a divorce (that doesn’t mean you HAVE to get a divorce).  But we shouldn’t even be thinking of unfaithfulness.  We are following Jesus.  We have been completely forgiven, and been declared completely righteous.  We represent the living God, and we are called to commit to, love and serve our spouse as God commits to, loves and serves us.  The only option before us is faithfulness.

Moving on, Jesus discusses the issue of oaths:

“Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.  And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black.  Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.”

Have you ever been around someone that told a lot of stories, stories that often started with the words, “True story, true story…” or “I swear this one time….” or even, “I promise this really happened?”  Are you more or less likely to believe that person’s story than if he or she had never tried to convince you it really happened in the first place?  For most of us, we’re probably less likely to believe them.  Why?  Because at the end of the day, you’ll either do what you say you’re going to do, or you won’t.  You’re either honest or you’re not.  Adding promises and swearing does not in any way make you more credible.  That’s exactly what Jesus is getting at in these verses.

People in Jesus’ time, and our time, often invoke the name of God in making promises.  “I swear to….I won’t do that again.”  Or, “I swear on all that is holy, that I’ll be there this time.”  Jesus condemns both the flippant use of His name and the worthless use of false promises.  When we attach God’s name to our oaths/promises in the flippant manner that Jesus is addressing, we’re not showing respect for God’s name.  Instead of God’s name being revered as holy, His name serves as a reputation-building tool that somehow makes me more trustworthy.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, followers of Christ don’t need to make oaths.  We ought to have character and integrity that speaks to our trustworthiness, rather than having to make empty promises and take the Lord’s name in vain.  As stated before in talking about marriage, we are to be people who commit to and love others, and people who make good on the promises we make.  We represent a God who always keeps His promises, and so we ought to always keep ours, so long as we can.  That is, when your car breaks down on a busy highway and you won’t make it to lunch, that’s a good excuse (It’s also really annoying).  Extenuating, unavoidable circumstances are one thing–life happens.  That’s not a matter of integrity, that’s a matter of 10-year old cars beginning their slow, expensive journey to the junkyard.  What is NOT a good excuse, as mentioned in relating to wrongful divorce, is “I just didn’t feel like keeping that promise.”  “My attitude changed.”  “I’m just really tired.”  If you are following Christ, you have died to yourself.  What you feel like doing doesn’t matter.  The glory of God is what we live for.

Think about Jesus: He never added, “I swear I’ll do this” to any of His promises.  He did speak under oath, as do some Christians today on a witness stand, but this was not an invoking of God’s name to make up for some lack of integrity on His part, but simply Jesus respecting the law of the land–His integrity and His honesty remain the same, regardless of whether He’s officially under oath or not, and ours should as well.

These are challenging words from Jesus.  And here’s the bad news: We have all failed at being faithful, in some area.  You may not have cheated on your spouse.  But you’ve broken promises.  You’ve not loved your spouse as you know you should have.  You’ve lied to others.  You’ve not been as committed to God and His Word as you should have been.  We are all faithless.

The good news: We don’t have to stay this way.  We can be forgiven.  We can be declared righteous.  And we can be cleansed.  God is faithful, when we are faithless.  The story of the Bible is the good news that God keeps His promises to promise-breakers.  God is loving to those who are least deserving of His love.  The story of the Bible, the heart of Christianity, is not bad people trying to be good, but dead people coming to life, being forgiven of sin, and being changed by God, out of His great love for them, not out of any merit they have in themselves.

We can repent where we see unfaithfulness in our lives.  We can run to the Father and confess that we’re terrible, that we’ve sinned against Him, and that we’re turning to Him because we don’t want to stay this way.  And we can trust that where we failed to obey God, Christ obeyed for us, and we are righteous in Him.  We can trust that the sin we’ve committed, Jesus has already died for, and we are forgiven in Him.  We can trust that when we cannot change ourselves, Christ has made the promise to “cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

And He always keeps His promises.  He is always faithful.  And we can trust Him.  And by His grace, we can be faithful.

Lord, may we be faithful because you are faithful.  May we be faithful in our marriages, in our promises, in our walk with you.  May we run to you when we are not faithful, and trust in you for forgiveness and change, and move forward in our walk with you.  May you continue to be faithful to us, even when we are faithless.

God bless,

Neal E.