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In these politically correct days, whenever we come across passages like this one, expositors rush to instruct the faithful on what it does not mean. But we can spend a lot of time learning what things don’t mean. What does it mean? How should we live? Let us at least begin there. If we address that correctly, it should head off the most common misconceptions at least.
“Be ye therefore followers of God, as dear children; And walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweetsmelling savour . . .” (Eph. 5:1-33)
Summary of the Text
Imitate God, as beloved children would (v. 1)—for that is what you are. Walk in love, the same way Christ loved us and gave Himself for us sacrificially (v. 2). Sexual uncleanness and greed have no place with us (v. 3). The same is true of low jesting and scurrilous talk, but rather thanksgiving (v. 4). For be sure of it, the sexually corrupt and the greedy have no inheritance with Christ (v. 5). Don’t be deceived on this point (v. 6), and we might add that many have been. Do not partake with or stand next to children of disobedience—God’s wrath is coming (v. 7). You used to be darkness, but now you are light. Walk like it (v. 8). The fruit of the Spirit (which is light) is goodness, righteousness and truth (v. 9). Live out and prove what God likes (v. 10). Do not fellowship with unfruitful darkness, but rather reprove it (v. 11). You can reprove without itemizing their deeds, which are shameful even to recount (v. 12). Light is as light does; light makes manifest (v. 13). This is why God tells the sleeper to awake (v. 14; cf. Is. 60:1). Walk intelligently, as though it were daylight (v. 15). Use your time well because the days are evil (v. 16). Understand God’s will (v. 17). Don’t get drunk on wine, but rather be filled with the Spirit (v. 18). The description of that Spirit filling follows—speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and odes, from the heart (v. 19). Give thanks for everything to God the Father in the name of Jesus (v. 20). Submit to one another in the fear of God (v. 21).
Wives are to take particular care to be submissive to their own husbands (v. 22). This is because the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ is the head of the church (v. 23). This means that as the church is subject to Christ, so wives should be subject to their own husbands in everything (v. 24). Paul then tells husbands to sacrifice themselves for their wives in love (v. 25). He tells them Christ sacrificed Himself with a cleansing and sanctifying end in view (v. 26). He did this so that His church would be ultimately purified (v. 27). In this same way, men ought to love their wives (v. 28). Nobody hates his own body, but rather takes care of it (v. 29). We are joined together with Christ, members of His body (v. 30). Paul then cites Genesis—a man will leave his father and mother, be joined to his wife as one flesh with her (v. 31). This is a great mystery, Paul says, but it refers upward to Christ and the church (v. 32). In the meantime, you men make a point of loving your wives, and you wives make a point of reverencing your husbands (v. 33).
A Stark Contrast
Paul continues to contrast for us the characteristics of the regenerate and the unregenerate. It is a stark contrast, and so he urges us not to be deceived with vain words—the wrath of God is falling upon the children of disobedience, and so we should walk as children of light. The children of light should not be partakers together with the children of disobedience (v. 7). The one group is darkness and the other light (v. 8). The one group is fruitless (v. 11) and the other is fruitful (v. 9). The one is foolish and the other wise (v. 15). The difference between the converted and the unconverted is not to be hunted for in a gray twilight. Wake up!
A Belly Full of Wine
The lifestyle of unbelief is lazy, muddy, blurred, indistinct, and full of off-key singing. The lifestyle of the faithful is focused, good, clear, disciplined, and full of light. Paul sees certain things as going together, and he is an apostle, a wise man. Tell me, when you have had too many beers, or too many glasses of wine, do the jokes gradually get cleaner and cleaner? The contrast that the apostle expects us to maintain is a contrast that is impossible to maintain apart from the filling of the Spirit. And we will be filled with something.
When we are filled with the Spirit, we see things clearly. When we are filled with the Spirit, everything comes into focus. When we are filled with the Spirit, we are filled with holy music (v. 19), we are filled with thanksgiving for absolutely everything (v. 20), and we are filled with an attitude of mutual submission (v. 21). These three things will also carry over into our marriages.
Submission and Sacrifice
Submission and sacrifice are the characteristics of Spirit-filled marriage. Apart from the work of the Spirit, this standard for marriage is absolutely impossible. When the Spirit is active, it is impossible not to live this way.
Wives, in the Spirit (full of music, thanksgiving and deference), obey your husband. Honor and respect him. It is striking that when the apostle sets to work in giving direction for all forms of social relations, he starts with the wives. This is not because wives are the worst; I would argue that it is because the wives are the most important. In all social relations, if this stone doesn’t get set properly, nothing else will be straight.
Husband, in the Spirit (full of music, thanksgiving, and deference), sacrifice yourself for you wife. Give yourself away. Take your models from above you (Christ) and from below you (your own body). This is not to be understood as being willing to sacrifice yourselves some hypothetical day in the far distant future, but rather as laying down your life now.
This is a great mystery, Paul says, but it all resolves in Christ and the church. As Eve was taken from the side of Adam, so the church was born when the spear was rammed into the side of Christ. Adam refused to fight the dragon, and Christ did not refuse. Men, as dearly loved children, be imitators of God.