Ephesians 5:20-33

Bill McFarland

November 13, 2005


Someone pointed out that Ephesians 5:20-33 is one of the brightest spots in the New Testament.  That is true, first, because it addresses one of the strongest drives in any human being, and that is the drive for companionship, for a relationship that will be rich and rewarding and lasting through life.  It is a bright spot also because it is written against the background of a culture which had almost totally ignored the ideal of God.  William Barclay, for example, suggests that “while we may assume marriage was then honored universally and respected by everybody and that it is only in recent years that there have been any troubles with that view, it is actually just the opposite.  The day in which Paul wrote what he did here about the conduct of husbands and wives, he was doing so against the background of paganism where people were living more like selfish animals than they were committed lovers in this way.

This is a day when we need the guidance that this text offers for the most precious relationship in our lives.  We need to know how to conduct ourselves within the relationship of marriage so that we find the blessings God wants us to enjoy in our lives.

Within Marriage

Notice that we are speaking here about finding happiness within marriage.  In verse 32 of the passage, you notice that Paul is reasoning starting with Christ’s relationship in the church back to marriage and not vice versa.  He is trying to show us here that marriage is a shadow of Christ’s relationship with the church and also, according to verse 31, that it is a reflection of God’s nature.  Since God made us in his image, he knew that it was not good for us to be alone, that we would have a hunger for an answer to that aloneness.  So, Paul points out that way back in the beginning in Genesis 2 there were the words, “Therefore shall a man leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife and the two of them are to become one flesh.”  God’s answer to our aloneness is a relationship where men and women can share the deepest levels of their being.  It is a relationship which is permanent and unique and exclusive and intimate, and in that way, it is a relationship which is intended to address the most urgent needs of humanity in this world. 

Happiness within marriage, though, is an idea that is easily misunderstood.  You notice in reading the Bible an important fact, and that is that all of the passages on marriage don’t focus on how to be happy.  They instead focus on what we are supposed to do for our partners.  That is a distinction that is thought provoking.  While God wants us to find happiness and fulfillment within our marriages, it is as if he is saying to us, “You can’t find happiness and fulfillment in your marriage by making those things the point of the marriage.”  It is suggesting something to us about how happiness comes which is really important.  Blaine Flowers, a professor at the University of Miami, in his book, Beyond The Myth of Happiness, argues very strongly that “our focus on marriage as a relationship primarily about happiness has diminished marriage as a relationship.”  He says that “we need to reenvision marriage as an opportunity to practice the virtues of friendship, loyalty and generosity.”  The idea is that if set out looking for just happiness, etc. and if we choose the path of just wanting to be happier or wanting to love more, we probably are not going to find either of those thing.  But on the other hand, if we will walk the deeper paths of commitment and forgiveness and friendship, then we will build a marriage and happiness and love will find us.  That is a crucial idea when it comes to this study.

Gary Thomas in a book entitled Sacred Marriage says, “What if God designed marriage to make us holy more than to make us happy?”  What if the point is for us to learn to love permanently and to love unconditionally and to keep our promises the way God does those things?  What if the point is to make us more human than we were to start with and more what God meant for us to be?  I think that is exactly what the Bible is teaching us about marriage. 

There are not shortcuts to relationships of this quality. Sometimes we look at the teachings of scripture about marriage and family as if they are fortresses or fences to keep us hemmed in and to keep us from doing what we feel like doing or what we want to do at the moment.  The fact of the matter is what the Bible is trying to tell us is how life works.  The point is that you can’t find the type of relationships that reward us who are made in God’s image while we are ignoring the God who made us that way. 

Many people now days are turning to other answers.  Frequently now people are turning to cohabitation – living together without the benefit of marriage and without the commitment of marriage.  This is a practice which has increased 10 fold since 1960.  The number of couples living with this arrangement increased to 11 million in the 2000 census.  We are told that now more than one-third of the couples under age 30 are living without the commitment of marriage.  It is a popular and a trendy practice, but it is not working.  People may enter into this relationship thinking that we will protect ourselves from divorce by making sure before we actually get married.  We will ensure a happier future in this way.  The interesting thing is that all social research suggests that is not how things turn out.  For example, David Popenoe and Barbara Whitehead, who have done a lot of research in this area, write that “virtually all research on the subject has determined that the chances of divorce ending a marriage preceded by cohabitation are significantly greater than for a marriage not preceded by cohabitation.”  That is a way of saying that we, in trying to find what we want on our wisdom, actually end up cutting down the chances of finding what we want.  I think one of the reasons for that is when we enter into a relationship with the attitude that says “we will try this and if it doesn’t work to either one of our satisfaction, we will walk out at the drop of a hat.”  If we take that attitude with us into marriage, then we almost guarantee that it is going to fail because at some point or another, keeping promises in a marriage gets hard.  I think that basically happens for everybody. 

I have told some of you that a few months ago I was over at the hospital late one night.  I was there because Sister Loveland had called and told me that Bro. Loveland was not doing well at all, and they were having to decide whether to have a feeding tube inserted.  She wanted me to go by and be with Terry.  I went by and while I was there, the phone rang late in the night.  It was obvious from what Terry said that it was Sister Loveland.  He talked to her for a few moments and he said, “Would you like to say something to Daddy?”  Obviously the answer was yes and he handed Bro. Loveland the phone and with a voice real weak he said, “Oneata, it is so good to hear your voice.”  That had been married 69 years.  I am suggesting to you that that kind of relationship is the model that we ought to be following instead of the one that entertainment and popular culture is laying before us no

Marriage is Work

What Paul says in this passage is that finding happiness can be done but it is work.  That is the bad news for a lot of us.  Did you notice the basic things that Paul calls for to have to be done in a marriage?  First of all, love!  This is not the kind of love that you feel easily or that you happen to fall into.  This is not that kind of love.  When Paul talks about love, his model for it is the Son of God giving himself up on the cross.  We are living in a world where when we talk about love, we usually are talking about what we get from it, how we feel about it, what it does for us.  I am in love means that no one else makes me feel this way.  But we are talking about a relationship which is meant to function with love which gives itself up.  It is hard.  If you read what I Cor. 13:4-7 has to say about love, you will notice it is all in verbs.  It is all action.  It ranges everywhere from bearing with all things to not saying things that are rude to being willing to be forgiving toward someone.   That is love.  That kind of love is the responsibility of married couples.  What a commitment that is one toward the other.

Secondly, notice that Paul calls for respect.  In verse 33 he is summarizing things.  He tells husbands to love their wives as themselves and wives to respect their husbands.  This same word for respect is the word used earlier in the passage for reverence or fear.  It obviously is not saying, “Now wife, I want you to tremble in fear when the husband walks by.”  No.  It is just saying that within marriage love can only function and thrive when there is respect.  Any man will need almost more than anything else to feel like and know that his wife admires him and respects him.  A wife will need to know that she is appreciated and respected as a person. 

Dr. John Gottman has written a book entitled Why Marriages Succeed or Fail.  He is a psychologist at the University of Washington.  Over 20 years he studied some 2000 couples in their marriages and what happened and where they struggled and how they survived. He says that the two key nurturing practices in marriage are “love” and “respect.”  How did Paul know that in the first century without doing that kind of research?  God made marriage and God knew that the two nurturing things would be love and respect and that is why we read it in Ephesians 5.

Third, there is the task of submission.  It is submission to the needs of that relationship that is required here.  Each one in the marriage relationship is obligated by what Paul writes here to submit his own what might otherwise be selfish desires to what the relationship needs.  What does this marriage require?  What would it take to build it up?  That is work, again.  But those three things – love, respect, and submission to the relationship – are what Paul tells Christian husband and wives to do to build a marriage.

Ruth Harms Calkin wrote a little piece about marriage that so fits with these three instructions.  It is titled “Marriage!”  She writes, “It’s rough.  It’s tough.  It’s work.  Anybody who says it isn’t has never been married.  Marriage has far bigger problems than toothpaste squeezed from the middle of the tube.  Marriage means … grappling, aching, struggling.  It means putting up with personality weaknesses, accepting criticism and giving each other freedom to fail.  It means sharing deep feelings about fear and rejection.  It means turning self-pity into laughter and taking a walk to gain control.  Marriage means … gentleness and joy, toughness and fortitude, fairness and forgiveness, and a walloping amount of sacrifice.  Marriage means … learning when to say nothing, when to keep talking, when to push a little, when to back off.  It means acknowledging “I can’t be God to you – I need Him, too.”  Marriage means … you are the other part of me.  I am the other part of you.  We’ll work through with never a thought of walking out.  Marriage means … two imperfect mates building permanently, giving totally in partnership with a perfect God.  Marriage, my love, means us!”  That is the ideal that this passage holds out before us.  Do we always meet the ideal?  Of course, we are human and we fall short of ideals at times. 

But, what Paul is saying is that we have got to at least let these things be the tone of our lives enough that they can set an environment where happiness can live.  Finding love and happiness in marriage is about allowing there to be an environment where happiness can live.  I suggest to you some steps to take in that direction.  First, building that kind of an environment requires focus.  James Dobson has said that the biggest threats to marriage today are all involved with the breathtaking pace at which we live our lives.  We lose focus and we forget to pay attention to that one that we married and what that person needs in life.

Dr. Gottman, whom I mentioned a while ago, says that “Whether marriages succeed or fail does not depend on compatibility or in loveness but whether couples work through the conflicts that all of us have to face.”  That is unromantic but that is the fact of the matter.  That is what the research shows.  It gets down to just the nitty-gritty of whether we are willing to work through the conflicts or not.

Gottman says that he even in his study believes that he can boil it down to ratios.  He says that where there are at least five positive interactions in a couple’s interaction with each other to every one negative, the marriage will survive.  And it will thrive, not if the couples focus on trying to remove the one negative, but if they will focus on trying to build so many positives that they will overwhelm the necessary negatives that exists in live.  So, focus!  What does this relationship need?  How am I nurturing it?  How am I feeding it?  How am I letting it grow?

Secondly, marriage needs faithfulness in order for there to be an atmosphere where happiness can live. Faithfulness is faithfulness to a covenant, faithfulness to a promise.  I am willing to say before a group that Kay has not had a perfect husband.  She has had a very, very human one, but she has had a faithful husband.  That is what we are supposed to aim at.  She has had to accept the imperfection, but she has had a faithful husband.  Dr. Russ Cochran, an Associate Professor of Bible at Harding, wrote in an article something that he says he has given to his wife.  He wrote to her that when they stood before a preacher and promised to love each other, he hardly thought of what he was saying, hardly knew.  So he wanted to write to her what he meant by “I Love You.”  I think these are principles from Ephesians 5 and they are about faithfulness.  “When I say I love you, I mean there is no other woman I long to be with other than you.  I will remain your life companion until one of our deaths dissolves our covenant.  I will try to grow in my ability to tend to your needs as a human being, as a woman and as a Christian.  I will try to conduct myself in our marriage the way I imagine Christ would treat you if he were the one married to you.  I will control my desires to look at and fantasize about being with other women because not to do so would violate my covenant with you.  I will be your servant.  I will place your wellbeing above my career and above my recreation.  I will work to make you feel loved since that is different from my loving you in the ways I prefer.  I will view our relationship as a resource to us both.  I will not perceive you as someone who exists to meet my needs but rather someone who exists for me to serve.”  Doesn’t that put a new look at faithfulness? 

The third thing that we need for an atmosphere like this is forgiveness.  Forgiveness!  Anytime we begin to struggle with some of the points we have made to this point, what Ephesians 5 calls us to do is, “Alright now, calm down, come back to the example of Jesus and what he has done for the church.”  In order to make her better, he was willing to give himself up.  There is the nature of forgiveness.  Coming back again to the example of what our Lord has done for us doing that over and over through a lifetime.  Focus, faithfulness, forgiveness in efforts to love, respect and submission will allow there to be happiness within marriage – God’s gift to man.

It is so instructive to me that at the same time in our world that we have kind of thought of marriage as a throw-away thing in order to find our happiness, we have also begun to say more and more the church makes no difference.  Have you noticed that?  I wonder if the two are not connected.  Aren’t both of those statements of our insistence on selfishness?  Aren’t we saying, “I intend to have my way?”  Maybe it would be good for both the church and the home for us to get down to the matter of who is in charge.  Paul is arguing that it ought to be the one who loved us so much that he gave himself up for us all, the one who wants to cleanse us by the washing of water with the word, to move us toward glory instead of toward failure.  Maybe you are here today and you want Jesus to be that ruler in your life and in your home.  If you are ready to confess your faith in him, that would be the word, and then with the washing of water through obedience to the gospel.  There would be baptism into Christ and you would let him make you new.  If we can help you in that process, wouldn’t you step out and let it be known this morning while we stand and sing together?