The Thirteenth in a Series of Sermons on Ephesians
Martin Luther once quipped that anyone who was able to master the distinction between law and gospel should be immediately awarded the doctor’s cap (the symbol of the doctor’s degree in theology). In Ephesians 5:22-33 we come to one of those passages which requires us to make a very important determination, “is this passage law, or is this passage gospel?” Or, is it something else? “Wives, submit to your husbands,” sounds like law to me. And “husbands, love your wives” is certainly a command (and therefore “law”). But it is Paul’s assertion “I am saying that this refers to Christ and his church,” which provides the key to understanding this entire passage.
As we continue our series on Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, we come to the apostle’s discussion of a Christian’s submission to divinely-established authority. This discussion runs from verse 21 of Ephesians 5, all the way through to verse 9 of chapter 6. Paul touches upon many aspects of the Christian household and daily life. In verse 21, Paul lays out the general principle that all believers are to submit to Christ, before taking up the subject of duties of wives to husbands (in verses 22-24), husbands to wives (vv. 25-32), children to parents (6:1-4) and slaves to masters in the balance of this section (vv. 6-9 of chapter 6). This passage is known as the “household code,” and in many ways it serves to establish a distinctly Christian understanding of marriage and the family.
Throughout our series on Ephesians, we have been making the point that in Ephesians 1-3 Paul sets out his understanding of the gospel–a gospel grounded in God’s gracious election of sinners in Christ, who are then saved by grace through faith, through the proclamation of the saving work of Jesus (preaching). In chapters 4-6, Paul discusses the Christian life–the application of that doctrine which he set out in the first three chapters to specific situations facing Christians in western Asia Minor. In talking about the contrast between Christian and pagan ways of thinking and doing, Paul has discussed Christian unity, the need to strive for maturity, as well as the importance of stripping off the old self and putting on the new. Paul has exhorted us to imitate Christ, to walk in love, and to be filled with the Holy Spirit, so that Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs pour out of our hearts during Christian worship, as opposed to the partying and drinking songs which resound in the pagan temples and guild halls.
As we work our way through Paul’s discussion of a Christian’s submission to proper authority, we need to be especially mindful of the fact that Paul’s directives found in this section are often applied without any regard for the gospel from which they flow. How many times have we heard verses from this passage cited as though we were perfectly capable of fulfilling them? While these verses do indeed instruct us to submit to Christ, wives to submit to husbands, husbands to love our wives, children to submit to our parents and slaves to submit to earthly masters, the fact of the matter is that no husband in this room ever loved his wife as Christ loves the church. Not one of us has ever fully submitted to Christ as we should. And how many of us perfectly submitted to our parents while growing up?
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