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The Context for a Great Marriage
Understanding Ephesians 5:22-33
in light of the entire letter of Ephesians
I heard about her long before I met her. She was spoken of (by men I esteemed) with a kind of reverence–like there had never been, nor ever would be, such a godly woman as Jean Sharpe. When I finally met her I was impressed, but didn’t think much more about her because she was sort of courting my roommate, and I was spending time with another gal.
In late August ’79, I was leaving Hume Lake to begin my new position as Junior High Pastor at Grace Community Church, and just as I was leaving, my roommate, who had just graciously parted ways with Jean said to me, “Chris, you should date Jean–you guys are meant for each other.” I filed that away for future reference.
In short order, the youth department head hired a new secretary for the Junior High through College area. She had ministered in Junior High for five years, but now served in High School ministry. She was an executive secretary, but now wanted to work at the church for less pay, more ministry–her name was Jean Sharpe, 5 foot 2 inches, funny, creative, hard working with a heart for the Lord and the ministry, gorgeous, cute, very hot and . . . available.
Right before she started, things didn’t work out with my girlfriend–that ended because she wanted me to be a Baptist (her father was a Baptist bishop) so now I was free as well. But how do you spend special time with your administrative assistant at church when you are a single pastor? Answer–you don’t. You let time work for you.
Months passed, ministry was intense, seminary demanding, ex-jailbird roommates seeking reform made things traumatic, but in all of it, I began to get to know this woman of character, ministry and chuck e la la good looks. More months passed and things turned bad. No one knew, but I was suffering internally–I was so attracted to this woman I actually moved my desk so that when my office door was open, I didn’t have to see her sitting at her desk working. She never flirted, never said anything inappropriate, never led on that she was struggling also. I had difficulty concentrating on anything else.
Finally I spoke to John MacArthur and another mentor about my dilemma–both had the exact same response–they threw their heads back and laughed out loud, saying, “What took you so long?” I took that as a green light. I told her I liked her in a special way on my birthday, we courted (after parental permission), the day arrived and we had a special picnic in a beautiful backyard of a friend, and I asked Jean to be my wife. Amazingly she said, “Yes,” and we kissed for the very first time. (Since that day though, we have made up for lost time with kissing.) Proverbs 18:22 says, “He who finds a wife finds a good thing, and obtains favor from the Lord.” If you are married, you have a similar memory. If you’re single and not a celibate, you will have your own story.
It would be so great to think that somehow I chose wisely in marriage but in reality, I didn’t know what I was doing and God chose wisely for me–and I am so thankful for His graciousness to me with Jean. We’ve had great times and hard times, we have had good years and difficult years–and through all those blessings and burdens, through the example of godly marriages, and most importantly through the clear teaching of the Word of God, our marriage has deepened. I love her more each year.
Most marriages begin with a sense of wonder and promise, with dreams and passion, with love and affection. Shouldn’t marriage continue this way? Shouldn’t passion deepen? Shouldn’t love last? I think so, but not without dependent obedience upon the Word of God. So let’s hear and heed God’s Word. Let’s study God’s design for marriage from the Word of God, and today I want to look at the context of Ephesians to remind us exactly what is necessary to be able to live out the truths found in verses 22 to 33.
Don’t ever forget that Paul wrote an entire letter to the Ephesians, and not merely verses 22 to 33. And you can’t understand chapter 5:22 to 33 unless you understand and are applying chapters 1 through 5 verse 21. So today, let’s set the stage for Ephesians 5:22 by making sure our marriages and relationships are applying everything else that leads up to the passage on marriage.
You can’t read Pride and Prejudice starting in chapter 13. You don’t begin reading an instruction manual on the last page. You don’t begin to watch a movie viewing the last fifteen minutes first. And you don’t apply the exhortation on marriage in 5:22 to 33 without applying the foundational truths in chapters 1 to 5. Singles, this is how you prepare for marriage. Almost-marrieds, this is how you make sure you’re ready for marriage. And marrieds, this is how you strengthen your marriage.
I love to snorkel–it is one of my favorite pastimes. I have been using my mask and snorkel here in southern California for decades, diving in some of the same spots for years, and I have watched the ocean off our coastlines change dramatically. Thirty-eight years ago, certain spots off Laguna Beach were full of life, clams, massive amounts of starfish, a vast variety of fish, all different kinds of plants, beautiful colors–but now, because of pollution, most of it is gone, it has eroded, died out and faded away. The environment color has turned gray, the sharp distinctions have become very dull, and the fish have almost all disappeared.
Marriage has suffered the same fate–what was once vibrant and full of life has now gradually disintegrated into gray. No-fault divorce, prenuptial agreements, multiple pairs of parents, living together, pre-marital sex, and homosexual “marriage” have dulled the definition of normal marriage to the point it has become distorted and confused and gray. Last time in Genesis 2 we discovered God Himself was the one who designed the commitment of marriage–it was His perfect design from the very beginning, but we are still missing something. What are the expectations God has put upon His children that must be present in order to have that marriage be what He designed?
Last week laid the foundation that must be there, so today the letter to the Ephesians helps us understand the context of a biblical marriage. In the book Love that Lasts, Gary and Betsy Ricucci ask this. What exactly, then, makes for a biblical marriage–that is, one in keeping with the Bible’s teachings?
Is a marriage biblical because it started in a house of worship instead of a court of law?
Or because husband and wife attend church together?
Or because a couple has ruled out divorce as a way to deal with problems?
Or because each spouse lives a faithful and morally-upstanding life?
Or because it features 2.1 kids and a stay-at-home mom?
The correct answer is, “None of the above.” Those aren’t even the right questions. The only way your marriage can be a godly marriage, a truly Christian marriage, is that your marriage authentically honors and glorifies God by reflecting His love, His goodness, His holiness, His wisdom, His power, His peace, and His joy.
How is that done? By following the contextual principles that lead up to Paul’s instruction on marriage. The letter to the Ephesians will tell us what must be present in order for a marriage to fulfill Ephesians 5:22 to 33 and truly glorify God. So let’s look at each chapter and discover the context for a godly marriage. Turn to Ephesians 1–is your marriage purposed for God’s glory?
Most people, even Christians, though they’d never admit it, have a weak reason for getting married. Had they known their own hearts better, and were more honest, they would admit that they saw marriage as something to fulfill me–a path to personal happiness. They found a soul mate, someone who completes them. They know it must be good, because they are so happy.
Others might have married for the good of another, to serve them. Still others marry because it improves each partner–we are better together than apart. But all those views have a fatal flaw–they are all man-centered instead of God-centered. A truly Christian marriage starts with the reality that marriage does not belong to us. Marriage belongs to God, and His purpose for marriage is the highest goal.
What is God’s purpose in marriage for the Christian? Well, before you get to chapter 5 verse 22, you have to embrace Ephesians chapter 1. And in Ephesians 1, God the father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit all bless His true children with election, undeserved redemption, forgiveness, security and so much more it is overwhelming. And why did God abundantly bless us? Look at verses 6, 12 and 14, “To the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. 12 To the end that we who were the first to hope in Christ should be to the praise of His glory. 14 Who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of His glory.” To the praise of His glory.
All we do is for His glory. Your marriage now or in the future is for His glory. His glory is the summation of His character and cause–it is an accurate picture of His person and passion. Living for His glory is putting Him on display as fully as possible. Your marriage is to make God look good, to show Him off better together than you could separately. Singles, if they make you sin or drag you down spiritually, or you now stop serving or stop witnessing or end up compromising or lose your passion for Christ and His mission because you are with him or her, it simply means they’re not the one for you.
Peter says marriage is the grace of life, it shows off God’s grace. Yet even more remarkable is what Paul says in Ephesians 5:32 as he teaches on marriage, “This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church.” Paul reminds all couples there is a mystery that was hidden in the Old Testament but is now revealed in the New Testament, and that is this. Your marriage, Christian, is designed by God to show off the amazing relationship that Christ has to His precious bride, the Church.
We show off the love that Christ has for His bride, and we show off the passionate desire of the bride to follow her groom. Christian marriage exists to show off the nature of God as one, yet unique persons and roles. Plainly put, you marry so when people look at your marriage, they are attracted to Christ and the Church. Even more pointed, when they look at your relationship, they should want Christ and desire to be a part of the Church.
Wow do I fall short. Jean is amazing even though she is saddled with me–I am certain some of you feel the same way. But there is hope–God never commands us to do something we can’t do. So we can show Him off as we depend and obey. But it will only happen if His purpose for our marriages is fixed. It is not first about you or you both–it is first about Him, to show Him off, display His person and His priorities. The question is—does it? Ephesians 2, is your marriage saturated with the Gospel?
Turn to Ephesians 2:1 to 3 and remember what you were before God saved you, “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, 2 in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. 3 Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.”
Before Christ saved you, you were–verse 1) dead, verse 2) worldly, a slave of Satan and a disobedient child, verse 3) destined for eternal wrath in hell that you deserved. But what did God do for you? Verse 4 and 5, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved).”
God gave you grace–undeserved favor to those who deserve none. Spell out grace and you come up with God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense. And it is this gospel of grace that keeps a Christian marriage alive. It is the gospel of grace that keeps us humble and dependent to rely on God’s resources and not our spouse’s or our own. It is the gospel of grace that allows us to love when the other is unlovely, to give when we get nothing back, to serve when we are treated like a slave, not to attack when we’re hurt, and to sacrifice when it is costly.
And Ephesians 2 shows us the main reason why too many Christians divorce–many marriages never escape conflict, and many godly counselors are overloaded with marriage issues. What is the true reason? One or both so-called church-going Christians in the marriage are not genuinely saved. They know about Christ but not personally, they have a religion but no genuine relationship, they made a decision once, prayed a prayer, walked an aisle, or had an experience, but they are not born again.
What does it mean to be born again? It is when God awakens you to believe that eternal God gave up the glories of heaven to be born a perfect and sinless man in the person of Jesus Christ–God in the flesh. And out of love for sinners like us, Jesus willingly took the full fury of God’s righteous wrath against sin by dying for our sins on a cross. And because we must be as holy as God is holy in order to be able to stand in His presence in heaven, only God Himself could take care of our sinful status. Jesus Christ took our place, died for us and paid the complete penalty for our sins.
And God proved that Christ accomplished this by raising Him from the dead, allowing all who place their trust in Jesus’ work on their behalf and turn from their sin will be forgiven, counted righteous in Him and saved from judgment for all eternity. And all of it is a free gift of grace. Look at verses 8 and 9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 not as a result of works, that no one should boast.”
You could not save yourself, even if you wanted to, and you could not get His salvation unless God gave it to you. That is the Gospel, good news, and when you are truly saved God changes your life. Look at verse 10, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” You are going to do good works–you are going to live them out. In fact the New Testament tells us true Christians are willing to do anything for Christ, and want to obey the Bible even when we don’t.
So this good news is not something we merely look back upon as something God did in the past, but it is good news that dramatically affects a marriage every single day. How? Think about it–because of the Gospel . . .
You are a new creation, therefore your marriage past does not define you, confine you or determine your future.
You are forgiven, therefore you can live free of the guilt for every sin and free of every condemnation for every sin, so now those sins do not have to destroy your marriage.
You can forgive just as Christ forgave you. All those offenses you committed are forgiven, which frees you to forgive your spouse.
You are accepted by God, therefore you are not dependent upon your spouse for acceptance.
You are freed from sin’s controlling power, therefore you can obey all that God calls you to do in your marriage.
You have hope, therefore you can endure any marital difficulty, because you know God is working all things together for our greatest good.
You have the power to overcome remaining sin which continues to mess up your marriage.
It is rarely easy to live in the reality of the Gospel, but it is always possible–not because of your strength, but God’s abundant grace. And what should overwhelm us is this–God’s amazing grace is every bit as powerful and effective on our best days as it is on our worst days. God’s grace toward you and your marriage guarantees you are loved, blessed and empowered, not because you perform good, had a nice quiet time, read the Word, attended church, or served in ministry–but merely because God is gracious.
Singles, learn to live by the Gospel now, learn to depend on Christ to give in relationships and it will serve you well in marriage. Unequally yoked and single parents, you will only be a true witness as you live by the Gospel. And marrieds, if you are one of those spouses (one of those Christians), who is never satisfied, always blaming someone else for your troubles, viewing everything is about you and continually wanting things your way, you are not living by the Gospel. To experience the grace of life in marriage, you must stop living by performance and start living by the Gospel.
Ephesians 3 Is your marriage living by truth or tradition?
As Paul continues to write the Ephesians, he labors to remind the Church how the Gospel changes the way we relate to others. The Gospel unites differing people, the Gospel transcends culture, economic status and more. For the Ephesians, Paul reminds them that the Gospel even unites Jew and Gentile. Look at chapter 3:6, to be specific, that the Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel.
The Gospel does a new thing–it breaks down barriers between differing people. It does. Some of us may have prejudices against other nationalities–you know Euro-trash, you still don’t trust the Russians, or you have issues with the Australians because they all used to be criminals. Crikey! Others of you may have prejudices against race–no one knows it, but you would never have your child marry even a super godly person of another race. You’re a bigot!
But the truth is, the biggest issue in Christian marriages and in churches is tradition over truth. Some carry into marriage a passion over things that don’t really matter at all before God, but you make them into huge issues. You turn mole hills into mountains–how do you do it?
Can a man have long hair and can a woman have short hair?
Is vacation about being together or getting a break from routine?
Do we buy the cheapest furniture we can find, or should we purchase furniture that will last a long time?
How much football is enough?
Don’t you have enough clothes?
Should we ever have to eat vegetables now as adults?
How much is enough for a salary?
How much shopping should a couple do together?
What kind of schooling should we use for our children?
Is this purchase a need or a want?
What does a truly godly spouse do for Valentine’s Day and every other holiday promoted by Hallmark?
What is biblically necessary in order to be a good provider?
How clean is clean enough? How organized is organized enough?
I used to argue with Jean every vacation, because we both looked at vacation differently–it took us ten years to figure out how, if we both died to self, deferred to each other, we could both be refreshed uniquely when we went on vacation. Talk about me being slow!
Let me lovingly exhort you with profound counsel–ready? Just stop it! The Gospel frees you to live the truth and not get sidetracked by tradition or preference. Now it is true, working through choices is important and a test of your communicative skills, causing much growth. But traditions should not be allowed to ruin or sour a marriage. The Ephesians were tempted to divide up over Jew and Gentile differences, and we are tempted to divide up over preferences.
Singles–find out if they live by truth or tradition. Ask them to support their decisions biblically and check their exegesis. Do they refer to Scripture, or like a Pharisee quote some author, another pastor, a church or a tradition? Such-and-such a church does this, this guy says this, this article states. No–what does the Bible say? Jesus said in John 8:36, “If therefore the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed.” Don’t become enslaved to a Pharisee.
Couples–repent of your externalism, traditions and preference that have put you at odds with your spouse. The truth will set you free–tradition will enslave you.
Ephesians 4 Is your marriage intertwined in the local church?
Almost all Christian marriage books completely miss a massively necessary marital commitment–what is it? A vibrant, active, faithful, biblical commitment to a local church. Ephesians 4 pointedly declares that the local church is the biblical home for the Christian marriage and every healthy faith. Ephesians 4:2 says our marriages are to function in community, “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing forbearance to one another in love.” Verse 12 says you are to be equipped by pastor-teachers, “for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ.” And verse 16 says your marriage is to function in service so we can all grow, “from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by that which every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.”
Why is the church often viewed as an option to marriages and families?
1 It could be the couple has bought the lie that the more I give my kids, the better off they will be–so each child is so involved with sports, karate, music, space camp, boy scouts, young republicans that church has become optional and secondary.
2 It could be they view their family as my spouse and my kids instead of children and spouses belonging to Christ and can only be handled God’s way, in order to enjoy God’s blessing which requires a vital relationship to His church–they are His spouse and His kids.
3 It could be lack of submission veiled under a separatist pride, stating I make all the decisions for my family, to the point that no one else will ever have any input into my marriage or home. So I don’t have to submit to elders or the teaching of the Bible about a true relationship in the church in being equipped, discipled or ministering to one another, because I am the sole authority of my home.
4 It could be that I am putting my faith in my schooling approach above faith in God and His Word.
5 It could be I am so afraid of the world and it’s people I don’t trust anyone, in spite of the fact that they are teaching and modeling biblical truth, or that true love does genuinely trust–it believes all things.
But here is the problem–you cannot have the biblical marriage of Ephesians 5:22ff without living the commitment to the Church in Ephesians 4. Jesus Christ loves His bride more than your schooling approach. Jesus Christ calls us to live by faith in Him and not fear of the world. Jesus Christ commands us to gather, serve, give, minister, be taught, care for one another, share the Gospel and have our marriage and family function in community not isolation, experiencing all the spiritual gifts–not merely yours or your spouse’s.
Paul says to you spouses and to you parents in 1 Corinthians 12:21, “And the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’; or again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’” You need the other members of the church body to function together in order for you to have a biblical marriage and to be a biblical parent. John Piper says, “Sanctification is a community project–if your marriage is not in community, you will not grow as Christ designed.”
Of all the decisions I made by God’s grace, the very best one has been to faithfully and fully commit my wife and family into a local church. We were highly involved in the homeschooling, public schooling and private schooling of our children and used each approach as a tool to raise Godly Christ-like men. But we saw from the Word and from reality that the Church was God’s best parenting tool in training men of God. Even when the Church hurt us deeply, we knew that the Church was still God’s perfect plan and stayed intimately involved. I confess, we were often concerned about the impact of others in the Church upon our boys, but found in the long haul that all those relationships worked together for their good and God’s glory.
We were maniacally committed to the boys serving in ministry at every age level, since the Bible is not age-graded when it comes to serving or being a witness. We were passionate and sacrificial about our boys being involved in student ministries where they could hear the same things we taught from the Word in our home lived out with students their own age. And they could interact with those who modeled for them what life would be like for them in just a few years, as the truth of God’s Word was lived out by a youth staff made up of godly teens and 20-year-olds, young- and older-marrieds. Sports and school took second place to the church of Jesus Christ. They didn’t miss church events for sports, music, or other events, and their identity was with the church over any other group. Jesus will not ask me about my schooling approach, nor what sports my children were a part of, or whether they played an instrument, but He will ask me about their involvement in His body, His bride.
Our marriage has been dramatically impacted by other marriages–every time we meet with John and Pat MacArthur, we have marriage and family questions to ask them. I can name couple after couple who lived out a godly marriage before us that we have learned from in the context of the Church. Even as singles, both Jean and I were impacted by the marriages and families who lived out the Word of God in our local church. We hung out with them, did work for them in order to spend time with them to learn from them how to be husbands and wives and fathers and mothers–that’s what the Church is to do. You need the inter-relationship of the bride of Christ on your marriage and on your family. This is the norm, not the exception for every Christian. There is no Ephesians 5 “husbands and wives”, or Ephesians 6 “children and parents” without Ephesians 4 “intimate, faithful local church inter-relationship and mutual ministry.” Finally . . .
Ephesians 5 Is your marriage Spirit-filled?
There can be no Christian marriage without the filling of the Spirit–look at the command of Ephesians 5:1, “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit.” This command sets up the entire section that follows it, not merely Ephesians 5:22 to 33 on wives and husbands, but also Ephesians 6:1 to 4 on children and parents, and Ephesians 6:5 to 9 on slaves and masters.
Wives, you can’t fill out your role as a godly spouse in your own strength. Husbands, you can’t die to self as a spiritual leader must, in your own strength. You must literally be being kept filled with the Spirit. It is the command every wife here and every husband here must moment-by-moment continually obey. It is a passive command, meaning it is a command you obey, but it must be done to you by God. You must be continually aware that you can’t pull this off in the flesh, you must be dependent, humble, broken and reliant upon God Himself. You need to have a heart of continual repentance, always aware your choices to sin grieve the Holy Spirit, and your unwillingness to obey the commands of Scripture quench the Spirit, putting out His fire in your life. Godly marriages are made up of husbands and wives who are constantly repenting of pride, self, and wrong thinking.
To experience His power in your marriage, each will serve in ministry as the Spirit has gifted you, and seek to share the Gospel as is our purpose on this planet. And to be filled with the Spirit means we will be saturated, immersed in His Word alone, depending upon the Bible alone to clearly have our marriage work the way God designed. How does marriage work God’s way? For the answer to that, you’ll have to come back next week. Let’s pray.
Today, I want to give you a time of examination and repentance. There are marriages here not focused on God or the Gospel. Others not following truth but caught up in preferences. Some others are not loving the Church like the Bridegroom does. And others not depending moment-by-moment upon the Holy Spirit. You need to repent, right now.
There are some singles here who are so far from Ephesians 1 to 5 that you have no business even considering Ephesians 5:22 to 33 in marriage. Some of you wives and husbands skipped Ephesians 1 to 5 and are actually trying to function in a marriage not God’s way, but your way. Repent by God’s Spirit and obey His truth.
Finally, there will be some here today who have not trusted in Christ alone for salvation–you are trying to live life in your own strength and find it is impossible. Ask God to open your heart so that you can depend on Him alone and change direction to follow Him alone. Cry out for forgiveness, cleansing and empowering to live for His glory.