An Exposition of Ephesians 5:22-33 (Part 1)

Context (vv.18-21)

How are husband and wife to relate to one another? Ephesians 5:22-33 fits-under the command be subject in verse 21.[1] Sections 6:1-4 and 6:5-9 are also under the commission. In 5:21 Paul orders all Christians to “be subject to one another in the fear of Christ.” Being subject to one another inevitably involves laying down what we may be entitled to in order to benefit someone else. “In the fear of Christ draws the reader’s attention to the manner in which he is to submit. The fear of God leads to obedience. To sacrificially serve another in the fear of Christ is to have Him exalted in our hearts as the true reason we lay down our rights. I submit to others because I love them, yes, but principally because God commands me to do so. It is ultimately because I cherish Christ that I submit. As is the case that He is pleased by such love, so shall it be that I will serve in such a way, to please Him. Christ, for Paul, is “head of the body, the church,” – the One by, through and for Whom “all things have been created.[2] When a follower of Jesus submits in the fear of Christ to fellow disciples, he manifests what God has wrought within: that Christ indeed is his head (Lord) and chief concern.[3]

This is evident in the relationship between “be subject” in verse 21 and “be filled” in verse 18. The Greek text seems to have “be subject” as a participle under the main verb “be filled.”[4] The subjection is related to the filling in that the former proceeds from the latter. To the glory of God’s power and grace, mutual subjection in the church is in fact a fruit of the Spirit. It is by nature a product of the sanctifying work of God within the life of the believer; it is by manifestation the believer’s own discipline in obedience to the Word of God. We may understand this as we would any other point of sanctification. First, it is God’s doing in that He not only predetermined the good work [5] but also regenerated the man,[6] thereby enabling him “to will and to work for His good pleasure.”[7Second, it is the Christian’s doing in that, as he is now set free from the power of sin, he possesses true ability to obey God and discipline himself unto righteousness.[8]

Being filled with the Spirit is being controlled by Him in the sense that we continually turn from the world and to Him in obedience and faith (i.e. repentance). This “filling” is as a hand moves a glove. The glove has a form but naturally remains limp until directed by the hand that fills it. In similar fashion, the sanctification of a man can be described as the “going limp” of his own, carnal will to the point that his life conforms to the will of God. Through the initial regeneration and continual sanctification of the Spirit (both never apart from the Word of God[9]), the Christian’s nature is literally recreated and conformed into one of Christlikeness. That is, his “limp-ness” becomes further and further natural. When at last this age has passed and our faith is made sight in the splendor of heaven,[10] we shall be glorified and the work of sanctification completed.[11We will then be made totally “limp” unto His will. How wondrous an eternity awaits us when Christ’s church shall be “saved to sin no more!

It is evident, then, that mutual subjection is impossible apart from salvation. To expect an unregenerate man to lay down his rights in the fear of Christ is to ask a rock to become soft: you are speaking truths he cannot truly perceive and asking things he cannot possibly enact. The rock may only become soft if its nature is changed by a powerful outer-agent – so too is the state of the unregenerate man. This is what we must bear in mind as we consider the relationships of verses 22-33, 6:1-4 and 6:5-9. In the schemes and fleeting affections of mankind, it is indeed possible for two unregenerate people to be in a relationship that appears to adhere to the basic principles of Ephesians 5:22-33, so as to fool others of an authentic, gospel union. Though each party may appear to be happily fulfilling the created rule for matrimony, neither one works in the fear of Christ or is even capable of the most fundamental quality therein: loving God. The wife’s chief model is the gospel union of Christ and the church (v.24). Her motivation, above all, is her submission “as to the Lord, (v.22). The husband’s model is the same (vv.25-27, 29-30), and his motivation is the cross of Christ (vv.25-27).

A delight in Christ and His gospel is absolutely essential for both the husband and wife. In addition, such a delight only comes to people when they are regenerated and continually led by the Spirit. Apart from the power of God in salvation, no wife can truthfully say, “I submit to my husband because I love Jesus,” nor husband, “I love my wife because Jesus loves me.” The greatest counsel any man can give to a distressed couple is the counsel of good news in the death and resurrection of Christ. They must be pointed to the gospel’s message [12] and power.[13] Only then will they have opportunity to behold the true nature of sanctification: that by grace through faith [14] the cords of sin may no longer bind their hearts to idolatry, but may be cut and burnt – that the death in which they walk may in fact, through the work of Christ, die – that in union with Christ they are assured the taste of their firstborn brother’s resurrection fruit,[15] whereby the promise of salvation from sin will in fact come to complete fruition [16] – that sanctification to Christ and satisfaction in Christ are inseparable qualities.

[1Salmond, Expositor’s Vol. III, 365; Stott, Ephesians, 215; Boice, Ephesians, 198-199; MacArthur, Ephesians, 280.
[2] Colossians 1:16-18.
[3Matthew Henry writes, “In the fear of God means ‘for his sake, so that we may show in our lives that we sincerely fear him,’” (The New Matthew Henry Commentary, 2128).
[4Stott, 215; cf. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, 544.
[5Ephesians 2:10; more generally, that God “does whatever He pleases” (Psalm 115:3) and “works all things after the counsel of His will,” (Ephesians 1:11).
[6] 1 John 5:1.
[7] Philippians 2:13.
[8Romans 6:1-21, 8:1-17.
[9] RegenerationJohn 1:9-13; Romans 10:12-17. Sanctification – Colossians 3:16 cf. Ephesians 5:18; see MacArthur, Strange Fire, 203-206.
[10Revelation 21:1-17; cf. 2 Corinthians 5:6-10, Hebrews 11:1.
[11Romans 8:28-30.
[12] Message – the character of God (Exodus 34:6-7), the wickedness and guiltiness of man (Romans 3:9-18), the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Romans 3:21-26; 1:4, 4:25), the call to repentance and faith (Romans 10:9-13).
[13Power – the sovereignty of God in effectually regenerating and sanctifying sinners (Romans 8:28-30; Philippians 1:6; 1 John 5:1).
[14] Ephesians 2:8.
[15] Colossians 1:18.
[16] Philippians 1:6.


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