Everybody loves a good mystery! The extravagant characters, the plot twists, the suspense! A true page turner that gets our hearts pumping and leaves us wondering how it will all turn out in the end is a literary delight. If we are looking for an excellent mystery, we have to look no further than the pages of Scripture.
In the book of Ephesians, Paul tells us there is a great mystery in a very commonplace sacrament . . . marriage:
“Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.”
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.
In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” (Ephesians 5:22-32)
The profound mystery of marriage is unraveled for us in three ways:
In this parallel portrait, the wife is analogous to the church, and the husband to Christ. In God’s logical, natural order, He ordained the husband to be the leader of the relationship, just as Christ leads the church. He created the wife to respectfully follow, just as the church follows Christ. It would be irrational for the wife to lead the husband, just as it would be absurd for the church to lead Christ.
The wife is supposed to submit to her husband, and only her husband, as the church only submits to the one true God as its head. The wife should not submit out of a sense of slavish inequality, coercion, or force. The term submit means to willing place oneself under the leadership of another. As Paul explains the role of the husband, the wife should ideally be able to place herself under his headship with joy and complete trust. In the matters of decision making, if there is still a disagreement after much discussion and prayer, the wife should gladly and humbly defer to her husband’s leadership.
We know that because the majesty of this mystery is marred by sin, there will never be an ideal marriage or marriage partner. However, the wife is called by God to submit to her husband in everything, not only when he perfectly models Christ. The only exception would be if the husband asked her to violate God’s commands or principles in Scripture, and then she must obey God rather than man.
Some women might scoff that this is a tall order to fill. The responsibility of the husband, however, is the tougher role to play.
The husband is supposed to be the representation of Christ—the perfect, righteous, sacrificial, suffering servant who gave himself up for his bride. Just as Christ was gentle and lowly, the husband should lead gently and humbly, not domineeringly. This does not mean being a pushover or wishy-washy, but allowing the conviction of the Word to guide him as he leads his wife in love. He is to care about her holiness so much that he would be willing to sacrifice anything to spur her on towards becoming more like her Savior, even his own life. While most bridegrooms will never have to go that far, it still means looking for any way he can serve her that would further her sanctification.
The husband should also have the same kind of love for his bride that the Savior has for the church. He should nourish her spiritually, emotionally, and physically like he would take care of his own body. And he should cherish her in a way that would make it impossible for her to ever doubt his devotion to her.
To understand this part of the mystery, we must follow the plot line all the way back to the Old Testament. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (Ephesians 5:31; cf. Genesis 2:24). This mystery doesn’t stay hidden for long. Without any spoiler alert, Paul comes right out and says it refers to Christ and the church. Way before Paul, way before Ephesus, even before the foundation of the world, God already had His marriage mystery novel written. All along He had a plan for a bridegroom and a bride. Then He created the stage for His story to be played out. This was His plan:
Jesus Christ, the Son of God, leaves His Father to come to earth as a man. He comes to redeem a bride for Himself from the grips of her cruel slave master, sin. The bride price is His blood; the payment made on a cross. The bridegroom dies, but that is not the end of the story. The bridegroom defeats death and returns to life. He holds His bride fast and promises to never leave her. He becomes one with her and promises He will never let her slip away from Him.
In this final part of the mystery, we see the paradox of two separate beings becoming one. As husband and wife join themselves to become one flesh in a physical and spiritual union, the Bible says that Christ and His church are one body. The husband and wife are no longer two separate units but one entity. They no longer belong to themselves but to each other. In the high priestly prayer in John 17, Jesus says He has given us His Father’s glory and made the Father’s name known to us so that we may be one and that He would be in us. When we are united to Christ by faith, we become one spiritual body with Him. He nourishes and cherishes us because we are a part of His flesh. We are no longer our own but belong to Him, and He is ours (Song of Solomon 6:3). And though our bridegroom had to go back to his Father’s side, there will be a final consummation when He returns for His beloved and brings us to be with Himself in paradise.
Now that the mystery is revealed, we must realize that it is on full display in our marriages, for better or worse. Just as the latest bestseller gets put front and center in the bookstore window, Christian marriages are being watched by the world. This is why upholding and displaying a biblical view of marriage in our own lives is so important. Our marriages represent Christ and the church. Our marriages represent the gospel to the world.
How a Christian wife respects her husband says a lot about how she respects her Lord’s leadership. It also gives a picture of how the church is supposed to act towards Christ. How a husband loves his wife says a lot about how he values Christ’s bride. But it also leaves a taste in the unbeliever’s mouth, good or bad, about what kind of God we serve.
A faithful marriage shows the world that yoking yourself to God alone is a wonderful blessing to be enjoyed, and is good and right. Conversely, infidelity in marriage shows the world that we think God’s ways are unsatisfying, burdensome, and of little importance, if not wrong altogether.
After being married fifteen years this month, I still haven’t mysteriously figured out how to reflect the gospel perfectly with my spouse. I do know that when we forgive one another after a fight, when we extend grace to one another in our grumpy, snippy moments, and when we sacrifice for each other by laying down our will and desires for the good of the other person or the betterment of the marriage, we display how God gives grace and love to sinners in spite of them being undeserving and unlovely. And that is the gospel, the most excellent story of all.