Epistles: Ephesians 5 – Christian Life and Marriage


In Ephesians, Paul makes it clear that we are saved by grace, not by our works (Eph. 2:8). But he makes it equally clear that God has made us and called us so that we do good works (v. 10). In the last half of his letter, he gives some specific exhortations for the kind of behavior that reflects our Christian faith.

At the end of chapter 4, Paul exhorts the Ephesian Christians to forgive one another, just as God in Christ had forgiven them (v. 32). We are to pattern our behavior after God himself. Paul states this general principle as he begins chapter 5: “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (vv. 1-2, NIV 2011 edition in this chapter).

We should be like our heavenly Father, and the imitation of God is a basic principle of Christian ethics. We do not imitate him in authority, but in humility, because God is revealed to us most clearly in the self-sacrifice of Jesus Christ. This is the clear example of forgiveness and love that we should follow. When we love others, we are a sacrifice that pleases God (Hebrews 13:16).

A call for purity

Love does not mean promiscuous sex, however: “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people” (Eph. 5:3). Paul does not say what sort of “impurity” he is thinking of. Greed is wrong because, among other things, it is an opposite of love.

Not only should Christians avoid even the hint of immorality, Paul advises, “Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving” (v. 4). Obscenities are common in American culture now, but Paul exhorts us to conform to Christ rather than to culture (Romans 12:2). When sin becomes a joke, more people sin. Sex is a gift of God, and it should not be tarnished by referring to it as a joke or as an insult. Our speech should set a good example, and Paul suggests that if you have to say something, say something good. “Thanksgiving is an antidote for sin” (Klyne Snodgrass, Ephesians, p. 276).

Paul then emphasizes how important this matter is: “Of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person — such a person is an idolater — has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God” (Eph. 5:5). That behavior, and that sort of speech, is contrary to the character of Christ. How can we be scrubbed of such impurities? Through Christ — and having freed us from corruption, Christ wants us not to go back to wallowing in the mire (2 Peter 2:22).

“Let no one deceive you with empty words,” he warns — let no one tell you that God doesn’t care about such things, “for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be partners with them” (Eph. 5:7-8). Paul is saying here that God is angry with people who give themselves over to corrupt behavior. Sin hurts people, and since God loves people, he hates sin, and he opposes those who persist in it.

Greed and immorality hurt people, and even though they are common in society today, we should not join in with people who do them. Indeed, we should avoid even the hint of impropriety, such as the dirty jokes. This requires a difference in behavior, not physical separation. “We cannot share the gospel if we separate from unbelievers. The light is to shine in the darkness” (Snodgrass, 278).

Children of light

In verses 8-10, Paul uses a figure of speech common in Greek literature: light as the good, as the intelligent choice: “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord.”

You once lived the way the world does, he says, but now you have a different standard — Christ — and in him we are people of light. When we follow him, our lives will be characterized by goodness, righteousness and truth. We need to find out what God wants, and we need to do it.

“Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret” (vv. 11-12). Paul again mentions the need for us to keep our speech pure. How do we “expose” wrong behavior? With light—with goodness, righteousness and truth — setting a good example, having good words.

“But everything exposed by the light becomes visible — and everything that is illuminated becomes a light” (v. 13). I suspect a translation problem here, because no matter how much we illuminate a sin, it never becomes a light. However, people can become transformed into lights, and that fits the context: Everyone who is exposed by the light becomes visible, and everyone who is illuminated (that is, transformed by Christ) becomes one of the children of light, who live in Christ.

Paul talks about a personal transformation in the next verse: “This is why it is said: ‘Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you’” (v. 14, source of quote unknown, but perhaps adapted from Isaiah 26:19; 60:1). Here Paul uses resurrection as a figure of speech for coming to faith in Christ (see Eph. 2:1 for a related figure of speech). In Christ, we rise to a new life — no longer a slave to the deeds of darkness.

Transformed by the Spirit

Since God cares about what we do, Paul advises: “Be very careful, then, how you live — not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil” (vv. 15-16). Immorality and coarse jokes were common in Paul’s world, too, but he calls us to buck the trend and be different. Because sin is so common, we need wisdom in discerning how we should live — we can’t just go along with what everyone else is doing.

“Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery” (v. 17). When people are drunk, they are more apt to sin in other ways too. Paul contrasts that with life in the Spirit: “Instead, be filled with the Spirit” (v. 18).

Instead of to the misery of debauchery, the Spirit leads us to joy and thanksgiving: “speaking to one another with psalms, hymns and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (vv. 19-20). This is the kind of party we need!

Submission in marriage

Grammatically, verses 18-23 form a very long sentence: “Be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another…submitting to one another, wives to their own husbands.” These participle clauses tell us how we are to act when filled with the Spirit: speaking to one another, singing, and submitting to one another. The grammar indicates that Paul is continuing the same subject rather than switching to something new (even though many translations start a new sentence and new paragraph at verse 21 or 22).

One of the results of the Spirit in our lives is that we “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (v. 21). We look to the needs of others (Philippians 2:4). When we respect Christ, we respect those who are in Christ.

The first example Paul gives is submission in marriage: “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord” (Eph. 5:22). Many Greco-Roman writers told wives to submit to their husbands, but Paul puts that advice into a new context: our relationship with Christ. Just as we should all submit to Christ, wives are to submit to their husbands. Paul will soon balance this with some surprising advice for husbands.

“For the husband is the head of the wife…” (v. 23). Commentators argue vigorously about whether “head” implies authority or source (the latter meaning can be found in the phrase “headwaters of the river”). Apparently the Greek word could have either meaning, but here the context (especially the word “submit”) suggests that authority is in view. We “submit” to a source if it has authority over us. Nevertheless, Paul does not focus on authority, but on responsibilities.

The husband is head of the family in the same way “as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything” (vv. 23-24). How well does the church submit to Christ? Imperfectly, but Christ does not beat the church into submission. That kind of behavior is inappropriate in marriage — and it is hypocritical for a husband to badger his wife about submission when he has problems with submitting himself to Christ.

Unfortunately, Paul’s words have often been used by men to demand that wives obey: “The Bible says that you are supposed to submit to me.” However, the wife could say, “Yes, but the Bible also says that you are to give yourself up for me — so stop making demands.” This sort of exchange is fruitless, because it tries to use the Bible for selfish purposes. The better way is to let the Bible speak to each person, without any self-serving “assistance” from us.

Obviously, a wife should not submit “in everything” — not to commands that are contrary to Christ. In the same way, she does not have to submit to abuse, for abuse is also contrary to Christ.

Responsibility of husbands

After Paul gives the culturally common advice to women, he gives a surprising command to the men: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (v. 25). The love that Paul calls for was a radical idea in Jewish and Greek society — that husbands had obligations to make sacrifices for their wives. In using the word love, he is essentially telling husbands to submit to the needs of their wives. “In the final analysis, submission and agape love are synonymous” (Snodgrass, 296).

What are the results of Christ’s love for the church? “…to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (vv. 26-27). Husbands cannot do this for their wives, of course, but they should have the same attitude: They need to view their wives as spotless, holy and pure, because Christ has made them so.

“In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies” (v. 28). Just as Christ sacrificed himself to serve the church, men should make sacrifices to serve their wives. They should do nothing from selfishness, but in humility regard their wives as better than themselves — and the women should do the same (Phil. 2:3). Paul is calling for mutual respect and submission.

“He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church — for we are members of his body” (Eph. 5:28-30). Unfortunately, some people do hate their bodies, but Paul’s point is clear: Husbands should treat their wives as the husbands want to be treated by others (Matt. 7:12).

To show that husbands and wives are united as one body, Paul quotes Gen. 2:24: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh” (Eph. 5:31).

How can two people be one? Paul says it “is a profound mystery — but then he says, I am talking about Christ and the church” (v. 32). Since we are all united with Christ, we are one in him. Not just in marriage but also in Christ, our spouses are part of our body, and we need to treat them as well as we do ourselves.

Paul summarizes the discussion in v. 33: “However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.” Whether we are male or female, when we are filled with the Spirit, we should love, respect, and submit to one another.

Things to think about

  • How realistic is it for us to try to imitate God? (v. 1)
  • Would Paul encourage us to use obscene words when we are with people who don’t consider them obscene? (v. 4)
  • How should we expose sin? (v. 11)
  • How can we understand what the will of the Lord is? (v. 17)
  • Is it fair for us to remind other people about what God commands them?
  • Should wives really submit “in everything”? (v. 24)
  • In what way can husbands give themselves up for their wives? (v. 25)
  • Does the Bible command anyone to exercise “leadership”?

Author: Michael Morrison, 2005, 2011

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