We ought not be surprised that marriage is under attack in our day. Divinely instituted at creation to communicate truth about both God and humanity, Satan will work overtime to undermine, distort, and redefine marriage. While it is easy for evangelicals to look to the legalization of same-sex “marriage” as a direct attack on God’s design (and it is), to limit our criticism to that is both short-sighted and arrogant. For decades, evangelicals have adopted the spirit of the age on marriage. When no-fault divorce became the law of the land, there were few if any cries of opposition from God’s people. When marriage (and really by that one ought to infer “romance” and “sex”) is held up as the breathtaking sum of perfection, the full extent of human relationship, and the reason for existence and fulfillment—such that the divinely-affirmed superlative state of God-centered singleness is viewed as a lack of thriving, a sentence of loneliness, and God’s second best—evangelicals sound more like their culture than like God. When commitment to the local church and developing intimate relationships with God’s people is subordinate to marriage and the immediate family; when our preaching ignores single people or automatically assumes all singles will marry; when the church has no place for single people or looks at them strangely…all of this is a grievous sin and wickedness. It is just as much a Satanic attack on marriage as gay “marriage” is.
Why? Because in both cases, marriage is uncoupled from the divine authority and words of its Creator. In creating marriage, God necessarily defined it and its purposes, telos, and meaning. Satan is behind this uncoupling, even in its subtler, more seemingly noble and godly ways.
We need words from heaven about marriage. Our minds must be renewed and we must exchange our fallen perspective for God’s. While this Sunday’s message is far closer to a first word than a last one, it highlights an extremely necessary aspect of marriage—and of God’s divine expectations for it.
Paul’s counsel may be summed up in four verbs that are a heavenly call to husbands, and a prayer request for wives (and singles).
A. Sacrifice (v. 25)
The example and standard for husbandly love is not small: Christ’s self-giving love for His church. Because the church was hardly worthy of love when the Lord gave Himself for her, one ought to infer that a husband’s love (and godly love in general) is to be equally enduring and rooted in something other than the beloved’s worthiness. We cannot stop loving, even when we are hurt, disrespected, angered, or used. Keep choosing your wife. Keep reaffirming your commitment to her. While feelings are often (wrongly) divorced from the Greek word for “love” kin this verse, it is important to distinguish between feelings and affections. Affection is the inclination of the heart toward a thing or person based on our evaluation of its value. Ordinate feelings flow out of ordinate affection. In our culture, we have ignored the historic distinction between passions and affections and have conflated feelings with affections, to great disaster and detriment. The husband must cultivate a proper, God-centered inclination towards his wife—not merely towards the meeting of her needs and doing things for her, but towards the woman herself, both as an individual person and because of the covenant she shares with him as his wife. A willingness to sacrifice himself—his time, energy, preferences, own way, and even his life—consistently for her will cultivate a proper inclination and will over time purify and strengthen his ordinate feelings towards her.
Christlike love demands sacrifice. It also demands purification. It is to that we now turn.
B. Purify (vv. 26-27)
Note Paul’s sentence structure: Christ sacrificed Himself that He might sanctify the church, having cleansed her. This is a wonderful verse about many aspects of our Christian life (after all, Paul is reasoning from the greater reality to the lesser, so he is bound to communicate rich truth about the former to illustrate the latter), but note the parallel: Your love for your wife ought to have a telos. It is not simply floating out in the ether, purposeless, undisciplined, undirected. No: Your sacrificial love has an end in mind. That end, then, will govern your expressions of love, your priorities, and provide staying power in times of trial and dryness.
The end ought to be the greater sanctification of your wife. This means your relationship ought to have a directly causal impact on your wife becoming a joyful, intelligent, thoughtful, fearless, bold disciple of the Lord Jesus. She ought to love theology, be passionate about personal and church purity, burdened to win the lost and give herself to the cause of discipleship and revival in your home, church, and the nation. That, and more. And she must be this kind of woman because of your love!
How can the love of a sinful, if redeemed, man have this decisive power? How can it influence the soul and eternal destiny of another human being? Only as that man is fully consecrated to and filled with the Holy Spirit! Plead with Him for a fresh fullness that you might love like this!
C. Think (vv. 28-30)
“So.” How precious are the conjunctions in the Bible! They have within them a whole world of meaning and implications for those who look for them. Paul has expounded the call to consecrated love. In light of it, he now reasons with the husbands at Ephesus and at Grace Church, with an added implication: If Christ loved this way, then you must—and one way to describe that love is to call it “love [the way you] love your own body.”
Think about it: You take care of your body, yes? You go to the doctor, you brush your teeth, you bathe (maybe not as often as your wife would like, but still). If anything, we pamper our bodies as a general rule. Paul is saying to love your wife with the same thought, devotion, and attention you give to yourself. It is equal parts sad and astounding that we already love ourselves with such unmitigated devotion that the Lord can use that standard to describe the kind of love we should have for others!
But it’s a good standard. For if we loved others like we loved ourselves—if married couples outdid each other in loving this way—marriage counselors would go out of business, children would grow up in fruitful, well-rounded homes, and divorces would be so rare as to be a scandal. Think. Think well! Then take those conclusions and apply them to your marriage. Devote yourself to your wife with the same care you’d give yourself…which, by the way, necessitates you die to yourself, your ways, and your pleasure. Much like our Lord’s counsel that it is impossible to serve both God and money, loving another human being with the same kind of meticulous attention you give yourself will necessarily crowd out and contradict things that you would selfishly insist upon and want. You may do one or the other. But not both.
Ironically, using selfishness as the standard is one of the best ways to create radically unselfish people.
D. Cleave (vv. 31-33)
Paul again uses a conjunction (“for,” this time alluding to the general oneness in marriage assumed by loving your wife as yourself) to draw out a major implication. Loving your wife as you love yourself is fitting because in marriage two people become one flesh. To love your wife like that is to live out the positional reality of marriage.
“Cleave” comes from a word referring to glue or a strong bond. In the context, the word implies a leaving of original family units (not to the extent of abandonment or legitimate obligations to parents, just that with marriage the relational dynamic necessarily changes) so as to be fully devoted to the spouse and the new relationship.
It isn’t hard to see the parallel here, although Paul leaves it unstated. This kind of exclusive devotion is precisely the standard to which our Lord calls us in our relationship with Him. (He even expressed it in a sense in that He abandoned His glory in heaven and all that was His, including unbroken fellowship with His Father, to love and win us.) Of course the analogy isn’t perfect—our relationship to Christ must necessarily supersede everything, which is probably why Paul didn’t state it. But it is helpful to be reminded that proper discipleship to Christ lays claim on our relationships, and one of those claims in marriage is that we cultivate a proper exclusivity and devotion to our spouse.
However, because of their idolatry of marriage and the family unit, evangelicals often overemphasize this exclusivity to the point of denying the importance and necessity of other human relationships (including our divine obligations to them), baptizing it with a veneer of Christianity because it is assumed this denial is an exaltation of marriage. While a godly marriage includes with it a holy exclusivity (likely referring to a channeling of the affections, including the sexual capacity, in such a way as to be fulfilled only in the one to whom it is owed by covenant—with a related willingness to avoid, or end, anything which might make an illegitimate counterclaim on those affections and energies), this cannot be used to deny, undercut, shortchange, or circumscribe the Lord’s authority in our obligations to others, especially, other believers in Christ. Just as the Pharisees earned our Lord’s scorn for using their gifts to the Temple to avoid financial obligation to their elderly parents, so many Christians will earn His scorn at the judgment for using marriage to undercut a different form of selfishness.
Why is marriage such a big deal? Paul tells us in verse 33: Because marriage pictures, like nothing else can or will, the kind of relationship our Lord has with us, the church. Ultimately, marriage derives its meaning from a system of implications, goals, and a plan outside itself. Because of what it points to by divine design, to mess with marriage is to mess with a holy God and His all-encompassing eternal plan.
Husbands, God charges you with a unique responsibility in your covenant with your wife and more importantly in your covenant with Him: Love her like He loved you. Love her so as to sanctify her unto His greater glory. Love her with the same attentiveness you already give to yourself and die to yourself thereby. And give yourself devotedly and exclusively to her, while trusting the Lord for help on how to balance this devotion with His equally necessary obligations to other souls He has sovereignly placed in your life.
This is hard. It may be the hardest thing you will ever do. But you will know God’s greater blessing, and something of life as He originally designed it to be, and you will help paint a portrait that makes Him look as good as He is. And in that, you will know your calling, your design, and your hope—and will be blessed.