The Gospel Mystery of Marriage – Ephesians 5:21-33

The Gospel Mystery of Marriage

Nick Esch, 12/8/2019 Cornerstone Baptist Church


It seems fitting to me that we are diving into the marriage passage in Ephesians 5 here at the beginning of the Christmas season. The reason I say that is because Christmas is all about Jesus coming into this world. And Jesus came into this world in search of a bride. As that old hymn says, “From heav’n He came and sought her to be His holy Bride; with His own blood He bought her, and for her life He died.” The bride is the church, his people, us who believe, Christians… From heaven he came and sought us, to redeem us and to reconcile us to God.

So we are going to continue on in our series through Ephesians, though we will take a break the weekend before Christmas. And I think this passage will do us much good in this time because marriage has much to do with Christmas, and marriage has much to do with all of our lives. Whether you are a child, teenager, single, widowed, newly married, or varsity married, this sermon is applicable to all of us. Lord willing, in this sermon we’ll get a glimpse of what biblical manhood looks like, what biblical womanhood looks like, and most importantly we’ll behold the glory of God in the gospel of Jesus Christ. But, this sermon is just part 1… it’s just an overview… Lord willing we’ll go into more detail on biblical womanhood and the role of the wife, and biblical manhood and the role of the husband next week. But, this week what I hope to lay out in this message is an overview of what marriage is and what the purpose of marriage is.

What is marriage according to the Bible?

Now, before we dive into Ephesians we first need to understand what marriage is biblically. In Genesis we’re told that God created man in His image. God created Adam, and then said that it was not good for him to be alone; so God made Adam a helpmate. God made woman (Eve) from a rib of man (Adam). And He created them both in the image of God with equal worth and rights. Genesis 1:27 says, “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” Both male and female are created in the image of God. And that’s what God created: male and female, man and woman… according to God there are no other options. But, I stress again, these two—male and female—are both image bearers created with value and dignity… created to glorify God… As God’s Word says in Isaiah 43:6-7, both God’s sons and daughters, indeed every person He forms and makes are created for His glory. That was true in the beginning, and it’s still true today.

Now, going back to Adam and Eve, when God made Eve, He said He was making a helper for Adam… Not a slave, or someone inferior to him in some way, but a helper, a partner to link up with for the cause of the glory of God, for their created purpose. And after God links them together, God’s Word says, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). This text has classically been the text that Christians point to for the creation of marriage; and I think they’re right to do so. God creates Adam and Eve, and then He unites them together in the covenant of marriage, proclaiming that the two have now become one flesh; they are a unit, they are bound together in covenant promise before God. That’s the idea behind holding fast to one another; they are committed to one another’s good in love. And as Jesus says, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matthew 19:6).   

As those created in the image of God, Adam and Eve are charged by God to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth, to subdue it, and to have dominion (or to rule) over it. In other words, as God’s image bearers they were to image Him, to glorify Him by displaying what He’s like by living faithfully as His children. They were to love and serve one another for the glory of God, to have children and parent to the glory of God, seeking to raise those children in the love of the Lord so that they too would live for the glory of the Lord. They were to work hard for the glory of God, seeking to subdue the earth and have dominion over it… They were to live and work, to love and serve in such a way that they displayed God’s image, that they displayed God’s glory to all creation.

So, just looking at Genesis, before the fall of man, before the first sin, we see that God is the creator of marriage and only He has a right to define what it is, and He has done so; marriage is a covenantal union between one man and one woman; and biblically that’s all there is in humanity—male and female; and a person is created by God—so by birth—as either male or female, and that is not subject to change. Now, granted, since sin has enter into the world (Genesis 3), and all of creation is broken, a person may not feel like a male or a female, or a person may even be born with some physical abnormalities, but still, at some level that person is biological either male or female (primarily), and regardless of how we may feel, our thoughts and emotions do not dictate our sex, gender, sexuality, identity, or whatever… God does… God’s Word is truth, not how we feel. Our hearts, our emotions cannot always be trusted; but God’s Word can.

So, God is our Creator, and He defines who we are. And God is the Creator of marriage, and He defines what it is. Sex, gender, gender roles, marriage… not of it is ours to redefine… it all belongs to God… And so, God created humanity male and female. And He created marriage as a covenantal union between one man and one woman. And within that union He has created roles for the man and the woman.As we’ll see, the man is established by God as the head in the marriage, but not in a way where he rules and reigns over his wife like some sort of tyrant. The man is to love, lead, protect, provide for, and serve his wife in a way that is for her good and God’s glory: they are partners in the mission of image bearing. And the woman is to love, submit, and serve her husband in such a way that she comes alongside her husband and helps him to better serve God and people, be it their family or people out in the world; again, they are partners in the mission of image bearing. God said it was not good for man to be alone and that he needed a helpmate and God filled those needs by creating for Adam his wife Eve. 
​Now, everything I’ve said so far I have said by way of introduction to our passage. Our passage is going to dive deep into marriage, and into the role of the wife and the husband in marriage; so, before we dived too deeply, I wanted to take a minute to establish biblically what marriage is. And, though our passage gets into the roles of the husband and wife first, and then hits on the overarching point of marriage, today I want us to first consider that main overarching point. So with all of that in mind, let’s look at Ephesians 5:21-33.
What is the point of marriage according to the Bible?
In our passage Paul is unpacking marriage for the church in Ephesus, so that they, and we, will see how being a faithful spouse displays God’s glory; in other words, biblically faithful marriages are directly tied to the mission of the church to make much of Jesus and make disciples of Jesus. Now, he begins by stating the roles of the wife and the husband as God intended them (which we’ll come back to), but then he goes deeper by saying in verses 31 and 32, “‘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.” So, verse 31 is a direct quote of Genesis 2:24, where God created marriage. And after quoting that Paul says that this God created, God ordained covenantal union of marriage is a profound mystery… a profound mystery that refers to Christ and the church…

When Paul uses the term mystery in Ephesians, on the one hand he’s referring to a truth that was somewhat hidden in Old Testament times, but now, in light of Christ, in New Testament times, it has been revealed. And it’s not as though God was hiding this truth, but that it was gradually coming to light more and more as history played out, especially the main point of history, Jesus and the glory of God in redemption. And on the other had, that’s what Paul refers to in Ephesians again and again when he uses the term mystery: he refers to the gospel of Jesus Christ and the redemptive results it produces. Let me show you what I mean…

In Ephesians 1:9-10, Paul states that God is “making known to us (Christ’s church) the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” And then right after this, in verses 13 and 14, he says that, “In him (Christ) you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.” So the idea of “the mystery of his will” is tied directly to the purpose of God in Christ, which is tied to “the gospel of our salvation.” And that makes sense considering our passage speaks of Christ and the church in two ways: it ties Christ and the church to this profound mystery in verse 32, but before that in verse 25 we’re told that Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her… which is exactly what the gospel of our salvation tells us. And we can put this together even more by looking at the rest of Ephesians.

In Ephesians 3:6 it says, “This mysteryis that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” Here we see why Paul has tied the mystery of God’s will to the gospel; now Jews and Gentiles, through repentance and faith in the gospel, are “partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” Through the person and work of Jesus God has and is redeeming for Himself a people, a bride from every tribe, tongue, and nation. People from every nation and generation, of every color, background, language, and all walks of life are being reconciled to God and to one another in and through the gospel of Jesus Christ. Through this mystery God is uniting sinful man to Himself; and of course God reconciles us to Himself by uniting us to Jesus. That’s why elsewhere, in Colossians 2:2, Paul says this mystery is Christ… It’s directly tied to His person and work and the redemptive results He produces.

One thing that’s really interesting here is how this ties back to the very reason we were created. As we’ve seen, we were created in the image of God to display God’s glory. We saw that as we looked at Genesis 1 and 2. But, in Genesis 3 Adam and Eve sin against God, and ever since then we’ve followed in their footsteps. As Romans 3:23 says, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” But through this gospel mystery of redemption, we are redeemed and reunited to God and to our God given purpose: to glorify Him and to enjoy Him forever.

In Ephesians 3:8-11 Paul says, “To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mysteryhidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord…” Did you catch all of that? Paul, by the grace of God, says that he was preaching the unsearchable riches of Christ (the gospel), so that the church (those who repent of their sins and believe in the gospel) might make the manifold wisdom of God known (what God is like, especially as He is revealed in the gospel and it’s redeeming effects)… So, God created all things for this great—profound mysterious—purpose in Christ, so that through the church God would be displayed, would be imaged, would be made much of… So the mystery is that sinners from every nation and generation who have fallen short of glory, who have gone astray from their created purpose, are now being saved from their sins and reconciled to God, in and through Christ, so that they might now get back on track and display the gospel and the glory of God to the world; we had gone astray, but now we’ve been brought back to God. And now we’re enabled and empowered to live for God. This is all tied to the mystery in verse 32. So, with this in mind let’s go back to Ephesians 5:32.

So again, verse 32 says, “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” And as we’ve seen, this mystery is tied to Christ and the church, to the gospel and the redemption it brings, and to God’s people rightly displaying God’s glory in and through their lives. So, what’s being said here is that marriage is a God glorifying display of the gospel to the world. Verse 32 is saying that God in His sovereignty created marriage before the fall of man, before sin entered into the world, thousands of years before Christ came into the world… God created marriage primarily to display His sovereign mercy and grace, His redemption, His glory as it is seen in the gospel… Until Christ came this reality was a mystery, but on this side of the cross we see that this mystery of marriage is actually a profound reality, an awesome plan for God to make much of His glory by displaying His glorious grace through marriage. Marriage exists for the glory of God in Christ…

Let me try to show you what I mean and explain this better by briefly addressing the roles of the husband and the wife in marriage, and the part they play in this big picture. In Ephesians 5:25 and 26 the husband is commanded to love his wife “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her…” And when he does that he is displaying Christ because he is sacrificially leading, loving, protecting, providing for, and serving his bride like Jesus did for His bride, the church. In a biblical marriage the husband lays down his wants and needs for the good of his wife and the glory of God (I’m tying that word goodto sanctify because sanctification is the process that leads to our ultimate good of being like Christ and with Christ)… so, the husband lays down his wants and needs for the good of his wife and the glory of God because Christ laid down everything for our good and the glory of God. By leading in this way the husband is painting a picture of the way Christ leads His church. The church is the bride of Christ; and Jesus loved His bride so much that He laid everything down and took on our sin by being crucified and having the wrath of God poured out upon Him in our place, and then rose from the grave and ascended to right hand of the Father, and by interceding for us and working in and through the Spirit, He’s still working for our good, for our sanctification… So, Jesus modeled perfect servant leadership for us with His life, and perfect sacrificial love for us through His death, and still through His resurrection life is loving and serving for our good; and this is the example the husband is to follow in being the head over his wife…

Male headship is to follow the headship of Christ over His church. Jesus, God the Son, exercised His headship over His people by giving all for His people in love; by coming down from heaven and taking on flesh, by living a perfectly obedient, perfectly gracious, perfectly loving life marked by service in our place, and then dying a sacrificial wrath-absorbing death in our place, and then rising from the grave in power to justify all who will turn to Him by faith; and as He lives now He intercedes for us and the Spirit of Christ works for our sanctification… And so just looking at how Christ has exercised His headship over us we see that the husband’s headship over His wife is not to be marked by passivity, nor is it to be marked by domineering. Male headship—whether in marriage or in the church, because male headship applies both places, but we’ll talk about another time—is not to be marked by making demands and barking orders, but by service and love, and wooing with grace… Male headship is to be marked by sacrificially leading, loving, protecting, providing for, and serving…

In Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection He protected us from sin, Satan, death, and wrath; He provided redemption and righteousness for us, and is making us righteous practically through sanctification; and as the Lord of the universe He provides everything for us… And He served His people again and again through feeding, healing, washing, and eventually dying; and in His dying we see the apex of His love for us… The love spoken of in Ephesians 5:25… This is αγαπηlove: loved marked by sacrifice in the pursuit of another person’s good… And that’s how Jesus loved us… Jesus died for our ultimate good: to reconcile us to God, to make us holy, and to bring us back into our created purpose of glorifying God and enjoying Him forever. And all of this is what is to mark out the husband’s relationship to his wife… And so, just in looking briefly at the role of the husband we can see how marriage displays Christ’s love for and relationship with His bride the church.

When a husband loves his wife like Christ loved the church it means he shows himself to be faithful, gracious, and merciful, even if she’s not. For Christ sought us when we wanted nothing to do with Him. When we were at our worst He loved us and died to save us. Christ initiated every aspect of our salvation; if He had not first loved us we would never have loved Him. And that means the husband has to be the leader and initiator, particularly in spiritual and moral matters; and that also means the husband should be the first to repent and apologize, because Jesus sought reconciliation with us way before we sought it with Him.

As John Chrysostom(349-407) once said, “Do you wish that your wife would submit to you as the Church does to Christ? Then care for her, as Christ does for the Church; and if necessary that you should give your life for her, or be cut into pieces a thousand times, or endure anything whatsoever, then refuse it not; yes, for if you were to suffer in these dreadful ways for your wife, you still would not have done what Christ did for you. For you did this for one with whom you were already united; but He did it for her who, until then, had only rejected Him and hated Him.” Beloved, the love of Christ is utterly amazing! He loved us long before we loved Him. And He loves us in spite of how weak and failing our love for Him is even now. As Spurgeon once said, “Christ Jesus has no quarrel with His spouse. She often wanders from Him, and grieves His Holy Spirit, but He does not allow her faults to affect His love.”

Church, this Christlike love that the husband is to have for his wife is truly amazing, it’s special, but it’s also the biblical pattern for manhood in general. In God’s design men are usually physically stronger than women, and that is in part because the man is meant to lead, serve, and protect. Strength and power are never ends in and of themselves; strength and power are to be used to protect and serve the weak and powerless. So again I say, male headship is not about domineering, but about loving, leading, protecting, and serving. And male headship is to play out in the home and the church; so men, young men, boys, whether you’re a husband or not, this is applicable to all of us. This Christlike love is what should mark out all godly males as they grow into men. But, within the covenant of marriage this is to especially mark out the husband so that the gospel and the glory of God will be put on display.

John Piper rightly says, “Marriage is patterned after Christ’s covenant relationship to his redeemed people, the church….the highest meaning and the most ultimate purpose of marriage is to put the covenant relationship of Christ and his church on display. That is why marriage exists. If you are married, that is why you are married. If you hope to be, that should be your dream.”[1]“The ultimate thing to see about marriage is that it exists for God’s glory. Most foundationally, marriage is the doing of God. Most ultimately, marriage is the display of God. It is designed by God to display his glory in a way that no other event or institution does.”[2]This is why Paul says that marriage is a profound mystery.

Marriage is something that is much bigger than the individuals that are in the relationship. A biblical marriage, a Christian marriage is bigger than husband and wife because the covenant between husband and wife represents the covenant between God and His chosen people. Before time began God made a covenant of redemption, where the Holy Trinity planned out how creation and redemption would all take place for the good of God’s people and the glory of Christ. And then God applies His covenant of redemption in the New Covenant, the covenant of grace, uniting His people to Himself in and through Christ. Knowing full well that we would fail Him and sin against Him, God made covenant vows and chose to love us anyway, at great cost to Himself—the greatest cost… And God in His sovereignty chose to display that covenantal love in and through marriage. So the main purpose of marriage is to glorify God and image the gospel to the world; as the husband sacrificially loves and leads his family he’s displaying the love of God to his family and the outside world… But of course there’s another side to this.

In Ephesians 5:22-24 it says, “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.” So what we just saw is that male headship in marriage is the divine calling of a husband to take primary responsibility for Christlike, servant leadership, protection, and provision in the home. Just as Jesus loved us by doing whatever it took, sacrificing everything, to lead, protect, provide for, and serve us for our good and God’s glory, so the husband is to love his wife by sacrificially leading, protecting, providing, and serving her for her good—especially her eternal good—and God’s glory. But, the wife is not passive in this relationship. The wife is to submit to her husband just as the church submits to Christ. But how does the church submit to Christ? Well, though it is not always easy, in one way or another the church always submits to Christ out of love for and delight in Christ. The church is not to offer up begrudging submission to the Lord, but submission that trusts the Lord and rejoices in His love and purpose. We trust and obey Christ because we love Christ. And when we look at the grace of God and the love of God in Christ, when we see who Jesus is, what He’s done, and how great His love is rightly, it’s no longer a mere duty to submit to Him, but a delight…

As John Newton once said, “Our pleasure and our duty, though opposite before; since we have seen His beauty are joined to part no more.” And I do hope that you see the beauty and the love of Christ in the gospel and that you have joyfully submitted yourself to Him. If you haven’t yet, I pray that you will right now; repent and believe in the gospel and be saved. Ask the Lord to save you, to grant you repentance and faith, and to enable you to joyfully submit your life to Jesus. He is altogether lovely and worthy. There is nothing in Him not to love or delight in. You can and you should submit wholly to Him.

Now, someone might say, while that’s true… it makes sense to love and submit to Jesus because He’s perfect, it doesn’t make sense to submit to an imperfect husband. But, I disagree with that because of what we see in our passage. For the husband and the wife, all of this is tied to Ephesians 5:21, which says, that we all are to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. And if we apply that to marriage that means that any submitting the wife does to her husband cannot contradict her ultimate submission to Jesus. In other words it is not right or good for a wife to follow her husband into sin. But also it means that for the husband and the wife they are to fulfill their duty to love or submit first and foremost out of reverence to Christ; which means, the husband can love his wife sacrificially, no matter how his wife treats him or responds, because he’s doing it first and foremost for Jesus’ sake, and out of love and delight in Him. And likewise, the wife can submit to her imperfect husband, in so far as it doesn’t require her to go against God, because in so doing she is submitting to God. As 1 John 4:19 says, “We love because he first loved us.” And whether we are called to lead or to submit, both are acts of love. As John Stott once said, “The wife’s submission is but another aspect of love… What does it mean to submit? It is to give oneself up to somebody. What does it mean to love? It means to give oneselfup forsomebody.” So the wife loves by submitting, and the husband submits by loving…

So, all that to say that if headship here is the divine calling of a husband to take primary responsibility for Christlike, servant leadership, protection, and provision in the home, then submission is the divine calling of a wife to honor and affirm her husband’s leadership and help carry it through according to her gifts. And as the wife gladly submits to her husband’s leadership seeking to glorify God by partnering with her husband for the display and the advance of the gospel and the glory of God in Christ, they together paint a beautiful picture of the relationship between Christ and His church.


Lord willing, next week we’ll look in detail at submission and love, and how marriage should play out practically. But in conclusion today, what we have seen is that marriage exists for the glory of God and the display of the covenant love of God in Christ and His gospel. And therefore, “The most important implication of this conclusion is that keeping covenant with our spouse is as important as telling the truth about God’s covenant with us in Jesus Christ. Marriage is not mainly about being or staying in love. It’s mainly about telling the truth with our lives. It’s about portraying something true about Jesus Christ and the way he relates to his people. It’s about showing in real life the glory of the gospel.”[3]

Would you intentionally lie to someone about what the Bible says, about who Jesus is, what He’s like, and what He’s done? Would you intentionally lead someone astray with your words? I hope not… But, what we see here is that when we don’t rightly embrace biblical marriage, biblical manhood, and biblical womanhood, we are telling a lie with our lives about Jesus. Before Christ our lives were a lie… We had gone astray and were leading others astray, whether we realized it or not. But, in and through Christ and His gospel we were redeemed and brought back to our created purpose: to live for God’s glory. And that same purpose is what marriage is all about: partnering together to image God, to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Earthly marriage is a parable, an illustration, a picture of our heavenly marriage with Christ. So, may we remember the words of that old hymn, and may our lives reflect its glory. “From heav’n He came and sought her to be His holy Bride; with His own blood He bought her, and for her life He died.”   



[1]John Piper, This Momentary Marriage (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009), 25.

[2]John Piper, This Momentary Marriage (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009), 24.

[3]John Piper, This Momentary Marriage (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009), 25-26.