The following is an unedited sermon manuscript; for an explanation of my sermon manuscripts, click here.
No sermon audio available
*Originally preached August 22nd, 2021*
Throughout the Bible God depicts His relationship with His people in many different ways: like a Father and a son; like a King and His subjects; like a friend. One way God often presents His relationship with His people, particularly in the prophets, is like a husband and a wife. In the book of Ezekiel there is a fascinating story where God is depicted as a man, and His people are depicted like a woman He intends on marrying (Ez 16). But rather than beginning where most marriage stories begins, this story begins with an infant.
“And as for your birth, on the day you were born your cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to cleanse you, nor rubbed with salt, nor wrapped in swaddling cloths. No eye pitied you, to do any of these things to you out of compassion for you, but you were cast out on the open field, for you were abhorred, on the day that you were born. And when I passed by you and saw you wallowing in your blood, I said to you in your blood, ‘Live!’ I said to you in your blood, ‘Live!’” (Ez 16:4-6)
God’s people were, from the moment of birth, despised and cast aside, left to die in a field. No one pities her, no one cares for her. That concept—that someone would leave an infant alone to die from exposure—is unthinkable to us. But it is tragically something that happened in the ancient world. Even more tragic, usually the individuals who would pick up abandoned infant girls were those who owned brothels, intending on enslaving them as prostitutes as soon as they were of age (kid friendly definition of prostitute: a woman who is paid to do something she shouldn’t do, something only a husband and wife do).
In this story, however, God intervenes. He will not leave this defenseless infant to perish or be preyed upon. He beckons the child to live, and then proceeds to help the infant Jerusalem flourish and grow (16:7). After an interlude of time and God passes by Jerusalem again, but now she is at the age of marriage, but is primitively unclothed. So God clothes her and then proposes to her (16:8).
God then bestows upon the woman fine clothing, jewelry, and luxurious food. He places a crown on her head and declares: “You grew exceedingly beautiful and advanced to royalty. And your renown went forth among the nations because of your beauty, for it was perfect through the splendor that I had bestowed on you, declares the Lord GOD,” (16:13b-14). God has spared no expense in making His bride as beautiful and stunning as possible. People from all over the world hear of Jerusalem’s beauty, glory, and splendor (cf. 1 Kings 10:23-25). Jerusalem began as the abandoned child on the brink of death, now she has become the winner of world’s beauty pageant. She now has everything all because her loving husband has shown His grace upon her. And what does Jerusalem do in response?
“But you trusted in your beauty and acted like a prostitute because of your fame,” (Ez 16:15a, CSB). She, the one who was saved from either certain death or the bleak life of a prostitute, with tragic irony, uses the beauty and gifts God has given her to become a prostitute, she “lavishes her unfaithfulness on any passerby,” (Ez 16:15b). This is startling imagery. God’s bride turns from her husband and goes out and begins trying to take any random stranger to bed. This isn’t describing literal adultery, it is a personification of what Jerusalem is doing in her idolatry, in turning from Yahweh to worship other gods (Ez 16:16-19). She even goes so far to participate in the abominable and repulsive practice of child sacrifice; taking her own sons and daughters, children of God, and slaughters them on the altars of these false gods “to be devoured” by these pagan deities (Ez 16:20).
“How sick is your heart, declares the Lord GOD, because you did all these things, the deeds of a brazen prostitute… Yet you were not like a prostitute, because you scorned payment. Adulterous wife, who receives strangers instead of her husband! Men give gifts to all prostitutes, but you gave your gifts to all your lovers,” (Ez 16:30-33). Jerusalem is paying other people to treat her like a prostitute, giving away the gifts God has given her to commit spiritual adultery.
And because our God is a morally serious God, He acts. Our God cares about justice, and because Jerusalem has used every good gift God has given her to do nothing but pervert justice, to give herself to false gods, He declares: “You bear the penalty of your lewdness and your abominations, declares the LORD,” (Ez 16:58).
Three things we learn from this:
1. Sin doesn’t start with bad things. What went wrong with Jerusalem? How could a people receive so many good things from God, so much grace, but arrive at this kind of depravity? Remember the source of the problem: “But you trusted in your beauty…” (Ez 16:15a). What a sobering warning. It was her beauty that caused her stumble. She took the many good gifts that God had given her and, like a selfish child on Christmas morning, became more enamored with the gift than the giver, Thank you, but I don’t need you anymore, I got what I wanted from you. This, this is what will deliver me, this is what will keep me safe, this is where I can find my identity. If you think that sin is only found in the seedy, dark, underbelly of the world where sinister men do unspeakable things, you will be wholly blind to your greatest problem. The gospel has come to deal with our greatest problem, but what the gospel tells us is our greatest problem might surprise us. Our greatest problem isn’t the bad things in life, it is the good things. Nobody loves bad things for the sake of them being “bad”—we love good things, like security, comfort, approval of others, and we love them so much that we will do bad things to get them, to keep them. The nuclear reactor of sin is found first in trusting in those good things rather than in God.
2. God takes sin personally. How do you picture God reacting to your sin, to your idolatry? However we imagine it, whether with cool indifference or seeming outrage, Ezekiel shows us how profoundly God responds to our sin: He is not just a master angry with a disobedient servant, He is not just a King whose soldiers have failed Him, He isn’t even a parent angry with a wayward child—He is a husband who has been cheated on in the most grotesque manner. Maybe sin doesn’t seem like that big of a deal to you, but it is to God. We were made for God, He has bestowed kindness upon kindness to us, and when we sin we are not just breaking God’s rules, we are breaking His heart. He is angry, He is sorrowful, He is heartbroken watching us slip deeper and deeper into degradation and shame. One of the refrains that is repeated throughout Ezekiel 16 is “you were not satisfied.” Jerusalem goes from affair to affair, sinking lower and lower, into her spiritual adultery, debasing herself deeper and deeper, and at the end of each dalliance she is left “not satisfied.” Why? Because she never will be satisfied with any other lover but her Lord. And He knows that and it pains Him, saddens Him, angers Him to watch.
3. God will respond. God promised that Jerusalem would bear her penalty, that He would drain the storehouses of His wrath till His righteous anger was assuaged. And the end of Ezekiel 16 seems to reiterate this:
“For thus says the Lord GOD: I will deal with you as you have done, you who have despised the oath in breaking the covenant,” (Ez 16:59).
God will deal with us the way we deserve; He will judge us accordingly. And we have broken our marriage vows, we have been unfaithful, and our God is just, is righteous. He will not wink at evil. So He will settle the account, He will judge us according to what we have done, and render to us what our life has deserved. Oh friend, what an awful, terrible thing that payment will be. You and I, when we heard of people preying on abandoned infant girls, we shuddered at how horrific that is. We feel a sense of righteous indignation—the person who does that should face justice. But, apparently, the person who did that was not so alarmed. They had been so numbed by the effects of sin that it seemed like a viable option, a good business choice. But, from our vantage point we see that, we like to think, for what it really is. But that’s how we see it, and we ourselves are beset with many sins, numbed in other ways. There are sins we commit that we don’t think twice of. So, if we, sinners though we are, can look at someone further down the line than us and admit: That kind of person deserves judgement, then friend, how do you think God sees our sin? God, who has never sinned, never sullied His purity, never blunted His holiness, never compromised His righteousness. What does He think of your sin? What flames of righteous hatred are enflamed in His heart when He sees our wickedness that we merely wink at? Friend, God’s justice and our sinfulness are the most sobering realities in existence. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
But this is precisely what makes the rest of Ezekiel so interesting. Judgment isn’t the only way God responds: “…yet I will remember my covenant with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish for you an everlasting covenant,” Ez 16:60.
Though we are unfaithful, though we abandoned our marriage covenant, Ezekiel says God won’t. He remembers the wedding day, He remembers when His bride was young and He vowed to stay by her side for better or worse. He stays up, sitting at the kitchen table for his battered bride to stumble in after another night of bad choices and pleads with her to stop, to stay here with Him. Further, He plans to now make an “everlasting covenant” with her, an unbreakable vow without expiration date. But what about God’s promise of justice? What about repaying Jerusalem for all that she has done? Here is what God concludes with:
“I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall know that I am the LORD, that you may remember and be confounded, and never open your mouth again because of your shame, when I atone for you for all that you have done, declares the Lord GOD,” Ez 16:62-63.
God Himself will atone for Jerusalem’s sins. The God against whom we have sinned, we have cheated on, we have taken for granted and treated as irrelevant, whom we have screamed and kicked at and demanded that we have our own way—when we the avalanche of consequences comes bearing down upon us for our insolence and depravity, this God steps in front of us to take the blow, to take the penalty of our very sins. This is the good news of the gospel: God sent His only Son Jesus Christ to bear the penalty of His people’s sins, to atone for their evil. Jesus dies in our place. It makes sense why Ezekiel tells us that we will be left “confounded” and speechless by God’s atonement for our sins. What can we even say in light of such grace?
Friend, God does not sweep sin under the rug, He doesn’t just ignore evil. All sin, big or small, will be judged. The Bible gives us an option: we can be judged in our sins, or we can be judged in Christ.
I Thought This Was a Sermon on Marriage?
What on earth does any of this have to do with marriage? This is supposed to be a sermon on headship and submission from Ephesians 5. Why did I just spend the majority of our time in the book of Ezekiel?
First, because whenever we speak of God’s Law (what He commands), we must always first precede it with the gospel (what God does). We obey because Jesus has saved us, not the other way around. And because of that we know that God loved us when we were at our worst, not our best, so we can be honest and not freak out. Sometimes we are honest about ourselves, and then later we think: Oh no! Why did I do that? I let the mask slip and now they know who I really am! Nobody needs to suck in their spiritual gut around here. When grace enters our heart it deflates our ego and sense of self-importance—we aren’t all that impressive, in fact, we are pretty thick, but that’s okay. Jesus isn’t hanging out with us because we look so good—its actually because we are so bad that He comes near with grace. God has made an everlasting covenant with us—He isn’t going anywhere, He isn’t leaving us behind.
But this also tells us that we should be courageously optimistic! If God has loved us where we are in our sin, but does not love our sin, then that means that God is motivated to get us out of our sin! He doesn’t want us to remain selfish husbands or arrogant wives. God desires us to walk in holiness, and if God can save you at your worst, He will not leave you there. So be encouraged! Maybe your marriage stinks. Maybe you are a lousy spouse, but if you will lean into God’s grace, if you will respond to His Word by faith, He will not leave you there; you can have courage to face down your sin—maybe a sin you’ve failed a million times at—and know that one day, it is going to fall, because God has willed it to be so!
A second reason we started the sermon with a lengthy explanation of the gospel, particularly of God’s love of His wayward bride, the Church, is because Ephesians tells us that the whole point of marriage is to be a display of this gospel. Paul cites the lodestar Bible verse on marriage, Genesis 2:24, before drawing out this point: “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,” (Eph 5:31-32). Paul is telling us that marriage is the virtual reality goggles of the gospel for the watching world. It is a way for God to put out in vivid, technicolor display what His love looks like. So if we don’t understand the gospel we will have no idea what we are doing in our marriages.
If someone asks you what a cinnamon rolls is, you can read them a list of ingredients needed to make cinnamon rolls, you can tell them the nutritional facts about cinnamon rolls, or the history of cinnamon rolls, or different variations of cinnamon rolls. Or you can bake them a fresh, homemade cinnamon roll. That is what marriage is to do for the gospel, to show children and family members and friends and each other what the Jesus, grace, the gospel feels like, smells like, tastes like.
Let’s take a look at what Paul tells husbands they are to do and be in marriage.
“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,” Eph 5:25. Everything else Paul says about husbands flows from this. Husbands you are called to love your wife in the same way Christ loved the church and “gave himself up for her,” dying for her. So, husbands: your default setting in your marriage is sacrifice. This means that you hold everything of personal comfort and ambition with an open hand—your career, education, hobbies, free time, sleep, leisure—all of it you are ready to part with for the good of your wife and family. This is why a husband who has not first been wounded by the beauty of grace, by the staggering cost of what Jesus has done for him in the gospel will not understand what it means to be a husband. John Chrysostom, a fourth century church father, exhorts husbands, “Even if it shall be needful for thee to give thy life for her, yea, and to be cut into pieces ten thousand times, yea, and to endure and undergo any suffering whatever,—refuse it not. Though thou shouldest undergo all this, yet wilt thou not, no not even then, have done anything like Christ.”
This means, husbands, that your headship in the home is a headship of lowliness, of service. Remember Jesus’ words, “But whoever would be great among you must be your servant,” (Mark 10:43). Leadership in the Kingdom of God is not like leadership in the world. You go to the low places, the place of a servant. So you change the diapers, you empty the dishwasher, you pick up extra shifts at work to make ends meet, you be the first one to admit that you were wrong and ask for forgiveness, you are the one who gets out of bed to investigate the sounds your wife hears in the middle of the night. You inconvenience yourself for the good of your bride, you put yourself at risk to protect your wife.
But Paul is going to color in this Christ-like love in a couple of concrete ways for us: “…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,” Eph 5:26-27. Jesus gave himself up for his bride in order to make her spiritually beautiful, radiant without blemish. Men, we are not Jesus, we are not the Holy Spirit—we cannot make our wives holy the way Jesus makes His church holy. But we do learn from this that men should care about the spiritual well-being of their brides. Jesus washes His bride with the water of the word, and so should we.
So, men that means that you are the one who says “Let’s pray…” when some tragedy or frustration hits; it means that you spend time in the Word and prayer so you have something of Christ to give to your family; it means that if you notice your wife hasn’t been reading her Bible you gently ask what you can do to help her be consistent in God’s Word; it means that you gather the family together to do family devotions; it means that you are the one who prioritizes church and small group; it means that you offer to watch the kids so she can go meet with another sister for prayer and fellowship. You are not the Holy Spirit; it is not your job to fix your wife or to get her to obey Jesus; but you have been given a unique authority and influence in the home spiritually—for better or worse. Don’t waste it.
Lastly, “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,” (Eph 5:28-30). This means that a husband is to care for and provide for his wife in the same way he cares for and nourishes his own body, and the way Jesus cares for and nourishes His body, the Church. Aside from disability which would prevent labor, this means that a husband bears the primary responsibility in the home for its provision. A husband who wants to just be lazy and rely on his wife’s income so he can continue to perpetuate his laziness is shirking this responsibility. This doesn’t mean that his wife cannot work nor does it even mean that his wife can’t make more money than he does. It does mean, however, that the responsibility to provide lays on the shoulders of the husband, so that if the going gets tough the husband doesn’t look to the wife and say, “Why don’t you go work a second job?”
Further, a husband is not only to provide nourishment for his wife, but also “cherish” her. As in, make her feel loved, cared for. That means thinking intentionally about how to make your wife never think: I don’t think he really cares about me.
Paul explains to wives: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 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. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands,” (Eph 5:22-24).
Why is Paul’s list of teaching so much longer for husbands than for wives? I think because Paul is trying to curb what each gender is most tempted to. In Genes 3:16 we saw that husbands are tempted to dominate their wives, and wives are tempted to be control their husbands. So, Paul explains all the ways men are tempted not to love their wives, and here he explains ways women are most commonly tempted: to be domineering over their husbands.
Paul explains that wives should submit to their husbands in the same way the church submits to Christ. Because of our cultural location, we have a lot of red flags that might fly up in our head, but if we simply pay attention to the text I think many of these will be settled. How is the wife to submit to her husband? “As the church submits to Christ.” When we hear the word “submission” I think we subtly hear the word “exploitation” or “coercion.” I think of the world of MMA fighting, where “submission” looks like pinning someone to the ground with an arm-bar or chokehold. It is a word of power crushing someone else. But that obviously isn’t what Paul is referring to. How does the church submit to Christ? Does Christ exploit us? Does Christ pin an elbow into our neck and seconds before we become unconscious we tap out and submit? Not by a long shot.
What submission isn’t
Submission is not a wife participating in sin. A wife is to submit to her husband the way the church submits to Christ in everything. So, if a husband requires a wife to participate in sin, it is impossible for her to then submit to him as the church submits to Christ. In fact, not only is she not required to submit to him then, but is obligated to refuse to submit to him. Her higher allegiance to the Lord will always trump her submission to her husband.
Submission is not about a wife being inferior. When Jesus was a child He submitted to His earthly parents (Luke 2:51). He obviously did not submit to them because they were superior to Him, but because God had designed the world where children ought to submit to their parents, Jesus was simply obeying the Law. Likewise, wives are not summoned to submit to their husbands because husbands are in anyway way superior morally or intellectually–it is not about competence, but the calling which God has placed on us all.
The church submits to Christ out of love, out of respect, out of gladness. It is a joy to submit to Christ! So too, friends, if a husband is loving his wife like Christ loves his church, it should be a glad joy for his bride to submit to him. Friends, also notice: this command is given to the wife, not the husband. The husband is not told: “Make your wife submit to you.” Submission must be freely given by the wife; it cannot be coerced or demanded for. Nowhere in the Bible is the husband called to make his wife submit—He is called to love His wife like Christ does the church. The Church responds to Jesus’ display of service, of love, of tenderness, and sacrifice.
But wives, while your husbands cannot make you submit to them, Jesus is calling you to. He is asking you to think about the glad-hearted way you have responded to the gospel, to the way we now lean into Jesus’ leadership, and to gladly lean into the leadership of your husband. So, this means you treat your husbands with respect; you don’t bad mouth him when talking with others; you don’t belittle him or treat him like he is not what Jesus is saying he is—the head of your marriage. When talking through big decisions, after voicing your opinion, always communicating respect and deference to your husband: I love you and I trust you; I will support you.
Would your husband say: I feel respected, admired by my wife.
In closing: husbands, wives, Christ is calling you to be a picture and display of the gospel to the watching world. You are, every day, demonstrating to your children and neighbors: this is what the gospel is like. Are you content with what you are displaying? By God’s grace and mercy, He will not leave us where we are, but He will love us and help us where we are.