October 16, 1983
Bethlehem Baptist Church
John Piper, Pastor
MARRIAGE: A MATRIX OF CHRISTIAN HEDONISM
Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your
husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the
head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. As the church is subject to
Christ, so let wives also be subject 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, 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. Even so husbands should love
their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no man
ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church,
because we are members of his body. "For this reason a man shall leave his father
and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." This
mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church;
however, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she
respects her husband.
Paul's theology of marriage starts with the Word of God: The Word of God who is
Jesus Christ; and the Word of God which is the inspired Old Testament. And since God
is not a God of confusion, his Word is coherent. It has unity. So when Paul wants to
understand marriage he looks to the Word of God -- to Jesus and to the Scriptures.
When he brings Christ and Scripture together to hear God's Word on marriage, what he
hears is a profound mystery with intensely practical implications. And what I would like
to do with you this morning is to explore that mystery and apply two of its practical
implications to our lives.
Ephesians 5:31 is a quotation of Genesis 2:24, "For this reason a man shall leave his
father and mother and be joined to his wife and the two shall become one flesh." Then
Paul adds in verse 32, "This is a great mystery, and I am speaking with reference to
Christ and the church." Paul knew something about Christ and the church which caused
him to see in Genesis 2:24 a mystery in marriage. Let's go back to Genesis 2:24 and
look more closely at the context of this verse and its connection with creation.
According to Genesis 2, God created Adam first and put him in the garden alone. Then
in verse 18 the Lord said, "It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make a
helper fit for him." I don't think this is an indictment of Adam's fellowship with God; nor is
it a hint that the garden was too hard to take care of. The point is that God made man to
be a sharer. God created us not to be cul-de-sacs of his bounty, but conduits. No man
is complete unless he is conducting grace (like electricity) between God and another
person. (No single person should conclude that this can only happen in marriage.) It
must be another person not an animal. So in Genesis 2:19-20 God paraded the animals
before Adam to show him that animals would never do as a "helper fit for him." O,
animals help plenty! But only a person can be a fellow-heir of the grace of life (1 Pet. 1:
4-7). Only a person can receive and appreciate and enjoy grace. What man needs is
another person with whom he can share the love of God. Animals will not do! There is an
infinite difference between sharing the northern lights with your beloved and sharing them
with your dog.
Therefore, according to verse 21, "The Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the
man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh; and the
rib which the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her
to the man." Having shown the man that no animal would do for his helper, God made
another human from man's own flesh and bone to be like him -- and yet very unlike him.
He did not create another man. He created a woman. And Adam recognized in her the
perfect counterpart to himself -- utterly different from the animals: "This at last is bone of
my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken
out of Man."
By creating a person like Adam yet very unlike Adam God provided the
possibility of a profound unity that would otherwise have been impossible.
There is a different kind of unity enjoyed by the joining of diverse counterparts than is
enjoyed by joining two things just alike. When we all sing the same melody line it is
called "unison," which means "one sound." But when we unite diverse lines of soprano
and alto and tenor and bass, we call it harmony, and everyone who has an ear to hear
knows that something deeper in us is touched by great harmony than by unison. So
God made a woman and not another man. He created heterosexuality, not
homosexuality. God's first institution was marriage not the fraternity.
Notice the connection between verses 23 and 24, signaled by the word "therefore" in
verse 24. In verse 23 the focus is on two things: objectively, the fact that woman is part
of man's flesh and bone; subjectively, the joy Adam has in being presented with the
woman. "At last this is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh!" From these two things
the writer draws an inference about marriage in verse 24: "Therefore a man leaves his
father and his mother and cleaves to his wife and they become one flesh." In other
words, in the beginning God took woman out of man as bone of his bone and flesh of his
flesh, and then God presented her back to the man to discover in living fellowship what it
means to be one flesh. Then verse 24 draws out the lesson that marriage is just that: a
man leaving father and mother because God has given him another, a cleaving to this
woman and no other, and discovering the experience of being one flesh. That's what
Paul saw when he looked at the Word of God in Scripture.
But Paul knew another Word of God -- Jesus Christ.
He knew him deeply and intimately. He had learned from Jesus that the church is
Christ's body (Eph. 1:23). By faith a person is joined to Jesus Christ and to other
believers so that we "are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28). Believers in Christ are the
body of Christ -- we are the organism through which he manifests his life and in which
his Spirit dwells. Knowing this about the relationship between Christ and the church,
Paul sees a parallel here with marriage. He sees that husband and wife become one
flesh (according to 2:24) and that Christ and the church become one body. So he is
willing to say, to the church, for example in 2 Cor. 11:2, "I feel a divine jealousy for you,
for I betrothed you to Christ to present you as a pure bride to her one husband." He
pictures Christ as the husband, the church as the bride and their conversion as an act of
betrothal which he had helped bring about. The presentation of the bride to her husband
will probably happen at the second coming of the Lord. That's described in Ephesians
5:27 as well. So it looks as though Paul uses the relationship of human marriage,
learned from Genesis 2, to describe and explain the relationship between Christ and the
But when we say it like that, something very important is overlooked. This brings us
back to where we started at Ephesians 5:32. After quoting Genesis 2:24 about the man
and woman becoming one flesh Paul says, "This is a great mystery, and I am speaking
with reference to Christ and the church." Marriage is a mystery. There is more here than
meets the eye. What is it? I think it's this: God didn't create the union of Christ and the
church after the pattern of human marriage; just the reverse, he created human marriage
on the pattern of Christ's relation to the church. The mystery of Genesis 2:24 is that the
marriage it describes is a parable or symbol of Christ's relation to his people. God
doesn't do things willy-nilly. Everything has purpose and meaning. When God engaged
to create man and woman and to ordain the union of marriage, he didn't roll dice or draw
straws or flip a coin. He patterned marriage very purposefully after the relationship
between his Son and the church, which he planned from eternity. And therefore marriage
is a mystery -- it contains and conceals a meaning far greater than what we see on the
outside. What God has joined together in marriage is to be a reflection of the union
between the Son of God and his bride the church. Those of us who are married need to
ponder again and again how mysterious and wonderful it is that we are granted by God
the privilege to image forth stupendous divine realities infinitely bigger and greater than
Now what are some of the practical implications of this mystery of marriage? I'll mention
the two which seem to dominate the passage in Ephesians.
One is that husbands and wives should consciously copy the relationship God
intended for Christ and his church.
The other is that in marriage each partner should pursue his or her own joy in the joy
of the other; that is, marriage should be a matrix of Christian Hedonism.
First, then, what pattern did God intend for husbands and wives when he
ordained marriage as a mysterious parable or image of the relation between
Christ and the church.
Paul mentions two things, one to the wife and one to the husband. To the wife he says
in verses 22-24,
Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of
the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. As the
church is subject to Christ so let wives also be subject in everything to their
According to the divine pattern wives are to take their unique cue from the purpose of the
church. As the church submits to Christ, so wives are to submit to their husbands. The
church submits to Christ as her head: Verse 23 -- "The husband is the head of the wife
as Christ is the head of the church." Headship implies at least two things: Christ is
supplier or Savior and Christ is authority or leader. "Head" is used two other times in
Ephesians. Ephesians 4:15,16 illustrates the head as supplier and Ephesians 1:20-23
illustrates the head as authority.
Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head,
into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with
which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and
upbuilds itself in love. (4:15,16.)
The head is the goal to which we grow and the supply to enable the growth. Then
consider Ephesians 1:20-23,
God raised him from the dead and made him sit at his right hand in the heavenly
places, far above every rule and authority and power and dominion and above every
name that is named not only in this age but also in the age to come, and he has put
all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church,
which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
When God raised Christ from the dead he made him head in the sense of giving him
power and authority over all other rule and authority and power and dominion. Therefore,
from the context of Ephesians, the headship of the husband implies that as far as
possible he should accept greater responsibility for supplying the needs of his wife
(including material needs, but also protection and care) and he should accept greater
responsibility of authority and leadership in the family.
Then when it says in verse 24, "As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives be
subject in everything to their husbands," the basic meaning of submission would be:
recognize and honor the greater responsibility of your husband to supply your protection
and sustenance; be disposed to yield to his authority in Christ and be inclined to follow
his leadership. The reason I say that submission means a disposition to yield and an
inclination to follow is that the little phrase "as to the Lord" in verse 22 limits the scope
of submission. No wife should replace the authority of Christ with the authority of her
husband. She cannot yield or follow her husband into sin. But even where a Christian
wife may have to stand with Christ against the sinful will of her husband, she can still
have a spirit of submission. She can show by her attitude and behavior that she does
not like resisting his will and that she longs for him to forsake sin and lead in
righteousness so that her disposition to honor him as head can again produce harmony.
So in this mysterious parable of marriage the wife is to take her special cue from God's
purpose to the church in its relation to Christ.
Now to the husbands, Paul says, take your special cue from Christ.
Verse 25, "Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up
for her." If the husband is the head of the wife as verse 23 says, let it be very plain to all
husbands that this means primarily leading out in the kind of love that is willing to die to
give her life. As Jesus says in Luke 22:26, "Let the leader become as one who serves."
The husband who plops himself down in front of the T.V. and orders his wife around like
a slave has abandoned Christ in favor of Archie Bunker. Christ bound himself with a
towel and washed the apostles' feet. If you want to be a Christian husband, copy Jesus
not Jabba du Hutt.
It is true that verse 21 puts this whole section under the sign of mutual submission. "Be
subject to one another out of reverence for Christ." But it is utterly unwarranted to infer
from this verse that the way Christ submits himself to the church and the way the
church submits herself to Christ are the same. The church submits to Christ by a
disposition to follow his leadership. Christ submits to the church by a disposition to
exercise his leadership in humble service to the church. When Christ said, "Let the
leader become as one who serves," he did not mean, let the leader cease to be leader.
Even while he was on his knees washing their feet no one doubted who the leader was.
Nor should any Christian husband shirk his responsibility under God to provide moral
vision and spiritual leadership as the humble servant of his wife and family.
So the first implication of the mystery of marriage as a reflection of Christ's relation to
the church is that wives should take their special cue from the church and husbands
should take their special cue from Christ. And wherever you find a marriage like that you
find two of the happiest people in the world because their lives conform to the Word of
God in Scripture and the Word of God in Jesus Christ.
One final, practical implication of the mystery of marriage: a husband and wife should
pursue their own joy in the joy of each other. There is scarcely a more hedonistic
passage in the Bible than Ephesians 5:25-30. This text makes very clear that the reason
there is so much misery in marriages is not that husbands and wives are seeking their
own pleasure but that they are not seeking it in the pleasure of their spouses. But this
text commands us to do just that because Christ does just that.
First, notice the example of Christ in verses 25-27:
Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,
(why did he?) that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water
with the word, (why did he cleanse her?) 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
Christ died for the church in order that he might present to himself a beautiful
He endured the cross for the joy of marriage that was set before him. But what is the
ultimate joy of the church? Is it not to be presented as a bride to the sovereign Christ?
So Christ sought his own joy in the joy of the church. Therefore, the example Christ sets
for husbands is to seek their joy in the joy of their wives.
Verse 28 makes this application explicit. "Even so, husbands should love their wives as
their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever hates his own
flesh but nourishes and cherishes it …" Paul acknowledges one of the foundation stones
of Christian Hedonism: "No man ever hates his own flesh." Even those who commit
suicide do it to escape misery. By nature we love ourselves, that is, we do what we
think in the moment will make us happy. And Paul does not build a dam against the
river of hedonism; he builds a channel for it. He says, Husbands and wives, recognize
that in marriage you have become one flesh; therefore, if you live for your private
pleasure at the expense of your spouse you are living against yourself and destroying
your own highest joy. But if you devote yourself with all your heart to the holy joy of your
spouse you will also be living for your joy and making a marriage after the image of
Christ and his church.
Not that my personal testimony could add anything of weight to the Word of God, yet I
want to bear witness anyway. I discovered Christian hedonism the same year I got
married, in 1968. For fifteen years Noël and I, in obedience to Jesus Christ, have
pursued as passionately as we could the deepest, most lasting joys possible. All too
imperfectly, all too half-heartedly at times, we have stalked our own joy like a hunter, in
the joy of each other. And we can testify together: that's where the prize is found. And
we believe that in making marriage a matrix of Christian hedonism, each fulfilling the
ordained role, the mystery of marriage as a parable of Christ and the church becomes
manifest for his great glory. Amen.
COPYRIGHT John Piper