Here the apostle begins his exhortation to the discharge of relative duties. As a general foundation for these duties, he lays down that rule Eph. 5:21. There is a mutual submission that Christians owe one to another, condescending to bear one another’s burdens: not advancing themselves above others, nor domineering over one another and giving laws to one another. Paul was an example of this truly Christian temper, for he became all things to all men. We must be of a yielding and of a submissive spirit, and ready to all the duties of the respective places and stations that God has allotted to us in the world. In the fear of God, that is, so far as is consistent with the fear of God, for his sake, and out of conscience towards him, and that hereby we may give proof that we truly fear him. Where there is this mutual condescension and submission, the duties of all relations will be the better performed. From Eph. 5:22 to the end he speaks of the duties of husbands and wives; and he speaks of these in a Christian manner, setting the church as an example of the wife’s subjection, and Christ as an example of love in husbands.
I. The duty prescribed to wives is submission to their husbands in the Lord (Eph. 5:22), which submission includes the honouring and obeying of them, and that from a principle of love to them. They must do this in compliance with God’s authority, who has commanded it, which is doing it as unto the Lord; or it may be understood by way of similitude and likeness, so that the sense may be, “as, being devoted to God, you submit yourselves unto him.” From the former sense we may learn that by a conscientious discharge of the duties we owe to our fellow-creatures we obey and please God himself; and, from the latter, that God not only requires and insists on those duties which immediately respect himself, but such as respect our neighbours too. The apostle assigns the reason of this submission from wives: For the husband is the head of the wife, Eph. 5:23. The metaphor is taken from the head in the natural body, which, being the seat of reason, of wisdom, and of knowledge, and the fountain of sense and motion, is more excellent than the rest of the body. God has given the man the pre-eminence and a right to direct and govern by creation, and in that original law of the relation, Thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee. Whatever there is of uneasiness in this, it is an effect of sin coming into the world. Generally, too, the man has (what he ought to have) a superiority in wisdom and knowledge. He is therefore the head, even as Christ is the head of the church. There is a resemblance of Christ’s authority over the church in that superiority and headship which God has appointed to the husband. The apostle adds, and he is the Saviour of the body. Christ’s authority is exercised over the church for the saving of her from evil, and the supplying of her with every thing good for her. In like manner should the husband be employed for the protection and comfort of his spouse; and therefore she should the more cheerfully submit herself unto him. So it follows, Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ (Eph. 5:24), with cheerfulness, with fidelity, with humility, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing—in every thing to which their authority justly extends itself, in every thing lawful and consistent with duty to God.
II. The duty of husbands (on the other hand), is to love their wives (Eph. 5:25); for without this they would abuse their superiority and headship, and, wherever this prevails as it ought to do, it will infer the other duties of the relation, it being a special and peculiar affection that is required in her behalf. The love of Christ to the church is proposed as an example of this, which love of his is a sincere, a pure, an ardent, and constant affection, and that notwithstanding the imperfections and failures that she is guilty of. The greatness of his love to the church appeared in his giving himself unto the death for it. Observe, As the church’s subjection to Christ is proposed as an exemplar to wives, so the love of Christ to his church is proposed as a pattern to husbands; and while such exemplars are offered to both, and so much is required of each, neither has reason to complain of the divine injunctions. The love which God requires from the husband in behalf of his wife will make amends for the subjection which he demands from her to her husband; and the prescribed subjection of the wife will be an abundant return for that love of the husband which God has made her due. The apostle, having mentioned Christ’s love to the church, enlarges upon it, assigning the reason why he gave himself for it, namely, that he might sanctify it in this world, and glorify it in the next: That he might sanctify and cleanse it, with the washing of water by the word (Eph. 5:26)-- that he might endue all his members with a principle of holiness, and deliver them from the guilt, the pollution, and the dominion of sin. The instrumental means whereby this is affected are the instituted sacraments, particularly the washing of baptism and the preaching and reception of the gospel. And that he might present it to himself, etc., Eph. 5:27. Dr. Lightfoot thinks the apostle alludes here to the Jews’ extraordinary carefulness in their washings for purification. They were careful that there should be no wrinkle to keep the flesh from the water, and no spot nor dirt which was not thoroughly washed. Others understand him as alluding to a garment come newly out of the fuller’s hand, purged from spots, stretched from wrinkles, the former newly contracted, the latter by long time and custom. That he might present it to himself—that he might perfectly unite it to himself in the great day, a glorious church, perfect in knowledge and in holiness, not having spot, nor wrinkle, nor any such thing, nothing of deformity or defilement remaining, but being entirely amiable and pleasing in his eye, holy and without blemish, free from the least remains of sin. The church in general, and particular believers, will not be without spot or wrinkle till they come to glory. From Eph. 5:26-27 together we may take notice that the glorifying of the church is intended in the sanctifying of it: and that those, and those only, who are sanctified now, will be glorified hereafter.—So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies, etc., Eph. 5:28. The wife being made one with her husband (not in a natural, but in a civil and in a relative sense), this is an argument why he should love her with as cordial and as ardent an affection as that which he loves himself. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh, Eph. 5:29-- (no man in his right senses ever hated himself, however deformed, or whatever his imperfections might be); so far from it that he nourishes and cherishes it; he uses himself with a great deal of care and tenderness, and is industrious to supply himself with every thing convenient or good for him, with food and clothing, etc. Even as the Lord the church: that is, as the Lord nourishes and cherishes the church, which he furnishes with all things that he sees needful or good for her, with whatever conduces to her everlasting happiness and welfare. The apostle adds, For we are members of his body, of his flesh and of his bones, Eph. 5:30. He assigns this as a reason why Christ nourishes and cherishes his church—because all who belong to it are members of his body, that is, of his mystical body. Or, we are members out of his body: all the grace and glory which the church has are from Christ, as Eve was taken out of the man. But, as one observes, it being the manner of the sacred writings to express a complex body by the enumeration of its several parts, as the heaven and earth for the world, evening and morning for the natural day, so here, by body, flesh, and bones, we are to understand himself, the meaning of the verse being that we are members of Christ.—For this cause (because they are one, as Christ and his church are one) shall a man leave his father and mother; the apostle refers to the words of Adam, when Eve was given to him for a meet help, Gen. 2:24. We are not to understand by this that a man’s obligation to other relations is cancelled upon his marriage, but only that this relation is to be preferred to all others, there being a nearer union between these two than between any others, that the man must rather leave any of those than his wife.—And they two shall be one flesh, that is, by virtue of the matrimonial bond. This is a great mystery, Eph. 5:32. Those words of Adam, just mentioned by the apostle, are spoken literally of marriage; but they have also a hidden mystical sense in them, relating to the union between Christ and his church, of which the conjugal union between Adam and the mother of us all was a type: though not instituted or appointed by God to signify this, yet it was a kind of natural type, as having a resemblance to it: I speak concerning Christ and the church.
After this, the apostle concludes this part of his discourse with a brief summary of the duty of husbands and wives, Eph. 5:33. “Nevertheless (though there be such a secret mystical sense, yet the plain literal sense concerns you) let every one of you in particular so love his wife even as himself, with such a sincere, peculiar, singular, and prevailing affection as that is which he bears to himself. And the wife see that she reverence her husband.” Reverence consists of love and esteem, which produce a care to please, and of fear, which awakens a caution lest just offence be given. That the wife thus reverence her husband is the will of God and the law of the relation.