One Flesh – The Profound Mystery
From the ‘one flesh’ teaching about marriage (Eph. 5:22-33) Paul draws out the wonder and the glory of Christ’s relationship with the church.
In verse 28 Paul is exhorting husbands to love their own wives as they love their own bodies. It would hardly please a wife to hear her husband say that he loves all women equally! There must be an exclusiveness about a man’s love for his own wife. He has made his vows to her, not to all women in general.
But there is also a deeper meaning here which we need to take hold of. The wife is not compared to the husband’s body. Rather, the wife is the husband’s body in a profound, Biblical, original sense. God took the rib from within the man then, having made that rib into a woman, brought her back to the man to the deepest satisfaction and rejoicing of the man, and indeed of the woman. This uniting of minds, hearts, lives and bodies is the very essence of marriage. The two have become one. They care for one another’s business because the business of one is also the business of the other. 1 Corinthians 7:4: ‘For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.’
We must not underestimate the depth of union between man and wife. We must do everything in our power, whether or not we are married, to seek its enhancement. The world resists and rejects this truth. Our television screens are full of programmes that undermine everything that is precious and true about marriage. A wife leaves her husband for a fortnight to swap places with another wife. Not necessarily that she has sexual relations with someone else’s husband, but she takes the place of the wife and mother who belongs in that household. It is bad enough to see a man being bossed about by his own wife; it is worse to see him being bossed about by someone else’s wife, but it is even more ugly and distorted to see that this precious union of lives, which is like a pair of interlocking jigsaw pieces, has been disrupted.
The two verbs Paul uses in verse 29 (ektrepho and thalpo) describe the way that each of us take care of ourselves. We nourish our bodies – if we are hungry we need to eat. If we choose not to eat when we are hungry and starve ourselves then there is a problem. We cherish our bodies. We regard them as precious and worth preserving. We wear seatbelts in the car, not just because the law says so, but because we don’t want to be hurt. The point is that the way husbands deal with their wives is an indication of how they deal with themselves, with their own bodies and souls. If a man is cruel or harsh towards his wife, it is as though he were performing some act of self-punishment or self-mutilation. There are some tragic cases of people who ‘self-harm’, aren’t there? When someone self-harms, we know that there is a deep psychological problem and urgent attention is needed. When a man shows a lack of love towards his wife, he is guilty of self-harm, because they are one flesh. A husband should not be concerned only for his own state – physical, emotional and spiritual – but equally that of his wife. It was not good for the man to be alone! God in his grace did not leave the man alone. He gave him a wife, a lifelong companion in covenant faithfulness, who would meet his deepest needs. The two have become one; when a man loves his wife he is not only strengthening her but he is strengthening himself.
We can say more. The two have left father and mother; they are a new unit. They only have eyes for one another. In sexual union the two physical bodies of man and woman become one body. In the secret place of the marriage chamber, the only thing that matters is the deep and intense love that the man has for his wife. There are to be no onlookers. There is no third party. This is solemn, sacred and joyful all at the same time.But we must go on from human marriage to talk about Christ and the church. And the main point that needs to be made is that Paul is taking these rich, warm truths and using them to enhance our understanding of our relationship to the Lord as far as it will go. The two ‘points’ of this passage – human marriage and Christ’s love for the church – are gloriously intertwined. We disentangle them at our peril.
Of course human marriage is a creation ordinance of God. The words that would be used at a wedding ceremony are entirely appropriate. They find their roots in Genesis 1 and 2. Take the following as a sample of wedding vows:
It is fitting that we remember that the Scriptures teach us that marriage is a lifelong covenant of companionship, instituted and designed by God at creation, so that the husband and wife might each know mutual joy, help and comfort. It was given so that, with delight and tenderness, they may know each other in love and that, through the joy of their bodily union, they may strengthen the union of their hearts and lives. It was ordained for the continuance of family life, so that children, who are God’s gift, should be born, and should be brought up in the training and instruction of the Lord.
But verse 32 causes us to look further, deeper, higher. There was a purpose in God’s design that went further than the earthly lives of men and women. Paul is taking the creation ordinance of marriage and saying that its ultimate realisation is this eternal covenant of love between Jesus Christ and his people. He takes us into union with himself – sometimes this is called the ‘Mystical Union’.
And as we reflect on marriage – and we all know about marriages, whether by experience or observation, that some are stronger than others – we can all understand something of what the ideal marriage looks like. And this is the wonderful thing – in the same way, yet in a far more exalted sense – Christ loves the church and is one with her. He is joined to us. He is the head and we are the body. We are one flesh. Christ and the church cannot and will not be separated. We are nourished, supplied, cherished and cared for by him. Here is a marriage covenant that is not ’till death us do part’; rather nothing, no nothing, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Paul wants us to know and feel that just as a husband and his wife are to be tightly bound together – so tightly bound that they become one flesh – even more Jesus Christ and his people are tightly bound together.
What does this mean? The point which needs to be emphasised is that every blessing that comes our way comes in Christ. We may speak in terms of election or predestination, calling, regeneration, justification, adoption, sanctification, glorification. There is nothing wrong with using these words. But we cannot think of any of them apart from their being in Christ. Ephesians 1:3: ‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.’
Imagine a young man who is the heir to great wealth and honour. A kingly crown, even an imperial throne, awaits him. He becomes lord and sovereign over many lands and realms. Titles, riches, privileges, palaces, stately mansions, royal yachts, massive endowments from the civil purse, round-the-world trips to South Africa, India, China, Ecuador – these are the things he is given! And having received all these, he marries a poor peasant girl from some remote backwater, without any privileges whatsoever. But the point is that these now belong to her as much as they belong to him! And so what is true of Jesus Christ in all that he did is true of us. The titles, honours and privileges that have been given to Jesus Christ the Son are bestowed upon you and me, by the grace of God, royal children and co-heirs with Christ.
He died on the cross, being made sin by God the Father. We died with him on the tree. He was raised from the dead, having defeated its power and is thereby declared to be the Son of God. We too are raised from death to life. He ascended from earth to heaven, to the right hand of the Father. We too are seated with him in heavenly places. He will live and reign for ever, over the new heavens and the new earth, in which sin has been destroyed and Satan vanquished. So will we! Jesus Christ says to us, ‘All that I am I give to you, all that I have I share with you. This is my solemn vow’. What is the Christian faith? It is recognising that Christ’s story is our story. What he is, he is for us.
We can even say that there a sense in which even the Lord Jesus Christ, in his humanity, feels it is ‘not good to be alone’. He has willingly been sent from heaven to earth, in human flesh, to seek out and to bring his bride to himself. Isaiah 53.11: ‘Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied.’ His mission to bring many sons to glory was one which he undertook with this anguish, in full knowledge of the pain it would bring him, but in full anticipation of its joyful completion.
Do we come back down to earth with a bump in verse 33? From glory, heaven and eternity to the home, the weekly routines, the kitchen, the garage, the household chores? No – this is all the glory of the gospel being exhibited in the earthly lives of husbands and wives. Husbands, by loving your wife, you are exhibiting the love of Jesus Christ for the church. And wives, by respecting your husband you are not only reflecting the order which God has established in creation; you are not only obeying God’s commands which are holy and righteous and good; you are exhibiting the submission and dependence that the church has on its Saviour. The commentator Peter O’Brien says that a Christian marriage should ‘reproduce in miniature the beauty shared between the Bridegroom and the Bride’, that is, Christ and the church. The gospel is revealed through their marriage.
And for all of us – let us see that earthly marriages, even the best, eventually come to an end. Human marriage enables us to lift up our eyes and see the eternal, unbreakable, covenant between God and his people, sealed in the blood of the Saviour, who will come back soon and claim his bride. Amen! Come, Lord Jesus.
Paul Yeulett is Pastor of Shrewsbury Evangelical Church.
Living in the World 6 November 2020
This article is the contents of an address first given in February 2020 at the Westminster Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Newcastle, UK. * * * LIVING in the world. How are Christians to live in the world? The question can be answered in many ways. The topic is potentially vast in scope — that becomes more […]
When coming to consider plagues throughout history and some Christian responses, it is appropriate to begin with this extract from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer: O Almighty God, who in thy wrath did send a plague upon thine own people in the wilderness, for their obstinate rebellion against Moses and Aaron; and also, in […]