The Lord's Day Morning

July 30, 2006

Ephesians 5:21

God's Household Rules: Marriage and Family (1)”

Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

Amen. If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Ephesians 5. If you have the outline that was provided today for this message, you’ll also notice the outline of Ephesians 5:18-21. We’re going to go back today to verse 21, the last verse of the passage we studied together last week, because it is a transition verse from the section that we've been studying into this new section that deals with marriage and with family.

The Apostle Paul has given one negative command and one positive command in Ephesians 5:18. You see them there in the outline as Roman numerals I and II: “Do not get drunk” is the negative command; the positive command, “Be filled with the Spirit.” That's what he wants to focus on as he talks to these Ephesian Christians. Being filled with the Spirit is not something that only one special class of Christians experiences so that they’re able to do things that we ordinary, normal Christians aren't able to do. Being filled with the Spirit is something that every Christian experiences, and experiences it not just once–it is an ongoing work of the Holy Spirit whereby He matures and assures us in Jesus Christ, builds us up in grace; and the Apostle Paul tells all the Ephesian Christians and all of us that we ought to be filled with the Spirit.

What will that look like in us? Well, the Apostle Paul uses five participles in verses 19-21 to describe four ways that the filling of the Spirit will manifest itself in our lives.

The first thing you see there in verse 19. He says those who are filled with the Spirit will speak to one another in songs and hymns and spiritual songs, so we’ll want to encourage one another with our words by speaking biblical truth to one another. Our truth will be seasoned with grace, and we’ll be speaking the truth of God's word in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to one another. We’ll want to bless one another in our conversation.

Secondly, and again in verse 19, “…singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord;” so those who are filled with the Spirit from the very depth of their being long to give God praise in the company of the saints. They love to gather in worship with the people of God and praise God from the very depths of their being. They don't just go through the motions, but from the very depth of their being they praise God. It's exactly what the choir just sang about: ‘Lord, grant that what we sing with our lips, we really believe with our hearts, and those things that we say we really believe with our hearts manifest themselves in our lives.’ That's what the Apostle Paul is talking about here. These are people that really want to with the whole of themselves give praise to the living God. That's what a Spirit-filled Christian looks like.

Thirdly, in verse 20, what does a Spirit-filled Christian look like? A person who is giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father, and so this is a person who is able to be thankful, to be grateful, to be appreciative to God and to ascribe to Him thanks and gratitude in every circumstance all the time. This is a person that knows that God is good all the time, no matter the circumstances that he or she may be in. And so this person is a grateful person.

And then, finally, we saw just very briefly the culminating participle, the final thing that Paul wants to say, and it's the final thing that he wants to say because it's going to be a dominating thought in everything that he has to say until Ephesians 6:9. It's this: that a person who is filled with the Spirit–notice what he says–is subject to one another in the fear of Christ. To put it in its participial form, those who are filled with the Spirit are subjecting themselves in the fear of Christ.

Now that's what we need to camp on today and ask what in the world does Paul mean by subjecting ourselves to one another? What does mutual subjection mean? What does mutual submission mean?

That's really going to be the one point of the message today, but I'm going to break it into three parts just so that we can take it all in. I want us to look at the consequence of the filling of the Spirit, and one of its main consequences is mutual subjection. So we’ll first look at the consequence of the filling of the Spirit.

Then, again looking at verse 21, we will look at the content of mutual subjection. What does it mean to submit ourselves, or to subject ourselves, to one another? What does that mean biblically that we do? How do we express what that means?

Thirdly, we will look at the context of mutual subjection. How in the world does a Christian go about doing this? Because we live in a fallen world, and the people that God calls us to subject ourselves to are often people who have failed us in significant ways. Now how does one possibly screw up the energy to submit yourself to somebody who has failed you? Well, the Apostle Paul tells you in this passage.

Now let's look to God's word, and before we do, let's look to Him in prayer to ask His help and blessing.

Lord, this passage is not that hard to understand. It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out what Paul is telling us here, but I'm not sure I know of a passage that is harder to live than this one, and for that reason we need Your help today; because it's not understanding what Paul is saying here that's hard. It's doing what Paul is saying here that's hard. And it's not just hard: apart from Your Holy Spirit, apart from Your grace, it's impossible. So we need Your help. Grant us that help in Jesus' name. Amen.

Hear the word of God:

“…And be subject to one another in the fear of Christ.”

Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.

There is no better index of a life under the influence of the Holy Spirit, there is no better index of a life being guided by the Holy Spirit, there is no better index of a life being filled up by the Holy Spirit, matured by the Holy Spirit, than what the Apostle Paul calls mutual subjection. It is the key to Christian living in marriage, in family, and in the sphere of our labor. It is absolutely fundamental to Paul's call to us to be different from the world. You understand in this whole section from Ephesians 4 to Ephesians 6, it has been the Apostle Paul's concern to call us to be different from the world, to live differently from the world, and though it may be easy for us to be different from the world when we are at church on Sunday or at other times, it is much harder to be different from the world when we are out there during the week, but there is no place where it is harder to be different from the world than at home.

It is in some ways the easiest place, but in some ways the hardest place, to live out the Christian life because though we love those who are part of our families and homes more than anyone else, they are the ones who can hurt us more than anyone else, and thus it is the place where it is hardest to live out consistently the call to be different from the world. And the Apostle Paul knows that, and that's why in I Timothy when he's telling you how to choose a man who is going to be your shepherd, your elder, your pastor, he says choose a man who lives out the Christian life–where?–yes, he does talk about how he lives the Christian life in the world, but he especially concentrates on–what? How is he as a husband; how is he as a daddy; how does he give spiritual leadership to his home?

Why does Paul do that? Because Paul knows that a man who can live out the Christian life in his home is a man who's ready to shepherd the church, the family of God, in the context of the congregation, because it is the hardest place to do it with consistency, and so we're beginning an adventure in that whole area in this passage, and it's timely, isn't it? Because we live in a culture that is utterly confused about these things. Our culture cannot even figure out who's supposed to get married! We can't figure out parenting. I prayed in the prayer about poor Gary Johnson and David Bergmark and all our missionaries over there in Sweden, that now has a law on the books that says if you physically punish your children, you are participating in child abuse that's a jailable offense! Now don't laugh, friends. In twenty years we’ll be seeing that. Twenty years. Just give it twenty years; it will be here. In fact, in Sweden, they’re not even sure whether parents have the right to discipline their children in any way at all, much less physically. We live in an enormously confused culture with regard to marital roles and family roles and what life ought to look like, and the Apostle Paul is coming to these Ephesian Christians and he's saying ‘Here's how we're going to live distinctly as Christians,’ and it is just as timely (if not more so) today than it was when Paul first wrote it. But the key for everything that Paul will say from 5:22-6:9 will be his principle of Christians subjecting themselves to one another. It will pervade everything that he says.

So I want you to see three things today: I want you see the consequence of being filled with the Spirit, in our mutual subjection; I want you to see the content of mutual subjection… what it means; and then, I want you to see the context of mutual subjection. How in the world can you do this? Paul tells you.

I. The consequence of being filled with the Spirit.

Let's start with the consequence of being filled with the Spirit. Paul says in verse 18 and in verse 21 that being filled with the Holy Spirit results in our being subject to one another. Notice the flow of argument: (verse 18) — “Be filled with the Spirit”; (verse 21) — “and be subject to one another.” In other words, Paul is saying that being filled with the Spirit involves Christians subjecting themselves to one another.

Isn't this fascinating? We are filled with the Holy Spirit individually as Christians, but we express it corporately. In fact, I can say it even more strikingly than that: Though we are filled with the Holy Spirit individually as Christians, we cannot manifest the filling of the Holy Spirit individualistically. It can only be manifested — how? — in the context of fellowship, in the context of our relationship with one another. It's in our relationship with one another that we manifest the work of the Holy Spirit in us to assure us and mature us, to build us up in Jesus Christ, and so the Apostle Paul is saying to us here that mutual service, mutual submission, mutual servitude, mutual subjection of Christians is the result of the work of the Holy Sprit's filling. This focus on submission is an essential mark of being filled with God's Spirit. Believers whose lives have been filled by God's Spirit will be marked by submission within divine, orderly relationships.

Now let me say one quick thing about this. Mutual submission does not mean that there are no longer any orders or divinely appointed hierarchies in human relationships; quite the opposite. In this passage God does not ask, for instance, parents to submit or subject themselves to their children in the same way their children are to subject themselves to their parents, but He does ask parents to subject themselves to their children in certain ways. So this call for mutual subjection does not wipe out role relationships. It doesn't establish some sort of a flat equality in which there are no distinctions in any human role relationships between men and women, between parents and children, between masters and servants, or employers and employees. No, far from it. It assumes and even establishes those particular structures and divinely provided orders, but it says within that context all of us are to be in the business of serving one another. Each of us has different ways in which we are to serve one another, to submit ourselves to one another, to subject ourselves to one another, but all of us are to serve one another.

That's good news, wives! Because the verb that we're going to talk about next week when we talk about — submission — is borrowed from this verse. Now here's the good news. The good news, wives, is the Apostle Paul has already asked all Christians to do what he's going to ask you to do in relation to your husbands. The bad news is that word submission is kind of a wimpy word compared to the word that Paul uses here. The word that Paul used is be subject to. It literally means to arrange yourself under. It's a very powerful word. We’re going to talk about that word today.

But I want you to see that as far as Paul is concerned, this is the result of the Holy Spirit working in us, and though the Spirit works in us individually, we cannot express that individualistically; we have to express it in the context of fellowship with one another. It's in our relationships with one another that we show the Spirit.

II. The content of mutual subjection.

Secondly, and this is what I really want to park on today, you’ll see in verse 21 that Paul begins to help us understand what he's asking us to do. What does being subject to one another mean? Well, here's the word: Be subject to one another, or, literally, subjecting yourselves in fear of Christ. The Apostle Paul is talking about self-denying, other-centered, mutual submission. He's talking about committing ourselves to the service of others. He's talking about the Christian duty of mutual submission.

Now this is really important to Paul. He talks about it in his letters more than he talks about justification by faith. Do you think justification by faith was important to Paul? You bet your bottom dollar it was! He talks about this more than he talks about justification by faith. Thirty-two times in his letters he comes back to the principle of Christians subjecting themselves to one another. Think it's important? You better believe it. And remember, these aren't just Paul's words. These are God's words for believers.

What does he mean? Well, those 32 times, if you go study those passages, you’ll have a very full picture of what he means. Let me give you the shorthand. This is, by the way, not something that Paul came up with on his own. He had learned this from somebody else: Jesus. Remember Jesus in Matthew 18:1-4 talking to His disciples about what somebody who was a citizen of His kingdom was like? Remember what He said? ‘A citizen of My kingdom is like…’ what? ‘…a little child.’ Humble like a little child. You remember what Derek reminded us? He reminded us that little children are not necessarily humble! So Jesus’ point is not that little children are more humble than the rest of us, it is that we perceive them to be lower, to be less. We used to say ‘That child is to be seen and not heard.’ They’re lowest on the totem pole. They’re small in the eyes of the world. And Jesus says to His disciples ‘That's what one of My followers is like. That's what a citizen of My kingdom is like. They are lowly in the eyes of their brothers and sisters.’ Jesus Himself would say in Matthew 20:28, “I did not come to be served, but to serve.”

And then in John 13, He would say to His disciples, ‘This is how I want you to treat one another.’ And then what did He do? He took upon Himself the position, the status, the role, of a slave…the lowest slave…the slave who had the nasty job of washing the feet of guests who visited the house. And He said to them, “Love one another in the way that I have loved you.” And so this kind of service that the Apostle Paul is calling us to in this word mutual subjection is something that he learned from Jesus. Paul himself will tell us in Romans 12:10 that we are to prefer others ahead of ourselves, and in Philippians 2 he will tell us that we are to do nothing from selfish ambition, but in humility we are to consider others ahead of ourselves; and then he’ll give Jesus as the great example of it.

So what does mutual submission mean? It means willing to be the least, it means being willing to wash the disciples’ feet, it means being ready to prefer others ahead of ourselves, it means doing nothing from selfish ambition, but from humility. It means not being self-assertive and insisting on getting our own way, but placing ourselves at others’ disposal and living so that our forbearance becomes a matter of public knowledge, and serving one another.

It's not a weak thing. It's actually a very powerful thing. You think about it, my friends. There are a lot of ways people seek for power in this world: money; their ambition often fuels and expresses their power; status, roles, positions enable them to express power and display power; and all of those ways that power can be expressed can be taken away from any human being.

But the one power that cannot be taken away from you is service. There is no one that can take away service, and the power that comes with it, from you. We always have the power to serve. That's exactly the situation that Jesus was in. Having left the halls of glory, having divested Himself of all the prerogatives that He could have rightly claimed, He expressed a power far beyond anything that we could have conceived in His servitude, and redeemed by His servitude a multitude that no man can number, and no man can take that power from Him. So this is not a weak thing. Humble service is a very, very powerful thing. It's just a different kind of power than the world understands.

I've told you before about my friend, C. J. Mahaney, Reformed Charismatic pastor in Gaithersburg, Maryland. [Now, don't ask me what a Reformed Charismatic is, that's another discussion for another day!] I can't get through a conversation with C. J. without him saying, “Lig, how may I serve you?” and he's dead serious about it. You meet his people, and they are all about serving one another, and they’re all about serving you. It is not a charade, because they believe as good old charismatics that if they’re going to have a claim to being filled with the Holy Spirit, then they had better manifest — what? — humble service to one another. And they’re serious about it, and it's a great blessing to me just to see their fellowship in Christ and the way they seek to serve one another.

So what's our motto going to be if we embrace mutual servitude of one another? [Now let me just apologize right now. I'm no doubt going to offend someone by what I'm about to say. You’re going to think, ‘Oh, you’re being classist, and you’re looking down on people that have certain jobs.’ Don't miss my point here.] Here's our motto. If we really understand what it means to embrace this idea of mutual subjection so that we take on a status that is lowly in order to serve others, then our motto has to be something like this: “Will you have fries with that?” Or, “Hi. I'm Ligon. Welcome to WalMart.” You see what I'm getting at. Those are the jobs that you dread having to do.

A dear friend of mine, a highly trained professional, very intelligent, competent in his work, lost his job and couldn't get a job in that particular area, and I remember him talking with me and with others, and sharing an email about his fear that the only thing he was going to be able to do was flip burgers at McDonald's or welcome people at WalMart, because he was only qualified to work in his field and he wasn't qualified to go out and get some other high-paying glorious job. And he said, “I’ll be flipping burgers at McDonald's or welcoming people at WalMart.”

Now, folks, if you’re working flipping burgers at McDonald's or welcoming people at WalMart, do it to the glory of God. Let me just tell you something. My granddad pumped gas at a service station, and I'm proud of him. So this is not about running somebody down in another job. It's about a job that is perceived to be less prestigious than another, and the willingness of a Christian to take it for the welfare of other Christians. That's our motto. Our job is to say, “Would you like fries with that?…Welcome to WalMart…can I help you?” This is the kind of subjection that God is calling us to manifest to one another.

I've told you the story of our friend, Archbishop Emanuel Kolini, Archbishop of Rwanda, when the American conservative Episcopalians going to him to ask for help in America. He showed them the devastation of the civil war, the genocide in Rwanda, and then he brought them into his office and he said, ‘Now you need to understand that when the millions of my people were being killed, we sent word to the western nations and no help came. And we sent word to America, and no help came. And we sent word to the American Christians, and no help came. And we sent word to the Episcopal Church in America, and no help came. And now you’re asking me to come and help you in your time of need.” And then Archbishop Kolini said to them, “Go back and tell your people we will help you.” That, my friends, is mutual subjection. Or, Michael Oh, our dear friend (Korean) serving God's people in Japan. Now most of you have no idea of the significance of that. I'm not sure I can even illustrate that to you. Tremendous tensions between the Japanese and the Korean people, and he as a Korean Christian is saying, “I want to spend my life serving the Japanese.” It's a picture of servitude.

Or maybe it's more mundane. You've got a friend, and you've seen some issues with one of his children, or one of her children, and you feel like — ‘I need to share this with my friend. I would want to know this.’ You don't go into it : “You know, I've been using this latest Christian parenting technique, and you know, my wife and I, we really are among the best parents in this congregation! And there are a few things that this brother and sister need to learn from us about parenting. You know, they wouldn't be having this problem if they were only following our latest parenting….” No! You don't approach it that way. That's a lordly, condescending, ungodly way to approach a brother and sister in life. Nor do you say, “You know, if I raise this my friend is very likely to be royally cheesed with me. In fact, my friend may hate my guts if I raise this! In fact, there may be some consequences taken out on my kids if I do this. I'm just not going to get into this. I'm just not going to say anything.” That's not serving your brother and sister.

But, no, you and your wife sit down and you say, “You know, this is going to be really, really hard to do. But we've checked our hearts, we don't think we're people that give out advice all the time; we're dear friends with these people; we've had a longstanding relationship; we would want to know this ourselves. We've got to say this, even if they’re angry. We've got to say it in such a way that protects their dignity, shows our esteem and our honor for them, indicates that we have only their best interests in mind, but we have got to do this because it is our job to serve them.”

Or maybe there's a ruptured relationship, and you realize, “I've got to figure out how to serve that person, even in this ruptured relationship, because I didn't see any qualifications on Paul's words here: ‘Be subject to one another, if you want to.’”

Nope. That's not in the text. ‘Be subject to one another on occasion. Be subject to one another if things are all right. Be subject to one another from time to time.’ No. It's just “Be subject to one another. Subject yourselves to one another. Serve one another.”

Friends, if we had an attitude of genuinely desiring to serve one another, it is frightening to think what would happen for the glory of God in this congregation, for your good in your lives, and for our witness in the community. And that's what the Apostle Paul is calling us to here. He is calling us to take on that posture with one another: “Will you have fries with that?…Welcome to WalMart…May I help you?…I am your server.” Do you remember what the Apostle Paul said to the Corinthians? That he wanted them to consider the apostles — what? “Your slaves for Christ's sake.”

It's astonishing, and it utterly changes the dynamics of everything else he's going to say. And in a few moments, when he asks wives to subject themselves to their own husbands, scant words later he will tell husbands, ‘Now, here's how you’re going to love your wife. You’re going to love her like Christ loved His people.’ And if any husband is paying attention, at that point he is on the floor on his face–face down, prostrate–saying, “Lord God! The abasement, the humiliation, the death that Christ offered up for His bride…I can't match that!” The Apostle Paul's saying, ‘Right. That's, husbands, how I'm asking you to love your wives.’

Do you realize the dynamic change that comes there when a wife realizes that she's called to subject herself to a man who has been called to die for her? And who is in some measure living that out? It changes the dynamics in everything.

So there's the content. This is a radical message! You won't find many things more radical than this in the New Testament. It changes everything.

III. The context of mutual subjection.

Now how do you do this? We live in a fallen world! We’re not called to be subject to perfect beings. You know, if it were being subject to Jesus, that would be one thing, but we're called to be subject to one another, and we're sinners, and we hurt one another! We've let one another down, we've disappointed one another. Well, the Apostle Paul is waiting for us. How do you go about being subject?–well, he gives you the key–“In the fear of Christ.”

The first thing I want to tell you about that is….That's, by the way, a glorious testimony to Jesus’ deity. In the Old Testament, how did the Old Testament writers sum up religion? In the phrase the fear of God. So when Paul says that you’re to live in the fear of Christ, he is doing nothing other but giving a testimony that Jesus Christ is divine. He is the Son of the living God; He is fully God and fully man. (He's done it over and over in this passage, by the way. In Ephesians 5:5, for instance, he's talked about — what? “The kingdom of Christ and of God.”)

In the Old Testament, when the prophets wanted to talk about the rule of God in this world, what phrase did they use? The kingdom of God. Now here's Paul talking about “the kingdom of Christ and of God.” It's just his way of saying the divine Christ that we're serving, the Lord Jesus Christ, is the Son of the living God. The Apostle Paul has said in Ephesians 5:1, 17, that we're to do everything to please the Lord and to do the will of the Lord.

Well, in the Old Testament, who were you supposed to please? God.

Whose will were you supposed to do? God's.

Paul's a good Jew. He knows that you don't try and please anybody who's not God; you don't try and do the will of anybody who's not God. So he says…what are we supposed to do? Please the Lord Jesus Christ; do the will of the Lord Jesus Christ.

In Ephesians 5:19 he said we're to do — what? We’re to sing praises, we're to give worship to — who? To the Lord, the Lord Jesus Christ!

So in this passage Paul is pressing us with the truth of Jesus’ deity, but here's what he's really wanting us to get to: He's wanting us to understand three things…that we are to serve one another, be subject to one another, subject ourselves to one another, in light of three realities.

First, the reality that Jesus is Lord. We’re to subject ourselves to one another in the fear of Christ because Jesus is Lord. We are to have a conscious regard for His lordship, that He is the One in whom all things are held together, that He rules everything by the word of His power — that He is Lord. You remember what Jesus told the priests that upset them so, in the midst of His mock trial? “You will see me coming on clouds in glory.” And what did they do? They tore their garments! Why did they tear their garments? Because in the Old Testament when God wanted to talk about the fact that He was coming as Judge, how did He talk about it? “I'm coming on clouds in glory.” And here's Jesus saying ‘Right now I'm here as the Savior; next time you see Me, I will be here as Judge.’ That's why, my friends, you need to get to know the Judge by faith now, before He comes.

So here's Paul saying to Christians ‘Subject yourselves to one another. I know it's hard, but remember Jesus is the Lord. And not only that, but He is coming in judgment. We are to…’ just like he said back earlier in Ephesians 5, ‘We are to live in anticipation of His coming judgment.’ We are to live in awe, respect, esteem, and reverence of the greatest Servant, Jesus Christ, who, when He comes, will judge the world according to His gospel.

And of course we are to live in conscious emulation of His example. Now Jesus Himself is not asking you to do anything that He has not done Himself. And you say to me, ‘But…you don't understand. That person has wronged me. I can't serve him…I can't serve her…I can't be subject to him.’ The Lord Jesus Christ laid down His life while, the Apostle Paul says, “While we were yet sinners, He died for the ungodly.”

You put Him there. You rebelled against His love and lordship, and He laid down His life. The Lord Jesus Christ isn't asking you to do anything that He hasn't already done for you Himself. And so what do we do but say, ‘Lord, we don't have the wherewithal to do this. Only by Your Spirit, only by Your grace, only with the filling of the Spirit can we live in this way.’ But if we did, oh, friends, the blessing that would break forth, the witness that would be borne, is incalculable!

Let's pray.

Easy to say…hard to do, O Lord. Give us the desire, and by Your Spirit and Your grace, give us the ability. In Jesus' name. Amen.