Submit to one another, part 2: Celebrating mystery

Paul’s instructions to husbands and wives in Ephesians 5 has been the focus of fiery debate within the church, often generating, it seems, far more heat than light.  Most controversial is his instruction to wives to submit to their husbands in everything (vs. 24).  Everything? many women wonder, understandably.  You don’t know my husband.  From the other side, there are men who seem more intent on lording authority over their wives than they are on loving them sacrificially (vss. 25-30).  What gives?

In the last post, I suggested that we aren’t ready to wrestle with chapter 5 unless we can say “Amen!” to the chapters that come before.  Why?  Because Paul’s purpose as a pastor isn’t to go from church to church laying down rules of conduct.  The apostle who repeatedly hammers home a radical gospel of grace isn’t about to set up new laws of righteousness.

What he wants to see are communities of believers whose imaginations have been transformed by the gospel of a crucified and risen Savior.  Yes, inner transformation goes hand in glove with outward expression.  But to encourage the latter without the former is to court a grace-less legalism, the kind of thing that made Paul pull out what little hair he had.

Thus, before we come to Ephesians 5 ready to argue with Paul, we need to come to the previous chapters ready to listen, to understand the wonder and awe that turns to prayer and praise at the end of chapter 3.  We need, in other words, to embrace the “mystery” that holds him rapt.

Though Paul occasionally uses the word “mystery” in other letters, in Ephesians it becomes something of a theme.  The gospel can’t be reduced to a simple formula.  It’s as if Paul sees past the cross to the vast panorama of God’s eternal plan, “the mystery of his will,” which is to eventually “bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ” (1:9-10, NIV).  Sin has made a colossal mess of creation.  God is bringing the pieces back together in one glorious whole, under the authority of his Son.  That plan stretches back in time to before creation, and forward into a future we can’t yet see.  And we have been chosen to be part of that plan, part of that work of restoring wholeness and unity.

Moreover, Paul, a dyed-in-the-wool Pharisaic Jew, marvels at the identity of a “we” that includes both Jews and Gentiles, both part of God’s chosen people, living and worshipping together in unity, cheek by jowl.  Imagine what it took for Paul to refer to the law of Moses as creating a “dividing wall of hostility” (2:14) between Jews and Gentiles, a wall dismantled by the cross.  The body of Jesus was broken to make one new humanity out of the two: “This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise of Christ Jesus” (3:6).

Perhaps we take this all for granted.  Gentiles have a place in God’s eternal plan?  Why, of course!  But Paul, writing to a primarily Gentile congregation, wants them to be amazed by and grateful for the love of God in Christ.

The mystery of being chosen by God.  Of being heirs together in one diverse but unified body.  Of being part of a plan that’s been in the works since before the dawn of time.

Are we properly amazed?  Because we shouldn’t go to Ephesians 5 until we are.