Ephesians 5:21-33 Bible Study - Willing Submission & the Bride of Christ

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Bible Study Series: Ephesians - The Third Heaven Epistle

Ephesians 5:21-33 Bible Study - Willing Submission & the Bride of Christ

by I Gordon

We are still in the 'walk' part of Ephesians so I hope you are keeping up... Don't get tired on me now! This particular section from Ephesians 5:21-33 focuses on our relationship with one another. It starts off in general terms before delving deeper into a particular type of relationship... namely that very close one - marriage! Now I'll say right off the start that I haven't been overly looking forward to these verses about marriage. Why you ask? Well, not because they are not important or very relevant for today... they certainly are. But they involve the ideals and practicalities of Christian marriage... and I've never been married1. So I am mindful of that and if you were hoping for my 'top 10 marriage tips'... um, yeah, sorry to disappoint! There are many qualified Pastors and Bible Teachers that can speak well on such things. But thankfully there is a lot more to chew on in this passage for it holds practical instruction for all believers as well as key insight into the greatest coming marriage of all - Christ and His bride, the Church! But let's begin in Eph 5:21 with something missing in today's world. 

Willing submission - the missing key in today's world

Eph 5:21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. 

Submit - now, it is fair to say that that's not a popular word in todays society. This is the age of portraying yourself as someone great, standing up for your rights, promoting yourself, not backing down or showing weakness. It is the age of 'pride' and 'loving yourself'. 'You are important.' 'You are great.' Submit you say? Why? Never! Away with such backward thinking! Yet when we get to the Bible we see this word often. It was used of Jesus in the past. It is used of Jesus in the future. It is used of children, wives, husbands... well, everyone actually. Let me give you some examples of the same Greek word from the New Testament:

  • As a child Jesus submitted to His parents (Luke 2:51)
  • The demons submitted to the authority of the seventy Jesus sent out (Luke 10:17,20)
  • Everyone is to submit to the governing authorities (Rom 13:1,5)
  • The Church submits to the headship of Christ (Eph 5:24)
  • Wives submit to their husbands (Eph 5:24)
  • Servants were to submit to their masters (1 Pet 2:18)
  • All angelic authorities and powers are submitted to Christ (1 Pet 3:22)
  • Young men are to submit to those older within the Church (1 Pet 5:5) 
  • And, as we see in this passage in Eph 5;21, we all are to submit to one another.

Part of the issue with this word submit or submission comes from a wrong understanding of how it is lived out. For example, take the Islamic religion. The word Islam means 'submission' and the whole society is founded on it with fear, judgment and sometimes death for those who do not submit. Often we think of 'submission' in a dictatorship and legalistic way. A way without love. But it is far from that. Jesus taught us practically about submission. Though He was the King of Kings, He came as a servant and taught us to do the same. You will no doubt remember the time when James and John wanted to exalt themselves and be seated at the right and left hand of Jesus in the age to come. Instantly you had ten other disciples completely 'ticked off' with James and John! How did Jesus respond? Well, with something that is important for all believers, everywhere, in all ages:

Mar 10:42-45 Jesus called them together and said, "You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. (43) Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, (44) and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. (45) For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."

In other words, serve one another. Submit to one another. Consider others better than yourself. How opposite this is to the spirit of the age! And yet it comes straight from the very character of God Himself. There is a willing submission within the Godhead which extends even to the age to come for we read of Jesus:

1Co 15:25-28 He must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. (26) The last enemy to be destroyed is death. (27) For he "has put everything under his feet." Now when it says that "everything" has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. (28) When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject (same Greek word as Submit) to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.

Some use this to say that Jesus is not God, or that He is a 'lessor God' (not that there can actually be such a thing because the Bible is clear that there is only one God). But this verse doesn't mean that at all. Willing submission does not mean inferiority in any way. There is simply a willing and beautiful submission within the Godhead. The Son didn't come to exalt Himself but to glorify the Father and do His will. The Spirit didn't come to draw attention to Himself but to glorify the Son. And we are all called to submission. Peter does a good job at summing up what it means. Note it's connection with humility.    

1Pe 5:5-6 Young men, in the same way be submissive to those who are older. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble." Humble yourselves, therefore, under God's mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.

An example - Wives to their husbands

Eph 5:22-24 Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. (23) For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. (24) Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

Paul now gives an example within the home. Wives are instructed to submit to their husbands who is their head. The word 'head' has the thought of 'top, chief, leader'. The model or example given is how the church submits to Christ who is the Head of the Church. So what type of relationship is that? Christ is our head. He is the authority and leader for the believer. We submit to His rule. This is pretty clear for He is God and dwells seated above all rule and authority. And yet... and here is the amazing thing... He is not a hard dictator. He is not an authoritarian. Though having all authority, He operates with believers in love. Now granted sometimes He disciplines those He loves. But it is all still through love. Well respected Bible teacher J. Vernon McGee writes well stating:

I have been doing some research on the word submit, and I have some rather startling things to tell you. The word submit relative to wives needs to be understood a little differently from the way it has been so often interpreted in the past. It is not, "Wives, obey your husbands." Submit is a very mild word. It is a loving word. It means to respond to your own husband as unto the Lord. The way we respond to the Lord is that we love Him because He first loved us. And notice that it says "unto your own husbands." A very personal, loving relationship is the ground for submission. Paul is definitely speaking to believers about Christian marriage... "The husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church." In what way? It is a love relationship, and the husband is to be the head for the sake of order. You will find in this section of Ephesians that there are four different areas in which there is headship for the sake of order. Wives are to be subject to their husbands. Husbands are to be subject to Christ. Children are to be subject to parents. Servants are to be subject to masters. It is to be a sweet subjection, a willing subjection to someone who loves you. It is to be that kind of relationship. If there is no love in it, the idea of submission isn't worth a snap of the finger.
J. Vernon McGee

Again, we often think of submission from a worldly or negative point of view instead of seeing it as something beautiful, something godly, something ordained by God for our good. In Christ, we are all one. There is no male and female, Jew or Gentile, nor slave and free. Yet God has still given earthly relationships and roles for the sake of maintaining order. And in the relationship of a marriage, God has placed the man as the head who has the ultimate responsibility and authority for looking after the family. This, as we shall see, comes with a very important and, well, huge duty towards his wife... 

Husbands - you have more responsibility

Eph 5:25-27 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her (26) to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, (27) and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.

Husbands, love your wives. 'Ok' you say, 'that sounds easy enough', 'But to what degree?' Oh, just as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her. 'Oh' you say. 'Um.... is there a second option?' I like what the Believers Bible Commentary says on this:  

Husbands are not told to keep their wives in subjection; they are told to love their wives just as Christ also loved the church. It has been well said that no wife would mind being submissive to a husband who loves her as much as Christ loves the church. Someone wrote of a man who feared he was displeasing God by loving his wife too much. A Christian worker asked him if he loved her more than Christ loved the church. He said no. “Only when you go beyond that,” said the worker, “are you loving your wife too much.”
William MacDonald

Now we should note what type of love it is talking about here. In the Bible, there are four main Greek words for love:

  1. Eros - this is a romantic, sensual, passionate love.
  2. Storge - this is family love. It speaks of the loving bonds between family members. 
  3. Philia - this is a brotherly love between one another and speaks of friendship, care and affection towards each other, 
  4. Agape - this is the highest love. It is a selfless, sacrificial and unconditional love. It is not based on emotions but the mind. It is often used for God's love towards us (John 3:16) but should also denote the believers love for one another (John 13:35)  

So which of these does Paul use to describe the type of love that a husband should have for his wife? It is the highest love - agape. That is not to say that other types are not present. Surely they will be and need to be! But Paul focuses on 'agape' the selfless, sacrificial, unconditional love as the one that should denote the husbands devotion to his wife. Wow... no pressure husbands! How you going with that? But again, what is the example for this? It is Jesus. It is His sacrificial love for the Church and it's individual members that forms the basis for how we should love. We love, because He loved us first. Husbands love their wives, with agape love, because of the agape love they experience from Christ. And it is likely to be in proportion to what they are receiving. 

Now note the past, present and future tenses of Christ's love for His Church because it is not something done and dusted... no, it's ongoing! 

What Christ did, does and will do for His bride, the Church
  • The past (justification) - 'Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her' That is the ultimate agape sacrificial love right there that can never be topped in all of eternity! Of all the things He could have given, 'He gave... Himself... up for her' Totally selfless, unconditional and sacrificial. Amazing.    
  • The present (sanctification) - 'Cleansing her by the washing with water through the word' There is a single cleansing that occurs at salvation which instantly makes a believer fit for heaven. And there is an ongoing cleansing that makes that believer fit for earth... right now. This present, ongoing cleansing is through the washing of His word. As we read and meditate on His word, are minds are renewed with His truth and it is likened to washing our bodies with water, removing the dirt from this world.  
  • The future (glorification) - 'To present her to himself as a radiant church'2 - Here is the glorious future for the Church. The groom presenting a perfect radiant bride to Himself. 'For the joy set before Him he endured the cross' (Heb 12:2) - This is that joy of His... the presenting of His glorious bride!

As an example from the Old Testament, these three aspects can be seen in the lives of three prominent beautiful brides in the Bible. Namely, Ruth, Esther and Rebekah.

  • Ruth & the past sacrifice of Boaz - The past sacrifice of Christ is typified in the book of Ruth where Boaz is willing to pay the price the price to redeem Ruth and marry her. Then Boaz said to the elders and all the people, "You are witnesses today that I have bought from the hand of Naomi all that belonged to Elimelech and all that belonged to Chilion and Mahlon. "Moreover, I have acquired Ruth the Moabitess, the widow of Mahlon, to be my wife...' (Rth 4:9-10)
  • Esther & the present preparation for the King - The ongoing preparation for our coming marriage is seen in Esther's preparation to marry the King. She had a 12 month course involving six months with oil of myrrh, and six months with perfumes and preparations for beautifying women. (Est 2:12) In like manner the bride is being prepared for her King and the preparation will continue until the day when He comes to receive her! 
  • Rebekah & the future presentation to Isaac - The presentation of the glorious bride of Christ to her husband is seen as a veiled beautiful Rebekah is presented to Isaac. Though she has been told much about him, this is the first time that Rebekah sees him face to face. It is a wonderful future of the day when the bride of Christ meets her husband face to face! 'Then Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah's tent; and he took Rebekah and she became his wife, and he loved her.' (Gen 24:6)

Loving your wife as yourself

Eph 5:28-30 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. (29) After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church-- (30) for we are members of his body.

No one in their right mind has ever truly hated themselves. People certainly hate a lot of things about themselves (especially in this self absorbed age) but that is because, at the heart of the matter, each person loves themselves. What they hate is that they are not measuring up to what they would like for themselves. They wish they more attractive, more sought after, more popular. The fact is we are all pretty good at looking after ourselves - eating, drinking and making sure we have the necessities for life. Looking after number one all comes naturally to a fallen self-centered nature. But the amazing thing about this union that God ordained right from the garden (which we call marriage) is that suddenly there is a second party! Suddenly it is not just thinking about yourself but loving your partner as you would, and do, yourself. Now obviously this goes both ways but the direct command in this passage is to husbands. Husbands love your wives as you would yourself! Again, no pressure husbands!... but that definitely requires the love of God to be present!

And again, it is all based on the example of what Christ did, and does, for the Church. The oneness of marriage is a picture of the oneness in Christ. We, as believers, are all one, members of His one body. I love what Pastor David Guzik writes concerning this 'oneness' for it goes right through this age and into the next:

  • There is oneness of life: We share the same vital resurrection life that resides in Jesus Himself.
  • There is oneness of service: We are privileged to be co-workers with our Lord.
  • There is oneness of feeling: Jesus feels a unique sympathy with us, and we feel a unique sympathy with Him.
  • There is oneness of mutual necessity: We cannot exist without Him and He cannot exist without us, in the sense that a redeemer is not a redeemer without any redeemed; a savior is not a savior without any saved
  • There is oneness of nature: The same genetic code links us with our Savior, and we are partakers of the divine nature
  • There is oneness of possession: We share in the riches of His glory both now and in the age to come
  • There is oneness of present condition: When our Savior is lifted high, so are His people with Him.
  • There is oneness of future destiny: We will be glorified with Him.

The profound mystery!

Eph 5:31-32 For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. (32) This is a profound mystery--but I am talking about Christ and the church. 

This theme of the earthly marriage being a picture of a far greater heavenly marriage is brought out clearly in this passage. Paul quotes from Gen 2:24 showing that right from the start, the union of Adam and Eve pointed to a far greater union. There is a divine romance going on today between the second man (Jesus) and the second Eve (the Church). It is what Paul called a profound mystery! 

That first couple is a figure of the future union of Christ and the church as Bridegroom and bride. Eve was created to be a helpmeet for Adam. She was taken from his side, not molded from the ground as were the animals. Adam was incomplete until they were together. God fashioned her, and I think she was the loveliest thing in creation when God brought her to Adam. One wag has said that she had to be better looking than man because God had practiced on man but He had experience when He made woman. She was a helpmeet for Adam. She compensated for what he lacked. She was made for him and they became one.
J. Vernon McGee

I have written on this before3 but just note again the picture God gave us right from the Garden contrasting this 'profound mystery'!

Adam / Eve Jesus / Church
Adam put into a deep sleep In the New Testament the word 'sleep' can be used for the believer for death (1 Thes 4:14, 1 Cor 15:51). Jesus had to go into death itself for this new bride to be able to come forth.
Adam had his side opened After He had died, Jesus had His side opened through a Roman spear (John 19:33-34) Blood and water flowed out representing the means of forgiveness and cleansing that would come to those that would be His.
Eve was made from Adam's flesh and bone  In like manner, the second Eve, the bride of Christ, will be of His very nature! Believers are a new creation when they are born again, of His life and at the rapture we shall be fully changed into His likeness! (Col 3:4, 11, 1 Cor 15:49, 1 John 3:2)
Eve was taken out of man and then revealed The bride of Christ is currently 'hidden in Christ' (Col 3:3) but shall soon be revealed! All of creation is waiting and longing for this moment scripture tells us (Col 3:4, Rom 8:19)
The Lord brought Eve to Adam and they were united in marriage What would Adam have thought when Eve was presented to him? Not sure if it is a biblical word but probably something like 'wowsers!' The Lord will present His beautiful bride to Himself in all her spotless glory at the marriage of the Lamb! (Eph 5:27, Jude 24, Rev 19:7)
Eve was a 'helpmeet' for Adam So the Church helps in this divine role of making disciples (2 Cor 5:20, 1 Cor 3:6) And in the age to come we shall help in the ruling and administration of His Kingdom on earth (Dan 7:27, 1 Cor 6:1-3, Rev 5:10) 


Eph 5:33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.

Having looked again at the importance of Biblical marriage, and the greater picture that it gives us, we can see now why it is so under attack in our day. In today's culture, people opt in, and out, of marriage on a whim. Many don't get married but have multiple partners as they see fit. God's ordination of a man and a woman coming together in marriage (as a picture of Christ and His bride) is now changed to include same-sex couples. Many children are born into a family missing one parent, or sometimes both. A society simply cannot stand when the family unit is so broken.

And yet God's commands stand true today. Husbands love your wives as you do yourself, and wives respect your husbands. God knows men and women well and He knows what works. He knows they are different and knows their core needs. Men need respect. Women need love. And when both parties are looking to the Lord and are in a right relationship with Him then the relationship between themselves will be right. We have also seen that even outside of marriage there is to be a willing submission of all to one another. The Bible tells us to walk in humility towards one another... and God will exalt you in due time.  

And finally, as we close, think again of what this picture before us today means for the future. Think of that day when the bride of Christ will be presented to Christ, spotless, radiant, and glorious. Bone of His bone, flesh of His flesh, nature of His nature. Each biblical marriage is a reminder of what God is doing as He prepares His counterpart for Himself! 


  1. To give an illustration, a large part of me feels like this... I've played a lot of tennis in my life at a pretty competitive level. Imagine if some guy comes along and says 'I've been watching your game. I think you should try a more eastern grip on your forehand and rotate your shoulders more on your serve'. To which I reply 'Ok thanks - you obviously know a thing or two about Tennis. Been playing for long?' 'Oh no' he says. 'I've never played. Doubt I could hit the ball actually!' What would I think? I'd probably think his advice is pretty odd and it's probably going to hold a little more weight when he has actually learn to hit a ball over the net himself!  

  2. There are some that take this verse about the Church being spotless and apply it to the outward Church today. This leads them to say that Christ can only come back for a spotless Church... so clearly He can't come back yet because we are not there. This is wrong. The church will never be spotless, blameless and radiant because of her own goodness and while in this body. She is that already in Christ because of His righteousness. Now that doesn't mean that we are not in an ongoing sanctification process today - we are. But Christ can come at any stage and the radiant bride that will be presented to Him at the marriage of the Lamb will be one that has been transformed into His image at the rapture/resurrection and one that has passed through the Bema seat of Christ where all that is not of Him is burnt and all that we have done in this life in Him, is richly rewarded. By the day of the wedding, there will be no more fallen nature within His bride, no more sin, no more double motives... there will only be a radiant bride, gloriously displayed in His own nature and character... ready for Her groom!  

  3. Table (with a small modification) taken from https://jesusplusnothing.com/series/post/the-counterpart-bride-the-second-eve
    Have a look at this study for a wider examination of this theme concerning Adam/Eve & Christ/Church