Marriage at work (6) “This is a mystery

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We now come to the climax of the instruction to husbands and wives.  These verses hold the whole instruction together and show how Christ’s relationship to the church is the basis for the marriage relationship.  As we noted earlier, Paul has been building up to this point by introducing body and flesh language in v29-30.[1]

5.1. “For this reason”

Paul quotes Genesis 2:24 where the narrator adds his own comment to the story of the first marriage.  God had made woman from man so that she was a suitable partner to him.  Therefore, from now on, this would be his primary relationship.[2] 

Unusually, Paul provides the citation without a standard introductory formula.  The words anti toutou taken from within the citation serve as an introduction to the point of the quote in their own right.[3]  This suggests that “the opening words, for this reason, dovetail neatly into Paul’s argument.”[4]  Paul sees a direct causal relationship between the nature of marriage and “the immediate antecedent” of the quote; namely, “because we are members of his body.”[5]

So, in Paul’s mind, there is now a second basis for marriage.  Just as Genesis shows the institution to be rooted in creation, so Paul argues that it is based on new creation, the relationship of Christ to the Church.

5.2. “A man will leave his father and mother”

Note that it is the man who “leaves” rather than the woman which seems to go against the grain of patriarchal cultures where the wife would join the husband’s clan.  This leads Wenham to suggest that in its Genesis context, “forsaking mother and father is to be understood in a relative sense, not an absolute sense.”[6]  It is not about physically leaving parents as much as a break in the nature of the bond between parent and son.

Paul’s reaffirmation of this break would have had significant force in a culture where often, “the wife remained in the power of her father.”[7]  Paul’s argument goes against this approach.  Whilst his understanding of the relationship is not one of “subjugation to their husband,”[8] he is clear that the priority relationship is husband to wife, not adult child to parent.

5.3. “And become one flesh”

This is the point that we have been building towards.  “One Flesh” includes both sexual union and all that it entails.  Elsewhere, Paul uses the phrase to describe fornication with shrine prostitutes, so in and of itself it does not necessarily imply the permanent, wholesome state of marriage.[9]  However, within the context of a positive portrayal of marriage, there is a wonderful picture of intimate, exclusive unity.

This is important because, as we have seen, there is an Ephesian focus on unity.  God’s purpose in Christ is to bring all things together under his rule.  Marriage portrays a picture of this in miniature.

5.4. “This is a mystery”

What is meant by ‘mystery’ and what does the phrase refer to?  O’Brien notes that three interpretations have been suggested.

  1. “Mystery refers to the marriage relationship.”[10]
  2. “The mystery is the union of Christ and the Church.”[11]
  3. “The mystery refers to the relationship between Christ and the church as a typology of marriage.”[12]

The first approach is popular within Roman Catholic sacramental theology.  “The Vulgate rendered the Greek word as ‘sacramentum’, and Catholic dogma holds that the institution of marriage conveys grace.”[13]  More generally, some protestant theologians argue that, “The relationship between Christ and the church is incidental to this thrust, and any parallels with the relationship between husbands and wives are merely illustrative.”[14]

The problem with this approach is that, “the term in Ephesians usually connotes a truth that was previously hidden and has now been revealed.  This is hardly true of marriage itself, even as a sacrament.”[15]

The second interpretation focuses on the relationship between Christ and the Church.[16]  For example, Irenaeus and Augustine referred to Christ recapitulating Eve’s creation from and union with Adam.[17]

O’Brien argues that such an approach does provide helpful insights because Paul clearly does have Christ and the Church in mind here.[18]  However, it is limited because, “it fails to take into account the correspondence between marriage and the Christ-church relationship throughout the paragraph.”[19]

So O’Brien prefers the third option. “The mystery refers to the relationship between Christ and the Church as a typology of marriage.”[20]  I think he is right to do so because this gives the best account of the flow of the text.  As we have seen above, his citation of Genesis 2 “dovetail[s] neatly” out of his previous commentary on Christ’s relationship to the church.  There is a strong causal link between the heavenly marriage and the human institution.

So the mystery revealed is the way in which that causal link works.  The model seems to be constructed as follows.  Adam and Eve’s union can now be understood as a type for Christ’s relationship to the Church, which is consistent with the theme in redemptive history of God as the husband of his people Israel.  The type is fulfilled in Christ.  However, the typology goes a stage further because Christ and the church are themselves a better model for human marriage.[21]

So the relationship is intertwined, as indeed we have seen throughout the passage through the constant use of link words and phrases such as ou[twj, w`j and kaqw.j.  Our understanding of the marriage relationship is rooted in our understanding of the Gospel.

5.5. “Each of you”

The use of plen in verse 33 can have a concluding force.  This would mean that the idea isn’t so much “however…”[22] as though there is an abrupt disjunction from the preceding argument.  If that were the case, then we might be tempted to see the preceding argument as being focused solely on the spiritual relationship.  But as Bauer makes clear, it can have the force of “breaking off a discussion and emphasizing what is important.”[23]  In other words, verse 33 concludes the argument, emphasizing what Paul wants the reader to take away from the discussion.  As Lincoln comments,

The writer reminds his readers that the exalted depiction of marriage in light of the relationship of Christ and the Church is meant to serve the purpose of practical exhortation.[24]

So Paul summarises his practical advice.  Husbands are to love their wives and wives are to “fear” their husbands.  The word “fear” is translated as “respect” in a number of versions and commentaries.  Is this correct?[25]  I wonder whether our understanding of the word “respect” in modern English might soften the force of the injunction.  After all, as Lincoln notes, this is meant to be modelling the Church’s view of Christ.  In verse 21, the NRSV translates the same word as “reverence” with respect to the Lord.  This is perhaps helpful to our understanding.  This is not cowed, frightened submission but a respect seen in loyalty which is tied into the nature and value of his role as husband.  I agree with Lincoln’s summary;

“Since the fear of Christ (v21) is the believers’ appropriate response to his overwhelming love and power, the wife’s fear is her appropriate response to her husband’s headship exercised in self-sacrificial love.”[26]


[1] Cf. Peter T O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians (The Pillar New Testament Commentary.  Leicester: Apollos: 1999), 427.

[2] Gordon J Wenham, Genesis 1-15 (WBC 1. Dallas, Tex.: Word, 1987), 70.

[3] Andrew T Lincoln, Ephesians (WBC42. Dallas, Texas: Word, 1990), 380.

[4] O’Brien, Ephesians, 429.

[5] O’Brien, Ephesians, 429.

[6] Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 71.  Whilst the primary meaning of the word used by Paul, katalei,pw refers to place “to cause to be left in a place, leave (behind)” or “to depart from a place, with implication of  finality.” BDAG, 520b.  BDAG does offer too alternatives which might allow one to reconcile the Greek used by Paul with Wenham’s interpretation of the Hebrew.  Katalei,pw can also have the sense of “to cease from some activity,” or “to cause to be left to one’s own resources.”  BDAG, 521a.

[7] J.P.V.D Balsdon, Roman Women: Their History and Habits (Rpr. London: The Bodley Head, 1963), 45.  There seem to be two Roman approaches to marriage – on the one hand, traditionally marriage meant that wife was “bound… in subjugation to their husband.”  Balsdon regards this as being universally the situation up until the 3rd Century BC when increasingly marriages took the form described above. Balsdon, Roman Women, 45.

[8] Balsdon, Roman Women, 45.

[9] 1 Cor 6:16.

[10] O’Brien, Ephesians, 430.

[11] O’Brien, Ephesians, 431.  See e.g. Lincoln, Ephesians, 381.

[12] O’Brien, Ephesians, 432.

[13] O’Brien, Ephesians, 430.

[14] O’Brien, Ephesians, 430. Best leans towards this approach.  He is suspicious of typological approaches because “AE was probably not Paul and even if he was a Jew we cannot assume he had a detailed knowledge of Hebrew; he draws all his OT quotations from the LXX.” Ernest Best, Ephesians (ICC.  Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1990), 556.  So to some extent, the interpretation given rests on assumptions about authorship.  As I have stated earlier, I personally do not have a problem with Pauline authorship of Ephesians.  However, even if the author is not Paul, then it is reasonable to assume that the Author of Ephesians (AE) is someone with access to the Pauline corpus and a good grounding of Paul’s theology with all its typological connotations.

[15] O’Brien, Ephesians, 431.

[16] O’Brien, Ephesians, 431 – 432.

[17] Markus Barth, Ephesians 4-6 (The Anchor Bible.  New York: Doubleday. 1979), 722.

[18] O’Brien, Ephesians, 431 – 432.

[19] O’Brien, Ephesians, 432.

[20] O’Brien, Ephesians, 432.  See also Barth, who whilst emphasising the focus on Christ and the Church, notes that, “The secret sense discovered in Gen 2:24 does not prevent Paul from also taking the literal meaning seriously and applying it to the ethical discussion under application in Eph 5.”

Barth, Ephesians, 734.

[21] O’Brien, Ephesians, 434.

[22] Contra the NIV’s rendition of v33.

[23] BDAG, 826b.

[24] Lincoln, Ephesians, 383.

[25] See e.g. Best, Ephesians, 559.

[26] Lincoln, Ephesians, 384.