Ephesians 5, Part 3: The Mystery of One Flesh
In the last post we talked about what Paul means when he compares the unified nature of Christ and the church to a person’s head and body. So far this comparison holds up consistently, and that head/body metaphorical language wraps up with verse 30.
Then Paul puts in a reference to Genesis (actually, that one still refers to the body but this time relates it to marriage instead of the church) and a cryptic statement about how incomprehensible this all seems, but he seems to imply that we should be able to get his coded message since he explicitly tells us that he’s talking about Christ and the church. This got me puzzling, which is what happens when I’m breathing. Here’s the whole passage again.
Ephesians 5:21-33 (NIV)
21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do 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.
25 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.
28 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 their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church—
30 for we are members of his body.
31[highlight] “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.”[/highlight]
32 [highlight]This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.[/highlight]
33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.
Okay Paul, what is this mysterious mystery you’re talking about? Help me out here. Guess what? Paul does actually help out here. Ephesians is a letter written to the church in Ephesus, and we’ve been looking at chapter 5, right? I searched for other places that the word translated “mystery” is used and was surprised to discover that Paul uses it five times in the same letter before he even gets to Chapter 5. Here they are:
7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace,
8 which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight
9 [highlight]making known to us the mystery of his will,[/highlight] according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ
10 as a plan for the fullness of time, [highlight]to unite all things in him,[/highlight] things in heaven and things on earth.
More unity. Here’s the next one.
1 For this reason [highlight]I, Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles[/highlight]
2 assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you,
3 [highlight]how the mystery was made known to me by revelation,[/highlight] as I have written briefly.
4 When you read this, [highlight]you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, [/highlight]
5 which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.
6 [highlight]This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.[/highlight]
7 Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power.
8 [highlight]To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, [/highlight]
9 [highlight]and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, [/highlight]
10 so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.
11 This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord,
12 in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him.
What was the mystery? Verses six and eight spell it out: we are members of the same body, partakers of the unsearchable riches of Christ, and that Gentiles are fellow heirs,. The mystery is that the church is one with Christ. Oh look! That verse has body metaphor in there too. How did I miss that one?
24 Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh[highlight] I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, [/highlight]
25 of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known,
26[highlight] the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints.[/highlight]
27 [highlight]To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.[/highlight]
This one wraps up all the components we find in Ephesians 5: the church is Christ’s body (including the Gentiles) and Christ is in us. Again, the overriding image is one of unity.
And now, we get to my favorite verse in the whole passage: Ephesians 5:31. For years I couldn’t figure out why this verse was in here. If the whole point of this section were about how the husband was the head of his wife and how the wife’s duty was to obey what he asks unless he asks her to do something illegal or explicitly sinful, then why would verse 31 be in here? How is the one flesh mentioned in the verse 31 a picture of authority? Here is the passage from Genesis that Paul quotes:
20b but for the man there was not found a helper fit for him.
21 So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh;
22 and the rib which the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.
23 Then the man said,
“This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken out of Man.”
24 Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.
25 And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.
If Paul is talking about unity, the inclusion of this reference makes sense. It’s in here because it is the perfect summation of what Paul is saying. When Eve was divided from Adam’s flesh, he lost part of himself. The marriage sacrament knits back together as one flesh the two pieces that were split, just like a head and body are two separate parts united in one flesh, and just like Christ and the church are united into one flesh through Christ’s death and resurrection which we commemorate with the sacrament of communion. This is the purpose of marriage. This is the point of the Ephesians 5 passage. This is the profound mystery.