Hello Sunday school teachers, preachers, and students! Welcome to SundaySchoolPreacher.com. This week I take a look at a covenant of mutual love. The lesson comes from Ephesians 5:21-33. In this lesson we see how both the husband and the wife submit or as the Hebrew word says “line up under” each other in a covenant of mutual love. Lining up under each other is a good way to form the idea of working together. We line up under each other to support each other and we line up under Jesus Christ to support the cause of Christ. What I found particularly interesting about this week’s lesson is how Holy Scripture can sometimes be used to oppress women. In the first century world of Paul, patriarchy was the only known way to exist. I suppose it was even radical for Paul to suggest that both men and women should submit to one another. That was the first step. Now it’s up to us to dismantle patriarchy and all other forms of oppression.
The focus of this week’s lesson is a covenant of mutual love. It is the final lesson of the Sunday School year and an excellent way to close the topic of covenants between people. Some of the ideas surrounding this week’s text include the terms:
Over The last few weeks the lessons have focused on covenants between people. This week is a little different. The premise is the same. While this text does not mention two specific people we are still dealing with two people in the context of a covenant based in marriage. Just as a reminder “covenant” is defined as a formal agreement or treaty between two parties that establishes a relationship and in which obligations and mutual responsibilities may be enacted. Part of what I will focus on today is the mutuality of the covenant based in marriage. This week’s lesson is taken from Ephesians. The New Interpreter’s Study Bible notes “Biblical scholars disagree over whether the Letter to the Ephesians was written by Paul. The Greek style in the letter is different from uncontested letters by Paul, and the ideas in Ephesians represent developments in Paul’s thought among other discrepancies”. Even with other discrepancies the “evidence does not prove, however, that Ephesians is not authentically Pauline” (NISB). Additionally, “some reputable scholars maintain that Paul wrote Ephesians at the end of his life about 58 – 59 CE and the developments in Paul’s thought represents the “mature” Paul. Nelson’s Bible Handbook notes that Ephesians has a number of notable differences from the undisputed letters of Paul; possibly it was intended as a circular or “open letter” to a number of communities surrounding Ephesus”.
The NISB notes that “the main theme of Ephesians is God’s plan to reconcile Jews and Gentiles, which was accomplished through the death and resurrection of Jesus”. Our lesson text is taken from a section of the fifth chapter that is focused on the Christian household. “In the New Testament the first household codes appear in Colossians 3:18-4:1 which is a roster of duties for members of a Greco-Roman household. Other examples are found in 1 Timothy 2:8-3:13; Titus 2:1-10; and 1 Peter 2:13-3:7” (NISB). Additionally, the NISB notes that “the household code in Ephesians has been misused: First, because in some editions of the Bible, Ephesians 5:21 has not been printed with the code and second, because editors have not noted that “be subject” does not appear in the best manuscripts of 5:22” (NISB). Regardless of those controversies, the central message of this passage is mutual submission to one another and the lordship of Christ over all of us. One additional note of importance mentioned in the NISB is how this
“Text reflects unquestioning acceptance of slavery (chapter 6) as a social and economic institution. No modern Christian can hold such a view. Modern interpreters assume that slavery is not universally to be practiced, but they are sometimes hesitant to assert the same about the domination of wives by husbands”.
Our lesson this week is entitled A Covenant of Mutual Love. The importance of this mutual love should be the central focus with the lordship of Jesus Christ as the overarching guide. Some important words to consider from this text include:
Review of Last Week and How it Connects to This Week:
Last week our lesson came from Ruth chapter 3. Verses one and two began with Naomi’s concern for Ruth’s security. Naomi’s care and concern for Ruth underscored her love for her daughter-in-law. After realizing Boaz had shown interest in Ruth, Naomi knew exactly what to do. Naomi knew the customs of the barley harvest and as the reaping season drew to a close she gave her daughter-in-law specific instructions on how to conduct herself.
In verse three Naomi told Ruth to wash, anoint herself with perfume, and to put on her best clothes. Naomi told her to go to the threshing floor but not to make herself known to Boaz until after he has finished eating and drinking. Naomi knew exactly what she was doing. With the specific instructions she gave Ruth she hoped to ensure Ruth’s success with convincing Boaz to marry her.
Naomi’s instructions continued in verse four. She told Ruth “when he lies down, observe the place then go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do”. In verse five Ruth demonstrated her obedience to Naomi telling her “all that you tell me I will do”. I cited the NISB noting that the Hebrew word for “lie down” is used eight times in 3:4-14. The NISB noted that “Lie down” can simply mean “sleep” but this word is also frequently used in biblical texts to imply sexual intercourse.
Verse six told us Ruth followed Naomi’s instructions. Verse seven is not in the lesson, but it told us how after Boaz was content with eating and drinking he lies down at the end of a heap of grain and how Ruth “came stealthily and uncovered his feet, and lay down”. I cited the New Interpreter’s Bible One Volume Commentary noting that “The Hebrew of this scene is filled with words that may have either ordinary meanings or sexual overtones, especially the words “feet” (used euphemistically for genitals) and “lie down” (for sleeping or sexual relations). Both in content and choice of vocabulary, the storyteller establishes the possibility for a sexual tryst outside of marriage, yet draws back from saying exactly what took place”.
Verse eight told us that at midnight Boaz was startled discovering a woman laying at his feet. It’s easy to understand how he might be startled having gone to sleep alone only to wake in the middle of the night with a woman lying next to him. I also noted that Boaz is likely a pious man given his greeting in chapter two verse four.
In verse nine Ruth explained “I am your servant; spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin”. This is Ruth’s marriage proposal. The NIBOVC noted that “spread your cloak over your servant” is in effect elevated language for a marriage proposal. Verse ten helps us understand just how wise Naomi was. Naomi had given Ruth specific instructions and now Boaz says “may you be blessed by the Lord, my daughter; this last instance of your loyalty is better than the first”. Here Boaz recognizes Ruth’s actions toward him as better than her actions toward her mother-in-law. He knows how loving and faithful Ruth has been toward Naomi. Now he sees that same kind of love and faithfulness toward him by Ruth.
In verse eleven we saw the covenant to marry that Boaz made to Ruth. In verse nine Ruth proposes marriage. In verse eleven Boaz makes the covenant to marry Ruth. He promises her “do not be afraid, I will do for you all that you ask”.
Verse twelve introduced a twist. Boaz told Ruth there was another kinsman more closely related than he was. Yet, Boaz will be determined to see this matter through successfully.
In verse sixteen Ruth returns to her mother-in-law who asks “how did things go with you, my daughter”. Ruth tells Naomi all that happed and in verse seventeen she says “He gave me these six measures of barley, for he said; do not go back to your mother-in-law empty-handed”. Naomi’s plan worked. Boaz sent Ruth home with six measures of barley to show his appreciation. And in verse eighteen Naomi told Ruth to simply wait. She knows Boaz will not rest until this marriage is settled.
This week’s lesson deals with marriage as a covenant of mutual love. It closes our lessons on covenants between people. This week we look at the husband wife relationship within the household codes of Ephesians. Paul emphasizes how husbands and wives submit to one another in reverence to Christ. He gives specific instructions especially to the husbands as their instructions are much longer than the wives. Townsend and Boyd’s Commentaries title this week’s lesson Marriage: A Covenant of Mutual Love. Standard Lesson Commentary titles it A Covenant of Love. The scripture text comes from Ephesians 5:21-33.
What Takes Place in This Passage:
Verse twenty-one is the key verse in this text. It is the central focus of this passage and our lesson. Be subject to one another. The Greek word for “subject” “is a military term meaning to line up under” (NISB). I think that’s a good expression to form the idea of working together. We line up under each other to support each other and we line up under Jesus Christ to support the cause of Christ.
Verse twenty-two says that wives ought to submit themselves to their own husbands as unto the Lord. I have personally witnessed how terribly this verse can be misused by a husband. So let me by clear. This verse does not make a husband superior, greater, more authoritative, more respected or more valuable in any way, shape or form that his wife. This verse does not put the husband above the wife in any way. Men are not better than women, husbands are not better than wives. What really bothers me is that some women will accept being treated inferior as if that is somehow pleasing to God. It’s not. Women and wives ought to be full participants in the cause of Christ. In most of the churches I have been associated with, the church would close down if women didn’t show up.
Having said that, I refer you again to verse twenty-one; we are to submit ourselves one to another. Marriage is teamwork. There are areas where my wife needs to lead. When she leads, I line up under her and follow her leadership. That’s one way mutual love is expressed.
Verse twenty-three tells us the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the savior. Jesus Christ is our example. If Jesus wouldn’t treat a woman in an inferior way, neither should a husband. Additionally, keep in mind that life in this first century world revolved around patriarchy. Every area of life in this first century world centered on a male authority system that oppressed and subordinated women through social, political, and economic institutions and practices. For Paul to say that women and men should be subject to one another is a radical thought for his time. Yet, given the oppression women faced in his time and the oppression women still face today I wish that he had gone further to tear down the ideology of patriarchy.
Verse twenty-four reminds us that the church is subject to Jesus Christ. So, as the church lines up under Jesus Christ, so too should wives line up under their husbands. Again, I refer you to our key verse – Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Verse twenty-five tells husbands to love their wives just as Christ loved the Church. Christ’s love for the church was sacrificial. There was literally nothing greater that Christ could have given other than his own life.
Verse twenty-six gives us a reason to love sacrificially. That purpose is “In order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word”. The NISB notes that the washing of water presents the “image of baptism or the ritual purification baths of Jewish women”. At any rate, the sacrificial love of the husband is again an effort in teamwork. The picture is one such as Christ giving himself for the church and the husband giving himself for the wife.
Verse twenty-seven goes even further helping us understand that because of this sacrificial love the church is presented in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle so that she may be holy and without blemish. The husband’s sacrificial love does this for the wife. While the wife is called upon to submit to her husband, the husband is called upon to love his wife.
Verses twenty-eight through thirty drive the point home for the husband. In all of this teaching, “it is the husband who receives the longest instruction” in this household code (NISB). Just as husbands love their own bodies, they should also love their wives. Furthermore, “he who loves his wife loves himself”. Perhaps this is a point that sometimes gets overlooked, but in verse twenty-nine Paul is saying the husband nourishes and tenderly cares for his body. I see this as a part of our duty both to ourselves and to our wives. Toxic masculinity kills men. Men, it’s okay to get rest when you need it. It’s okay to take care of yourselves. It’s okay to take time off from work to see your doctor, your counselor, your psychiatrist, psychologist or any other medical professional. We have to take care of ourselves or our wives may end up widows.
Verse thirty-one is a familiar passage telling us “for this reason a man will leave his father and mother, be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. In this verse Paul reminds us of Genesis 2:24 where it says “a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and they two become one flesh. So, a mutual love covenant is about teamwork, working together, supporting, and loving one another as we line up under one another as unto Jesus Christ.
In verse thirty-two Paul admits that two becoming one flesh is a mystery. The point for us to understand is that husbands and wives should work so closely together that they seem to be as one unit. There should be no daylight between the husband and wife as they both seek to serve God’s purposes.
This chapter closes with Paul reminding both the husband and the wife of their duties to one another. The husband should love his wife and the wife should respect her husband.
Some of you may know that one of my daughters will be joined in a covenant of mutual love next month. I am excited for her and her future life-long partner. Their mutual love is evident to everyone that knows them. The covenant they will enter is just one way God shows God’s love in this world. The ceremony is a great representation of that love. But it’s in the actual day to day living and loving, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health that true love is made known. I’m excited for my daughter and her covenant partner. I’m excited that God will be represented in their marriage ceremony, but I’m more excited that God will be represented in the way they love each other, with their friends and family, and in their community. Marriage is a covenant of mutual love.
Key Characters in the text:
Apostle Paul – A minister of the Word of Christ to Gentile believers in many parts of the Asian continent during the early development of the church (Townsend).
Household Codes – New Testament passages that provide ethical instruction for various social parings: wives and husbands, children and parents, slaves and masters (Eph. 5:22-6:9; Col 3:18-4:1; 1 Peter 2:18-3:7).
Covenant – A formal agreement or treaty between two parties that establishes a relationship and in which obligations and mutual responsibilities may be enacted. Many biblical covenants are found, some providing only divine promises while others entail obligations.
Themes, Topics, Discussion, or Sermon Preparation Ideas:
1. Real men love their wives.
2. Teamwork makes the dream work.
1. Ephesians is a first century letter to a church in which patriarchy ruled the day. How does patriarchy exist today?
2. Husbands are commanded to love their wives. Discuss whether that is possible if the husband does not take care of himself.
Biblically sanctioned patriarchy is just as wrong as Biblically sanctioned slavery. No one argues for the return of biblical slavery as if somehow Biblical slavery was less violent than American chattel enslavement. It is plainly evident that all forms of enslavement are wrong. Likewise, Biblical patriarchy oppressing women is wrong and should not be tolerated today. Paul makes a small step in the right direction when he tells us to be subject to one another. It’s up to us to go the rest of the way toward a more equal and always loving society.
Preview of Next Week’s Lesson:
Next week begins the first lesson of the new Sunday School year and the Fall Quarter. This Fall our lessons revolve around how we respond to God’s grace. Through the month of September the focus is on how God is Faithful. Next week’s lesson deals specifically with the ideas of faith and doubt as Lot and his family escape Sodom. The lesson is entitled Faith and Doubt.