I have been slow-reading Ephesians 5 for a few days. There is a wealth of material packed into one chapter of this letter to the ancient church at Ephesus. The letter was written in the first century of the Common Era, most likely around the year 62 and most likely by the Apostle Paul. The first striking concept appears in verse one: “Imitate God, therefore, in everything you do.” That sets the bar particularly high. How does one imitate the Creator and Sustainer of the universe? The answer is found in verse two: “Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ.” His example is further spelled out in that same verse: “He [that is Christ] loved us and offered himself as a sacrifice for us, a pleasing aroma to God.”
These two verses set the stage for the rest of the chapter; a chapter that is filled with much practical advice on the ways in which we “imitate God.” It is important to pause on the first two verses and allow them to speak into the rest of the teaching. If we fail to grasp the importance of the words, “live a life filled with love” we will certainly misunderstand and misappropriate the rest of the chapter.
The practical advice of the chapter includes warnings about avoiding greed, sexual immorality, and evil intentions. It also speaks to the nature of marriage relationships. Many have read this chapter without continually referring back to the first two verses. They question what gives Paul, a single man, the right to speak about sexuality and the marriage relationship. Many have characterized Paul as prudish and lacking an appreciation for sexuality in its broadest sense. Many might suggest that the Apostle Paul should, like Pierre Elliott Trudeau once said about the Canadian government, “get out of the bedrooms of the people?”1
But, if we constantly keep in mind that imitating God means to “live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ,” we will have a better understanding of what it is that God is communicating through the Apostle Paul. Our sexual relationships, like the rest of our lives, must be filled with love. Sexual immorality is anything that takes sex and turns it into something it is not meant to be. God designed sexuality to be a self-giving and generous action. When greed and fulfillment of our own impulses become primary, sexual intimacy has been tainted and quickly becomes something other than that which it was intended to be. Sex is about giving ourselves to another and about cooperating with another person for the purposes of creating new life.
At first glance, the last sentence of the previous paragraph may not sound controversial; but in emphasizing both the “giving of ourselves” and the “cooperation with another person for the purposes of creating new life,” I am taking a stance that is not often underscored in Evangelical Church conversations. As one writer has recently said,
“marriage, in scripture and the Christian tradition, has never merely been about love; it’s about faithful love and new life.”2
“to become one-flesh with one’s spouse is to coordinate biologically with an other for the common purpose of bringing about new life.”3It is this proper understanding of the place of sexuality in our lives that is most lacking in our Western World today; and Ephesians 5 has the capacity to reorient the discussion. Would it not be revolutionary if we once again captured the idea that sexual intimacy is about “imitating God,” “living a life of love,” and “offering” ourselves in a generous and “sacrificial” manner? The writer further summarizes in his paper,
“We were created from the beginning – male and female – for faithful love and new life: this is the meaning of our sexuality. But our sexuality is not absolute; it is a sign of the divine being-in-relation and of the Father’s plan from the beginning to unite his creation to himself.”4
In this post, I will not take the time to fully address the last sentence of the quote. I will merely introduce the concept that “our sexuality is not absolute” and remind us that it points to something greater. Perhaps that can be the topic of another post. For now, I leave you with the text of Ephesians 5 and encourage all to meditate on the words “live a life of love” as we slowly read this ancient text.
Ephesians 5:1-33 (New Living Translation)
1 Imitate God, therefore, in everything you do, because you are his dear children. 2 Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ. He loved us and offered himself as a sacrifice for us, a pleasing aroma to God.
3 Let there be no sexual immorality, impurity, or greed among you. Such sins have no place among God’s people. 4 Obscene stories, foolish talk, and coarse jokes—these are not for you. Instead, let there be thankfulness to God. 5 You can be sure that no immoral, impure, or greedy person will inherit the Kingdom of Christ and of God. For a greedy person is an idolater, worshiping the things of this world.
6 Don’t be fooled by those who try to excuse these sins, for the anger of God will fall on all who disobey him. 7 Don’t participate in the things these people do. 8 For once you were full of darkness, but now you have light from the Lord. So live as people of light! 9 For this light within you produces only what is good and right and true.
10 Carefully determine what pleases the Lord. 11 Take no part in the worthless deeds of evil and darkness; instead, expose them. 12 It is shameful even to talk about the things that ungodly people do in secret. 13 But their evil intentions will be exposed when the light shines on them, 14 for the light makes everything visible. This is why it is said,
“Awake, O sleeper,
rise up from the dead,
and Christ will give you light.”
15 So be careful how you live. Don’t live like fools, but like those who are wise. 16 Make the most of every opportunity in these evil days. 17 Don’t act thoughtlessly, but understand what the Lord wants you to do. 18 Don’t be drunk with wine, because that will ruin your life. Instead, be filled with the Holy Spirit, 19 singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, and making music to the Lord in your hearts. 20 And give thanks for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.21 And further, submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
22 For wives, this means submit to your husbands as to the Lord. 23 For a husband is the head of his wife as Christ is the head of the church. He is the Savior of his body, the church. 24 As the church submits to Christ, so you wives should submit to your husbands in everything.
25 For husbands, this means love your wives, just as Christ loved the church. He gave up his life for her 26 to make her holy and clean, washed by the cleansing of God’s word. 27 He did this to present her to himself as a glorious church without a spot or wrinkle or any other blemish. Instead, she will be holy and without fault. 28 In the same way, husbands ought to love their wives as they love their own bodies. For a man who loves his wife actually shows love for himself.29 No one hates his own body but feeds and cares for it, just as Christ cares for the church. 30 And we are members of his body.
31 As the Scriptures say, “A man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.” 32 This is a great mystery, but it is an illustration of the way Christ and the church are one. 33 So again I say, each man must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.
1 "Omnibus Bill: 'There's no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation'". CBC News (Toronto: CBC Digital Archives). 1967-12-21. Archived from the original on 2012-08-12. Retrieved 2012-08-12 and 2015-05-25.
2 Private communication.