The introductory statement for Paul’s famous paragraph on marriage in Ephesians is verse 21: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”1 In English, this is usually rendered as a separate sentence, but that hides from readers an important point that Paul is making. In the Greek text, verse 21 is the last clause in the long previous sentence in which Paul describes several marks of a person who is “filled with the Spirit.” The last mark of Spirit fullness is in this last clause: It is a loss of pride and self-will that leads a person to humbly serve others. From this Spirit-empowered submission of verse 21, Paul moves to the duties of wives and husbands.
Modern Western readers immediately focus on (and often bristle at) the word “submit,” because for us it touches the controversial issue of gender roles. But to start arguing about that is a mistake that will be fatal to any true grasp of Paul’s introductory point. He is declaring that everything he is about to say about marriage assumes that the parties are being filled with God’s Spirit. Only if you have learned to serve others by the power of the Holy Spirit will you have the power to face the challenges of marriage.
The first place in the New Testament that discusses the work of the Spirit at length is in the gospel of John. Jesus considered the teaching so important that he devoted much time to it on the night before he died. When we hear of “spiritual filledness,” we think of inner peace and power, and that may indeed be a result. Jesus, however, spoke of the Holy Spirit primarily as the “Spirit of Truth” who will “remind you of everything I have said to you” (John 14:17, 26). The Holy Spirit “will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you” (John 16:14). What does this mean?
“Make known” translates a Greek word meaning a momentous announcement that rivets attention. The Holy Spirit’s task, then, is to unfold the meaning of Jesus’s person and work to believers in such a way that the glory of it—its infinite importance and beauty—is brought home to the mind and heart.2 This is why earlier in the letter to the Ephesians, Paul can pray that “the eyes of your heart be enlightened” (1:18), that they might “have power … to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ …” (3:17–18). The Holy Spirit’s ministry is to take truths about Jesus and make them clear to our minds and real to our hearts—so real that they console and empower and change us at our very center.
To be “filled with the Spirit,” then, is to live a life of joy, sometimes quiet, sometimes towering. Truths about God’s glory and Jesus’s saving work are not just believed with the mind but create inner music (Ephesians 5:19) and an inner relish in the soul. “Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ …” (verses 19–20). And because the object of this song is not favorable life circumstances (which can change) but rather the truth and grace of Jesus (which cannot), this heart song does not weaken in times of difficulty.
Immediately after discussing the Spirit-filled life, Paul turns to the subject of marriage, showing the tight connection between marriage and the life in the Spirit.
Timothy Keller and Kathy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God, 1st ed. (New York: Dutton, 2011), 22–26.
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