August 8, 2021
Marriage is not a cultural invention. Rather, it is a union between one man and one woman, as God designed from creation. But sin disrupted God’s plan, causing us to rebel against the marriage roles that He established for our good. As Alistair Begg explains, only Jesus can reverse the effects of the fall, restoring relationships so that our lives reflect what is fitting in the Lord and proclaim the Gospel’s transforming power to a lost and broken world.
We’re going to read from the Bible, in Genesis, from the second chapter of Genesis and from the fifteenth verse:
“TheLordGod took the manand put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. And theLordGod commanded the man, saying, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden,but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evilyou shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it youshall surely die.’
“Then theLordGod said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone;I will make him a helper fit forhim.’Now out of the ground theLordGod had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens andbrought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him. So theLordGod caused adeep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that theLordGod had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, ‘This at last isbone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she wastaken out of Man.’ Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.”
And I invite you to turn with me now to Colossians 3:18. Our text is short and is clear: “Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.”
Lord our God, we have asked that your Word may dwell in us richly, and we pray that that will be the case: that you will grant help to me, that you will grant help to each of us, so that as we sit under the truth of your Word, we may rejoice in all of its provision and in the wonder that it sends us always to your dearly beloved Son, Jesus, in whose name we pray. Amen.
Well, our decision a couple of weeks ago, now, to take a pause from our studies in 2 Samuel—to which, God willing, we will return after Labor Day, I hope—the reason that we did that was motivated in part, as we acknowledged then, by the awareness that we each have of the crucial role that is given to Christian parents in the instruction and guidance of their children. And we said that the nature of the material as we go into 2 Samuel 13 may be such that certain parents would prefer that they were the ones who tackle that passage in due course rather than that they found themselves encountered by it with their children in that context.
In saying that, we then considered the vital partnership—or, if you like, the importance of understanding the vital partnership—between what it means to be made members of God’s family, the church, and how the specific instructions for the physical family come in that context. We said to one another, it’s very important that we grasp this, because it is very common for studies in the Christian family per se—particularly husbands, wives, parents, children, and so on—not purposefully but unwittingly to be divorced from the wider context in which they’re always set. For example, in the Ephesians passage, Paul is about to go on and deal with spiritual warfare—not beginning a new topic, as it were, but recognizing the challenges that exist in the Christian family. Here he’s about to move from the big family, if you like, to the smaller family. Peter does the same thing: having laid out the nature of the gospel, he then goes on to say, “This is why this is important.”
So, to the extent that you feel we’re belaboring that, you’re absolutely right. The specific instructions given to the physical family are set in the context of the church family. Which, of course, raises immediately the question, Who or what is the church family? And here in Colossians, we have the answer to that very, very clear. If you move in your Bible simply to the opening page of Colossians, you will see that Paul, the apostle of Christ Jesus, along with Timothy his brother, is addressing those to whom he refers as “the saints and faithful brothers [and sisters].” He then goes on to say that these are the ones who are marked by three things in particular: by faith, by love, and by hope. In other words, these individuals are not simply a collection of religious people that are living in the Colossae valley, but they are those who have had a direct encounter with the living God in and through the work of the Spirit of God in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Now, if you have your text in front of you, let me point out to you that he describes the fact that, in verse 6, this gospel, this word of truth, has come to them, and they have—you will notice the verb—“understood” it. They have “understood” it. There is a mysterious work when men and women understand the gospel. You will not come to understand the gospel as a result of sufficient argumentation. Argument, apologetic, is insufficient. It’s not unnecessary, but it’s insufficient. Because what happens is, when the Holy Spirit comes and enables us to understand, he doesn’t do so contra the evidence, but what he does is he clears away the mists from our eyes, and suddenly, what was unclear becomes clear in a way that takes us by surprise. And we say when someone asks us, “And are you a member of the family?”—“Yes, I am.” “What happened to you?” “Well, it was quite remarkable, really, because I understood God’s grace.” That’s in verse 6.
In verse 12, he describes them as those who are “qualified.” “Qualified.” “Giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you.” On the basis of what? Not on the basis of entry to a club, not on the basis of academic success, not on the basis of gender or social standing, but qualified solely on the strength of who Jesus is and what he has done.
Who are the members of the family? Those who are marked by faith, by love, by hope. How did this come about? They understood God’s grace. They were qualified by God’s grace. And in verse 13 there, they were “delivered” from where they used to hang out, and they were “transferred … to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption,” even “the forgiveness of [our] sins.”
Now, I put it to you: this is something far greater than the idea, “Are you a member of such and such a church family that meets in such and such a building?” No, no, no. That is perfectly possible by means of all kinds of processes, but the work that is being described here and the call that is being issued here is being issued to Christian people. In other words, the Christian family is distinct from every other family, in that the work of God’s grace is present in the parents, who have by his grace understood, been qualified, transferred into his kingdom, and been set free.
Now, if all of that has actually happened, you can see that surely there ought to be evidence of it somewhere. And, of course, that is why Paul and Timothy have been praying that their outward lives—those to whom he writes, the recipients of the letter, they and we—that their outward life would be in keeping with the gospel. It’s 1:10: “[that you would] walk in a manner worthy of the Lord.”
Now, what this means, then, is that as members of God’s family, we are called to display the reality of that in practical ways in our own little families, so that our little families are outposts of the gospel. Now, you’re sensible people. You can read the Bible here and see if there’s a logical progression in what I’m saying. The Christian family is supposed to be a good advertisement—in fact, a fantastic advertisement—for the gospel in the world, for the Christian faith. In fact, if Christianity is ever going to have an impact on society, it must revolutionize our home life.
And here is the challenge at this point vis-à-vis the family in the United States. The real challenge is not simply a challenge which extends to our ability to articulate what we believe, but it is actually a challenge to live in such a way that people around us, meeting us, greeting us, looking on at us, have occasion to say, “Well, what in the world is it about them?”
Now, it is for this reason that Paul consistently—and the other apostles too—move from the spiritual to the physical family, and do so in such a way as to help us avoid the idea that every time you come to stuff about husbands and wives and parents and children, you can, if you are not a husband or a wife or a parent or whatever, then you can just simply skip that and go to the next section. No. It’s not in there specifically for parents and children. It is there for all of us. Why? Well, because of what I’ve just said. Because the issue is the gospel. The gospel is at stake in relationship to the roles that are assigned to us.
So, there in Colossians 3:17—getting back at least in proximity to our text—he says, “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. Wives…” Wow! That’s a pretty abrupt move, isn’t it? “Whatever you do…” “Oh, yes, I’m good for whatever I do. Oh! Whatever I do. Yes, yes, yes.” “Wives…” “No, no, no, no. We didn’t do ‘Wives…’” Oh yes you did! It goes from “Whatever” (that starts with a W) to “Wives” (that also starts with a W). “Whatever… Wives…” In other words, ladies first. That’s how it’s supposed to be. Why ladies first? Well, because of the crucial, central, vital part assigned by the Lord to the Christian wife. That’s why. That’s why.
Now, in tackling this this morning, I want you to know up front that I’m not gonna spend hardly any time at all talking about the practical implications of what it means to be a submissive wife. I’m gonna trust you to put the pieces of the puzzle together for yourselves. You know what you’re dealing with. You know where you live. You know how this needs to be applied. I want instead to address this somewhat differently, and that is first of all to answer a question that rises in the minds of people: Where in the world did we get this from? How do we have wives? How do we have marriage? How is it that we even have this stuff? You say, “Well, that’s ridiculous.” No, it’s not. Move about. Listen to contemporary music. Listen to the cries of teenagers. Listen to those who are postmillennial in their perspective. Observe their lifestyles, and you realize that they’re beginning from a very different place than many of us want to start. They’re beginning, actually, at the very beginning.
So, you will see: “Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.” “Fitting in the Lord.” It doesn’t say “as it fits in with your own agenda” but “as it is fitting in the Lord.” Because it is the Lord who created this—that the whole reality of what we deal with in the structure of marriage is not invented by culture; it is established by creation. So when someone says, “Well, where did we get this from?” the answer is, “From God.” You know, I’ve told you before about my grandson looking up at the moon, and I said to him, “Where does it come from?” And he said, “I don’t know.” And I said, “It comes from God.” And he said, “Oh! Oh.” Same thing. Where does it come from? It comes from God. “In the beginning, God created…”
Did you notice that, what I read there in Genesis 2, about the naming of the animals, about the dominion of man over the animal kingdom? Try that in our pantheistic age. Consider that in relationship to the concerns of ecology. No, you see, the Bible deals with this quite radically.
And when Jesus actually is asked about things in relationship to the disruption of marriage—and you can find this in Matthew 19—he goes immediately back to the doctrine of creation. He doesn’t argue from the contemporary world in which he’s living. He doesn’t argue on the basis of pragmatism. He goes right back to the fact; he says, “Don’t you know how it was in the beginning? Don’t you know how God started this thing off? Don’t you understand that?” Well, of course, the answer is, for many of us, “No, we don’t understand it.”
Human sexuality is part and parcel of creation. Creation. That’s where it comes from. Masculinity and femininity are both physiological and psychological realities. “Who says?” God says. “Oh!” Therefore, the instruction is permanent and universal.
Now, you see, unless we get grounded in this, we can have all the kind of talks that you have in these books with about twenty chapters on what you’re supposed to do. They’re very helpful, I’m sure. But that is down the line until we understand this. What God has established by creation no culture will be able to destroy. It will destroy itself first, but it will not destroy the reality of that which God has founded from the creation of the world. We need to understand that, and we need to believe it. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not [put it out].” “Heaven and earth,” says Jesus, “will pass away, but my [word] will [never] pass away.” This is the foundation. You say, “But I thought it is about wives?” Yes, it is! By creation, God has put this in place. That’s the first observation.
Secondly: but look at us. The Bible not only explains its origin, but it explains why it is that it’s so messed up. Why is everything so messed up? Well, you just go back again to the passage that I read. Go on into chapter 3. Do it for homework. And you discover that God’s perfect plan was disturbed. Adam’s role, assigned to him, was to lead, not because he was superior but because it was “fitting in the Lord.” God constituted the order for his purpose. Eve came after Adam; Eve came out of Adam; Eve came for Adam. Who says? God says.
Well, what happened? Well, she listened to the serpent instead of listening to Adam. And Adam listened to Eve instead of listening to God. And the result was disruption in the order and confusion in the roles. Immediately, things were out of kilter. You need only to go on immediately into the fourth chapter and see how the disruptive impact of that extended beyond Adam and Eve to their children.
Now, why is this so important? Well, it’s so important because we have to recognize that God ordained marriage in part for the lifelong companionship which is the beauty of marriage, and in the awareness of the fact that the welfare of human society, as we often say in our marriage service—that the welfare of human society can be strong and happy only where the marriage bond is held in honor. Well, how can the marriage bond be held in honor if people don’t even understand the origin of the marriage bond itself? This is not an invention along the way. This is not a cage in which people are trapped. This is the divine order of creation. And until we understand that, then our particular roles within it will appear to be a construct that emerges from somebody’s bright head or something else.
Why is it that the contemporary reaction to things is as it is? Well, because human nature has never liked this. Fallen man doesn’t like this. That’s why at one level, you know, you have old songs like Elton John: “You, me, and everybody needs [the] part-time love.” Why do you need a part-time love? Don’t you have a wife? Yeah, well, she’s your love. “No, but I need a part-time one.” What, you hate this? (Now, we can go beyond there. It just came through my mind. I put it back out of my mind. Sorry.)
As I’ve been studying this, I have found it hard not to read the contemporary circumstances vis-à-vis this without reference to 2 Thessalonians 2, where Paul is speaking about “the man of lawlessness” who is to come before the return of Jesus Christ. And in that context, he says in 2 Thessalonians 2:7, “For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Only he who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed.”
There is a ton in that. There’s a sermon on its own in that, isn’t there? That the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. It is anti-God. It is anti-law. It is antisocial. It is the rejection of moral absolutes. It is a fundamental opposition to a biblical view of family, a biblical view of sexuality, and a biblical view of marriage. If you want to know why the predicament is the way it is, then the Bible tells us that God’s plan is absolutely perfect. Rebellion against God’s plan brings disruption and confusion. The activity of the Evil One is to fan that into a flame. And there are periods in history—and I believe we are in one of those periods in history—where this mystery of lawlessness seems almost to have taken hold at a point at which it seems almost insurmountable.
But don’t go there, because it isn’t. We’ve still not at the “Wives…” part yet, but that’s okay. This is number three. Number three. So if it is there by creation, if it is disrupted by sin, it is, thirdly, restored by grace. Restored by grace.
You see, the Bible tells us that it is only in Jesus—only in Jesus—that we find freedom from the disruption of relationships brought about by the fall. Only in Jesus is there freedom from that. No self-help book will ultimately fix it. No psychological methodology will be able to change you. We need an expulsive power of a new affection. We need somebody to come from the outside of us and live within us and so open our understanding, so qualify us, so make us new—and then so make us obedient.
Actually, what this is all about is the fact that Jesus is Lord. Jesus is Lord. You will see that in the little section beginning in verse 18, here, in chapter 3, it is the lordship of Christ that keeps coming: “Submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.” “Children, obey your parents because it pleases the Lord.” “Make sure you do your work in the fear of the Lord,” and so on.
It is only when we understand that Jesus is Lord of all that we will discover any kind of wholeness, any kind of freedom. Because in Jesus, all that happened in the fall is reversed. That’s why when we read in the Epistles, Jesus is referred to as the second Adam or the last Adam. Romans 5:19: “For as by the one man’s disobedience”—that is, Adam—“the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” Jesus obeyed where Adam failed, and Jesus took the divine judgment that Adam and we in him deserve.
You say, “Well, where would there be evidence of this?” Well, there are hints of this amazing restorative principle in his miracles. Because people would observe what Jesus was doing and say, “There’s nobody can do these things. How is it that this happens?” He was the King. He was giving an indication of what would ultimately be the case when the lion metaphorically lies down with the lamb, when all things are made new.
So, you have a hint of it in the miracles. You have the promise of it, ultimately, in a new heaven and a new earth. And you have it presently—now, wait for this!—you have it presently in the church. Remember when you go to the marriage service: “And this is the great mystery. And we are talking about Christ and the church.” Now, that ought to make the hair on the back of your neck stand up just a little bit. “Are you telling me that my part as a husband or as a wife is directly related to the plan and purpose of God in relationship to his church and its effectiveness in the universe?” Yes! ’Cause that’s what the Bible says. “The restorative principle”—in a sentence from Sinclair—“the liberation from decay, the smoothing-out of that which sin has rumpled and distorted, is also seen in Christian marriage.”
So, God planned it, sin spoiled it, grace restores it, and my marriage is to display it. You say, “Well, did we reach our verse?” Yes, I think you can safely say so. Someone says, “But we’re only now getting to the point, aren’t we? We’re now going to get to grips with the good stuff.” Well, I say to you again, let’s be clear about why this matters. It actually is not about whether you’re having a really happy time in your marriage. It’s about something far bigger.
When Paul writes to Titus and he gives him instructions about how he should conduct himself in pastoral ministry, he says that it is vitally important that there is instruction for the young women—that they are trained “to love their husbands and [their] children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands.” Do you know what the next phrase is? “So that they may have a really happy time”? Uh-uh. “[So] that the word of God [will] not be reviled.” In other words, so that you as a Christian wife will not by your attitude towards your husband cause some of your friends at the tennis club to disregard the gospel on account of your behavior. In other words, Christian wife, so that you may not cause people to revile his Word, but so that you may be a walking advertisement for the reality of the transforming power of the gospel.
In other words, it is only when we view marriage in the context of the gospel, only when we understand that the chief end of marriage is “to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever”—only when we get that in place will we then be able to tackle all the rest of it. We will be able to respond to those who say, “Well, what about verse 11?” You look down at your text: “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and [is] in all.” People come and say, “So, there you have it. It’s all settled there, isn’t it?” What, do you mean to say that Paul was going to contradict himself in the matter of seven verses? No! The eleventh verse doesn’t evacuate 18–21 in terms of its impact. No! “Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.”
Now, if we imagine a picture, if we imagine this picture—it is a picture of a husband issuing commands and of a wife obeying orders—then we’re gonna have to look somewhere other than the New Testament for that picture. Because that is not actually the picture. In fact, it is interesting that as you go on in this section, the word that is used in relationship to the wives, the word is “submit.” In the relationship to slaves and masters, it is the word “obey.”
Well, you say, “Well, what is that? Isn’t that just a synonym?” Sue and I had this conversation just yesterday afternoon. She said, “Well, that means the same thing, doesn’t it?” I said, “Honey, no, it doesn’t mean the same thing.” Submission is a voluntary self-giving. A voluntary self-giving. A voluntary self-giving to a lover—to a lover whose responsibility is defined in the verse that follows. A responsibility of constructive care, a responsibility of putting the other person first. In other words, submission is the response of love to love. It’s the response of love to love.
The distinction that exists within the roles is a distinction of function. It’s not a distinction of value. Susan and I have an equal standing and an equal dignity before God by creation. We have an equal standing before God by redemption. But we have been assigned different roles according to the Maker’s design. And therefore, it becomes a matter of great significance.
So someone says to you—they meet you in the grocery store or wherever you are—says “So, I believe you’re a Christian. What are you doing? What’s your role in the kingdom of God?” And the wife says, “Well, by God’s grace, I’m fulfilling the role intended for me.” The person says, “Oh, what is that?” You say, “Well, I’m submitting to my husband as is fitting in the Lord.” The person says, “Are you crazy, or what? Is there more than that?” More than that? That’s an assignment, by any standards. No, the Christian wife is to be able to say, “My relationship to my husband is a reflection of my commitment to the Lord Jesus.” There may be more than that, but there dare not be less.
Now, let me end in this way, and our time is gone. If Christianity is to have an impact on society in the present day—like, right now. Don’t think Biden. Don’t think Trump. Don’t think masks. Don’t think… Forget all that just now, all right? Just think about the fact that you, as a single person, have friends who are husbands and wives. You’re an aunt, you’re an uncle to children. What is your role there? Well, it’s to be supportive of God’s ultimate purpose. It’s to take your part there in prayer, in encouraging. You have the children. You take them to the pool. The children say this or they say that; say, “No, honey, listen. This is what it means to be… This is what matters.” So the role is an important role.
Why is it that so many Christian homes are struggling in this area? Well, partly because we’ve decided that our preferences take precedent over God’s plan. Partly, our poor showing is not on account of a dearth of information. Goodness gracious, there’s more ink given to this than probably any other aspect of Christian living in the twenty-first century. So it can’t be an absence of material. No. It has to be a lack of application. Well then, it has to be that I’m guilty of hearing it but not doing it. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that I listen far more to the voices of a godless culture than I listen to the voice of God.
The late John Murray wrote of how it’s possible for us to be formally committed to the fact that God’s Word is living and authoritative—“I believe it to be living and authoritative”—without being arrested by it, being summoned into its presence, bowing in reverence before the one to whom it points—and expressly (because this is our text), for a wife, saying, “Okay. This is the fitting way.”
You say, “Well, wait a minute. You’re gonna stop right now? Isn’t there—shouldn’t verse 18 be considered in relationship to verse 19? What about husbands? When do we hear about them?” Tonight. Six o’clock. Don’t be late!
God our Father, thank you for your Word. Thank you that you love the world that you made so much that despite our rebellion, the disruption, the confusion, you come, and you seek us out, because you love us. How marvelous is this! Help us to acknowledge how deep is our need and therefore how grateful we are for all that you provide for us in Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.
 Colossians 1:2 (ESV).
 Genesis 1:1 (ESV).
 Matthew 19:4–6 (paraphrased).
 John 1:5 (ESV).
 Matthew 24:35 (ESV).
 Elton John, “Part-Time Love” (1978).
 2 Thessalonians 2:3 (ESV).
 Colossians 3:20 (paraphrased).
 Colossians 3:22 (paraphrased).
 See Isaiah 11:6.
 See Revelation 21:5.
 Ephesians 5:32 (paraphrased).
 Titus 2:4–5 (ESV).
 The Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q. 1.