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The Mystery of Marital Love

“Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband
is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church. . . .
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for
her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word. . . .
This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church.”
(Ephesians 5:22-23,26,32)

If you were asked to give a definition for the word love, how would you answer? I suppose it depends on the kind of love you’re thinking about. There are different forms of love. If you’re a parent you might define love as the feeling of deep affection you have for your child (“I love my son to death”). If you’re engaged, you might define it as the romantic attachment you have for your sweetheart (“It was love at first sight”). If you’re a football enthusiast it may mean the great interest and pleasure you have in watching your team play (“I love the Seahawks”).
If you are a Bible student, you may be aware that Greek, the original language of the New Testament, has several distinct words for love. The Greek word eros doesn’t occur in the Bible; it is used in reference to the love of sexual attraction. Philia is the love shared by friends. Then there’s agape (uh-GAHP-ay), the highest and most important form of love. A key characteristic of agape is the willingness to put the welfare/happiness/comfort of others before your own. Agape has been defined as love that decides to do what is in someone else’s best interests no matter what, even when that person doesn’t deserve it.
It’s no accident that agape is the word the Bible most often uses when it speaks of the love God had for us lost, perishing sinners. Before we knew Him or possessed any ability to worship or serve Him or do anything to show Him our love, He made the unilateral decision to love and save us by sending His Son into the world. Through Jesus, Who lived and died for us and rose from the dead, He rescued us from our sins and brought us His gift of life. (A few passages where the unsurpassed beauty of God’s agape-love for us is placed on display are Romans 5:8, Ephesians 2:4-5, and John 3:16. You may wish to look them up.)
It is significant that agape is also the word that Paul uses in Ephesians 5 to describe the love which the Lord calls husbands and wives to place on display in their marriage relationship. He counsels husbands to love their wives in the same sacrificial way that Christ loved His bride, the Church. He directs wives to submit to their husbands (in agape love) in the same manner as the Church submits herself gladly to Christ.
Paul describes this love which husbands and wives are to show each other in Christ as a “mystery.” How is it a mystery? Not in the sense that it’s impossible to understand. It’s a mystery in the sense that it is known by revelation; no one can comprehend it, much less put it into practice, by their own strength. We see how true this is when we look around us in the world. Not only do unbelievers have no clue as to what marriage is according to God’s original plan (the lifelong union of one man and one woman living together as husband and wife), they also have no appreciation for the love that Christ demonstrated for His Church and that the Church has for Christ. They view Paul’s heavenly counsel in Ephesians as a dusty relic from the outmoded past, having no relevance for people living in a modern age.
But how different it is for God’s redeemed children! The Holy Spirit has blessed us with eyes to see and appreciate “the love of Christ which passes knowledge.” (Ephesians 3:19) He graciously confers on Christian spouses the wonderful ability to practice agape love by putting on display the Christ-like traits of kindness, selflessness, and forgiveness in their marriage relationship.
Thomas Schuetze is pastor of St. Paul Evangelical Lutheran Church in Lakewood, Colorado.