This article is part of the Key Bible Verses series.
Instruction from God’s Word
Scripture gives men and women direction for how to relate to one another in marriage and a clear picture of the plans and purposes that God has for his people through this unique relationship. Be encouraged by the following Scriptures with commentary from the ESV Study Bible.
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.
The first example of general submission (Eph. 5:21) is illustrated as Paul exhorts wives to submit to their husbands (Eph. 5:22–24, 33). Husbands, on the other hand, are not told to submit to their wives but to love them (Eph. 5:25–33). Paul’s first example of general submission from Eph. 5:21 is the right ordering of the marriage relationship (see also Col. 3:18; 1 Pet. 3:1–7). The submission of wives is not like the obedience children owe parents, nor does this text command all women to submit to all men (to your own husbands, not to all husbands!). Both genders are equally created in God’s image (Gen. 1:26–28) and heirs together of eternal life (Gal. 3:28–29). This submission is in deference to the ultimate leadership of the husband for the health and harmonious working of the marriage relationship.
The focus in these verses is on Christ, for husbands do not “sanctify” their wives or “wash” them of their sins, though they are to do all in their power to promote their wives’ holiness. “Sanctify” here means “to consecrate into the Lord’s service through cleansing, washing of water.” This might be a reference to baptism, since it is common in the Bible to speak of invisible, spiritual things (in this case, spiritual cleansing) by pointing to an outward physical sign of them (see Rom. 6:3–4). There may also be a link here to Ezek. 16:1–13, where the Lord washes infant Israel, raises her, and eventually elevates her to royalty and marries her, which would correspond to presenting the church to himself in splendor at his marriage supper (see also Ezek. 36:25; Rev. 19:7–9; 21:2, 9–11). without blemish. The church’s utter holiness and moral perfection will be consummated in resurrection glory, but is derived from the consecrating sacrifice of Christ on the cross.
Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.”
“Not good” is a jarring contrast to Gen. 1:31; clearly, the situation here has not yet arrived to “very good.” “I will make him” can also be translated “I will make for him,” which explains Paul’s statement in 1 Cor. 11:9. In order to find the man a helper fit for him, God brings to him all the livestock, birds, and beasts of the field. None of these, however, proves to be “fit for” the man. “Helper” (Hb. ‘ezer’) is one who supplies strength in the area that is lacking in “the helped.” The term does not imply that the helper is either stronger or weaker than the one helped. “Fit for him” or “matching him” (cf. ESV footnote) is not the same as “like him”: a wife is not her husband’s clone but complements him.
“Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”
“What God has joined together” implies that marriage is not merely a human agreement but a relationship in which God changes the status of a man and a woman from being single (they are no longer two) to being married (one flesh). From the moment they are married, they are unified in a mysterious way that belongs to no other human relationship, having all the God-given rights and responsibilities of marriage that they did not have before. Being “one flesh” includes the sexual union of a husband and wife (see Gen. 2:24), but it is more than that because it means that they have left their parents’ household (“a man shall leave his father and his mother,” Gen. 2:24) and have established a new family, such that their primary human loyalty is now to each other, before anyone else. Jesus avoids the Pharisaic argument about reasons for divorce and goes back to the beginning of creation to demonstrate God’s intention for the institution of marriage. It is to be a permanent bond between a man and a woman that joins them into one new union that is consecrated by physical intercourse (Gen. 2:24).
Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them.
Instead of telling wives to “obey” (Gk. hypakouō), as was typical in Roman households, Paul appeals to them to “submit” (Gk. hypotassō), based on his conviction that men have a God-given leadership role in the family. The term suggests an ordering of society in which wives should align themselves with and respect the leadership of their husbands (see Eph. 5:22–33). Paul is not enjoining the wives to follow the prevailing cultural patterns of the day but to live as is fitting in the Lord. Seven times in these nine verses (Col. 3:18–4:1) Paul roots his instructions in “the Lord” or an equivalent term, thus stressing the importance of evaluating everything in light of Christ and his teaching.
1 Peter 3:7
Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.
Peter’s advice to husbands is compressed, perhaps because he addresses at more length those under authority who are more likely to be mistreated (slaves and wives). The word “likewise" is merely a transition (cf. 1 Pet. 3:1; 5:5); it does not mean husbands should submit to their wives, since Scripture never teaches this (see Eph. 5:21–33). “To live … in an understanding way" probably focuses on living in accord with God’s will, which includes understanding the needs of a wife. Interpreters differ over whether weaker vessel means weaker in terms of delegated authority, emotions, or physical strength. Peter is probably thinking of the general truth that men are physically stronger than women and may be tempted to threaten their wives through physical or verbal abuse. Women and men share an equal destiny as “heirs … of the grace of life." Peter does not think women are inferior to men, for both are equally made in God’s image (cf. Gal. 3:28). If husbands do not treat their wives in a godly way, the Lord will pay no heed to their prayers.
Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous.
Marriage is to be held in honor, and chastity in marriage is called for, with the warning that God will judge anyone who is sexually immoral (Gk. pornos, a general term referring to anyone who engages in sexual conduct outside of marriage between a man and a woman) or adulterous (Gk. moichos, referring to anyone who is unfaithful to a spouse). This warning is addressed to members of the church, and if they are genuine Christian believers, this judgment of God would not mean final condemnation to hell (cf. Rom. 8:1) but would bring disciplinary judgment in this life (cf. Heb. 12:5–11) or loss of reward at the last day, or both. However, in light of the earlier warning passages (Heb. 3:12–14; Heb. 6:4–8; Heb. 10:26–31; Heb. 12:14–17), it is possible that such sexual immorality will be an indication that the person committing it is in fact not a true believer and not born again.
Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!
The wise person will work side by side with another, enjoying a good reward and finding help in times of need. The wise person will pursue cooperative ventures rather than give in to jealous striving to be first (contrast Ecc. 4:8, 10, 11), a striving that isolates him from others.
Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken 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.
When no suitable companion is found among all the living beings, God fashions a woman from the man’s own flesh. The text highlights the sense of oneness that exists between the man and the woman. Adam joyfully proclaims, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” This terminology is used elsewhere of blood relatives (Gen. 29:14). This sentence and the story of Eve’s creation both make the point that marriage creates the closest of all human relationships. It is also important to observe that God creates only one Eve for Adam, not several Eves or another Adam. This points to heterosexual monogamy as the divine pattern for marriage that God established at creation.
Moreover, the kinship between husband and wife creates obligations that override even duty to one’s parents (therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, Gen. 2:24). In ancient Israel, sons did not move away when they married, but lived near their parents and inherited their father’s land. They “left” their parents in the sense of putting their wife’s welfare before that of their parents. The term “hold fast” is used elsewhere for practicing covenant faithfulness (e.g., Deut. 10:20; see how Paul brings these texts together in 1 Cor. 6:16–17); thus, other Bible texts can call marriage a “covenant” (e.g., Prov. 2:17; Mal. 2:14).
Paul’s teaching on marriage in Eph. 5:25–32 is founded on this text. The sense of being made for each other is further reflected in a wordplay involving the terms “man” and “woman”; in Hebrew these are, respectively, ’ish and ’ishshah. As a result of this special affiliation, Gen. 2:24 observes that when a man leaves his parents and takes a wife, they shall become one flesh, i.e., one unit (a union of man and woman, consummated in sexual intercourse). Jesus appeals to this verse and Gen. 1:27 in setting out his view of marriage (Matt. 19:4–5).
For as a young man marries a young woman,
so shall your sons marry you,
and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,
so shall your God rejoice over you
“Our sons” are the loyal inhabitants of Zion (here, the eternal city of God; cf. Psalm 87). A poetic image indicating that the inhabitants of Jerusalem will love and cherish their city: the inhabitants of Zion will forever be committed to and delight in their eternal dwelling place, for the Lord’s people are there, and the Lord himself is there. Isaiah’s poetic imagery leaves an overwhelming impression of joy, delight, righteousness, beauty, safety, and peace. Boldly drawing on a familiar human image of inexpressible joy and delight, God says his delight in his people will be like that of a bridegroom’s delight in his bride. Isaiah explains that in God’s great plan of salvation, he not only forgives his people, protects them, heals them, provides for them, restores them to their home, reconciles them to each other, transforms them so they are righteous, honors them, exalts them above all nations, and makes them a blessing to all nations, as he called them to be—but more than all these things, he actually delights in his people.
1 Corinthians 7:2–5
But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.
The Corinthians are commanded to be faithful in their marriages, to avoid divorce, and to be content in their calling. Paul uses the phrase "now concerning" for the first time here to signal a switch from matters raised in the oral report from Chloe’s people (1 Cor. 1:10–11) to issues raised in a letter from Corinth. This same phrase is repeated in a number of places throughout the rest of 1 Corinthians (see 1 Cor. 7:25; 1 Cor. 8:1; 1 Cor. 12:1; 1 Cor. 16:1, 12) where it introduces additional topics from the Corinthians’ letter. Some Corinthian Christians appear to have adopted the view that sexual relations of any kind, even within marriage, should be avoided. Paul seeks to carefully refute this view throughout this chapter (see 1 Cor. 7:2, 5, 9, 10, 28, 36).
God designed marriage as the place for the expression of human sexuality. Sex within marriage has both relational and spiritual benefits (Gen. 2:24; Eph. 5:31; see also 1 Cor. 6:17). It also has the practical benefit of reducing the temptation to engage in sexual sin (see 1 Cor. 7:9).
All commentary sections adapted from the ESV Study Bible.
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