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A Note on the Mystery in Ephesians 5:31-32

What is the Mystery in Ephesians 5:31-32?

“For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church.” Ephesians 5:31-32 NASB

In Ephesians 5:31, Paul quotes Genesis 2:24 (from the Septuagint) and then states, “This mystery is great (or, profound),” and he mentions Christ and the Church. Paul’s progression of thought can be difficult to follow here. What is he trying to say? What is the mystery?

Here’s my quick take on Ephesians 5:32.

Paul’s Use of “Mystery” in Ephesians

The word “mystery” (Greek: mysterion) occurs more than a dozen times in Paul’s letters. It occurs twice in Romans, 6 times in 1 Corinthians, 4 times in Colossians, and 5 times in Ephesians. Paul uses the word for a spiritual truth that was previously hidden but has now come to light because of the work of Jesus and his New Covenant (cf. Col. 1:25-27).

In Ephesians, moreover, he mostly uses “mystery” in the context of unity: unity between the heavenly realms and earth, between Jewish and Gentile believers, between Christ and the Church.[1]

The mystery in Ephesians 5:31-32 is that the bond between Christ and the Church, between the Messiah and his people, is close in a way that was previously unimaginable. And Paul uses Genesis 2:24, with its allusion to the couple in Eden, as a way of explaining this union between Christ and the Church.[2]

The couple in Eden and the statement in Genesis 2:24 informs our understanding of Christ and the Church, which, in turn, informs our understanding of Paul’s teaching on husbands and wives in Ephesians 5. This progression doesn’t work backwards.

Walter Liefeld makes the point,

“It is not that the relationship between husband and wife provides an illustration of the union of Christ and the Church, but the basic reality is the latter, [Christ and the Church is the illustration] with marriage a human echo of that relationship.”[3]

Paul’s Use of Genesis 2:24 in Ephesians 5

In Genesis 2:24, the biblical narrator comments that a man leaves his father and mother to join his wife in a new relationship. According to this scripture, a husband’s first priority is his wife, not his parents (cf. Matt. 19:4-6//Mark 10:6-8). Compare this idea with Jesus’s response where he prioritised the “family” of his followers over his mother and siblings.

“Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matt. 12:48-50 cf. Heb. 2:10-11).[4]

Furthermore, in Ephesians 5:22-30, Paul had been using the words “head” and “body” in a head-body metaphor to convey the unity between Christ and the Church and between husbands and wives. In verses 31-32, however, the picture isn’t of a head and body (two parts joined together) but “one flesh.” The “one flesh” image more vividly highlights a union where there is no distinction of body parts; there is no head, there is no body, but one flesh.

Paul may have quoted Genesis 2:24 and then mentioned Christ and the Church to shock his audience. I can imagine a collective gasp when his original audiences realised Paul was alluding to the human relationship in Eden to explain the relationship between Christ and his people. A visceral reaction would help his audience to appreciate and recollect the enormity of the profound mystery, now a reality, which is the close bond of Christ and his beloved Church.


Footnotes

[1] In Ephesians 1:9-10, the mystery is “to bring all things together in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth.”
In Ephesians 3:1-10, the mystery is that, with Jewish believers, “Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel …”
In Ephesians 5:24, the mystery is the profound unity of Christ and his beloved Church.
In Ephesians 6:19f, Paul asks for prayer that he will “make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel.”

[2] The “one flesh” statement in Genesis 2:24 follows on from Adam’s declaration about the woman, “This one, at last, is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh; this one will be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken from man” (Gen. 5:23). Are we meant to have Adam’s words in mind when we read Ephesians 5:31-32? Does Adam’s statement help us to understand what it means to be “one flesh”? I have a footnote which looks at the use of “bone” and “flesh” in the Hebrew Bible here.

[3] Walter l. Liefeld, “Ephesians,” The NIV Study Bible, Kenneth L. Barker (general editor) (Grand Rapids MI: Zondervan, 1985), note on Eph. 5:32.

[4] Jesus’s words in Matthew 12:48-50 indicate that women were among his disciples. I have more on Jesus’s female disciples here.

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Explore more

Paul’s Main Point in Ephesians 5:22–33
Ephesians 5:22–33, in a Nutshell 
All my articles on Ephesians 5 are here.
An Overview of Paul’s Use of Kephalē (“Head”)

14 thoughts on “A Note on the Mystery in Ephesians 5:31-32

  1. Hi Marg, excellent comment as always!
    I think you may have a typo in the second-to-last paragraph: “Furthermore, in Ephesians 5:22-30, Paul had been using the words “head” and “body” in a head-body metaphor to convey the unity between Christ and the Church and between husbands and wives. In verses 32-33, however, …” — don’t you mean “In verses 31-32, however, …”?

    1. Thanks for picking that up. It’s fixed now.

  2. There are a few things that continually strike me as awkward and ‘mysterious’. Paul’s use of the contrastive conjunction, “δὲ ” in “ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω εἰς Χριστὸν καὶ εἰς τὴν ἐκκλησίαν.” Why the logical contrast? Moreover, what exactly does the demonstrative pronoun “τοῦτο” point to in “τὸ μυστήριον τοῦτο μέγα ἐστίν?”

    1. Verse 32 is a bit awkward.

      The δέ doesn’t worry me though. The ESV doesn’t treat it as contrastive: “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” But perhaps δέ is better translated as “now” here.

      I think τοῦτο is referring to the “one flesh” relationship between Christ and his church.

  3. Out of all the passages related to gender and male/female equality, this one is the most problematic for me. Even if the passage / mystery is primarily talking about unity, we would consider Christ to be greater than the Church and above/superior to the church in every way (even though Christ condescends to unify Himself to the Church) would we not? So if this relationship informs our understanding of husbands and wives, does it not imply the husband is superior to the wife? I’m troubled by this. Thank you so much for your work.

    1. Hi Lydia, I understand your concern.

      Christ did condescend, lower himself, to become our Saviour. He gave himself for his church (Eph. 5:25 cf. Eph. 5:2). But this is only half of the story. As “Saviour of the body” (Eph. 5:23), Christ also elevates and glorifies the church (Eph. 5:26-27).

      There are lots of New Testament verses that indicate our salvation means that we become like Jesus. We will resemble him physically and spiritually. See, for example, Rom. 8:29-30, 1 Cor. 15:49, 2 Cor. 3:18, Eph 1:22-23, Phil. 3:21-22, Col 1:28-29, 1 John 3:2, and 2 Pet. 1:3-11.

      Paul saw the end goal of ministry as us “attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13). And Paul took this ministry seriously (Gal. 4:19).

      The astonishing message of the gospel is that there is a levelling of status between Christ and his redeemed people.

      In the Greco-Roman world, husbands usually had a higher status and more social power than their wives. In other words, husbands were typically considered superior to their wives.

      Paul, however, wanted these first-century husbands to lower themselves and give themselves for their wives (Eph. 5:25 cf. Eph. 5:2). And he wanted husbands to elevate their wives by treating them as their own (male) bodies which, at that time, had a higher status than women’s bodies (Eph. 5:28-30).

      Paul wanted a levelling of status between husband and wife. This would foster true “one-flesh” unity.

      I discuss this more here:
      https://margmowczko.com/pauls-main-point-in-eph-5_22-33/
      And I discuss Paul’s use of “head” here:
      https://margmowczko.com/overview-pauls-use-of-head/

      What Paul says about marriage is truly remarkable considering that “The New Testament emerged from a context where human domination and submission were privileged, rather than human dignity, where questions prevailed about obligations rather than rights, where dignity was reserved and the prized possession of a few people only.”
      Jeremy Punt, “Framing Human Dignity Through Domination and Submission? Negotiating Borders and Loyalties (of Power) in the New Testament,” Scriptura 112 (2013:1), 1-17, 7. (Online PDF)

      1. Marg, your answer was most helpful for this passage! Amazingly so! Brought me to tears. You provided no less than 10 verses to support the astonishing levelling for which Jesus was providing an illustration! (I so appreciate how thorough and Scriptural you are.) So, Jesus is basically saying to the men, “if your circumstances give you superior position, this is what you should do” if I’m reading you correctly.

        And thank you for understanding exactly what I was asking– just a way to answer the wording of THIS verse.

        1. “if your circumstances give you a superior position, this is what you should do”
          Yes, this is basically it.

          We should use our resources and gifts, even our status, to help and elevate those who lack resources and status.

          I think this idea of levelling among believers is behind 1 Cor. 12:22–25 too.
          https://margmowczko.com/honour-for-underdogs-1-cor-12_12-31/

          You’re very welcome, Lydia.

    2. Not to be too snarky, but Jesus was also celibate and crucified.

      Should husbands emulate those parts of Jesus’s life?

      I make the point only to say that husbands are not identical to Jesus. They are not sinless, omniscient, omnipotent, or God in the flesh.

      What about men who are not married? Whom do they get to be superior too?

      How, in your view, does a husband’s purported superiority not directly conflict with Jesus’s own words that His disciples are not to lord it over one another? Does Jesus’s clear command apply only to how men treat other men, leaving men free to treat women however the men want? (Perhaps Marg can speak to the Greek grammar there.) Or perhaps women can’t be disciples in the first place, at least not independently of some man who is over her, which idea is directly contradicted by Jesus’s response to Martha when Mary sat at His feet, in the expected position of a rabbi’s student (note that Jesus doesn’t mention that Lazarus’s presence or even existence in the home is what allows Mary to sit there).

      How do unmarried women live their lives without a husband to be inferior to? I’m hoping the answer is NOT that women should live with their parents, which I’ll assume really means the women’s fathers, until they marry. Because what happens to such women once their parents are both dead, or if the father is dead? What happens to women who are widowed? Are they to automatically move back in with their parents so that their fathers can be the superior man in their lives?

      LOTS of apparently single New Testament women that Paul worked with do not seem to have abided by these ideas. Paul commended many man-less women for their ministry work, which seems to indicate a lot of female autonomy in a society that was MUCH more restrictive against women.

      1. Jo, I can’t really see how your response answers Lydia’s concern which is a valid one. Lots of people read Ephesians 5:22-33 as supporting male superiority, or male leadership, when in fact Paul wanted to end, or at least reduce, the inequality which was a part of most first-century marriages.

        1. Lydia said, “So if this relationship informs our understanding of husbands and wives, does it not imply the husband is superior to the wife?”

          I was attempting to show some of the (il)logical conclusions one would have to come to if husbands really were, and were assumed to be, superior to their wives.

          1. I read her comment as more about trying to understand Paul’s words to wives and husbands in Ephesians 5:22-33, in particular, how to understand Christ as being the model for husbands in marriage (not male-female relationships more generally).

  4. Love everything about you and your research on biblical matters! I thought Gen 2.24 though speaking about a unity between man and woman was actually implying children, where the unity was literal.

    1. Hi Allen, There were no pregnancies or children in Eden. Sex and procreation does not seem to have been part of the Eden experience.

      Adam and Eve had children only after they were expelled from Eden. Moreover, their first child became a murderer and their second child became his victim. So I do not think Genesis 2:24 implies the unity of having children.

      I think the “one flesh” idiom is about a bond of kinship and loyalty.

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