Daniel and Claire, you know well Paul’s command to husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself for her. But I wonder if we often miss just how scandalous this command is. I think perhaps our modern culture’s general aversion and disgust with Paul’s teaching on marriage is probably approaching the level of scandal that it is. But I suspect that they are actually not scandalized enough. They get hung up on the asymmetry of Paul’s language. Husbands lead like this; wives follow like that. Husbands love; wives respect.
But the scandal is deeper than that. Paul says that husbands are to love their wives like Jesus loved the Church, and when we look elsewhere, we see that the kind of love Jesus had for us when He went to the cross for us was not a reasonable sort of love, not a sensible kind of love. In Romans 5, Paul uses four different adjectives to describe our state when Jesus died for us. Paul says we were weak, we were ungodly, we were sinners, and we were enemies when Christ died for us.
The culture around us uses a word that sounds exactly like our word “love.” They spell it the same; they even pronounce it the same. But I would suggest that based on what they actually do with that word, most of the time, they mean something entirely different than we do. In the immortal words of Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Jesus said, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you. Love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and the evil. (Lk. 6:35) J
We are required by God to imitate Him by being kind and doing good to those who do not notice us, who do not care, who are not thankful, who are evil. And we are required to do good to them, to love them, to bless them hoping for nothing in return.
This cannot mean that we believe that God will do nothing with our love. Because God does not display His love for nothing. He did not send His Son to the cross to accomplish nothing. He sent His Son to the cross to reconcile the world to Himself. He loved us so that we would come to love Him.
But what God refuses to do is require reciprocal love at gun point. God insists that love remain love, love remain free, gratuitous, over-the-top, insane, unreasonable. And He does that by refusing to descend into manipulation. We do not come to love Him because we feel bad for Him. We come to love Him because we come to see Him not merely as a victim but as our hero, our champion, our savior. Because He voluntarily took our sin, took our shame, took our penalty and bore it all away.
Jesus says: For if ye love them which love you, what thanks have ye? For sinners also love those that love them. And if ye do good to them which do good to you, what thanks have ye? For sinners do the same. And if ye lend to them of whom ye hope to receive, what thanks have ye? For sinners also lend to sinners, to receive as much again. (Lk. 6:32-35)
This is why Jesus commands us to follow Him with absolute loyalty and devotion. Jesus called his first disciples away from their parents, away from their jobs, and he called others to sell everything and follow Him immediately. Let the dead bury the dead Jesus said to those who wanted a chance to go home and put things in order first. Jesus calls His disciples to follow Him, to lose everything, to die.
One time, He said that following Him meant giving up everything: father, mother, son, daughter. He said that anyone who comes to Him must hate father, mother, wife, and children, brothers and sisters, even his own life also (Lk. 14:26). In another place, Jesus said that he came to set a man against his own family, children against their parents. He said that a man’s enemies will be those of his own household.
But it’s interesting that as soon as you obey Jesus and the members of your own family become your enemies, you are simultaneously required by Jesus to do them good, to bless them, to pray for them, to lend to them, to love them, hoping for nothing in return.
What does this all mean? What is Jesus doing? Is this just word games? No, this is Jesus teaching us how to love like He loves. This is Jesus insisting that we understand, that we get how we have been loved.
There are all kinds of fakers, posers, liars in the church. They say they know Jesus, they say they have been forgiven. But then they live their lives in complete contradiction to these claims. You cannot know the love of God and then proceed to manipulate others. You cannot know the love of God in Jesus and then proceed to require your love to be returned with equality. You cannot have your feelings hurt in order to get what you want; you cannot say ‘that’s not fair.’ You cannot be gripped with the absolute scandal of the grace of the cross and then proceed to hold grudges of any kind.
But this means that a Christian wedding is not merely a ceremony where a man and a woman take oaths of some kind of vague notion of love, warm feelings for one another. They are also swearing before God to love one another with gospel love, cruciform love, which is to say that they are swearing to love one another like enemies.
If this is Christian love that we’re talking about, and we are, then that means that you are promising to die for one another specifically when your husband, your wife is weak, is ungodly, is in sin, or worse, when you are enemies. This was the kind of love Jesus had for us. This is the scandal of Christian love, specifically of the kind of love God requires in a marriage between husband and wife. It’s scandalous because you are agreeing with God’s assessment of us: we are weak, we are ungodly, we are sinners, we are enemies.
If your vows don’t mean that, then they aren’t Christian. You don’t need Jesus to say you have a warm feelings about each other and you think it would be fun to make children together. You don’t need Jesus to have good sex. You don’t need Jesus to find common interests and hobbies. You don’t need Jesus to get each other presents from time to time. Even sinners do that. Even sinners do good to one another expecting roughly the same kind of good in return. Most unbelievers believe that’s what love is: you do this for me, and I’ll do that for you. You pull your weight, and I’ll pull mine.
But Jesus loved us with astonishing love. Jesus loved us and gave Himself for us when we were weak and ungodly and sinful and hated Him. Jesus took upon Himself our guilt, our shame, and He endured the penalty of God’s wrath in our place. He took what we justly deserved and took our curse on the cross. And He did it when we didn’t care if He did it. He did it when we weren’t planning to thank Him for it. He did it when we would have joined the crowd calling for His death, when we would have joined the taunting bystanders. There is no other kind of love. There is only Jesus-love, there is only gospel-love.
Daniel and Claire, you can’t give that kind of love unless you are daily receiving that kind of love. And since neither one of you will be able to give it perfectly, you need another source. You need the love of God constantly confronting you, constantly overwhelming you, constantly bowling you over. Only then will you know love, only then will you delight to give it. And just to be absolutely clear: this kind of love looks a lot like dying, it looks a lot like losing, it looks a like throwing yourself away. And that’s because it is.
Daniel, when you lead Claire like Jesus leads His people, you won’t want to. You’ll want to give up. It would be easier to just go with the flow, keep your head down, don’t bring certain things up, let your feelings be hurt and then try to get your way when Claire feels bad for you, or conversely just bluster and demand and whine until you get what you want. Real leadership takes real strength, real courage, real death. But when you look to Jesus, He makes you strong like that for Claire.
Claire, when you respect your husband like Jesus calls you to, you won’t to. You’ll want to be critical, you’ll want to take the reigns, you’ll want to be impatient and fearful. You’ll think it would be easier to just fix it for him, to go behind his back, to not bring certain things up, let your feelings be hurt and then try to get your way when Daniel feels bad for you. Christian submission takes real strength, real courage, real death. But when you look to Jesus, He gives you that kind of glory, He makes you that kind of lovely for Daniel.
To love like Jesus means loving even though it feels like there’s no return, loving even when it seems unfair, loving even when your spouse is weak, ungodly, in sin, even an enemy. But you know what God loves to do with that kind of love, that kind of sacrifice. You know, because you know Jesus.
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen!