Paul in Ephesians 5:22 is going to launch into the specific conduct of a wife, a husband, children, and parents, and we are going to look at that in detail. But before we do that, it wouldn’t be fair to Paul if we didn’t consider the kind of world that he was writing to. Let’s set the scene to which Paul was writing. You’ll see some amazing parallels with today’s culture.
Jewish people at the time had a low view of women. It didn’t come from the Bible, but a lot of their religion by the time of Paul and Jesus did not come from the Bible.
They perceived a woman as lower on the human level than a man. A woman was an object, not a person. A woman had no legal rights. She was in the absolute power of her husband to do with her whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted.
In New Testament times, among the Jewish people, divorce had become tragically easy and tragically common. And they supported it with a passage from the Old Testament, Deuteronomy 24:1:
If a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out from his house…
You’ll notice that that’s merely an introductory statement to something else. But they took it as an allowance. And they simply said, “If your wife loses favor in your eyes because you find some uncleanness in her, you can write her a divorce and send her out of the house.”
There is a lot more in that passage than that. But they didn’t get that far. They just said, “If you find some indecency, some uncleanness, ship her out. Give her a bill of divorce.”
Now the question became, “What is the indecency?”
Strict rabbis, most familiarly represented by a rabbi named Shammai, said it refers only to adultery. If she commits adultery, you can divorce her. But liberal rabbis said it refers to absolutely anything, and that its vagueness is intended by God to allow you to fill in the blank. This is represented by a famous rabbi named Hillel.
So throughout rabbinic history, even until today, Jewish people argue over the view of Shammai and Hillel. Hillel said that it meant a man could divorce his wife if she spoiled his dinner. He could divorce her if she walked in public with her head uncovered. He could divorce her if she talked with men in the streets. He could divorce her if she spoke disparagingly of her mother-in-law. He could divorce her if she ever argued with him.
Now, take a guess which was the most popular view among men. Shammai had very few followers. Hillel had many. So divorce became rampant in the time of Jesus. Women were discarded all over the place, and they were left with nothing.
All a man had to do at the time of Jesus and Paul was hand her a bill of divorce. The only alimony or support that was required was the return of the dowry, and it was a done deal. In Matthew 5:31 Jesus refers to this common custom. Divorce was the solution to any conflict, short term or long term. And consequently, the whole institution of marriage was threatened.
The Greeks had a very similar approach to this. But they didn’t have to worry about any Old Testament technicalities. They didn’t have to worry about finding a verse to misinterpret to justify what they did. They just lived in blatant disregard for any marital fidelity.
Prostitution was an absolutely essential part of Greek life. Their religions were loaded with prostitutes, and it was believed that not only did you commune with the gods by drunkenness, but you communed with the gods by having sexual relationships with a priestess-prostitute.
The Greek man found his pleasure and even his friendship outside his marriage. His wife was only a housekeeper and a baby-maker. Home and family life were almost extinct, and fidelity was almost nonexistent. There was no legal procedure for divorce. You just put them out.
It is against this background, so similar to ours today — a background of infidelity, divorce, incest, homosexuality, adultery, prostitution, and pedophilia — that Paul writes. He’s not saying what everybody believed. He’s not reciting the common view. He’s calling men and women to a kind of life that was the absolute opposite of what they were involved in.
This post is based on a sermon Dr. MacArthur preached in 1996, titled “A Plan for Your Family: God’s vs. the World’s, Part 2.” In addition to serving as the pastor of Grace Community Church and the voice of Grace to You, Dr. MacArthur is the chancellor of The Master’s University in Santa Clarita, Calif. You can learn more about TMU at www.masters.edu.
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