Message: The Test of a Worshipful Heart | Scripture: Ephesians 5:21 | Speaker: Pastor Stephen Choy
- What is it about submission and subjection that we are so uncomfortable with? Why do we see societies, churches, and families struggle with this idea?
- What are the four results of being filled by the Spirit with an understanding of the wisdom of God according to Ephesians 5?
- How does submission and subjection fit into the overall schema of singing, heart-change, and thanksgiving, and why is this one often the most difficult (you may have answered this in number 1 already)?
- When we submit or subject ourselves to those who lead us, does that mean that we ought to be silent and inactive within our communities, and in particular, our church? What ways are you currently serving? What ways should you be serving if you’re not already doing so?
- How does submission relate to the Kosher Laws of the Old Testament?
- What does it mean to submit to one another in the fear of Christ? What does this fear ultimately point us towards for those of us who are Christian?
- How are you currently struggling with submitting to those called to cherish and care for you, or what have you been learning and applying to your life from past weeks’ sermons?
- How can we be praying for and thinking of you in this coming week?
- Make sure you leave sufficient time to actively pray together and for one another.
When I was in the seventh grade, I was terrified of rollercoasters, and for some reason, I refused to go on them with my friends and family whenever they told me that I should give one a try. I remember going to theme parks, standing at the exit of a ride, and waiting throughout the day for them to come off those rides only for them to tell me how fun they were and how much I was missing out. Then, one year, I went with a youth counsellor from my church, and I looked up to him. He was someone we all thought was really good for us, and we always wanted to have his attention because he gave the best surprises. One youth outing, he surprised us by bringing us to Canada’s Wonderland—it’s like your Great America but with bigger rollercoasters and more rides. We came to our first rollercoaster, and in typical fashion, I told everyone that I’d wait for them at the exit. Now, our youth counsellor wouldn’t have it. He told me that he brought us here to help us conquer our fears and have fun with him. He didn’t want to have fun without us. It took him 15 minutes of cajoling me to go on the ride, telling me that I’ll have fun, that I won’t regret it. He told me over and over that I didn’t know what I was missing, and that he was demanding that I go on for my own good. I don’t know what it was about this youth counsellor that made me listen, but I ended up getting on the ride. I remember freaking out internally in a way I’ve never freaked out before, trying to hold in tears, trying not to scream at the staff to let me out. Then, at the top of the ride, just before the drop, I realized there was no turning back, and I thought I was going to die. 10 minutes later, I was back on the ride sitting in the exact same seat. From that moment on, you couldn’t keep me off a rollercoaster or some thrill ride, and it’s all because of the care that this youth counsellor poured into me to show me something greater than I knew.
We come to the part of the text in Ephesians that Christians seem to have heard a lot about but in practice do very poorly. Part of the problem is because our world tells us that words like submission and subjection, they’re slave words, and the concept of slavery is so deeply engrained in our consciousness as something utterly evil and terrible, and rightly so in what transpired here. But we can’t shy away from using them. Why? Because the Bible uses them. Paul uses them. God uses them. So, instead of avoiding talk of submission and subjection, let’s get into what they mean. Would you read Ephesians 5:21 with me? TWoL.
And be subject to one another in the fear of Christ.
Our proposition this morning is grounded right out of our passage—as I always try to do: Humbly Submit Yourself to Those Called to Cherish You. What does it mean to watch carefully how you walk? What does it mean to understand the wisdom of God revealed in the Holy Spirit? Ultimately, it means that we willingly and humbly submit ourselves to those whom God has given to care for us to make sure we don’t walk off the path and to make sure we remain in our Spirit-filled and wise understanding. The Gospel isn’t just about truth, it’s, ultimately, about relationship. It’s about how God relates to us, how we relate back to him, and how we relate to those whom he’s placed into our lives. So, today, I want to unpack this proposition for us in four ways from our passage:
- What Relational Submission Is Not;
- What Relational Submission Is; and,
- What Relational Submission Anticipates.
1) What Relational Submission Is Not
Let’s briefly summarize where we are. Chapters 1-3 teach us that we are saved sinners as one newly covenanted people under one Christ as the one family of God, and because of this, from Eph 4:1-5:14, Paul tells us that, as the redeemed children of God, we walk as his children ought to walk. Then, in Eph 5:15 to 5:20, he tells us that the best way to display this faithfulness is through a life of corporate worship. We show our identity contrary to the way of the world by singing with our mouths and in our hearts because we are filled by the Spirit in the truth of the gospel. As we sing this truth, we return to comprehending who he is and what he’s done for us, despite who we are—lowly and sinful. Singing is the means by which the Spirit fills us with even more gladness and thankfulness for the gospel. We begin our Christian journey with thankfulness, we continue in thankfulness, and we grow in thankfulness.
So, there in verses 19-20, you get three results of what it means to be filled by the Spirit in your understanding of God’s wisdom: you sing with your mouths, which leads to singing with your heart, which leads to more thanksgiving in every season as you anticipate the glory that is to come. Today, we have our fourth result, here in verse 21, but this fourth result is kind of different. It’s different because singing and giving thanks are happy sounding things. It’s easy to worship in song. It’s easy to worship with a heart full of thanksgiving. But perhaps for many of us, worship is not so easy when it comes to submitting and subjecting ourselves to others.
I know that in these United States, words like submission and subjection to authority are hot-button words whether you’re referring to this country’s history with the slave-trade or hearing language about systemic racial injustice in the news today. These are the words that people around the world use to justify the fact that the Christian God cannot be a truly good or loving God, because a truly good and loving God would not force us to be subjected or submitted to anyone. And the problem with the world’s thinking, as is almost always the case when they quote or reference the Bible, is that they don’t want to understand what the text is actually saying. But we as Christians have to understand that Paul includes this fourth result for a reason.
What is that reason? Well, it’s quite simple. It is because subjection and submission are uniquely Christian things to do. Just like singing as one body, singing in our hearts, and giving thanksgiving for a man who died upon a cross—these words aren’t for the world’s rejoicing. They are for us—for those who have been born again, for those who have received grace upon grace, and for those who understand the depths of their Saviour’s sacrifice for them. They are for us, in that, as we sing with our mouths, we worship together, and as we worship, our hearts are filled with praise and thanksgiving, and as we are giving thanks with one another, we hold nothing about ourselves as more important than the person standing next to us, so no matter what’s going on in our own lives, I’m running to my brother and to my sister, and I’m laying my life down for them.
However, before we get into what submission and subjection are, I want to talk a little bit about what they are not. Throughout history, the way that definitions have been made, especially in Christian circles, is to provide our articles of denials (e.g. God is in-finite). By understanding what something is not, we avoid making unnecessary connections and inferences when we finally come to the point where we define what it is.
Firstly, subjection or submission is not active. Subjection or submission is also not passive. Rather, subjection or submission is inherently reflexive. What do I mean by this? I mean that the verb here for “be subject” is in what we call the middle or reflexive voice. In English, we would read this text, “and subject yourselves,” or “subject oneself,” or “lower yourself,” or better yet, “humble yourself” to one another. Submission isn’t an act of one-party enslaving another, and it’s not something being done to us, only the one who decides for him or herself to be subjected is what Paul has in mind. Subjection ought not be induced or coerced. Instead, an individual is subjected by virtue of their decision to be so.
Secondly, submission is not an ordering of value. What Paul is doing in saying these words is not to point out that some are more vital to the church while others are not. There is no such thing as a second-class citizen in the church. This is the most amazing thing about the gospel! All who come and humble themselves in their Saviour—ALL who are captivated by a Jesus who died for your sin and ransomed you to himself—all who drink from the wellspring of living water—are included as his eternal, loved, and cherished bride.
We are one people under one Christ as one family of God, and all of us have a place here. All of us can benefit from one another. All of us are important to one another. When one of us suffers, we are all suffering. When one of us is rejoicing, we all are rejoicing. There isn’t one of us in this room who is more important to God than the other. Yes, he raises some of us up to do more than others, but you better believe that your soul means just as much to him as every other person’s. And that isn’t to minimize your importance! No, each of us is infinitely important to him, and he is able to apportion that importance to an infinite degree because he is an infinite God. His love knows no bounds. His grace has no limit. SO TOO, as a church, we do not separate the weak from the strong. We do not separate the poor from the rich. We do not separate the less intelligent from the more intelligent. We do not separate the have nots in the world from the haves. We don’t dare do that because to do this is an abomination to the grace of God!
We submit not because of importance or value; we submit because there’s an order to God’s creation just as there is order to our lives from condemnation to salvation and just as there is order to God’s plan throughout redemption history from Adam to the Second Coming. God is a God of order. When we worship God, we worship God in an orderly way. We do this because God wants you to see the gospel at work—he doesn’t ask us to do things randomly because He is a God of purpose! Just like why we have baptisms, and why we have the Lord’s Supper, God wants to make the gospel visible to us. He wants it inside of us changing our hearts. He wants it outside of us in our churches and in our homes. He wants the gospel everywhere at all times so that in every circumstance, you are reminded that God loves you, and so that in every circumstance, you’re giving thanks—you are giving him worship—you are praising his name, and all the while, you are holding fast to the primary relationship—the one that matters for eternity. You’re clinging to Christ as life’s model. Submission is an action and not an indication of value. To treat it as anything but this is to malign the gospel and the God who has called every person to repent and believe in his Son.
Thirdly, submission is not mutual submission. Perhaps, some of you are confused because Paul says in our passage that we are to be subject to one another. But when Paul says subject yourselves to one another, he isn’t saying that sometimes I submit to you and sometimes you submit to me. Instead, what he’s saying is that you submit to one another in the way that God has ordered us within creation, society, and the church.
We’ve already seen this in parts of Ephesians. We are set under Christ. We are set under a new covenant. We are set under the rules of God’s house. We are set under apostles, prophets, evangelists, and preachers and teachers. We are not randomly submitted to people and things, we’re specifically submitted. So, we might read this text, in light of this context, like this: submit yourselves to those whom God has called to care for you—whom God has called to cherish you. Paul is giving this command not as a means to enslave us but to free us. The problem with us as people is that we always feel like we have to be control. We feel like we have to do it all ourselves, but the apostle is saying here that it’s okay to let someone else do it if they’re particularly gifted and called to do it. It’s okay to be dependent and deferent. It’s okay to allow others to exercise their God given gifts and abilities in the way that they’re supposed to. In the same way, when you’re good at something, and you’ve shown gifting in that area, others are called to submit to you in your gifting. This is where the “submit to one another” comes into play. We are all equipped by the Holy Spirit for some purpose, and we each have a part to play. It’s not that I submit to you sometimes, then we switch, it’s that I’ve been called to something and you’ve been called to something, and so we give one another the opportunity to do those things. But this leads into our fourth and final denial.
Submission is not permission for silence and inactivity. Every person is called to be doing something, and, even more so, you’re called to do the things that you’ve been especially gifted in. For those of you who are not serving in the church, why aren’t you?! I ask this with all sincerity but also with the utmost concern because if you understand your sin, and if you understand grace, and if you understand the gift of the Holy Spirit, then it is impossible to sit on the sidelines. I might even say something like, “how dare you?” If you believe submission means that you get to be stagnant while everyone picks up the slack, then perhaps you’ve missed the gospel. None of us are called to be inactive. None of us are meant to be silent. 1 Peter is clear when he tells us that each are called as priests in the house of God. Exercise your priestly duty by ministering to one another. Love one another as Christ loved you. Build relationships in this church because the gospel is more than your knowledge; it’s your heart worshipping with the hearts of your brothers and sisters as you all exalt him who is worthy. Find that thing that you’ve been made able to do and do it to the glory of God. You’ve been redeemed for it, and better yet, God delights in it. Submission only makes sense in terms of reflexivity. We aren’t passive submitters. We don’t sit when we should be walking. We submit by serving in the capacity we’re supposed to serve in.
2) What Relational Submission Is
So, we see that submission is not active or passive, it is not about who is more or less important, it is not just general, random mutual subjection, and it is not permission for silence and inactivity. But what, then, is submission? Allow me to give you another list, but rather than denials, it’ll be a list of affirmations.
Submission is, first and foremost, biblical. I know I’ve already said this, but it bears sufficient weight for me to repeat it. Submission, at least in the way we are talking about it today, is not something that the world can or desires to understand. But we want to understand it not only because we see the words in Scripture but because we have witnessed it in our Christ come to live and die on our behalf at the request of his Father. His submission was an act of obedience. So, when we see it commanded in Scripture like it is here, we are all for it. We desire to do it because we desire to know our Christ. As he was obedient, so too will we be obedient. As he died to self, so too do we die to self.
In this way, not only is submission biblical, but it is also a privilege and a gift of humility. It’s something we get to do that draws us closer to our Saviour. When you humble yourself to let others care for you as God intends for them to care for you, you show that you love that other person. It shows you trust them. It shows that you desire their good just as much as they desire your good. This is the gospel in action! We can trust one another not because we think we’re worthy of one another’s trust, but because Christ loved us enough to come and die for us. We can lay down our rights and our entitlements. If he was willing to lay aside his glory knowing all our inabilities and failures, then how little is he asking of us when we’re called to submit to one another—to other Christians? We’re not being handed over to the Sanhedrin. We’re not standing before Pontius Pilate, at least we shouldn’t be in here.
Yes, it’s a difficult task, especially when you’re being asked to submit to someone you may not naturally get along with. Remember in those moments that it is a gift because it’s not about you and it’s not about that person—it’s about delighting in our God through Jesus. Submit in humility to those whom God has called to care and cherish you. Do this because God wants to pour his love out over you through them. Do this because you love them and desire to see his grace manifested in the way you relate to one another.
Thirdly, submission, at least in reference to this world, is temporary test. There are two parts to this affirmation—submission’s temporary nature and submission’s testing nature. It is temporary in that one day you will not be called to submit to your pastors, your congregations, your deacons, your husbands, or your employers anymore. No, instead, you’ll submit to one Ruler and King, and his rule and reign will be perfectly loving, generous, gracious, mighty, peace-filled, and enduring, but until that day, this is how God intends to proclaim his glorious plans in the world. We are submitted to one another in specific ways on purpose, and whether or not we know what that purpose is, we know that it is for our good—for those who love him. It is also a test in that if you show in this life that you cannot submit in these small ways, then how can you be expected to submit for an eternity to a God who will not compromise on his authority? You may say that, perhaps, God will be easier to submit to because he’s God—his motives and direction are perfect, and to that I say that they will also be uncompromising and indifferent to your opinion. In this place, you don’t have leaders and overseers who know everything, and we need help pointing out the weaknesses of our ideas—that’s the gift of having the body, and you’re allowed to do this. We’re allowed to grow in holiness together. In this pulpit, there’s no pretense of perfection. When you submit, you’re not being called to be slaves. You’re being called to show deference and humility even if it means, at times, you have to disagree. Ultimately, your task isn’t to be deaf and dumb, it’s to be vibrantly active, participating, and contributing to the good of God’s people, and this isn’t opposed to proper submission.
An example of this is right here in our denomination. We’re Baptists. We get to share our opinions. We get to hold our leaders accountable. Does that mean you don’t submit to your leaders? No, you submit to authority where authority has been bestowed. You listen to their teaching. You heed the guidance, but when that authority is abused, you have every right and responsibility to show your submission and love by humbly calling us out because, ultimately, you are submitted not to them but to the God that they serve and the gospel they ought to be defending. Submission in this way is a temporary test, and we pass it by willingly reflecting the gospel, looking at the kingdom that is to come, and exercising our gifts in the ways God has ordered and purposed us.
Fourth and lastly, submission is a command from God, and it doesn’t matter whether or not it makes sense to us. This is somewhat related to the first affirmation that submission is biblical, but I want to draw out something slightly different here. Where else in the Bible do we see commands that seem to make little worldly sense? Perhaps some of you think to the kosher laws of the Old Testament: don’t eat anything with blood in it, don’t eat shellfish, don’t eat things that have both a split hoof and chew the cud. These are really strange laws, and to this day, people have a hard time explaining why they’re in the Bible.
Of course, we ought to believe that there are many good reasons why they’re there. The most common one is that the kosher laws reveal and establish an identity in Israel that separates it from the world and from pagans. They also taught Israel about restraint—when we are disciplined to say no to certain fleshly desires, it makes it easier to say no to other temptations. They taught orderliness—God is a God of order. They taught propriety—God holds us to a standard of propriety for our good, and we reinforce our identity by holding to that standard. So, kosher laws taught Israel about identity, restraint, orderliness, propriety, and yet, one we often forget is that they taught Israel about holiness.
You see, Israelites were only allowed to approach God with a certain disposition. They had to be holy not just from their internal sinfulness, but also from their external cleanliness. God, in giving Israel kosher laws, was teaching his people that they were supposed to be a certain way in order for them to approach him. So, while they might not make sense to the rest of the world, or even to themselves, they’re important to Israel because, ultimately, they bring them to himself. And they will obey him because God is God. Regardless of our feelings or our ability to reason about what he wants, we’d rather have him than not have him. We’d rather have him as those who cannot understand than be absent from him while comprehending everything.
So too, do all of these things apply to submission. Submission teaches us identity, restraint, order, propriety, and, above all, it teaches us holiness so that we might have God regardless of our comprehension about his motives. He alone has the authority to command as he wills. How much more amazing is it, then, that he has now revealed his motives to us through his Son? How much more amazing is it that he does not compel us against our will, as he has authority to do, but by the power of the Holy Spirit changes our hearts and gives us new desires and inclinations to follow him? All so that we might have him and know him as he wants us to know him. Is our God not gracious? Is our God not wholly merciful? He is these things, but we are not to forget, our God is also wholly, exhaustively, and meticulously in control. He is sovereign God, omnipotent over everything, and this should cause us to pause and see that he is worthy of our every obedience, even in our obedience to submit to those whom he has called to cherish us.
3) What Relational Submission Anticipates
Look at this last part of verse 21 with me: “and be subject to one another in the fear of Christ.” What is Paul telling us here? He’s telling us the manner in which we’re to be subject to one another, or put another way, he’s telling us our motivation for our voluntary subjection, and that motivation is the fear of Christ.
What does he mean by this? Well, I think it alludes partly to what I’ve already said—when we humble ourselves, we’re not doing it because someone is more valuable than us. We’re doing it because we want to honour the gospel, and we want to remember Christ’s willingness to humble himself to the point of death, even death upon a cross.
But it’s the fear element that seems to confuse us. What does it mean to fear Christ? Some water it down and say fear means reverence or awe, and I don’t know where this comes from. When we’re called to fear the Lord, when we’re called to fear God, it does no good to our souls to say we’re simply to revere him or be in awe of him. No, we’re to actually fear him, and this is especially true in the context of Paul. Whenever the apostle uses the word fear followed by the words Lord or God, he’s always using it in the context of judgment. Fear the Lord, fear God, because judgment and condemnation are coming. So, here when Paul says fear Christ, he’s not only making a statement that ought to make us fearful, but he’s also making a statement about the person of Christ himself. He is making a theological statement about who Jesus is—He is God. We fear Christ because he is the omnipotent God who shall judge the living from the dead.
Yes, we are to subject ourselves willingly, but we do so not because we are man pleasers and not because these leaders have authority in themselves—no we subject ourselves because we’re overcome with the fear of our Christ who is the exalted God over all, and who will reject those who refuse to be submitted to those whom he’s placed over us. It is this manner statement, “in the fear of Christ” that makes this requirement so much more important than we often allow it to be because the Lord stands in authority over us, and he will judge us according to how well we heed this command. While our earthly leaders have the power to judge us temporarily, it is Christ who shall return to judge us in eternity. We are to give an account to him, just as he was to give an account to his Father.
And yet, I think there’s more to this phrase, “in the fear of Christ,” than meets the eye, because, while it seems to have negative implications of judgment and condemnation, it also implies the opposite—that those who fear the Lord and willingly subject themselves appropriately, they shall receive the glory that Christ received in his resurrection. He remained faithful, so too, when we remain faithful, we are filled with joy, expectation, longing, and anticipation. We long for the day where we, too, will shine with the radiance of the Son—that’s S-O-N and not S-U-N for his radiance shall outshine the sun.
One of the things I left off my list of affirmations intentionally to end here is to say that submission is ultimately an act of worship. We sing, our hearts are transformed, we’re filled with thanksgiving, but none of these things display the gospel as brilliantly and fully as submission does. I’ve quoted this line by John Piper before, but we are not only called to imitate, but we are called to participate. We are not called to feign submission, but we are called to submit wholeheartedly to those whom God has called to cherish us, and we do so not only because we want to be like Christ but because we are actually the people, the beloved, the children of God. Our desire is to honour Jesus and image him as his ransomed and redeemed in all the earth, and in so doing, we get him as our reward. We long to worship him as he deserves. This is our motivation for submission. Let the fear of Christ drive you to marvel and worship in the love of Christ who came subjected to his Father’s will for us. Let the joy of the gospel compel you to true humble worship and may the power of God be with us all to sustain us in this way until he calls us home.