A young man was once invited to attend church and so he went. That Sunday, he heard the gospel and believed in Jesus for eternal life. As a result, he started reading his Bible, praying, and looking for ways to serve God with all of his energy.
Of course, being a new Christian, he sometimes let his zeal get the best of him. He began to criticize those who had been Christians much longer than he had, yet who did not seem to have the same dedication he did.
He also began to see various aspects of the church he attended which he thought did not agree with certain teachings in the Bible. So he began to criticize the church leaders.
Finally, a little fed up with the poor state of American Christianity, he decided that the best thing he could do was go somewhere else to start a new church. He wanted to be a missionary at home or overseas to start his own ministry the way he thought it should be done.
“Besides,” he thought, “isn’t being a missionary the ultimate form of Christian service and dedication?”
Some people in his church tried to tell him that he needed training and time to grow into Christian maturity, but he thought they were just holding him back. And so there were more clashes.
Finally, the young man went to seek the advice of a wise old pastor. “I believe God wants me to be a missionary,” he told the pastor. “But I’m not sure whether He wants me to be a home missionary or a foreign missionary.”
The wise, old pastor, who had watched this young man during the past few years struggle with other Christians around him, looked the young man straight in the eye and said, “Young man, what you need to be first of all is a ‘submissionary.’ Before you can go on a mission, you need to learn what submission is.”
You see, what this young man did not realize is that being a missionary is not the greatest form of service we can give to God. No, the greatest thing God calls us to do is submit. And we can do that wherever we are and whatever we are doing.
No one can truly serve God until they have learned to submit to God.
Now this young man, we can be sure, thought he was submitting to God. He was giving his life and energy to be used by God. How is that not submission?
But submission to God means submission to the will of God, and as we are going to see today in Ephesians 5:21, one aspect of the will of God is that we submit to…one another. That is where this young man fell short. So focused on submitting to God, he never learned that God wanted him to submit to other Christians.
That is what we’re going to see today in Ephesians 5:21. We are in a section of Ephesians where Paul tells us what it looks like to be filled with the Holy Spirit. We’ve seen that being filled with the Spirit is not at all like what most Christians today portray it as.
It is not primarily an emotional, ecstatic experience. Rather, it is knowing and obeying the will of God as taught within Scripture (Eph 5:17), it is evidencing the fruit of the Spirit (Eph 5:18; Gal 5:22-23), it is singing in your heart (Eph 5:19), it is giving thanks always for all things (Eph 5:20), and today, finally, in Ephesians 5:21, it is submitting to one another.
Ephesians 5:21. … submitting to one another in the fear of God.
Let us look at this verse very carefully today. Beginning with that first word – submitting.
What is Submitting?
Some of your translations might say “Be subject to.” Both carry the same idea, and are just different ways to translate the same Greek word. The word is hupotasso.
It is an old military term for lining up under your commanding officers, for standing in rank. So when Paul uses the term here, it carries the idea for us, of knowing who your commanding officers are and obeying them just as if you were in the military. You need to know who to take your orders from.
So that is what the word means, and I have it here as submission. But, when we begin to think of it as a military term, we immediately begin to think of power and position and authority. Which is fine, because it does mean that.
The problem, however, is that this world has an incorrect idea of what gives a person power, and how that power should be used.
A worldly definition of submission is, “I have the power and the money, so you had better submit to me or else!”
We also begin to look around for those who have more power and position than us, so that we can butter them up. A worldly understanding of submission includes knowing who you have to submit to and also knowing who has to submit to you. When we think of submission, we start looking around and saying, “Well, OK, I have to obey that person and that person, but at least these other three people have to obey me.”
When we think of submission, we develop a pecking order in our minds, and where we fit in on the ladder.
But biblical submission is not at all like this. When Jesus Christ came, He turned all of this on its head.
Turn to Luke 22:24-30 to see this. In this passage, the disciples of Jesus were arguing about who would be the greatest in His kingdom. Each of them thought they were faithfully loving and serving God, and believed that as a result, they should have the greatest position of power and prestige when Jesus inaugurated His kingdom.
But Jesus says to them, “You have it all backwards. The kings and rulers of this world seek the greatest positions of power and importance. But it is not this way in My Kingdom. In My Kingdom, the greatest are those who serve.” Jesus points out that He Himself came to serve others, and so if they were truly His followers, they would not seek greatness, but would only seek to serve others.
Jesus says something similar in John 13. In this passage, Jesus and the disciples are all about to share in the Last Supper. But before they do, Jesus takes a basin of water and a towel and begins to wash all the filth and grime from the feet of His disciples. Washing someone’s feet was one of the most menial and degrading tasks a person could do for someone else at that time.
Since the streets were made mostly of dirt, and since people rode horses through the streets and used donkeys to transport goods in wagons, the streets were also filled with animal droppings. Then when it rained, it all became a muddy mess. So when you walked through the streets in your sandals, your feet became filthy.
Furthermore, when people ate meals back then, they sat on the ground, and so it was not uncommon to have someone else’s feet somewhat near your face. Therefore, most households had a servant who would watch all the filth from the feet of the family members and guests before they sat down for a meal. This job was usually reserved for the lowest servant because it was so degrading and disgusting.
But in John 13, Jesus takes the position of this servant and washes His disciples’ feet, showing that in His Kingdom, the greatest among them is actually the one who serves in the lowest positions.
So we see a couple of lessons here about submission. Worldly submission asks, “Who do I have to serve, and who has to serve me?” But Godly submission says, “I am the lowest on the ladder, and so I will serve everybody else.”
Philippians 2:3 says “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself” (cf. also Rom. 12:10).
That’s the first aspect of Godly submission. You and I are the servants of everybody else. There is no one lower who must submit to us.
But there is a balance here. Godly submission does not mean that if you have money, or if you have power, or if you have a position of authority that you must give it up.
No, on the contrary. Godly submission says, “I have power and so I will use it to serve you.”
Positions of authority and power are very Biblical. But, power and money are given to people by God, not so that they can rule, but so that they can better serve. The more power you have, the greater responsibility there is to use that power to serve others.
Do you have power? Great. Use it to serve. Do you have money? Wonderful. Use it to serve others.
That is exactly what Paul says next in Ephesians 5:21. He has said we need to submit, and then he tells us to whom we need to submit.
To Whom Should we Submit? One Another
Paul says in the next part of Ephesians 5:21 that we should submit to one another. This one another is not all-encompassing, but is rather a qualifying term. Paul is actually telling us who to limit our submission to. He is really not saying, “Submit to every single person on the face of the earth.”
No, just as with every other passage in the Bible, this verse must be taken in context. There are some who rip this verse out of context and teach that we must serve and submit to every single person on the planet.
I’m walking a fine line here, because there is some truth to that. As Christians, we are the servants of the world. But as Christians, we are not supposed to be subservient, groveling doormats to the world.
In context, we are servants to the world only as far as the will of God allows. We should not serve the world in its efforts to cheat the poor, or hide the truth, or kill the innocent. No, in this case we need to serve the truth.
Jesus modeled this perfectly. He came to be a servant, but about half of Jesus’ ministry is spent standing up to those who were abusing their power. He cleanses the temple, He rebukes the religious leaders for their hypocrisy, He corrects false ideas and false teachings.
In other words, being submissive to one another does not include being submissive to those who are working against the will of God. That’s the limitation.
But in those areas that are the will of God, we are to serve wholeheartedly. We are to serve as though we were the lowest person on the ladder. That is what Paul is calling us to here.
Now this was unheard of in Paul’s day, and, Ephesians 5:21 is quite revolutionary even today.
To see this, look at the chart I prepared this week showing us the different forms of mutual submission Paul calls us to. We are going to look at all of these in detail in the weeks to come, but for now, notice that the right half is quite challenging to our ways of thinking.
|Not Only…||But also!|
|Wives to Husbands
Eph. 5:22-24, 33b; 1 Cor. 14:34; Col. 3:18; 1 Titus 2:5; 1 Pet. 3:1-6
|Husbands to Wives!
Eph 5:25a, 28-29a, 31, 33a; 1 Pet. 3:7
|Church to Christ
Eph. 5:23b-24a, 30, 32
Eventually, everything to Christ
|Christ to Church!
Eph 5:25b-27, 29b-30, 32; Php. 2: 5-11; 1 Pet. 2:21-25
|Children to Parents
Eph. 6:1-3; 1 Pet. 5:5
|Parents to Children!
|Slaves (employees) to Masters (employers)
Eph. 6:5-8; Titus 2:9; 1 Pet. 2:18-21
|Masters (employers) to Slaves (employees)!
One Paul could have included, but didn’t:
|Subjects to Rulers
Rom. 13:1-3, 5; 1 Cor. 16:16; Titus 3:1; 1 Pet. 2:13-17; 1 Pet. 5:5
|Rulers to Subjects!
How contrary is this to everything we hear today? We hear about looking out for number 1. We are told to do whatever it takes to get to the top. And when we get there, we expect others to do what we want, to submit to us.
But Jesus and Paul say exactly the opposite. Self-advancement and accomplishment is not bad. I think we should have more Christian millionaires and Christian CEOs. That is not what Jesus and Paul teach against. What they are saying is that if you get to a position of authority, you need to realize that your position does not give you the right to rule, but rather more responsibility to serve.
And as we all know, this kind of mutual submission is nearly impossible by our own power and our own will. That is why Paul includes it here as an evidence of being filled with the Holy Spirit. This kind of submission can only be accomplished by the Holy Spirit.
“Sometimes, a person who claims to be filled with the Spirit becomes aggressive, self-assertive and brash. [They call it ‘Holy Boldness’.] But the Holy Spirit is a humble Spirit, and those who are truly filled with him always display the meekness and gentleness of Christ.”
Nevertheless, Paul knows that what he is calling us to is a difficult—even as Spirit filled believers. And so, as a good teacher, he wants to give an explanation for why and how we should submit. The mind frame to help us submit to one another. That’s what we see at the end of Ephesians 5:21.
Why and How Should We Submit? In the Fear of God
Just so you know, there is a bit of a textual variant here. Some of your translations say “in the fear of Christ.” Others say, “in the fear of God.” We don’t know which word Paul originally wrote, but at some point, while the text was being copied by hand, some scribe accidentally changed the word. Then his mistake was copied by other scribes, until now, out of all the ancient Greek manuscripts that are available, about half say “God,” and about half say “Christ.”
A good case can be made either way for what word Paul originally wrote, but ultimately, the two words are nearly synonymous anyway. Christ is God. So whichever way you want to go is fine with me. I believe that essentially, they are synonymous.
For the sake of the message today, and because I’m using the NKJV, I’ll use the term fear of God to refer to both.
The fear of God is a common theme throughout the Bible. It is found everywhere.
But what is the fear of God? It’s a large theme in the Bible—so we should know what it is. Have you ever wondered as you come across this phrase in the Bible? I mean, we know what fear is. But God is loving, and kind, and just, and merciful, so why should we fear Him?
When we think of fear, we think of knocking knees, shaking in our boots, frightful faces kind of fear. Terror. Alarm. Being scared.
Is that what the fear of God is? To be scared of God? To be terrified of Him? To always be looking over the shoulder, sleeping fitfully, and taking stress reliever pills because we are afraid God might one day get fed up with us and decided to squash us with His thumb like a bug?
Is that the fear of God?
Well, for multiple reasons, I don’t think so.
In the book of Proverbs we read many things the result from having a fear of God.
Proverbs tells us that the fear of God is the beginning of knowledge (1:7) and wisdom (9:10).
It is a fountain of life (14:27). It prolongs life (10:27; 19:23).
It is equated with hating evil (8:13) and keeps us from sin (16:6).
And the fear of God rewards those who have it with riches, honor and life (22:4).
All of this points to the fact that the fear of God is a positive thing. It is not a terrifying dread of being crushed by a wrathful and angry God.
Rather, I think the fear the Bible talks about is a loving fear. It is like when you get married, you love your spouse, and so you are afraid of hurting him. You fear saying something or doing something that will disappoint her.
It’s the same with parents and children. Children who love their parents want to please their parents and parents who love their children want to do what is best for their children.
Or, take your job. If you manage people, or oversee them, you want what is best for them and might be afraid of being a poor manager. If you are working under someone, you work for their approval and satisfaction.
It is similar with our relationship to God. He loves us and we love Him. And we do not want to do anything to disappoint Him. That is the fear of God. It is the fear of grieving Him. The fear of not living up to our purpose and potential in Jesus Christ.
Earlier in Ephesians 4, we looked at some of the spiritual gifts we have been given in Jesus Christ. We were given those gifts so that we might use them to love and serve other people. If we fail to love and serve others in this way, then the gift is wasted, and we fail to live up to our potential. And this grieves the Holy Spirit and saddens Jesus.
Jesus will not take away our eternal life or kick us out of heaven or anything like that. But He might be ashamed of how we treated His fellow brothers and sisters, of how we squandered the divine spiritual wealth we have been given in Him, and how we failed to love and sever others in this world.
What do you fear? Do you fear the loss of health, or money, or possessions or your job? Do you fear the loss of a spouse or a child? Do you fear the loss of friends, or fame or fortune?
Let me ask you, do you fear disappointing Jesus Christ? In other words, is there anything more terrible than to realize that we are disappointing the One who so loved us that He gave Himself for us? Is that a fear of yours?
If so, one of the ways to avoid this fear is to read and obey God’s Word. You do not need to fear disappointing God if you know what He wants and you do it. And here in Ephesians 5:21, we are told to submit to one another.
Imagine standing before Christ in all of His glory, surrounded by light and angels. As you raise your eyes from the floor, your gaze touches on His nail pierced feet, the wound in His side and the scars on His hands.
You look up yet further and see the most glorious and loving face you have ever seen. As you look into those eyes, you open your mouth and say, “Yes, I believed in You for eternal life so that I could get to heaven. Thanks for that. But after You so graciously saved me, I did what I wanted. I did not obey Your Word. I did not do what You wanted me to do. I did not submit myself to others. I asserted myself. It was all about me.”
Do you know what it will be like if that is you? To look into his eyes and know that you have betrayed His trust? I will show you what it will be like. We see some of what this looks like in Luke 22:61-62.
Peter had just denied Christ for the third time. And the rooster crows for the second time. And when it does, Luke 22:61, the Lord turned and looked at Peter.
What do you think Peter saw in the eyes of Christ? I think it was love … lots of love, but also … disappointment.
And what did Peter do? In Luke 22:62, Peter went out and wept bitterly.
That is how it will feel to stand before Jesus and know you have disappointed Him. And I believe that, initially, there will be tears in heaven. Tears of regret and tears of remorse. Weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.
Ultimately, we know from the book of Revelation, God will wipe away every tear, but initially, there will be great remorse by those who realize they have disappointed their Savior.
There will be tears before God then for those who fail to fear God now.
The fear of Christ is the greatest of fears because it is the result of the greatest of loves. Inherent in great love is the risk of great disappointment.
That is why the fear of God is the beginning of knowledge – because it puts the right perspective on things. Who are we trying to please? What, ultimately, is our goal in life?
As long as you chase after money and power and fame and glory, you haven’t learned anything. But as soon as you develop a fear of God, as soon as you realize that the greatest thing in all eternity would be to hear Jesus praise and honor you for how you lived your life. Again, this is not so that you can be great in the eternal kingdom, but so that you can continue to love, serve, and honor Him for eternity.
This is what life is really about. Life is not about you, but is about submitting to God by submitting to one another in the fear of God.
Are you filled with the Holy Spirit? If you are you will know it because of the signs we have talked about during the last few sermons. Do you – according to the book of Acts and Ephesians 5:17, study, learn, obey and teach God’s Word? Do you show signs of the fruit of the Spirit as we saw in Galatians 5? Do you find yourself singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs according to Ephesians 5:19? Are you thankful to God always, for all things according to Ephesians 5:18?
And finally, are you submissive to others?
All of these are the consequences and the evidences of being filled with the Spirit.
To seek this blessing from God is not to seek some repeated charismatic experience akin to a circus side show or drunken party. No, when you are filled with the Spirit, you focus and attention is on Christ alone, and your life becomes a mirror image to the world of the way Christ lived. The Spirit filled life is the life which reveals Christ to the world.
That is what we will continue to see in the rest of chapter 5 and on into chapter 6.
Notes on Ephesians 5:21
 John MacArthur, Found: God’s Will (Colorado Springs: Chariot Victor, 1973), 37-38.
 Stott, 208.