A Commentary by John Stott
Ephesians 5:25-33. 3). The duty of husbands.
If the word that characterizes the wife’s duty is ‘submit’, the word characterizing the husband’s is ‘love’. We might think that nature itself would teach husbands this priority obligation, but many cultures both ancient and modern prove the contrary. Of course a certain tie of affection and desire binds every married couple together, and Paul’s Stoic contemporaries taught husbands to ‘love’. But the verb they used was the weak word *phileo*; it was Christian teaching which introduced strong, sacrificial ‘*agape*-love’ into marriage. Paul uses two analogies to illustrate the tender care which a husband’s love for his wife should involve.
The first is that the husband must love his wife as Christ has loved his church. Already in the Old Testament the gracious covenant which God made with his people Israel was many times referred to as a marriage covenant (E.g. Is.54:5-8; Je.2:1-3; 31:31-32; Ezk.23; Hos.1-3. Jesus took over this teaching and boldly referred to himself as the Bridegroom (Mk.2:18-20; cf.Jn.3:29). Paul enlarges on the image here and in 2 Corinthians 11:1-3, while in the Revelation we are permitted glimpses of the glorified church ‘prepared as a bride adorned for her husband’ and of the coming ‘marriage supper of the Lamb’ (Rev. 19:6-9; 21:2,9).
What stands out in Paul’s development of the theme is the sacrificial steadfastness of the heavenly Bridegroom’s covenant-love for his bride. It is this which husbands are to imitate: *Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her*.
It will be observed that Paul uses five verbs to indicate the unfolding stages of Christ’s commitment to his bride, the church. He *loved* her, *gave himself up* for her, to *sanctify* her, having *cleansed* her, that he might *present* her to himself. The statement is so complete and comprehensive that some scholars think it may be a quotation from an early Christian confession, liturgy or hymn. It seems to trace Christ’s care for his church from a past to a future eternity. Certainly the words *Christ loved the church*, preceding as they do his self-sacrifice on her behalf, seem to look back to his eternal pre-existence in which he set his love on his people and determined to come to save them. So, having loved the church, he *gave himself up for her*. The reference is, of course, primarily to the cross.
But why did Jesus Christ do it? What was the purpose of his sacrifice? It was *that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her*. Perhaps there is a deliberate allusion to the bridal bath which took place before both Jewish and Greek weddings. The tenses of the verbs suggest that the cleansing of the church precedes her consecration or sanctification. Indeed, the cleansing seems to refer to the initial purification or cleansing from sin and guilt which we receive when we first repent and believe in Jesus. It is accomplished *by the washing of water with the word*, or more simply ‘by water and word’ (NEB), The ‘washing of water’ is an unambiguous reference to baptism (Cf. Acts 22:16), while the additional reference to ‘the word’ indicates that baptism is no magical or mechanical ceremony, but needs an explanatory word to define its significance, express the promises of cleansing and new life in the Spirit which it symbolizes, and arouse our faith. True some think ‘the word’ alludes to the candidate’s confession of faith (Rom.10:8-10, 13) or appeal for a clear conscience (1 Pet.3:21), rather than the minister’s preaching of the gospel or formula of administration.
But it seems more natural to take ‘water’ and ‘word’ together as being both administered to the candidate. So when Calvin reached this verse in his expository series, he urged care ‘that we do not separate the sacraments from the Word at any time’, for ‘to have the sign without the promise added to it is but a frustratory and unprofitable thing’. Markus Barth rather delightfully argues that in the context the word of promise can be no other than ‘I love you’. He goes on: The Messiah as the Bridegroom…says this decisive “word” to his Bride and thereby privately and publicly, decently and legally binds himself to her and her to him.’ It is a solemn word of covenant love.
Tomorrow: Ephesians 5:25-33. 3). The duty of husbands (continued)