Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. – Ephesians 5:25-33 ESV
Wives are to submit to their husbands. Not exactly a popular topic among most women today. It sounds so archaic. It comes across as demeaning and dismissive of women. But we must remember that this entire section of Paul’s letter was calling all believers to submit to one another out of reverence to Christ. His reference to wives and husbands was simply a practical application of what that would like in real life. But the one thing we miss in this whole discussion of submission is the inter-relatedness of it that God intends. In God’s divine plan, submission was not intended to be a one-way affair. Yes, wives were expected to submit to their husbands, but notice that Paul calls husbands to love their wives. And here is the important distinction: As Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. There is an inferred expectation of sacrifice and selflessness involved in the kind of love Paul is describing. It is other-oriented. It is a love that suppresses its own rights and desires for the well-being of another. But, interestingly enough, Paul goes on to describe this kind of love as a form of self-love, because “husbands should love their wives as their own bodies” (Ephesians 5:28 ESV). For the husband, there is no me versus her. In God’s eyes, his very existence is permanently is linked to that of his wife. That is why Jesus taught, “‘God made them male and female’ from the beginning of creation. ‘This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.’ Since they are no longer two but one, let no one split apart what God has joined together” (Mark 10:6-9 NLT).
The husband is to give to his wife the same value that he gives to his own life. She is a part of him. He is to love her as he loves his own body. He is to nourish and cherish her – in the same way that Christ does the church. Christ not only sacrificed His life for the church, He constantly intercedes on Her behalf. Even now, His full attention is focused on the church. Paul tells us, “Christ Jesus died for us and was raised to life for us, and he is sitting in the place of honor at God’s right hand, pleading for us” (Romans 8:34 NLT). Paul then goes on to ask, “Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love?” (Romans 8:35 NLT). And the answer is meant to be a resounding, “No!” And in the same way, there is nothing that should be able to separate the love of a husband for his wife. Nothing she says or does should cause him to fall out of love with her. Now that is a tall order and a high expectation. Not only that, but the husband is to make it his goal in life to sanctify his wife – sometimes in spite of her and without her full cooperation. Even when she refuses to submit to him, he is to sanctify her.
But what does Paul mean when he calls husbands to sanctify their wives? Isn’t that the job of the Spirit of God? Paul is using Christ’s love for the church as an illustration of the kind of love men are to have for the wives. Christ gave Himself up for the church. He died so that the church might be sanctified, set apart and made holy. Earlier in his letter, Paul wrote that God “blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him” (Ephesians 1:3-4 ESV). God’s desire was our holiness. Jesus made that possible by His sacrificial death. So as husbands, our goal should be the holiness of our wives. God has appointed us as husbands so that we might help fulfill His desire that our wives be holy, set apart of Him.
Paul says that Christ cleansed the church by the washing of water with the word. The word refers to the gospel, the good news about salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. Every believer who places their faith in Christ based on the gospel message, is washed clean from their sins. Water baptism is a statement of that reality as the believer is lowered into the water and symbolically “cleansed” from their sins. The emphasis in verses 26 is sanctification. It is not a command for men to read the Word over their wives as if in doing so they somehow cleanse their wives. Jesus’ death on the cross is what provided their cleansing from sin. The point Paul seems to be making is that Jesus gave Himself up “so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:27 ESV). In the same way, the husband is to choose give himself up for the spiritual edification of his wife. Her holiness is to be his highest priority. He should want for her life what Jesus Himself gave Himself to make possible.
Submission is difficult. Our natural inclination is to refuse any thought of submitting ourselves to another. Loving like Christ loved is a formidable task, and goes against our natural disposition toward self-centeredness and self-preservation. But we have to remember that Paul is calling us to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (Ephesians 4:1 ESV). He is calling us to “put off your old self…and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22,24 ESV). He is commanding us to “walk in love, as Christ loved us” (Ephesians 5:2 ESV), as children of light (Ephesians 5:8). Marriage is one of the primary venues God has chosen for all of this to take place. And it is intended by God to be a constant illustration of Christ and His love relationship with the church. His sacrificial love and the church’s obedient submission, working in unison to accomplish God’s will. So Paul writes, “let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband” (Ephesians 5:22 ESV). For our good and God’s glory, and as a living testimony of our calling as children of God.