An Exposition of Ephesians 5:22-33 (Part 3)

Commission to Husbands (vv.25-31)

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless. So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. he who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, because we are members of His body. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and shall be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.

I. “As Christ Also Loved the Church” (vv.25-27)

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her.(v.25)
As the main command for wives was submit, so the main command for husbands is love. This is the husband’s duty – “a love capable even of suffering and dying for the wife as Christ did for the Church.”[1] Just as” qualifies this love with what follows: Christ’s love for His church manifested on the cross (“gave Himself up for her”). This lifts a husband’s commission “to the highest plane.”[2] We see here the measure and manner of a husband’s love. He models his love after Christ’s; the manner is of similar stock. He also sacrifices himself in love as Christ did; the measure is of similar weight.[3] This love is in the context of the mutual submission of verse 21. So the primary way that a husband submits to his wife is by loving her.[4] A wife submits to her husband by obeying his leadership and a husband submits to his wife by sacrificing all for her.

No greater love has ever been exhibited than that great and glorious act whereby Christ willingly endured the wrath of Almighty God in order to secure eternal life for the church. So many books and treatises have been written on this great matter. Perhaps for our present purposes it would suffice to say Christ’s love is unconditional. There is no condition that the church must meet in order for Christ to love her.

Paul wrote earlier in Ephesians that “He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved,” (1:5-6). God loves His people in-spite, not because, of themselves. From election to glorification, salvation (Romans 8:29-30) is wholly by grace (Ephesians 2:8). The cross was the manifestation of God’s prior decision to save certain sinners (Ephesians 1:4-7) and the greatest demonstration of love that we can know (Romans 5:8).

Christ took no consideration of any quality, accomplishment, intent, or work that His people were responsible for. The motivation for Christ’s salvific work upon the cross was in no reference to the church’s own work. Our nature and accomplishments were irrelevant – as were the effects, both internal and external, of our faculties to the point that Christ was uninfluenced by our state of heart and deed to go to the cross. “Uninfluenced” meaning that Jesus remained on the cross for reasons foreign and alien to any obligation to be kind to us. This is the radical, powerful picture of Christ’s love. Remarkably, Paul says that the love of a husband for his wife should thus reflect the love of Christ for His church. The husband should take his cue from Christ’s work, not his wife’s. Her performance serves as no reference point for when and how he is to love her. Christ’s performance, rather, is the motivation. A man is to be persuaded by the cross to love his wife likewise.

What else will impel him to give all he has in such a way, for his whole life? What other stimulus or rationale will suffice? The husband must reject the quality of his wife’s work and consider only Christ’s, for therein lies bountiful incentive to love any fellow sinner for a thousand lifetimes. Paul’s opening commission to the husband, then, is quite to the point: “Husband’s, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her.

“Look not,” Paul says, “for warmth in the fruit of your wife’s hands – soon you will find the sight quite cool and undeserving of grace. Instead, be ever gazing upon your Savior, Jesus Christ, lifted up as your own propitiation. Let the love He demonstrated for you usher swift resolve to, in all things, consider your wife before yourself. Look for warmth in the fruit of your Savior’s hands – soon, you will find the sight too hot to ignore and a sufficient kindling for sacrificial service.”

MacArthur writes, “When a husband sees faults and failures in his wife – even if she is as unfaithful and wanton as Gomer – he should realize that she has not offended him to a fraction of the degree to which he has offended God. God has immeasurably more for which to forgive us than we could ever have for which to forgive others.”[5]

While Christ’s love displayed on the cross is the prime motivator, the husband has even more examples to choose from when we approach God’s love in a Trinitarian context. It was in love that the Father sketched the plan of salvation (John 3:16; Ephesians 1:4-5), that the Son secured the means of salvation (John 3:14-15; Romans 3:21-26), and that the Spirit seals the recipients of salvation (Romans 5:5; Ephesians 1:13-14).[6] A man who loves his wife as the Triune God has loved His people – how could any woman not welcome this? Egalitarian, feminist complaints regarding the tyrannical and unhealthy nature of Complementarianism are utterly void. Boice asserts rightly that “no good woman will struggle hard against a man who is willing to die for her.”[7] He goes on to give an illustration:

We are told in one of the Greek histories that the wife of one of the generals of Cyrus, the ruler of Persia, was accused of treachery and was condemned to die. At first her husband did not know what was taking place. But as soon as he heard about it he rushed to the palace and burst into the throne room. He threw himself on the floor before the king and cried out, “Oh, my Lord Cyrus, take my life instead of hers. Let me die in her place.”
Cyrus, who by all historical accounts was a noble and extremely sensitive man, was touched by this offer. He said, “Love like that must not be spoiled by death.” Then he gave the husband and wife back to each other and let the wife go free. As they walked away happily the husband said to his wife, “Did you notice how kindly the king looked at us when he gave you the pardon?” The wife replied, “I had no eyes for the king. I saw only the man who was willing to die in my place.” That is the picture the Holy Spirit paints for us in this great chapter of Ephesians.[8]

A word from early church theologian Chrysostom might also prove helpful to the reader:

Have you noted the measure of obedience? Paul attention to love’s high standard. If you take the premise that your wife should submit to you, as the church submits to Christ, then you should also take the same kind of careful, sacrificial thought for her that Christ takes for the church. Even if you must offer your own life for her, you must not refuse. Even if you must undergo countless struggles on her behalf and have all kinds of things to endure and suffer, you must not refuse. Even if you suffer all this, you have still done not as much as Christ has for the church. For you are already married when you act this way, whereas Christ is acting for one who has rejected and hated him. So just as he, when she was rejecting, hating, spurning and nagging him, brought her to trust him by his great solicitude, not by threatening, lording it over her or intimidating her or anything like that, so must you also act toward your wife. Even if you see her looking down on you, nagging and despising you, you will be able to win her over with your great love and affection for her.[9]

So that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her…that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory…that she would be holy and blameless.” (vv.26-27)
We understand that the husband does not sanctify his wife by the washing of water with the word, nor does he make her holy and blameless. Verses 26-27 are referencing Christ’s work, in which the husband does not share responsibility. I submitted earlier that verse 23b differentiates Christ’s work from the husbands. I made this decision fundamentally based on the Greek conjunction alla in verse 24a. However, verses 26-27 do seem to be implying something for the husband. There is no contrast in the Greek (at least explicitly). I submit, then, that verses 26-27 present a unity in the husband’s and Christ’s work in that both works are concerned with the bride’s glorification. Christ’s work affects the glorification, whereas the husband’s does not. Nevertheless, both works are done with the intent that the respective bride be sanctified.

So that” clarifies the purpose of Christ’s sacrifice. Christ giving Himself up for her (v.25) directly cleansed her of sin (v.26). “Having cleansed” logically and temporally precedes “might sanctify.” Christ first justifies, then sanctifies, His bride.[10] Yet justification is only the beginning: holiness is the final goal (Ephesians 1:4).For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them,” (Ephesians 2:10). The language is similar to John 3:16, in that the Son was given so that His people “might have everlasting life.” The possibility of life and sanctification comes through Christ’s work on the cross. Christ’s sacrifice had the goal of sanctification in mind. Yet there is a goal behind sanctification, as well. “That” at the beginning of verse 27 proves this. The goal of sanctification is for a presentation to Himself of the church in all her glory. Sanctification is the immediate intention of the cross, but glorification is the remote, ultimate end.[11]

We dwell on the phrase, “present…the church in all her glory.Endoxon, “in glory,” is the church being revealed. The church is manifested, showcased, fully seen. Glorification is in one sense the final act of sanctification, as an act of purification. In another sense, it is the following act of sanctification, as an act of presentation. Paul has beautifully traced Christ’s affection for His bride over the span of five verbs: “He loved her, gave himself up for her, to sanctify her, having cleansed her, that he might present her to himself.[12] Christ set His affection on the church in eternity past – in this love, He died for her – in doing so, He cleansed her of sin – now, He continues to separate her true self from the fleshly habits that remain – one day, He will complete this work and behold her in perfect holiness. What is highly significant is that the church is Christ’s and was cleansed before the glorification. The glorification of God’s people will be not be the moment in which we are made God’s possession, but rather the moment when our true natures will be fully manifested and strengthened in the presence of God’s glory. It is her glory in which she is presented. This glory is implicitly, in a real sense, present during the sanctification process beforehand. What does this mean? Well, it means that the five actions of love Christ’s takes for His church are for the ultimate purpose of presenting her in her most beautiful, articulate, healthy form. In love He prospers His bride. In love He does all that is necessary to nourish, heal and promote His bride so that she is molded into the fullest, happiest state.[13]

What we may say here is that the second quality of the husband’s love is that it should be for the purpose of his wife’s betterment. The husband gives no reference to his wife as he looks for a motive for love, but he gives every consideration to his wife’s condition as he contemplates, “How will this specific action affect her?” Every end unto which a husband directs his energy (in reference to marriage) should include chiefly how such labor will benefit his wife. There may yet be a different act or word that would suite her needs better. We must understand that it is the purpose of the husband’s act of love, not simply the effect, which Paul has in mind here. That is, my wife’s betterment is not simply a consequence of what I do, but an utmost intention of what I do, to the extent that my efforts to benefit my wife are in some significant and actual way a reflection of Christ’s effectual effort to sanctify His church. A husband should be filled with zeal for the health of his wife as he reads of Christ’s own zeal for the health of His bride: “that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless.

Paul’s command is not twofold, it is singular: love. Within love, however, there are two natural distinctions – inseparable, but differentiable. Love is unconditional and nutritional. Love looks for no prior condition in the object and serves the end of bettering the object. Love is a commitment based principally on the lover’s decision, for the purpose of building-up and protecting another. To bring both facets together, we can see that love is a commitment to another’s welfare. “Husbands,” Paul says, “be committed to your wife’s welfare. Make a decision to bless your wife in all things. How she speaks to you, acts towards you, respects you, follows you – none of these things matter. This is the mindset: ‘Christ blessed me, now I will bless my wife. Christ put me first, now I will put my wife first.’” MacArthur writes,

Just as God supplies “all [our] needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:19), the loving husband seeks to supply all the needs of his wife. The blessed marriage is the marriage in which the husband loves his wife with unlimited caring. Something is basically wrong if she is looked at only as a cook, housekeeper, occasional companion, and sex partner. She is a God-given treasure to be loved, cared for, nourished, and cherished.

II. “As Their Own Bodies” (vv.28-31)

So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies.” (v.28)
This phrase must be read in light of the following comments. This is an explicit statement of the second facet of love. Paul again likens it to Christ’s love for His church.

He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one every hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, because we are members of His body. (vv.28b-30)
Paul quotes Genesis in verse 31 and prescribes it to the husband as a fact: the husband and wife are one flesh in marriage. Therefore, it is completely applicable to say what he does in verses 28-29. The husband’s love is one of unconditional, sacrificial service, and a nourishing, cherishing service. His example to follow is Christ. The church is the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27). Thus, when Christ nourishes the church, He does so to Himself (“just as Christ also does the church, because we are members of His body”). Since the wife is one flesh with the man, Paul’s command is entirely logical. When the husband benefits the wife, he benefits himself, because the two are one. Therefore, even aside from Christ’s demonstration of love upon the cross, there is obvious motivation and reason to nourish the wife. “Husband, love your wife, because it is what is best for you.” Does not a healthy hand benefit the mouth – for how else will the mouth attain food? Does not a healthy heart benefit the mind – for how else will the mind attain blood? Thus, a healthy spouse benefits the other. If a man ever struggles to find motivation enough to love his wife, let him consider two things. First, Christ loved him upon the cross. Second, his health is inescapably linked to his wife’s.

Critiquing Complementarianism, some suggest that it is a hierarchical system allowing the husband to arbitrarily boss the wife. “Authority” often bears this negative connotation.

First, authority in essence cannot be evil because Christ possesses authority. Obviously authority can be utilized in good, just ways. There is nothing evil innate to authority. The issue is how authority is wielded. Trip Lee explains, “Power doesn’t corrupt – it just shows our corruption. Instead of shying away from the concept of authority in stewardship and leadership, what if we approached it in the context of the gospel, with an agenda to reform what mankind often twists?

Second, to assume such abuse in Complementarianism is to ignore Paul’s mandate of love for the husband. The testimony of Scripture does not allow for a husband to abuse a wife. Abuse is blatant disobedience.

Third, to assume such abuse in Complementarianism is to ignore Paul’s discourse on marital union between male and female, that each spouse’s health is inescapably linked to the other. Imagine if I broke my leg and the next day hobbled out into a field. My mind remembers what it felt like to sprint, and I immediately have a desire to run across the plain. Now, who in their right mind would do such a thing? This is analogous to a husband’s potential abuse of authority in Complementarianism. Could he do it? Well, yes – in the same way that I could choose to run across a field with a broken leg. There would be no sense in doing it, because in-so-doing I suffer with my wife. Complementarianism supports an abusive husband in the same way that a doctor supports a broken-legged runner. “There will be no running, because running is not good for your leg,” the doctor says. “You may only participate in activities that promote the health of your leg.” Likewise, Complementarianism says, “There will be no doing x, because x is not good for your wife. You may only lead in what directions promote the health of your wife.”

Fourth, to assume such abuse in Complementarianism is to ignore the power that enables the husband’s proper use of authority. Ephesians 5:25-31 is in the context of verses 15-21, as I have already explained. Verse 18 is absolutely crucial: “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit.” Complementarianism is accomplished through this filling of the Spirit. Timothy Keller, in The Meaning of Marriage, correctly points out that “everything [Paul] is about to say about marriage assumes that the parties are being filled with God’s Spirit. Only if you have learned to serve others by the power of the Holy Spirit will you have the power to face the challenges of marriage.”[14] Anti-Complementarian objections dealing with marital abuses of authority disregard this important qualification of true Complementarity.


[1] Salmond, Expositor’s Greek Testament: Ephesians, 367.
[2] Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament: Epistles of Paul: Ephesians, 545.
[3] Salmond, 367. And so, in relationship, the husband’s love meets the wife’s obedience (Ibid.), thus modeling Christ’s relation to the church.
[4] MacArthur, Ephesians, 296.
[5] Ibid., 303.
[6] Wuest, Word Studies in the Greek New Testament: Ephesians, 131. A husband’s passion (eros), satisfaction (stergo) and affection (phileo) are all saturated with the Christ-like love Paul prescribes (Ibid.).
[7] Boice, Ephesians, 199.
[8] Ibid., 200.
[9] Chrysostom, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Ephesians, 185.
[10] An alternate theory pays closer attention to the aorist characteristic of “sanctify” and understands “having been” as giving the way in which the sanctification comes about. So, Christ sanctifies His bride by cleansing her. This seems perfectly logical, and even  preferable considering that the instrument of cleansing mentioned by Paul is not Christ’s death on the cross but “the washing of water with the word.” In this theory, then, there is no explicit reference to justification except that which “gave Himself up for her” entails. While I concede this as even the most probable meaning of the text, I do not concede that “cleansing” can never communicate justification (see John 13:10). John 15:3 is an example of justification being referenced by “cleansing,” in which the means by which it is administered is Christ’s Word. This is theologically parallel to what Paul writes here, that the church is cleansed “by the washing of water with the word,” (emphasis mine). I will allow the reader to judge for himself, yet please note that whichever reading of the text is correct, it by no means changes the Complementarian exegesis I have provided. All that is at stake here is whether or not justification is explicit or implicit in this Pauline passage.
[11] Salmond, 369.
[12] Stott, The Message of Ephesians, 227. Also influential to my understanding of this was Boice, 200-202.
[13] This concept is in part derived from Stott, 228.
[14] Keller, The Meaning of Marriage, 48.

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