One day in a counseling class at Seminary the teacher required role playing exercises. In one exercise a student pretended to be a husband who said that he wanted to divorce his wife because he didn't love her anymore. The teacher jumped in and said, I paraphrase, "That is enough. We don't need to continue since now the problem in the marriage is clear: You are sinning by disobeying the command to love your wife."
However, what does it mean for a Christian husband to love his wife? The world associates love with a feeling. However, Paul's command to husbands involves a set of practices which define what it means for a Christian husband to love his wife. These practices will form my points. No husband who claims to be a Christian can ignore these practices.
In verse 25 we see the word "husbands," which also can be translated "men." As with the word for wives or women, the context determines the translation. A husband of a particular woman is "her man." There is a defining relationship of mutual possession.
The command that Christian husbands "love" their wives, upon reflection, may seem unnecessary. After all, Christians in general are commanded to love one another, and even their enemies. However, as I have explained elsewhere, love means seeking good for another. Loving a fellow Christian, loving an enemy (one who seeks to harm), and loving non-Christians in general require different actions and responses. The love commanded Christian husbands in this case also would be defined by the object of that love, that is, "your wives."
A Christian husband should love his wife "just as Christ also loved the church." But how did Christ love the church? He "gave Himself for her." Some have thought that Christ's sacrificial death is in view. However, the Greek verb translated "gave for," paradidomai, refers to giving someone or something over to the authority or custody of others. Therefore, the part of Christ's life which is being compared to the role of the husband is when Christ was given over to the authority of others. Christ let Himself be given over by Judas and the Jewish religious leaders to the Gentile authorities. As the Son of God, He was in control of these events, yet as a human, as the Son of Man, He truly gave Himself into their power.
Failure to properly understand the meaning of Christ giving Himself as in this verse leads to a wrong understanding of the first aspect of the husband's love for his wife: giving himself over to the authority of others, for her sake. The main error in understanding this passage is to think that Christ's sacrificial death is the example intended for husbands. Under the cover of false heroism too little is actually demanded from the husband. A husband is unlikely to face the prospect of dying for his wife, even if this were the intended sense of our verse. However, all husbands will give themselves over to the authority of others for their wives. They do this especially in going to work, thus being under the power in some sense of either employers or clients during most of their waking hours. Husbands also put aside the tendency of young men not to worry about getting into trouble with the law, so they accept these authorities, for the sake of being there for their wives rather than being in prison or on the run. This may seem like a strange application, but reflect for a moment on the everyday life of young men in those parts of our society in which marriage has broken down.
The love of a Christian husband for his wife begins with giving himself for her. However, even many un-believing husbands love their wives to that extent.
In verse 26 we see the second aspect of love for his wife, which is distinctly Christ-like. The word "that" indicates that what follows is the purpose of Christ giving Himself up for the sake of the church as it applies to the Christian husband.
Here "sanctify" means setting apart someone or something for God's purposes. God the Father sanctified Christ and sent Him into the world (John 10:3:6). Christ sanctified, set apart, a people for Himself through the gospel. Those given to Him by the Father, the elect, respond to Christ's words in genuine faith because they are drawn by the Father.
Christ's word through the Holy Spirit acting on the new heart also cleanses His people from the lives from which they were called. The word "cleanse" refers to the removal of uncleanness which hinders one's approach to God. For example, the Lord told Peter in a vision that foods previously prohibited under the law had been cleansed and so could be eaten without becoming ceremonially unclean (Acts 10:15; 11:9). Peter when asked to explain his subsequent decision to risk defilement by going to the household of Cornelius the centurion identified the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles assembled there as God "purifying [cleansing] their hearts by faith" (Acts 15:9).
The means the husband uses in sanctifying and cleansing his wife are, like the ministry of Christ in this respect, "with the washing of water by the word." The phrase "washing of water" has led some to think that baptism is in view. However, Christ did not baptize and neither does the husband.
Since no one in the history of the church has commissioned the husband with baptizing his wife, the popularity of the identification of this verse with baptism is difficult to understand. The bridal bath in Jewish tradition certainly did not involve the prospective husband. The textual basis for the Jewish practice perhaps is Ezekiel 16:8-14, which is figurative for God's redemptive work.
The water of baptism signifies the washing away of sin by the blood of Christ. Neither the husband nor anyone else models this aspect of Christ's work. Instead we must turn to the use of the terms "water" and "washing" as employed in the life of the church, which points to the Word as a means of grace.
This connection of the Word to cleansing is important in understanding such passages as Paul's exhortation to the Corinthians: "Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God" (2 Cor 7:1). Christ's sacrifice cleanses His people from the debt of sin, but the cleansing or purification of His people continues so that He may "purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works" (Titus 2:14). Christ's sacrifice does not leave the lives of the saved as they were when unsaved. As the writer to the Hebrews stated "For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying [washing] of the flesh, who much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, purge [wash] your conscience from dead works to serve the living God" (Heb 9:13-14).
This cleansing is necessary for drawing near to God -- actually it is the manifestation of God drawing near to His people (Jas 4:8). John links this cleansing to walking in the light, which is related to the role of God's Word in the church, and confessing sin (1 Jn 1:7,9).
That this cleansing especially is manifested in church life is emphasized by the use of the Greek word rhema instead of logos for "word" in this verse. Rhema refers to the spoken word, whereas logos is more general. Rhema is used later in this letter when Paul exhorts the saints to take up "the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God" (Eph 6:17b).
The church gathers as a congregation on the Lord's Day, but also as families throughout the week. It is especially at those times that the husband is expected to be a spiritual leader for his family. However, in his relationship to his wife, whether with others in the family or simply between the two of them, he shows the distinctively Christian love for his wife by contributing to her sanctification and cleansing. He must set her apart from the people of this world for God's purposes for her, and him. The husband must cleanse her from the things of this world that hinder their approach to God. The means for these duties is "with the washing of water by the word." In other words, the husband must speak the Word of God to his wife, in family worship or Bible study, and in other conversations.
Verse 27 shows that the washing of water by the Word has a further purpose, without which the love of a husband for wife is not truly Christ-like. It is important to emphasize that the word "present" in that verse is not the usual translation of the Greek word, paristemi, nor does that translation prepare the reader to properly apply this teaching. Paristemi literally means "stand by" or "stand before."
There is a famous song by Tammy Wynette called "Stand by your man." It portrays a wife being loyal to her husband despite his sin and weakness. However, it is through the love of a Christian husband that his wife will not only stand by him when he falls short, but does so because he has drawn her close to stand beside him throughout their lives together. A husband's love for his wife will be manifested in their everyday lives by the fact that they are together, standing beside one another. Of course, it is not always possible for a wife to stand with her husband, usually because of the demands of the first expression of a Christian husband's love, giving himself over to the power of others for her sake, especially in work.
Speaking of the church as "not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing" seems like a concern for superficial beauty. However, Paul uses these words in order to point to the real concerns, that she be "holy and without blemish." Holy is the condition of being set apart, sanctified. The word translated "without blemish" actually means blameless. However, the same word is applied to how Christ's sinless life fulfilled the requirement in the law that the sacrificial offering be "without spot" (Heb 9:14; see also the similar use of "without blemish" in 1 Pet 1:19). In application to the church and to wives it refers both to being forgiven in Christ and to the completion of sanctification in the new heaven and earth.
Paul summarizes these verses in the parallel passage in Colossians: "Husbands, love your wives and do not be bitter toward them" (Col 3:19). Un-happily many Christian husbands do not see that failing to love their wives according to the Word of God is an expression of bitterness toward them. However, wives may see the connection more clearly. Our text provides a fuller treatment of the practical meaning of how a Christian husband carries out the command to love his wife. First of all, the Christian husband gives himself over to the power of others for the sake of his wife. Secondly, the Christian husband sanctifies and cleanses his wife through speaking the Word of God. Thirdly, a Christian husband seeks to have his wife standing beside him in daily life. Let us not take these lessons lightly, for the love of a Christian husband for his wife is commanded and defined by the Word of God.
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