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. (Eph 5:25–31)
Husbands, how many times have you read this passage or listened to a minister preach from it at a wedding? Probably more than you can remember. From this passage, if I asked you what the command “Husbands, love your wives” practically might look like, what would you say? Probably something like, “Get off the couch and take the kids to the park, so that your wife can rest in the afternoon” or “Husbands, step it up and serve your wife by doing extra chores around the house” or “Husbands, find out what your wife really enjoys doing—even if you don’t—and surprise her!” or “Husbands, be quick to take care of the newborn in the middle of the night to let your wife rest more.” And the list could go on.
These are certainly appropriate kinds of ways to apply this text. But what if I told you that giving yourself up for your wife is not all as it seems? What if I told you that you cannot experience the totality of this passage until you love yourself as well? What do I mean?
The Splendor of Christ’s Bride
What I mean is that Christ not only gave himself up for the church through his death, but he also gave himself to cleanse her: “that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word” (Eph 5:26). And he not only gave himself to cleanse her, but 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” (Eph 5:27). Did you catch that? Jesus will one day present his holy and perfect bride, for whom he died to cleanse, to himself. That is, the reason for which Jesus Christ died on the cross was so that he might have a splendorous and holy bride for himself.
A Recoil of Blessing
What does the text then say? “In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies” (v. 28). So, the command “love your wives” in v. 26 is also the command to love yourself; that is why Paul wrote “husbands should love their wives as their own bodies.” What does this mean? This means that sacrificial and self-denying service for our wives exerts a recoil effect of self-blessing. When we love our wives by giving ourselves up for them, we also receive blessing. Consider also Jesus’ words elsewhere: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).
Therefore, we ought to pursue the joy of self-denying love, that we might also receive blessing. Perhaps Jesus’ splendorous bride was the joy that Jesus set his face to when he endured the cross (Heb 12:2), seeing in the future that he would receive the reward of her holiness and splendor. Our wives are honored when we receive the recoil of delight which comes from serving them. To put it negatively, no wife is dishonored when her husband sacrificially serves her because his delight is in the delight she experiences from his service.
The only reason that this recoil of blessing can happen is due to the unalterable fact that when a husband and a wife unite in marriage, they become one flesh. Therefore, when we deny ourselves for the benefit of our wives, we are loving ourselves: “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” (5:28–30). You can’t have one without the other. If you give yourself up for your wife, you are loving yourself. If you don’t, you’re hurting yourself. And notice the absurdity of not loving our spouses: “no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it.” Do you see the implication? If we do not love our wives in this manner, it’s like hating our own flesh! When we love our spouses in self-denying and sacrificial ways for their benefit, it’s like nourishing and cherishing our own bodies. In other words, because of our one-flesh union with our wives, their benefit is our benefit.
Don’t things seem to run more smoothly in the house when we make it a regular habit of self-denial for our wives? At least for me, I’m more eager to serve my wife and kids when Ephesians 5:25–31 is a reality in my home. My wife and kids seem happier, household chores are joyfully done, the word of God is treasured to a greater degree, and overall I feel less impatient, bitter, frustrated, etc.
Loving our wives like Christ loved the church is a hard calling—a calling impossible apart from the grace of God; but if God grants us eyes to see the recoiled joy from such love, then in the end I believe we would happier husbands. Haven’t we heard this before? This is Christian hedonism.