What does it mean to love as Christ loved? In Ephesians 5:25-27, Paul called husbands to the self-sacrificing devotion demonstrated by Jesus as the bridegroom to the Church. While we love in response to loveliness, Alistair Begg points out that Jesus loved in order to make us lovely. Restraining selfish ambition for the personal growth and spiritual beauty of another proclaims the Gospel and glorifies God.
Well, I invite you to turn back to Ephesians, and to chapter 5, and to verses 25 and 26 and 27. Let me read them for us. Ephesians 5:25:
“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.”
Chrysostom was the archbishop of Constantinople, one of the early church fathers. He was the archbishop in the fourth century; he died in 407 AD. And he had his own comments on this section of Ephesians 5. And at one point he made this observation, or he asked this question: “Hast thou seen the measure of obedience?”—referring to the call to the wife to submit to her husband. “Hast thou seen the measure of obedience? Hear also the measure of love. Wouldst thou that thy wife should obey thee as the church doth Christ? Have care thyself for her as Christ for the church.”
In considering what was just the opening phrase, we sought to understand the meaning of love in light of the word that Paul uses. We observed that he does not use the word eros, which we might characterize as being “all take,” nor did he use the word phileo, which we might characterize as being “give and take.” But he actually used the word agape, which is faithfully to be that of “all giving.” And so we noted that what is issued here to the husbands is a call to self-giving devotion. To borrow a phrase from the late President Kennedy, “Ask not what your wife can do for you, but ask what you can do for your wife.” That is the whole impetus of agape here.
And we said this morning that what we discover in terms of the meaning of love is then further clarified by the model that he provides. And you will notice that the model is, straightforwardly, the love of Christ for the church. The model for and the measure of a husband’s love is quite simply Jesus Christ. In other words, the test of it is the test of the cross, and that which is then borne out in the language that Paul uses to clarify this. What he’s doing here is acknowledging the fact that in the Old Testament, the picture that is given of the people of God and the relationship of God with the people—whether it’s in Isaiah or Jeremiah or Ezekiel or in Hosea—is consistently a picture that is framed by the covenant of marriage. For example, at the beginning of Jeremiah, God speaks to the people, and he says, “I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride.”
Now, I don’t know, those of you who are reading through the Bible at the moment, through the year, as some of us are trying to do. It’s pretty difficult with four chapters every day, isn’t it? I find it so. But if you’ve been in Mark’s Gospel, then you will have already read of the occasion when the disciples of John and the Pharisees were fasting, and you remember, the people came to him and they said, “‘Why do John’s disciples and the … Pharisees fast, but your disciples do[n’t] fast?’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and … they will fast in that day.’” What is Jesus doing there? He’s simply identifying himself as the bridegroom.
You find the same thing in John chapter 3 in relationship to John the Baptist. John the Baptist says, “‘I am not the [Messiah] ….’ The one who has the bride is the bridegroom.” And so, there is nothing peculiarly new, as it were, in this metaphor that is used then throughout the New Testament. It is picking up on that which is there in the Old.
And so, Paul makes it clear that if we’re going to love our wives in this way as Christ loved the church, then we should look at what Christ then has done.
Well, first of all, he’s loved the church. Well, you say, “Well, that’s pretty straightforward.” Well, it is, but we ought to ponder it. Jesus did not love the church because the church submitted in loving obedience to him. You’ve got that? He didn’t love the church because the church submitted in loving obedience to him; he loved the church first. That’s why we sang tonight, “O the deep, deep love of Jesus, vast, unmeasured, boundless, free!” Or, in the words of another hymn,
I’ve found a friend [in Jesus], O such a friend!
He loved me ere I knew him;
He drew me with the cords of love,
And thus He bound me to him.
Now, you see, here is the great distinguishing feature, because in human love—in human love—the best of human love is a mixture of selflessness and self-interest. Routinely, especially in the marriage bond, we love in response to loveliness. And when we spoke this morning about the place of affection and attraction and so on, it’s a strange thing if those measures are not present. We understand that. But here is the great distinction: we love in response to loveliness, but not so with Jesus. Because Jesus loved us in order to make us lovely. You see the difference? And you see how this then applies to the privilege of the husband to love his wife.
Not only did he love, but he “gave himself up.” In fact, if you just look at the text, it’s easy to expound, isn’t it? He “gave himself up for her.” What does this mean? Well, he left all the glory of heaven: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, coequal and coeternal, totally satisfied, if you like, if we might say so reverently and humbly, in the companionship of one another. And yet, entering into a covenant, the second person of the Trinity steps down. He is born in a manger. He works in a carpenter’s workshop. He finds himself nailed to a cross. He is raised to life. He ascends to heaven. He will come in glory.
That kind of material is wonderfully captured, again, in hymnody. And those of you who are of a certain vintage will have your minds going exactly where mine goes now, to the song that begins,
Down from his glory,
Ever living story,
My God and Savior came,
And Jesus was his name.
Born in a manger,
To his own a stranger
A Man of Sorrows, tears and agony.
And the second verse begins,
Bringing us redemption.
Now, don’t forget, husbands, what Paul is doing here is, he is using this model to remind us as husbands of what is to characterize the nature of our love for our wives: “loved … gave himself up for … [to] sanctify her.” In other words, to make her holy, to fashion her according to his plan and his purpose. And he has done this having cleansed her—cleansing her “by the washing of water with the word.”
As we sang again this morning in the hymn “The Church’s One Foundation,” “She is his new creation by water and the Word.” It ought to make us think of the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. And the picture is absolutely clear: the spiritual washing takes place by means of the Word of God, and that reality is portrayed in, but is not performed by baptism, so that baptism portrays the reality of that which the Word performs. And why has he done this? Well, it goes on to tell us: “cleansed … by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor,” in dazzling magnificence. Only God can do this. Only God can do this.
Those of you who remember the ’60s will remember the old Gaither song:
Something beautiful, something good;
All my confusion he understood;
[And] all I had to offer him was brokenness and strife,
[And] he made something beautiful [out] of my life.
And what he does is on individual basis is part of the big picture when he puts the congregation together and as he makes those congregations throughout the world testify to the reality of his kindness.
So tonight, this little gathering here looks as nothing in the city of Cleveland. Nobody sent anything here to find out about us. You could largely say that nobody really cares about us, as long as we keep ourselves to ourselves. You go back to business tomorrow, and you may make some mention of it, and by and large, although people may be polite to you, they just regard this as an irrelevance. The church, in terms of the watching world, looks like a Cinderella sitting in the ashes, a nondescript meaningless gesture in a world that is going on on its own. But here’s what the Bible says: that although we may look like a Cinderella now to the watching world, this is nothing compared to what he has planned for us, when he will present his church, as it says here, “in splendor,” minus spots, wrinkles, “or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.”
That actually should take us all the way back to the beginning of Ephesians and to the wonder of what Paul says there in that great paean of praise with which he begins, in terms of the electing love of God—and then, as he encourages those who are the readers of the early part of the letter to see themselves in light of what Christ has done, that he’s “raised us up with him,” he’s “seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward[s] us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this … not your own doing.”  It is “not of works, lest any man should boast.”
In other words, he says, “Here you are tonight on the fourth of February, 2018, a tiny group, like the little flock that Jesus left behind when he took his leave of his disciples, and he said to them, ‘Fear not, little flock, for it is the Father’s purpose to give you the kingdom.’” And they must have looked at one another and said, “And how in the world is that going to happen? Look at us. Most of us have run off and fled. And you’re going to give the kingdom to us? To a nondescript band of characters such as this?” Yes. And here throughout the world tonight, even as we’ve prayed, unbeknownst to the watching gaze of the eyes of man, God is working his purposes out.
Now, the reason that we are reading this, the reason that this is written here concerning the magnificence of the work of Christ for the church, is in order that the husbands, whom Paul is addressing, may understand that this provides the model for the husband’s love for his wife. So that the sacrificial love of a husband has in view the personal growth and spiritual beauty of his wife. Let me say that to you again. What Paul is saying here is this: that just as Christ has loved the church—so as to give himself up for her, so as to fashion her in such a way that she will appear finally in all of her magnificent glory and splendor—the responsibility of the husband’s love is about that more than anything else.
Now, that strikes us as uncommon, doesn’t it? Because most of our preoccupation, as a result of an ignorance of the Bible and as a result of being unduly influenced by a secular culture, has to do with our own personal well-being, and whether we are getting satisfaction, and whether this wife has been performing as we had anticipated, and whether this husband is doing as we expect, and so on—failing to recognize that the gospel, says Paul, is being proclaimed.
Get this. Some of you think you’re not doing very much for the gospel. You’re not very good at conversation. You never give talks. You have difficulty handing out the New Testaments. We’re not all the same in this way. You live in your community, you’re on your street, you haven’t gone door to door, you’re not knocking doors, you’re not putting stickers on doors and everything. You’re saying to yourself, maybe as a husband and wife, “I don’t think we’re doing very much at all.” Let me tell you what you’re doing. If you are loving one another, if you are submitting to your husband, if you are loving your wife, then although you do nothing else, you are proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ. For the picture is exactly that: that the submission of the wife to her husband under Christ and the love of Christ for his wife is then paradigmatic of the very nature of what God has done for us in Jesus.
You know, to try and speak of these things, I almost feel as though I don’t know how to talk about it at all. I come out of a morning like this morning, I want to go back and start again and try it again. I hear myself talking now and I say, “But this doesn’t actually convey the grandeur of this. Hopefully these people will just read the Bible for themselves.” Oh, I hope you do. I need to.
And how thankful we are for those who are older than us and beyond us and before us who have modeled this very love for their wives. I think I can take a moment to read to you part of a letter from one of my heroes—one of my mentors, as it were—a mentor shared with many others; one whom I listened to preach, one whom I met, but I never went for coffee with him. And I guess if you haven’t gone for coffee, then you can’t call him your mentor under contemporary terminology. But this is a letter that was penned on the eighteenth of May, 1937, by Martyn Lloyd-Jones as he boarded a ship to come to America. And he wrote to his wife as follows:
My dear Bethan,
The fact that I am writing to you from here on this particular date is altogether wrong, and makes me feel very odd. As far as I can remember, this is the first time, ever, that I have written to you for your birthday! I hope that the ship-letter-telegram that I sent you this morning arrived safely on your birthday morning. The authorities told me that there was no doubt about it. I had endless pleasure and happiness in sending it, I somehow felt I was in touch with you once more. In this awful distance of separation, a thing like that is a great help—but oh! what a poor substitute.
I cannot describe the various feelings I have experienced since I saw you last on Waterloo Station. [Well, goodness, that was only a few hours before. “All the feelings I’ve had since I saw you last on Waterloo Station.”] And I had better not try to do so. Let me say just this much—thinking of you gives me endless happiness, and I am more certain than ever that there is no one in the world like you, nor even approaching you—not in all the world. I don’t know if I[’m] losing my reason … but I often feel that you[’re] with me and that I could almost talk to you. I have, at times, tried to imagine where you all three are, and what you[’re] doing. I would give the whole world if you could have been with me, but there, I must be content to look forward to some four weeks today, when I shall [God-willing] be back with you again, looking into your eyes and sitting beside you. I think I shall be perfectly content just to be with you and Elizabeth and Ann, just sitting with the three of you and doing nothing else. I[’ve] said in my “letter-telegram” that I[’m] sending you all my love and here I am, saying it once more. You shall give some bits of it to the two girls. I[’ve] been thinking of eleven years ago tonight [her birthday night], when we went together to Covent Garden and then back to Dilys’s. I thought, at that time, that I loved you, but I had to live with you for over ten years to know you properly and so to love you truly. I know that I am deficient in many things and must at times disappoint you. That really grieves me, and I am trying to improve. But believe me, if you could see my heart you would be amazed at how great is my love. I hope you know, indeed I know that you know, in spite of all my failings. I can do nothing but say again that from the human standpoint, I belong entirely to you.
I tell the young guys on my pastoral team, “You get this letter and use it at least on your wife’s birthday. Unless she’s here this evening, she’ll never know that it wasn’t an original.”
And I say to you: “Husbands,” says Paul, “so go ahead and love your wife.” Love her. Love her “as Christ loved the church.” Love her as the one who is preparing for himself a bride.
As John says,
I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. …
Then came one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues and spoke to me, saying, “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.”
 John Chrysostom, Homilies on Ephesians 20.
 Jeremiah 2:2 (ESV).
 Mark 2:18–20 (ESV).
 John 3:28–29 (ESV).
 Samuel Trevor Francis, “O the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus!” (1875).
 James Grindly Small, “I’ve Found a Friend” (1863).
 William E. Booth-Clibborn, “Down from His Glory” (1921).
 Samuel J. Stone, “The Church’s One Foundation” (1866).
 Gloria Gaither, William J. Gaither, “Something Beautiful” (1971).
 Ephesians 2:6–8 (ESV).
 Ephesians 2:9 (KJV).
 Luke 12:32 (paraphrased).
 Quoted in Iain H. Murray,D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The Fight of Faith 1939–1981(Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1990), 781–82.
 Revelation 21:1–2, 9 (ESV).
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.