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3. Christlike Love for Your Wife, Part 1 (Ephesians 5:25-33)

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September 24, 2017

Do you love your wife? Every Christian husband knows the correct answer to that question. But, do you really love her? The answer depends partly on how you define love. Carole King sang, “I feel the earth move under my feet, I feel the sky tumbling down; I feel my heart start to trembling, whenever you’re around.” Those of us who have been married for a few decades might say, “I vaguely remember feeling like that!” But few marriages can be described like that after many years.

But let’s shift the notion of love from feeling “the earth move under our feet” when we first met our wives to Paul’s command for a husband’s love (Eph. 5:25): “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her.” How does your love for your wife compare to Christ’s love for the church, which caused Him to give Himself on the cross for her? It’s safe to say that no matter how long you’ve been married and no matter how happy your marriage may be, there is always the need to grow in Christlike love for your wife.

While my comments today focus on husbands (because our text does), I should point out that Jesus commanded us all to love one another just as He loved us (John 13:34). In Ephesians 5:2, Paul commands us to walk in love, just as Christ also loved us and gave Himself up for us. So this message applies to every Christian, single or married, male or female. We all must continually be growing in Christlike love for others. But Paul specifically applies the need for Christlike love to Christian husbands:

Sacrificial, purposeful Christlike love should characterize every husband’s relationship with his wife.

As verse 32 states, Christian marriage is an earthly picture of the relationship between Christ and His bride, the church. The world should look at a Christian marriage and see a distinctive difference in the way that husbands and wives relate to one another. Satan attacks Christian marriages because the testimony of Christ and His sacrificial death on the cross is at stake. When Christian marriages break up, it sends a false message to the world, that Christ does not love His bride with enduring love. So this text is not here just to tell you how to have a happy marriage, although it will help you do that. It is here for a much greater purpose: to help us glorify our Savior through marriages that reflect Christ’s sacrificial love for His church.

1. Love is the command for husbands.

A. Authority is not the command.

If you ask Christian husbands, “What is your main responsibility toward your wife?” you will often hear, “To be the head of my home!” And, following Paul’s instructions to wives (Eph. 5:22-24), where he states that the husband is the head of the wife, you’d expect him to say next, “Husbands, exercise headship over your wives, just as Christ is the head of the church.” While that is a serious responsibility, that is not what Paul says when he addresses husbands. Rather, he says (literally), “Husbands, be continually loving your wives ….” While wives are to love their husbands, the husband, not the wife, is primarily responsible to set an atmosphere of love in the home.

B. Material provision is not the command here.

Many American husbands think that their main responsibility is to provide an increasingly affluent lifestyle for their wives and children. They would say that the long hours that they work show their love for their families. But the truth is, many men find it easier to give their wives and children things than to spend time with them and develop close, loving relationships.

Granted, Paul states that if a man does not provide financially for his family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever (1 Tim. 5:8). Those are strong words, and we should not disregard them! But, he was talking about providing for basic needs, not all of the stuff that the world says we need to be happy. But in our text, the main command for husbands is not, “Provide for her,” or, “Exercise your headship,” but rather, “Love her!”

2. Love is possible for every husband.

There are two reasons that although difficult, love is possible:

A. Love is possible because it is commanded.

God never commands us to do something unless He gives us the power to accomplish it. This command follows the command to be filled with the Holy Spirit (Eph. 5:18). Without the Holy Spirit replacing our self-centeredness with His fruit, which begins with love (Gal. 5:22-23), we could never begin to love our wives as Christ loved the church. While we will never do it perfectly in this life, when we walk in the Spirit, we will grow in love.

The fact that God commands us to love our wives also means that the excuse, “I used to love her, but I don’t love her anymore,” won’t cut it. The Lord’s reply to that is, “Get to work at obeying My commandment and the feelings will rekindle!” Falling in love is somewhat easy and effortless. But staying in love and growing in love require deliberate focus and effort. If your marriage has degenerated into bitterness, blaming, and anger, you’ll have to work much harder at obeying this command. But the fact that God commands it means that it is possible. It’s a matter of obedience.

B. Love is possible because it is commanded to men from every conceivable background.

Just as the command for wives to be subject to their husbands is not culturally determined, but required of all wives in every culture, so the command to husbands to love their wives is given to all Christian husbands. Many of the men in the Ephesian church had been saved out of raw paganism. Many of them had frequented the Temple of Diana, goddess of the Ephesians, where both male and female prostitution were a part of the “worship” ritual (hence, Paul’s instructions in Eph. 5:3-12.) Furthermore, many of these men were in marriages that had been arranged by their parents.

The Greek writer, Demosthenes, described the common mentality of pagan men in those days: “We keep mistresses for pleasure, concubines for the day-to-day needs of the body, but we have wives in order to produce children legitimately and to have a trustworthy guardian of our homes” (quoted by William Barclay, Flesh and Spirit [Baker], p. 24; Barclay documents the widespread immorality of pagan Greece and Rome on pp. 24-27).

Against that pagan backdrop, the Christian perspective regarding the sanctity of marriage and the responsibility of the husband to be devoted exclusively to his wife in lifelong, Christlike love was radical! And, it’s radical in our corrupt culture. But my point is, even in a marriage where the husband has been unfaithful to his wife (or she to him), where romantic love has gone cold, it is possible through obedience to God’s Word to turn that marriage relationship around so that it not only honors God, but also is fulfilling to the couple.

But, to apply Paul’s command, we must be clear about what he means by “love.” Is it feeling “the earth move under your feet” whenever she’s around?

3. Love is a self-sacrificing, caring commitment that shows itself in seeking the highest good of the one loved.

It’s sacrificial and purposeful. I developed that definition from this text, as well as from other texts that describe Christ’s love for us. Note the basis for each part of the definition from our text:

“Love is self-sacrificing,” just as “Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25).

“Love is caring,” just as a man nourishes and cherishes his own flesh, as Christ does the church (Eph. 5:29).

“Love is a commitment,” as implied by the command to love, by Christ’s covenant love for us, and by the analogy of the body.

“Love shows itself,” that is, it is not just words, but also deeds, as seen by Christ’s going to the cross for us.

“Love seeks the highest good of the one loved,” just as Christ died for us so that He might sanctify and cleanse us, to present us to Himself in all our glory, holy and blameless (Eph. 5:26-27).

So the definition fits this text and I encourage every man to memorize it (or create a better one of your own) so that you can think about applying it daily toward your wife. It is very important to rid our minds of the Hollywood image that love is primarily sexual attraction that hits you out of nowhere like the flu and just as mysteriously evaporates apart from your power to hang onto it. Certainly, God’s design is that marital love involves mutual sexual attraction. Without it, I would not advise a couple to marry. But, to sustain and deepen love over a lifetime, we must understand what Christlike love is like.

So, I want to explore the text in more depth by presenting ten contrasts to explain practically what biblical love looks like. (We can only cover two of them in this message.)

A. Love is sacrificial, not selfish.

“Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25). He is our standard. He didn’t sit on His throne in heaven and bark commands to us on earth. At a personal cost that we can never fully fathom, He laid aside His rights as God, took on human flesh and became obedient to death on the cross, where He bore God’s wrath for us! As Charles Wesley wrote, “Amazing love, how can it be, that Thou my God shouldst die for me!”

Maybe you’re thinking, “I’d die for my wife if I had to. I’d fight to the death to protect her.” That’s great, and I hope you would! But here’s the real issue: Are you crucifying self every day on behalf of your wife? Is your focus on using her to meet your needs or on setting aside your selfish desires to meet her needs?

In his exposition of this text, Martyn Lloyd-Jones says (Life in the Spirit [Baker], p. 211),

… the real cause of failure, ultimately, in marriage is always self, and the various manifestations of self. Of course that is the cause of trouble everywhere and in every realm. Self and selfishness are the greatest disrupting forces in the world.

Of course, the wife also must practice self-sacrificing love toward her husband, since all Christians must love one another. But, the apostle’s command here to husbands to love our wives sacrificially, as Christ loved the church, means that the main responsibility for setting a loving atmosphere in the home is on us. But many husbands do not daily practice laying aside their rights, their comfort, their pleasures, their pursuits, or their time, for the sake of their wives. If you’re using your wife simply to meet your needs, if you don’t regard her needs above your own, or if you’re demanding your own way in the home, you aren’t loving her sacrificially.

Or, to get more practical, if when you come home from work, your attitude is, “I’ve worked hard all day; I deserve some rest. Don’t bug me, wife!” you don’t love her as God calls you to do. Instead, as you drive home, you should be thanking God for the wonderful wife He has given you, be praying for her and thinking about how God wants you to minister to her. If your wife brings you your slippers and the paper when you walk in the door and says, “Enjoy yourself,” that’s fine. But if the kids are going wild, the phone is ringing, the dishes are piled up in the sink, and the trash needs taking out, you may need to set aside your right to some relaxation and serve your wife out of love.

B. Love is purposeful, not aimless, effortless ecstasy.

Paul states Christ’s purpose in giving Himself for the church (Eph. 5:26-27): “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.”

The world views love as an aimless, effortless state of ecstasy. You fall in love, kind of like falling off a surfboard. Once you’re in the water, you just let the current carry you along. If you have to work at it or give it any effort, you must not have the real thing. True love is totally spontaneous and unplanned.

But biblical love involves effort to achieve a purpose. Christ does not achieve His aims for His bride by effortless spontaneity! He has a definite purpose and He works with us to achieve it.

1) Married love has an exclusive purpose.

“That He might sanctify her ….” To sanctify means to set apart unto God for His purposes. There are three senses of sanctification in the Bible. There is positional sanctification, which happens at the moment of salvation. God sets us apart for Himself (1 Cor. 1:2). Then there is progressive sanctification, the process by which God makes us holy in practice (1 Thess. 4:3). And, there is perfect sanctification, in which we will be completely holy at the moment of Christ’s return (1 John 3:2; pictured in Eph. 5:27).

Verse 26 probably refers to the positional sanctification that takes place at the moment of salvation (Peter O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians [Eerdmans/Apollos], pp. 421-422). In this sense, it has in view the exclusivity of our marriage to Jesus Christ. Just as couples often pledge at their wedding, “Forsaking all others, I devote myself to you alone,” so when Christ saves us, we are set apart from the world unto Him alone. We belong exclusively to Him.

In practical terms, men, this means that you must put a protective fence around your love for your wife. There is no place for flirting with other women. I think it is dangerous and inappropriate for a married man to continue or to form close friendships with women other than his wife, unless his wife is fully included. Also, it should go without saying, but I’ll say it: you should not look at other women lustfully, whether in pornography or in person. While there is a sense in which Jesus loves all people, there is a special, exclusive sense in which He loves His bride. Even so, a Christian husband must guard his exclusive relationship with his wife.

2) Married love has a purifying purpose.

Christ “cleansed her by the washing of water with the word.” This refers to the cleansing that takes place at the moment of salvation, when Jesus’ blood cleanses us from all our sins (O’Brien, p. 422). While sanctifying refers to being set apart exclusively unto God, cleansing refers to the removal of our sins.

Many scholars understand “the washing of water with the word” to refer to baptism and the word of consecration that accompanies that ritual. Or, Paul may have been thinking of the ritual bath that Jewish brides took before their weddings. Or, he may have been thinking of Ezekiel 16:8-14, where God describes how He entered into a marriage covenant with His bride Israel. He washed off her blood, anointed her with oil, and clothed her in beautiful garments and jewelry, dressing her like a queen. Even so, Christ took us from our impurity and cleansed us from all our sins, making us the bride of the King.

“The word” (Eph. 5:26, Greek, rhema) refers to the spoken or preached word, and probably refers to the gospel (as in Eph. 6:17; see also, John 15:3 & 17:17, which both use logos). It is through the word of the gospel that we are cleansed and set apart unto God. When Christ opens our ears to hear the gospel, that He shed His blood to cleanse us from our sins, and when He imparts to us faith to believe it, we become His purified bride, set apart unto Him.

The application for husbands is that we must be committed to the total well-being of our wives, but especially to their spiritual growth in holiness. Set the example and encourage her to spend time daily in God’s Word. Pray with her and for her, that she might grow in godliness. Talk often with her about the things of God. Share with her the struggles and the joys of your walk with God. Listen to praise music and biblical sermons when you take a trip together. Protect your wife from the world’s moral filth as much as you are able. Don’t watch raunchy movies or TV programs.

3) Married love has an edifying purpose.

The picture in verses 26 and 27 is of the Lord building His church, so that we will be holy and blameless. That has been His purpose from eternity. In Ephesians 1:4 we read, “just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him.” The Lord never does anything to tear down or put down His chosen bride! Even when He must discipline us, He does it in love that we may share His holiness (Heb. 12:6, 10).

The application for Christian husbands is obvious: Any thoughts, words, or deeds that put down your wife, ridicule her, attack her, or tear her down, are not in line with your God-given purpose. At times, you may need gently to correct her in love. But your aim is to help her grow into a truly beautiful woman in the sense of Proverbs 31:30, “Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised.” Or, in the words of 1 Peter 3:4, you want to encourage her to develop “the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God.”

Conclusion

We’ll look at the other eight contrasts next time. But for now, let me urge all husbands to focus on two things:

First, immerse yourself often in the wonder of the cross. Paul is not giving out worldly self-help tips here on how to have a happy marriage. He roots his instruction to husbands in the theology and beauty of the cross, where the sinless Son of God offered Himself to secure His bride. As Martyn Lloyd-Jones points out (ibid., pp. 137-138), “His argument is clearly this—it is only as we realize the truth about the relationship of Christ to the church that we can really function as Christian husbands ought to function.” When you are overwhelmed daily with the fact that Jesus Christ died for all your sins, to make you His bride, the humility that that produces in you will spill over into self-sacrificing love for your wife. So take time each day to think about the glorious, amazing grace shown to you at the cross.

Second, take time often during the week (perhaps as you’re driving home from work) to think about how you can show sacrificial, purposeful Christlike love to your wife. Be as practical and specific as you can. It may be as simple as asking about her day and listening sensitively as she tells you. It may be helping her with the household chores or giving her a break from the kids. But if you aren’t giving it focused thought, you’re not obeying Paul’s command here. Your love for her should be sacrificial, not selfish. It should be purposeful, not aimless. You should do it not primarily to have a happy marriage, but primarily to glorify the Lord, who loved you and gave Himself for you on the cross.

In 1990, Robertson McQuilkin, the president of Columbia Bible College and Seminary, surprised many in the Christian world when he resigned his position in order to care for his wife, Muriel, who had Alzheimer’s disease. He was in his early sixties and could have served much longer. His wife could no longer communicate in sentences, and even her phrases were often nonsensical. She needed around the clock care. Since she would only grow worse, trusted, lifelong, godly friends urged McQuilkin to put her in an institution and continue his ministry. But he decided that it was his loving, joyful responsibility to care for her.

McQuilkin was startled by the public response to his resignation. He heard of husbands and wives renewing their marriage vows, of pastors telling the story to their congregations. It was a mystery to him why it attracted such attention, until an oncologist friend, who lives constantly with dying people, told him, “Almost all women stand by their men; very few men stand by their women.” (Christianity Today [10/8/90].)

Men, God calls us to stand by our wives by loving them as Christ loved the church, sacrificially and purposefully.

Application Questions

  1. Why does Paul emphasize submission for wives, but love for husbands? What implications does this have?
  2. Discuss the implications of Dr. Lloyd-Jones’ comment, “The real cause of failure, ultimately, in marriage is always self.”
  3. Does biblical marital love involve romantic feelings? If so, how can it be commanded? How can lost feelings be rekindled?
  4. Many wives are further along spiritually than their husbands. How can a husband in such a situation seek to help her spiritually? Where does he begin?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2017, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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