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.”
Ephesians 5:25-31 ESV
Ray Ortlund writes,
Headship did not come down to us historically as an artifact of oppressive patriarchy; it began in heaven and came down into this world creationally as a pathway to human flourishing. The evils of domination and slavery were invented (Ex. 1:13; 2:23). But the head-with-helper dance of complementarity sprang from deep within the intuitions of God himself. We men and women today do not automatically know the steps to this dance. We must learn. But if we will receive it by faith, trusting in the goodness and wisdom of God, we can then explore its potentialities for joyful human magnificence.
I open with this quotation because I closed our previous sermon with a similar citation from the same author. There he called marriage a waltz rather than a military march, and here again he speaks of that overall marital complementarity as a dance. Dance, in fact, is a fitting metaphor for marriage because while both the man and woman are meant to learn the particular movements, the man leads the woman during the actual dance. Likewise, in marriage, while both husbands and wives will be accountable for all words and deeds toward one another before the LORD, the husband bears specifically the responsibility of leading his wife.
In many ways, this sermon and the previous one are two halves of one (hopefully) cohesive message. I aim to draw attention to this connection by both sermons’ structures. Last week, we viewed first the command for wives to submit and then observed the gospel-proclaiming theological rationality behind the command. Here we will mirror that pattern by beginning with the Christ-centered reasoning for husbands to love their wives, followed by studying the command itself. If listened or read together, these two sermons structurally declare that the glorious gospel must always from the center of every God-glorifying marriage, while the practical obedience then radiates outward from this core. Hopefully, therefore, by the Spirit’s guidance, these two sermons fit together in distinct yet complementary ways, much like a husband and wife in marriage.
AS CHRIST LOVED THE CHURCH
To begin, Paul calls husbands to love their wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. You should be experiencing slight déjà vu from this particular phrasing because the apostle has already used it before, at the beginning of this very chapter. Recall that Ephesians 5:2 says, “And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” Indeed verses 26-27 reflect the offering and sacrifice of Christ that the end of verse 2 referred to: 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.
We must first of all understand that Christ’s love for us is fundamentally sacrificial. He gave himself up for us. It was the atoning death of Christ, that marvelously fragrant offering made to the Father that has cleansed us, is sanctifying, and will one day glorify us in His presence in splendor and in purity. We require Christ’s cleansing sacrifice because we made ourselves unclean through our sins. Or, as the Old Testament prophets were known to declare, we were unfaithfulness to the LORD. We whored ourselves off to false and worthless gods, breaking our vows to the Holy One. Yet in His loving-kindness, He does not forsake His people. Hosea 2:7-8 captures God’s response to our unfaithfulness well,
She shall pursue her lovers but not overtake them, and she shall seek them but shall not find them. Then she shall say, ‘I will go and return to my first husband, for it was better for me then than now.’ And she did not know that it was I who gave her the grain, the wine, and the oil, and who lavished on her silver and gold, which they used for Baal.
Notice that God speaks of His people as their husband and of their idols as lovers. He intentionally paints His covenant with Israel in terms of a marriage covenant. He wedded Himself to His people, and He remains faithful, even through their infidelity. Yet for all the marvelous images of God’s steadfast love for His people in the Old Testament, the life, death, and resurrection of Christ surpasses them all. It was through the death of Christ that God’s people have been truly liberated from the corruption and slavery of sin. As Paul notes, it was Christ “who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession” (Titus 2:14).
Or, as Revelation shows us, He has ransom and redeemed His Bride. Consider John’s vision in Revelation 19:7-8,
Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and the Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure.
The imagery within our text of the church as cleansed… in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing is purposely bridal. Through His own death, Christ has taken unfaithful whores like us and is presenting us to Himself as a radiant bride, holy and without blemish.
Notice also that Christ loves His church because we are members of his body. This brings us back to the language of our previous text: “For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior” (5:23). And it should also remind us of how the apostle closed chapter one, saying, “And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (1:22-23). His love is, therefore, also displayed through His headship over us.
John Piper defines headship as “the divine calling of a husband to take primary responsibility for Christlike, servant leadership, protection, and provision in the home.” Indeed, the husband’s headship must be Christlike because Christ Himself defines headship by being the head of His bride, the church. As the head of the church, He is our leader, our protector, and our provider.
Or we may use another biblical analogy of our relationship to Christ: He is our shepherd, and we are His flock. He leads us “in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake” (Psalm 23:3), and He leads us, feeds us, and protects us through His Word. His Word is the lamp, giving light to the path before us (Psalm 119:105). It is our daily bread, the manna by which He nourishes and sustains us throughout our pilgrimage through the wilderness of this life. It is also the sword of the Spirit, which arms us that we may stand firm in this evil day wrestling against our spiritual foes.
Thus, Paul has brought together two metaphors for understanding our relationship to our Lord and Savior. He is our husband, and we are His bride. He is our head, and we are His body. He leads us, protects us, and provides for us through His loving and sacrificial headship, and we submit in everything to Him.
LOVING & SACRIFICIAL HEADSHIP
With Christ’s loving and sacrificial headship set before us as our example, we can now discuss Paul’s command for husbands to love their wives. The love of a husband toward His wife must follow Christ’s perfect pattern. His love for us was sacrificial, so too must our love be for our wives. His love is displayed as our head, leading, protecting, and providing for us, and so must we lead, protect, and provide for our wives as their head.
As her head, a husband must love his wife as if she were his own body, for Paul explains he who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it. Marriage is a divinely designed union. As Paul cites from Genesis 2:24, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” Two have been made one. A husband must, therefore, now view his wife as if she is an extension of his own body, as she must likewise view him. His wife is not his slave or property; she is his own flesh. This is biblical headship. Matthew Henry comments on Eve creation from Adam’s rib apply here as well,
That the woman was made of a rib out of the side of Adam; not made out of his head to rule over him, nor out of his feet to be trampled upon by him, but out of his side to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected, and near his heart to be beloved.
The loving headship of the husband is expressed by nourishing and cherishing his bride. Husbands are called to be nourishers. After all, the word husbandry refers to care and cultivation. Indeed, when Paul writes for fathers to bring up their children, he is using the same word. This, therefore, goes far beyond mere physical provision. It is certainly the joy of a husband to provide for his wife financially, but he must also nourish her. He must care for and cultivate her. Like a garden thrives under the wise care of a gardener, a wife should also flourish under the wise headship of her husband.
This, of course, means that he must know her. Just as a man should know the strengths and weaknesses of his own body, he should also be intimately knowledgeable of the strengths and weaknesses, the giftings and challenges of his wife. Peter, after all, called upon husbands to “live with your wives in an understanding way” (1 Peter 3:7). Simply being around your wife will never be enough to properly nourish her; you must understand her, which is not a task that can ever be completed. Only God is immutable, and in imperceptible ways, your wife is a different woman today than she was yesterday. You must, therefore, resolve daily to know her more. You must consciously devote yourself to this endeavor.
This will generally be done through two channels: listening and observing. Notice that both involve giving attention to her. Augustine wrote that “Men are so blind in their impiety that, as it were, they bump into mountains and refuse to see what hits them in the eye.” Likewise, many husbands are so consumed by themselves, their work, their hobbies, their projects, their friends, etc. that they pay no attention to their wife’s discontent until she hurtles a mountain of her rage into his eye. A husband’s desire to know his wife should stem from deeper roots than a desire for peace in the home. Instead, his passion for understanding and nourishing his wife should come from the fact that he cherishes her.
We often go to the well of Proverbs 31 for describing the ideal wife (as we did several times last week), yet we should also consider the husband presented within that text. Verse 10 describes the wife as “far more precious than jewels,” but Ortlund notes that “a wife does not often grow to this level of magnificence on her own. A great wife usually has a great husband.” And it is evident that the husband in Proverbs 31 both nourishes and cherishes his wife. We see that he cherishes her because she has his heart in trust (v. 11) and he happily praises her, saying, “Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all” (v. 29). Being cherished then overflows into nourishment as he strengthens and encourages her to accomplish the multitude of things set before her. Because she is nourished and cherished under his loving headship, she is more free to flourish and thrive, not less.
Furthermore, these twin commands of nourishing and cherishing also guard us from equally dangerous extremes: passivity and domination. The passive husband who lives by the motto of “happy wife; happy life” will run their marriage into the ground through the best of intentions. Often desiring her happiness above all things, his servant-leadership contorts into him simply serving her leadership. She is not his helper but his boss. A passive and submissive husband is not nourishing and cherishing his wife; instead, he often crushes her slowly by allowing her to bear the weight and responsibilities of both the husband and wife. Also, following the pattern of Adam, the passive husband tends to, in the end, revile his wife’s poor leadership, cursing rather than praising her.
On the other hand, the domineering husband equates submission from his wife with passivity. Even if he married the Proverbs 31 wife, instead of trusting, praising, nourishing, and cherishing her, he would merely feel threatened that she was usurping his headship. His own insecurity causes him to treat her more as a servant than a helper. Whether true or not, he assumes that her desire is against him, so he rules over her (Genesis 3:16).
The husband’s love for his wife, however, should avoid both pitfalls. Your wife is neither your boss nor your servant; she is your helper. Nourish and cherish her as such. Give her your praise and your trust, for she is bone of your bones and flesh of your flesh. Be enraptured (or intoxicated, as Proverbs says) with her beauty, inside and out, and strive to understand how great of a privilege has been given to you to cultivate your bride into a splendid and radiant wife. Can you genuinely say, “Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all” (Proverbs 31:29)? Is she to you “as a lily among brambles” (Song of Solomon 2:2)? If so, how are you actively making known to her how deeply you cherish her?
Yet we must still consider one more aspect of the husband’s loving and sacrificial headship. The nourishing and cherishing of his wife must have a goal, a telos, and that goal must be far greater than leading, providing, and protecting her as she lives her best life now. The husband’s goal in all things is to lead his wife further into holiness. Holiness, in many ways, is our imitation of God, as we were each commanded at the beginning of this chapter. God alone is truly holy, yet He makes us holy by setting us apart exclusively for Himself. We then become more and more holy as we increasingly present a clearer and clearer image of God, for we have His command: “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16).
Holiness, therefore, is the supreme goal of all Christians, and we are each called to aid and encourage one another toward that prize. Paul spoke to this growth in holiness back in 4:15-16, saying,
Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
A husband’s nourishing of his wife is for the same purpose. His utmost desire to serve a key role in presenting his bride to Christ in splendor. He longs to see her sanctified, looking more and more like Christ each day. And this sanctifying nourishment, we must remember, never comes without sacrifice. Post-fall, we eat our daily bread by the sweat of our brow because the ground itself now works against us, and even the grace of God is free to us only through the sacrifice of Jesus on our behalf. Likewise, nourishing your wife will require diligence and effort. If you are not laying yourself upon the altar in order to ensure that she is growing “up in every way into him who is the head, in Christ” (Ephesians 4:15), then you are not properly nourishing her.
Place her own needs above your own. Love her as Christ loved His church, humbling Himself to death, even death on a cross, for our sake. Likewise, give your greatest diligence to sacrificially loving and leading your bride. Outside of following our Lord Himself, this is your highest and most noble duty. Nothing else is of greater importance. Give your wife the best of yourself, just as Jesus did for us.
 Paradoxically this union does not erase the distinctions between the two; rather, the two magnify and strengthen the differences between them, so that together they become an even greater unit.
 See J. A. Medders, The Proverbs 31 Man, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/the-proverbs-31-man/#:~:text=A%20Proverbs%2031%20man%20is%20an%20encourager.%20Her,a%20place%20of%20encouragement%2C%20a%20culture%20of%20love.
 Ortlund, 69.