How a husband should love his wife. Ephesians 5:28-33

To this day, I remember a story I read in a magazine that came out when I was a teenager.  It was about a well-known pastor who was almost forced to step down from the pastorate (and probably should have) – after many years of public and prosperous ministry – because his wife divorced him.  Now the interesting thing is that she didn’t divorce him because he was sexually unfaithful to her or any other kind of what we would normally consider flagrant, ministry-ending sins.  The reason she gave was that he had chosen his ministry over her.  Over the years she had been neglected and ignored and unloved.  He had poured all his passion into the ministry and left his wife in the shadows.  Now, I do not condone the divorce.  But the fact of the matter is that this pastor certainly hadn’t loved his wife as Christ loved the church.  He had sinned greatly against his wife. 

The thing that haunts me the most to this day about this tragedy is the way the magazine advertised the story on the front cover.  On the cover page was a picture of this pastor preaching, along with quotes from sermons he had given over the years on marriage.  Every one of the quotes condemned the very way he had treated his wife.  If he had just listened to his own words.  If he had just practiced what he had preached.

This story haunts me because I know how it is much easier to preach than to practice what you preach.  This is of course true of all of us.  Hypocrisy is not something some people have to deal with; it is something we all have to deal with.  At some level, we are all hypocrites.  You’ve heard the adage, “Don’t do what I do, but do what I say.”  It’s the same thing.  And it is easy to preach on marriage, but it is also easy to sin against your wife.

And so, when I come to preach on words like this, I remember that pastor.  I preach this sermon with fear and trembling.  I acknowledge before you all that I am not perfect and that there are ways I can and should be a better husband.  I also acknowledge that by the grace of God I will become a better husband, and, taking Christ to be my guide, will love my wife the way she ought to be loved. 

Now, my wife and I have agreed that if ever my ministry begins to come between us, I will step down from the ministry immediately.  But there are a million ways for a husband to sin against his wife because there are a million ways for a husband to fail to love his wife the way he ought to love her.  So we husbands need to be vigilant.  And there is no better place to begin being vigilant in loving our wives than to start by listening to how the apostle exhorts Christian husbands to love their wives.

There are two aspects of this text that I want to look at.  There will be, of course, some overlap with what we have already touched on in the previous verses, but I think these things are worth repeating.  The overriding exhortation here is found at the beginning of verse 28: “So ought men to love their wives.”  I want to unpack that statement in two stages.  First of all, this text says something about the foundation of this love to which husbands are called.  That foundation is marriage and the meaning of marriage as God instituted it among men.  In other words, the meaning of marriage gives the why of marital love.  Second, this text says something about the example of this love, which is Christ.  His love for the church gives the how of marital love.

First of all, let us consider the foundation of this love, which is marriage.  Clearly, Paul is speaking to husbands as to married men.  But that is not the only reason why I say that marriage is the foundation of this love.  It is because Paul goes on to say, “So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies.”  Why does Paul say that?  Why does he say, “He that loveth his wife loveth himself”?  He says this because there is a real union between husband and wife and that union is created in marriage.  They are one; so that in a very real sense when a husband loves his wife he is loving himself.  The apostle refers to the Biblical support for this union in verse 31, when he quotes Genesis 2:24.  This verse reads, “For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh.” 

Our Lord also referred to this verse when answering a question from the Pharisees about divorce.  Our Lord quotes this verse, and then says, “Wherefore they are no more two, but one flesh.  What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder” (Mt. 19:6).  This is a very significant text, for a very important reason.  This is because our Lord affirms here that the marriage union is a union created by God.  Husband and wife are one because God makes them and declares them so: “what God hath joined together.”  So when Paul talks about husband and wife being one flesh, he is referring to the reality than in marriage God makes two people, a man and a woman, one flesh.

Now some people look at this and think Paul is just referring to sex.  Their reason is that in 1 Cor. 6:16, the apostle quotes Gen. 2:24 there as well as a reason for Christian men not to consort with prostitutes.  There is no marriage there, just a man joining himself unlawfully to a prostitute.  However, that cannot be the sum total to this one flesh reality that Paul and Christ are talking about in Eph. 5 and Mt. 19.  The context of Genesis 2:24 is marriage, not just sex.  The reason Paul refers to this text in 1 Cor. 6 is because marriage was ordained to be the only place in which a man and a woman should have sex (cf. Heb. 13:4).  One of the many horrors of prostitution is that it allows a man to treat another woman who is not his wife as if she were his wife, but without any of the commitments of love and respect; she becomes merely an object.  It is a degrading institution and it is one of the benefits that Christianity brings to society that where true Christianity flourishes prostitution does not.

So the one flesh union is a reference to marriage, and marriage is a union created and sanctioned by God himself.  In marriage, a man and a woman become one.  This is the basis of the apostle’s reasoning in the text.  It is the reason given why a husband should love his wife.  He should love her because she is one with him; to love her is to love himself.  Later, in verse 31, where the apostle quotes Genesis 2:24, the language is there of a husband cleaving to [being joined to, holding fast to] his wife.  This word “being joined to” underlines again the nature of this union.  That word literally means to glue together, to weld together.[1]  It is a very strong word.  The apostle uses it to cement this idea of the union between husband and wife.  Interestingly, it does not contain the idea of alloy, of two things being mixed up into one thing, but the idea of two distinct things between united into one.  In marriage, our personalities are not dissolved but are united in such a way that they complement each other and strengthen each other.

So notice how the apostle reasons in verse 29: “For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church.”  It is unnatural for a person to hate themselves.  We care for ourselves.  Paul says that if you are married self-care means spouse care.  If you don’t see that it means that you do not appreciate the reality that marriage is.  It means that you don’t understand the meaning of marriage. 

Paul’s logic is this: you are a husband, married to your wife, and therefore one with her.  You are her and she is you in a very real sense.  (Again, this is not to say that marriage disintegrates our individuality; it unites two people without destroying their identities as individuals.)  Therefore it is as unnatural to fail to love your wife as it is to love yourself.  You ought to love your wife because she is one with you.  In other words, the meaning of marriage is the foundation of love in marriage. 

Now this is very important for the following reason.  We live in a culture in which the basis for loving someone else is whatever it is at the moment that pleases you.  If another person pleases you, you love them.  If they do not please you anymore, you move on.  It is the mindset that is behind so many of the broken families in our generation.  With this mindset, there is very little room for patience, for forgiveness, for longsuffering, and for sacrificial love.  On the other hand, if you look at your wife as you look at yourself, there is going to be a lot more room for all those things.  I love the way Charles Hodge expresses this.  He writes: “Conjugal love . . . is as much a dictate of nature as self-love; and it is just as unnatural for a man to hate his wife, as it would be for him to hate himself or his own body.  A man may have a body which does not altogether suit him.  He may wish it were handsomer, healthier, stronger, or more active.  Still, it is his body, it is himself; and he nourisheth and cherishes it as tenderly as though it were the best and loveliest man ever had.  So a man may have a wife whom he could wish to be better, or more beautiful, or more agreeable; still she is his wife, and, by the constitution of nature and ordinance of God, a part of himself.  In neglecting or ill-using her, he violates the laws of nature as well as the law of God.”[2]  Husband, you are to love your wife because you are one with her; you are therefore to love your wife as you love yourself.  Marriage is the foundation of the love to which you are called.

Second, let us consider the example of this love.  It is Christ.  Note how verse 28 begins: “So ought men to love their wives.”  What does the word “so” refer to [“in the same way” is how the ESV puts it]?  Well, clearly, Paul is referring to verses 25-27.  Remember, in those verses he reminds us how Christ loved the church: “Husbands, love you wives, even as Christ loved the church . . . so ought men to love their wives.”  The reason you should love your wife is that you are one flesh with her.  The example you are to take in loving your wife is the way Christ loved the church.  Paul refers to this again in verses 29, 30, and 32.

We noted last time that there are two elements to our Lord’s love for the church that are highlighted here.  The first is that his love is sacrificial, and the second is that his love secures the happiness of the church.  These two elements ought to find their way into the love that as husbands we have for our wives. 

Let’s take this second aspect first: if we love our wives, we will delight in and work for their happiness.  The point of being married is not to have someone around to always serve your wishes.  A married man who honors Christ in his marriage is the man who finds his joy in the joy of his wife.  He is the man who serves his wife and meets her needs even as he leads her.  He finds his delight in her delight.  He dwells with her “according to knowledge,” as Peter puts it, as an heir together of the grace of life (1 Pet. 3:7), in order to help her and bless her.  Christ makes the church beautiful (cf. Eph. 5:27).  A good husband does not wear his wife down but builds her up.  He follows his master who did not come to be ministered to, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many (Mt. 20:28).

How is this worked out in the marriage?  I think the key word here is “cherish” in verse 29: “For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church.”  The interesting thing about these words is that they come right out of the nursery.  In other words, this is the type of language a parent uses to express the tender affection and care they have for their children.  In fact, this is the way these words are used elsewhere in the NT.  For example, the word behind “nourish” is the word for “bring . . . up” in Ephesians 6:4 with reference to a father’s care for his children.  The word behind “cherish” is used in 1 Thess. 2:7 to express the apostle’s care for the Thessalonian believers and likens that to the way a nurse or a mother takes care of her children: “But we were gentle among you, even as a nurse cherisheth her children.”

Now Paul uses these words here to describe how a person takes care of their bodies: they nourish and cherish them.  In other words, people normally devote much care and attention to their bodies.  The apostle is saying that this ought to describe our love for our wives.  We are always shocked when we see someone who isn’t taking care of themselves because that is just not normal human behavior.  We are also shocked when we see a parent who isn’t devoted to the happiness of their children.  The apostle is implying here that we ought to be just as shocked when a Christian husband doesn’t love his wife in such a way that he is devoted to her care and happiness.  He ought to cherish her.

What does this look like?  First of all, it means he is devoted to her.  The reason why a wife might chafe under the leadership of her husband is probably because he is more devoted to himself than he is to his wife.  The Christian husband is constantly thinking of his wife and her needs and wishes even as he leads his family.  He is her servant even as he is her head.  Now I am not saying that Paul is encouraging any kind of foolishness here, or that a loving husband indulges his wife even when it would not be for her good.  It doesn’t mean that he moves to her every whim.  That would be not be wise or loving, and that is not how Christ loves the church.  But it does mean that she comes before everyone else.  The husband’s first affection and first loyalty is to his wife, not to his buddies or his co-workers or his parents.  His wife is the love of his life.  As Martin Luther is supposed to have said, “The Christian is supposed to love his neighbor, and since his wife is his nearest neighbor, she should be his deepest love.”  Whether he said that or not, I think it’s absolutely right.

Second, it means that he doesn’t just love his wife with his hands, but also with his heart.  We all know that we are called to love even when we don’t feel like it.  There are always going to be times in a marriage when you do the right thing, not because you want to do it, but because it is the right thing to do.  But you don’t cherish your wife if your married life is just one long list of duties to perform.  If your affections don’t follow your will, then something is wrong.  To use John Piper’s famous illustration, you don’t give your wife roses and then explain that it was just your duty to do so.  That is not cherishing and nourishing.  And if you are not in the place where you feel love to your wife, where you are moved by your wife, then you need to get there.  To stay in that place is sin and you need to repent.  Husband, cherish your wife!

Now you can fail to do this in at least one of two ways.  One way you can fail to do this is by intentionally doing things that hurt your wife.  If you know that doing something will hurt her, but you do it anyway, that is wrong.  It is not loving your wife as Christ loved the church.  But there is another way to fail to do this.  It is by ignoring your wife.  Going about life as if your wife did not exist.  Christ does not ignore his church, his people.  He constantly reminds us that he is with us, even to the end of the age.  In all our afflictions, he is afflicted.  He will never leave us or forsake us.  He is always present (even if we don’t feel it) to help and to bless.  Thus, to live as if your life was just your life and not something you share with your wife is to fail to love your wife as Christ loved the church. 

Now in all honesty, I must confess to my shame that I have been guilty of both the sin of omission and the sin of commission in this respect.  I need to do better, and to follow more fully Christ our Lord in this regard.  Thank God that he gives grace to grow in our walk with him and with our wives.

The other aspect of our Lord’s love is that it is sacrificial.  Now, if you are not living for your own joy but finding your joy in the joy of your spouse, you are going to find it a lot easier to live sacrificially for her.  It means that you will be able to lay some of your desires on the altar in order to fulfill the desires of your wife. 

Now all this should be manifested in concrete ways.  It is the easiest thing to do to tell your wife you love her (if it is not, then something is dreadfully wrong!).  But our love should not just be communicated by our lips; it should show itself by our actions.  It is not just a matter of feeling like you love your wife.  Rather, do you love your wife in concrete, specific ways?  I noticed something when I was reading verse 25 again.  It says, “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and gave himself for it.”  Now our Lord has always loved his church and he will continue to love his church into eternity.  But when Paul talks about Christ’s love for the church, he puts it in past tense, “loved.”  Why?  Because the apostle is referring to a specific act of love, the supreme act of love, by which Christ showed the church he loved her.  That specific act was the cross, giving up his life so that those who make up his church might have eternal life.  And when we think of Christ’s love two thousand years later, this is what we think of.  Not that Christ does not continue to love us.  But he manifested toward us in this very specific, concrete way. Husbands, can you do this?  Can you point to specific, concrete ways that you have loved your wife, even sacrificially?  That is loving her as Christ loved the church.

As Christians, we have the greatest example and motivation and pattern to have wonderful and fulfilled marriages.  As believers, we go into marriage having already experienced the kind of love that should guide and preserve and grow our marriages: Christ’s love for the church.  We are not called to live out something alien to our experience, but something which we have all experienced.  Christ’s love is the example, and it is also the power behind our marriages.  It is his love that motivates us.  It is his love that gives us grace for every trial and hardship that we face in marriage.  We don’t do this alone.  Christ walks with us in our marriages, with both husband and wife.  There is therefore no reason why believers who are married should not be able to work out their differences.  There is no reason why believers who are married should not be able to have the very best relationship with their spouse.  We are not only united to each other, we are also mutually united to Christ.  What greater commonality is there?  None!  May God grant that as husbands and wives united to each other but also united to Christ, that we will be able to grow in our love to each other even as we grow in our love to Christ.  These things go hand in hand.  You will love your wife more if you Christ above all.  And the wife will love and reverence her husband (ver. 33) if she loves and reverences Christ above all.  May it be so in our church!

[1] Harold W. Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary (Baker: 2002), p. 773-775.
[2] Charles Hodge, Ephesians, (Banner of Truth, 1856 [reprint, 1991]), p. 246-247.


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