Beautifying the Body of Christ

Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also 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, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she should be holy and blameless. So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, because we are members of His body. For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church.

Two weeks ago we talked about one aspect of the mystery of Christ mentioned in Ephesians 3:4, namely, the truth that in Jesus the Messiah even Gentiles, not just Jews, are part of God's people and are full fellow citizens with believing Jews in the true Israel, the body of Christ. This is a mystery not because it is unintelligible, but because it was kept secret for centuries while God focused his saving work and his special self-revelation on the Jewish people. Now it is revealed in the gospel. In the cross Christ reconciles Jew and Gentile to God in one body (Ephesians 2:16).

The Mystery of Marriage

Now today we look at the mystery of Christ and his body from another angle. And the mystery is simply this: the meaning of human marriage is based on another greater marriage designed by God in heaven before creation, namely, the marriage of Christ to the church.

The One-Flesh Relationship

We see this in verses 28–32. Paul says in verses 28–29 that "husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, because we are members of his body." What Paul says there, is that a husband's loving his wife is like loving himself because she is like his own body. And Christ's loving the church is like his loving himself because we are part of his body. So there is a comparison here: a husband's oneness with his wife is like Christ's oneness with his church.

Then in verse 31 Paul quotes Genesis 2:24, "For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and the two shall become one flesh." In other words, the reason a man's love to his wife is like love to himself is because in the beginning God designed marriage so that a "one flesh" union would be created. If Noël and I are one flesh because of the covenant of marriage, then my love to her is in a profound sense a love to me.

A Picture of the One-Flesh Union of Christ and the Church

Now that much was not a mystery in the Old Testament. That much was revealed in the text of Genesis 2:24. Husband and wife are one flesh. Yet Paul says in verse 32, "This mystery is great." So what's the mystery? He goes on to define it: "But I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church." The mystery not revealed fully in the Old Testament was that the one-flesh union of human marriage is a picture of the one-flesh union of Christ and his church.

So the new angle on the mystery of Christ that we see today is not what we've seen before—that the body of Christ is the fullness of him who fills all in all (1:23) or that the body is made up of both Jews and Gentiles who trust Christ (3:6)—but the new angle on the mystery of Christ today is that the church is the body of Christ because she is the wife of Christ, and husbands and wives are one flesh, one body.

What Does It Mean to Be the Wife of Christ?

So if we want to know who we are today as the church, the body of Christ—if we want to know what it means to be the church and to live like the church—then we need to learn from this passage what it means to be the wife of Christ. What does it mean to have Christ as our husband?

I see at least five things that it means for us to be the wife of Christ. Three of them we will take up this morning and two this evening.

1. Christ Loved Us Before We Were Attractive

It means first that Christ loved us before we were attractive.

Unlike How We Choose Wives

Verse 25: "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave himself up for her." Notice the order here. It's very important. He loved, and that love moved him to give himself. And verse 26 says that the aim of the self-giving was to sanctify and to cleanse, and verse 27 shows that the effect of that sanctifying is getting rid of spots and wrinkles and making the church beautiful with glory. So the love preceded the beautification.

In other words, Christ did not choose his wife the way we do. He did not look for an attractive woman or an intelligent woman or a even a faithful woman. He chose an unlikely woman. And then he set out to make her attractive and wise and faithful at the cost of his own life.

Free, Unconditional, Electing Love

His love for us did not begin as the love of admiration. His first love for us was not a response to our beauty. We had none. His first love for us was free and unconditional.

It is the love of unconditional election described in Ephesians 1:4, "He chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him." We were not chosen because he could see we were holy; he chose us because he planned to make us holy.

We have been loved with the love of unconditional regeneration described in Ephesians 2:4–5, "But God, being rich in mercy, because of his great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ, (by grace you have been saved)." God chose a dead woman to be his Son's wife. Dead women do not begin by fulfilling conditions. They begin by being raised from the dead, or being born again.

That is what happened to every member of the body of Christ. Before we could look pretty, or sound wise, or be faithful, the electing love of God chose us and the regenerating love of God raised us from the dead.

A Peculiar, Precious, Covenant Love

Now ponder this for a moment. God means for my wife Noël to experience and to enjoy and to be strengthened and secured by a love coming from me, her husband, that is peculiar to her, and different from the general Christian love I may have for any other woman in the world. The love of a man for a wife is a distinguishing covenant love that is shared by no other woman in his life.

But one of the great theological and experiential tragedies in the church today—and one of the great sources of weakness in the church—is that Christians have learned to enjoy a love from God that is no more peculiar and precious and securing and endearing and distinguishing than the general love that God has for all the world, even those who perish in unbelief. For 200 years the church in America has slipped farther and farther away from the glorious truth that the wife of the Son of God is loved with an electing, regenerating, distinguishing, covenant love that is different from God's love for the world that is not his wife.

O God loves the world—such that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believes on him shall not perish but have everlasting life (John 3:16). But it is a great sadness when a wife only knows herself loved with the love that her husband has for every woman. The marriage between Christ and his wife is weak—and the church is weak—to the degree that she only feels loved with the same love that allows others in the world to perish. As though there were no peculiar love that chose her and raised her to life and made a covenant with her never to turn away from doing her good.

So the first thing it means for us to be the wife of Christ is that Christ loved us before we were attractive. He loved us and loves us still with a peculiar, distinguishing, electing, regenerating, covenant love. To know this, to have the Spirit testifying of it in your heart, is precious and powerful beyond words.

2. Christ Gave Himself for the Church

The second thing it means to be the wife of Christ is that Christ gave himself for his wife the church.

Verse 25: "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave himself up for her."

Again Christ did not win his wife the way men do today. He paid a dowry for her and the dowry was his life. To be the wife of Christ means to be loved not only with an electing love that chooses us before the foundation of the world and not only with a regenerating love that raises us to life when we were dead in our trespasses and sins, but also with a self-sacrificing love that dies for us (as Romans 5:7–10 says) while we were helpless and sinful and ungodly and enemies.

In other words, he did not simply die for an unworthy woman or for a reluctant woman, but for a woman who found him repulsive. Now don't miss the force of this. Paul says in verse 25 that Christ gave himself for the church. In other words, in his dying he had the church especially in view. It was for her—uniquely for her, especially for her, peculiarly for her—that he died. The powerful saving, cleansing, sanctifying, beautifying effects of the cross were directed to a fiancée who not only was unattractive in herself, but who found Christ himself repulsive and did not have any intention of marrying him. Specifically for her he gave his life. For us. That is what it means to be the wife of Christ.

3. Christ Cleansed the Church from the Guilt of Sin

Third, being the wife of Christ means being cleansed by him from the guilt of sin.

Verses 25–26: "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."

If you have to be flattered in order to feel good, then the marriage between Christ and his wife will not make you feel good. It is a highly unflattering picture that he must bathe us in order to marry us. We were unattractive not beautiful; we were enemies not friends; and we were dirty with the guilt and moral filth of sin all over us and inside of us. And he chose us and died for us and raised us to life and cleansed us. He took away our filth. He took away our guilt. He bathed us and made us clean before an all-holy God.

The water of baptism is a representation of that spiritual washing. Notice that the cleansing from sin in verse 26 comes from the self-sacrifice of Christ in verse 25. So it is with baptism. It represents a dying with Christ as we are buried with him in water and it represents a being cleansed by Christ through that very death in water. So immersion in water provides a perfect symbolic combination of dying with Christ and being cleansed by Christ. And they must be combined because it is the death of Christ that is the power that cleanses. 1 John 1:7 says, "The blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin." Baptism represents a burial and a bath; because the burial is the bath.

Ezekiel's Picture of God's Marriage to His People

Let me bring this message to a close by giving you one of the most graphic biblical pictures of God's marriage to his people Israel. It's found in Ezekiel 16, and I think God means for us to see in it a picture of Christ's marriage to the church. It catches up what we have seen so far and points us forward to the rest of what it means to be the wife of Christ, which we will look at tonight. Start at verse 3 and read through verse 9.

3 Your origin and your birth are from the land of the Canaanite, your father was an Amorite and your mother a Hittite. 4 As for your birth, on the day you were born your navel cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water for cleansing; you were not rubbed with salt or even wrapped in cloths. 5 No eye looked with pity on you to do any of these things for you, to have compassion on you. Rather you were thrown out into the open field, for you were abhorred on the day you were born.

6 When I passed by you and saw you squirming in your blood, I said to you while you were in your blood, "Live!" I said to you while you were in your blood, "Live!" (Notice the sovereign work of God taking a repulsive cast-away and giving her life.)

7 I made you numerous like plants of the field. Then you grew up, became tall, and reached the age for fine ornaments; your breasts were formed and your hair had grown. Yet you were naked and bare. 8 Then I passed by you and saw you, and behold, you were at the time for love; so I spread My skirt over you and covered your nakedness. I also swore to you and entered into a covenant with you so that you became Mine, declares the Lord God. 9 Then I bathed you with water, washed off your blood from you, and anointed you with oil.

That is what it means to be the wife of Christ. Cast out, bloody, dirty, as good as dead. And then the Son of God walks by. Stops. Looks at this disgusting, filthy, aborted thing as good as dead and covered with blood, and says, "At last! My wife. My beloved. My chosen one. Live!" And he comes again when she is grown and covers her nakedness and washes away her filth and makes a marriage covenant with her . . . and then beautifies her and prepares to present her to himself in glory.

That's what we will talk about tonight: the beautifying and the presentation of the church to Christ in glory.

The church is the body of Christ because the church is the wife of Christ. And being the wife of Christ means being loved by Christ before we were attractive. It means being loved with self-sacrificing love. It means he chose us, raised us, cleansed us. All of you who are in Christ: he loves you as a man loves his wife, differently, distinguishingly, unlike any other in the world.


October 11, 1992, pm
2nd half of sermon on Ephesians 5:22–32
(and using Ezekiel 16:1–14)

What It Means to Be the Wife of Christ

4. Being Made Progressively Holy (Sanctification)

What is it?

  • be holy and blameless and without spot or wrinkle (v. 27)
  • abstain from sin (1 Thessalonians 4:3)
  • go for good deeds (Titus 2:14), LOVE (1 Thessalonians 3:12)
  • progressive sanctification (1 Thessalonians 4:1; 2 Peter 3:18; Hebrews 10:14)

The Basis of it?

  • Christ's death (2 Corinthians 5:15; 1 Peter 2:24; Titus 2:14; Hebrews 13:12)
  • the blood of covenant (Luke 22:20) is a new covenant in my blood (Hebrews 8:6, 10; Ezekiel 36:25–27)

Necessity of it

  • see Hebrews 12:14; 2 Thessalonians 2:13; Romans 6:22–23

Agent of it

  • God/Holy Spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:23; 2 Thessalonians 2:13; Hebrews 13:21)
  • Man (2 Corinthians 7:1; John 4:8—and all commands to do right)

Means of it

  1. The Word (John 17:17); seeing the glory of God (2 Corinthians 3:18); faith in truth (2 Thessalonians 2:13)
  2. Faith (Acts 26:18; Galatians 5:6)

5. Being Presented Finally to Christ, Perfected as His Wife

Does this show a deficient, needy, lonely Christ? No: All his saving work is to fit us to reveal him and enjoy him as all-sufficient. And in this he rejoices.

©2014 Desiring God Foundation. Used by Permission.

Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in physical form, in its entirety or in unaltered excerpts, as long as you do not charge a fee. For posting online, please use only unaltered excerpts (not the content in its entirety) and provide a hyperlink to this page. For videos, please embed from the original source. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Desiring God.

Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By John Piper. ©2014 Desiring God Foundation. Website: desiringGod.org