“Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word,” (Ephesians 5:25-26)
Nestled within one of the most popular passages on marriage is a description of how the church is sanctified by the washing of water. On the surface, we could think of nothing more than taking a hot bath or shower at the end of the day, using water to cleanse our bodies. But the symbolism behind washing with water is both rich and deep throughout the Bible.
#1 Water for Purification
Washing with water was a ritual sign of holiness. All throughout the Law of Moses were commandments related to cleanliness and holiness, and washing with water was one of the primary ways that a person could be proclaimed “clean” or “sanctified.” The high priest was to wash his hands and feet with water before ministering before the Lord, and washing with water was required when a person contracted a disease or brought an infection or other defilement into the community. If you have ever eaten a Passover meal, there are several moments where a ceremonial hand-washing occurs to show that everyone has cleansed themselves and made themselves worthy to partake of the meal.
This did not mean that such rituals were the only opportunity the Israelites had to bathe; instead, it was a sign that they had purified themselves and removed any blemish or fault before God. These holiness codes became bloated and legalistic during the time of the New Testament. Using water to wash one’s feet was considered a social obligation (Luke 7:44), and Jesus and His disciples were frequently at odds with the Pharisees over stipulations like washing their hands before a meal (Matthew 15:1-2).
#2 Washing for Salvation
Jesus had more in mind than a simple washing of water when He considered sanctifying mankind. He knew that His purpose for being born as a human being was to die for the sins of the whole world, and His blood would be the atoning and cleansing flood through which we could be forgiven (Matthew 26:26-28). His blood is the source of our redemption (Ephesians 1:7) and provides a stronger cleansing and means of forgiveness than water alone (Hebrews 9:22).
Seen through the eyes of heaven, the requirements of the Law of Moses were a symbol of things to come – washing with water was meant to foreshadow the washing with Christ’s blood. The result was incomplete by just using water before His coming, but was made perfect and complete by His death, burial, and resurrection.
#3 Weddings and Sanctification
When we think about this verse in the context of a marriage relationship, we need to remember that the husband is called to be the head in the earthly relationship, just as Christ is the head of our eternal relationship with Him (Ephesians 5:23). This makes it all the more touching and tender when we consider that Christ loved the church, gave Himself up for her, and shed His blood so that He could pronounce her clean and holy (Ephesians 5:25-27).
This does not mean that a husband can atone for the sins of his wife because she is responsible for her own actions before the Lord. We are each called to confess our sins, and God will deal with us individually when He extends His free gift of grace (1 John 1:9). But the analogy in marriage is a loving devotion that involves giving and sacrificing with one’s whole heart and body. It required everything for Jesus to cleanse and sanctify the church with His blood and make it possible to wash her clean, so it will require everything for a husband to love his wife with the very best he can offer.
#4 Worship through Application
This verse is a beautiful expression of Jesus’ earlier recognition of the most important commands we can obey as His faithful followers. When others asked Him the greatest commandment in Scripture, Jesus stated that loving God with everything we have and loving our neighbor as ourselves was the ultimate fulfillment of the Law of Moses (Mark 12:28-31). Even the teachers of the time recognized that, if we could perfectly obey these commandments, we would have fulfilled the entire Law; Jesus even acknowledged this application (Mark 12:32-34).
When we look to God in every area of our lives – and especially in the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman – we sanctify our lives and set them apart as holy. The original way we did this was to ceremonially wash with water as an outward expression of an inward allegiance. The sacrifice of Jesus allows for the deepest cleansing possible: the removal of sin from our lives and the ability to stand before the throne of God without any blemish or stain. Because Jesus has washed us in His blood, and with the power of His Word, we can be redeemed.
That is why we still symbolically wash with water when we are baptized: we use water to symbolize our death with Christ and the newness of life we can now experience (Romans 6:4) by the cleansing power of being washed in the water of His Word.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Masters Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.