The central command given to husbands as husbands in the New Testament is the command to love. The central command given to wives as wives is the command to honor and respect. We will consider the first in detail this week, and the second next week.
For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing. 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, That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish. So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church (Eph. 5:23-29).
We are not told that the husband ought to be the head of the wife, but rather that he is (v. 23). A man may be a faithful head or an unfaithful head, but in either case, he is a head. But St. Paul is here urging husbands to be faithful heads, as saviors to the body (v. 23). Wives are to be subject to their husbands in everything, as the Church is subject to Christ (v. 24). Then the command to husbands comes—love your wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself for it (v. 25). The end result of this self-gift is that the Church would be sanctified and cleansed by the washing of water by the word (v. 26). The end result of baptismal washing made efficacious by the word heard in faith is that the Church will be a glorious Church (v. 27), without any blemish. In the same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies (v. 28). A man who loves his wife loves himself (v. 28). Nobody ever hated his own body, but nourishes and cherishes it—as the Lord does with the Church (v. 29).
In our circles, this passage is familiar territory. But because of what St. Paul actually says here, we will spend the rest of our lives learning from it—and even then, we will not come close to all that it contains.
The first thing to note is that love means gift, sacrificial gift. It is not love when someone refuses to give anything. Neither is it love when a man gives things as a substitute for having to give himself. Husbandly love is when a man gives himself to the uttermost, and then as a result of that self-gift, he naturally gives other things as well. A man cannot bestow himself, and then not bestow provision, protection, and so on. But a man can bestow provision and not bestow himself.
God so loved the world that He gave Himself in His Son (John 3:16). The same thing is found here. Christ loved the Church and gave Himself for it (v. 25). This self-gift is tantamount to death. You men are not told to be prepared in principle to die for your wives, if the occasion ever calls for it, but since you live in the security of the suburbs, it probably won’t. Every husband is called to give himself away, and this is a death. But in the glorious purposes of God, it is a death and resurrection. He who loves his wife (death) loves himself (life again). Jesus, for the joy that was set before Him, endured the cross.
In this, be sure to distinguish death from dying. Men are not told to be in perpetual death bed agonies for their wives. We are not told to twist in the wind. Dying can just be a form of miserable living, and is no help to anybody in your family. Die. And what God will raise up is glorious.
THIS KIND OF LOVE IS EFFICACIOUS:
Now it is quite true that husbands cannot re-enact the substitutionary atonement for the sins of the world, and no one thinks that they can. But they are commanded to imitate it, and to imitate it with an eye on the results. And in this, as with everything else, the results are God’s. This is God’s pattern of action. This is the way of God. This is just the kind of thing that He would use.
When a man loves a woman to death (in every sense), how does God work? God uses that love to sanctify, to cleanse, to wash, to nourish, and to cherish. And just as Christ loves His bride to the end of her ultimate loveliness, so husbands are commanded to love their wives into loveliness—because God has determined that self-gift bestows loveliness. Love bestows loveliness. Love comes before loveliness. What carnal men believe to be the horse is actually the cart. We love God (and are therefore lovely) because He first loved us (1 Jn. 4:19). God showed His love for us in this: while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8).
Men must not love their wives solely because they are lovely—although wise and loving fathers will give young fathead bridegrooms a head start. Men must not love their wives, if their wives keep themselves up. As a wise Puritan put it, men must choose their love and then must love their choice. And as they love their choice, they bestow loveliness. The covenantal responsibility and burden of the wife’s loveliness therefore resides with the husband. And men, you do not do this by becoming her hairdresser, or make-up artist. You do this by bestowing the gift of sacrificing death. This gift aims at the inner beauty, that beauty which is of great worth in God’s sight. Every other aspect of life (including a wife’s external countenance and loveliness) flows naturally from that.
This is a great mystery. We do not know how God brings about this particular increase, this harvest of loveliness. We do not know how our God makes this happen—we cannot do the math. But He does. After five years of living with you, does that blessing register on her face? After ten years? Twenty? One last word on this to husbands. The message of death and resurrection is gospel, not super-law. This is not condemnation. The man who loves his wife loves himself.