Washed by the Water of the Word: How Paul Applies Ezekiel’s Words on Marriage to Christ and the Church

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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.
— Ephesians 5:25–27 —

In his commentary on Ephesians, Clinton Arnold shows how Paul takes up the imagery and language of Ezekiel to explain the work of Christ in purifying his bride, the church. As Ezekiel 16 looks forward to a day when the God of Israel will redeem and purify his covenant people, it is important to see how Ezekiel’s prophecy is fulfilled by Christ and the church. Thankfully, Paul demonstrates how Christ’s purchase and purification of his bride gives us explicit textual evidence for that fulfillment.

Arnold picks up the way Paul has made those connections and helpfully shows us how the many passages describing God’s marriage with Israel (e.g., Isaiah 54:5; 58:8; 61:10; 62:5; Jeremiah 2:2; 3:1–10; Ezekiel 16; Hosea 2:19–20; 4:12; 5:4; 14:4) are picked up and applied to the bride of Christ composed of Jews and Gentiles. Here’s what he says,

There are five distinct ways that Paul develops this theme in Ephesians in light of the advent of Christ.

(1) The covenant relationship between God and his people is still expressed in terms of a marriage bond. This marriage is now between Christ and his church (God’s Son and his new covenant people, who are comprised of Jews and Gentiles in one body in Christ).

(2) This is still a marriage initiated by God with a people who are filthy and undeserving. Just as there was nothing that Israel did to merit God’s attention and favor (in fact, Israel was like an exposed child that lay in a field kicking about in its own blood; Ezek 16:6), so also the new covenant people were once”dead in [their] transgressions and sins” (Eph 2:1).

(3) God continues a work of cleansing his dirty and unlovely bride. In fact, Ezek 16:9 explicitly says that God “bathed you with water”—an equivalent expression to what Paul says that Christ has done for the church.

(4) There is a similar two-stage cleansing and sanctifying work that God does for his people under both covenants. Under the old covenant, God initially cleanses Israel when he makes her his bride, but because of her sin and waywardness, God needs to perform an additional cleansing and atoning work on his bride in the future. This corresponds to the new covenant relationship between Christ and the church insofar as Christ sanctifies and cleanses his bride when he initially makes her his own, but this is a process that will ultimately be completed only in the future when he restores all things (Eph 1:10; 4:30).

(5) Finally, under both covenants, God is faithful to the end and makes his bride glorious and beautiful (Ezek 16:13-14; Eph 5:27).

Eph 5:25- 27 thus becomes Paul’s christological interpretation of the prominent metaphor in the OT of the covenant between Yahweh and his people expressed through the marriage relationship. (Clinton Arnold, EphesiansZECNT, 386–87)

Truly, we see in these connections, Paul is doing more than finding a powerful image for marriage. He is showing how Christ’s new covenant is bringing to fruition the long-promised “marriage” between God and his people. Only, as is often the case with marriage itself, the fulfillment is so much more than could be imagined from the original promise. Truly, God is good husband and in Christ, we discover the kind of love he has for his people.

For more on the biblical theology of marriage, see

May such love draw us closer to him, empower us to reject all idol lovers, and display his love in our own marriages.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

Photo by Geetanjal Khanna on Unsplash

One thought on “Washed by the Water of the Word: How Paul Applies Ezekiel’s Words on Marriage to Christ and the Church

  1. Pingback: The Drama of Marriage: What Christ and the Church Teaches Husbands and Wives | Via Emmaus

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