Willis: Ephesians, Water of Sacrificing Love

Ephesians 5:25-27

Οἱ ἄνδρες, ἀγαπᾶτε τὰς γυναῖκας, καθὼς καὶ ὁ χριστὸς ἠγάπησεν τὴν ἐκκλησίαν καὶ ἑαυτὸν παρέδωκεν ὑπὲρ αὐτῆς, ἵνα αὐτὴν ἁγιάσῃ καθαρίσας τῷ λουτρῷ τοῦ ὕδατος ἐν ῥήματι, ἵνα παραστήσῃ αὐτὸς ἑαυτῷ ἔνδοξον τὴν ἐκκλησίαν, μὴ ἔχουσαν σπίλον ἢ ῥυτίδα ἤ τι τῶν τοιούτων, ἀλλ’ ἵνα ᾖ ἁγία καὶ ἄμωμος ἵνα παραστήσῃ αὐτὸς ἑαυτῷ ἔνδοξον τὴν ἐκκλησίαν, μὴ ἔχουσαν σπίλον ἢ ῥυτίδα ἤ τι τῶν τοιούτων, ἀλλ’ ἵνα ᾖ ἁγία καὶ ἄμωμος.1

These verses come out of the context of Paul’s discussion on marriage, family, and the roles of husbands and wives. Here, Paul specifically compares the love (ἀγαπᾶτε) a husband should have for his wife to that of Christ’s love (ἠγάπησεν) for the whole church. Paul states this love included giving (παρέδωκεν) Himself up for the church. Additionally, Christ is said to have cleansed (καθαρίσας) the church by the washing (λουτρῷ) of water (ὕδατος) with the word (ῥήματι). This is where the reference to Baptism is found. But is it an actual reference to Baptism? That is what will be addressed here in this section.

First, we must keep in mind all that was discussed above. Jesus stated He would give the people water that would bring eternal life.2 He also stated Baptism is birth from above, that which brings new life.3 Additionally, Baptism applies to the believer all of Christ—His life, death, and resurrection.4 Baptism is a washing of regeneration; that is, to become new.5 Baptism is where one is clothed in Christ, having Christ put upon them in the water.6 All of this applies to any discussion on Baptism. But as previously asked, is the text in Ephesians a reference to Baptism?

Chrysostom holds that the text is indeed referring to Baptism. Chrysostom, writing on the text from Ephesians 5:26, “”‘By the washing or laver’ He washes her uncleanness. ‘By the word’ says he. What word? ‘In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.’”7 Here, Chrysostom is directly referring to the text from Matthew 28:19 in connection to the text in question. Handley Moule is in agreement with Chrysostom, stating in his commentary on Ephesians 5:26, “Baptism is assuredly referred to.”8 It is important to note that Moule writes in an odd manner concerning Baptism within this context. In the same section, Moule writes it is not the “…pipe or conduit to fluid” that is being spoken of, thereby suggesting the water is nonessential, but rather it is “a seal to promise…”9 So, while Moule does seem to suggest that the verse is indeed about Baptism, he calls his own confidence into question when discussing what is actually taking place within the rite itself.

Charles Hodge brings what Moule was trying to conclude forward with more clarity, writing, “The apostle may mean nothing more than a spiritual lustration,”10 and after giving many other examples, such as Hebrews 10:22, Hodge again states, “In all of these cases washing with water is a figurative expression for spiritual purification.”11 That is to say that Paul is not actually writing about water Baptism, but rather a spiritual form of baptism. Yet in spite of his suggestion, Hodge admits that “unanimity of [scholastic/academic] opinion is itself almost decisive… Baptism [in Ephesians 5:26] is a washing with water… There can be little doubt, therefore, that by ‘the washing with water’ the apostle meant [water] Baptism.”12

F.F. Bruce sees the verses as referring to Baptism, “The washing with water, accompanied by a spoken word can scarcely be anything other than baptism; this is what the language would have most naturally have conveyed to the original readers.”13 However, F.F. Bruce does not support baptismal regeneration. In fact, he writes, “To this [baptismal regeneration] perversion, needless to say, the New Testament gives no countenance; regeneration is an inward change wrought by the Holy Spirit.”14 So, while he does agree that the verse is concerning Baptism, Bruce does not agree with any conclusion that suggests water Baptism achieves anything other than a sign of an inward change.

A closer look at the Greek indeed reveals these verses are referring to Baptism, that being water Baptism. Take, for instance, λουτρῷ. λουτρῷ is an interesting word found only in one other location than Ephesians 5:26, that being Titus 3:5, as discussed above. Thomas Winger writes concerning this: “λουτρόν (‘washing’) occurs only once more in the NT, in another clear reference to Baptism (Titus 3:5)…”15 However, Winger connects the root word, λούω, to other uses in Scripture, bringing the connection of λουτρῷ to Baptism out in a stronger light, stating, “Heb. 10:22 [uses] ὕδωρ, ‘water’ and the verb λούω, ‘to wash’ – [which] unmistakably connects Christian Baptism to OT cleansing baths,”16 and also “…in Acts 22:16 the verb ἀπολούω, ‘wash away’ is used of Baptism.”17 Winger makes it clear that in all three cases, the word λούω is directly connected to the act of Baptism. Therefore, it should be concluded that the use of the word λουτρῷ, coming from the root λούω, is also used in reference to Baptism because of the syntactic arrangement and specific NT context. It can also be concluded that this λουτρῷ is fully hydrated because of the presence and connection with ὕδατος. As discussed above in the section on John 3:5, ὕδατος (or ὕδωρ) nearly always means actual water. Since there is no specific context here in Ephesians 5:26 that suggests we interpret ὕδατος as anything other than water, we should conclude that this λουτρῷ is an act where literal ὕδατος is applied in some form.

But what of the ἐν ῥήματι? How is this connected to an actual washing? Does this suggest that we read the verse apart from actual water? Well first, let us define ῥῆμα. ῥῆμα is that which is said, word, saying, etc. It can even carry the meaning of a command or direction, or divine teaching.18 With this in mind, note that Jesus Christ is the λόγος. And so, when we read Ephesians 5:26 as a verse referring to Baptism, we should look back to Romans 6:1-11 and see that everything valuable in Baptism is because of and containing Christ. So, could it be said that this washing of water and the ῥήματι is a washing of water and the λόγος? Perhaps, but this conclusion is not directly supported by scholars. For instance, Winger writes that ἐν ῥήματι “…more likely is formulaic equivalent to ‘using the divine name’ or ‘in accord with Christ’s mandate…’”19 This is to say that the washing of water and the word is that same Baptism that Christ commanded in Matthew 28:19, and is done in the formula in which He commanded it: in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

J. Armitage Robinson agrees with Winger, expounding on ἐν ῥήματι, saying, “Literally translated it is ‘in a word’: that is to say, accompanied by a solemn word or formula…”20 That a formula was spoken of during the Baptism is not questioned, and for Paul to suggest the same here, connecting this Baptism to Matthew 28:19’s formula and command is not surprising. Thus, it can be concluded that the word mentioned here is the Word of God, as He Himself spoke to the Apostles. Winger suggests this, noting, “…the preposition ἐν may also imply that the ‘washing of water’ is wrapped in the Word of God…”21 Either by connection to Matthew 28:19 directly, or simply referring to the Word of God as a whole, Paul is communicating to his readers that in this washing, the Word of God is directly involved and connected. In addition, nothing about ἐν ῥήματι suggests that water be removed from the washing.

So, while it can be concluded that the verses are indeed speaking of Baptism, what are they really saying about the act itself? Are these verses referring to a sign, or an inward change as Bruce suggests,22 or is something efficacious occurring within the waters? Concerning this, Winger writes, “The aorist participle καθαρίσας (Eph 5:26)… portrays an action simultaneous with the main verb ἁγιάσῃ indicating the means, manner or accompaniment: ‘that he might sanctify with/by cleansing.’”23 This is to say that in the act of λουτρῷ (washing) with ὕδατος (water, a word discussed in depth above), both the sanctification (ἁγιάσῃ, that is, to make to eliminate that which is incompatible with holiness, to purify, to make it holy)24 and the cleansing (καθαρίσας) have occurred, it is one process.

It is important to note who is the one acting in this Baptism. It is Christ. He is the one who sanctifies (ἁγιάσῃ, occurring in the Aorist Subjunctive Active), He is the one who cleansed (καθαρίσας , occurring in the Aorist Participle Active) her (that is the Church, ἐκκλησίαν). It is His action of giving Himself up (ἑαυτὸν παρέδωκεν, with παρέδωκεν occurring in the Aorist Indicative Active) that enables Him to provide sanctification (ἁγιάσῃ) and cleansing (καθαρίσας). And this giving up, this sanctification, this cleansing, is all provided in the washing of water with the Word (τῷ λουτρῷ τοῦ ὕδατος ἐν ῥήματι). The one who receives it is a passive recipient of what Christ has accomplished, having done nothing to deserve it, nor acted in any fashion to accomplish it. Christ alone is the actor in all that is accomplished herein.

The purpose of this washing was to make the Church (that is, the gathering of believers) ἁγιάσῃ and καθαρίσας. Paul expands on this using imagery of clean and fresh linen, or a purified body, saying that this washing of water and the word allows Christ to παραστήσῃ (present) the Church to Himself, without σπίλον (spot) or ῥυτίδα (wrinkle) or any other defect (τοιούτων, meaning things which are like what has already been mentioned in context, of such a kind as that which has been mentioned).25 Paul goes on to say that in addition to all of this, the Church is also made ἁγία (holy, clarifying that ἁγιάσῃ is in fact accomplished) and ἄμωμος (in theological context it means morally blameless, but with the imagery without blemish or defect functions well alongside Paul’s use of linen and/or purified body imagery; this also tells the reader that καθαρίσας is truly accomplished as well).26

It can be concluded that the text from Ephesians 5:25-27 is indeed discussing Baptism, in the same context of John 3:5—that is, water Baptism. Even more, it is something that cleanses in full; making those who receive it blameless, sanctifies in full; making those who receive it holy. In addition, the action/work of this Baptism is fully achieved by Christ Jesus.

1 Nestle and Aland, Novum Testamentum Graece, 512.

2 John 4:14.

3 John 3:5.

4 Romans 6:1-6 and Colossians 2:11-12.

5 Titus 3:5.

6 Galatians 3:27.

7 Kevin Knight, reviser and eds., “Homily 20 on Ephesians,” Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Company, 1889). http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/230120.htm. Accessed April 20th, 2017.

8 Handley C.G. Moule, Ephesian Studies: Lessons in Faith and Walk (London, England: Pickering & Inglis LTD) 292.

9 Ibid.

10 Charles Hodge, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Ephesians (New York, NY: Hodder and Stoughton, 1856) 318.

11 Hodge, Ephesians, 318.

12 Hodge, Ephesians, 319.

13 F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Ephesians (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1961) 116.

14 Ibid.

15 Thomas M. Winger, Concordia Commentary: Ephesians (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2015) 611.

16 Winger, Ephesians, 611.

17 Ibid.

18 Bauer and Danker, Greek-English Lexicon, 905

19 Winger, Ephesians, 611-612.

20 J. Arimtage Robinson, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians (London, England: James Clarke and Company, 1928) 125. Armitage also suggests it was perhaps the declared intention of the one being baptized or the baptizer. This does not specifically take away from his general agreement with Winger.

21 Winger, Ephesians, 612.

22 F.F. Bruce, Ephesians, 116.

23 Winger, Ephesians, 610.

24 Bauer and Danker, Greek-English Lexicon, 9-10.

25 Bauer and Danker, Greek-English Lexicon, 1009.

26 Ibid, 56.


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