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«Desiring God DESIRING GOD JOHN PIPER DESIRING GOD published by Multnomah Publishers, Inc. © 1986, 1996, 2003 by Desiring God Foundation ...»

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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. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body.


Husbands are told to love their wives the way Christ loved the church. How did He love the church? “He gave himself up for her.” But why? “That he might sanctify and cleanse her.” But why did He want to do that? “That he might present the church to himself in splendor”!

Ah! There it is! “For the joy that was set before him [He] endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:2). What joy? The joy of marriage to His bride, the church. Jesus does not want a dirty and unholy wife. Therefore, He was willing to die to “sanctify and cleanse” His betrothed so He could present to Himself a wife “in splendor.”


IN THE OF THE And what is the church’s ultimate joy? Is it not to be cleansed and sanctified, and then presented as a bride to the sovereign, all-glorious Christ? So Christ sought His own joy, yes—but He sought it in the joy of the church! That is what love is: the pursuit of our own joy in the joy of the beloved.

In Ephesians 5:29–30, Paul pushes the hedonism of Christ even further:

“No one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body.” Why does Christ nourish and cherish the church? Because we are members of His own body, and no man ever hates his own body. In other words, the union between Christ and His bride is so close (“one flesh”) that any good done to her is a good done to Himself. The blatant assertion of this text is that this fact motivates the Lord to nourish, cherish, sanctify, and cleanse His bride.

By some definitions, this cannot be love. Love, they say, must be free of selfinterest—especially Christlike love, especially Calvary love. I have never seen such a view of love made to square with this passage of Scripture. Yet what Christ does for His bride, this text plainly calls love: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church....” Why not let the text define love for us, instead of bringing our definition from ethics or philosophy?

According to this text, love is the pursuit of our joy in the holy joy of the beloved. There is no way to exclude self-interest from love, for self-interest is not the same as selfishness. Selfishness seeks its own private happiness at the expense M A R R I AG E of others. Love seeks its happiness in the happiness of the beloved. It will even suffer and die for the beloved in order that its joy might be full in the life and purity of the beloved.


When Paul says, “No one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it,” and then uses Christ Himself as an example, is he contradicting John 12:25, where Jesus says, “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life”? No! There is no contradiction. On the contrary, the agreement is remarkable.

The key phrase is “in this world”: He who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. This is not an ultimate hating, because by doing it, you keep your life forever. So there is a kind of hating of life that is good and necessary, and this is not what Paul denies when he says no one hates his life. This kind of hating is a means to saving and is therefore a kind of love. That’s why Jesus has to limit the hating He commends with the words in this world. If you take the future world into view, it can’t be called hating anymore. Hating life in this world is what Jesus did when He “gave himself for the church.” But He did it for the joy set before Him. He did it that He might present His bride to Himself in splendor.

Hating His own life was the deepest love for His own life—and for the church!

Nor is Paul’s word here a contradiction of Revelation 12:11: “And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.” They were willing to be killed for Jesus, but by hating their lives in this way, they “conquered” Satan and gained the glory of heaven: “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Revelation 2:10). This “not loving life unto death” was indeed a loving of life beyond death.


No man in this world ever hates his own flesh in the ultimate sense of choosing what he is sure will produce the greater misery. This has been the conclusion of

many great knowers of the human heart. Blaise Pascal put it like this:

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All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.1

Jonathan Edwards tied it to the Word of Christ:

Jesus knew that all mankind were in the pursuit of happiness. He has directed them in the true way to it, and He tells them what they must become in order to be blessed and happy.2

Edward Carnell generalizes the point:

The Christian ethic, let us remember, is premised on the self’s love for the self. Nothing motivates us unless it appeals to our interests.3 Karl Barth, in his typically effusive manner, writes for pages on this truth.

Here is an excerpt:

The will for life is the will for joy, delight, happiness.… In every real man the will for life is also the will for joy. In everything he wills, he wills and intends also that this, too, exist for him in some form. He strives for different things with the spoken or unspoken, but very definite, if unconscious, intention of securing for himself this joy.… It is hypocrisy to hide this from oneself. And the hypocrisy would be at the expense of the ethical truth that he should will to enjoy himself, just as he should will to eat, drink, sleep, be healthy, work, stand for what is

1. Blaise Pascal, Pascal’s Pensees, trans. W. F. Trotter (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1958), 113, thought #425.

2. Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 2 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1974), 905.

The quote is found in a sermon on Matthew 5:8 entitled “Blessed Are the Pure in Heart.”

3. E. J. Carnell, Christian Commitment (New York: Macmillan, 1957), 96.

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right and live in fellowship with God and his neighbor. A person who tries to debar himself from this joy is certainly not an obedient person.4 For a husband to be an obedient person, he must love his wife the way Christ loved the church. That is, he must pursue his own joy in the holy joy of his wife.

In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies.

He who loves his wife loves himself. (Ephesians 5:28) This is clearly Paul’s paraphrase of Jesus’ command, which he took from Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39).

The popular misconception is that this command teaches us to learn to esteem ourselves so we can love others. This is not what the command means.5 Jesus does not command us to love ourselves. He assumes that we do. That is, He assumes, as Edwards said, that we all pursue our own happiness; then He makes the measure of our innate self-love the measure of our duty to love others. “As you love yourself, so love others.” Paul now applies this to marriage. He sees it illustrated in Christ’s relationship to the church. And he sees it illustrated in the fact that husbands and wives become “one flesh” (v. 31). “Husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself ” (v. 28). In other words, husbands should devote the same energy and time and creativity to making their wives happy that they devote naturally to making themselves happy. The result will be that in doing this, they will make themselves happy. For he who loves his wife loves himself. Since the wife is one flesh with her husband, the same applies to her love for him.

Paul does not build a dam against the river of hedonism; he builds a channel for it. He says, “Husbands and wives, recognize that in marriage you have

4. Karl Barth, The Doctrine of Creation, Church Dogmatics, vol. 3, 4, trans. A. T. Makay, et. al.

(Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1961), 375.

5. See my article “What Does It Mean to Love Your Neighbor as Yourself?” in Christianity Today (12 August 1977): 6–9, also available online at http://desiringgod.org/dg/id227_m.htm.


become one flesh. If you live for your private pleasure at the expense of your spouse, you are living against yourself and destroying your joy. But if you devote yourself with all your heart to the holy joy of your spouse, you will also be living for your joy and making a marriage after the image of Christ and His church.”


IN MARRIAGE Now what does this love between husband and wife look like? Does Paul teach a pattern for married love in this text?

Ephesians 5:31 is a quotation of Genesis 2:24: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” Paul adds in verse 32: “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” Why does he call Genesis 2:24 a “profound mystery”?

Before we answer, let’s go back to the Old Testament context and see more clearly what Genesis 2:24 meant.


According to Genesis 2, God created Adam first and put him in the garden alone. Then the Lord said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him” (18). This is not necessarily an indictment of Adam’s fellowship with God or proof that care for the garden was too hard for one person. Rather, the point is that God made man to be a sharer. God created us not to be cul-de-sacs of His bounty, but conduits. No man is complete unless he is conducting grace (like electricity) between God and another person. (No person who is single should conclude that this can happen only in marriage!6) It must be another person, not an animal. So in Genesis 2:19–20, God paraded the animals before Adam to show him that animals would never do as a “helper fit for him.” Animals help plenty, but only a person can be a fellow heir of the grace of life (1 Peter 3:7). Only a person can receive and appreciate and

6. See John Piper, For Single Men and Women (and the Rest of Us) (Louisville, Ky.: Council of Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, 1992); adapted from the foreword to Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, ed. John Piper and Wayne Grudem (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1991).

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enjoy grace. What a man needs is another person with whom he can share the love of God. Animals will never do! There is an infinite difference between sharing the northern lights with your beloved and sharing them with your dog.

Therefore, according to verse 21–22, “The LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.” Having shown the man that no animal would do for his helper, God made another human from man’s own flesh and bone to be like him—and yet very unlike him. He did not create another male. He created a female. And Adam recognized in her the perfect counterpart to himself—utterly different from the animals: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man” (Genesis 2:23).

By creating a person like Adam, yet very unlike Adam, God provided the possibility of a profound unity that otherwise would have been impossible. A different kind of unity is enjoyed by the joining of diverse counterparts than is enjoyed by joining two things just alike. When we all sing the same melody line, it is called unison, which means “one sound.” But when we unite diverse lines of soprano and alto and tenor and bass, we call it harmony; and everyone who has an ear to hear knows that something deeper in us is touched by great harmony than by mere unison. So God made a woman, and not another man. He created heterosexuality, not homosexuality.

Notice the connection between verses 23 and 24, signaled by the word

therefore in verse 24:

Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.

In verse 23 the focus is on two things: objectively, the fact that woman is part of man’s flesh and bone; and subjectively, the joy Adam has in being presented

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with the woman. “At last, this is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh”! From

these two things the writer draws an inference about marriage in verse 24:

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