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What does “washing of water by the word” mean (Ephesians 5:26)?

washing of water by the word

Ephesians 5:25–27 uses Christ’s unique role as the one who sanctifies the church as a model for how a husband should love and care for his wife. These verses say that “Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish” (NKJV).

In marriage, a husband should sacrificially love his wife, as Christ loved the church. Unlike marriage, however, husbands do not “sanctify” or “wash” their wives. But this is something that Christ does for His church. In this context, to sanctify is to set apart for God’s purpose and purify from sin. Through faith in the finished work of Christ, believers are set apart as holy and dedicated to God’s service (see Romans 12:1–2; 1 Peter 1:15–16).

In Ephesians 5:26, the expression washing of water is linked to water baptism, as mentioned in Romans 6:3–4. According to Paul, baptism symbolizes the believer’s death to sin and new life in Christ. The reality is that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17, ESV). Water for cleansing also played a part in a bride’s preparation for her wedding day.

There may also be a link between Ezekiel 16:1–13 and Ephesians 5:26–27. In the Ezekiel passage, Israel is portrayed as an abandoned girl who becomes a queen. This passage prefigures the New Testament concept of the church as the bride of Christ, who is sanctified and cleansed for Him. The metaphor is further enriched by Ezekiel 36:25, where God promises to “sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness, and from all your idols I will cleanse you” (ESV). In Christ, we are thoroughly cleansed.

The culmination of Christ’s sanctifying work is beautifully illustrated in the eschatological visions of Revelation 19:7–9 and 21:2, 9–11. In these passages, the apostle John describes the marriage supper of the Lamb, an event that represents the final consummation of Christ’s relationship with His church. This future event is not only a celebration but a fulfillment of God’s redemptive plan, where Christ presents “the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:27, ESV).

Ephesians 5:26 also specifies the agency through which Christ accomplishes His “washing” of the church: it is done “through the word.” In His High Priestly Prayer, Jesus said, “Sanctify them [the disciples] by the truth; your word is truth.” The means by which God justifies, saves, and sanctifies His people is the Word of God (see also John 15:3; James 1:18). It is by the Word that God accomplishes His purpose “to prepare and equip his people to do every good work” (2 Timothy 3:17, NLT).

While the focus of Ephesians 5:26–27 is on Christ’s role, there are practical implications for believers. Because we have been “sanctified” and “washed,” God expects us to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1–3, ESV). Such a “walk,” or lifestyle, is not about earning salvation; rather, it is about responding to God’s grace with reverence and obedience.

The church, as the collective body of believers, plays an important role in the sanctification process. This communal aspect of sanctification is emphasized in Hebrews 10:24–25, which encourages believers “to stir one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (ESV).

The sanctification process is both personal and communal. Individually, believers are called to engage with Scripture, allowing the Word of God to cleanse them from sin and transform their hearts and minds (Psalm 119:105; James 1:22–25). Collectively, the church reflects the holiness and purity of Christ, given to the church through what He accomplished on the cross.

Ephesians 5:26–27 presents profound insights into Christ’s role in the sanctification of His church, drawing from Old Testament allegories and culminating in our future union with Him. Not only does this passage reveal the depth of Christ’s love and sacrifice, but it also calls us to a life of holiness and dedication to God’s service. Let us, then, live out the fulness of our spiritual cleansing, demonstrating to everyone that we belong to Christ, who sanctifies us “by the washing with water through the word.”

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What does “washing of water by the word” mean (Ephesians 5:26)?
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This page last updated: January 23, 2024