Ephesians 5:26 is one of those verses that popped off the page for me as a young Christian. Why? Because I just didn’t get it. It’s usually
translated something like this:
“That he [Messiah] might sanctify her [the Church], having cleansed her
by the washing of water with the word.” (NASB)
What is the “washing of water with the word”?
The first part of the verse is easy to understand. It refers back to the previous verse, which says that Jesus “turned himself in” (or “gave himself up”) to the authorities because of his great love for the Church (Eph. 5:25). This led to his being crucified, which is the means by which we, the Church, are made holy, that is, set apart from the world (sanctified) to God.
But what about the second part: “having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word”? This is usually explained as the cleansing action of the Word of God in our lives, that it washes us like water—which is true. But if that’s the intended meaning here, it would have been much easier to say, “having cleansed her by the washing of the word.” Why were the words "of water" added? We must be missing something. And as it turns out, this is a great example of why we need our Jewish Roots to understand the Bible correctly.
But first let’s deepen the mystery. The language is even more puzzling in the original: “having cleansed her for the bath of water by the word” (a literal translation of the Greek of Eph. 5:26). Why would you need to cleanse someone in preparation for a bath?
The beginning of a solution comes from the Greek word used for “bath” here: loutron. In Titus 3:5, this same word refers to baptism: “according to his mercy he saved us through a bath of regeneration and a renewal by the Holy Spirit.” This bath is the immersion of baptism, which was almost always done in the early Church by dipping the entire body in water, just as many churches do it today. If we transfer this same meaning over to Ephesians, our verse now makes more sense: Jesus cleansed the Church by his word to prepare her for the cleansing of baptism.
But why this double cleansing? This reflects the procedure used in Jewish ritual immersion, the origin of Christian baptism. Jewish immersion is done in a mikveh. This is a tub similar in size to the baptistries found in churches that practice baptism by immersion, with a set of stairs leading down into the water. But unlike modern baptistries, they were always cut out of bedrock and filled with rainwater.
Immersion in a mikveh is not for getting the dirt off—it’s for ritual cleansing. So it was the practice to take an ordinary bath first. This way the water in the mikveh would stay clean.
This two-step procedure matches the double cleansing Paul was talking about: “having cleansed her...by the word” is the first cleansing—to get the dirt off. “For the bath of water” is the second cleansing—baptism.
This gives us the translation:
"That he might make her holy, having [first] cleansed her for the bath
of the water [of baptism] by his word."
Sorting out the verb tenses gives us the following sequence of events: (1) Jesus first cleansed the Church by his Word to prepare us for baptism, (2) then, because of his love for us, he suffered and died for us, that we might be set apart as holy for himself.
Now we're ready to put this back into its original context, in which Paul is talking about marriage. The first part, the easy part, is about Messiah’s tremendous love for us, that he was willing to give himself up to crucifixion (Eph. 5:25). The result of this self-sacrifice is to make us holy, to set us apart to himself (Eph. 5:26a). This is an allusion to the sanctification of the bride in a Jewish wedding (the kiddushin). This is when she is formally set apart for her husband. In the same way, the Church is set apart to Messiah as his bride by what he has done for us.
The second part presents a beautiful picture of Jesus washing the Church by his Word, to prepare us for baptism. This is an allusion to the washing followed by a ritual mikveh bath performed by a Jewish bride shortly before her wedding. In this way, she makes herself ritually clean and ready for her husband on their wedding day.
All of this is in the context of Paul's instruction for husbands to love their wives (Eph. 5:25-33). Like Messiah, husbands should take the more difficult path. They should humble themselves for their wives’ benefit. But it also teaches us about the nature of true, godly love: that we, like Jesus, should be willing to humble ourselves on behalf of those who are not yet spiritually clean, sharing with them the Word of God, that they might be prepared for the bath that leads to eternal life.
Read these Questions and Answers about this article:
What Kind of Water is in the Jewish Ritual Bath (Mikveh)?