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 the addition of those extra words? 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 mikvah. 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 mikvah 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 mikvah 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.
Among the early Jewish believers in Jesus, this implied more than it stated. Before taking a mikvah bath, a person was ritually unclean. This uncleanness could be transmitted from one person to another by touch. For Jesus to wash the Church before her ritual cleansing implies that he was willing to contract ritual uncleanness from us in order to make us clean!
Now we can put together the original meaning of this verse more accurately: The first part (the easy part) is talking about Messiah’s tremendous love for us, that he was willing to give himself up to crucifixion that we might be made holy. The second part continues this thought with a beautiful picture of Jesus washing the Church, by which he subjected himself to ritual uncleanness that we might be made ready for baptism.
All 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 speaks of Messiah’s love in general: that we, like Jesus, should be willing to humble ourselves on behalf of those that are not yet spiritually clean, sharing with them the Word of God, that through his Word they might be cleansed for the bath that leads to eternal life.