Ephesians 5:25-27 “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.”

It’s a common assumption that Jesus wants everyone to be happy. After all, God is love, isn’t he? And if the Lord loves us, he wants us to be happy, right? But what if Jesus loves me so much that he has a higher goal than just my short-term happiness? Many of us have a picture of love – and the love of Christ in particular – that is shallow and sloppy. We assume that God is nothing but love, and we assume that love is nothing but niceness. We like to think that Jesus wouldn’t condemn anything that makes us feel good. Are we right?

The apostle Paul was someone who couldn’t stop thinking about Christ. If he is exhorting two women in a church in Philippi to be of one mind he does so by the most exalted teaching of the incarnation and self-humiliation of the Son of God. If the apostle is exhorting a congregation to become better stewards he cries to them, “Thanks be to God for his unspeakable gift.” If he is telling wives and husbands how to behave in their marriages it is not long before he returns to this theme which he loves to speak on more than any other. To understand about Jesus Christ, who he is, and what he did, his three states, pre-incarnate glory, humiliation, exaltation, his three offices as our prophet, priest and king, his two natures as God and man and his great love for us saving and keeping his whole church – all this is the basis of Christian living. You cannot be a consistent follower of Jesus Christ without knowing about your Lord. You cannot become Christlike without knowing Christ.

The Holy Spirit’s work is to glorify the Lord Jesus Christ. He does not speak of himself. Men want some sure-fire method of knowing that the Holy Spirit is present. They judge his presence by crowds, or by contemporary swinging music, or tongues, or by feelings of excitement or abandon, of happiness and laughter. Their leaders will exercise their own authority by confidently telling them, “The Holy Spirit is here,” and the faithful will cheer and the uncertain will be silenced. But none of those criteria is sufficient or safe enough to confirm the Spirit’s presence. There is only one mark of the Spirit’s presence and that is the glorification of Jesus Christ. When the Saviour is exalted, and magnified, and adored in the midst of his people then the church is the fellowship of the Spirit. When a congregation longs to hear about him, and cries to its preacher, “‘Feed us now and ever more!’ with the Lord Jesus Christ,” then, and only then, is the Spirit at work in that congregation. So too a family is a Christian family when Jesus Christ is loved and honoured in that home. In such a home a wife will behave as every wife should, and a husband will exercise his own special ministry. So at this juncture in the epistle Paul’s great concern is to remind the Christian family about the work of its Lord. The apostle believes that by such knowledge our whole lives will be affected. The behaviour of a husband and wife living in a terraced house with their three children can be transformed if they have a living relationship with this Saviour. They can become more loving and patient and kind and gentle and humane through the influence of the Lord Jesus Christ. So what is the first thing Paul tells us?


“Christ loved the church” (v.25) says Paul. It is in the past tense. He is not speaking of his present love (though he does love us today) but of an attitude the Son of God once displayed in things he accomplished. So many of the great verses in the Bible on the love of Father and Son are in the past tense. John 3:16 is the most famous verse of all and it tells us that God so loved the world. It is looking back to the Father sending his Son to the world so that whosoever believed in him should not perish but have everlasting life. Again, Paul can speak of his Saviour in these terms, that “He loved me and gave himself for me.” Again, Paul is concentrating on Christ’s sacrifice in time and space on Calvary – there Jesus loved me. The whole Christian faith is rooted in history, established by one particular life, and on what the Saviour accomplished in that life and death, and everything that he did he did because of his love for God and for us.

The love began when the Father donated the church to Christ before the foundations of the world were laid. Let us read the first six verses of John chapter 17, the great prayer of our Lord before the cross. In this prayer he refers to us – who are his church – as those whom the Father had given to him; “After Jesus said this, he looked toward heaven and prayed: ‘Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you. For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him. Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began. I have revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world. They were yours; you gave them to me and they have obeyed your word.” (Jn. 17:1-6). Paul has been talking about them in this letter in that sort of language. Look at verse 4 in the opening chapter; “For God chose us in Christ before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.” And again in the next verse, “he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ” (Ephs 1:5). This is the church he loves, the church he chose; the church he changed; the church he was to fill with his Spirit.

So here are the chosen people of God, and they are as numerous as the stars in the heavens. Last week someone asked me how many stars did I think there were for every single person living in the world today. The answer is in the millions. You have to multiply the 6,000 million people who live on our planet today by millions and millions to arrive at the number of stars in space. The people God gave his Son are like the sands on the seashore – an incalculably vast number. It is by such hyperboles that the elect of God are numbered. All of them chosen before the foundation of the world; all of them given by to the Son, and when the Son had them it was love at first sight.

You think of the best gift you have ever had, given to you by the one who loves you the most. I don’t know what it is. How you treasure that gift both for what it is and for the one who gave it to you. So it was when God gave us to his Son then Jesus loved us immediately. “My dear beloved Father gave this to me!” There is nothing he didn’t know about the people of God. All of us were sinners, and only he could know how badly we had sinned, but he loved us still. He loved us with an immeasurable love. There are no criteria we can employ and say that his love was ‘ten’ on that scale. It was measureless love. What is the biggest number of all? You say there is no such number. If we said it was a million million million million, then you would just say, “Now multiply that by the same number, and again, and again, and so on.” There is no end to infinity. So it is with the love of Jesus Christ; his arms of love stretch out as far as the east is from the west and embrace us all. You cannot say that it is as high as the highest mountain. The whole vast universe floats like a speck before him and he is the one who loves us with all his being.

It is a real love, 100% genuine. Imagine that you haven’t seen your wife for a few days and you come back to Aberystwyth by train and there she is on the station platform waiting for you and you smile at one another and you know how much you love one another. You love everything about your spouse, her face, her heart, her voice, her spirit. They are all lovely to you, and the most wonderful thing about her is that she loves you. That is how the Christian gets overwhelmed with the love of Jesus. He in himself is so lovable; his nature and attitude and teaching and character and relationships and actions are all so lovable. We never catch him doing or saying one thing that is unlovable, but the most wonderful thing of all, I think, is that he loves me!

There is this Christian with learning difficulties and Christ loved her before this earth existed. There is King David guilty of an action of heinous wickedness and Jesus loved this repentant man. There is the chief of sinners, whoever he may be, perhaps he is me, or perhaps he is you, and the Son of God loved him – the Christian with the very worst record. He was the biggest hypocrite; his faith was the weakest; he was the most inconsistent in his life; he had told the most lies; he had been most permissive; he had walked the red light areas; he had partied on the drugs scene; he had backslidden longer and fallen deeper than anyone else; he had had the most privileges and squandered them all. He was the chief of sinners who, by the grace of God, trusted in Christ, and the Son of God loved him. He didn’t ‘tut tut’ over him, and resign himself reluctantly to accepting him, letting him into a dark corner of heaven where he had to promise to spend a very subdued eternity. Christ loved him so that he would share his throne and become a joint heir with him of the inheritance he had prepared for him. You cannot comprehend such love. You are even beginning to think that such love isn’t fair after all you’ve done for God. The spirit of the older brother of the prodigal son still complains at the love the father showed his returning son, but you may be the worst sinner in the world. Yes, you! Aren’t you glad that the love of the Son of God is like that?

In 1915 34-year-old Dr. Gresham Machen, professor of Greek at Princeton Seminary went to hear the 53-year-old evangelist Billy Sunday preaching without amplification to 20,000 people in Philadelphia . He wrote to his mother and told her, “I was very greatly impressed. The text was 2 Samuel 12:13, ‘And David said unto Nathan, I have sinned against the Lord. And Nathan said unto David, The Lord hath also put away thy sin.’ The sermon was old-fashioned evangelism of the most powerful and elemental kind. The total impact of the sermon was great. At the climax, the preacher got up on his chair – and if he had used a step-ladder, nobody could have thought the thing excessive, so dead in earnest were both speaker and audience! The climax was the boundlessness of God’s mercy; and so truly had the sinfulness of sin been presented, that everybody present with any heart at all ought to have felt mighty glad that God’s mercy is boundless. In the last five or ten minutes of that sermon, I got a new realization of the power of the gospel.” And so in this verse the apostle is telling us that whatever Jesus Christ did for the church he was motivated by his love for these people. Why he loved we have no idea. We cannot go behind the love or beyond the love to something more rational. The love is the headwaters; it is the fountainhead out of which all God’s saving work flows.


“Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (v.25). I was driving with a pastor through Belfast on Wednesday and into the next lane alongside us came his son driving home in his Volvo. They waved at each other. “You see that car? It belonged to a retired minister from the Free Church of Scotland in our congregation. I was visiting him earlier this year and asked him how much driving he was doing these days. ‘I haven’t driven for a year,’ he said, ;I won’t drive again.’ Then there was a silence; “’Would your son like my car?’ he asked. I was flabbergasted. ‘I’ll send him around to negotiate,’ I said. ‘There’ll be no negotiation,’ he said. The following week a document came transferring the car to my son, and it is ideal for him driving back and fore to college.” The old pastor had seen this bright young Christian in the congregation week after week and his love for him motivated him to give his car to him. We love and so we give.

Christ loved us and gave us many temporal mercies. All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above. The best gifts you treasure have been given to you by the Lord. Your health and intelligence and long life and family (beloved parents, husband or wife or children) and friends and nice home and possessions and the peace we have in our land – it wasn’t luck that gave those things to you. It wasn’t your smartness or worthiness that brought those things into your life. God gave them to you. Every good and perfect gift comes to us from God, and every day you fail to thank him for such gifts you show what a proud, wicked heart you have, and for that he will put you in hell.

But it is not the glorious things which the Lord has given us that Paul thinks of here. He tells us that Christ gave himself up for us. He gave himself by coming into the world for them; he gave himself to lying in a manger in a stable while in the next stall animals defecated and urinated; he gave himself to being handled by his mother and having his diapers changed by her; he gave himself to thirty years living in a small out-of-the-way scattered community; he gave himself to an extraordinarily demanding ministry of 2 or 3 years which took such a toll on him that he aged twenty years in two years; he gave himself to full frontal temptation by the devil; he gave himself to betrayal and trial and a whipping and mockery; he gave himself to death and that the death of the cross. No man took his life from him, he laid it down himself; it was utterly voluntarily. His death was not cosmeticised in any way. There was nothing at all attractive about it; it involved writhing agony and nakedness and utter cruelty and it went on and on and on. It is utterly amazing that Paul should say, “Thanks be unto God for his unspeakable gift,” because when you ask him, “What’s that, Paul?” He says, “The crucifying of Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus was giving himself there. He was not giving his sufferings only; he was not giving his blood only; he was not giving his obedience only; he was not giving his human nature only; he was giving himself without spot to God for us. What was he doing in that unspeakable gift?

i] Christ was giving himself up penally for the church.

He was hanging in horrible pain but it was purposeful and structured pain. It wasn’t vague, capricious, erratic suffering. It was pain inflicted by God – “it pleased the Lord to bruise him.” In other words it was suffering orchestrated by God. It was the moment when God made him who knew no sin to be sin for the church. It was a moment when he gave himself up to God’s curse, and he became a derelict and an anathema, the one whom God ignored, whose cries he would not hear because he was receiving in himself the wages of sin. Jesus had chosen to take our lliabilities, and our judgment, and our condemnation, and our anathme. He was the bearer of it; he was the embodiment of it; he was the one enduring its pain; he was the one who knew in the depths of his own soul the burden of its curse. That anathema was not being visited on the church but on Christ. He was giving himself for us that we might become immune to the curse of God. We come under his protection because the sword of divine judgment was sheathed in Christ’s own soul. That is what Golgotha was, not a green hill far away, not a place to stroll around on a Saturday afternoon with the children. It was a place of ugliness; it was a shambles; it had the smell of blood and the sounds of men dying in terrible pain and brutal military men shouting over their gambling, and wretched people mocking the men as they suffered. Calvary is the ugliness of an eternally decreed ritual, answering the everlasting norms and impulses that come out of the very depths of God himself. Golgotha is the ultimate solution of the just God loving an unjust Church. He bears the malediction of Almighty God.

ii] Christ was giving himself up as a propitiation for the church.

All around us we are seeing the evidences of a world on which the wrath of God is being revealed as the inevitable response of a Creator who is light to a world that loves darkness. The Son of God propitiates that wrath. He is the place and person and locality where that wrath is dealt with. He is its locus. God condemns the sin he hates in the flesh of his dear Son. It is there, within the narrow, narrow, narrow confines of the body of the Lord Christ that the wrath of God is manifested in all its condemning, disconcerting, disturbing, destructive power. If we look for the judgment of God on this planet it is not in the hurricane Katrina sending a deluge on New Orleans , or in the sacking of Rome , or the destruction of the Nazi armies at the end of the second world war, but on the hill of Golgotha. He becomes the holocaust; he becomes the place of atonement for sin. His is the great voice of obedience speaking in that blood that obscures our disobedience, the expiation which covers the sin of the church and under the protection of which we receive comprehensive immunity to the wrath of God. There is no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus because their condemnation has been dealt with in Christ. Listen to Augustus Toplady speaking to his Saviour;

“If Thou hast my discharge procured,
And freely in my room endured
The whole of wrath divine,
Payment God cannot twice demand
First at my bleeding Surety’s hand
And then again at mine.” (Augustus M. Toplady, 1740-78).

iii] Christ was giving himself up as a substitute for the church.

How can God allow his own Son to suffer like this? By what right is the anger of God focused on Jesus? Has he ever done anything wrong? Never. Why then is he the target of the concentrated and distilled essence of the judgments of God? You look at Christ and you find no sin; no depravity; no guilt; no disrepute; no lovelessness; no rebellion; no ugliness. Why is the wrath of God falling on one of whom God says, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased”? Why should the unrestrained anathema pour itself in all its fury upon him? Why? Because of the substitution. “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” It was in her place he stood. He becomes . . . for us. We become . . . in him. He comes to be without God, and far from God – the one who had been with God – so that we might be brought to him. This is tone of the most elementary teachings in the whole catalogue of Christian teaching, and yet it is one of the most glorious, if not the most glorious element in the whole of our theology. “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Christ gave himself as the church’s substitute. We all know that concept; we see it in soccer and rugby games where one man is substituted for another. Christ stands in the place of the church on trial, under divine examination and condemnation, standing in the liability of the church, standing in the church’s guilt and retribution, so that our sin is there on Golgotha – all of it – and it has become his. The bridegroom has taken all the liabilities of his bride and answered for them. Listen again to Toplady;

“Complete atonement Thou hast made
And to the utmost Thou hast paid
Whate’er Thy people owed.
How then can wrath on me take place
If sheltered in Thy righteousness
And sprinkled with Thy blood?” (Augustus M. Toplady, 1740-78).

iv] Christ was giving himself up redemptively for the church.

The church was by nature in a state of bondage to sin and death. It did exactly what its master – Mr. Sin – told it to do, “Ignore God and live without a thought for him.” The church was under the power of sin and the curse of the law, and Christ came seeing his bride enslaved to this manner of life which ended in the pit and he gave himself for her. He paid the price for her freedom because he loved her so much. He bought the slave girl with his own blood and she was free. We are redeemed to God by him, not with money but by his precious blood, so that we have become his special possession. We are no longer belonging to no one but ourselves, and answering to no one but ourselves. We belong to the Lord and we can glorify and serve him because he loved us and gave himself for us. So it was in those ways that he gave himself for us. Because he loved these people he paid her penalty, he became her substitute, he redeemed her and he propitiated God for her sins. That is the status of the church before God now and for ever. She is without condemnation.


You hear the phrase ‘unconditional love’ frequently and often it seems to be referring not to a love which can forgive our evil, but a love which doesn’t care about our evil, not to a love that receives us as we are but a love that leaves us as we are.

That’s not how the love of Jesus works. His love has an agenda, a goal. Christ may love you in spite of your evil, but he will not approve of your evil or allow it to go unchallenged or unchanged. When the Lord gets hold of you, he changes you. The Lord receives you as you are, but he won’t leave you as you are. If Jesus loved you enough to die for you, then he loves you enough to work on you and move you toward his goal for you. Paul writes to Titus and he says to him something very similar to what he writes here, “Our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ . . . gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good” (Titus 2:14). That was the purpose of the dying love of Jesus, that we be pure and eager to do good, and his love will see to it to accomplish this. It will do whatever it takes to achieve that goal. Jesus left the perfect happiness of heaven and endured the most horrible suffering to bring me back to him. So don’t be shocked if the Lord makes you unhappy at times, if he commands a thorn in the flesh to enter your life, and does some things you don’t enjoy or puts you through experiences that hurt. The love of Jesus is not a sloppy sentiment that says, “I just want for you whatever makes you happy, sweetie pie.” Jesus’ love is fierce and splendid.

In the long run, God does intend to make his people happy – but he intends to make us happy in being holy. So until you are as pure as God wants you to be, until you delight in the things that delight God, God won’t rest satisfied with your being happy. Holiness comes before happiness on God’s agenda for you.

See in the words of our text what a transformation Christ intends to work in all he died for. It is a change of these staggering dimensions; “to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (vv. 25-27). That was the design of Christ when he gave himself for the church. We cannot conceive of the death of Christ without thinking of what it accomplished in everyone for whom he died. This was the purpose of the death of Christ, not only to obtain our forgiveness but to make us Christlike. He is going to make something of her. She was like the Gadarene demoniac, his was a life destroyed until he met Christ and the Saviour made something of his ruined life. She was like Mary Magdalene the haunt of seven demons, and Christ made something of her life. She was like Saul of Tarsus, a religious bigot and bully and Christ made something of his life. He died “to make her holy.” Paul says.

Christ died to clean up her life, to deal with the defilement and the depravity of the church. She was like a herd of pigs wallowing in the mire and he washed them all. He died to sanctify and cleanse her.

There is a fountain filled with blood
Drawn from Immanuel’s veins
And sinners plunged beneath that flood
Lose all their guilty stains” (William Cowper 1731-1800).

He died for a great presentation in heaven when he would present her to himself. “These are the ones who loved me and were not ashamed of me during their brief earthly pilgrimage.” So we are presented to him in the great day. All he died for are going to become radiant with his glory when they see him. They will be transfigured – all for whom he died, shining as he shone on the mountain top before Peter, James and John; they will be shining as he did on the Isle of Patmos. Everyone for whom Christ died will be “a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” If he has shed his blood for them there is such power in his blood that though their sins were as scarlet they become as white as snow. There will not be one for whom Christ died who will not be presented faultless before him in that great day. There will not be one for whom he shed his blood with will be anything other than “without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” As John says, “When we see him we shall be like him.” John stands as an apostle in solidarity with all the Christians to whom he writes and he says, “we shall see him – not just me an apostle but all of you too, and we shall be like him – not just me an apostle but every one of us for whom he died.” We cannot conceive of the death of Christ without thinking of its purpose and effect on all the people of God. How blessed the Saviour will be in the last day when he will see every one for whom he died transformed into this likeness. “As a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you” (Isaiah 62:5).
This is a stunning picture of Christ’s love, and it shows once again that his love isn’t a sloppy, indifferent kind of love which doesn’t really care what we’re like. As C. S. Lewis puts it, “When we fall in love with a woman, do we cease to care whether she is clean or dirty, fair or foul? Don’t we then first begin to care? Does any woman regard it as a sign of love in a man that he neither knows nor cares what she looks like? Love may, indeed, love the beloved when her beauty is lost: but not because it is lost. His love may forgive all her infirmities and love her in spite of them: but love cannot cease to desire their removal. Love is more sensitive than hatred itself to every blemish in his beloved.”

“Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her … to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Ephesians 5:25-27). Jesus loved his bride enough to die for her, and because he loves her so much, he wants her to be her absolute, spotless best. Jesus is the bridegroom who loves the bride. He loves his church passionately and he is making his people into something more lovely than we could ever have imagined. How will he do it? By the Bible. Listen to these words in our text, “by the washing with water through the word.” Of course he is not writing about a physical bathing of our bodies, or a laundry in which our clothes are being washed. It is our personalities which are being cleaned up and so our bodies changed as a result of that. He is talking of the defilements of this world being removed from us. It happens as we sit under the preaching of the Word week by week. Our minds and our consciences and affections are cleaned up. That is why it is essential for you to make a bee-line for a church where the climactic aspect of worship each Sunday is the preaching of the Word. And you consider this, that while men like me – called and appointed by God as preachers – apply the word of God to you then your great High Priest in glory is praying for you, “Sanctify them by the truth, your word is truth.” So it is not some luxury for you to hear a sound experiential sermon once in a while. You must have this every single Sunday. This is the Lord Jesus purpose for you to clean up your life, to get rid of the dirt and smell, “and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” This is what is going to happen to every single one of us who is a believers in Christ. We are not going to struggle along eternally, we are going to be changed. Jesus’ love will do it!

How should we respond to such love? With all the joy and excitement of a bride getting ready for her wedding! As the Bible puts it, “‘Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.’ (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints)” (Revelation 19:7-8).
The death of Christ had this great goal. All for whom Christ died are going to be changed. This is what we call ‘limited atonement,’ or ‘definite atonement.’ It is not that in some vague and unspecified way Christ died for everybody, to save Hitler and Judas and for all those now in hell and for those who perished in Noah’s flood. The purpose of the death of people is specified here, that all those whom he shed his blood for should be holy and without spot in heaven for ever and ever. That is the purpose of his dying love. It will never be thwarted. That was why he shed his blood; not one spot of it can be shed in vain. I will not limit the power of the blood of the Son of God. If he loved them and gave himself for them then in heaven they will appear with him and like him for ever and ever.

The love of Christ is not vague or general; it is definite and personal. Christ’s love is not helpless or harmless; it is powerful and sometimes painful. Christ’s love is not aimless; it is love with a goal. It is holy love which will do whatever it takes to make us holy. That’s frightening, isn’t it? The Lord isn’t an easy-going, absent-minded grandpa who just wants you to have a good time. He’s not a mild-mannered bureaucrat who hands you a welfare cheque each week but doesn’t really care what you do or what you make of your life. He doesn’t run a bed and breakfast so that his main job is to please his clients and make them comfortable. We may wish sometimes that God were like that, but he’s not. God’s holy love is as persistent and perfect as an artist making a masterpiece, as absolute as a master training an animal, as watchful as a father’s love for his children, as passionate and jealous as a man’s love for his bride.

That is almost too much for us to bear. Why should the infinite, eternal Son of God, the almighty Creator of the entire universe, take such a personal interest in creatures who are so small and so sinful? Why should he love us so much or value us so highly? Why should he want to make of us something so much better and greater than we presently are? It’s a love we can’t explain, a love we don’t deserve, a love we don’t even desire, apart from his grace. We’d rather have Christ spoil us than love us.

But when Jesus’ love breaks into your life and you come to know him as your Saviour, this is the love with which you are loved – no matter how uncomfortable it makes you. This is the holy love of God for his chosen ones. A love springing from the depths of eternity, a love displayed in the death of Jesus Christ, a love which has paid the ultimate price to have us. A love which will do whatever it takes, to transform and purify us so that we will “radiant . . .without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” That’s the goal of the love of God and that goal is going to be fulfilled in us and all his people.

2nd October 2005 GEOFF THOMAS