How this washing takes place is significant. It happens “by the washing of water with the word” (ῥῆμα, Eph. 5:26). This phrase by itself is odd at best. Paul used the analogy of marriage to talk about the church, which is washed with water by the word. He doesn’t mean that church people need to bathe together, nor read in the bathtub, nor that the Bible is the source of cleanliness. Clearly, none of this can be taken literally. The language is analogous and symbolic.
The end goal is the sanctification and purification of the church, which means the maturity and purity of individual Christians, as well as their corporate organizations. We might also call this process the growth and maintenance of the church. The allusion to baptism suggests entrance into the church, and the allusion to washing suggests ongoing maintenance. The process of this washing or cleansing is “water with the word” (Eph. 5:26). As water is the means of regular washing, the word is the means of gaining spiritual maturity. Both are important.
However, word (ῥῆμα) here does not refer to the Bible. It is not God’s Word that is in view, but our words. We grow by talking about God-in-Christ. Some people think that ῥῆμα refers to a charismatic language. And there is a sense in which they are right, depending on what one means by charismatic language. There is no sense to be made of babbling (1 Corinthians 14:19), so that is not in view here.
Rather, ῥῆμα suggests speaking about the God of the Bible meaningfully and truthfully in one’s native tongue or language. The miracle of tongues begins with hearing the gospel in one’s native language, in one’s own head (Acts 2:6). It means discussing God-in-Christ with the Holy Spirit in the privacy of one’s own thoughts. The miracle of tongues manifests as we discuss God-in-Christ meaningfully and truthfully with one another through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit through regeneration. The miracle of tongues is the Holy Spirit coming to the Gentiles. Nothing more, nothing less.
(from Ephesians—Recovering the Vision of a Sustainable Church In Christ, forthcoming, 2014)