MESSAGE FOR NOVEMBER 25, 2001

Eighth in a series of messages on Christ’s church

 

This morning we continue our series of messages on the church of Christ as we examine the biblical truth in the designation for the church as the bride of Christ.  This designation for God’s people is actually seen in both the Old and New Testament.  Old Testament texts like Isaiah 54:5 describe God’s relationship to his people in the context of marriage.  The prophet says, “For your maker is your husband—the Lord Almighty is His name.”  As we’ll see, this husband-wife metaphor is not uncommon in the Old Testament to describe God’s relationship to his people.  In the New Testament, this teaching is more fully developed as we see very early in Jesus’ ministry He is described as “the bridegroom.”  In John chapter three, John the Baptist explains why everyone is going to Jesus instead of him by answering, “The bride belongs to the bridegroom.  The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice…” (3:29).  John says in effect, “He’s the groom—the bride is his. I’m just the best man.”  From the outset of Christ’s ministry, Jesus is recognized as the bridegroom who has come for his people, his bride. 

Paul sheds more light on this in 2 Corinthians 11:2 when he says to the Corinthians, “I am jealousy for you with a godly jealousy.  I betrothed you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him.”  Here we learn that the church on earth is betrothed to Christ.  This is no contradiction with texts that speak of Christ as the bridegroom because we know from the story of Mary and Joseph that the Jews and other eastern people do things quite differently than we in the West as it relates to marriage customs.  In the Ancient Near East, before the man and woman were actually married, they had a ceremony of betrothal where the man would give the woman a gift of some sort and promise to marry her.  The betrothal was a binding covenant and if you wanted out of it, you needed to divorce your spouse as Joseph initially agreed to do with Mary when she was found to be pregnant.  The actual wedding would occur at least a year after the betrothal. Paul says the church is in this betrothal period with Christ, her husband.  We are in covenant with Christ, betrothed to Him as his bride. Christ has promised to enter into an eternal marriage with his bride, the church.  In Revelation 19:7, we see the glorious promise of the wedding ceremony and the celebration that will occur at the wedding of Christ and his bride.  The heavenly creatures cry out, “Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns.  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.

This designation of Christ and his church beautifully and powerfully communicates the love and intimacy existing between Christ and his church.  For the men here, it may seem a bit of a stretch to see yourself as a bride, but think of it this way; because we were chosen in Christ before the foundation of the earth, we were actually part of “the bride” before we were bridegrooms.  With that as background, let’s take a closer look at this relationship between Christ and his bride, the church.  What does this bride-bridegroom relationship entail?  We’ll explore that question by examining the biblical record first, on Christ as husband and then, on the church as his bride.  Perhaps the single best text to reference for this topic is Ephesians chapter five, verses 22-33.  This is a text that is rightly used to instruct married couples on the biblical pattern for married life, but its fascinating because it communicates truth not only about purely human marriage but it also describes the relationship existing between Christ and his bride, the church.  In verse 32, Paul is summing up this teaching on marriage and says, “This is a profound mystery, but I am talking about Christ and the church.”  This morning, we are going to view this text through the lens of Christ and his church.  From this text, we see four truths about Christ as the bridegroom of the church.

The first truth is Christ is the head of His church.  We see this in verse 23.  For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church…  This word “head” as it is used for Christ primarily carries with it the idea of authority and leadership.  We see this in Ephesians 1:22 where Paul says of Christ, “And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.”  Christ is the head of the church--He leads the church--He directs the church--He counsels the church.  This is an unspeakably wonderful arrangement and should bring everyone in the church tremendous comfort and reassurance.  Who could possibly lead us more ably than the King of the universe?  He is the quintessential leader.  Who could be more proficient in directing the church than the one called, “the way?” He doesn’t just KNOW the way--He IS the way!  Who could offer better counsel than the Wonderful Counselor?  He IS Wisdom—he IS the Truth.  It is impossible for Christ as head of the church to ever make one misstep in His leadership.  His commands are always for our benefit—his leading is always trustworthy—his counsel is always perfect—his direction is always flawless.  What a great Head we have as our divine husband!  We never need to fear where he will lead us.  He charts the paths of the sun, moon and stars.  He holds every subatomic particle in the universe together by his power.  Leading and directing his church is no challenge for Him.  The great mystery is not in how Christ is able to assume headship over the church, but why we in the church would ever question his headship, ever rebel against his headship, ever reject his headship in favor of our own, fallen, human understanding.  That’s the cosmic mystery of sin.

A second truth about Christ as the bridegroom is Christ loves his church.  In verse 25 Paul tells husbands, “Husbands love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…”  There is no greater love than the one Christ has for his church.  We know this from John 15:13 where Jesus says, “Greater love has no man than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.  The apex, the zenith of human love is expressed when you die for your friends.  But God’s love transcends human love—it is infinitely higher because “God demonstrates his love for us in this, while were yet sinners, [warring against him] Christ died for us.”  This is God-sized love and Christ has it for his bride.  He showed it to us at Calvary.  What a blessed bride we are!  The cross of Christ gives us rock solid assurance that we will never ask Christ for anything too costly for Him.  He’s already done the most costly, the most sacrificial, the most self-debasing thing He could possibly do.  He suffered at the hands of sinners he created even to the point of death, a tortuous death on a cross.  That means everything we ask him after that is down hill.  He has given us the ultimate proof of his love for us. 

What an unbelievable way for a bride to begin a marriage--with a husband who has already died for her?  That means to question his love for us is a tremendous insult to Him.  What more could he possibly do to show us He loves us?  There is nothing more noble, more sacrificial, more generous than for Him to die for us.  Every doubt we might have of God’s love for us should vaporize in the light of the cross.  In those moments when we have grievously sinned against him and wonder how he could ever love us, we must remember that when Jesus suffered for us on Calvary, this sin that raises questions about how God could love us, has already been judged and punished when God laid it on the sin-cursed body of Jesus on the cross.  That sin, instead of erasing God’s love for us, should instead remind us of God’s love for us because that sin put Jesus on the cross which is God’s ultimate expression of love for his church.  Isn’t that beautiful?  Christ’s death for us once and for all settles the matter of whether God loves His church—He does(!) and exhibit “A” is the shed blood of Christ. 

A third truth is Christ sanctifies his church through the word.   In verse 26 Paul says that Christ gave himself up for his church, “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.  The “water” here is probably a reference to baptism which all believers must undergo.  But notice here the reason Christ went to the cross was not just to forgive her sins, but also to make his bride holy, radiant, without wrinkle or blemish, blameless.  This is speaking of sanctification.  Christ sanctifies His church, we don’t do that—He is our Sanctifier through the Holy Spirit.  He makes us holy.  Christianity is not some sort of spiritual self improvement program.  Only Christ can make us holy—we only cooperate with him as he transforms us through His word.  You’ll recall from Romans 12 that we are transformed into the image of Christ as our minds are renewed with his word.  Any idea that a Christian should be anything less than holy does not come from the Bible.  Christ died to make us holy.  It’s the work of Christ on the cross that makes us worthy to be called his bride.

Romans 6:6 tells us, “For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.”  When Jesus died on Calvary, he took upon himself the blackest darkness the power of sin could use to try to taint him and he remained utterly undefiled.  He took it all without sinning—he defeated sin—he died to it.  He was transferred out of the dominion or rule of sin when he defeated sin and died on the cross.  Paul says that when Christ died, we were somehow united with him in his death. That is, we participated with Him in his victory over sin and we too have been transferred out of the dominion where we had to follow our fallen, sinful desires.  We don’t have to be enslaved to sin, but can live lives that more and more are blameless, holy, without spot or wrinkle.  Its on the cross that Jesus defeated sin’s power to dominate us and because we were united with Him, we too enjoy that liberation from sin’s power.  The final chapter in this sanctification process will be when we are glorified.  That is, that moment in heaven when we are fully transformed to be like Jesus.  Then, we will shine with the radiance of Christ and will be seen by all the heavenly hosts as the bride who is, by God’s grace, worthy to be called the bride of Christ and occupy that exalted position next to our spiritual husband, Jesus.
            A fourth truth about Christ as our bridegroom is Christ nourishes and cherishes his church.  We see this is 5:29 and the NASB is more literal here.  Paul says to husbands,

for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church,” As a loving husband, Christ is constantly ministering to his bride.  He nourishes us as he feeds us with his word and with the Lord’s Supper which we take in to remember his incredible love for us.  We feed on Christ as we read the word and as we take in the supper.  He feeds us with spiritual delicacies—he sustains us with himself.  He also “cherishes” the church.  This beautiful word means “to warm—to give tender care.”  This is a picture of great warmth and tenderness.  We see this in Ezekiel 16 where God is telling the Jews how he has cared for them.  In verse 6, he begins, “I passed by and saw you kicking about in your own blood, and as you lay there in your blood I said to you, “Live!’(verse 8)…I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your nakedness.  I gave my solemn oath and entered into covenant with you, declares the Sovereign Lord and you became mine.  I bathed you with water and washed the blood from you and put ointment on you.  I clothed you with an embroidered dress and put leather sandals on you.  I dressed you in fine linen and covered you with costly garments.  I adorned you with jewelry:  I put bracelets on your arms and a necklace around your neck, and I put a ring on your nose, earrings on your ears and a beautiful crown on your head.  So you were adorned with gold and silver; your clothes were of fine linen and costly fabric and embroidered cloth.  Your food was fine flour, honey and olive oil. You became very beautiful and rise to be a queen.”

            What a glorious picture of a bridegroom cherishing his bride.  Do you hear that incredible tenderness and attention he lavishes on her?  He finds her in an open field, an infant abandoned to die, shivering and kicking in her own blood and He picks her up and cherishes her, richly providing for her.  This is how Christ regards his bride.  In Psalm 45,  a messianic Psalm that prophetically speaks of the wedding between the heavenly King and his bride, says in verse 11, “The king is enthralled by your beauty…”  The king is enthralled with the beauty of his bride because the beauty of Christ’s bride is the beauty of Christ Himself within her, the highest, most perfect beauty in the universe.  How blessed the church is to have a husband like Christ who is our Head, who loves us by dying for us, who sanctifies us, making us like himself and who nourishes and cherishes us as his precious bride.

            Now let’s turn to look at what the Scriptures has to say about the church as the bride of Christ.  What is the bride to be about while on earth?  Let’s look again at Revelation 19:7-8.  John records the heavenly creatures praising God shouting, “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.” Notice the tension here between what the bride does herself and what is done for her.  It says, “the bride has made herself ready,”  The bride is actively working to prepare to meet her groom.  We see this active role in her own purification in 1 John 3:2-3.  John is speaking of that moment when we will meet Christ in heaven and says, “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not been made known.  But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.  Everyone who has this hope in himself purifies himself just as he is pure.”  This is a fascinating text because it says that what should motivate us to keep ourselves pure from the defilement of this world is the hope that when we see Christ, we will be like him—completely pure.  The idea that a saint could be lax in this world because “after all, one day Jesus will completely transform me anyway” is utterly contrary to what this text says.  Rather than cause us to be lazy, the hope of our future glorification into the fullness of Christ’s image should compel us to be MORE vigilant in keeping ourselves pure.  The bride is to be actively purifying herself, working out our salvation in fear and trembling as we seek to be more and more transformed into His image in this life.

In addition to the bride’s active seeking of this purification, Revelation 19:7 also says, “fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.”  That makes it clear that Christ is dressing his bride—he is taking the principal, active role.  He is the Sanctifier as we saw earlier.  But then in verse eight it says, “(Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints.)”  This fine linen is, on the one hand, a gift of the bridegroom and on the other, a result of the saints’ action.  That’s a great illustration of the interplay between Christ who sanctifies and the believer who obeys with righteous acts and is through them, transformed by the Holy Spirit.  Sanctification, or being made more like Christ, is Christ’s job but it does not happen unless we obey him as He gives us the strength to do so.

What this text tells us more broadly is the mission, the goal, the life-work of the bride of Christ is to prepare to meet her bridegroom, Christ.  If we could just get hold of this profound truth and live it out, the church would be inestimably different, more holy, more God-centered, more missions-minded, more potent as salt and light in the world than it is.  Our fundamental task as the bride of Christ in this life is to prepare to meet our bridegroom, Christ.  Do you see how this life is totally focussed on the life to come?  This is the life of the pilgrim bride—the bride who understands that this life is only a short, difficult journey in preparation for the life to come.  There is nothing intrinsically essential about this world and its treasures and pleasures, this world is nothing more than heaven’s dressing room for the bride of Christ. 

We see a picture of this every time there is a carefully planned wedding don’t we?  The couple sets a date typically months in advance because the bride has to make extensive preparations.  Not the least of these preparations are the ones she makes in reference to herself.  She may decide to grow her hair longer, she wants her nails to be perfect so exerts no small amount of energy avoiding tasks that might put her “talons” at risk.  She wants her skin to be flawless, so she watches her diet and maybe even visits a tanning booth. She spends hours picking out a dress that will optimally flatter her contours.  She wants it to fit just right so she’s willing to starve herself, losing any excess weight.  Then, on the day of the wedding, she invades a beauty parlor to have her hair done to perfection.  She has a manicure and maybe even a pedicure.  She takes three times longer than usual to put on her makeup if she doesn’t have a professional put it on for her.  If she thinks her dress will wrinkle, she refuses to sit down for more than a few moments at a time.  She is constantly checking her makeup. She primps, she preens, she practices smiling in front of a mirror.  Any tears before the wedding are strictly forbidden—they would ruin everything!  There is a level of militant intensity in preparation in this context that will likely never again be duplicated.  And all of this is done, if the bride is a person of character, for the purpose of preparing to meet her bridegroom who will be standing at the front of the sanctuary and who she hopes will be utterly mesmerized by her stunning beauty.

We may chuckle at this, but only because we know there is truth to it, but there is  something else we should note and it is this:  Nothing less than this intense level of preparation should characterize the life of the bride of Christ as we in this life prepare to meet our heavenly bridegroom.  Is our bridegroom not worthy of this?!  We obviously are not speaking of physical preparation, but of making ourselves more and more spiritually beautiful for our bridegroom.  Is this the way we view life—is the purpose of our life that defines, limits and influences the choices we make?  It should be.  This is the essence of a Christ-centered life—living for Him, looking to Him, shining for Him, loving him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.  This is THE central work of the bride of Christ.  The question is, how do we do this?  What is this regimen of preparation to meet the bride?  Here are two answers.  The first is back in Ephesians five. “Wives, submit (or be subject to) your husbands as to the Lord.”

Preparation for the bride in this life isn’t glamorous or complicated.  Simply submit--do what our betrothed tells us.  Practice those “righteous acts of the saints” as He directs and empowers us.  We should do this joyfully because we know that whatever He asks, no matter how hard it may be, it is given to us for the purpose of making us more like Him, preparing us to meet Him.  If that is the driving purpose of our life, then we will obey.  If it’s not the driving purpose of our life, we need to repent and ask God to wash our clothes in the blood of the lamb and breath new life into us.  Remember, the bride is the church as a whole.  We mustn’t make this preparation a strictly private affair.  It’s corporate.  It’s as the church obeys Christ in the areas of loving each other, forgiving one another, bearing each other’s burdens, living in peace with others who disagree with us that we are prepared to meet Jesus.  This preparation isn’t done in a vacuum—it’s done in community as we follow Christ’s call to live and work together as his bride, as His body who submits to our head.

A second way we prepare is to view sin through the eyes of our bridegroom—as adultery against him.  Every time we choose our own agenda over his, every time we place something or someone above him, He sees that sin as spiritual adultery.  This is an intensely personal perspective on sin.  Sin is not making a mistake or a bad judgment or a regrettable decision.  Sin is not simply breaking a rule or a commandment or failing to trust.  No, in this light, sin is a violation of our betrothal—it’s an adulterous act.  That’s what sin is, it’s cheating on our husband—it’s grieving our bridegroom.  Ezekiel captures the wantonness of sin in the context of the covenant in 16:17.  God says of his people, “You also took the fine jewelry I gave you, the jewelry made of gold and silver, and you made for yourself male idols and engaged in prostitution with them.”  Sin, for the bride of Christ, is taking what God has given us, whether it is his material blessings to us or his patience and grace within the covenant, and using it as a vehicle to grievously sin against our bridegroom. And worst of all…these acts, these desires, these attitudes are committed against a heavenly husband who died for us, who is at work to sanctify us and who nourishes and cherishes us.  Do we see the utter scandal of sin?  It is spiritual adultery.  James 4:4 says, “You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God?  Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes and enemy of God.”

As the bride of Christ, we MUST see this life as heaven’s dressing room.  Do we live with the overarching goal of preparing ourselves individually and corporately to meet Jesus?  That’s what the bride of Christ does.  Do we view sin as cosmic adultery?  It is.  May God give us the grace to revel in Christ’s lavish love, to gorge ourselves on his heavenly nourishment, to revel in the tender warmth he gives to his bride.  And may we submit to his headship so that we might be “a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” for his glory.

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