The Church: The Bride of Christ (pt. 1)

(You can watch and listen to the sermon The Bride of Christ (pt. 1) here. It begins at 23:34.)

We are winding up our series on the church this week and next. During the past months, we have been pouring over biblical images that express what the church is about. That has been rich (for me, at least) but it has also been limiting. There is much to discover about the church that we have not explored, much that is spelled out in statement and command rather than portrayed in image. But we will save that for another day.

The images of the Church we have looked at include: temple and priesthood; family; new humanity; and Body of Christ. Last week we explored the image of the church as a Kingdom of God colony. This week and next week, we conclude the series with the image of the Church as the Bride of Christ.

Today, we will be surveying biblical texts from Old and New Testaments, which means there will be more teaching than preaching. Step one will be to discover Old Testament sources, where the images are like film before it has been developed, what photographers call “negatives.” Then step two will take us to the Gospels, where the images are brought into contact with Christ and are changed.

Then we will turn to the letters of Paul, where step three in the development process takes place. We’ll take the final step next week, when we go to the Book of The Revelation, where the hope-inspiring picture of the Bride of Christ is framed. We start, however, in the Old Testament with the originals.

Before we start developing the image, though, there is a little straightening up to do. There are songs, poems, and hymns, as well as liturgies, that speak as if individuals are the Bride of Christ. That kind of talk began somewhere around the 14th century among Christian mystics. Union with Christ was romanticized. Individuals, both women and men, pictured themselves as brides of Christ.

In the Catholic church, a ritual emerged in which women who had taken orders – nuns – were ritually married to Christ. The catechism says, “Virgins who … are consecrated to God by the diocesan bishop according to the approved liturgical rite are betrothed mystically to Christ…”

There is much here I do not understand and do not intend to criticize. There is something beautiful in the picture of a person being mystically betrothed to Christ but it is not a biblical picture. It was not developed in the Bible but in the medieval Church. The biblical picture is not of an individual, not even a nun, being the bride of Christ. Rather, it is the Church that is Christ’s betrothed and will become, on some glorious future day, his bride.

With that, let’s turn to the Bible. Doctrines don’t come out of nowhere. St. Paul and St. John did not conjure up the image of the Bride of Christ out of thin air. They were men who knew the Old Testament, memorized large parts of it, and thought about its message a lot. As they thought about those biblical passages, the Holy Spirit gave them the image of the Church as a bride—the Messiah’s bride, the bride of Christ.

One of the earliest sources for this image is Psalm 45, which is a wedding song, composed for an ancient king of Israel. It pictures the king, in all his glory, on the day of his wedding. Then it turns to the royal bride. She has the bridegroom’s full attention: he is enthralled by her beauty. The nations pay her tribute. Her future is brighter than her past.

The author of Hebrews quotes word for word from this Psalm[1] and – here’s the thing – applies what it says about the king to Jesus. He identifies Jesus as the Psalm 45 bridegroom. But who is the bride? He doesn’t say. He doesn’t go there.

When we move out of the Psalms, we come to the ancient prophet Hosea, another early source for the Bride of Christ image. In Hosea, God speaks of wooing Israel as if it was a woman. He tells her what life will be like for her when she is his wife. He then says, “in that day, declares the Lord, you will call me ‘My Husband’” (see Hosea 2:14-23). So, here we have an early picture of the covenant people as a bride and God himself as the groom.

That brings us to Jeremiah, who prophesied during the darkest time of Judah’s history. Her enemies were powerful. Her kings were corrupt. Idolatry was everywhere. In chapter 2, Jeremiah reminds the nation that they once loved God and were faithful to him. He pictures God saying to them: “I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness…” (Jeremiah 2:2). But Jeremiah goes on to picture God’s people as having lost interest in him. They are like a wife who has feelings for other men. They have – this is Jeremiah’s word – “strayed.”

That idea is repeated again and again when the Old Testament takes up the image of wife or bride. The bride is not pure. She is flirting with other men. She has been unfaithful.

One of the clearest pictures of God’s bride comes in the exile prophet Ezekiel.[2] He pictures Israel as a young waif, dirty, not much to look at, pitiful. But God notices her, cares for her and, when she is old enough, enters into a covenant of marriage with her; he becomes engaged to her. He provides her with the best clothes and jewels and her transformation is amazing.

She was, for lack of a better word, a street kid: poor, filthy, and uneducated. He changed her life, made her wealthy, made her famous. But she became vain, more interested in her looks and what they could bring her than she was in her husband-to-be. As in the other pictures, she strayed. She was unfaithful.

These pictures are the source for the image of the Bride of Christ. They are bittersweet. The sweet is the unfailing love God has for his people, which is like a husband’s love for his bride. The bitter is the flaw in his people’s character that causes them to act unfaithfully toward God, like a wife who strays from her husband.

Yet the Old Testament writers were also hopeful. Hosea insists that a day is coming when the bride (or bride-to-be) will no longer stray. God will then say: “I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion. I will betroth you in faithfulness, and you will acknowledge the LORD” (Hosea 2:19-20). Isaiah speaks of a day when God will rejoice over his people as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride. (Isaiah 62:5).

All that brings us to the New Testament and to two of the Apostle Paul’s letters. He takes up the Old Testament image of Bridegroom and Bride and applies it to Christ and his Church. And some of the same themes emerge.

But there is a step in the development process that comes between the Old Testament and Paul: the Gospels. Before Paul pictured Jesus as a bridegroom, John the Baptist did. During Jesus’s earthly ministry, he said: “I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him. 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. That joy is mine, and it is now complete.” John pictured Jesus as a bridegroom.

Jesus put his seal on the image by telling a story in which a bridegroom comes to take his bride to the wedding.[3] From the earliest time, the church understood that story to be about Jesus himself. 

Now, we’re ready to go to Paul’s letters, starting with 2 Corinthians 11. Paul says to the Corinthian Church: “I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him. But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ.”

The Old Testament themes are there. The new covenant people are betrothed – “promised … to one husband, to Christ.” They are to be faithful to him. But Paul fears they will stray, their devotion to Christ will fade, and they will look to others for fulfillment. They are too easily swayed, too ready to accept the sweet talk of another.

That was a danger for the Church in the first century. Do you think it is a danger now? It is always a danger. It is what the prophets complained about and warned against in Old Testament times, what Paul complained about and warned against in New Testament times and, what we must guard against in our time.

The church must not let itself be led away from its sincere devotion to Christ. The temptation to stray is subtle. It often begins with an implied (and conditional) promise of importance, or power, or safety.  It is not exactly wrong – at least, it can be argued that it is not – but it is not quite right either. Mayor LaGuardia once described it as “a very reasonable request which you know you shouldn’t grant.”

The temptation appeals to our pride or plays on our fear. It warns of all the things that may be lost but hides the cost of keeping them. It makes us think that we can get control of our situation, but we will have to give ourselves to something other than Christ to do it.

Before we know it, our devotion has been transferred from Christ to someone or something else. We are more excited about it than we are about him. We promote it more eagerly than we promote him. If you asked us, we would, like the Corinthians in Paul’s day, say that our devotion to Christ is unchanged. But it has changed and we didn’t notice it – or didn’t want to. Something has taken his place in our lives.

There is a word for that: “idolatry.” It is spiritual unfaithfulness – just what Paul was afraid of. There are three things about idolatry we ought to know. First, it somehow doesn’t seem idolatrous. There is a fascinating story in Judges of a family that makes an idol, sets up a shrine, and then hires a priest. It is an egregious violation of God’s covenant yet, amazingly, the man does not see it as idolatry. In fact, after hiring the idolatrous priest, he says, “Now I know that the LORD will be good to me…” (Judges 17:13). Idolatry doesn’t seem idolatrous to the idolater.

The second thing about idolatry is that it – whether political idolatry, economic idolatry, job idolatry, the idolatry of a cause – usually seems to work … at first. Give your job the devotion you owe to Christ, and you are liable to get a promotion. People will notice. You will get a raise. It will work … at first.

But your job is a lousy god. Make it an idol and it will let you down, cause you to question your worth, and corrode your relationships. How many people who make a job their idol succeed just long enough to lose everything important to them?

The third thing about idolatry is that it relocates our identity to the idol and away from Christ. If it is political idolatry, we reflexively think of ourselves as a Democrat or a Republican. That becomes our identity. If it is job idolatry, we think of ourselves as the I.T. guy or the boss or the right-hand man or woman. If it is the idolatry of a cause, we identify as the social justice hero, or the balanced budget warrior, or the environmental enthusiast.

I say nothing against the Democrat or the Republican. I applaud the social justice activist. I will stand with both the balanced budget warrior and the environmental enthusiast, but I am first and last a person who belongs to Jesus Christ. That is my identity. I will not let an identify thief steal that from me.

Don’t let it be stolen from you either. If it has already been stolen, and you are just learning about it (which is what happens in identity theft), take steps to get it back! Rethink things, confess what has happened to God, and acknowledge Jesus as more important than any person or thing in your life.

When we come to Ephesians 5, the same themes reappear. Paul is writing about the Spirit-filled life and how it expresses itself through submission and love in Christian relationships, including marriage. He illustrates by pointing to the church’s submission to Christ and Christ’s love for the church. He talks about the church being a pure bride on her wedding day: “a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Ephesians 5:27).

This is the Bride of Christ. And, in case we got a little lost in the other relationships he’s been talking about, Paul makes it perfectly clear in verse 32: “I am talking about Christ and the church.”

Alright. Let’s pull it all together. The Church of Jesus, as new covenant people, are dedicated to Christ the way a fiancé is dedicated to her soon-to-be husband.

The great danger is that we will let something come between us and our Lord, just as things came between Israel and her God. Those things can be summarized in a single word: idolatry. We may – rather, we will ­– be tempted (2 Corinthians 11:3). We must not be deceived by subtle proposals and flirtations that lead the church away from its pure devotion to Christ.

Since the Church is not an organization but a people who share the same Spirit – one body (as we have seen) with many members – being led astray happens one member at a time. One is led astray by the promise of money, others by the promise of influence, ease, or prestige, but where her members go, the church goes.

When it comes to the church, what a person does in the privacy of his own home or in the complexity of the workplace has an effect on the entire church. No Christian can say, “That is a private matter, just between God and me.” When a single member succumbs to idolatry, the church’s devotion to Christ is enfeebled.

But if this is the situation, what hope is there? With millions of people, even hundreds of millions, forming one church and the devotion of every single person playing a role, what is the likelihood that the church will be “without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish?” The bride mustn’t show up for the wedding in a dirty, stained, and wrinkled dress and the church must not show up stained with idolatry. But what hope is there of that? The hope – the church’s only hope – is in her Bridegroom.

Emma Howard and Chris Greenslade were getting married at Christ the King Church in Christchurch, New Zealand in just three days. On February 22, 2011, just after 1:00, Chris got a text from Emma that said: “It’s Emma here. I’m OK and I love you very much.”

That scared Chris. You see, a 6.3 magnitude earthquake had just hit Christchurch, and he didn’t know what might have happened to Emma. He dropped everything and rushed across town.

When he reached her workplace, he found the building collapsed and rubble everywhere. He called for rescue workers and began an all-out search for Emma and other survivors. For six hours, they dug through debris, moving fallen beams and chunks of concrete. Then they found Emma trapped in a tiny cavity, but safe.

The entire time this was going on, Chris kept sending Emma texts: “I’m with your parents.” “I love you.” “There are lots of men trying to get you out.” Out of the wreck and ruin, the dust and grunge, the death and dying, Chris rescued his bride to be. Three days later, Emma and Chris were married.[4]

In the chaos of contemporary culture, amidst the wreck and ruin and the dust and grunge, how will the church of Jesus possibly be found “without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish?” Only through the rescue efforts of her true love and great savior.

He will rescue his beloved and, while he is doing so, he will send her encouraging texts, assuring her of his love and exhorting her to hold on. Nothing can stop him from reaching her and, when he does, he will “cleans[e] her” (Eph. 5:26) “by the washing with water through the word.”

And then the great day will arrive: The Marriage of the Lamb. It will mean a new start for us, for the world, for the universe. The preparations will be worth it – infinitely so. Faithfulness will have its reward.

Until then, do not stray from your devotion to Christ. We all are depending on you. Do not flirt with anything that will draw you away from him, whatever promises it makes. Check your text messages regularly – you will find them in your Bible! The big day is coming. Let’s be ready for it.


[1] Hebrews 1:8-9

[2] Ezekiel 16:4-16

[3] Matthew 25:1-12

[4] (Kristen Gelilneau, “Amid New Zealand Tragedy, the Wedding Must Go On,” Associated Press (2-25-11); submitted by Quintin Stieff, West Des Moines, Iowa)

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