The Bride and the Bridegroom

Ephesians 5:22-33, Song of Songs 2:3-13

21 July 2013

Woodley Baptist Church

Morning Reflective Service


You'll be aware that, over the past 12 weeks we've been looking at a number of topics under the heading of "The Church", and for the most part I think we have understood "the church" to mean our congregation here: Woodley Baptist Church, a small band of people meeting in a suburb of Reading in the early 21st Century. Church with a "small c", if you like.

As we bring the series to a close this morning, I want to take a wider view and look at the Church with a "big C"—the entirety of believers in Jesus across all places and across all centuries. And it is this church which is the Bride of Christ.

The key verse from which it all hangs is verse 23, Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviourref. Out of this come three aspects which I've divided up as: first, Jesus, Head of his Bride; second, Jesus, Saviour of his Bride; and third, Jesus, United with his Bride which is about being his body.

Jesus, Head of the Bride

So, let's start with Jesus, Head of the Bride.

As we ponder verse 23, For the husband is head of the wife as Christ is head of the churchref, and as we lay aside for a moment our 21st Century prejudices about how marriage should work, we get a glimpse of an extraordinary truth. The point is that Christian marriage is a picture of a deeper underlying reality. Christian marriage follows the pattern of an eternal, cosmic marriage: the marriage between Jesus Christ and his church.

There is a real sense in which the relationship between the Lord Jesus Christ and his gathered people is best understood in terms of a marriage relationship; and actually, our marriages are just patterned on that fundamental marriage.

Last week, I heard a surprisingly interesting radio programme about Trading Standards. No, really. What I learnt was that, in weights and measures, the weight of a kilogram is defined solely by a single block of platinum-iridium alloy which is held in a lab in Paris and almost never handled. There are six copies of it which are compared with it every fifty years. Then each country has a copy of a copy, and so on. The point is that the job of Trading Standards is to ensure that when you weigh out a kilo of potatoes in the supermarket, the accuracy of that measurement can be traced all the way back to the original, fundamental, definitive kilogram sitting in Paris.

In a similar sort of way, all of our marriages should be patterned on the single, fundamental, definitive marriage: the marriage between Jesus Christ and his church. And the Apostle Paul, here, is playing the role of trading standards—although that may be pushing the analogy too far!

And the first thing we find is that in this defining marriage, Christ, the bridegroom, is head of the Church, and the Church, his bride, submits to him.

This submission is a voluntary submission. Submission cannot be commanded, it can only be offered. And Jesus does not "lord it over" the church, as it were. Sometimes his Spirit wrestles mightily with us, but he is never overbearing.

And when the Church is healthy, we see its submission in action in a number of ways.

We see it in our worship together. Of course, for the Christian, all of life is worship. But, on top of that, the Church particularly engages in worship when she gathers. We adore our husband; we are in awe of him; we love to praise him and we express it in song and in prayer and in service.

We express our submission to the bridegroom in listening to him and obeying his voice. We hear and read and study his word together in all sorts of ways, and we try to obey it. We wrestle with his word, never ignoring or dismissing any of it, as was sadly the case last week.

We express our submission in our prayers. The extent to which we pray is the extent to which we say to Jesus: help us; we need you; without you we are hopeless and helpless. In prayer, we lay aside our self-reliance and our pride and express our submission to, and reliance on, Jesus. Doing this together as a Church, the Bride of Christ, is powerful. I note, in passing, that there is a prayer meeting at seven this evening.

And we express our submission as a Church in our repentance, freely offered. We confess our collective faults and ask him for his forgiveness. Something I think we don't do often enough or seriously enough.

So, Jesus, the bridegroom, is head of his Church, the bride. And the church, at its best, willingly and joyfully submits to that authority.

This fundamental reality, then, in the context of Ephesians chapter five, is what the life of the Christian wife is patterned on. This may trouble you in this day and age—the idea of submission with all its negative connotations. But reflect on this: if the challenge to Christian wives is hard, the challenge to Christian husbands, in my view, is harder: verse 25, Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.ref Let's move on.

Jesus, Saviour of the Bride

I've called this section, Jesus: Saviour of the Bride.

What we see in these verses is that the relationship of Jesus with the church is a love story.

[That's why I wanted those verses from The Song of Songs to be read. We don't often read from that book do we? The Song of Songs is the passionate expression of the love between a man and a woman—perhaps a bit too passionate for us to handle—but it's sometimes been understood as a picture, a pre-figuring, of the love relationship between Christ and his Church. You may or may not agree with this, but it's worth a thought; perhaps it can give us a more heart-felt understanding of what it means for the Church to be Bride of Christ.]

Have you ever wondered why Jesus' suffering and death is sometimes called his "Passion", as in the film, "The Passion of the Christ"? It's seems a peculiar use of the word, doesn't it? It turns out that our word "passion" is derived from the Latin word passio, meaning to suffer. To be passionate about something is to endure a kind of suffering for it.

And we see Jesus' passion for the Church in verse 25, Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holyref. Jesus laid down his life for the Church, utterly giving himself up for her—the ultimate expression of love.

This is how Jesus brought the Church into being. Without his death, there would be no Church. Every one of the hundreds of millions of believers across the world and across the ages is declared holy before God and united into the Church, the Bride of Christ by that one, single act: the death of Jesus on a cross; dying our death; bearing our sin.

Conversely, anyone who is not trusting in that death to make them right before God is not part of the Church. I mean, you may be physically in a church building, you may even technically be a member of a church. But, the Church (capital "c") is made up only of those who have trusted in Jesus' death in their place.

So, Jesus demonstrated his love for the Church in giving himself up for her.

And in verse 26 we see that the work of cleansing and washing continues through the word of Jesus. This is the gospel message as it goes out to the world.

[The washing image here links back to Ezekiel chapter 16, which you can look up for your homework. In Ezekiel 16, God says to his people, I bathed you with water and washed the blood from you and put ointments on you. I clothed you with an embroidered dress and put sandals of fine leather on you. I dressed you in fine linen and covered you with costly garments. I adorned you with jewellery... the splendour I had given you made your beauty perfect, declares the Sovereign Lordref. It is clear that this is a picture of a pre-marriage ceremony; a washing and beautifying before the great day.

And, back in Ephesians, we see the same process: Jesus prepares and beautifies his bride by the washing with water through the wordref.]

Most brides try to slim down as the big day approaches, but the Church is getting bigger. As each person hears and believes the word of the gospel, he or she is spiritually washed and joined with the Church, and the Bride of Christ grows ever bigger, and yet more beautiful. This gospel word is Christ's "I will" of commitment to us, which awaits our "I will" in response.

This is a timely reminder to us: as we seek to be a church that grows through people coming to faith in Christ, it is the word of Christ—the gospel message of his death and resurrection and Lordship—it is only with the word of Christ that we will be able to do this.

And then in verse 27 we find a future aspect. A wedding day is coming! The Bridegroom's plan is to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blamelessref. A wedding day is coming! And on that day we will be perfect.

Perhaps we look around at the worldwide church today and we see all sorts of distressing things: we see parts of the church worldwide in considerable pain and suffering; we see ugly parts; we see sick parts; we see damaged parts; we see sinful parts. And we see all these things in our own tiny little corner of the Church too, don't we? It is easy to become discouraged or cynical about the church.

Yet, Jesus is never discouraged or cynical about his Bride! Read it again, verse 27: radiant; without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish; holy; blameless. On that day, we, the Church, will captivate the attention of the whole of the heavens—infinitely more gorgeous than the most beautiful bride who ever wafted down an aisle on earth. And Jesus will be there waiting for us, himself the most attractive being in the Cosmos. And we will be thrilled with him, and he will be thrilled with us.

Is that a good antidote to discouragement and negativity, or what?

So to summarise this bit, Jesus is Saviour of his Bride, the Church. He saved in the past, when he gave his life for the Church; he saves in the present as each person is gathered by the word of the gospel out of the world and into the Church; and he will save in the future when he has finished completely beautifying and perfecting us ready for our wedding day with him.

Jesus, United with the Bride

The last section is from verse 28, and I've called it, Jesus, United with the Bride.

The last section was quite time-bound, with (for us) a future wedding in prospect for Christ and his Church. But Jesus is now beyond time, and there is also a sense in which he is already united with his church just as a married couple are united into one flesh.

Let's read again verses 28 to 32.

In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church—for we are members of his body. "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh." This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.ref

As a Church, we are members of Christ's body, and Jesus feeds the Church and cares for the Church, just as we feed and clothe and care for our own bodies. Just as in the Church of England Marriage ceremony, the groom promises "in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish" the bride, so Christ loves and cherishes his Church.

And he does it because the church is united with him in the deepest possible way.

To explain this, Paul goes right back to the account in Genesis where God describes marriage as a man and a woman being united and becoming, in some profound spiritual sense, one flesh. You remember that the woman, Eve, was originally created from the flesh of the man, Adam. Then the joining in marriage of a man and a woman is a re-unifying of what was previously divided. Which is, incidentally, why two people of the same sex can never be married.

And this joining together is what Paul says has happened between Christ and his Church: he and the church are "one flesh". In fact, rather extraordinarily, he says in verse 32 that what the Genesis verse was really about was the uniting of Jesus with his church, and only secondarily about marriage.

So, we are united with Jesus. We, his Church, are his body, and he cherishes us. We experience this unity only rather dimly today, but it is reality. And one day we will experience that reality completely. Meanwhile we trust in him him to care for his Church, knowing that the gates of hell will never overcome us.


What I wanted to do in this sermon was simply to lift our eyes, and expand our hearts. I hope that I've succeeded. We are part of something big! We are a Bride cherished by her Bridegroom.

You'll notice that I haven't tried very hard to be practical this morning. If you want practicality then take this passage away and apply it to your marriages. It's very direct and will do you no end of good.

But often I simply feel that our vision is too small. We are part of something huge! Church goes way beyond our meetings and our frustrations and our appointment process and our busyness. In Jesus' eyes, the church is his glorious, beautiful, perfect bride! And we, a tiny fraction of the millions upon millions of believers across the world and across the ages, are part of that.

As we bring to a close our series on The Church, let me finish with a prayer from a little earlier in Ephesians, chapter 3 verse 17. Let's pray.

I pray that [we], being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord's holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that [we] may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.ref