What is the Church?
I’m one of those guys who grew up going to church. I am sure there were weeks I was at the building every day of the week. Growing up, I often heard the words, “We are going to church.” or “Let’s go to church.” Or something along those lines. Is church something we go to? When you think about “church,” what comes to mind to you? There is a habit that I find myself stuck with that has me often thinking that church is something I go to. Even though you and I may say the church isn’t the building, it’s the people; I wonder if we can honestly answer that question: what is the church?
In Ephesians 5:22 to 33, the Apostle Paul has begun to break down how the family unit functions. If you note, as you read this, there’s a lot of conversation about this passage and thinking that this is tied to culture, but the reality is that we just don’t like the concepts that are laid out, so we try to explain them away. Our lives exemplify Christ, and Paul ties how we related to one another to exemplify Christ, even in marriage.
On a side note, we don’t like the word “Submit,” but it’s in the Bible. You can’t just explain it away and say this is a construct of the culture of Paul’s time because once you do that, you lose the picture that Paul is going to pain for us that answers: What is the church. The image that Paul is painting is a church that submits to Christ and ties that to how a husband and wife relate to one another. As we know, though, sin has penetrated all of humanity like a poison, and the outcome of that sin is a perversion of the word of submitting to either extreme of submitting to a husband in everything or refusing to. This is why Paul takes time to define submission by looking at the relationship between Jesus and his bride, the church. Paul ties together submission between the husband and the wife to Christ and the church, redeeming it and reminding us of what it looks like. This is a sermon on its own, but today I want to look at again: what is the church?
In verses 22 to 24, the Apostle Paul says, “Wives, submit to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. 24 Now, as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.” We will read that and get stuck on the part of the submission and miss what Paul is trying to say here. The Church is the bride of Christ. It’s is a magnificent thought. As the Bride of Christ, Jesus has saved here, bought here, cleaned her up. God didn’t meet his church halfway; Jesus took all the initiative. As the bride of Christ, he has saved us in terms of grace and grace alone. Something neither of us deserved. So the first thing we learn about what the church is, is that she is the bride of Christ who he saves and the church submits too.
As the bride of Christ, Jesus doesn’t leave us in our state; he picks us up and cleans us up. He saved us, knowing our messiness. Christ sanctifies the church, as we see in verses 25 to 27. “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” Did you catch all those things that Jesus has done for his bride? He loved the church. He gave himself up for the church. So what is the church? Or better yet, who is the church? The church is the body of Christ made up of individuals who have been bought by the precious blood of Christ.
Practically, how does that come through in how we are to treat one another? If I know I am not the one who is cleaning myself, that I desperately need the grace and mercy of God to work out all the dirt in my life. How should I look at others? The church should be a place full of grace and mercy, people bearing with one another, people united in Christ, all because they have been united with Christ and Christ has done all these things. We love how? Because Christ first loved us.
If we truly believe what Jesus had done for us. That we are his bride, and that he is cleaning us. That we are sinners saved by God’s grace. Then we need to reflect a people who’ve encountered this gospel. Jesus Christ has saved you. We are different than what we were before we were saved. We are a new creation. The Holy Spirit dwells within us.
Ray Ortland has said this to his church, and I have once before too, but I pray that we can be this. Because we understand what Jesus has done for us:
To all who are weary and need rest
to all who mourn and long for comfort
to all who feel worthless and wonder if God cares
to all who fail and desire strength
All who sin and need a saviour
This church opens wide her doors with a welcome from Jesus Christ
ally of his enemies
the defender of the guilty
justifier of the inexcusable
the friend of sinners.
This brings us to Ephesians 5:28-33 as Paul points to husbands, but gives an example to husband on how to love his wife by showing how Christ loves his bride, the church. Christ loves his bride. He has shown it through what he has done for her on the cross. Jesus died for her, giving of himself for her. Christ loves the bride of Christ, and it shows the most in the cross.
Dwell on this. If you are in Christ, he loves you. As the Bride of Christ, he loves you. As part of his body, he loves you as he loves his own body. As Christian, we know God loves us. If you grew up in the church, you have heard its song from children’s songs to verses you have memorized. We believe that. But if we were to look closer at how we relate to God moment by moment—which reveals our actual theology, whatever we say we believe on paper—many of us tend to think it is a love infected with disappointment. He loves us; (we think), but it’s a flustered love. We see him looking down on us with paternal affection but slightly raised eyebrows. We believe God is saying to himself: “How are they still falling short so much after all I have done for them?” we picture him wondering. We are now sinning “against the light,” the Puritans would say; we know the truth, and our hearts have been fundamentally transformed, and still, we fall. And the shoulders of our soul remain drooped in the presence of God. Once again, it is a result of projecting our capacities to love onto God. We do not know his most genuine heart.
If someone says to me: I love Jesus, but I don’t love the church. You have just told me that you love Jesus, but not his bride, who he bought and sanctified, who he loves. Yes, we don’t get it right all the time, but you can’t love Jesus without also loving his bride, with all of her mistakes, just ask Jesus loves us with all of ours.
The songwriter, Frederick Martin Lehman
The love of God is greater far
Than tongue or pen can ever tell
It goes beyond the highest star
And reaches to the lowest hell
The guilty pair, bowed down with care
God gave His only Son to win
His erring child He reconciled:
You and I pardoned from our sin
Oh love of God, how rich and pure!
It shall forevermore endure
How measureless and strong!
The saints’ and angels’ song we sing
I grew up “going to church.” but when I see how God defines the church, isn’t a better way of saying it: I get to gather with the church? That’s what we are doing on a Sunday. We gather as a church to worship our awesome God, who bought us with His precious blood. He has shown us the extent by which he loves us, cleanses us, and what it means to be the bride of Christ. Is that not a great reason to gather as the church here at Knollwood?
The picture of Christ and his relationship to the church is how are marriages are to be arranged. Our marriages are to be a picture of what God has done for his church. Who is the church? The Church is the bride of Christ, who has been bought by his precious blood. That is manifested in the local church. This is a letter written to a specific group of people in a city. Yes, this is written to all Christians, but the fact that it was written to a specific church also shows us that we are called to belong to a local church where we can submit to one another.
It’s only when we understand the gospel. When we know who we are because of what Christ has done for us, we will go out as sent people into the world, telling others about how a holy God loves them and provides a way for them to be reconciled. It also tells us how we will treat others.
The Big Idea here is that the Church is the Bride of Christ, who has been bought by his precious blood. Praise God for this.