Beautifying the Body of Christ

The following is a lightly edited transcript.

The Body of Christ

Two weeks ago, we talked about one aspect of the mystery of Christ from Ephesians 2 and especially Ephesians 3:4. Namely, the truth that the mystery of Christ is that not only believing Jews, but also Gentiles are full fellow citizens of the new true Israel — the body of Christ. It’s not just Jews. It’s Jews and Gentiles who make up the true Israel, who he is — the body of Christ. That was what we saw was the mystery of Christ two weeks ago.

The Mystery of Marriage

Now today, in this text, we get a new angle on this mystery of Christ and his body. Let me sum up what it is ahead of time, and then move back into the text and unpack it for you. The new angle on the mystery of Christ today is this: the meaning of human marriage is based on a greater marriage designed in heaven before creation — namely, the marriage between Christ and his church. That’s the mystery. The meaning of human marriage, which I’m not going to talk about today, is based on another marriage designed in heaven before creation — namely, the marriage between the Son of God and his people, the church. On that design and model, human marriage was built to image it forth.

The One-Flesh Relationship

Look at Ephesians 5:28. I’ll show you where I get this idea.

Husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. (Ephesians 5:28–30)

Now, what Paul says here is that husbands loving their own wives is like loving themselves because she is part of his body. Christ loving the church is loving himself because the church is him, his body. So, there’s a comparison here: a husband’s oneness with his wife is like Christ's oneness with the church.

Then I’m taking you to where I get this word mystery. Paul goes back to illustrate this and grounds it to the Old Testament — all the way back to Genesis 2:24 — and he quotes the most fundamental verse about marriage in the book of Genesis with these words: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (Ephesians 5:31).

In other words, the reason that a man’s love for his wife is a love for himself is that in marriage a wife and a husband become one flesh so that to love your wife is to love yourself. If Noel and I are one flesh, because of the covenant of marriage, then my love to her is profoundly a love to me. Now, that’s not a mystery. That’s on the face of it.

A Picture of the One-Flesh Union of Christ and the Church

In Genesis 2:24, mystery does not mean something perplexing or unintelligible, hard to understand in the Bible. A mystery is something that has been concealed for some time and now is revealed. What’s the mystery here? Ephesians 5:32: “This mystery is profound.” Something about Genesis 2:24 is a mystery. “This mystery,” that I just quoted to you, “is profound.” Then he tells us what it is: “I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.”

Now, that was not revealed in the Old Testament clearly. Namely, that in marriage, what we have is a parable, or a symbol, or a drama, or an outworking, or a portrayal, or a display of something that nobody sees unless it is revealed to them. Namely, this is Christ and the church. This husband and wife here, this one flesh union, this covenant relationship here, is Christ and the church. That’s the mystery. That had to be revealed later at the coming of Christ as he assembles his body, as he marries his bride, as he covenants with his partner. Now Paul says, “That’s what marriage has been about all these years. There were reflections of it in the Old Testament as God and Israel related as husband and wife. Now, it’s clear what marriage was all about.”

The most fundamental meaning of human marriage is that it’s all about Christ and the church. The new angle this morning on the mystery of Christ is not that the body of Christ is the fullness of him who fills all in all, three weeks ago, and not that Jew and Gentile are reconciled in one body to God through the cross, two weeks ago. The new angle this morning is: the church is the body of Christ because the church is the wife of Christ, and wives and husbands are one flesh. That’s the new angle this morning: the new way of looking at the church is that you are the wife of Jesus.

What Does It Mean to Be the Wife of Christ?

Now, we need to ask this morning: “Okay, that’s a powerful thought. What does it mean? What implications does that have for Bethlehem, for me personally, for this body that we are the wife of the Son of God?” It means five things, at least depending on how you count them in the text. Three I’m going to deal with this morning, and two I’m going to deal with tonight.

1. Christ Loved Us Before We Were Attractive

To be the wife of the Son of God means that Christ loved us before we were attractive.

Unlike How We Choose Wives

Ephesians 5:25: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Now, I want you to notice the order here is very important for getting this point. The order of the flow of thought, beginning at verse 25, it starts with love. Love moves Christ to give himself. You go to verse 26, this self-giving results in a sanctifying power and a cleansing effect. Go to verse 27, and the effect of that is to get rid of spots and wrinkles in this bride, and make her beautiful and glorious. See the flow of thought there? Love, self-giving, sanctifying cleansing, and beautification.

The point is: the love proceeds the beautification. In other words, Christ did not choose a wife the way we men choose wives. He did not look for an attractive woman, or an intelligent woman, or even a faithful woman. He chose an unlikely woman. When he did that, he set out to make her attractive, and to make her wise, and to make her faithful at the cost of his own life.

Free, Unconditional, Electing Love

His love for us did not begin as a love of admiration. There was nothing admirable in us as a church. His first love for us was not a response to our beauty. We had none. His first love was free and unconditioned. It’s the love of the unconditional election of Ephesians 1:4: “He chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.” We were not chosen because Christ foresaw that we would become holy. He chose us because he planned to make us holy. We have been loved with a love that is the unconditional love of regeneration described in Ephesians 2:4–5. You were unconditionally regenerated. Listen to these words.

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved.

God chose a dead woman for the wife of his Son. Dead women do not begin by fulfilling conditions. They begin by being raised from the dead. We were unconditionally regenerated. When you were dead in your trespasses and sins, the Father, in order that he might choose the most unlikely bride for his Son, came to you and said, “Rise! Live!” He chose a dead woman for his Son’s bride. That’s what happened to every one of you. Before you looked pretty, or sounded wise, or were faithful, the electing love of God chose you, and the regenerating love of God raised you from the dead.

There is a peculiar love that God has for his bride — different from the general love that he has for other women. The love of a man for his wife is a distinguishing covenant love that is shared by no other woman but his wife.

A Peculiar, Precious, Covenant Love

Now, I want you to ponder this: One of the great theological and experiential tragedies in the church today — and one of the great sources of weakness in the church today — is that Christians have learned to enjoy a love from God that is no more peculiar, no more precious, no more securing, no more endearing, no more distinguishing than the love that he has for those who perish. For two hundred years in this country, we have slipped farther and farther away from the glorious truth that the wife of the Son of God is loved with any electing, regenerating, distinguishing, covenant love, that is different from God’s love for the rest of the world who perish. Not to know that is to be weak. Not to know that is not to even know your covenant offering from the Lord. “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

I ask you: Is it not a great sadness when a wife only knows herself loved with the love that her husband has for every other woman? Is that not a great sadness in a marriage? When a wife only knows herself loved with the love that her husband has for every other woman, what a sadness in the church that we do not even know the love he has for us because we can’t even begin to articulate it as distinct, and precious, and peculiar, and distinguishing from the love that he has for those who go to hell! Do you know yourself loved like that, or does your husband only love you the way he loves every other woman? I can see it all over your faces that this is a peculiar thing I’m saying. It’s just two hundred years of departure from biblical orthodoxy. The marriage between Christ and his wife is weak. The church is weak to the degree that she only feels loved with the same love that allows people to perish. As though there were no peculiar love for his bride that chose her, raised her, made a covenant with her, never to depart from doing her good.

The first thing that it means for us to be the wife of Christ is that Christ loved us before we were attractive. He loved us and loves us still with a peculiar, distinguishing, electing, regenerating, covenant love, and to know this and to have the Spirit bear witness to this in our hearts is precious beyond words. One of the weaknesses of the church is that we do not know ourselves loved as the wife of the Son of God with a love that is any different than he has for all the other women in the world.

2. Christ Gave Himself for the Church

The second thing is that being the wife of Christ means that Christ gave himself for his wife. Christ gave himself for his wife — the church. “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). Now again, Christ did not win his wife the way men do today. He paid a dowry for her, and the dowery was his life. Not only did he choose a dead wife for his Son, he died in the process. You have a dead wife and a dead husband. Then God raises him from the dead, and in him, she is raised. That’s a great foundation for a marriage, when two dead people are raised into union.

To be a wife to this Christ means to be loved, not only with electing love before the foundation of the world, not only with regenerating love when we were dead in our trespasses and sins, but also with a self-sacrificing love that dies for us, as Romans 5:7 says when we were enemies, when we were ungodly, when we were weak.

Now, just ponder this: Christ did not give himself for an attractive bride. He did not give himself even for a reluctant bride. He gave himself for a bride who found him positively repulsive. That’s what enmity means in Romans 5:10. He gave himself — he died — to make this dead woman his wife, knowing that in her spiritual deadness she found him perfectly repulsive. She wanted nothing to do with him. She was running from him and heaping scorn upon him. For her, he died. The powerful, saving, cleansing, sanctifying, beautifying effects of the cross were directed toward a fiancé who was unattractive, and who found her future husband very unattractive, and had no intention of marrying him at all. He gave his life specifically for her. For her, he targeted her — for us. That’s what it means to be the wife of Christ.

3. Christ Cleansed the Church from the Guilt of Sin

Finally, being the wife of Christ means being cleansed by him from the guilt of sin.

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. (Ephesians 5:25–26)

Tonight, I want to come back and pick up the word sanctify, the word word. I want to talk about this spot removal, wrinkle removal, this beautification process. That’s what I want to talk about tonight. Right now, as we close, I want to talk about the word cleansing.

If you need to be flattered in order to feel good about your relationships, you can just forget feeling good about your relationship to Jesus. This is the most unflattering picture of an engagement in marriage I can imagine. A husband that needs to bathe his wife before he marries her is just a yucky picture to me. We were unattractive. We were enemies. Now, we’re dirty. We’re just covered with filth. We’re dirty. Dirty on the outside, dirty on the inside. There’s a moral filth all over us because of the sins of our lives. Our own conscious indict us, and if our weak and imperfect conscious indict us, how much more an infinitely holy God beholds us as dirty and unacceptable in his sight? Therefore, if a marriage is going to happen to the Son of God, there has to be a bath — a cleansing.

Cleansing and Dying

Now, I believe that the water of baptism is a representation of this spiritual washing or cleansing referred to in Ephesians 5:26. I want you to notice something here. This was really interesting to me as I reflected on it. The connection between verse 25 and 26 is that the self-giving of the Son — the husband — in verse 25 results in a sanctifying and cleansing in verse 26. The cleansing comes from the sacrifice. It’s the blood shedding of the Son, and his giving up of his life in death, accepting judgment and curse from God on behalf of his unworthy wife that enables and causes her cleansing — her bath.

Now, think about that in relationship to the symbolism of baptism in this pool right here that I’m standing on where we baptize people. We fill it up to about this level, and then we take people, we put them all the way under, and we lift them back out again. We don’t just sprinkle water on the head. Now, there’s a reason for this — biblical imagery reasons for why we do it this way. Here are two of them.

One is that this is a cleansing that is total. It takes away all sin, all defilement, and makes this woman — the church — acceptable to God. Puts her in front of God so that she is no longer dirty. She is clean. She’s bathed from the top of her head to the bottom of her feet. She’s bathed. But the bathing is not external. It’s not just H2O. It is the blood of Jesus shed in the self-giving of the Son that cleanses, and therefore it’s no accident.

I think, in this symbol here, that what you’re symbolizing is two things simultaneously: a burial under the water with Christ — dying and a bath. A burial in a bath in one thing. The immersion of a person in water has a twofold symbolism that are not coincidentally related but integrally related. The death that is symbolized by the burial underwater is the source of the cleansing symbolized by the bath under the water. The bath and the burial are one. It is the burial — the uniting with Christ who died and shed his blood for us — that is the cleansing agent spiritually. The burial in water becomes the bath in water so that the symbolism combine in the ritual of baptism.

That was a new thought to me. I had not before reflected on the connection between the cleansing symbolism of baptism and the dying symbolism of baptism. I believe, in this text, it’s very plain that the cleansing of verse 26 by water is resulting from the self-sacrifice of the husband in verse 25.

Ezekiel’s Picture of God’s Marriage to His People

Now, let me close by taking you to a text. If you’d like to turn there with me, I think you will probably mark it in your Bible and go back to it many times: Ezekiel. Ever read Ezekiel recently? It’s in the Old Testament: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel — three big prophets. You can probably flop your Bible open and spot one of them. Turn to Ezekiel 16 with me. This is probably the kind of text that the man in Brooklyn Park is using to try to get the Bible out of the schools. You know about that situation? He says it’s a lewd and obscene, risqué, violent, and so on. All of which is a half-truth. Now, this text here is a very gory and a very beautiful picture of God’s marriage to Israel. I believe God wants us to hear it this morning as a foreshadowing of Jesus marriage to the church. I’m going to do half of it this morning and the other half tonight.

Briefly, I want you to have this ringing in your ears as you leave. I’m going to start with Ezekiel 16:3. Picture this, now. This is God’s marriage to Israel.

Your origin and your birth are of the land of the Canaanites; your father was an Amorite and your mother a Hittite. And as for your birth, on the day you were born your cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to cleanse you, nor rubbed with salt, nor wrapped in swaddling cloths. No eye pitied you, to do any of these things to you out of compassion for you, but you were cast out on the open field, for you were abhorred, on the day that you were born.

You’ve got this virtually aborted baby placenta and all just thrown in the field in a bloody heap.

And when I passed by you and saw you wallowing in your blood, I said to you in your blood, “Live!” I said to you in your blood, “Live!”

Sound familiar to what we’ve been saying? This is his wife.

I made you flourish like a plant of the field. And you grew up and became tall and arrived at full adornment. Your breasts were formed, and your hair had grown; yet you were naked and bare.

When I passed by you again and saw you, behold, you were at the age for love, and I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your nakedness; I made my vow to you and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Lord God, and you became mine. Then I bathed you with water and washed off your blood from you and anointed you with oil.” (Ezekiel 16:3–9)

That’s what it means for Jesus to marry the church. That’s a beautiful picture of what happened when Jesus married the church. She’s cast out. She’s bloody. She’s dirty. She’s as good as dead. Son of God walks by and he says, “At last! I found her! I found her! My beloved! My wife!” Can you imagine? “Live, fetus! Live!” Then he walks away, and he comes back when she’s ripe for love. She’s beautiful. She’s well-formed. She’s naked, and she is ready for love, and he marries her, and he washes her, and he covenants with her — never to turn away from doing her good.