Love the Church like Christ
At a time when so many pastoral failures, missteps, and sins are displayed for public display, it’s easy to let our warmth toward the church grow cold. Through a scrutinizing lens, many look at the church with suspicion and amazement that anyone wants to be part of such a dysfunctional family. Sometimes the church can seem anything but beautiful.
Does Jesus look at the church with the same scowl?
‘You are beautiful’
John Gill, an 18th-century English Baptist minister, helps us answer this question by turning our attention away from our introspection to the words of the bridegroom in Song of Songs 1:15: “Beautiful art thou, my love; see, you are beautiful. Interpreting the Song of Songs as an allegorical representation of an exchange between Christ and his consort, the church, Gill writes: “These are the words of Christ, praising the beauty of the church, expressing his great affection for her; of its accuracy and its beauty” (An exhibition of the Book of Songs of Solomon, 57). Jesus sees his bride through a lens of love, not disdain; beauty, not disgust.
“Jesus sees his bride through a lens of love, not disdain; beauty, not disgust.
How can beautiful to be the adjective Jesus uses to describe the church? After all, it is made up of sinners – forgiven sinners, but still sinners. She is plagued by division, besieged by scandal, and at times seems to have lost her first love. Even the apostle Paul reminds us that only at the end of time will she be found “without spot or wrinkle or the like” (Ephesians 5:27). What does Jesus see in his bride that would make him exclaim, “You are beautiful, my love”?
1. The beauty of his father
God’s beauty is most radiantly expressed through the biblical concept of glory. Moses knew this glory when God passed by him, revealing only the afterglow of his splendor (Exodus 33:12-23). When the glory of God engulfed the temple, the priests were unable to perform their worship service (2 Chronicles 5:14). The prophet Isaiah was prostrate in the dust when he saw the glory of God radiating from his eternal throne (Isaiah 6:1-5). Jonathan Edwards, an 18th century clergyman-theologian, identified the beauty of God as the distinguishing characteristic of God himself: “God is God, and distinct from all other beings, and exalted above them, mainly by its divine beauty, which is infinitely diverse. of any other beauty” (The works of Jonathan Edwards, 2:298). The beauty of God does not derive from external sources but emanates directly from the perfection and holiness of his being.
The supreme expression of God’s beauty is his Son, Jesus Christ, who himself is the image and radiance of his Father (2 Corinthians 4:4; Colossians 1:15; Hebrews 1:3). Christ incarnate is God’s most vivid expression of His beautiful love to sinful creatures. The culmination of this love is to choose a bride for Christ so that she too can reflect the same beauty. Edwards believed that this bride, the church,
is the great end of all the great things that have been done since the beginning of the world; it is for the Son of God to obtain his chosen spouse that the world was created. . . and that he came into the world. . . and when that end is fully achieved, the world will end. (Unpublished sermon on Revelation 22:16-17)
The church is a gift from God to his Son as a beautiful expression of divine love “so that the mutual joys between this spouse may be the end of creation” (works, 13:374). Therefore, as the Son reflects his Father, the church, as the eternal bride, reflects the Son.
When Christ looks at his bride and exclaims that she is beautiful, he sees the reflection of the eternal beauty and infinite love of his Father, who has chosen and saves this bride and gives her as a gift to his Son. Since Christ’s ascension to the right hand of God, there is now no more shining example of God’s perfect beauty in the world than his church.
2. The sufficiency of his cross
Jesus sees no intrinsic beauty emitted by the church, because it has no beauty outside of him. He looks at the church through the blood, his blood. As if gazing through the varied luminous colors of a stained glass window, Jesus gazes upon the church through the multifaceted wonder of redemption – blood, election, justice, forgiveness, regeneration, justification, union and grace. It is only in union with his perfect substitute sacrifice on the cross and his glorious triumphant resurrection that filthy sinners are made white as snow (Psalm 51:7). Because of our sin, what God requires of us is fully paid for by our husband on the cross.
“Because of our union with Christ, God’s love for his Son now includes the love of his Son’s bride.”
With all its dripping blood, lacerated flesh and stench of death, the cross becomes the epicenter of cleansing for sinners, where Christ gazes lovingly at his beloved bride and declares, “My love, you are beautiful. Reflecting on the sufficiency of the cross, Edwards writes, “Christ loves the elect with so great and strong a love, they are so near to him, that God regards them as parts of him” (works, 14:403). Because of our union with Christ, God’s love for his Son now includes the love of his Son’s bride. When Christ exclaims that his bride is beautifulhe does so through the prism of the sufficiency of his cross and makes the Church the only recipient of the love that flows ceaselessly between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
3. Fulfillment of its mission
The New Testament is unequivocally clear that God has commissioned his church to be the primary agency for proclaiming the gospel of Christ. This commission in Matthew 28:18-20 stands as the pinnacle of the mission of the church for all future generations. Beginning in Jerusalem, the disciples understood this mission with vital urgency and launched the beautiful good news of Christ throughout the earth (Acts 1:8). No church has the freedom to change, modify, add or subtract the good news of Jesus Christ – we are called to announce it to the nations, because there is nothing more beautiful and more charming in the eyes of Christ as the Holy Spirit regenerating, calling and transferring sinners from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light.
All evangelism and mission efforts are fueled by the assurance that Christ is enthroned as head of his church and has promised to redeem men and women from “every kindred, tongue, people, and nation” (Revelation 5: 8-9).
This assurance prompted the Genevan reformer John Calvin to write to the king when evangelistic efforts were harshly suppressed in his homeland, France:
Our doctrine must dominate unconquered all the glory and above all the power of the world, because it does not come from us, but from the living God and from his Christ whom the Father has appointed to “reign from sea to sea. and rivers to the ends of the earth (Psalm 72:8). (Preliminary address at Institutes of the Christian religion)
Calvin reminds the church that the gospel “is not of us”, but comes from God. Entrusting his church with the task of proclaiming the gospel, God has chosen it to be an honored vessel to house and spread his glorious treasure (2 Corinthians 4:7). When Christ gazes upon the church, he sees the voice, the hands, the feet, and the heart of the gospel message to save sinners.
The bride is welcome
Jesus is not lamenting the church he saved or looking for another to capture his attention. Christ welcomes the church as his beautiful treasure and his joy. The church is not just about organization, leadership, function and vision. Jesus sees more. His gaze reveals the beauty of our Father, the sufficiency of his cross and the accomplishment of his mission in the world. He sees sinners being saved, redeemed and made new.
The bride now awaits and watches for the appearance of our bridegroom, when he will “welcome” us for all eternity to bask us in the glory of his eternal presence (2 Timothy 4:8). Until then, Jesus asks us to join him in contemplating his bride and exclaiming from her: “Behold, you are beautiful!” (Song of Songs 1:15).