The Church We LoveErwin W. Lutzer | November 12, 2006
Selected highlights from this sermon
God has called a people to Himself. Believers all over the world form Christ’s bride. This is the plan of God, and He chose us at great cost—the death of His Son. We weren’t much to look at either; we were rebellious and sinful people mired in addiction, shame, and guilt.
But God loves us, so He cleanses us, and Jesus is preparing us for a great wedding. Soon, we will be with our Groom forever—sanctified and dressed for the occasion.
The church we love. When I mention the word church, what comes to your mind? You say “well, a building – we are going to the church.” Or maybe it is not a building, but a body of people called the church. The members are the body. But, there is also such a thing as the universal church. I don’t believe in universalism, but the universal church is all believers in all countries no matter what their nationality. It doesn’t matter what style of worship they have, what matters is that they have all trusted Jesus Christ as their savior. As a matter of fact, if we use the word church that way, we are not only talking about people who are now alive. We are also talking about the church that has died - the believers who have gone to heaven. It used to be years ago that there was always a cemetery around churches. And the reason for that was a theological expression found in the third chapter of Ephesians. The apostle Paul says that there is a family in heaven and on earth, but there is just one family. The idea was that the church would be unified by forcing people who go into the present church to walk past the “alumni association” before they get to the undergraduates. Why, because the church is one. And that is the way I am using the word church in this message. Although I will be talking about us because we are a part of that larger group called the universal church, or the church universal – a better way to put it. Now what I’m going to do in the next 25 minutes with God’s help is to take you from point A to point B. We are going to talk about the church in eternity past and in eternity future. We are going to see the whole panorama of God’s purpose in the church right from eternity past to eternity future, all in 25 minutes. Are you ready?
The text today is Ephesians chapter 5. I want you to turn to it because it becomes essential in what we are doing here. In Ephesians chapter 5 the Bible tells us “husbands love your wives as Christ loved the church.” Jesus loves the church. So, if you do not love the church, you do not love what Jesus loves. Many of us love the things that Jesus Christ hates and we don’t love what Jesus loves. We should love the church with a love that is implanted in our hearts by God. It says in chapter 5 verse 25, “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 may present the church to Himself in splendor without spot or wrinkle that she may be holy and without blemish.”
Well are you ready for the tour from eternity past to eternity future? Let’s begin. The origin of the church - where did it really begin? It began in the mind of God in eternity past. Your Bibles are open to Ephesians chapter 5. Look at what it says in chapter 1 verse 4. “Even as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world that we should be holy and blameless before Him in love.” Before the foundation of the world God chose us to be His. Now, in order to understand what is going on here in the text and what God’s intention is – keep in mind that when Adam was created, the Bible says there was no helpmeet found for him. It was not good for man to be alone. And so God sought a bride for Adam. And that bride who was Eve, was supposed to sit with him and not only meet his needs, but was supposed to rule with him over all of creation. God says let them rule over the fish of the sea and the fowl of the air. They were to sit together on the throne of the world and rule all of creation together. That was God’s intention. In the very same way, what God did was seek a bride for His Son, the Lord Jesus. Now the trinity in eternity past was perfectly content with itself because of its love and communication. But, the decision was made that the attributes of God could be seen more clearly if there was a creation, and if the Son (Jesus Christ) had a bride who could sit with Him on the throne of the entire universe and rule with Him. So, the whole intention of God right from eternity past is that Jesus Christ, the Son of God would have a bride to marry and rule with for all of eternity.
Do you realize that if you are a believer in Jesus Christ, you are in God’s mind as long as God has existed from eternity past. When did God show you grace? You say, “Well God showed me grace when I was redeemed and saved.” Yes, but is says in 2 Timothy 1:9 that the grace of God was shown to us and given to us from all eternity. God was already giving you grace before you were born, and before you needed it. God had you in mind. A bride for His son is now the purpose of creation. The fall and the redemption of humanity and the dying of Jesus so that He could purchase for Himself a bride, is now going to be the focal point of all that God is up to. Good Friday and Easter resurrection Sunday is now going to be the basis upon which all the purposes of God are going to come together. Because God says, “I want my son to have a bride to rule with Him over the throne of the universe.” That is what God is going to pursue. By the way, isn’t it wonderful that God knew you from eternity past, and you were already in His mind as long as He existed? One day my wife and I were driving along with an older couple. They showed us their cemetery plots. By the way, I think it is good to buy cemetery plots because the statistics on death are very impressive. She said this, “I wonder if God will remember where we are buried?” Now if you are a Jones or Smith, He might get you confused. God will remember; the Bible says He calls His own sheep by name. When you arrive in heaven, he will remember your name and get it right. He’ll know how to pronounce it – that is how precious you are to God.
Well, that is the origin of the church in eternity past. But what about the cost of the church, how much? Notice the text, we are in Ephesians 5. It says, “He gave Himself up for her.” Wow. He gave himself up for her. In order for Jesus to have this bride, he was going to have to purchase her. The Bible says we were not redeemed with corruptible things like silver and gold, but with the precious blood of Jesus Christ. He went into the slave market and looked at someone who had the background of a harlot, and decided that he would purchase her, and clean her up, and sanctify her, and marry her. He did all this so that she could sit on the throne with Him for all of eternity. That was God’s plan. So the Bible says that Jesus died for us. That is how much He loved the church. How much does He love the church? He loves the church so that He might DIE for the church. And by the way, husbands (although I am not speaking to you specifically today, and I am a husband too) the Bible says love your wives as Christ loved the church. Wow. The cost of the church is the death of Jesus Christ. Can we take lightly the fact that God was willing to go through all of that, so that His son would have a bride to sit with Him on the heavenly throne? Isn’t that truly amazing? That is the cost of the church.
What about the condition of the church? Well, He found her when she was in a lot of sin – let’s just put it that way. I already implied that the imagery is that of Him purchasing a harlot, but sexual sin is not the only kind of sin in the world, there are lots of other sins. And if we could have a testimony meeting today, we could hear that Jesus redeemed some of you out of alcoholism, some of you out of a life of deep shame because of the way you were treated, or the things you have done bringing deep shame. And, that is how God found us. He found us as sinners. Yesterday I was in a taxi cab, and I was trying to convince my driver that he needed a savior. He said, well I asked God to forgive me, but I don’t have that many sins. Is there anyone here today who doesn’t have that many sins? Well, if you define sin as killing your mother, or robbing a bank, then maybe he doesn’t have that many sins. But, how about selfishness being a sin? How about the fact that the first commandment is to love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy mind, with all thy soul, and with all thy strength? Are you doing that? That is just the first commandment; let’s not even get to number two. He found us in a lot of sin. Isn’t it ok to frankly admit that we are messed up people? I have a friend who said to a relative, “I’m going to be a pastor of a church,” and he named the church. And she was very upset and said, “I think the church is full of vipers!” He said, “Well, do you think the world is any better?” And she had to admit that the world was not any better. So he said, “here is the difference: we know that we are vipers, so we know that we need a savior – we need God’s grace. And, that is what makes us different from the world.”
So, how did God find us? He found us in sin, and what does He do? Well, He decided that He certainly couldn’t marry her the way she is now, because she has to be a perfectly pure bride. So he decided to work with her, and bring her to Himself someday – without spot, without moral blemish, without wrinkle or decay, she has to be perfectly pure and holy. In fact, He will not marry her unless she is as holy as God Himself is holy. So God began the process. He begins the process in this life by the washing of the water with His Word. (you will notice this in the last part of verse 26-27) So, he might present the church to Himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish - just like Jesus. That is God’s agenda. The church is not ready to be married yet, she is engaged, but she is not ready yet. But, the day is coming when this bride is going to be married, and God’s son is going to has someone to sit with Him on the throne. That is where things are going. And someday we are going to be so holy, and so without blemish; we will be as pure as Jesus with no mixed motives. So, in heaven if someone is promoted above you, (and some will be above you, no doubt because of faithfulness here on earth - others will be lower because of lack of faithfulness) our desires will be so pure that we will rejoice with those who are exalted above us, as if their exaltation was our own. By the way, our time here on earth is a testing ground for how much God can entrust to us in heaven. In heaven we will be totally free of wrinkle, blemish, and spot, and any such thing – the Bible says we will be completely holy.
That is the condition of the church. Now, let’s see the wedding. Turn to the 19th chapter of the book of Revelation. In verse 6 it says, “Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out, ‘Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready.’” Wow. It is time for the wedding, folks. Now we’re in heaven, and we are ready. We have been declared as pure as Jesus. The rapture has happened, and we have resurrection bodies. A number of things happened to bring us to this place. First of all, we accepted Jesus Christ as our savior. We stopped trusting ourselves, and started trusting Him alone. In fact, listening to me today there may be those of you who have never made that transfer of trust. Maybe you think you have, but part of the ministry of a pastor is the “re-conversion” of church members who were never genuinely saved. So have you trusted Him? Then we were declared righteous as Christ is. Then we were judged at the Judgment seat of Christ. This is only for Christians, and all issues on earth are dealt with. For example, a husband walks away from his wife and does terrible things – and they were both Christians. Does God say, “don’t worry about it, I’ll just let it go?” No, everything will be adjudicated, and justice will be brought to all situations at this place. The righteousness of Jesus Christ is then finally and totally applied, and our desires are finally pure, holy, and righteous, because sin is gone. The Bride is ready because the Groom took us out of the pit of sin and cleaned us up, and has been purifying us throughout all our lives. He completely purifies us at the judgment seat, and now it is time for the wedding. At most weddings, the emphasis is on the bride. Understandably, in this wedding the groom receives the most attention. You will notice it says in verse 7, “Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come.” Let us at that moment give Him glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come! Are you going to be excited to give Jesus glory someday? What wretches that we are, being brought out of the pit.
Now, on to the wedding. In ancient culture, the bride and groom sometimes didn’t meet until their wedding day. We have not seen Jesus, and yet the Bible says that having not seen Him, we love Him. But at that time we will love Him even more intensely, because we will be there and we will actually see Him. But there is something else that needs to happen. You need something to wear because it is the wedding feast! You have the righteousness of Christ which has brought you there, but what are you going to put on for the wedding? Let’s read about it. In verse 8 it says, “it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure – for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.” When you arrive at the wedding of Jesus, as the bride, what you wear is a gown of your own making. The righteousness of Jesus Christ gets you there, but when you are dressed for the wedding, it is your righteous deeds that you wear. This is not the righteousness of Christ - notice it says, the righteous deeds (plural) of the saints (plural). You make your own clothes while you are here on earth. Now can you imagine how some people are going to be terribly, terribly underdressed? I can only remember once in my life when I can remember fretting over being underdressed. I thought this event was casual, but everyone else was wearing formal clothes. My wife would tell you that she wished I would fret about it more often. Have you ever showed up somewhere and realized that you were very underdressed? You feel very silly. However, there are some people who are more concerned about showing up in church properly dressed, than showing up at the marriage feast properly dressed. Notice these garments are of our own making; we are weaving garments - that is what we are doing. You are teaching Sunday school, you are mentoring children, you are working with young people, you are giving to missionaries, you are giving to the church, and what is the purpose for these things? You are making garments so that you won’t show up under-clothed at the marriage supper.
Here are a few observations about the wedding. First, there is only one bride – one church. Isn’t that beautiful? He does not marry many groups of people and say, “you’re my bride, you’re my bride…” Jesus is not an adulterer; He will have only one bride. The chosen from every nation, tongue, and people from all the world will come together to be one beautiful bride for Christ. Jesus has promised that we will sit with Him on the throne and rule with him as His bride. The engagement period is over, the marriage supper has now come, and we will be together in marriage for all of eternity – and that, my friends, is a long time.
There is but one church. Although there may be some who differ theologically, that which unites us as a body of Christ is stronger than that which divides us. So we need to minimize our differences, and accentuate the unity of those who trust Christ as their savior. Everyone is invited to the marriage supper, but the bride of Christ is only those who have accepted the invitation and are in Christ.
Secondly, the church is very costly. Jesus died so that He might present to Himself the church, so that He could marry her. He cleaned her up from the gutter, and declared her to be totally pure and then will marry her. He did so rationally, morally, legally, and in every way. Think of how much it meant to Jesus to die for us. How do you think God and Jesus feel about people who take their commitment to their local church so casually? If you were going to meet the president of the United States, you would be there an hour ahead of time! And yet some people are late every single Sunday to our church. Think about the fact that we live in an era that has widespread commitment-phobia! People don’t want to be committed to anything. They say, “I’ll attend church if it is good, and if I like the sermon and music I’ll be there. I won’t commit; I will just stay at a distance and do what is right for me and include the church when it seems to fit.” These people don’t give regularly, they “date” the church and never really commit. There is no consistency; and treasures, time, and talents are treated so casually. When there are children who need to be mentored, when opportunities come to sew our garments, those who are uncommitted miss the chance to participate. These are the times sew your garment with righteous deeds! You might say, “Well, none of my deeds are righteous.” That is correct theology. Here is what happens – God takes our sinful deeds, and through Christ they are made righteous. So, in spite of the mixed motives we have here on earth, when we get to heaven the eyes of God see these deeds as righteous because we are purified through Christ. Our commitment to one another and to the church matters to God. Someone has written: the church community is where we learn to love God and others, where we are strengthened and transformed by truth from the Word, where we are taught to pray, worship, and serve, where we can be most certain that we are investing our time and abilities for eternity, where we can grow in our roles as friends, sons and daughters, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers…the church is earth’s single best place designed by God as a place to start over, to grow, and to change for the glory of God. This is the church that God loves, and you and I should love it too.
Ravi Zacharias told an interesting story about when he was in Thailand, he picked up a newspaper and found a story about a boy with Down’s Syndrome who had learned to weave cloths in a way that was so artistic, that his cloths were being sold. Ravi was so impressed with the article that he tracked down the boy and visited him and his mother. What Ravi discovered is that this boy who was taught to weave and has artistic talent, when his first cloth was sold he was so excited that he began to sell others. So far he has sold 61 of his cloths to people. When he gets paid, this boy (whom in God’s eyes has no limits) takes his money and gives it to his mother. The boys said, “I want mother to have all of it because if it were not for mother, I would not be able to do this.” You see, we are weaving garments. Maybe they are not too artistic, but Jesus said “through my church I have eyes that can see human need, through my church I have feet that can go to places in need, through my church I have the opportunity to speak words of comfort and hope, the church represents me on earth – this is my body, and as they go into neighborhoods and communities, and as they pray and give and commit, that is my work that they are doing.” And that is the way we weave our cloths that we will wear to the wedding feast. Your works are incredibly important. As evangelicals, we stress that salvation has nothing to do with works because it is a gift. Sometimes people think that they can get saved and then just drift along and “pop in” and “pop out.” But, God is watching. He keeps track even of a cup of cold water given to someone in need in the name of Jesus.
What do we do? Exactly what the boy with Down’s Syndrome did. When we are standing there at the wedding feast clothed in white linens made clean by Jesus, we take whatever crowns have been given to us by Jesus and the opportunity to be His, and we cast those crowns at His feet and give Him all of the glory and praise. We say, if it wasn’t for Jesus, I wouldn’t be here. I would still be in the gutter; I would be somewhere else. But you might say, I don’t love the church because it is imperfect and I was hurt by the church. If you were hurt by us, come and tell us so we can apologize. We are sorry. The church is imperfect, but Jesus loved the church while it was very imperfect. Why don’t you and I love the church? He loved us before we were redeemed, and He has loved us since then and will love us throughout all of eternity. So what keeps us from committing, and loving, and giving, and becoming a part of something that means so much to God?
I conclude with these words of Scripture. It says, “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” Did you know that you don’t get an invitation after you are dead? You are invited here on earth, and you can accept the invitation while you are alive, but you cannot change course after you are dead. It is in this life where those decisions are made. This is why I end by urging those who have never trusted Christ as savior and never believed on Him, to turn from your sins and trust in Christ alone. Then you can join us at the wedding. After you have received Christ, your good deeds are being woven and will turn out to be linen – white and clean.
Let’s pray. Father, we thank you today that you love the church; may we love it too. May we cease our criticism and critical spirit because we are all filled with faults. May we cease from allowing experiences to keep us from wholehearted commitment. And we ask that we would learn to love this church as much as you love the church. That we would love your people as you do, and that those who are husbands would love their wives as you love us. We ask that you would transform us. Before I close this prayer, have you trusted Christ as your savior? Are you sure you are going to be at the wedding feast? What you must do is say, Jesus I am a sinner – you died for sinners and I accept your death as my substitute. Would you tell Him that? Thank you Father for your mercy toward us. In Jesus name, Amen.