The mystery of the church is indeed great. In leading up to this statement about Christ and the church, Paul quotes something that God said and which dates back to the dawn of time. Interestingly, what he quotes has to do with the marriage of a man and a woman:
“For this reason, a man shall leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife; and the two shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24 NAS). It is after Paul says this that he continues: “This mystery is great, but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church.”
In what way is this statement from the time of creation to be understood to be a commentary on the church? What does Paul mean to say when he tells us that when God gave these early instructions for the marriage of a man and a woman, God also meant the words to have an application between Christ and the church? How are the two similar? These are questions that we must ask.
Despite all that we know or think that we know about the church, the greater part remains a mystery. What exactly is the church, and why has God so deeply involved himself with it?
Descriptions of the Church
The church is described in Scripture not only in terms of a man being united to his wife, but also in many other distinct and diverse ways. Some of these various illustrations that we have seem to clarify many of the aspects of the church, but in other ways, the more the church is explained to us, the more enigmatic it appears.
We also see the church being described in Scripture as the body of Christ. In fact, Scripture goes so far as to say that the church is “the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:23 NAS). In what ways is this true, and what aspects of the body does this statement mean to depict?
In addition to this, the church is described as the temple of God (1 Corinthians 3:17). How is it then, that we as the church are being “built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:22 NAS)?
Of some of these things we can understand a little. For instance, those who have been born again have been given the Holy Spirit as the promise of God. Those followers of Christ are, in a very real way, the physical presence of Christ on the earth today.
But of course, this does not imply that Christians have become divine, for we remain the creation of God. Knowing this, I myself would never dare to write that we, as the church, represent the “fullness of Him who fills all in all.” This seems overly positive. I have seen the way the church sometimes acts, and I know myself too well! Nevertheless, that is the description of the church given by the Apostle Paul.
As we begin to look at this mystery of the church, let us think a little about some of the illustrations given to us:
The Church as a Building
Paul also writes these words:
You are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the cornerstone. In Him the whole building is fitted together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord. And in Him you too are being built together into a dwelling place for God in His Spirit. (Ephesians 2:19-22 BSB)
Any building, when it is under construction, goes through many stages of completion. To a man walking by a construction site every day on his way to his office job, much of the work of constructing the building may seem senseless and even counterproductive. The process is confusing to him, because he does not have the vision of the architect and the builder, and he does not have in mind what the completed project is to be. However, if the construction company has placed a drawing on the fence of how the completed building is to look, much of the confusion will be eliminated.
This picture on the fence that the man looks at will not completely eliminate all of the confusion, because the man walking by does not have the technical knowledge to understand the necessity of each phase of the construction process. Nevertheless, even if the passerby is a layman, when he sees some of the work being done, he begins to see how it fits into the grand scheme.
This is what we see in the church today. Much of our misunderstanding of what God is doing today comes from a lack of vision of what God has in his mind for a completed church. If we were to see his completed plan, we would understand more.
So, to help us out a little, God has placed some drawings on the fence for us to see of what the completed church will look like. Certainly, these drawings do not answer all of our questions, but they do help. Nevertheless, since we lack the technical knowledge of the process, for us there will always be a sense of mystery.
A Building of People
In our thoughts of building and construction, when we think of the church, it is most natural to think of a physical structure apart from ourselves. Even so far in our discussion of the church as the temple of God, what comes first to mind for many is the building that stands two blocks down the road from their house.
However, it is more accurate to consider the people, rather than the building itself, as the church. That is why Paul says the verses just quoted that it is the believers that are being fitted together and growing into a holy temple in the Lord—a dwelling of God in the Spirit.
And it is because it is the people who are the church, rather than a literal building, that Paul writes some words to admonish one of the churches of his day who was struggling in living a righteous lifestyle: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?”
The question was posed by the Apostle Paul to the church of the city of Corinth. He continues, “For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20 NAS).
This is truly an astounding statement. Not only is the church likened to a building, but it is a building that is made up of individuals who are dedicated to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. It is in this way that the church becomes “the temple of the Holy Spirit.”
The Church as a Living Body
It is helpful, then, to speak of the church not simply as a building, but also as a living body. We tend to see a building as something made of cold, inanimate bricks and boards that are simply placed in the building in their correct location, but that have not, in and of themselves, taken any action or part in the construction.
In a typical building, a brick in one corner cannot know of the existence of a brick in the opposite corner, much less be aware of its physical soundness. What is more, if one of the bricks of the building begins to crumble, there is no way that the other parts of the building are able to compensate for the failing member. If the infirmity is grave enough, the entire building will simply collapse.
It is not so with a body. A body is an organism. The distinct parts of the body are alive, and they interact one with another. This ability to interact and to bring assistance and aid to others among us is one of the reasons that the church, in addition to being compared to a building, needs to be also compared to a living body, for that is what we are. This is another of the pictures that God has given to us to help us understand the building process.
For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all
baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. For the body is not one member, but many. (1 Corinthians 12:12-14 NAS)
Helping One Another
Unlike a building of brick, in a body, when one of the members of a body fails, the other members become aware of the failure and are able to go to great lengths to compensate for it. Actually, it is even more than simple compensation. It is cooperation and coordination.
My own two eyes are an example. My left eye is quite nearsighted. If I cover my right eye with my hand, objects in the distance become a blur. With both eyes open, however, my right eye compensates for the myopia in my left eye so that I can actually see quite well.
What is a little amazing to me however, is the way that my two eyes have learned to work together. They are more than just a sum of two separate and unequal parts. It is not simply the strong eye compensating for the weaker one. The fact is, both of my eyes are interrelated to one another.
Even though one might say that it is my right eye that is doing the work in seeing distant objects, it is interesting to me that when I cover my left eye, my distant vision is also affected. Logically, one might say that this should not be. One might say that my left eye is useless in seeing distant objects and that my right eye is doing the work. However, it is not so simple as that. My strong eye, in some way, is also dependent upon the weaker one.
“On the contrary,” we read, “it is much truer that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary” (1 Corinthians 12:22 NAS).
Growing in Understanding
This likeness of the body of Christ to our own physical bodies helps us in our understanding. As I have said, it is another picture placed on the fence of the construction site to help us to understand what it is that God is building. We may not be able to see into the depths of the meaning and clarity of the body of Christ, but we are at least able to come to a superficial understanding of this aspect of the church.
I believe that the more we come to understand, the more we will see the beauty of the body of Christ. It is somewhat like a physician who is intimately familiar with the inter-workings of the human body. Because the doctor better understands how the body is interrelated, he or she is in a better position to appreciate the beautiful design of our own physiology. This picture of the body begins also to help us to see what God is building.
Nevertheless, for many, all of this may sound more clinical than it does beautiful. The comparison of the body may help us to see how the church is to operate, but does it help us to see the glory and the fullness of Christ?
The Church as a Marriage
We have the analogy of a building and the analogy of a body in thinking about the church. These two examples clear up much misunderstanding, but they can never completely explain what the church is, or why God has invested so much of himself in it. There is much more to it. The relationship becomes more intimate. We return to the picture with which I opened this sermon.
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also 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, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she should be holy and blameless. (Ephesians 5:25-27 NAS)
We have usually interpreted these verses in light of how they refer to relationships within the family. Indeed, Paul is addressing this subject. Understandably, when we read these verses, we think primarily about our own relationships with our wives (if we are husbands) and ask ourselves probing questions about the depth of our love for our spouse. We compare our love with that of the love of Jesus for the church. We ask ourselves what it means to “give ourselves up” for our wife, or how are we to “sanctify” our wife.
These are all good and very important questions. However, for the moment I would like to focus not so much on the husband/wife part of the illustration, but to look instead on how Christ loves the church. If we can better understand the depth of this love of Christ, we should also come to have a greater love for the church.
Christ did give himself up for the church. In reading this, we undoubtedly first think about the sacrificial death of Christ on the cross, “the just for the unjust.” It was in this way that Christ could sanctify us—to set us apart from all others. It was this act on the cross of Calvary that provided the means to redeem his church out of the world.
However, this was not the first step in the redemption of the church. Paul pointed to another fact in the beginning of his letter to the Ephesians: “Just as He chose us before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him” (Ephesians 1:4 NAS).
This is not something that we can understand. We cannot understand how Christ could look ahead in time and see us before we even existed. From our perspective, we were created after the foundations of the world. Yet this verse tells us that it was before that time that Christ not only saw us, but when he also chose us.
The Perfected Bride
As astounding as that might seem to us, here is something even greater: Christ did not see us as we see ourselves today. We often see a church full of division and pride. We see a church who has prostituted herself with the world and has compromised at every turn. But Christ saw us holy and blameless. Paul uses this phrase twice in this letter to the Ephesians. He repeats himself: “…That He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she should be holy and blameless” (Ephesians 5:27 NAS).
How could Paul speak with such confidence? He also saw churches full of sin and failure. He could speak with confidence because he based his statement not on what he saw in any present circumstance, but because he knew the means through which Christ is purifying his church. “…That He might sanctify her,” Paul says, “having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word” (Ephesians 5:26 NAS).
It is the Word of God that will bring about the holiness of the church. A few sentences later (6:17), Paul again talks about the “word” (rhema) of God, which he calls the sword of the Spirit. This is part of the armor of God that is to be used against the schemes of the devil. It is this Word that is doing its work of sanctification in the church. It is this Word, the sword of the Spirit, which is the cleansing power for the body of Christ.
We do not always voice the same confidence in the church as did Paul. We instead often look at the failures in the churches. We also see how we, personally, have failed. We do not have the same confidence in the church, because we are looking to ourselves for the strength to cleanse ourselves. We are searching in the wrong place for strength. We underestimate the transforming power of the Word to sanctify the church.
The Church Presented in Perfection
Perhaps, if we would see a glimpse of what Christ intended for his church, our confidence would grow. Perhaps, even if we were not able to comprehend all of God’s intentions for the church, even a hint of this would encourage us to press on.
What God has in mind for the church goes beyond our comprehension, but nevertheless, he does give us little preview of what the church will be.
This glimpse is given to us in Ephesians 3:9-11. Here, the writer Paul speaks of a future day when the church will be presented in her perfection before “the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” Who these “rulers and authorities” are, we do not know. They are apparently other beings, created by God.
For instance, we know a little about the angels that God has created, but our knowledge of them is very limited. Quite honestly, there is much about the entire creation of God that we do not know. I do not think that this should trouble us, for if it were important for us to know (or even possible for us to understand it), God would have written to us about them.
However, in this passage we learn that these creatures also are waiting to see what God intends for the church. In the same way that we do not understand all that God has in mind for the church, evidently neither have these heavenly beings been able to understand.
In these verses of Ephesians, we learn that God means to reveal his vision to them, and that this revelation will be through what he has done by means of the church. It is from what these “rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” see in the glory of the church in that future day, that they will finally comprehend what they have not been able to understand for ages upon ages. These rulers and authorities have not been able to understand what God has been doing in the church, but in that day, they will finally see what Paul calls “the manifold wisdom of God.”
Paul says that God means, “To reveal the stewardship of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God, who created all things; so that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers as the authorities in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 3:9-10).
Did you catch that phrase—“The manifold wisdom of God?” This is wisdom that arises from many sources. It is a wisdom that will answer every question that we have ever had and which goes beyond questions that we even know to ask.
This is the mystery of the church. The church is not an ordinary organization like an historical society or even an association or club which is based on doing benevolent works. The true church is the very body of Christ, the temple of the Living God, the people of God, and the beloved bride of the Lamb of God. We may not understand much of this today, but one day the true meaning of all of these aspects of the church will be fully revealed.
This is the true Church. We are more than simply a group of people who try and sometimes fail to get along. We have a high calling.
As God has said: “I will dwell with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be My people…Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you.”
And: “I will be a Father to you, and you will be My sons and daughters,” says the Lord Almighty.
Therefore, beloved, since we have these promises, let us cleanse ourselves from everything that defiles body and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God. (2 Corinthians 6:16-18; 7:1 BSB)
This is what God will bring about in his church, and it is to this end that we dedicate our lives.