Husbands, love your wives, Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.
The New Testament depicts God’s relationship to his followers as a bridegroom to his bride. For example, the book of Revelation depicts the reunion between Jesus and his followers at the end of the age as a wedding feast. John the Apostle beams us to the scene of a roaring multitude shouting,
“Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.” (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of God’s holy people.) Then the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!” (Revelation 19:7-9)
God intended marriage to mirror our union with him. Even though we can experience incredible intimacy and love through friendship, marriage allows us to fuse ourselves spiritually to another person (Ephesians 5:31-32). Collective societies tend to view the bride of Christ metaphor as a corporate identity; whereas cultures that prize individualism typically personalize it. They see this metaphor as a picture of intimacy believers enjoy with God. Yet, Scripture applies this metaphor to the church as a whole and to individual believers. We will examine it from both angles.
Our View of the Church
Each time the New Testament drapes the bride of Christ metaphor onto the church, it speaks of the church’s purity. For example, the Apostle Paul pictures himself as the Corinthian church’s father, offering his daughter to God as Christ’s bride. “I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him” (2 Corinthians 11:2).
Yet, what God wants us to envision can be difficult to see. “On earth,” John Stott muses, “[the church] is often in rags and tatters, stained and ugly, despised and persecuted. But one day she will be seen for what she is, nothing less than the bride of Christ, ‘free from spots, wrinkles or any other disfigurement.’” But John Stott pictures the church’s radiant appearance in the future, at the wedding banquet of the Lamb. The New Testament tells us we don’t have to stare at our watch for Christ’s return before viewing the church as blameless. Paul reminds the Colossian believers that “[Christ] reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach” (Colossians 1:22). At this moment, God views us as his unblemished bride.
It’s often difficult to see the church the way God sees it. It’s easy to fixate on the church’s blemishes and view it with disdain. I once heard Christian author, Jim Putman, give an illustration that highlighted the problem with holding the church in contempt. As a brand-new Christian, Putman told his dad that he wanted to follow Christ but didn’t want to have anything to do with the church.
A few weeks later, his dad called him and said, “Hey Jim, I want to get some advice. A family in the church invited me over for dinner, but they didn’t invite mom. I don’t think they like mom.”
Furious, Putman said, “I get why they don’t like you. But mom?”
“What should I do?” his dad asked.
Putman answered, “There’s no way. They can’t invite you and not invite mom. That’s just not right.”
His dad paused.
According to Putman, anytime his dad paused like this meant something just happened. His dad said, “Jim, that’s how Jesus feels about his bride, the church. You can’t say you love Jesus, but not his bride.” In the same way, you can’t love God and reject his bride.
His dad explained further, “The bride doesn’t always look beautiful. She’s a work in progress and you should see your part in that.”
If you choose to focus on the broken stuff in the church, you will find plenty of problems. But God wants us to love his bride, the church.
We can also take the marriage metaphor and apply it to our personal interactions with God. In our culture, an array of mental images fill our heads when we hear the word “marriage.” Some of us connect marriage with scenes of mom and dad raising their voices at each other. For others, marriage stirs up images of our parents living parallel lives. Despite some of the poor examples we’ve seen, God designed marriage to provide unequaled closeness with another person.
Nearly all of us, however, remember a few close friendships from childhood. We never felt the instinct to choke back tears while sharing painful feelings with these friends. We spoke freely and with brutal honestly. Most of us enjoyed this level of closeness until we entered high school and started developing protective layers.
Marriage takes this level of closeness, intertwines two people’s lives together and adds sexual intimacy. That’s why God describes marriage as the two becoming “one flesh” (Genesis 2:24; Matthew 19:5). Nothing describes intimacy more than two uniting and becoming one. In the same way, our faith in Christ binds us together with God. The Spirit of God unites us to Christ the moment we invite Christ into our lives. This explains why God views giving in to the world’s overtures as a form of spiritual adultery (James 4:4).
Our union with Christ gives us unlimited access to God. The author of Hebrews describes the type of intimacy available to us as Christ’s bride.
Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. (Hebrews 10:19-22)
We can turn to God at any time, with any request, without shame. God delights in us sharing our victories, expressing our gratitude and voicing our appreciation for him. He also encourages us to speak honestly about our fears, doubts, anxieties, even our anger.
The Psalms provide us with uncomfortable examples of people expressing their emotions to God. The psalmists furnish us with their raw, unedited prayers. At times, the way they speak to the Lord borders on irreverence. Yet, our Heavenly Father included these psalms in Scripture to give us a pattern for pouring out our heart to him.
God delights in us drawing near to him. He not only desires for us to fix our minds on the profound truths contained in Scripture, he yearns for us to connect with him emotionally. Now we shouldn’t feel alarmed if we go through stretches where we aren’t overcome with emotion each time we enter God’s presence.
Recently, I was talking to a Christian friend who expressed feeling discouraged by his inability to connect emotionally with God. He was newly married. So, I said to him, “You have been married to your wife for a couple months. You feel happy with your marriage. And yet, you don’t feel enraptured by every interaction with your wife. All of your interactions take place within the context of love. When you ask about her day at work or when you share a funny story you heard, all of these interactions count toward building closeness with your wife.” In the same way, not every encounter with God will leave your face shining like the sun. Yet, these brief interactions add up over time.
Lord, I feel overwhelmed by the love you show me and your church. I look in the mirror and see nothing worthy of your love. But your son Jesus’ blood washed me clean and transformed the church into a radiant bride.
I earnestly pray you will help me see the church as you see her –as your beloved bride. I pray you would increase my love for the church, to match the love you have for the church.
I pray that you would teach me to develop a close relationship with you. I desire to possess the intimacy Jesus enjoyed with you while he was on earth. Finally, help me to resist the world system’s attempts to seduce me away from my affection to Christ.
 John R. W. Stott, God’s New Society: The Message of Ephesians. The Bible Speaks Today. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1979), 228.