Last night I had to chance to preach on one of my favorite topics - the church. I love talking about the church. This past semester I've spent a lot of time critiquing the church: on my blog, in my ACG and interacting with the reading I'm doing for class. That critique is born out of a deep and abiding love for the church. My love for the church, however, pales in comparison to Christ's love for the church.
When you turn to the NT the inspired authors speak often about the church. Obviously there are extended sections of didactic material on the nature of the church, the structure of the church, etc. But what I'm repeatedly drawn to is the powerful images the authors use to describe the church - word pictures that tap into the imagination and through the imagination the affections. Of these, I find the image of the church as Christ's bride to be particularly powerful.
I'm not very good at coming up with sermon illustrations. They're usually pretty pedestrian. God is at a definite advantage here, because he can create illustrations to help us understand important truths. That's just what he did to illustrate how much he loves the church, he created marriage. Marriage was designed by God to illustrate Christ's love and commitment to his people. Paul draws on this illustration in Eph. 5:25-32, but he isn't alone in making the connection. The prophet Hosea, at God's direction, makes this connection also. Israel (the church in the OT) is God's unfaithful bride; God is the forgiving, faithful, ever loving husband. The apostle John makes the connection also, raising our hopes of the glorious return of Christ, the bridegroom, and of the consummation of the marriage and celebration at the wedding feast (Rev. 19:6-9; Rev. 21: 2, 9; Rev. 22:17).
Is there also a reference to Christ and the church in the Song of Solomon? There's been a lot of debate about that. Early in the history of the church the fathers drew upon this as an extended metaphor (allegory) for the intimate relationship between Christ and his Bride. The Reformers did also. However, most modern scholars do not think that is the point of the Song of Songs. The point is more earthly than that - to celebrate the God given gift of romance, love and sexuality.
Which is it, an allegory or a poem about earthly love between a man (Solomon or a shepherd boy - various interpretations have been offered) and a Shulammite woman? I think Dr. Magary's insight from the OT Seminar is important. If this book was intended to be a metaphor/allegory for Christ and the church, one of the NT authors got it. Not once is it mentioned, and the NT authors are good at picking up OT themes and tying the Christ.
However, I don't think we're forced to chose. I believe the poem is a celebration of love, romance and even sex between a man and a woman. I think we should read it as such, not shying away from the joy the poem depicts in sensual love. On the other hand, the NT authors are quick to point out that marriage, in all its elements including the 'one fleshness' of sex, is meant to point us to a deeper appreciation of the love of Christ for his church and the intimacy that is to be enjoyed between the bride and the bridegroom. As the ESV Study Bible comments, "showing the pure and passionate love of the man and the woman in the story—can also enable believers to appreciate more deeply the intensity of the spiritual love-relationship between God and his people."
I'm not a fan of Joshua Harris' writing, but I really like this section in Stop Dating the Church!: Fall in Love with the Family of God:
"If Jesus loves the church, you and I should, too. We can't use the excuse that the church has messed up too many times or that we're disillusioned. Jesus is the only person who has the right to disown and give up on the church. But He never has. And He never will.
I met a man who had been married over twenty-five years. As he told me about himself and his family, he reached for his wallet. 'Let me show you a picture of my bride,' he said excitedly. I half expected to see a worn photo of his wife from their wedding day. Instead, he handed me a recent picture of his wife, now in her fifties. I smiled in admiration. This man's obvious love for his wife was inspiring. She wasn't 'the old lady' to him. Even the term wife didn't express all that was in his heart. After a quarter century of life together, she was still his bride. She still had his heart, his passion, and his affection.
The Bible tells us that Jesus has a similar and even greater affection for us, His Church. Despite all our missteps, sin, and imperfections, Christ's love for His Church hasn't changed over time. John Stott writes:
'On earth she 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,' holy and without blemish, beautiful and glorious. It is to this constructive end that Christ has been working and is continuing to work. The bride does not make herself presentable; it is the bridegroom who labours to beautify her in order to present her to himself.'
Jesus it work every day making us beautiful. He chose us before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:4-6). He had us in mind as He hung dying on the cross. So many days have passed since then. But His passion hasn't diminished.
Jesus still calls us His bride.