(Read Ephesians 5:22-33)
The verses in this section of Ephesians which are to be particularly before us this evening are the 25th to the 27th.
We have there the special relationship of the church to Christ — what it was originally, and what it is now, and what it will be when the purpose of God concerning it is fulfilled. And we see at once that in these verses a very remarkable and special character is assigned to the church, which is shown to be its peculiar possession by Christ Himself.
And when we consider these verses in the light of the Epistle as a whole they become still more remarkable, because, as you are all aware, the Epistle to the Ephesians speaks of the church as the vehicle through which God will display His glory in connection with the future government of the whole universe. The world now is a spoiled thing so far as man is concerned, and God knew from the beginning it would be so; but His overriding purpose was that the world, and everything connected with the world in both the heavenly and the earthly departments, should eventually be resplendent with His glory and become a credit to His Eternal Name. His purpose was that the world, and all in it, should be ultimately associated with His Son; His purpose was to head up all things in Christ, as we find in the first chapter. This was predestinated before the world was. It was all planned by God. The failure of man that is so broadly written in the scriptures was no surprise to God. He had His mystery, His secret; and this was that eventually Christ should rule righteously over all things, and God should be all in all.
The Church Called for Heavenly Glory
But there was a further thing, which is, if we may say so, still more astounding. When we think of God we are not surprised that He knows everything, that the end is as easily and constantly before Him as the beginning, but the wonder grows upon us when we learn from this Epistle that along with Christ in that place of supreme glory, when all things are consummated, will be a bride, an associate in that glory. And that associate in His reign, in His government, and in His glory, will be — not Israel, not the earthly people, not a people at all so far as this world is concerned — but the church of Christ, composed of those that are called out from the world of sinners; for this is what the word church means. They are called out by God, for His Son.
We see, therefore, that from the beginning God had the purpose that, directly His Son was crucified, rejected as the King of Israel, He would call out those who should be associated with Christ in His heavenly glory, and form the church. He called them even from the Jews themselves, those wicked people whose hands were red with the blood of their Messiah. He called them out from the Gentiles, those that had consorted with the Jews in the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus. And in His grace He made them first of all sufferers with Christ and that by-and-by they should be with Christ in glory and share His glory.
Since this high and heavenly calling is set out in the scriptures, we ought to enjoy the knowledge of it. If a person knows the tenor of his father's will, which will ultimately bring him into possession of vast estates and a powerful position in this world, that knowledge must influence his present conduct. It must be a comfort to him while he is waiting to enter into that position; and so the revelation of the future of the church is made known to us now that we may encourage our hearts amid our suffering by the knowledge of it. Do we find it so? Do we seek to understand what God's purpose is with regard to us when our pilgrim days are done?
This Epistle, of which we have now read a very small portion, is quite explicit with regard to the future destiny of the church. But there are some thoughts contained in these few verses to which I would draw your attention now. I do not refer to the exhortation to wives and husbands. That has its place, and will have its greatest effect upon those who are wives and husbands if they clearly understand the truth concerning Christ and the church.
Love in the Eternal Past
The apostle says, in the 25th verse, "Christ also loved the church, and gave Himself for it." Now, if you look very carefully at this passage, you will see that it contains a truth which sometimes escapes us through reading it casually, and not thinking carefully about it — "Christ loved the church" it says. Of course He loved the church, and we fully accept His great love for the church; but when did He love the church? Christ loved the church before He gave Himself for it; and so we have to go back a long way. We must go a long way beyond Calvary. We must go beyond Bethlehem's manger. We must go beyond the earliest record of the earth's history. We must go back to the volume of that book in which it is written, "Lo, I come to do Thy will, O God." The church was then before His eternal mind. Then He saw the church, and then He loved the church. Before we were, the great and deep, the divine affections of the Lord Jesus were concentrated upon the church: "Christ loved the church."
It was love to the church, therefore, as well, of course, as His love to the Father, that brought Him down. He saw the treasure in the field, and He sold all to acquire it. He saw the one pearl which was of great price, and He gave all to obtain it. But the purpose of love began when He saw it, and when did Christ see the church? Ah, long, long ages before we were, Christ's heart, Christ's eyes were upon us, and His love was upon His church. Oh, for hearts to appreciate the vastness of what is unveiled to our thoughts in this verse!
"Christ loved the church", and if He loved it so long ago, if He loved it when He died for her, does He not love her still, in spite of her broken and faithless condition? In spite of the sad spectacle upon the earth of the church in division and dissension and strife, anger and wrath prevailing where love and concord should reign? The affections of Christ do not change; and therefore we can rejoice in the unimpaired love of Christ for His church in the face of everything, every failure, every sin, attached to the church in her position in this world. The love of Christ remains the same.
This eternal love of Christ gives us to understand a little more clearly what was in our Lord's mind when He heard the confession of Peter, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God." He said, "Upon this rock I will build My church." It was His church then. He had it there before Him as His. The building has been going on for centuries, and it will go on until the last living stone is placed in the edifice. But He, the great Architect, Who had His plan before Him, His design in His mind, saw all the church complete in His beauty when He said, "I will build My church." He knew that Israel would turn away from Him; that the Jews would rise up against Him and crucify Him; but He declared, "will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it." His church will be displayed perfect and complete in the day of glory.
Well then, the love of the church was the prevailing motive in the heart of Christ, when He gave Himself up for it. Now, see what this statement involves. The Lord Jesus Christ does not here bring forward through the apostle the value of His sacrifice, that is to say, of the atonement that He made, of the propitiation for our sins that He accomplished at the cross. That is not the foremost thought in this verse, though included, but here it is the surrender of Himself and all that He was. He gave Himself up for the acquisition of the church. He gave Himself for it. As the Lord Jesus approached the hour which was before Him, He, and all that was in Him, was involved in what He was going to do for the deliverance of His church. He gave up, not merely His life, though that was true. He laid down His life; but we are to learn that He offered up His whole self.
And it was not a man doing this; it was not an Abraham, nor an Isaac; it was not Job nor Isaiah giving himself up; but it was the Son of God. You find the truth is put individually in the Epistle to the Galatians; "The Son of God, Who loved me", that is, the individual person, "and gave Himself up for me." There the great surrender is true for each one of us here tonight. We can take the fact for ourselves individually; but do let us also broaden our outlook, and think of the whole church, because "Christ loved the church, and gave Himself for it."
The Lord knows every one of those that are His; and it is a stupendous thought that our Lord Jesus Christ in those dark hours of suffering upon the cross had every one of His redeemed before His soul. There was a great load of guilt upon Him, but that aggregate load was made up of a great many, I might say, little loads; the load of my guilt, the load of your guilt. Each one of us was represented there, and the Lord suffered for each individual. But there is also the truth that we have here: the whole sum and substance of those that make up His church were before Him when the Son of God and Son of man gave Himself up for the assembly. Such was the tremendous, incomprehensible price that the Lord Jesus Christ paid for His church. So when we think of the self-sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ expressed most of all in His death, let us have these truths before our hearts; first of all, He gave Himself for me, and next, He gave Himself for all the church. All those composing the church were redeemed in the same manner and by the self-same loving sacrifice.
This then is the past event that is spoken of in connection with the church. We look back, and we can survey by faith the love of Christ, as we remember that He gave Himself up for His church.
In the 26th verse we have the purpose of Christ in this sacrificial surrender. There was an object in it. It does not say that He gave Himself to deliver the saints from the just consequences of their sins. This is true, of course. It does not say that He died that they might have eternal life. This is perfectly true, and we find it expressed in other parts of scripture; but we find here what is the Lord's great purpose in connection with the church at the present time.
Sanctifying the Church
And the first thing mentioned is sanctification; "that He might sanctify it." What does sanctification mean? It seems to mean here that the purpose of the Lord in giving Himself for the church was to separate it out of its natural environment, and to make it something exclusively for Himself. If a vessel were appropriated for use in the tabernacle of Jehovah, it became a sanctified thing. There was then a sacredness about it. It was something reserved for use in the holy habitation of Jehovah.
You know that the heathen king, Belshazzar, defied God, and brought out the vessels of His sanctuary that his father or grandfather had carried from Jerusalem into Babylon, and he displayed them upon his banqueting table (Dan. 5). He and his lords drank out of those holy vessels to their gods of gold and silver and wood and iron, desecrating the vessels of Jehovah. He was putting them to an improper and unholy use; they were sanctified; they belonged to Jehovah. And Belshazzar's lips and the lips of his thousand lords had barely left the goblets from which they were drinking when their immediate doom was seen written upon the walls of the palace.
God intervened in Babylon, jealously guarding those sanctified vessels. They were but material things, but they illustrate this great fact in our verse that the purpose of Christ in connection with the church was to sanctify it, to set it apart from Jews and Gentiles for His own use and for His own testimony in this world. It will be also true, I think, in glory that the church will have its own proper and exclusive place. The church will not be absorbed amongst the redeemed of Old Testament days, but her special sanctification for the Lord Jesus Christ, apart from other heavenly saints, will be seen in the glory. The church will ever have its own peculiar place. This truth we may touch upon again later.
But let us remember that here and now the church, including all the members — and if you are a member of the body of Christ, it refers to you — is sanctified, that the purpose of Christ in giving Himself for the church was to set it entirely apart from the world and all its belongings. If a person went back from the position of the church into Judaism, he crucified the Son of God afresh, and put Him to an open shame. It was a deliberate denial of the sanctification by the blood of the covenant, of the separate place that Christ had obtained for the church by His atoning death (Heb. 10:29).
And so this purpose of sanctifying comes home to us in a practical way. We can have nothing to do with the world, either Gentilism or Judaism. Any and all forms of antagonism to God and Christ and the word of God we are to shrink from with horror because of the place that Christ has given us. We have been made holy, and we are to maintain that holiness, because He is holy, and His purpose is to sanctify us. Such is the character, the holy character, given to the church by its calling. The "holy calling" is also mentioned in another place (2 Tim. 1:9).
Cleansing the Church
But there is something else which follows, and that is the cleansing of the church. Notice the order; sanctification comes before cleansing. This teaches that Christ calls us to Himself and makes us His own before He begins to deal with us. The Lord knows very well what we are naturally: we are the reverse of being holy. We are defiled by nature and practice; but still the Lord puts His mark upon us as His own, and we are sanctified. But then He begins to deal with us in order to make us fit for the place that He has given us.
A benevolent rich man may go into the slums, and select a poor ragged boy, that he may adopt him as his own. He says, "For my own pleasure I want to make this outcast boy heir to my fortune." Now, he selected that boy for himself in his rags and his dirt, and in all the unholy associations in which he was brought up, with the twist given to his mental and his moral faculties by means of his circumstances. The benefactor knew all this, but he nevertheless made this selection; "I am going to have this boy for my own." And he takes him in hand. Does he leave him just as he is? Can he bring this boy into his own house, and display him as his own son in the condition in which he is? He has to cleanse him. He has to educate him. He has to deliver him from all his former habits and associations. He has to bring him into such a state as to be an honour to the position that he has given him.
And it is so with the sinners of both the Gentiles and the Jews, whom the Lord called to be part of His church. He set them apart for Himself. He took up Saul, the persecutor, the blasphemer, the one who hated Him from the very depths of his soul, and He called him to Himself; but He cleansed him. That hatred of Christ was changed to the deepest love for Christ. Instead of persecuting those that were Christ's, he served them and gave up his very life to serve them. There had been a change wrought. All the old things were removed, and something which was new was substituted for them. This was the work of Christ. That was how He wrought with one member of His body, and that is how He is working with all the members, "cleansing them", as it says, "by the washing of water by the word."
Now, you will see that there is no reference in the verse to the blood of Christ. It is "the blood of Jesus Christ, His (God's) Son, that cleanseth us from all sin"; that is quite true. But that is not the teaching here. The point here is the progressive cleansing going on at the present time. The Lord Jesus, my dear young friends, has you in hand. He wants to educate you; He wants to bring you up in His ways, in such ways as are in accordance with His own mind and will. There are things about you, in your words, in your thoughts, in your ways and associations, that are not agreeable to Him; they are not according to His mind, and He wants to cleanse you from them. And how will He do it? He does it by His word. "Already ye are clean by the word which I have spoken unto you", the Lord said to His disciples. He had been instructing them for very many months, breathing out to them of the love of God, and of those things that were proper to the kingdom of heaven; and to that extent they were clean with "the washing of water by the word."
But then, this cleansing is a process which is always in progress; and that shows us the importance of continual reference to the word of scripture. The Lord Jesus Christ uses His written word to show us where we are wrong, to touch our consciences, to awaken our affections. You remember the instance, so often referred to, of Peter, who denied the Lord. And yet the Lord had told him beforehand that he would deny Him with oaths and curses. But though His word fell on Peter's ear, it passed out of his mind, because he thought that such a sin would not be possible in his case; in fact, Peter said so. He said he would not deny the Lord; but the Lord spoke what was true. He knew Peter better than Peter knew himself. And by-and-by Peter did deny the Lord with oaths and curses, as the Lord said he would. Then, after the third occasion, we read that the Lord "looked upon Peter," and the result of the Lord's look at Peter was that "Peter remembered the word of the Lord, and he went out, and wept bitterly." There was the word cleansing Peter's heart. The word showed him to be an unreliable apostle. He was an unfit person; he was unworthy to be a disciple of such a one as the Lord Jesus. He was not worthy of His love; he was not worthy of His trust. A man who could blaspheme the name of his Master, and do it over and over again, of what use was he in the apostolic band? Oh, what terrible thoughts and self-accusations passed through the mind and conscience of Peter as he went out, weeping bitterly!
So the Lord was cleansing his heart; but He had not completed His work with him, because we find that, after His resurrection, the Lord Jesus on the shore of the lake of Galilee, referred again to this shameful failure, as recorded in the last chapter of John. The Lord spoke to Simon Peter very tenderly, but His word was still cleansing him. He said: "Simon, lovest thou Me? Do you really love Me? From your very heart, do you love Me?" And Peter had to look down into his heart to see whether his love was true or no, and when he looked down into his heart, it came back to his mind as a flash, "What did I do on that night of betrayal? I denied Him with oaths and curses. Is it really true that I love Him?" And eventually, Peter was obliged to say: "Thou knowest all things. Thou knowest that I love Thee. I cannot say very much about my love to Thee; but Thou Who knowest all things, knowest that deep down in my heart I do, I really, love Thee." And that was how the Lord before His ascension was cleansing Peter by the washing of water by the word.
Do you think this account was written only to record Peter's actions, that we might know the truth about Peter? It is also the truth applicable to every one of us here tonight. We are capable of doing what Peter did, and if we are not careful we may do a like thing. We may be placed in similar circumstances, and when the test comes to us we too may fail. We may say what is not true, and take on our lips shameful words against the Lord Jesus. But the Lord is very gracious, and He will use His word to cleanse and restore us, as He did in the case of Simon Peter.
But you see how important it is to have the word of the Lord in your memory. Peter had it in his memory, although it was not before his mind. It, however, came back to him when the Lord looked at him. And so you must seek to implant the word of God in your memory. You must read it, and make it your own; and then the Lord can use it in His great work of cleansing you as part of the church with the washing of water by the word.
Christ Presenting the Church to Himself
Well now, in the next verse, we come to the future destiny of the church; "that He might present it to Himself a glorious church" or a church in glory. Let us be very clear about this word. What does the Lord by His Spirit mean by the church in this verse? Is it all those that were baptized into one body on the day of Pentecost? Is it only those? Is it only those that lived in apostolic days? Does it apply only to those alive today? No, it means the whole of the church from the day of Pentecost until the Lord Jesus Christ comes for His saints. Those who are upon the earth at any given time are sometimes spoken of as the body of Christ, but here the whole of the church is in view as those who will form the church in glory. The Lord had them all in mind as His own purchased possession.
Therefore, we must remember that this verse will only find its full and final fulfilment when the Lord shall come and shall have transferred the entire church from this earth, whether sleeping or waking, into the Father's house on high. Then He will present it to Himself a church in glory. That will be when the Lord Jesus Christ has brought to Himself, and before Himself, the whole church. She will then be in a state of absolute perfection, and will appear just as Christ has created it for Himself. It will be His own personal handiwork, unspoiled by defect or sin.
We have a figure of this perfection and union in the second chapter of Genesis, in the case of Adam and Eve. We know that God surveyed the newly-created earth and all the animals that came before Adam to be named, and amongst them all there was not found a helpmeet for Adam, none suited for the place that Adam was given. Adam was set in the world to govern it for God; the lower creation was placed under his rule, but in God's purpose it was not good that man should be alone. It was necessary that he should have an associate. And amongst the living creatures that God had produced there was none that in God's estimation was worthy to take a place with Adam. And therefore God determined that He Himself would provide a bride for Adam. Accordingly, He caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and from Adam's side He built Eve, the woman, in all her primitive perfection and beauty, for sin had not then entered into the world. And when Adam awoke from his sleep, there before him was his bride, in her charm and her glory, with no imperfection whatever, absolutely fresh from the hands of God Himself, built by the omniscient wisdom of God in such a way as perfectly to match and suit her husband, Adam, and to be the worthy object of his affections.
And we find here an allusion to this incident. The peculiar creation of Eve is a figure of the church, which is built for Christ and which is the result of His passing through the deep sleep of death. And in the glory of His resurrection He finds the church by His side in glory, and He presents it to Himself a church in glory, a help-meet for Him, one who will sit with Him on His throne and rule with Him. Then wondering worlds will look upon the bride of Christ, and will extol His name because of the beauty and glory of Christ which are seen in the church.
This is the future prospect. This is the ideal before our blessed Lord as the Lover and Sanctifier of the church. He has this in mind, and to this end He is nourishing and cherishing His church, and waiting throughout the years and centuries as they go by, until God's time shall come, and He shall present the church to Himself in glory. "Not," it says, "having spot", no defect of any kind within, no heart of disloyalty, no reserved affection of any kind; spotless within; also without "wrinkle" or outward deformity of any kind; nothing will be either in or upon the church but what is compatible with the glory of Christ. So that when Christ in His absolute perfection of love looks upon His bride, He sees everything that gratifies His eye.
No Spot or Wrinkle
"Not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing." What a glorious picture this is, beloved friends, of the ultimate result of the divine fashioning which is going on silently in this world! We can only, by faith, take in words like these, and let them sink into our minds without analysis. Yet they do give us a very different idea of the reality of things from what we often entertain when we come together, a score or more of persons, we will say, to break bread. All of us are very weak, all failing, all apt to make mistakes, not one of us is anything to be proud of; and we think, "What a poor lot we are!" And it is true; but when we read verses like these we see that a work of the Lord is in progress upon us. We realize from them that all over the world there is not only the work of the gospel, which calls sinful men and women into the church, but also the active work of the Lord Jesus Christ in sanctifying, cleansing, nourishing, cherishing the church, caring for all those that are His, and keeping them from getting further and further away from Him.
This work of the Lord is going on continually. Christ does His work, though we fail to do our share. We do not do what we ought to do. When we take a service in hand for our Lord, we do it very imperfectly and unworthily. There is no doubt about our inefficiency. But while we are unprofitable servants, the Lord Jesus Christ is the Perfect Servant. So when we are depressed by seeing the failure of human service, we can go on our knees, and thank God that the great work that matters is being carried on by the Lord Jesus Christ, and that He will carry it on to the finish. He will consummate it in glory, and by-and-by the day for its display will come.
And the blessed thought for us all is that we shall be there in that day of triumph and victory. Every one of us, those that know our Lord, those that are members of Christ now, at this moment, we shall all be there in that day of glory. We shall see Christ in His glory, and Christ will see His glory in us. He will see the work that He has accomplished. He will see those whom He has taken up, those that were black and defiled by sin, shining in the resplendent glory that He has given them. "The glory which Thou gavest Me I have given them"; He will accomplish that word to His Father; and we shall be there without a spot. We shall be holy and without blemish. If you look at the first chapter, you will find that these words "holy" and "without blemish, or blame" appear there also (verse 4), where we are regarded personally. It is a part of Christ's purpose to have before Him those that are holy and without blemish, individually and collectively; and the choicest to Him of those in that vast company of the redeemed will be those who form the church.
Old Testament Saints and the Church
There are some who have thought that because we speak of the exceptional place that is given to the church, we, by that claim, disparage the Old Testament saints, and set ourselves up to be better than Abraham and David and Isaiah; but such an idea is altogether a mistake. Whatever religious pride we may have now — and we may have it, for most of us have a little bit of the Pharisee about us which comes out now and again — there will be no pride there. One star may differ from another star in glory, but there is no pride among the stars, because they have just the places that God has given them in the firmament of heaven. And so we shall have the place that God gives us in His purposes and that Christ gives us because of His love, and because of His work for us. And then we shall have our hearts absolutely full of praise and worship to Him, because of the glory He has given us. If a thought of pride could come in, there would be a spot, a wrinkle; but we are told there will be no spot or wrinkle.
No, the exceptional place of the church is the one which God assigned to it in His eternal plan; and the reason for this distinction lies in the special character of the church in that she believes on Christ in the day of His rejection. Israel will come into blessing by-and-by, but it will be upon earth in the day of Christ's glory, when He is manifested in glory to this world. The Old Testament saints believed on Christ before He came, but the great feature of the church is that when the Lord Jesus is cast out by His own people, when the world hates Him, when there is nothing that is more obnoxious to a worldly man than the name of Christ, the church loves Him. We put Christ first, we bow our knees to Him, we adore Him, we worship Him, we remember Him in His death, we serve Him day by day; nay, when we eat and drink we do it in His name; Jesus Christ is everything to us. And because the church believes on Christ, and suffers with Christ in the day of His rejection, God in His righteous purposes and ways gives the church the exceptional place of bridal association with Christ in glory.
Now this doctrine is true, because we find it in the scriptures. It ought therefore to have its rightful effect upon us, and whether you understand it fully or not, you can certainly see that the church has a grand and glorious future. It is therefore a glorious future for you, and for all those that are associated with you. A great responsibility lies upon you if it be true, as to what manner of person you ought to be in this world. If such will be your position in heavenly glory by-and-by, what kind of person ought you to be for Christ Jesus now? If He loved you, and gave Himself up for you, as He did for His church, what have you given up for Him? What are you giving up for Him day by day? What sort of a return are you seeking to make for His love?
The Lord has not left these things altogether a secret, to be disclosed when He takes us home to the Father's house. He will have many secrets to tell us when we are there, but these He has told us now while we are in this world. This He has done that you and I might be more devoted to Him, while we wait for His coming again. May He grant that this may be the result in all our hearts of His precious unfoldings, for His name's sake!