This is an abridged form of the pre-synodical sermon preached in Hull PRC, June 13, 2016.
“This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church.”
As the delegates to Synod 2016 gather, we represent Christ’s bride.
Ephesians 5:32 reminds us that the most important relationship in life, the most blessed revelation of the covenant into which God has taken us, is found not in marriage, but in that which marriage is to reflect. It is that glorious relationship with Christ that is our only comfort in life and death. In the consciousness of that relationship we live in the thankfulness of seeking God’s will in every aspect of our lives.
As is evident in the context, this glorious relationship between Christ and the church is a relationship that those who are married are privileged to reflect in the joyful union of holy marriage. But for our purposes, I would have us focus on the glorious relationship of which this text speaks, a relationship of which we all are partakers and that affects our thinking, our speech, and all our actions.
A Great Privilege
What a great privilege is set before us in this text!
Marriage has been designed by God to mirror the covenant between Christ and the church.
Not to be overlooked in this context is how the apostle has come to consider marriage. He began by setting forth the heart of the gospel. In the first three chapters of this epistle he unfolded the wonder of the life that is ours entirely by the grace of God revealed in Christ Jesus, and that according to God’s eternal purpose to take us into His own household by adopting us through Jesus Christ to Himself. It is important for us to see that, especially in connection with Paul’s reference in our text to the mystery.
This term mystery refers to that which God makes known of His covenant. It is a truth for which we were not looking, a truth so wonderful it can only be revealed by the Holy Spirit. “The secret of the Lord is with them that fear him; and he will show them his covenant” ().
To know the fellowship and love of God Himself, to enjoy that profound and wonderful truth of God’s covenant, is only ours by the Spirit of Christ applying the gospel to our hearts. So John writes in, “That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ.” And then follows this: “And these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full.”
The mystery of God’s covenant is the source of our joy!
The text speaks of that union between Christ and the church as the mega-mystery, the great mystery. The marriage to Christ is the most extraordinary, most blessed relationship, that a person can have. When you have that relationship, you have a relationship far greater than earthly marriage, the relationship that such marriages can only faintly reflect.
But the joy of this relationship is also the foundation of the life of the church, the bride of Christ, and therefore the life of the Protestant Reformed churches as well.
It is in the consciousness of being partakers of the mystery and the wonder of that, that we ministers must preach the gospel and minister to God’s people.
It is in the consciousness of being partakers of the mystery, living in the joy of Christ’s fellowship, that we rejoice in the bride being pregnant with the arrows of Christ’s quiver, to use the figure of Psalm 127, as He adds to His church such as should be saved.
What a blessing that we may gather as a Synod, rejoicing in what God has given us in the work of missions, not only in this country, but in the Philippines and India and Myanmar, as well as in assisting our sister church in Northern Ireland with the work in Limerick, Ireland! As we consider the needs for missionaries and the work that God has given us, let us see these things in that light, as belonging to the joys of our being partakers of the mystery.
As we hear of the work being done in our sister churches and by those with whom we have fellowship to one degree or another in various parts of the world, let us rejoice in the acknowledgment that the bride of Christ is bigger than our small denomination and that others too are partakers of the mystery.
As we consider the labors of our seminary, and plan for the examinations of several students next year, God willing, let us see the joy of all these blessings as that which comes to us in Christ as partakers of the mystery.
The blessedness of being one with Christ is emphasized throughout this epistle.
Already in the first chapter, Paul spoke of these things in terms of God “having made known unto us the mystery of his will.” And in chapter 3, he revealed the purpose of his preaching being this, “to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God.”
In other words, this work of God’s grace, the gospel that Paul was given to proclaim, is that which reveals God’s covenant life. It reveals God’s covenant life as that life of unspeakable joy in the bond of fellowship and love. That which belongs to the triune God Himself from eternity He has been pleased to reveal by taking a people in Christ into His own household, into the fellowship of His life and love.
By Jesus Christ the glory of God is revealed in the church throughout all ages. We are partakers of that as Protestant Reformed Churches!
What follows is what the apostle speaks of as walking worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called (). It is to bring to expression in this world the fellowship of that covenant relationship with God into which you have been taken. That comes to expression especially in His family, the church—a church, mind you, made up of sinful people who still struggle with the effects of sin and with the old man of sin, even as redeemed children of God.
How can that be done? Only by Christ’s life coming to expression in us, His Holy Spirit applying the gospel to our hearts and minds. For us to bring to expression the joy of life in God’s covenant, we have to be living in the consciousness of this life that is ours in Christ Jesus, the joy of the relationship in which we stand to Him, the intimacy of which can only be reflected in the intimacy of holy marriage. Lives of thankfulness flow from the mystery, the wonder of our fellowship with God in Jesus Christ.
What a privileged place God has given us to be members of the bride of Christ! What a great privilege to live in the fellowship of God’s loving embrace—especially when we know from what He saved us. The mystery is great because of what it took for that union to be established. Jesus gave Himself for us! He humbled Himself even to the death of the cross, to cleanse us and to take us as His bride.
Do you see why the apostle speaks of that relationship between Christ and His church as a mega-mystery? This is what life in the church is to reflect. And this is what marriage is to reflect! What a great privilege!
But what a profound calling!
A Profound Calling
In married life husbands and wives are to reflect the great mystery, the joyful life of fellowship and love between Christ and His bride. The way you do that, says the apostle, is by “submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God” (v. 21).
Such a relationship involves a tremendous amount of work, an incalculable number of acts of giving, expressions of love, and efforts to change—all reflecting the relationship between Christ and the church.
But that is also the reality that our lives as members of Christ’s bride must reflect. That is the reality that our labors as officebearers must reflect. That sacrifice of love, that giving of ourselves to the welfare of the marriage of Christ and the church is what must also be reflected in our labors at this synod.
When we read in the context of Ephesians 5 that Christ had to give Himself for her, “That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, that he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish,” the inescapable implication is that His bride was filthy, nothing to look at in herself. That she would be made beautiful was all His work, the exercise of His love.
So, men, do not expect your wife to do all the work in making herself beautiful for you. We are not talking about something so superficial as her putting on her makeup. For your wife to be beautiful, to be the joy of your life, you must love her even as Christ loves His bride. You must serve her, give yourself to her, as the exercise of that love. That is your godly service. That does not take away your headship, the exercise of leadership. But it radically changes the expression of that headship, does it not?
The same holds true for us who serve the bride of Christ as His officebearers.
We have to confront that pride of our natures and cast it off. We have to do that this week, men. We have to be ready to listen to each other, to try to understand each other, and to labor together, all in the service of Christ’s bride. After all, He gave Himself for her, remember, “that he might sanctify and cleanse (her) with the washing of water by the word, that he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, of any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish.”
There will be differences that have to be faced in synod’s work. There are a few things on our agenda that undoubtedly will take considerable discussion, even debate. But may it be seen of us that we are all seeking the beauty of the bride and the glory of Her Bridegroom and Savior.
In the earlier chapters of this epistle, Paul had explained our being partakers of the mystery from the viewpoint of Christ fulfilling God’s purpose in forming us to the praise of His glory.
Which is to say, that the church in her relationship to Christ is to love Him, to live for Him, to seek His honor and glory. And we do that, because of the relationship in which we stand to Him—a relationship established by God Himself entirely of grace, sealed by the precious blood of our Jesus. A profound calling God has given us in that relationship to Christ! A tremendously blessed privilege!
That profound calling recognizes not only the mystery of the gospel, but knows the power of that gospel in our own lives.
That alone gives us to understand marriage as a blessed relationship.
A Blessed Relationship
It is by God’s grace revealed in Christ Jesus that you and I know the joy of the Christian life.
That is the mystery. That is the wonder of the covenant relationship into which God has taken us.
In the consciousness of this relationship He would have us live. He would fill our hearts with love for Him. Such is the blessed relationship of Christ and His bride. And that too is the Christian life, a life that comes to expression in marriage, in all our relationships, as well as in our ecclesiastical assemblies—when we are partakers of the mystery.
What a blessed relationship—to be expected by us, and to which we give ourselves in gratitude to the God who gave us a place in Christ’s bride. Do not forget, the Christian life can only be understood and lived as we understand and live out of the doctrine of the covenant, the great mystery.
So we testify even before the world that that life in Christ provides a joy unsurpassed by anything the world has to offer. May Synod 2016 labor this week in that light.