How we think and feel about the church reveals how much we really know the heart of Christ.
When we first heard the gospel, many of us were told, perhaps unintentionally, that the gospel was about us: Jesus came and died for you, to save you from your sins, so that you can go to heaven. Jesus knows you, forgives you, loves you, and wants you to spend eternity with him. Which, of course, is true — beautifully true. But if the Christianity that saves me is really only ever about me, then I have missed the height and width and depth of the gospel. And I have missed the heart of Jesus.
Yes, every single believer in Jesus is loved by Jesus (Galatians 2:20), far more than we could ever imagine or measure, but his love for you and me flows from his love for his bride, the church. On our own, we are an ear, or a toe, or an eyelash (1 Corinthians 12:12) — beautiful, important, even essential, but incomplete.
Jesus loves the church, and we will better understand and feel his love for each of us when we see ourselves in that greater love, a love longer than our lifetime, deeper than our needs and longings, higher than our stories, wider than ourselves.
What Does He See in Her?
Long before you believed in Jesus, before you were even born, before the first church gathered, before the Son invaded Bethlehem as a baby, before the prophets promised he would come, before young David slayed the giant, before the Red Sea opened wide and dry, before Abraham laid his precious son on the altar, before Adam and Eve were forced out of the garden, before God founded the mountains or placed his stars, before anything we now know had come to be, the Son of God loved his church.
Jesus has always had that fire in his eyes for her. The church was chosen in him “before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him” (Ephesians 1:4). He saw us, the whole church gathered together and washed thoroughly of any stain or imperfection — utterly and wildly attractive, his “lily among brambles” (Song 2:2).
Seeing her as she would be — wrapped with his own glory, and finally free to love him fully — he was willing to go to whatever lengths, even to the point of death, even death on a cross, to have her. A.W. Pink writes of that moment in eternity past,
It pleased the Father to choose for his Son, as God-man, the Church, to be not only his Body, but also his Bride, who was to receive from him and share with him his honors, glories, and privileges. Having chosen the Church in Christ, the Father set her before him in the glass of his decrees, according to the uttermost purpose of his love and grace toward her, causing her to shine with excelling brightness and loveliness in the view of his Son, giving him to see how high she was in the Father’s estimation, and presenting her to Christ as his choicest gift to him. (Spiritual Union and Communion, 58)
When you hear Jesus call himself the Bridegroom, picture that scene. He was not the young brave soldier who stumbled across a helpless woman on the battlefield. He was not the Navy SEAL sent to save some stranger held in a foreign prison. No, he plunged himself into danger as a husband would for the wife of his youth, the delight of his eyes, the desire of his heart. For his church.
The Whole Church
You, however, are not the bride of Christ. Jesus is not standing at the end of the aisle of history waiting for you and you alone. He is waiting, his eyes bright and his smile deep and wide, for the almost inconceivable gathering of all who have ever believed in and followed him — even you. He will not rest until the elect are all there, but you are only one facet of millions in this diamond.
Oh, that we would see the church, and our place in it, in the captivated eyes of the Bridegroom. Isaiah writes,
As a young man marries a young woman,
so shall your sons marry you,
and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,
so shall your God rejoice over you. (Isaiah 62:5)
Paul charges men, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). Jesus loves the church, the whole church — from the hundreds that saw him after he rose, to the dozens you see each Sunday; from the prophets and apostles, to the missionaries carrying on that work right now in Afghanistan, Sudan, China, and India; from those first churches in Ephesus, Corinth, and Philippi, to the churches that will be planted where we live decades after we’ve gone home.
The story of how Jesus chose you, loved you, and saved you is a spectacular story, one that will be told as long as you live (and you will never die), but his love is far bigger than you, or me — higher, wider, and deeper than any one of us.
Jesus loves the whole church, his true and forever bride, but he also loves each faithful local church, including yours. He knows each church, with its flaws, weaknesses, and failures, and he loves, pursues, and shepherds it anyway.
He knew exactly what the church at Ephesus was suffering (Revelation 2:3), and how cold their hearts had gone (Revelation 2:4). He knew some at the church of Smyrna would be thrown into prison (Revelation 2:10). He knew the saints at Pergamum did not renounce him, even when it might have cost them their lives (Revelation 2:13). He knew some in Thyatira were filled with love and faith and patience (Revelation 2:19), while others tolerated sexual immorality (Revelation 2:20). He knew the souls at Sardis had fallen asleep (Revelation 3:1–2). He knew all of the good that the disciples in Philadelphia had done despite their weaknesses (Revelation 3:8). He knew how lukewarm Laodicea was — how “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” the church was (Revelation 3:17) — and he called them, real saints in a real place at a real time in history, to come home (Revelation 3:20).
Your local church is your clearest, fullest, most intimate look into the bride he passionately and relentlessly loves. He sees more of her brokenness than you do. He sees her in all her remaining ugliness, and yet he loves her. He will never leave her nor forsake her (Hebrews 13:5). Even if her doors must close one day, and many doors have closed and will close, he will gather every saint in your congregation together again — never to be separated or divided again, even after ten thousand years.
Jesus loves his church, the whole church, every single church, and if you are part of his church, he loves you. His love for the whole doesn’t keep him from loving you personally, deeply, creatively, uniquely. Notice how specific and special the love of Christ is for each of us, not just the apostle Paul:
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)
He loved me and gave himself for me. We cannot fully grasp the breadth and length and height and depth of such love (Ephesians 3:19). If you are even an eyelash in the bride of Christ, a member of his body, the church, then he not only loves you, he not only died to save you and have you, but he lives in you. He knows everything about you (Psalm 139:1), he keeps you day and night (Psalm 121:5–6), and he watches over and leads you at all times (1 Peter 2:25). In short, he loves you, even you.