Jesus Christ is so committed to his church that he will do whatever it takes to make sure believers get their act together and not miss out on the best that he has for them. And he has good reason for doing so. The church – the Bride of Christ – is going to dwell with Christ forever. He wants it to be a bride worthy of such an eternal union.
The Bible speaks much of this imagery. Let me just offer a few New Testament images here. In Mark 2:19-20 Jesus refers to himself as the bridegroom who will soon be taken away. In John 3:27-30 John the Baptist speaks of the bride and her bridegroom (referring to Jesus).
Paul told the Corinthians that he hoped to present them as a chaste virgin: to Christ their husband (2 Cor. 11:2). In Ephesians he reminds husbands to love their wives, “just as Christ loved the Church and gave himself 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” (Eph. 5:22-27).
And in Revelation we read about the great consummation of history: the wedding of the Lamb. Rev. 19:7 speaks of great joy and gladness because “the marriage of the Lamb is come, and the bride has made herself ready”. The church as a whole is the bride of Christ, but individual believers make up the bride. Thus both individual believers and the body as a whole must make themselves ready.
Paul reminds the Roman Christians that God has called them in order that they might be “conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:29). That is part of the process of preparing the bride for the groom.
Now God uses many means to prepare us. Out of love, he chastises us, for example. We read about this in Hebrews 12:1-13. He will also judge his people when necessary, and allow them to suffer various hardships, to keep us from going astray. The imagery of a refining fire is found throughout the Bible. He uses these purifying fires to make his people the pure vessels they are meant to be.
God says of his people, “I will bring them into the fire; I will refine them like silver and test them as gold” (Zech. 13:9). In Malachi 3:1-3 we read about the refiner’s fire and the launderer’s soap, used to purify and refine God’s people. Peter tells us to rejoice in our trials and suffering so that our “faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed” (1 Pet 1:7).
And we need to cooperate with God in all this. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:31-32, “But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment. When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world.”
Indeed, we are told in 1 Peter 4:17 that “judgement must begin in the house of God”. If we want to make ourselves ready for the bridegroom, and have an effective ministry and witness, then we must make sure our own house is first in order.
As Karen Jobes remarks, “God will begin his process of judging humanity with his own people, to see which are truly Christ’s. (Compare a similar teaching about God’s judgment in Jesus’ parable where he first judges the sheep and then the goats in Matt. 25:31-46.)”
And Peter’s words come in the context of suffering and persecution. Believers may not like such things, but they are part of the way that God refines his people and prepares them for the great wedding feast. As Thomas Schreiner comments, “The judgment that begins with God’s people purifies those who truly belong to God, and that purification comes through suffering, making believers morally fit for their inheritance.” The church of Jesus Christ really needs to develop a theology of suffering, but I save that for another article.
Thus God is far too committed to us to allow us to wander blindly in our sin, our deception, our half-heartedness, and our trivial pursuits. He will prepare his bride. And he is actively doing that right now.
Consider three recent failures in the church of God in the US. J. Lee Grady writes in a recent Charisma online piece that God is indeed shaking his church, and weeding out those who are not really his, and purifying those who are. The three recent “setbacks” to “charismatic ministries” are these:
“In Tampa, Florida, Without Walls International Church is facing foreclosure. The megachurch, which once attracted 23,000 worshipers and was heralded as one of the nation’s fastest-growing congregations, shrunk drastically after co-pastors Randy and Paula White announced in 2007 that they were divorcing. On Nov. 4 their bank filed foreclosure proceedings and demanded immediate repayment of a $12 million loan on the property.”
“In Duluth, Georgia – northeast of Atlanta – sheriff’s deputies arrived at Global Destiny Ministries and ordered Bishop Thomas Weeks II to leave the property. According to documents filed in state court, Weeks – who divorced popular preacher Juanita Bynum in June – owed more than $511,000 in back rent to the building’s owners. He was escorted out of the building on Nov. 14 while a church service was in progress.”
“In another part of the Atlanta area, leaders of the Cathedral at Chapel Hill announced that their church is officially for sale. The massive Gothic building – which at one time housed one of the nation’s most celebrated charismatic churches, with a membership of 10,000 – has slipped into disrepair after lurid sex scandals triggered a mass exodus. The church’s founder, Bishop Earl Paulk, has turned the 6,000-seat church (valued at $24.5 million) over to his son, Donnie Earl, who in recent years has abandoned orthodox Christian doctrines and embraced universalism.”
Grady mentions some other church shakings taking place in America, then concludes with these words:
“Was it supposed to end like this? How did a movement that was at one time focused on winning people to Christ and introducing them to the power of the Holy Spirit end in such disgrace? I hear the sound of bricks and steel beams crashing to the ground. The wrecking ball of heaven is swinging. It has come to demolish any work that has not been built on the integrity of God’s Word. All of us should be trembling. God requires holiness in His house and truth in the mouths of His servants. He is loving and patient with our mistakes and weaknesses, but eventually, if there is no repentance after continual correction, His discipline is severe. He will not be mocked.”
“Romans 11:22 says: ‘Behold then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell, severity, but to you, God’s kindness, if you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off’ (NASB). God is not married to our buildings. If He allowed foreign armies to burn Jerusalem and its glorious temple, He will also write ‘Ichabod’ on the doors of churches where there is no repentance for compromise. I pray the fear of God will grip our hearts until we cleanse our defiled pulpits. Let’s examine our hearts and our ministries. Let’s throw out the wood, hay and stubble and build on a sure and tested foundation. It is the only way to survive the meltdown.”
Concerned Christians can only pray that God continues – even intensifies – this refining process. The church is in a terrible mess today and we must pray for the mercy of God to come in the form of the refiner’s fire. We are at such a low edge spiritually speaking in so much of the Western world, that it is only the grace of God and his deep, eternal commitment to us that will see us through these difficult times.
So we can only pray, “Bring it on Lord. Out of your rich mercy, do your refining work now. And do it thoroughly and completely”.