Whatever happened to the "matchless charms of Christ"?
I recently sat through a very troubling talk. The speaker, well-intentioned, “encouraged” a group of young people to spend time with God, though I am not really sure how many of the young people in attendance were encouraged by the exhortation. For whatever reason, he gave a disparaging description of what a walk with Christ is all about. He told his young listeners that reading the Bible and spending time with God was something that had to be done, whether enjoyable or not. He even admitted that he sometimes preferred to watch television over reading his Bible. But, in the end, he performed his Christian duty and chose the Bible over the television because it was good for him, much like taking a bitter dose of medication.
What shocked me the most, however, was when he compared spending time with God to doing homework—something that certainly overjoyed the hearts of every school-aged child in the room.
“None of us likes to do homework,” he said, “but it’s something we have to do in life in order to get by.” And with these thoughts echoing through the annals of their young, impressionable minds, he sat down.
I don’t wish to criticize this speaker, or imply that there are never times when we don’t feel like spending those few fleeting moments with our Savior. But I fear that too many of us pastors have neglected to present Christ in all of His beauty. Instead of presenting the “matchless charms of Christ” (The Signs of the Times, September 16, 1889) we have presented a very dry Christian experience that relegates a “relationship” with Christ as something to be endured, at best. What’s more, we give the unfortunate impression that our listeners are the ones who must do all the work in the relationship; that is, they speak nothing of Christ’s initiative in the process.
How many times have you heard—or perhaps even delivered—a sermon that put friendship with Christ on even par with a twelve-step program? Instead of preaching about Christ’s loveliness and expecting that loveliness to attract the listener into wanting to spend time with God, we have focused on what the listeners must do if they want to have a “thriving” Christian experience.
Instead of preaching about how Christ’s wonderful love and grace drew Zacchaeus to Himself, we choose to focus on how much effort Zacchaeus had spent climbing the sycamore tree, the implication being that we must do the same if we want a flourishing walk with God. In essence, we put the focus squarely on what we’re supposed to do rather than on what God has done and continues to do for us.
Unfortunately, I’m not sure that this do-it-yourself approach produces great results, nor does it leave the listener with a favorable—or accurate—picture of their heavenly Father. Our job as ministers is to help our listeners “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8)1 knowing with full confidence that the uplifted Christ will draw them to Himself.
What would happen if we talked more about God’s goodness than we did about our responsibility in the Christian disciplines? Perhaps the “Christian disciplines” would naturally happen if we presented an irresistible Savior to our listeners’ starving ears.
Taking a page out of Solomon’s book
These ideas aren’t without precedent. Nearly a thousand years before Christ walked the dusty roads of this earth, He inspired a man to write about the most intimate of human experiences—the love shared between man and wife. Though no resident expert on successful relationships (at least in the latter part of his life), Solomon wrote a beautiful book about relationships that bears his name.2
The book, whose interpretation has been hotly debated for millennia, describes the beautiful interplay between two young people smitten with one another. Solomon waxes eloquently about the nuances of holy and blissful love. Though much of the book portrays a wonderful picture of mutual admiration and affection, a slight detour takes place about halfway through the narrative. As with all relationships, challenges arise and the young lady—the Shulamite—ultimately finds herself trying to reconnect with her beloved. With little success, she petitions her friends to join her in this dramatic undertaking.
Her friends are not interested, however, and with one accord, they ask the Shulamite,
How is your beloved better than others,
most beautiful of women?
How is your beloved better than others,
that you charge us so? (Song of Solomon 5:9, NIV).
In his refreshing translation, The Message, Eugene Peterson renders this verse, “What’s so great about your lover, fair lady? What's so special about him that you beg for our help?” In other words, these young ladies want to know what’s so extraordinary about the Shulamite’s beloved. Lukewarm to the idea of looking for him, they want to know if he is worth their time.
The same is true of many people’s interest in Christ. Not everyone who sits in the pew—is already convinced of Christ’s worthiness. They, too, can come with great skepticism about whether Christ is worth their time. How we present Him can make the difference between whether they are drawn to Him or if they will continue in their indifference.
Fortunately, the young Shulamite was a great evangelist. Using powerful language, she gives one of the greatest descriptions that any man has ever received. (Not even my wife has used such remarkable words in describing me!)
Beginning with his head, and going down to his feet, the Shulamite describes her beloved in detailed and poetic language. She compares his head to gold, his eyes to doves, his body to carved ivory (all compliments in those days, I suppose), and ultimately concludes by saying that he is “altogether lovely” (v. 16).
G. Lloyd Carr wrote that “love songs describing the physical beauty of the beloved are common in the ancient Near East, but most of them describe the female. Such detailed description of the male, as here, is seldom recorded.”3 There must have been something extra special about the Shulamite’s beloved for her to wax eloquently for 64 words about this remarkable man.
But as amazing as her flattering description is, her friends’ response is even more significant. Eight verses earlier they are lukewarm and disinterested in the Shulamite’s beloved; after hearing such a striking description of this man, they can’t contain themselves and shout out,
Where has your beloved gone,
O fairest among women?
Where has your beloved turned aside,
that we may seek him with you? (6:1).
Overwhelmed with his beauty, they too want to look for him. Now that they realize he has become worth their time, they are motivated to join the Shulamite in pursuing this one-of-a-kind man. Though they don’t necessarily have romantic intentions—after all, the Shulamite already lays claim to him—they are definitely attracted to him, to say the least. The Shulamite’s description shows the difference in their estimation of him and, ultimately, in their interest in seeking him.
Is there a Shulamite among us?
Is it possible that, where the Shulamite succeeded in uplifting her beloved, many of us have failed? Given the opportunity to present the loveliness of our Beloved to lukewarm or disinterested listeners, we instead present a dry and boring picture of what union with Christ is all about. Instead of presenting Christ in a light that will irresistibly draw people to Himself, or as One who takes the initiative in pursuing us, we tell our starving listeners that it is their job to set the wheels in motion of the relationship. We tell them that it is their Christian duty to wake up 15 minutes early each morning to spend time with God. We tell them that the greatest theologians in the Christian era spent 3-4 hours a day in prayer, and that they need to do the same. But we leave it at that, presenting nothing of the loveliness of Christ that can draw souls to do the very things we spend so much time trying to convince them of.4
In contrast, a picture of Christ that correlates with the Shulamite’s description of her beloved will draw these individuals into precious union with their Savior. It’s not complicated. Just as you wouldn’t spend five hours trying to convince enemies that they should spend time with each other, it is fruitless to try and convince souls naturally alienated from God to spend time with Him, at least by appealing to their sense of duty and responsibility. They need a compelling reason to do so, and uplifting Christ’s matchless charms is the best reason possible.
Here are words of encouragement to every expositor of the gospel:
In Christ is the tenderness of the shepherd, the affection of the parent, and the matchless grace of the compassionate Saviour. His blessings He presents in the most alluring terms. He is not content merely to announce these blessings; He presents them in the most attractive way, to excite a desire to possess them. So His servants are to present the riches of the glory of the unspeakable Gift. The wonderful love of Christ will melt and subdue hearts, when the mere reiteration of doctrines would accomplish nothing. . . . Tell the people of Him who is [quoting Song of Solomon 5:10, 16] “the Chiefest among ten thousand,” and the One “altogether lovely."5
Well would it be for us, as ministers, to heed this timeless advice. The world is starving for a picture of an irresistible Savior. We can, by God’s grace, present Christ in all His loveliness, just as He rightfully deserves.
How much better to present Him that way than, rather, as doing homework?
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1 All scriptures, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version.
2 For a discussion on Solomonic authorship, see Richard J. Hess, Song of Songs (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 37–39, and Gleason L. Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), 537–543.
3 G. Lloyd Carr, The Song of Solomon (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1984), 139. It’s alsointeresting to note that many current scholars recognize that this description is, perhaps,
also directed toward a divine being. In his commentary, Tremper Longman III opines that the Shulamite’s description turns the reader’s attention to “something exalted, even holy,”
suggesting that there is more to the meaning of this passage than meets the eye. For a discussion of this, see Longman, Song of Songs, NICOT (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2001), 173, 174. For this reason, and others, this author maintains that Solomon’s book moves beyond its original intention and, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, typologically—in distinction from allegorically—speaks of God. Thus, when Ellen White writes in Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1955), 49, “The divine beauty of the character of Christ . . . of whom Solomon by the Spirit of inspiration wrote, He is ‘the chiefest among ten thousand, . . . yea, He is altogether lovely,’ ” she recognizes a meaning to the passage that the Holy Spirit originally placed there through Solomon’s pen. This, in the end, gives credence to the idea that the Song of Solomon does, in fact, speak of God’s relation with His people, though still allowing for a literal interpretation of the book as well.
4 Of course, we, as ministers, cannot present Christ’s matchless charms to our listeners if we, ourselves, haven’t experienced them.
5 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1940), 826, 827.