Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Inbox: Who’s Getting Married?

The “Bride of Christ” is not a term found in the Bible.

There, I said it.

Someone is bound to take umbrage, because it’s an expression very commonly heard in Christendom. Even the very useful assumes its validity in asking the question “What does it mean that the church is the bride of Christ?” and in going on to note that “In the New Testament, Christ, the Bridegroom, has sacrificially and lovingly chosen the church to be His bride”.

Is that quite right? Let’s have a look.

Go Ahead: Nuke My Day

As he often does, Immanuel Can decided to complicate my day. He fired this off to me last week:
“Have you ever done any thinking about the term ‘The Bride’ as it is used in scripture? I’ve often heard it said it is the Church. However, all the strong metaphors concerning it seem to be used of Israel, and though there are three or four bride-type figures of speech in the NT, I’m not seeing that motif very strongly. What I do see is the Church called ‘His body’, and some reference to bride-like purity or fidelity on the part of Christians. But eschatologically, what can we say about that?

Ever ask yourself? Have a theory?”
Hmm. Do I ever NOT have a theory? It may not be perfectly thought through, but there’s probably a working hypothesis to be dredged out of me somewhere. Although — fair warning — readers committed to Amillennialism or Supersessionism are bound to disagree with my conclusions and may wish to zone out here.


IC is correct that in the Old Testament, all strong metaphors concerning brides and wives clearly relate to Israel or Judah. This is not surprising. In their original context, none of the Old Testament verses applied to the Church by the apostles in Acts or the epistles are obviously about the Church, and the Jews who read them never took them that way.

Some mystics make a case for the Song of Solomon being a book-length allegory for the relationship between Christ and the Church, or alternatively between Jehovah and Israel. Personally, I am reluctant to commit to either interpretive theory, for reasons I set out here and here.

So leaving aside Solomon, where does the Old Testament use the bride or wife metaphors?

A.  Bride

Isaiah 62:5 is the only use of “bride” we might take to be a metaphorical reference to Israel, and even that is a bit dubious. It’s really the issue of rejoicing that is primarily in view rather than the wedding ceremony itself.

B.  Wife

The “wife” metaphor shows up primarily in Isaiah, Jeremiah and especially Hosea:

1.  Isaiah

Isaiah says of Israel that “your Maker is your husband” and “The Lord has called you like a wife deserted and grieved in spirit”.

Now we must remember that these are metaphors, not reality. We are talking about a relationship between God and a nation of human beings that in its level of divine commitment and in its intended permanence and ideal intimacy finds its best possible analogy in the institution of marriage.

That analogy is imperfect. We must be careful not to stretch a metaphor to the breaking point. Nobody is really “marrying” anybody.

2.  Jeremiah

We quickly arrive at one possible danger in stretching a metaphor, grouping unrelated uses of a metaphor or applying a metaphor beyond its immediate context. Jeremiah 3 uses the wife metaphor to refer to both Israel and Judah. Unless we want to visualize God as a polygamist, we need to recognize that we are talking about unions that are in some ways LIKE MARRIAGE, not actual marriages.

3.  Hosea

Hosea 2 is a sustained marriage metaphor that compares idolatry to adultery and suggests that if God’s relationship with Israel were a real marriage, he would have divorced her.


Things I Am Deliberately Ignoring

I am going to overlook the Lord’s reference to a bridegroom (and therefore implicitly to a bride) in the Parable of the Ten Virgins, and for good reason. The kingdom of heaven is said to be like ten virgins (five foolish, five wise). But we can stop there. If we are going to force every “bride” reference into a single interpretation, this parable will stump us. If the “wise virgins” represent the faithful in the kingdom of heaven, how can the faithful be simultaneously represented in the very same parable by the Bridegroom’s intended?

A more coherent interpretation is that the metaphorical “bride” in this parable is not intended to represent either the Church or faithful Israel at all. There are few better illustrations of the dangers of taking a metaphor outside its immediate context and stretching it beyond its intended meaning.

For similar reasons, I am also ignoring the words of the Lord in Mark 2:19 that mention a bridegroom and his friends. I don’t think the implicit bride in that allegory is of any consequence to our discussion at all.

I am further dismissing Paul’s reference to the Corinthians in which he declares “I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ” as irrelevant to the present subject. It cannot possibly speak of the Church generally. It clearly refers to the Corinthian believers only.

Once again, understanding a metaphor in its context is a vastly superior methodology than arbitrarily grouping all references to a particular Greek word and hoping (or assuming) they mean the same thing.

That said, here are the legitimate New Testament contenders:

A.  The Bride

Bride in Greek is numphee, from a verb that translates as “to veil”. The same Greek word is occasionally translated as “daughter in law”. The natural temptation is to lump every metaphorical use of “bride” or “wife” in the New Testament together as if they all speak of exactly the same thing and involve exactly the same parties, as Wikipedia does here.

I don’t believe this is the case.

There are only four New Testament metaphorical uses of “bride”, all of them by the apostle John:

1.  John the Baptist

John the Baptist first employs the metaphor, but only in passing. It is not clear to me that he means it the same way John the apostle intends it in Revelation, and it is not clear that he intends much by it. The primary thrust of what he saying is that his own relationship with the Lord Jesus in being his herald is comparable to that of a bridegroom’s friend to the bridegroom himself. Short version: “I don’t matter, he does”:
“The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete.”
The “bride” in this analogy is only incidental. To debate whether she represents Israel or the Church is to load the image with more weight than it was probably intended to bear.

The metaphor does not get used again until the final two chapters of the Bible.

2.  The New Jerusalem

The “bride” image is used consistently of the New Jerusalem, after the first heaven and earth have passed away:
“I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man.’ ”
“ ‘Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.’ And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.”
When we speak of a “holy city” being a “bride”, we are probably clear that God is not about to marry a city. It’s simply metonymy at work. The city stands for those who are its inhabitants.

The parties involved initially appear to be “God” and “man” (as opposed to the more specific “Israel” or “the Church”). This is consistent with what is related in the same passage about the New Jerusalem; that it has “twelve foundations” named after the twelve apostles of the Lamb, and “twelve gates” named after the twelve tribes of Israel.

The second time the metaphor is used, the Bride is called “the wife of the Lamb”, which makes the earlier “God” reference a bit more specific. But “man” is never made more specific, so I would have difficulty being dogmatic that “the Bride” in Revelation refers either to the Church or Israel only. It appears to be the “dwelling place of God”, which seems possessed of both Jewish and Church-ian characteristics.

The final reference in the last few verses of scripture is, “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come’ ”. The invitation is to dwell in the New Jerusalem, to enter into the fellowship of God with man and enjoy eternal life.

But “the Bride” in chapter 22 only takes us back to “the New Jerusalem” and “the wife of the Lamb” in chapter 21. I cannot bring myself to make “the Bride” more specific than John does.

That is to say, it seems to me unreasonable to identify the New Jerusalem specifically with the Church and the Church only.

B.  The Wife

1.  The Marriage Supper of the Lamb

Revelation 19 gives us a little more information:
“For the marriage of the Lamb has come,
      and his Bride has made herself ready;
  it was granted her to clothe herself
      with fine linen, bright and pure” —

for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.”
Here the word translated “Bride” in my ESV is gunee (“wife” or “woman”). It’s the same word used in Revelation 21:9 to expand on “Bride” (“the numphee, the gunee of the Lamb”).

“Aha!” we may say, “There’s the Church for sure”.

And yet … not so much. The only thing we are specifically told here is that the Bride is clothed in the “righteous deeds of the saints”. But the word “saints” is a term too ambiguous to build doctrine on. The word may refer to the New Testament faithful. Equally, it may refer to individuals in the Old Testament who by faith looked forward to the same promises that Church claims and enjoys. Context supplies no clues.

2.  Christ and the Church

Finally, husbands are told to love their wives “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her”. There is a sense in which the Church is currently united with Christ, and that unity necessarily evokes the unity of marriage. This ties into the whole “one flesh” thing that goes all the way back to Genesis, and the body metaphor IC mentions in his question is tied in with it. It is also called a “profound” mystery, so I will not explore it too far.

All I want to say about it is that it does not appear to be precisely the same metaphor as the Lamb and his Bride in Revelation, and this is where I think the confusion in common usage of the metaphor has come in.

The unity of Christ and the Church in Ephesians is a PRESENT thing. It is this existing unity initiated at Pentecost through which the Lord Jesus continues his work in the world today. The marriage supper of the Lamb is a FUTURE thing that issues in the eternal state of fellowship between God and mankind. How appropriate would it be to depict a couple being “one flesh” and “one body” before their marriage has been celebrated?

Further, the emphasis in Ephesians 5 is primarily on the head/body metaphor. That is the part that involves Christ and the Church. That’s also the part that, these days, we like to ignore. The idea of a husband being the “head” of the wife is more than a little intolerable in some quarters.

In Summary

It is from the Ephesians passage, I think, and from linking it without any real warrant to the references to the Bride of the Lamb in Revelation, that the expression the “Bride of Christ” has become commonplace in relation to the Church.

What we ought to draw out of the Ephesians passage is that there is a very specific intimacy between Christ and his Church that does not currently exist with Israel.

But it would seem problematic to me to categorically exclude faithful Jews from the “bride”, “wife” and “marriage supper” metaphors in Revelation on the basis of the Ephesians passage. Supersessionists may like it, but I think it is going too far.

After all, these are pictures we are being shown. Each picture means something in its specific context. But jumble the contexts together by simply seizing on the word “wife” or “bride” and you find yourself, I think, mixing apples and oranges.

To the Supersessionist, everything is always about the Church. Israel is an afterthought and a disgrace. But I’m not sure it is reasonable to write off Israel so quickly. Unless you have already assumed your conclusion before you start, the expression “Bride of the Lamb” and the image of the New Jerusalem may legitimately be seen to extend significantly beyond the Church.

1 comment :

  1. I agree that at least 50% of the population (males) should want this depiction of bride and groom to remain a strong metaphor but would accept it as a way to want to convey the strength of a relationship.

    But that relationship is under attack since marriage is under attack. That's why I am putting this comment and link here because it has at least some relevance to the topic of marriage. I wonder how nowadays gender politics would react to the topic discussed here and how a bride/groom supposition would fit in with the gender confusion and denial the secular left is moving towards. The article in the link stresses the danger society is exposing itself to by denying a biblical bride/groom relationship in the first place. That destructive segment of society will not even accept that there is anything like a bride or groom and will substitute whatever it wants for what God has ordained. Something that does not bode well for vulnerable individuals and societies.

    Here is an excerpt from German sociologist Gabriele Kuby,

    "Gender ideology is the deepest rebellion against God that is possible," Kuby told LifeSiteNews. "Man does not accept that he is created as man or woman, no, he says, "I decide! This is my freedom!" - against experience, against nature, against reason, against science!

    "It is the ultimate perversion of individualism. It robs man of the last remnant of his identity, that is, to be a man and a woman, after having lost faith and family and nation.

    "It is indeed diabolical that an ideology, which every person can discern as a lie, can capture the common sense of people and become the dominant ideology of our time."