Here Comes the Bride: The Church as the Bride of Christ

Many of us (I suspect this is especially true of men) have trouble connecting with the image of the church as a bride. But this is, perhaps, the richest of all biblical metaphors of the church. It is full of hope and pulsing with joy.

Viewing Time: Approximately 27 minutes

I did not grow up dreaming about my wedding day; most boys don’t. I, and I suspect many Christian men, have trouble connecting with the biblical image of the church as the Bride of Christ. We might resonate with the image of the church as an army, but we don’t know what to do with the church as a bride.

Yet that is an important and glorious biblical image of the church. God willing (and he is willing), even the macho men in our church family will be longing for the marriage of the Lamb by the time we leave here today. It epitomizes our Christian hope.

If the number of times an image is used is a gauge of its importance, then the images of wedding and wedding feast are exceptionally important. They are used repeatedly in the Old Testament. Ezekiel 16, which we heard read for us earlier, is one example. Nearly the entire book of Hosea is an example. There are many other passages as well: Isaiah 54:5; Joel 1:8; Jeremiah 3; Isaiah 62:4-5; Jeremiah 31:31-33, and many more.

In the New Testament, we find the same image only now the church is the Bride and the bridegroom is the Messiah. There is 2 Corinthians 11:2, where Paul represents himself as the Father of the Bride who has betrothed his daughter (the Church of Corinth) to Christ: “I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him.”

Jesus used the image of marriage numerous times. In Mark 2, he pictures himself as the bridegroom. In Matthew 22, he pictures God as the Father of the groom on the day of the wedding feast. The scene is again a wedding day in Matthew 25, when the friends of the bride all fall asleep while waiting for the arrival of the groom.

At the very end of the Bible, “the Spirit and the Bride” (the Bride!) “say, “Come!” To whom are they speaking? The Bridegroom. That will make more sense when we understand ancient Jewish marriage rituals. They were different in many respects from our contemporary American rituals.

A marriage in ancient Israel began with a betrothal. Often, the fathers of the couple would arrange the wedding, sometimes years before the bride was of marriageable age. The father of the groom would pay a bride price (called a mohar) to the father of the bride. A ketubah, a marriage contract or covenant, would be signed by both parties and by witnesses. After that, if one of the parties changed their mind about getting married, they would need to get a divorce.

(This, by the way, is why in Matthew 2 Mary is called Joseph’s wife even before their wedding, and why he thought about divorcing her before they had lived together.)

At the signing of the marriage contract, a ceremonial glass of wine was shared. Then the groom would go back to his father’s house. The time period between the signing of the ketubah and the wedding day celebrations, when a second glass of wine was shared to seal the marriage covenant, was usually about a year. Couples did not send out a “save-the-date” card because not even the bride-to-be knew the date. Of course, as the time drew near, anticipation rose. The groom’s return for the bride was eagerly awaited.

What was the groom doing during that year when he returned to his father’s house? He was preparing a place for his bride and himself to live. This might be inside his father’s large house, or he might add on to the house, or build an adjacent house on the property. He was doing his best to make a beautiful place for his bride.

The day would come when the new dwelling place was finished, and the groom would return for his bride. On the day of his wedding, a trumpet would announce his coming. As the groom and his attendants passed through the village on the way to the bride’s home, they would shout.

While all this was going on, the bride would take a ritual bath – it was called a mikvah – and then be dressed in white linen. The groom would take the bride, followed by her attendants, back to his father’s house. That is where the ceremony was held, and the marriage consummated. Then the feast would begin, and it would sometimes continue for a week. It was at this kind of feast that Jesus turned water into wine.

Now overlay what I just shared about ancient Jewish weddings with what the Bible says about Christ and his church. Think of the bride price. In a passage where Paul urges the Corinthians to remain faithful to Christ, he reminds them: “You were bought with a price” (1 Cor. 6:20). Peter says, “For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed … but with the precious blood of Christ…” (1 Peter 1:18).

In light of the wedding tradition of the groom coming to get his bride at a time neither she nor others knew, think of Jesus’s words: “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mark 13:32) And what about the trumpet blast and the shouts: “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God” (1 Thess. 4:16). The pieces are falling together, aren’t they?

Remember that a glass of wine had been shared at the signing of the ketubah, and that a second glass of wine would be shared on the day of the wedding itself. Now recall Jesus’s words at the Lord’s Supper: “I tell you the truth, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it anew in the kingdom of God” (Mark 14:25).

After the ketubah, when the bride was promised to the groom and the covenant with was signed, the groom would return to his father’s house and begin preparing a place for his bride and him to live. Do you remember Jesus’s words to his disciples on the night of his betrayal? “In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (John 14:2-3).

Think of all the preparations that have gone on. Jesus spoke of “The kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.” “God,” said the author of Hebrews, “is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.” It is “The new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.” “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor mind conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.”

Who are all these preparations for? They are for the Bride of Christ, the church. For you and me, and all those to whom we are joined, if we belong to the church. Psalm 45 gives us the sense of what Christ feels for his church: “The king is enthralled by your beauty.”

Beauty? The Church? We who make up the church? We are all too aware of our blemishes and flaws. How can the King of kings find “the church of the dropouts, the losers, the sinners, the failures, and the fools,” as someone called it, beautiful?

On her wedding day, Joni Eareckson, who is a quadriplegic, felt terribly awkward. Her girlfriends struggled to get her paralyzed body into her wedding gown. This is how she described it: “No amount of corseting and binding my body gave me a perfect shape. The dress just didn’t fit well. Then, as I was wheeling into the church, I glanced down and noticed that I’d accidentally run over the hem of my dress, leaving a greasy tire mark. My paralyzed hands couldn’t hold the bouquet of daisies that lay off-center on my lap. And my chair, though decorated for the wedding, was still a big, clunky gray machine with belts, gears, and ball bearings. I certainly didn’t feel like the picture-perfect bride in a bridal magazine.

“I inched my chair closer to the last pew to catch a glimpse of Ken in front. There he was, standing tall and stately in his formal attire. I saw him looking for me, craning his neck to look up the aisle. My face flushed, and I suddenly couldn’t wait to be with him. I had seen my beloved. The love in Ken’s face had washed away all my feelings of unworthiness. I was his pure and perfect bride.”

What changed? One look of transforming love from the bright eyes of the groom. That is what will change us too from losers, failures, and fools into the radiant bride of Christ, without wrinkle, stain, or any other blemish. Theologians call it the beatific vision. To lock eyes with the One whose briefest glance sets all heaven rejoicing will transform us forever.[1]

Ephesians 5:21-6:9 lets Jesus’s people see what a Christian’s relationships should look like. Verses 25-31 looks especially at a husband’s relationship to his wife. I have shared what that passage says many times over the years and drawn out truths for us husbands to apply, which is what Paul intended. But today I want to focus on what he says about Christ and the church in verses 25-27. Paul is using Christ to illustrate a point, but the illustration itself is rich and full of truth.

“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for herto 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.” 

This passage tells us what Christ did and what his purpose was in doing it. What did he do? He gave himself up for the church he loved. How did he do that? He humbled himself, took the form of a servant, suffered, and died a sacrificial death on the cross.

But this passage also tells us why he did that. It tells us his purpose. That is easy to spot in Greek because Paul uses the conjunction ἵνα, which means “so that” and denotes purpose, in verses 26 and 27. Christ endured humiliating and painful suffering – now, a literal translation of verse 26 – “so that she [the church] might be sanctified, being cleansed in a bath of water in the word.”

Remember that a first century Jewish bride had a ritual bath just prior to her wedding.

The NIV goes on, “to present her to himself,” but a literal translation runs, “so that” – another purpose statement – “he might present her to himself.” Why did Christ humble himself, take the form of a servant, become obedient unto death, even death on a cross? So that he could save the girl and make her – the church – his bride.

What is it all about – this story of an exalted king who leaves his throne, exchanges his royal robes for a work uniform, endures opposition from sinners, the shame of crucifixion, and an unjust and painful death? It is about that moment – a moment that begins but never ends – when the Lord Christ takes his glorious bride to himself. All history, including our stories with their joys and sorrows, triumphs and tragedies, is headed for this moment.

We, and all who have been on earth since the death and resurrection of Jesus, have lived our lives in that period between the betrothal and the wedding. When this age finally ends (and may it end soon!) the betrothal will also end—not because the groom and bride have gone their separate ways but because they have at last been joined. “Here,” as Dante put it, “begins the new life.” We’ll find, as C. S. Lewis so memorably put it, that “All [our] life in this world and all [our] adventures [have] only been the cover and the title page: now at last [we are] beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”[2]

Scripture addresses these things in various ways but reminds us that for now they are beyond our comprehension. Jesus said to Nicodemus, “If I have spoken to you about earthly things and you have not understood, how would you understand if I spoke to you about heavenly things?” The implication is that even the Teacher of Israel could not understand what awaits us. We need to be changed even to conceive so exceeding and eternal a weight of glory.

Paul says that he was caught up into the third heaven where he “saw inexpressible things – things that no one is permitted to tell” (2 Cor. 12:4). The reason for this prohibition is, I suspect, that even the most eloquent and powerful words are bound to mislead. I suppose that someone who had seen what Paul saw and tried to describe it would start and stop a hundred times – “It was like this … Well, no, it wasn’t like that at all” – and then finally give up.

Jesus speaks of what awaits as “the renewal of all things.” The word he used, palingenesia, means literally, “genesis again.” We were not there to witness the first creation. We will be there for the second. But the second genesis will not only happen around us but in us. We will be part of it. “We will be changed, said St. Paul, “in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye” (1 Cor. 15:52). In that instant, we will be transformed: from mortal to immortal, corruptible to incorruptible, weakness to power, dishonor to glory. Anyone who could experience even a moment of that glory would trade his or her entire life for it.

St. Paul, thinking of what awaits us, writes, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” Imagine that for a moment. Our presents sufferings. The old man aches and pains I am beginning to feel. The grief I have known as a brother, a son, a friend. I think of all those times I have sat with people who breathed their last breath. Those times when a life support device was breathing it for them until the medical staff unhooked it. The babies, children, and aged parents whose hands I’ve held as they passed out of this life. The impotence I have felt in the face of wrong. The frustration at my own failure. The disappointment I’ve known at the failures of people I trusted.

Our present sorrows weigh heavily upon us. Our own failures and foolishness are a burden we have had to bear. (Thank God, the weightier burden of our sins was born by another!) We have known sorrow and suffering. Yet, look at what Paul says and dare to believe it: “Our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”

In another place (2 Corinthains 4:17) he writes, “Our light affliction …” Pardon me? Light affliction? I would scoff if this wasn’t coming from a man who spent years unjustly imprisoned, was beaten, berated, hated, and mocked.Yet he calls it “our light affliction, which is but for a moment,” and says it “is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.” We are destined for glory because we are betrothed to the glorious Christ.

Andrew Peterson was right: “We’ll look back at these tears as old tales.” “And in the end – the end! – is oceans and oceans of love and love again. We’ll see how the tears that have fallen were caught in the hands of the Giver of love and Lover of all, and we’ll look back at these tears as old tales.”

But when will the Bridegroom come and wipe away our tears? When will he fulfill our dreams? After Pearl Harbor, many young couples hurried up and got engaged before the man went off to the other side of the world to fight. The wedding wouldn’t take place until the war ended or he had acquired enough leave to come home. Young women and their mothers would plan the wedding, even print the invitations, but leave the date off. They didn’t know when the bridegroom would return, so they kept abreast of the news and stayed ready. Then one day, the bride-to-be would receive a telegram: “Get your dress ready. I’m on my way.”[3]

There is a war going on and the church’s bridegroom is away. We don’t know when he will appear. But you can be sure there is nothing in heaven or on earth or under the earth that will stop him from coming back for us, his church. If you are not part of the church, join us by putting your faith in Jesus Christ. Lend you voice with ours and with the Spirit’s and say, “Even so, come Lord Jesus.”

[1]Will Willimon, This We Believe: The Good News of Jesus Christ for the World, (Zondervan) p. 222

[2][2] C. S. Lewis, The Last Battle

[3] Adapted fromBetsy Childs Howard, Seasons of Waiting (Crossway, 2016), page 35.


About salooper57

Husband, father, pastor, follower. I am a disciple of Jesus, learning how to do life from him. I read, write, walk, play a little guitar, enjoy my family.
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