Sex and Marriage – Article Series
1. The Bride and the Bridegroom
2. Sexual sin and purity
3. Purpose of marriage
4. Shape of marriage
5. Futility of marriage
6. Marriage or undivided devotion?
7. Dating for marriage
6 Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting: “Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns. 7 Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. 8 Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.” (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of God’s holy people.) 9 Then the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!” And he added, “These are the true words of God.” ~ Revelation 19:6-9 (NIV)
The Bible gives us many human analogies for God’s relationship with His people. We see God and His people described as the potter and the clay (Isaiah 64:8), the shepherd and the sheep (Ezekiel 34:12), and as father and sons (Romans 8:15-16). These vivid images are signposts that the one, true, living God uses throughout His word to point us to the incomprehensible reality of how it is that He relates to us. One of these images is that of the bridegroom and the bride, described in the Old Testament (e.g. Isaiah 54:5, Ezekiel 16), and revised in the New Testament to apply ultimately to the relationship between the Lord Jesus Christ and His church. Jesus refers to Himself as the bridegroom in Mark 2:19, and the Apostle Paul writes to the church in Corinth about how he, in ministering among them, “betrothed them to one husband…Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:2).
Before we proceed to look at God’s guidance and wisdom for marriage itself, we’re going to look at how the picture of marriage is intricately tied to the Christian story of what God is doing in the world through His Gospel. Indeed, the understanding of marriage that was present at the time of the writing of the Bible was appropriated and reinterpreted in the understanding of what it meant for Jesus to be the Lord of all. As we’ll see later in this article series, one of the challenges of reading the Bible is to consider which teachings and images are descriptive of the patriarchal context within the writers found themselves or prescriptive as an everlasting principle that transcends the time and context. So what was this understanding in the time and context of the writing of the Bible?
In the Ancient Near East (ANE), the wedding process would proceed (roughly) as follows:
a) Choosing a spouse – Either through parental discussion or the man expressing his desire, a man and woman would consensually enter into the betrothal process by committing to be wed to each other. Even though they were not fully married yet the binding nature of their word and agreement would be so strong that they would already be referred to as husband and wife. [This is why in Matthew 1:18-19 it can still be said that Joseph sought to divorce Mary even though they were only betrothed.]
b) Exchange of gifts – The bridegroom would give a gift to the father of the bride (usually referred to as the bride-price) as an expression of his commitment to marrying her. It was also a way to demonstrate that he would be able to provide for her and take care of her.
a) Preparing the clothing – The bride and bridegroom prepare to dress themselves in splendour and beauty for the occasion of the wedding.
b) Inviting the guests – Friends and family are invited to the ceremony. Refusing an invitation was considered extremely rude.
a) Procession – The bridegroom and guests went in procession to the house of the bride, usually accompanied by singing and dancing, and would walk back to the house of the bridegroom.
b) Wedding Feast – In the bridegroom’s house a feast/supper would be conducted in celebration of the marriage.
c) Covering + Exchange of vows – The bridegroom would cover the bride with his skirt as a symbol of taking her under his protection, and then blessings would be exchanged from parents and friends. A marriage contract would be written up as they expressed faithfulness to each other.
d) Bridechamber + Consummation – The parents of the bride would walk her to the bridechamber and present her to the bridegroom, and then the two of them would consummate their marriage by engaging in sex for the first time. The marriage ceremony was not completed until the marriage was consummated.
e) Festivities – Now that the marriage has been consummated, and they are completely husband and wife, the wedding festivities would continue for one or two weeks.
This cultural and historical understanding of marriage in the ANE can help us to better appreciate some aspects of what the Bible shows us about the Christian story of what God is doing with His people. I don’t think that the Scriptures gives us a complete one-to-one matching, but we can draw some similarities.
Betrothal – Before the foundation of the world, God the Father predestined His people, choosing the church to be the bride of His Son Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:3-4). And although it would have been well within His right to reject us because of our unfaithfulness to Him as sinners, Jesus still paid the ultimate bride-price for us, shedding His blood and purchasing us for Himself (Ephesians 5:25-27). Jesus showed us the extent of His love as the bridegroom of His adulteress bride by dying for her and cleansing her to present her as magnificent and spotless.
Preparation – Jesus clothes us in His righteousness (1 Corinthians 1:30), but also empowers His people in the present to walk in righteousness and obedience (Philippians 2:12-13), which are the clothing of the bride as described in Revelation 19:8-9. In evangelism we are proclaiming the marriage ceremony that is still to come, inviting them to join us, explaining not only about what Christ has done but about the future glory that awaits His people. What is miraculous is that unlike in human marriage the guests who come to this marriage ceremony will also be the bride themselves, the redeemed of God’s church. We the church are currently in preparation for the ceremony.
Ceremony – In Revelation 19:6-9 we see the marriage supper has arrived, where the Lamb, who is Jesus, has begun the ceremony to wed the bride, who has made herself ready. (Notice how it says that not only has she made herself ready with her clothing, but she was also given clothing to wear.) And in Revelation 21:1-4, we see it all culminate spectacularly. God escorts the bride, the church, the new Jerusalem, out of heaven and brings her to the new earth, presenting her, as it were, to the bridechamber. And in verses 3-4 we see the consummation of the marriage, the fulfillment of all the hopes and expectations that stem right back from Genesis 3 and have flowed on through the Old Testament and New Testament.
We see the end of pain and suffering, the end of death and decay, and the beginning of the church’s dwelling in the manifest presence of their God in perfect relationship and revealed glory. As Graeme Goldsworthy indicates, this is the consummation of the marriage, the hope to which God’s people long for and wait with eager expectation, and after which we see the church (the bride) referred to as the wife of Jesus for the first time in the book of Revelation (Revelation 21:9). For the ceremony has ended, the marriage is completed, and the festivities will never end as the people of God rejoice in love and glory in the presence of their Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ forever.
What does it mean for us, the church, to be the bride of Christ? For one thing, it means that we are, collectively, betrothed to Christ – not merely individually. And so the language of “I’m married to Jesus” doesn’t communicate the complete truth. It should really be “We, my dear brothers and sisters, are married (or to be married) to Jesus”. Briefly, here are three ways that this glorious truth changes our lives:
- In the church: The church, the people of God, is to love, care for, and encourage one another in fellowship and truth. For we are the bride of Christ, and we are, by His grace, growing in righteousness and obedience for the day of Christ’s return. And remember that Jesus gave His life for each and every one of our brothers and sisters; how can we not love and forgive when we have been so loved and forgiven, knowing that we are collectively (not individually) the bride of Christ?
- In marriage, dating, and singleness: Human marriage is to reflect the relationship between Christ and the church, not conforming to cultural norms but seeking to model itself upon what we see ultimately in Jesus. In dating, this understanding shapes what we look for in a spouse. And because the ultimate marriage, with the ultimate consummation of all our longings and hopes, is still to come we understand that human marriages are not ultimate. Those who are married or single are still waiting for that final marriage ceremony, and so neither state is to be seen as that which will complete us, but both are to be eagerly setting their hope for what is still to come. We will be speaking more about this in future posts.
- In our personal relationships with God: We are to invite guests to the wedding ceremony, proclaiming the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Be comforted knowing that God knows who His people are and will call them through your evangelism. And though you still sin, be assured that He who gave His life for the forgiveness of sins, purchasing you for Himself, and has demonstrably shown that He will present you to Himself holy and without blemish, to live with Him forever.
Does human marriage need to proceed with the steps outlined in the ANE context? Absolutely not! Those steps are a product of the time and context that the writers found themselves in. But the beauty of the image of the church being the bride and Jesus Christ being the bridegroom points us to the reality that human marriage is meant to point to; namely, the story of God’s rescue of His people to live with Him forever.
Marriage, then, is not an unimportant aspect of the Christian worldview. It is a gift of common grace to all humanity that can share in the privileges and pleasures that it offers, and is a signal to all of what awaits those who follow Christ. Indeed, every marriage is meant to point beyond itself towards the ultimate marriage that will occur between the true bridegroom and the true bride. Thank God that human marriage does not exist purely for itself. Thank God that we await the true consummation of all our hopes and desires, when we will see Him face to face. Come Lord Jesus! May that day come soon.