I’ll be honest. For much of my journey with Jesus, a central doctrine of Scripture not only puzzled me, but actually made me squirm whenever it was brought up. No I’m not talking about any secondary buzz topics like women in ministry, signs, gifts, or pre vs. post-trib. It’s actually a topic that’s found in the New and Old testament, talked about by Jesus, and builds a chasse for the gospel itself. What foundational truth could possibly elicit my disinclination? My aversion was to none other than the comparison of Christ and the church to marriage.
I can’t pinpoint the exact reason for my repulsion. Perhaps my it stemmed from focusing too much on the physical side of marriage. Or maybe it was odd to think of male believers being referred to as a bride. Add a bit of agitation from unmet desires for marriage, and it was enough to make me cringe whenever a pastor decided to bring it up. If you happen to live and breathe ministry and podcasts like I do, then you know it’s a theme that comes up quite a bit. Given that it’s also a common focus in God’s Word, I felt guilty for my revulsion.
Sick of the awkward vibes, I recently embarked on a path of discovery. My end goal was to value the concept of Christ and the church as much as Scripture does. After taking a good look at passages pertaining to marriage, I decided that the key to fully understanding why marriage is used as a gospel parallel was to examine Jewish traditions for marriage. I wasn’t disappointed. The result was more fruitful and encouraging than I could have ever imagined. Mind if I conduct a quick cultural anthropology lesson?
In Jewish tradition, there are two parts to a wedding ceremony, the “kiddushin”[i], or betrothal, and the “nissuin”[ii], or nuptial ceremony. A betrothal is different from what we understand an engagement to be today. Engagements can be broken off easily, but a betrothal in historic Jewish culture involved a contract that required an actual divorce to dissolve[iii]. The couple was wedded, but not yet living together, and the time frame was usually specified in the contract as to what needed to happen before the ceremony and wedding feast could take place. We see a similar occurrence in the Bible with Jacob and Rachel. The contract in this case was done between the bridegroom and the bride’s father, but Talmud expert Maurice Lamm says that, contrary to many cultures at the time, the consent of the bride was always required in Jewish custom[iv]. This is evident in the love story between Rebecca and Isaac. Lamm also remarks on the importance of the totality of the Betrothal, which basically sums up “till death do us part.” [v] It is also imperative to note that the only spouse who signs the Betrothal contract in the presence of witnesses is the bridegroom, and his contract displays how he will provide for her[vi].
The redemptive implications of this model as it relates to our “marriage” with Christ are profound. Christ came to earth on a mission of betrothal. We see evidence of this at the beginning of his three year ministry in John 3:28-30, when John the Baptist calls Jesus the “bridegroom” and designates himself as the best man, preparing the way for the one who would woo His bride. Jesus went on to pay a high price on the cross, supplying a verbal contract that promised to prepare a place for his followers before coming back to retrieve them in John 14. Notice how Christ is the one doing all the work. He does not require us to sign the contract; He only requires our consent, “because if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). Furthermore, Ephesians 2:8 explains that we do not do any of the saving, but it is “by grace [we] have been saved.” Ephesians 4:30 adds that we are sealed by the Holy Spirit “until the day of redemption.”
So listen up, church! We have a contract, a seal, and a promise of an eventual wedding ceremony as our groom prepares a place for us to dwell with Him for eternity. I hear from married friends that engagements can be a rough business, and our time of betrothal on earth is no piece of cake either. Our groom told us it would be difficult, but He also promises a beautiful homecoming to His Father’s house that will terminate the betrothal era and begin part two, the “nissuin.”
During a Jewish nuptial ceremony, there is much celebration and feasting. In the same way, Christ will be together with His bride to enjoy the marriage supper of the Lamb. Indeed, it is what He refers to during the last supper with His disciples, saying, “For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” (Luke 22:18) In Revelation 19:7-8, we see a glimpse of what is to come as all of heaven says, “ ‘Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, 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.”
Unearthing these beautiful truths added so much more depth to my perception of the gospel. Rather than being squeamish about the gospel metaphor between Christ and His Bride, I now stand in awe. Even as a single person, the picture of marriage holds so much more meaning for me. If the God of the universe has invited me into this covenant relationship and chooses in His love to provide an earthly picture for all eyes to gaze at, then marriage becomes relevant to everyone.
These themes, when preached on, should cause us to marvel at the Gospel. They should cause us to think on ways to be a better follower of Christ as part of His bride, the church. They should cause us to pray for our fellow married brothers and sisters, that they would mirror Christ’s redemptive plan to the world. Lastly, instead of allowing those kinds of messages to fuel insecurities, they should bolster the confidence we have in Christ’s signed, sealed, and delivered betrothal.
[i] Lamm, Maurice. The Jewish Way in Love and Marriage. New York: Jonathan David Publishers, Inc. 1980. pp. 148-160.
[ii] Lamm, pp. 160-168
[iii] Lamm, p. 154
[iv] Lamm, p. 153
[v] Lamm, p. 161
[vi] Lamm, p. 154, 158