The Church: The Bride of Christ
John B. D. Page, Harrow
Interwoven into this practical paragraph for a harmonious marital relationship between husbands and wives (which should be based upon the divine pattern of Christ and His bride), there are facets of truth concerning the bridal affinity between Christ and the Church, to which we should give attention.
Immediately, we notice that, unlike other illustrations and metaphors, the marital union of husband and wife is not used to set forth divine truths concerning the betrothal relationship between Christ and the Church because, owing to human weaknesses in marriage, the illustration would be inappropriate; rather the writer uses the bridal tie between Christ and the Church as an example for Christian couples to emulate.
Foran understanding of the Church's relationship to Christ some knowledge of betrothal and wedding customs in the Middle East is helpful as a background; these are found in Genesis 24, Ezekiel 16 and other scriptures.
With eastern customs in mind, we shall consider
Choosing a Bride. Unlike a western young man finding a bride for himself, an eastern young man's parent chooses a bride for him as Hagar did for her son, Ishmael, and as Judah did for his firstborn son, Er, Gen. 21. 21; 38.6.
If a bridegroom's father is a widower, he sometimes engages an agent, which explains how Abraham, after the death of his wife, appointed "his eldest servant . . . that ruled over all that he had", 24. 2, a responsible steward in this wealthy sheik's household, to go and find a bride for his son. For the mission, this senior "servant" acted as an agent to his master. How beautifully it illustrates the Holy Spirit who, as the divine Agent, is taking out a people to be a bride for the Son of God!
Our next point is
Espoused Love. "Christ also loved the church", Eph. 5. 25, says Paul. To an easterner, "love" is not something sentimental but something sacred and pure, and it has not been dragged down to a dismal and debased level as in the western world. With this eastern understanding of love, we should read the Song of Solomon. According to this 25th verse, the initiative is from the divine side, for we do not read "the church loved Christ", but "herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us ... We love him, because he first loved us", 1 John 4. 10, 19, which indicates that divine love produces and fosters in us a reverential love for the Lord. Human love fluctuates and is subject to change, but divine love is constant and never varies.
A Bridegroom's Dowry. Love, whether human or divine, cannot remain dormant, but it must express itself, and invariably love is known by the actions that it prompts. Having stated "Christ also loved the church", Paul adds, "and gave himself for it". Probably, Paul is alluding to "the dowry of virgins" which is an eastern custom of a bridegroom paying a dowry for his bride, as Boaz said of Ruth, " I have purchased (her) to be my wife", Ruth 4. 10; also Exod. 22. 16-17; Gen. 34.12.
What a dowry the divine Bridegroom paid for His bride! He "gave himself" for her. To what extent did He give Himself? He gave His soul: Matt. 20. 28, "the Son of man came ... to give his life (or, "soul", as in John 12. 27) . . .". He gave His flesh: John 6. 51, "... I will give . . . my flesh . . .". He gave His body: Luke 22. 19, "This is my body which is given for you". Indeed, He withheld nothing, but He gave Himself—His all!
Five times, the New Testament reiterates that Christ "gave himself"; see also Gal. 1. 4; 2. 20; Titus 2. 14; 1 Tim. 2. 5-6. In the verse before us, there is no suggestion of the penal aspect of Christ's sacrifice as in Galatians 1. 4, "(He) gave himself for our sins", signifying that His death is the basis of our salvation, but the words, He gave Himself for the Church, denote His utter devotion to His bride as displayed in His death.
A Betrothal Covenant. Having found a bride for his principal's son, an agent arranges a betrothal covenant, by which a bride is set apart exclusively for the bridegroom, and it is binding like a marriage.
In Ezekiel 16. 8, the Lord reminds Israel, "I ... entered into a covenant with thee, saith the Lord God", referring to His betrothal covenant with her, "and thou becamest mine". This may be applied to Christ and the Church for upon the basis of the new covenant Christ may say to His bride, "thou becamest mine", and truly the Church is His, because it is "for his own possession", Titus 2. 14 r.v.
Turning now to verse 26, Paul continues, "that he might sanctify it", or literally "set it apart". The apostle may be alluding to this custom of a betrothal covenant, for both he and his eastern readers were familiar with its significance. The underlying thought may be the bride-Church "set apart" for the divine Bridegroom, and so she enjoys a unique relationship with Christ, being separated from evil and belonging exclusively to Christ. Like a bride of Bible times, she then says, "My beloved is mine, and I am his", Song of Songs 2. 16. Her sole title to such an intimate relationship is the sacrifice of Christ, whilst the Holy Spirit is the Agent sanctifying her; cf. Rom. 15. 16.
During her betrothal, an eastern bride does not see her bridegroom but the agent tells her of him, even as Abraham's servant, acting in this capacity, spoke not of himself but of his master's son, who was born when his master's wife was old and to whom his master had given all he had, Gen. 24. 34, 36. This foreshadows how "the Spirit of truth" speaks not of Himself but he testifies of Christ, revealing to us the marvel of Christ's incarnation, His sinless life and the meaning of His death, besides showing forth "the unsearchable riches of Christ", John 15. 26; 16. 13; Eph. 3. 8. Therefore, Christ-honouring ministry is of the Holy Spirit.
A Bride's Ablution. Next, a bride washes herself with water and anoints herself with oil, as Ruth did before her marriage to Boaz, Ruth 3. 3. With this custom in mind, Jehovah says to Israel, His wife, "Then washed I thee with water; yea, I thoroughly washed away thy blood from thee, and I anointed thee with oil", Ezek. 16. 9. For a pre-marital ablution, which is apparently still practised in the Middle East, a bride washes the whole of her body, not just her hands and feet, in a large vessel of water.
Paul appears to have in mind this ceremonial ablution and applies it to the Church, the bride of Christ, when he says, "and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word", Eph. 5. 26. For such an ablution, the water in a bath is static and so it is emblematic of the Word of God, as indicated here by Paul, whereas running water is figurative of the Holy Spirit, John 7. 38-39. In this 26th verse, the Revisers show that the verb is an aorist participle by rendering the verse, "having cleansed it by the washing of water with the word", which signifies that the ablution is not continuous but a single act.
"Washing" is the translation of loutron, a noun, meaning a large vessel for water such as a bath or laver, and it is akin to the verb louo, to wash the body wholly, whilst nipto is used chiefly of washing part of the body; both verbs occur in John 13. 10. The washing is "the washing of regeneration", Titus 3. 5, where the same word is used, and it took place when we were born again.
The same thought underlies the washing of the priests at their consecration, Exod. 29. 4, to which reference is made in Hebrews 10. 21.
Although not mentioned in the verse under consideration, a daily cleansing from sin's defilement by the water of the Word is equally essential, as stated in 2 Corinthians 7. 1, "having, therefore these promises", which refer to quotations from Leviticus, Isaiah and Hosea at the end of chapter 6, "let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness
. . .", R.V.
Bridal Attire. After her ablution and anointing with oil, a bride puts on her wedding raiment as Ruth did, Ruth 3. 3.
Apparently, the bridegroom provides the wedding garment, as Abraham's servant, acting as agent, did for Rebekah, Gen. 24. 53, and as Jehovah did for Israel, His wife, "I clothed thee also with broidered work, . . .and thy raiment was of fine linen, and silk, and broidered work", Ezek. 16. 10, 13. Speaking to Israel about her bridal attire, the Lord says in Isaiah 61. 10 that He has clothed her with "the garments of salvation" and "the robe of righteousness". Although Paul does not take up this point concerning the Church, as the bride, he teaches the doctrine of imputed righteousness to believers as individuals when he says, "the righteousness of God", like a garment, is "upon all them that believe", Rom. 3. 22.
Where a bridegroom cannot afford to provide a wedding garment for his bride, the custom is apparently for a bride to weave her own. This reversed thought may have been in John's mind when he saw the Lamb's wife, the glorified Church, arrayed "in fine linen, bright and pure, for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints", and in this way she "made herself ready" on earth, Rev. 19. 7-8, r.v. Here, John sets forth the complementary doctrine of practical righteousness.
Presentation of a Bridle. "That he might present it to himself. . .", says Paul, Eph. 5. 27. In Bible times, there was no religious ceremony for an eastern wedding, but a blessing was pronounced by the elders of a community, as in the case of the marriage between Boaz and Ruth, Ruth 4, 11 -12. Before such a blessing, the custom was for a bridegroom to go out and meet his bride who returned with him to his father's house, as Isaac went out and met Rebekah and took her home, Gen. 24. 65. A bride was then presented to her bridegroom who removed her bridal veil, casting it over his right shoulder, and so the bridegroom then beheld his bride for the first time! This indsad is a picture of the divine Bridegroom coming to meet His bride, the Church, in the air, and she will return with Him to His Father's house, 1 Thess. 4. 17; Juhn 14. 1-2. Throughout her long betrothal on earth, she has seen through a glass darkly, but "then face to face" and she "shall see him as he is", 1 Cor. 13. 12; 1 John 3. 2.
At the presentation of the bride-Church to the divine Bridegroom, she will be "a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing . . .", Eph. 5. 27. This certainly echoes of Jehovah telling His wife, Israel, "thy beauty; . . . was perfect through my comeliness, which I had put upon thee", Ezek. 16.14. Also, Rebekah was "very fair to look upon", Gen. 24. 16, and the wife of Jehovah was "renowned" for her "beauty", but the Church will be "glorious"! J. N. Darby's New Translation reads, "that he might present the assembly to himself glorious, having no spot, or wrinkle". In The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, Dr. Alfred Martin points out that "the adjective 'glorious' is predicative rather than attributive; that is, 'that He might present the Church as glorious'. 'Not having spot' is further explanation of the word 'glorious' as descriptive of the bride of Christ".
"Having no spot" may be an allusion to the Shulamite bride, of whom her Shepherd-lover, as He gazed upon her, said, ". . . there is no spot in thee", Song of Songs 4. 7. Concerning the divine Bridegroom, His spotless beauty is incomparable, for He is "fairer than the children of men", Psa. 45. 2. The glorious splendour of the Church in the day of her presentation will be of virgin beauty; cf. 2 Cor. 11.2, free from moral spotorstain and of absolute flawlessness in character. She will be perfect through the comeliness of Christ which He will put upon her; cf. Ezek. 16. 14. What Christ is, the Church will be!
Continuing in verse 27, Paul says, "but that it should be holy and without blemish". Such a state of holiness and perfection for the Church, which was purposed by God "before the foundation of the world", Eph. 1. 4, was made possible by Christ having loved, purchased, sanctified and cleansed her, and it will be realized fully at the presentation of the Church, as His bride, to Himself.
After an eastern wedding, a bridegroom takes his bride for seven days into a bridal chamber in his father's house for consummation of the marriage; cf. Gen. 24. 67. This custom may have been in Paul's mind when he quotes Genesis 2. 24 "they shall be one flesh" to describe marital union. As he applies it to Christ and the Church, he exclaims, "This is a great mystery; but I speak concerning Christ and the church", Eph. 5. 31 -32. This mystical union between Christ and the Church, illustrated by that of a bridegroom and his bride, surpasses human comprehension, and we shall certainly enter the eternal bliss of this nuptial union at the presentation of the bride-Church to the divine Bridegroom.