The New Testament utilizes numerous imageries or metaphors to convey the unique character of the Church. One of the most significant of these is the bride of Christ. This article pursues three modest objectives: (1) to locate the imagery in its biblical context; (2) to tease out some of its salient features; (3) and to offer a few theological implications.
Unlike the body imagery—whose origin some debate—most biblical scholars trace the marriage imagery to the Old Testament. It reveals marked differences between Israel’s religion and those of the surrounding pagan cults. For instance, the worship of Yahweh manifests the glaring absence of a female consort alongside Yahweh. At the same time, the Old Testament pictures the relationship between the Lord and Israel as most intimate, comparable to marriage. Patterson correctly assesses the ancient Near East literature and concludes “that the Scriptures are unique in employing [the husband and wife, and the bridegroom and bride] metaphors for divine human relations.” Ostensibly, the nations contemporaneous with Israel did not characterize their relationship with the gods in nuptial terms because, on one hand, they cherished polytheism and, on the other, they conceived of their gods as “primarily attached to specific geographic territories and only secondarily concerned with the inhabitants of those areas.”
The marriage imagery which describes the divine-Israel relationship appears incipiently in the Decalogue. In particular, the absolute monotheism of the first commandment—“I am the Lord your God…. You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:2–3)—points to the existence of an exclusive (marriage) covenant—a solemn, binding agreement ratified by an oath. Additionally, the disclosure that the covenant with Israel originates from divine ḥesed or covenantal love (Deut. 7:6–8), and that the Lord requires Israel’s love in response (Deut. 6:5) also suggests the presence of a marriage bond between Yahweh and His people.
However, the prophetic literature provides the most fruitful contribution to the marriage imagery in the Old Testament. Isaiah depicts the Lord as Israel’s spouse: “For your Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is His name; and your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel; He is called the God of the whole earth” (Isa. 54:5–6; cf. 62:4–5). Also, the onset of Jeremiah’s prophecy reveals that the Lord and Judah are united in marriage: “Go and cry in the hearing of Jerusalem, saying, Thus says the Lord: ‘I remember you, the kindness of your youth, the love of your betrothal, when you went after me in the wilderness, in a land not sown’” (Jer. 2:2). The reality of the marriage covenant explains why prophets such as Ezekiel and Hosea excoriated Israel for spiritual adultery (Ezek. 16; Hosea 1–3; cf. Isa. 1:21; 57:3–13; Jer. 3:20).
The marriage imagery undergoes significant development in the New Testament, where it becomes clear that in salvation-historical terms, the Church replaces Israel as the true people of God (1 Pet. 2:9–10; Gal. 3:29). Consequently, only members of the new covenant receive the privileged status as the bride of Christ. John the Baptist alludes to Christ’s marital bond with the Church when he identifies the Lord as the Bridegroom (John 3:29). Since John views Christ as the Bridegroom, it signifies that His people constitute His bride. Likewise, Jesus portrays Himself as the Bridegroom (Mark 2:18–20; cf. Matt. 9:15; Luke 5:34-35). Other depictions of the Church as the bride of Christ surface in several passages (2 Cor. 11:2; Eph. 5:32; Rev. 19:6–9; 22:2; 22:17). Some of these will receive treatment below.
What realities lie behind the imagery of the bride? Broadly considered, the bride and body imageries describe the same reality: the spiritual union between Christ and the Church. Nevertheless, these imageries are not synonymous. Whereas the body imagery stresses the Church in Christ as a “living organic unity composed of a multiplicity” the bride imagery nuances the relationship between Christ and the Church in three distinct ways.
First, the bride metaphor underscores the Church’s covenantal reality. Ephesians 5:25–33 represents the most instructive commentary on this metaphor. Paul situates this passage within the larger section of the household code (5:21–6:9). It follows immediately upon his appeal for wives to submit to their own husbands as to the Lord (vv. 22–24). Then verses 25–27 instruct husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the Church. The next section (vv. 28–32) repeats the summons for husbands to love their wives, but changes the point of comparison: husbands ought to love their wives as they love, cherish, and nourish their own bodies. Paul also clarifies the divine intent for marriage in Genesis 2:24 as one-flesh union between a husband and his wife (v. 31). Afterwards he insightfully divulges that the union between a man and his wife mirrors the more profound union between Christ and the Church: “This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church” (5:31–32).
The representation of the Christ-Church union as a marriage covenant emerges explicitly in the correlation between a man and his wife and that of Christ and the Church (Eph. 5:32). However, the idea of the marriage covenant between Christ and the Church pervades the entire section, commencing at verse 25: “Husbands love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her.” Paul depicts the love husbands should display towards their wives as sacrificial love. He states that Christ “handed over” (paradidōmi) Himself as an offering for the Church (5:25; cf. Eph. 5:2). Yet, it should not escape attention that the sacrificial love of Christ is ultimately covenantal love, precisely because it inaugurates the new covenant (Heb. 10:29; cf. Matt.26:28; 1 Cor. 11:25). One cannot properly appreciate the love of Christ without locating it in the context of His exclusive covenant with the Church.
Second, the bride metaphor demarcates the Church as an eschatological entity. Paul follows up the imperative for husbands to imitate Christ’s sacrificial love for the Church with three “that” clauses, which display the purposive nature of Christ’s love: “that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word; that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:26–27). The apostle informs his readers that Christ loved the Church for her ultimate sanctification. He purifies His people at conversion, but this task continues unabatingly until the consummation when Christ will present to Himself a radiant Church, free from all imperfections. O’Brien rightly observes that “by means of language of presentation (v. 27) the eschatological note is clearly struck.”
Paul implies that the eschatological glory of the Church involves moral and spiritual perfection. Consider his comment to the Corinthians: “For I am jealous for you with godly jealousy. For I have betrothed you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ” (2 Cor. 11:2). The term “betrothal” symbolizes their attachment to Christ at conversion. Furthermore, the reference to the presentation of these believers as “pure virgin” looks forward to the Parousia when Paul expects to present faithful saints to Christ.
The clearest depiction of the future glorification of the bride of Christ occurs in Revelation:
And I heard, as it were, the voice of a great multitude, as the sound of many waters and as the sound of mighty thunderings, saying, “Alleluia” For the Lord God Omnipotent reigns! Let us be glad and rejoice and give Him glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and His wife has made herself ready. And to her it was granted to be arrayed in fine linen, clean and bright, for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints (Rev. 19:6–8).
John visualizes the end of the age as a marriage feast. Christ’s marriage to the Church will climax in a jubilant and eternal celebration. At that time, the Bridegroom will adorn His bride with “fine linen” or perfect righteousness, which He produces in them by the Spirit.
Revelation 21:2–14 continues to flesh out the future glorification of the Church: “Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev. 21:2). John employs mixed-metaphors for the Church. He paints her simultaneously as the New Jerusalem and the bride. Verses 9–14 contain a breathtaking description of the bride-city radiating with the glory of God.
Craig Barnes overlooks the decisive eschatological thrust of the bridal imagery when he moots the idea that Christ possesses two wives, like Jacob who married Rachel and Leah. He likens the Church that Christ desires to Rachel, and the Church He must take—the Church with all her problems—to Leah. This creative suggestion falters, however, because Christ has only one bride. He loves her despite her warts and will eventually beautify her.
Third, the bride metaphor finely distinguishes the duty of the Church to Christ as spousal fidelity. Paul’s discussion of the duties of wives and husbands conclude in Ephesians 5:33 with a summarizing statement: “Nevertheless let each one of you in particular so love his own wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.” If the husband should display Christlike love for his wife, she should reverence (phobeō) him. Earlier in the chapter, Paul defines the responsibility of the wife to her husband as submission: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Saviour of the body. Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything” (vv. 22–24).
The issue most germane to our purpose relates to how the Church submits to Christ. The fact that Christ rules as Head over the Church renders dutiful obedience to Him the appropriate response. But the notion of the Church as the bride subtly nuances the manner in which she submits to Christ. The bride obeys Christ without any sense of grudging compulsion, and vitally, she places herself under His authority in trusting, loving, and faithful allegiance.
In drawing together the preceding discourse on the bride metaphor, a few ecclesiological observations appear pertinent. First, this metaphor manifests the extraordinary intimacy between Christ and His Church (cf. Acts 9:4). He unites Himself to His people by the Spirit. Yet, while husband and bride are of course inseparable, they are not identical. A failure to bear this in mind leads to egregious errors, among these are practical solipsism—living as though the self is all that exists—and arrogating divine prerogatives to ourselves.
Furthermore, the bride metaphor intimates that Christ and the Church are united in the new covenant. This covenant relationship admits mutuality: Christ bestows sovereign and sacrificial love upon His Church and she answers Him with loving and faithful obedience.
Finally, the eschatological destiny of the Church underlines the tension of the “now and the not yet.” In this life, the Church, the theatre of the Spirit, experiences the sanctifying work of Christ. Although she has not yet arrived at perfection, Christ’s death guarantees her future presentation in heaven. The Church militant will indeed be the Church triumphant.
Dr. Glendon Thompson is pastor of Jarvis Street Baptist Church, President of Toronto Baptist Seminary and Bible College, and Editor of the Gospel Witness.
Paul. S. Minear conservatively estimates that the New Testament contains eighty imageries of the Church. He believes this number rises to a hundred if one counts individual Greek words. See Images of the Church in the New Testament (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004), 28. Some of the images for the Church include the following: branches on a vine (John 15:5); the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:27; Eph. 5:29–30; Col. 1:18; 2:19); the household (Eph. 2:19); field (1 Cor. 3:6–9); building (1 Cor. 3:9); temple (1 Cor. 3:16–17; Eph. 2:19–22); 1 Pet. 2:5); people of God (1 Pet. 2:9–10); the new humanity (Eph. 2:15; 4:20–24); and new creation (2 Cor. 5:11).
See James. D. G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 549.
Patrick D. Miller, Israelite Religion and Biblical Theology (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 2000), 197.
Richard D. Patterson, “Metaphors of Marriage as Expression of Divine-Human Relations,” JETS, 51(4): September 2008, 690.
Daniel I. Block, The Gods of the Nations: Studies in Ancient Near Eastern National Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2000), 32.
Cf. P. T. O’Brien, “The Church as a Heavenly and Eschatological Entity,” in D. A. Carson (ed.), The Church in the Bible and the World (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 1987): 114.
Ronald Y. K. Fung, “Some Pauline Pictures of the Church,” Evangelical Quarterly 53, 96-97.
O’Brien, “The Church as a Heavenly and Eschatological Entity,” 115. See also, Fung, “Some Pauline Pictures of the Church,” 99.
O’Brien, “The Church as a Heavenly and Eschatological Entity,” 115.
Cf. C. K. Barrett, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians (Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 1973), 272.
Fung, “Some Pauline Pictures of the Church,” 98.
Cf. O’Brien, “The Church as a Heavenly and Eschatological Entity,” 115.