A Biblical Theology of Marriage — the New Covenant
1. From Old Testament to New
The Old Testament contains two contrasting narratives regarding marriage. On the one hand, there is the decline we looked at in session 1 ‘from the garden to the harem’. The great king Solomon accumulates wives and concubines who, in the end, prove to be his downfall.
On the other hand, there is a clear understanding throughout the history of Israel that the nation stands in a ‘marital’ relationship with God — a relationship that is not abandoned by God, despite the unfaithfulness of the nation.
Hence in Jeremiah 3:14 we read,
14 “Return, faithless people,” declares the Lord, “for I am your husband. I will choose you — one from a town and two from a clan — and bring you to Zion.”
This, despite the circumstances of v 20:
“But like a woman unfaithful to her husband, so you have been unfaithful to me, O house of Israel,” declares the Lord.
Significantly, the New Covenant promise Jeremiah makes reference to this marital relationship:
31 “The time is coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. (Jer 31:31-32)
This New Covenant is to be unbreakable (see vv 33-34), and so we may assume that the people of God will at last be his faithful bride. However, at the end of the Old Testament, that hope remains yet to be fulfilled. The arrival of Jesus signals its fulfilment.
2. The Bridegroom Comes
Within Jesus’ own ministry, there are already hints at the ‘bridegroom’ role he plays. John’s gospel records that John the Baptist clearly understood the implications of the Christ’s coming in these terms:
28 You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Christ but am sent ahead of him.’ 29 The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. 30 He must become greater; I must become less. (John 3:28-30)
The way that John describes the revelation of Christ’s glory at the wedding at Cana in Galilee John 2:1-11 is probably also meant to be seen as picking up this motif.
In the Synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) there are also references to Jesus as the bridegroom. In Matthew 9, challenged as to why his disciples do not fast, Jesus replies,
How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast. (9:15; cf Mk 2:19-20; Lk 5:34-35)
In the parables, the return of the Messiah is also depicted in terms of the arrival of a bridegroom for a wedding feast (Matt 25:1-13), and the inauguration of the kingdom is compared to a wedding feast (Matt 22:1-14).
3. Christ the Bridegroom
It is in the epistles (including Revelation), however, that we see the most developed understanding of Christ’s role as the bridegroom.
This ought not to worry us unduly. In the gospels, it is possible for Jesus to say to Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” (Mk 8:29), or for the disciples to ask in terror, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him.” (Mk 4:41). At this point, there are a number of possible answers (though only one correct one).
By the time we get to the epistles, however, the post resurrection-Christ and the Holy Spirit in the apostles, have already done their work, and those questions now receive definitive answers.
Thus, since Christ is the one in whom “the fullness of the deity lives in bodily form” (Col 2:9), all the Old Testament promises regarding God as the husband of Israel are transferred to Christ as the husband of the Church.
Indeed the apostle Paul sees his own apostolic role as that of a marriage-broker. In 2 Corinthians 11:2, he writes,
2 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.
And in the book of Revelation, the final ushering-in of the kingdom is depicted as the revealing of a bride for the Saviour-Messiah:
2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. (Rev 21:2)
The last dialogue in the Bible is between the Spirit in the earthly Church and the longed-for Bridegroom:
17 The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” [...] 20 He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. (Rev 22:17,20)
In fact there may be a link theologically between the word spoken in v 17 above and the clearly primitive (because it is in Aramaic) invocation recorded in 1 Corinthians 16:22, where Paul writes, “Marana tha” (“Come, O Lord!”, NIV)
Arguably, this invocation (presumably quoted rather than coined by the apostle) is the same voice of “the Spirit and the bride” we read in Revelation — in other words the understanding of the Church as the ‘waiting bride’ was a very early tradition. Certainly we would not have to look far for the sources of such a tradition, for of course it is as old as the Old Testament itself.
4. Marriage and Salvation
It would be fair to say, furthermore, that Paul’s ‘marital’ understanding of the relationship between Christ and the Church is central to his soteriology — his understanding of salvation.
In Romans 7, for example, the Christian community is likened to a woman whose husband has died, freeing her to marry another.
2 For example, by law a married woman is bound to her husband as long as he is alive, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law of marriage. 3 So then, if she marries another man while her husband is still alive, she is called an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she is released from that law and is not an adulteress, even though she marries another man. (Rom 7:2-3)
The illustration is complex, however, because the Church is itself depicted as dying:
4 So, my brothers, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit to God. (Rom 7:4)
This may seem muddled, but the complication arises because Christ is both the husband who has died and the live husband. When he dies, he dies under the law — he is in the place of our first ‘husband’. But we also die with him (a fact expressed by our baptism ‘into his death’).
The same background thinking is present in Galatians :
19 ... through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. 20 I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. (Gal 2:19-20a)
13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.” (Gal 3:13)
Our old ‘husband’, the law of sin and death, dies on the cross when Christ dies for us. What is often overlooked, however, is that not only does Christ die for us, but we die with him. There is an identity between the ‘sinful sinner’ (namely ourselves) and the ‘sinless sin-bearer’ who is Christ. And this identification depends on the marital relationship between the Redeemer and the redeemed.
5. The Body of Christ
Anyone reading Paul will soon discover his liking for ‘body’ language in relation to the Church. In Romans 13 and 1 Corinthians 12 particularly, the church is compared to a body with many parts, so each believer is encouraged to see that they do not have to be a ‘Jack of All Trades’, but rather have particular (and limited) gifts which contribute to the life of the whole.
This is not just a convenient illustration, however. We might make the same point in other ways, for example by talking about an army with different units or a city with different trades.
The body language Paul uses stems from his understanding that the Church is specifically Christ’s body. And it is his body because of its marital union with him.
In 1 Corinthians 6, for example, he writes,
16 Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, “The two will become one flesh.” 17 But he who unites himself with the Lord is one with him in spirit.
This idea is most fully developed, however, in Ephesians 5. Here, husbands and wives are urged to see themselves as living in a symbiotic relationship which reflects the relationship between Christ and the Church. Thus he writes,
28 ... husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. [...] 29 After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church — 30 for we are members of his body. (Eph 5:28a,29-30)
And the rationale for this is drawn directly from the second chapter of Genesis, which Paul immediately quotes from to reinforce his argument:
31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a profound mystery — but I am talking about Christ and the church. (Eph 5:31-32)
For Paul, this is another example of biblical typology, where something found in the Old Testament reaches its fulfilment in the events of the New. In Colossians 2, Paul applies this to festivals, new moons and the Sabbath:
17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. (Col 2:17)
Here in Ephesians, he sees the ‘one flesh union’ of married couples, beginning with Adam and Eve, as fulfilled in Christ and the Church. These two also become ‘one’, which is how Paul can go on to say so categorically that we died with Christ, we are raised with Christ and even that we are circumcised in him (Col 2:11).
The sixteenth century Reformer, Martin Luther, made great play of this in his understanding of salvation. Thus he wrote,
By this mystery, as the Apostle teaches, Christ and the soul become one flesh. And if they are one flesh and there is between them a true marriage — indeed the most perfect of all marriages, since human marriages are but poor examples of this one true marriage — it follows that everything they have they hold in common, the good as well as the evil. Accordingly the believing soul can boast of and glory in whatever Christ has as though it were its own, and whatever the soul has Christ claims as his own. Let us compare these and we shall see inestimable benefits. Christ is full of grace, life, and salvation. The soul is full of sins, death, and damnation. Now let faith come between them and sins, death, and damnation will be Christ’s, while grace, life, and salvation will be the soul’s; for if Christ is a bridegroom, he must take upon himself the things which are his bride’s and bestow upon her the things that are his. If he gives her his body and very self, how shall he not give her all that is his? And if he takes the body of the bride, how shall he not take all that is hers? (LW 31:35)
Luther, I think, captures well the implications and application of the Pauline position.
6. The Genesis of Marriage
What we must understand from this, therefore, is that marriage is not simply a human ordinance or a social construct. Rather, as the Roman Catholic theologian Edward Schillebeeckx rightly says, it is a ‘saving mystery’. The Church of England reflects this understanding in its marriage service, where the Book of Common Prayer says,
... holy Matrimony ... is an honourable estate, instituted of God in the time of man’s innocency, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church ...
Human marriage takes its being from something far more significant than a social convention, a biological imperative or a legal construct.
Human marriage ultimately mirrors the relationship between the Creator-Redeemer God and his created-redeemed people, which is a saving relationship not just because of the love of God for his people, but because of the union of Christ with the Church.
The linguist and social theorist Noam Chomksy once coined the term ‘deep structures’ to talk about those aspects of language which lie beyond the mere use of ‘names for objects’ and ‘words for actions’ — aspects we codify as ‘grammar’, but which make up a kind of fundamental, inbuilt pattern that shapes all language.
In a similar way, we might say that theologically speaking, marriage is part of call the ‘deep structures’ of the universe — as foundational to reality as ‘love’, ‘goodness’ and ‘personhood’. For in that which is reflected in human marriage we find the key to salvation itself. It is because God can do something in relation to us — something which brings us into ‘union with Christ’ — that salvation is effected through Christ’s death on the cross and our union with him in his death.Please give a full name and location when posting. Comments without this information may be deleted. Recommend: