A bride from eternity
We often speak of the glorious themes of Scripture, which recur and develop through the Old Testament and on into the New, as ‘threads’ in the fabric of the written Word of God. There is the scarlet thread of Christ’s atoning sacrifice and the types and prophecies that point to it. There is also the golden thread of Christ’s universal kingship and its related prophecies.
In considering the theme of Christ and his bride, the church, we might perhaps speak of ‘the white thread’ (especially given the pictures of Revelation 19). In this series of articles we shall consider the striking material in Ephesians 5:22-33 relating to Christ and the church and, as we do so, it is important that we trace the pictures (and the related visions of Revelation) back to their Old Testament roots. This will help us understand the nature of this relationship, this covenant of grace, in the context of the whole sweep of redemptive history.
With only a certain degree of truth, the novelist D. H. Lawrence once said that ‘the relationship between a man and a woman is the central fact to life’. Without question, however, the relationship of Christ to the church is the central fact of the universe, for it is the reason for its existence!
In view of this, we are under an obligation to make sure that our understanding of the relationship is correct. We must not make the mistake of viewing it in terms of the modern western concept of marriage, which is an agreement in which two people make an equal commitment and an equal act of will in coming together.
Such a view of the marriage bond was alien to the cultures of Old and New Testament times, where the initiative belonged only to the bride’s father (in terms of giving the bride away) and to the bridegroom. Scripture uses various analogies to illustrate the relationship of God to his people — for example, sheep and their shepherd, and a father and his son — but in each relationship it is also made clear where sole authority resides.
In ancient times, as in many oriental societies today, marriages were normally ‘arranged’. We see this, for example, in the account of a wife being found for Isaac (Genesis 24). This may not have been true to the same degree in the Greek culture of the New Testament, but the father still retained the right of giving the daughter away.
This authority of the father is clear in the way in which marriages were arranged: parents usually selected a bride for their son. The new bride became a member of the family clan and the question of her suitability was not for the bridegroom alone to decide.
We are God’s by right of creation and Paul remarks, ‘Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour?’ (Romans 9:21). In this we see the gracious purposes of the Father towards the church in giving her to the Son.
In the mysterious doctrine of divine election according to love, God was willing to set his love upon those who were unsuitable (being dead in our trespasses and sins) and give us to the Son. The marriage of Christ to the church was something fixed upon in eternity.
Although, in human marriages, the ‘bride-price’ was normally fixed at the point of betrothal, we know that Christ is the Lamb of God slain from before the foundation of the world (1 Peter 1:20). The whole plan of redemption turns upon the payment of that price by Christ upon the cross. He cried out ‘It is finished!’, meaning the debt is paid (John 19:30).
Since the Father gave a people to the Son for a bride from eternity, it is not a case of Christ wooing and courting a bride for himself, in the manner of a desperate bachelor. It is nothing like the courtly love of the Middle Ages, where the male-female roles were subverted. Then, the male elevated his noble lady and begged upon his knees, while his lady had power to refuse him. It is not so with Christ and his church.
The love of the Father
This is not to deny that Christ does, indeed, represent himself as a lover. He has shown himself to be such with the most powerful of loves, with real emotion and passion. Christ was, however, always in authority, particularly over his church, of which he is the head and which, as his glory, is submissive to him.
He humbled and emptied himself, and took the part of a servant. His submission, however, was always only to his Father. All took place according to his Father’s will. It was entirely from everlasting love that he set his favour upon a particular people, so that those ‘Which in time past were not a people … are now the people of God: [those] which had not obtained mercy … now have obtained mercy’ (1 Peter 2:10).
The Father was under no obligation to set his love on any, but everlasting praise is due to him because he did. John Owen expressed it thus:
‘The love of the Father is freely given to us. He loves us because he wanted to love us. There was, there is, nothing in us to give God any reason why he should love us. If we deserved God’s love, we would not value it so highly. Things which are owed to us are seldom gratefully received.
‘But that which was in eternity before we existed must of necessity be absolutely free if it is given to us for our well-being. This free choice of the Father as to whom he would love, and that he would love them, gives life and being to his love. It also gives the reason why he loves, and gives value to his love’.
Who loved first?
Should we say, as some do, that God loved us because he foreknew that we would love him? ‘This is the most preposterous thing that could be said,’ replies Owen. ‘It truly robs God of his glory. “Herein is love”, says the Holy Spirit, “not that we loved God, but that he loved us” (1 John 4:10-11).
‘Note well that he loved us first. Would you then turn this upside down and say, “In this is love, not that God loved me, but that I first loved him”? This is to take the glory of God away from him. God loves us when there is nothing in us to deserve his love or to cause him to love us.
‘On the other hand,’ continues Owen, ‘we have every reason in the world to love him. But you would have it the other way round. You would have it that there should be something in you for which God should love you. You would have it that God should love you because you first loved him. And you think you should love God before you see anything lovely in him. You first want to find out whether he loves you or not, before you love him. This is the way of the corrupt unbeliever. He will not believe until he first finds out’.