September 2012 - Vol. 62
Our most recent women’s retreat in the People of God community in Pittsburgh had as its theme Fully Engaged in Heart and Mind. As I mused on the theme I began to think about it in terms of an approaching marriage. What does it mean to be fully engaged to be married?
Many of us probably know at least one person – in our family, a friend, or an acquaintance – who has been in a perpetual state of engagement. They are in a holding pattern of sorts, waiting. For some there may be a legitimate reason for waiting to marry, for instance, an unexpected job loss or a sudden, serious illness. But, for others it is often an ambiguous waiting; there is no wedding date set, no clear direction and no vision for the future. It would seem these folks are less than fully engaged. To be fully engaged means that you are working toward something. There is a destination in mind, a building of the relationship and much thought and preparation given to the life that follows after the wedding day.
There are number of Scripture passages that refer to the church as the Bride of Christ. Given the magnitude of that reality, surely there are some serious implications to consider. Shouldn’t we be “fully engaged” right now? What should that look like? It seems to me that this realization should be having a significant impact on how we live our lives and how we spend our time and resources. Shouldn’t the realization of this key relationship be changing our thinking about what is really important?
The Bible does not mention the word engagement. However, in Scripture there are many references to the very common Jewish practice of betrothal, the custom that relates most closely to our modern engagement period. I believe the history of the Jewish custom of betrothal, in the Old and New Testaments, has something to teach us about what it means for the church to live as the Bride of Christ.
The Jewish custom
We can see from the Scriptures that families in biblical times often formed clans and tribes who lived in the same areas and stayed in close relationship with one another. They often married distant relatives within those clans and tribes, as we can see in the Old Testament examples of Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel, and many others. So to say “yes” to the proposal was to do so with some knowledge of the person you were committing yourself to.
If both were in agreement, the bride and bridegroom would be required separately to go through a ceremonial washing, symbolic of spiritual cleansing signifying that they were entering into this time of betrothal in purity, having agreed to give themselves exclusively to one another. In Hebrew, the word kiddushim means “sanctification” or “being set apart” and is often, even today among Jews, used interchangeably for betrothal. Interestingly, that same word is used to describe a dedicated temple. Through this washing the bride is now considered to be a temple set apart for her husband.
The bridegroom was required to negotiate a “bride price” with the bride’s father. The bride price was whatever the groom was required to pay in order to gain his bride’s hand in marriage. It could be a monetary gift or a type of service or some other agreed upon arrangement. Although the bride price was paid to the father of the bride it eventually would become the bride’s as part of her dowry, the property the bride takes with her when she leaves her home and she brings it with her into her marriage. Its purpose was to provide her with some security for her future. We can see an illustration of this practice in the example of Jacob who had to work for his uncle Laban for 14 years to win Rachel, the couple taking with them the flocks Jacob produced and watched over during that period.
After coming to an agreement on the price, a covenant would be drawn up and signed sealing the betrothal. As we see in the example of Joseph and Mary in the Gospel, a couple was considered to be married from the time of the signing of the betrothal covenant. Once a betrothed couple’s signatures were on the parchment it became a legally binding contract that could only be broken for reasons of infidelity, adultery, and then only by the intended groom. The reason for that was to avoid what is called "defrauding" or backing out of the betrothal. It was a way of holding the groom to his word and to the covenant, and providing the bride with a sense of security. After signing the covenant the bride and bridegroom would drink from a shared cup of wine over which a betrothal blessing had been pronounced.
The betrothal period lasted for an undetermined length of time, set by the groom’s father. Generally it lasted about a year. Since the couple was to live apart from each other during that time it was common for the bridegroom to give the bride a ring or other symbol as a promise of his love and as a pledge of his return.
After the giving of the gift, the groom would return to his father’s house to begin preparing the new living accommodations for the bride and himself, frequently in the father’s own home or by building an addition onto it. It was the responsibility of the rabbis to determine that the bride’s new dwelling would be a more suitable and acceptable place to live than where she had lived previously.
The groom’s father was the one who ultimately determined when the new living accommodations were ready and only then would he give his son permission to bring his new bride home.
The bride and the bridal party were usually given seven days advance notice of the groom’s coming, but the exact day and time were not known. Thus, the bride had to be in a continual state of readiness. With the permission of the groom’s father, one of the groom’s friends would give a shout alerting the bride and the wedding party of the groom’s coming. Then the wedding celebration would begin. The groomsmen would carry the bride on their shoulders to the new dwelling where the ceremony would take place. The marriage ceremony was finally sealed and completed with the bride and bridegroom sharing another cup of wine. And from there the union would be consummated, the celebration lasting a full seven days.
fulfilled in Jesus
In the Scriptures we can see an overlapping of the betrothal initiation process. Ephesians 1:4 tells us that he (the Father) “chose us in him (in Christ) before the creation of the world.” In John 15:16 Jesus says, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will last.” He has chosen us to be his holy, pure and spotless bride. Jesus, with his Father’s blessing, has left his father’s house to come to earth to seek his bride. He makes himself known to us through his word, teaching us about himself and offering us the chance to accept his proposal. Our repentance and the giving of our lives to Jesus is our saying “yes” to that proposal.
We see in the Scriptures that Jesus enters into his time of public ministry by being baptized. He goes through his ceremonial washing, as Jesus says to the Baptist, “…in order to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15); in order to be set apart, to be sanctified for the work of winning his bride, the church. And from Ephesians, we see that the church, too, has been declared to be sanctified and set apart exclusively for Christ. He “makes us holy through the washing of the word so that we might be presented to him a radiant church, holy and blameless” (Ephesians 25-27). For Christians, our baptism also stands as the symbol of our sanctification, our being set apart for the Lord exclusively. We, too, are seen as a temple, set apart for the indwelling of God’s Holy Spirit.
Jesus fulfills his obligation as the bridegroom by establishing a new covenant, written in his blood, giving his very life as the payment required to gain his bride, the church. “You are not your own, you have been bought with a price” (1Corinthians 6:19b-20).
The Father loved us so much that he gave (granted, offered, indicating that he was not resigned to the idea, but he actually initiated it) his own Son to be slain in order that we might not perish but rather be “won” for the Son, as his perfect, spotless bride to enter into an eternal relationship of union with him! He initiated the giving of his own Son as the purchase price for his bride. His blood is the dowry that we take with us into our new home with Christ in heaven. It secures our future with our bridegroom.
Our sharing in the communion cup serves as the symbol through which Christ has obtained the church as his bride. Through his blood he makes a new covenant with us, and as we share in the cup we are agreeing to participate in the betrothal with him.
A broken relationship with God is often described in both the Old and New Testament as spiritual adultery. This is especially true when an individual or the people as a whole break covenant with God through idolatry – going after false gods and worshipping them instead of the one true God. God takes his relationship with his covenanted people very seriously – as seriously as one would a marriage relationship. Any serious breech in a covenant relationship with God is tantamount to adultery since it breaks the promise one has made to give one’s whole life to God – to follow and obey him now and to the end of one’s life. God saw his people’s worship of pagan gods as his betrothed having an affair with another man. These pagan gods are most generally referred to in Scripture as the ba’als or simply, Ba’al. In Hebrew, the word ba’al has the same root as the word “husband.” God took his relationship with Israel and he takes his relationship with us as seriously as one takes a marriage relationship. From God’s perspective, his people were unfaithful adulterers. And although he reserved the right to “divorce” them, he rather showed amazing patience with them, as he does with us, wanting them to repent of their unfaithful ways and embrace the way of life he offered them.
As the chosen people of Israel make their way to the Promised Land God speaks clearly to them saying, “Never will I leave you, never will I forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31: 6). The writer of Hebrews reminds his hearers of these same words as he addresses marital faithfulness and keeping oneself free from the love of money, two key concerns for most individuals looking toward marriage. Jesus repeatedly told his disciples that although he was going to the Father he would indeed come back for them. He could be counted on not to defraud them. He would be faithful; he would provide for them. And “He proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). He paid the ‘bride-price’ even though we were, and still are, often unfaithful spiritual adulterers. “If we are faithless, he will remain faithful because he cannot deny himself” (2 Timothy 2:12).
Jesus has given us his Holy Spirit as the pledge and promise of his return. “You were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance” (Ephesians1:13-14). Many times in the New Testament we see the word “gift” in connection with the Holy Spirit. The Hebrew word for “gift” in Greek is charisma or charismata which we understand to be referring to the Holy Spirit and also the Holy Spirit’s working in individuals. The gift of his Spirit is Jesus’ pledge and promise to us of his returning to take us home to his Father’s house.
Jesus tells his disciples that he is going away and that they cannot come with him. But he says, “Do not be troubled. In my Father’s house there are many mansions, many rooms…I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you I will come back and take you to be with me so that you also may be where I am” (John 14:1-3). I think this is one of the clearest references indicating that Jesus has entered into a betrothal period with his bride, the church. After the betrothal, he has now left the home of his bride and has gone back to his Father’s house to prepare a place for us. It will indeed be better than the place we are currently living. “For no eye has seen and no ear has hear and no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him” (1Corinthians 2:9).
The Bridegroom, Jesus, doesn’t indicate the day or time when he will be coming back for his bride, the people he has redeemed with the price of his blood. He tells his disciples plainly that he doesn’t know when the Father will give his permission for the Son to come gather us up and take us home. “Only the Father knows that day and that hour” (Matthew 24:36). But during this time between his first and second coming, the Lord Jesus is busy in the house of his Father making living accommodations for us that will only be completed when the Father says so.
Finally, when the Father decides that all is ready, there will be a trumpet blast and a shout to announce Jesus’ coming. The whole people of God will be taken up into heaven and brought into the kingdom of the Father where we will be fully united with our Bridegroom for all eternity. Jesus said to the disciples at the Last Supper, “I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until I drink it anew with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matthew 26: 29). Perhaps this Scripture is a reference to the conclusion of the wedding ceremony of the Lamb, to the beginning of our new life in a new kingdom with our Bridegroom, Jesus the Lord!
How the Church Prepares
Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters, and like loud peals of thunder, shouting, Hallelujah! For the Lord God Almighty reigns! Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean was given to her to wear.(Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints) [Revelations 19:6].Scripture states that the spiritual wedding garments which we will wear at the marriage feast of the Lamb will be adorned with the good deeds and acts of service which we have done for the Lord and for his people, especially those we have lived with and have daily contact with. In 1Timothy 5:10, which is primarily addressed to women, Paul specifically mentions some of the key jewels and qualities of service which the Lord takes special delight in, such as “bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the feet of the saints, helping those in trouble, and being devoted (given to) doing all sorts of good deeds.” Scripture tells us to put on Jesus Christ, to cloth ourselves with Jesus’ character, his virtue, no longer considering how to gratify the desires of our sinful flesh. Our concern should be gratifying our God – making him happy, and clothing ourselves with the spiritual garments of righteousness and holiness – these are what truly please our Lord.
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience (Colossians 3:1).2These are the fruits of the Spirit that are born in us as we prepare our bridal garment by living our lives in service to one another and to the Lord, and yielding our wills more and more to accomplishing his purposes.
Bear with one another and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity (Colossians 3:13-14).In the Old Testament God spoke of being careful to make the tabernacle exactly like the pattern he had given to Moses. He was also detailed and extremely specific about the making of the priestly garments. So too, he gave us a pattern for our spiritual wedding garment. The explanation of the self-sacrificing love in 1Corinthians 13 is the pattern Jesus gives us. Through the Apostle Paul he tells us what love is and what it is not. If we have not love we are as worthless as a noisy gong or clanging symbols, or as unfinished or tarnished wedding garments!
emotional preparation for marriage
We too, as the Bride of Christ, the people whom Jesus has cleansed and chosen for himself, should strive to grow in our love, honor, and respect for him, our true heavenly Bridegroom. We too need to trust in his word to us, in his promise that he will indeed come back for us. It is hard trusting someone you cannot see, especially for a lengthy period of time. And since the waiting can be long, we need continual reassurance. And so much more valuable than any physical ring, the Lord Jesus has given us a spiritual sign of his pledge to reassure us in our waiting – that pledge is the gift of the Comforter, his Holy Spirit – a sure guarantee of the Lord’s return.
The bride had to trust the bridegroom to make the new house a place that would fulfill her needs. She had to lay aside her preferences, her demands, and let him arrange the dwelling the way he thought best, a difficult and challenging posture for anyone to take!
Similarly, we have no idea what our eternal dwelling will look like, but we know it will be perfect and we trust that it will fulfill our every longing (John 14:1-3). Presently however, the Lord Jesus makes his presence known to us through his Holy Spirit who dwells in our hearts. Are we letting him have his way in this dwelling? Are we dictating to him where we will and will not allow him to work in and through our lives? Are we giving him the same freedom to do what he wants with his spiritual dwelling place in our hearts as he has in building our eternal dwelling place with him in heaven? Have we completely abandoned our wills to him, giving him the exclusive right to do with us as he chooses?
Getting to know
(and love) his family
Jesus told his disciples that everyone who does the will of his Father is his mother, his brother, his sister. Ephesians 2:19 says that “we are members of God’s household” his family. Jesus wants us to recognize his family (and consequently our true spiritual family) in every person who does his will. In sharing our lives together, sharing our stories of Jesus with each other, telling each other what we’ve learned about him, how we have loved him and how we have experienced his love, learning to love one another as he loved us – all of this can help us to know him and to grow in our love for him.
As the betrothed New Covenant bride, the people redeemed by Christ, we are privileged to have the Holy Spirit as our teacher and guide – to help us grow in our knowledge of our bridegroom, the Lord Jesus. The Spirit not only gives us understanding of Christ’s word, he pours Christ’s love into our hearts (Romans 5:5). In Jeremiah 31: 34 we read the prophetic word pointing to New Covenant life: “No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother (family, relatives, kinsmen, depending on the translation) saying, ‘Know the Lord, because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord.’” So while the bridegroom is away we spend our time learning to love him, even as we learn to love each other, and as we listen to our shared stories, and as we allow the Holy Spirit to speak his word through one another so that we may together grow in our knowledge and love for the One who has called us to be united with himself.
We wait patiently
for his return
She hopes and trusts that when he does come she will be ready and that she will have prepared well. Every day she is hoping for what she does not yet have, hoping that today might be the day. Finally, when the groom’s father decides that all is completed he sends his son to go and bring his new bride home.
As Christ’s betrothed, both individually and corporately, we too eagerly await the Son. We are awaiting the shout and the trumpet blast announcing the groom. We need to be always at the ready. As the bride works to be ready for the coming of her groom, we too work to be ready for Jesus’ return. We trust that “he who began this good work in us will see it through to its completion, right up to the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6). It is not for us to know the day or the hour of his return. Our job is to watch and be ready.
“But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently” (Romans 8: 24b-25). In hope the bride waits for the return of her groom, confident that he will not defraud or disappoint her because his love has been poured out into her heart by the Holy Spirit who has been given to her.
As we wait and as we live in this betrothal period, we want to be fully engaged, fully betrothed as the Bride of Christ, and committed in heart and mind to preparing for our eternal home, not distracted by lesser things but making plans for a glorious eternal life with our Bridegroom, the Lord Jesus.
Set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on earthly thing (Colossians 3:2).
That is having an eternal perspective. That is being “fully engaged.”
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