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Christ and his church

1 March 2014 | by Mike Reeves

Christ and his church

Everybody knows the definitive happy ending to a good story is ‘and they got married and lived happily ever after’. Perhaps it’s cliché, but this reverberates deeply within us. Why do people speak of their wedding day as the happiest day of their lives? Why are good marriages the dream? Why is a broken marriage such tragic heartache? Surely because marriage is the happy ending God always intended for his creation: the wedding and happy union of Christ and his church.

The wedding singer

In the middle of one of Isaiah’s songs of the Messiah nestles the beautiful poem of 61:10-62:5. The one speaking is Christ himself: the one anointed by the Spirit to preach good news to the poor (61:1) and called a ‘bridegroom’ (61:10). The picture of the Lord as a bridegroom being married to his people is the joyful climax of the song in 62:5: ‘as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.’

Isaiah’s song belts out one of the Bible’s great anthems: Christ our Lord, the bridegroom who comes to win and love a bride, his church. The story of the Bible and the universe begins and ends with weddings. Paul speaks of the profound mystery of the union of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2 and says it refers to Christ and the church, since Adam is a pattern of the one to come – the last Adam, Christ. The beginning anticipates the end: ‘Then I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband’. The refrain of the Bible is the great marriage of Christ and his people.

The song starts with the anointed one, Christ, dressing for his wedding. In 61:10, full of rejoicing, he is clothed in salvation, in a beautiful robe of righteousness. Like any husband-to-be, in his preparation, his heart is set on his bride. He desires her to be an object of ‘righteousness and praise’ sprouting up before all the nations (61:11), and promises in 62:1, ‘For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake’. His focus is on her, the holy city where God dwells, prepared as a bride: Zion, Jerusalem. He clothes himself ready, and his purpose is his church. He will not rest, he will not stop, until his bride is glorified and all the world gasps at her beauty.

‘All that I have I share with you’

The marriage of Christ to his church means many blessings for her, and first among them is ‘righteousness’. In 61:10, Christ says that the Lord has covered him with a robe of righteousness, but then in 62:1-2, he says that he will cause her righteousness to go forth as brightness, with the nations seeing it. As he is righteous, so is she.

This is the gospel! The reformer Martin Luther wrote that we may best understand this gospel by seeing it as a marriage. He told the story of a king marrying a poor prostitute. On their wedding day she says to him: ‘All that I am I give to you, and all that I have I share with you!’. With these words, she shares with him all her debts and shame. Then the king repeats the same words to her. And with that, he is hers, she becomes a queen, and all his kingdom is hers. Such is the great marriage swap of the gospel. Our great bridegroom has taken all our sin, our death, our judgment; and he has shared with us all his perfect righteousness. And so, said Luther, the sinner can confidently display ‘her sins in the face of death and hell and say, “If I have sinned, yet my Christ, in whom I believe, has not sinned, and all his is mine and all mine is his”’.

We are not righteous in ourselves, but because of Jesus, our bridegroom, we can share those words: ‘I will greatly rejoice in the LORD; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness… as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.’

Jesus’ bride is righteous and perfectly accepted in his sight. But even more, he wants her to be an object of wonder, for all the nations to see her beauty. In 62:3, he promises, ‘You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.’ Can you believe it? Finding this people, this church, sprawling in the dirt, wretched and helpless, he picks her up, makes her new with a new name, cleans, beautifies, transforms her to be a crown of beauty, a royal diadem in his hand. This is his design. The church is the crown of Jesus Christ – his most precious treasure, the reward for his great victory.

How to delight Jesus

The church made righteous and shining before the world is wonderful, but what comes next is almost too much to believe. In 62:4, the Lord says, ‘You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate, but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the LORD delights in you, and your land shall be married. For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your sons marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.’

If Christ spoke of having pity on his people, we would be amazed, but we would understand. If Christ poured mercy on us, we could take it in. But here he speaks of his delight in us – the delight of a young man in love with his new wife. Jesus Christ has the most passionate love for his bride. She thrills him. In his grace, he has created something that makes his pupils dilate, that makes his heart skip a beat.

Jesus bore the cross ‘for the joy set before him’, we are told in Hebrews. What joy could this be? Surely it’s the joy of what the cross would finally achieve. The multitude in heaven rejoices ‘for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride is ready’ (Rev. 19:7). Everything he does is for his bride. She is his passion, his motivation, his delight.

So when you are discouraged, just remember what the church is: the beloved bride of Christ. ‘I will not keep silent,’ he says, ‘I will not be quiet, until her righteousness goes forth as brightness, and her salvation as a burning torch.’ So her righteousness will go forth, and the nations will see it! The almighty Bridegroom is utterly determined.

What glory for the nations to see: our God rejoices over us, and he has clothed us with garments of perfect salvation. And so, to a broken and hungry world, let’s say ‘Come, know the bridegroom, and though you’ve been forsaken and desolate, you can rejoice as he rejoices over you.’ And then one day, we’ll sit down together at the marriage supper of the Lamb, in endless joy.

Mike Reeves has recently been appointed as theologian-at-large at WEST, Bridgend.

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