In John 3:29, John the Baptist gives a strange little analogy to help his disciples understand why he rejoices over losing followers to Jesus’ ministry. In his analogy, there is a bride, a bridegroom, and a friend of the bridegroom. Though the groom and friend take center stage in the analogy, the bride is still mentioned, leaving us to wonder: who is she?
The groom’s identity in the mini-parable is obvious: the groom is Jesus.
The friend is also obvious: the friend of the groom is John the Baptist.
There are two (or perhaps three) options for identifying the bride: Israel or the Church (the third option would be for those who see the no differentiation between true Israel and the Church in the NT).
In context, I believe the bride in John 3 is OT Israel. Christ has come for His people. Much of chapter 3b relates to the passing of the torch from the Old Covenant to the New, from John’s ministry to Christ’s. Chapter 2 had these themes present as well, especially with the water to wine miracle.
But the Bible has a lot to say about the Bride of God. Here are four things we see when we look at the bigger picture of how Scripture uses the bride metaphor:
- The OT describes Israel as Yahweh’s Bride
All over the Old Testament we see the beautiful metaphor of Israel as the bride of Yahweh. Isaiah 62:5 says, “As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you” (see 62:4-5 for the full analogy). Jeremiah 2:2 depicts Israel’s love for God as the love of a bride. Hosea uses an extended real-life analogy where the prophet is told to marry an unfaithful woman. Hosea’s love for his unfaithful wife is compared to Yahweh’s love for Israel.
Which brings us to our next point…
- Yahweh’s Bride is not always faithful (but Yahweh still is!)
Hosea depicts Israel as an unfaithful bride. One that cheats on God, then is wooed back (and redeemed back) by His love. This isn’t the only place that the OT depicts Israel as unfaithful, not by a long shot. Ezekiel 16 is one of the most visceral passages of Scripture. There, God is first depicted as a loving father/guardian, who adopts the abandoned child Israel, raises her, adorns her with beauty, then marries her. He loves her perfectly, but she responds to that love with adultery and prostitution, selling the jewelry given to her in order to buy sexual favors from other men.
But amazingly, God loves even this bride so much that, after a time of discipline where she suffers the consequences of her sin, Yahweh restores her to her place as His bride. What a picture of redemption and love! Ezekiel 23 depicts something similar, though here Yahweh is married to both northern Israel and southern Judah. They treat Him similarly.
The point being made is twofold: Israel is unfaithful, but Yahweh’s love is both undeserved and unrelenting. Though Israel may be made to suffer the consequences of her sin at times (through exile), Yahweh’s love was never based upon Israel’s merit. He loves her because He chooses to love her.
- The NT describes the Church as Jesus’ Bride
The metaphor continues into the New Testament, but this time, the focus shifts from Israel to the Church. Ephesians 5 compares human marriage to the marriage of Christ and the Church. 2 Corinthians 11:2 tells us that the Church has been presented as “a pure virgin to Christ.” Revelation 19 show the fulfillment of this marriage, and the marriage supper of the Lamb.
A more controversial text comes in the last two chapters of Scripture. Revelation 21-22 explicitly states that the bride of Christ is the new Jerusalem (21:2, 9-10). Depending on how one interprets this “new Jerusalem,” whether as a metaphor for God’s people or an actual physical place, this will determine how it relates to the other “bride” metaphors in Revelation and the New Testament.
All of this is a major issue when it comes to the dispensationalism vs reformed debate. A dispensationalist contends that Israel and the Church are distinct. A reformed theologian argues that the Church has replaced Israel. (Both of these statements are overly generalized and slightly caricatured.) Is the reason the bride of Christ now refers in the NT to the Church because the Church has replaced Israel? Or are both to be seen as “merely” a metaphor, one that can be applied to God’s people in both Testaments without necessitating that God’s people are seen across covenants without distinction?
This debate will not be solved here. But it is enough to recognize that a similar metaphor can be found in both Testaments for the people of God. However, the NT comes with a noticeable difference:
- Jesus’ Bride is expected to be faithful
I am using the word “expected” here to mean, “a certain expectation.” The Church will be found faithful, unblemished, virginal. Revelation 19:8 indicates the Bride will be clothed with fine linen, “the righteous deeds of the saints.” Ephesians 5:25-27 admonishes husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the Church. The passage goes on to describe just how Christ so loved the Church, describing her as “cleansed,” presented to Himself as “without spot or wrinkle or any such thing” (ESV), “holy” and “unblemished.”
This is clearly not the “adulterous, unfaithful bride” language of the OT. What has changed? Christ has died and raised! His blood provides the means of unstained garments for His Bride. The Bride is still expected to actively remain unstained from the world, but that expectation is not couched in “you’ll be certain to fail” language that the OT applies to Israel. It encourages believers today to live in light of Christ’s imminent return.
So the metaphor is rich, provides immediately application for our human marriages and personal and corporate walk with Jesus. But most importantly, the metaphor points to the wonderful Gospel of Christ.
Praise God for His love for His Bride!