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Privileges and Responsibilities of the Bride of Christ

Written by Prof Johan Malan.

The relationship between the Lord Jesus and His bridal congregation is strikingly described in terms of Jewish marriage customs in biblical times. In this article, the main emphasis is on the responsibilities that rested upon the bride during the long absence of the bridegroom. Her sanctified life and daily dedication to the bridegroom were of crucial importance for the day when he would come to collect her, and therefore also for the final consummation of their marriage.

After a young man had met a girl whom he liked, and she had agreed to enter into a relationship with him that would lead to marriage, preparations were initiated for a betrothal ceremony.

The young man first had to obtain his father’s consent for the marriage. Shortly afterwards, the young man and his father paid a visit to the house of the prospective bride. The father of the house, who was aware of the intended visit, peeked through a little window to identify the visitors. He then looked to his daughter to confirm if her mind was settled. If she did not want to proceed with the marriage negotiations she simply said “no”. The door would then not be opened and the visitors would return home, mission not accomplished.

If she said “yes”, for all practical purposes the commitment to work through the betrothal process and arrive at a full marriage contract was made at that moment. The young man and his father had carried with them a betrothal cup, unfermented wine, and the intended bride-price in a pouch. At different stages during the negotiating process they would drink wine from the cup to ceremoniously confirm and celebrate certain aspects of their agreement.

The first was the cup of acceptance. Members of both families, including children who had reached the age of accountability, concluded a blood covenant (also referred to as servant covenant) through which they committed themselves to life-long service to one another. This cup was passed around shortly after the arrival of the visitors and the closing of the door.

The second was the cup of betrothal and friendship. This cup was consumed by the prospective bride and groom and their two fathers only. By this act the two families covenanted to become eternal friends with their joint son and daughter, and also with one another. The meal was served, and the eating was accompanied by haggling over the details of the marriage contract. Should no agreement be reached on this matter the negotiations could fail, thereby preventing the conclusion of a marriage contract. If all conditions were mutually accepted the contract was concluded during the meal and the second cup consumed.

The third was the cup of inheritance. At the end of the meal only the bride and bridegroom drank from this cup, indicating full acceptance of the marriage contract and sealing their relationship as future husband and wife. This was the moment when the girl became bride. Young men of the family would then go out into the streets to blow their rams horn trumpets (shofars), announcing to the entire community that the marriage contract (betrothal) has been concluded. From this moment onwards the couple belonged to one another and also owned a shared inheritance. If either one should die the survivor would inherit the deceased partner’s possessions, even though the marriage was not finally consummated yet. The marriage contract between them was binding and could only be broken under extreme conditions, e.g. by adultery. Joseph and Mary were such a betrothed couple when he planned to divorce her because of supposed unfaithfulness to him: “When… Mary had been promised in marriage to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be pregnant [through the power of] the Holy Spirit. And her [promised] husband Joseph, being a just and upright man and not willing to expose her publicly and shame and disgrace her, decided to… divorce her quietly and secretly” (Matt. 1:18-19; Amplified Bible).

When the marriage contract had been accepted and the couple drank from the third cup, the bridegroom gave gifts to his bride and also promised that he would come and take her to be with him after he had prepared a place for her at his father’s house. The bride, in the mean time, occupied herself with preparations for her married life. In her room she had an oil lamp which was to be kept burning during the evenings. Care had to be taken that she would always have enough oil in order that her lamp would not go out when the bridegroom comes for her. When going out into the streets during daytime she was always veiled to indicate that she was purchased at a price and already belonged to a man.

During this time the bridegroom prepared a suitable place at his father’s house, which often only consisted of one room. It was known as the bridal room (Heb. huppah). His father first had to express his satisfaction with the room before the bridegroom was allowed to fetch his bride. If anyone asked the bridegroom when he would bring his bride he always replied that only his father knew on which day that would happen.

The bridegroom came for his bride in the evening or at night – usually between six o’clock and midnight. When he and his friends got close to the bride’s house they would give a loud shout and blow on the shofar to let the bride and her maids know to come out immediately to meet the groom outside along the road. Those who did not have enough oil at that critical moment were late for their appointment and remained behind.

It sometimes happened that the bride lost interest in the consummation of the marriage, possibly because of unfaithfulness towards her groom, and consequently discontinued her preparations to meet him. In that case she would not have a burning lamp. When, on arrival, the groom noticed that her room was dark, he returned to his home, leaving her in the darkness. The bride-price then had to be returned to him. If it was revealed that the bride had committed adultery during his absence she was guilty under penalty of death.

If, however, everything proceeded according to plan the bride would have a burning lamp in her room when the groom arrived at night time. She would then meet him outside the house and immediately depart with him to his father’s house. There she would spend seven days alone with him in the bridal room where they were united as husband and wife. During these seven days the guests who were invited to the marriage feast started arriving. At the end of the seven days the groom introduced his wife unveiled to the guests, and the celebrations began.

During the feast the married couple alone partook of the fourth cup of unfermented wine, which was known as the cup of thanksgiving. That was the big moment of joy and thanksgiving for the consummation of their marriage after the long time of seclusion, waiting and preparing. The resplendent marriage feast dawned for them because they had remained true to one another.

Spiritual application

The Lord Jesus often made His offer of salvation to lost humanity in terms of traditional Jewish marriage customs. He is the heavenly Bridegroom who came from His Father’s house in heaven to seek and to save those who were lost (Luke 19:10). His purpose is not only to save lost sinners and use them in His service, but also to sanctify them completely and make them members of His bridal congregation so they can share His heavenly kingdom with Him. All Christians received this esteemed call of God in Christ Jesus but not all of them comply with the conditions to actually attain it. This is something to which we should commit and for which we must exert ourselves (Phil. 3:14).

Like the prospective Jewish groom who knocked on the door of the girl whom he wished to marry, the Lord Jesus, in a spiritual sense, knocks on the door of our hearts and confronts us with the choice of either opening the door for Him or not. He says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me” (Rev. 3:20). Every person has a free will. People can decide for themselves whether they will invite the Lord Jesus into their lives. John says, “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name” (John 1:12).

The message of the gospel is that the Lord has born the full penalty for our sins on the cross – that is the divine bride-price by which He redeems every sinner who comes to Him for salvation and wishes to belong to Him (1 Cor. 6:20; 1 Pet. 1:18-19; Rev. 5:9). When we take up the communion-cup as the cup of acceptance, we celebrate the fact that we were bought at a price, and now belong to the Lord Jesus to serve Him all the days of our lives. He is our Saviour and we are His disciples or servants.

Unfortunately, many Christians only abide by this initial surrender and do not pursue a deeper and more intimate relationship with Christ in order to receive all His promises. They are missing the fact that He does not only wish to be our Salvation but also our Sanctification and our Bridegroom.

Before the final confirmation of the Jewish marriage contract the two parties supped together while further discussing the conditions for this agreement and new relationship. When they had reached agreement on everything they took up the cup of betrothal and friendship.

God’s Word is spiritual food to us – the bread of life – and we are sitting at a table which was prepared for us. When we immerse ourselves in intensive Bible study we get to know the Lord Jesus better and our delight is in His Word. We fully realise what He has done for us and what the conditions of our relationship with Him comprise. These commands are joyfully observed. Under these circumstances the disciple of Christ draws nearer to Him and also becomes His friend and bride who understands and observes His Word. That places him in a relationship on a higher level than that between a servant and his master. Christ said, “No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15). He reveals to us wonderful things on the deeper aspects of our friendship and betrothed relationship with Him. Do you reconfirm your friendship and intimate relationship with the Lord Jesus during Holy Communion?

We should not be content with the first step of this commitment since the Lord Jesus has a higher calling for His disciples as members of His bridal congregation. This call demands that we live absolutely separated from the world while daily preparing ourselves on the appearing of the heavenly Bridegroom and our gathering together to Him. An important aspect of these preparations is to have a burning lamp with enough oil. This symbolism refers to the Spirit-filled life. The wick of the lamp should regularly be cleaned to ensure that it burns brightly. We should take active steps to cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and the spirit, and to be filled with the Holy Spirit so we can perfect holiness in the fear of the Lord (2 Cor. 7:1; Eph. 5:18; 1 John 1:7). If we surrendered ourselves to the Bridegroom and are truly committed to Him we will, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, do works that are equated with a marriage garment. These works are described as “the righteous acts of the saints” (Rev. 19:8).

When this level of dedication has been achieved the cup of inheritance is taken up. Such believers are deeply conscious of the fact that they are pilgrims and sojourners in the present evil world, and they long for the kingdom of Christ where they will rule with Him as kings. Paul said that we are “heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together” (Rom. 8:17; cf. 2 Tim. 2:12). When introducing Holy Communion Jesus said, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood” (1 Cor. 11:25). The advantages of a covenant (or testament) are only in force after the death of the testator: “For where there is a testament, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator… Therefore not even the first covenant was dedicated without blood” (Heb. 9:16-18). When Jesus shed His blood and laid down His life on the cross He made us joint heirs of His everlasting heavenly kingdom in which we will be His “wife” and rule with Him as kings.

Did you ever get to the point where the Lord Jesus and the precious promises in His Word mean everything to you, and where your values changed in such a way that you would rather lay up treasures in heaven than on earth? Then your light will shine brightly in a dark world, and you will refrain from any compromise with the evil world. You will not pursue earthly wealth (the prosperity gospel) and a man-made kingdom on earth before the coming of Christ. Our fervent hope is for a kingdom that will only be revealed when the King comes!

The Jewish bridegroom made sure that his bride knew exactly why he left, and also that he would return to take her away to their new home. We received a similar promise. Jesus said, “In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:2-3).

We should be mindful of the fact that our future lies with Jesus Christ and that, as members of His bridal congregation, we are living in the unseen reality of His heavenly kingdom which is yet a mystery on earth because the King has not yet come. We do not fit into the lifestyle of the present world and reject its evil practices (Eph. 5:11), and for that reason the world hates us (John 15:18-20). We look forward to a wonderful future when we will be united with the heavenly Bridegroom: “For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body” (Phil. 3:20-21).

It is vitally important to know the full implications of being children of our heavenly Father, and of being empowered by His Spirit to be able to remain true to Him under all circumstances while we are waiting on the sudden coming of the Bridegroom. We should not only honour and serve the Lord Jesus as our Saviour and Sanctification, but also as our Bridegroom and King with whom we will rule if we are found worthy. Do you know the Messiah in all these capacities, or are you still only a servant of Him? We should be conscious of our noble call in Him and actively pursue it.

Believers who do not have a clear understanding of their position in Christ suffer from a poor spiritual perspective, half-hearted dedication to their Saviour, a vague and doubtful expectation on His second coming, and consequently a frail motivation to remain true to Him to the end. They often neglect to walk in the Spirit, thus being easily deceived into apostatising by the flesh and the lust of the world. That may lead to serious unfaithfulness towards the heavenly Bridegroom. Paul said, “For I am jealous for you with godly jealousy. For I have betrothed you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ. But I fear, lest somehow, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, so your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ” (2 Cor. 11:2-3).

Although the marriage contract which we have concluded with Christ is meant to be permanent and binding, and has also been sealed by the Spirit of God, it nevertheless imposes responsibilities on both parties and can therefore be nullified by the non-observance or breaching of its conditions. The Bridegroom can never become unfaithful and will always honour His promises (2 Tim. 2:13), but we can become unfaithful and even lose what we have obtained by faith in Him (cf. John 15:4-6; Col. 1:23; Heb. 3:12-14). The Jewish groom rejected his former bride if, by his return, it was evident that she had become unfaithful to him and no longer had a burning lamp.

Christians can also leave their first love and lapse into spiritual darkness. The Lord Jesus says, “Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place – unless you repent” (Rev. 2:4-5). The lampstand was the container into which the oil that was symbolic of the Holy Spirit was poured. It enabled a person to let the light of the Messiah shine in a dark world. However, should such a person lose his love for the Messiah by being overcome by love for worldly things, he was in danger of losing his lampstand with its light, which refers to the Holy Spirit. Such believers will not be taken along at the rapture to walk the ivory palace in heaven and to be united with the Lamb as His bride (cf. Ps. 45:9-10, 15-17). By their actions, backsliders have denied the Messiah before other people, and for that reason He will deny them in heaven before His Father (Matt. 10:32-33).

Members of the bridal congregation who will be worthy by having enough oil in their lamps and have as a result of their vigilance not lapsed into a state of spiritual darkness, will be snatched away in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, when the Bridegroom comes (Matt. 25:6-10; 1 Cor. 15:51-52; 1 Thess. 4:16-17). Thereafter, for a period of seven days, which prophetically refers to a week of seven years (Lev. 25:8), the bride will be in the presence of the heavenly Bridegroom and consequently not be seen by any person on earth. That will be the seven years of tribulation on earth during the reign of the Antichrist.

After these seven years the heavenly Bridegroom will come, accompanied by His “wife” with whom He has been united, and establish His kingdom on earth. After He has destroyed the Antichrist and his powers (Rev. 19:19-21), saved a remnant of Israel and the nations (Zech. 12:10; Matt. 24:29-30), and restored the fallen tabernacle of David (Acts 15:16-17), the marriage feast of the Lamb will be celebrated on earth. Members of Israel and the nations who were saved during the coming of Christ will be the guests at this illustrious feast: “Let us be glad and rejoice and give Him glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and His wife has made herself ready. And to her it was granted to be arrayed in fine linen, clean and bright, for the fine linen represents the righteous acts of the saints” (Rev. 19:7-8).

It is on this occasion when the cup of thanksgiving will be consumed by the bride and Bridegroom. The great moment of the bride’s glorification dawns shortly after she is revealed on earth with Christ: “When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory” (Col. 3:4). The Lord Jesus referred to the Communion that He would again celebrate with His disciples after having been on earth for the first time to provide for our salvation and the conclusion of a marriage covenant with Him: “Assuredly, I say to you, I will no longer drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God” (Mark 14:25).

The kingdom of Christ will only be established on earth after His second coming. That is the reason why the wedding-feast of the Lamb will be celebrated here and the cup of thanksgiving will also be taken up here after we have finally inherited the kingdom. This Communion and thanksgiving ceremony cannot occur directly after the rapture, since the rapture will be followed by the bride’s seclusion of seven years with the Bridegroom.

Deep symbolism is hidden in the coming Communion. During Communion unfermented wine is consumed, which alludes to the blood of Christ that was shed for the remission of our sins. The Lord Jesus is the true vine and we are the branches. We draw our sap, or life-energy, from the vine in that the Holy Spirit pours out the love of Christ into our hearts (Rom. 5:5). We are then expected to bear fruit which is also described as the fruit of the Spirit. Only after the harvest of all the fruit has been gathered into the kingdom of the Bridegroom, a Communion can be celebrated which will represent the spiritual fruit of the true vine. A strict evaluation of this fruit will be done at the judgement seat of Christ (1 Cor. 3:9-16; 2 Cor. 5:10). Only the righteous acts of the saints will survive the test as gold, silver, and precious stones that will be accepted and rewarded. The carnal works of Christians who did not appropriate their full inheritance in Christ, and who did not spiritually mature after partaking of the first cup, will be rejected as vain human efforts (1 Cor. 3:15).

The important question to all Christians is this: “Did you only proceed as far as the first purging of your sins and fell short of appropriating your full inheritance in the Messiah?” If so, you are moving backwards in your spiritual life and not forwards. Peter says that Christians should add to their faith godliness, brotherly kindness, and love. “For if these things are yours and abound, you will be neither barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For he who lacks these things is short-sighted, even to blindness, and has forgotten that he was purged from his old sins” (2 Pet. 1:6-9).

Are you among these blind and short-sighted Christians who have not yet surrendered themselves for sanctification and committed themselves to the service of the Lord Jesus? If so, you will one day appear before the Lord empty-handed as your fleshly works will be consumed like wood, hay and straw. To the faithful ones the Messiah will say: “Well done, good and faithful servant; you were faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your Lord” (Matt. 25:23).