The marriage of the Lamb and his Bride and the not-so-happy-ever-after

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I’ve just finished reading a book on the church and same-sex attraction that has an appendix setting out the “Bible’s meta-narrative in its four great acts: creation, rebellion, redemption and perfection”. This grossly reductionist storyline is how evangelical thought has typically reconciled itself to a narrative hermeneutic. It serves the limited interests of modern evangelicalism, but it misses the whole point of the biblical narrative, as I’ve argued on numerous occasions.

Under “perfection” the author states that in the new creation “the whole church will be married to Jesus”. He bases this on Revelation 21:2: “And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” I imagine he would read the earlier passage about the “marriage supper of the Lamb” in a similar way, so I’ll start there. I think the author has misunderstood the function of the metaphor in the apocalyptic narrative of Revelation and that this misunderstanding illustrates the inadequacy of the so-called biblical meta-narrative.

The marriage supper of the Lamb

In Revelation 18, at the climax to a series of visions of divine judgment, we have an apocalyptic account of the fall of Babylon the great—the city that had corrupted the nations with its “sexuality immorality”, decadence and sorcery, that had violently persecuted the prophets and saints, and that had slaughtered multitudes in pursuit of its imperial ambitions. I think that there is no doubt about the identity of this city. It is Rome.

There is then a noisy celebration of the event in heaven. God is praised because he has rightly judged the “great prostitute” and has “avenged on her the blood of his servants”. Therefore, “the Lord our God the Almighty reigns” (Rev. 19:6). This is the decisive affirmation that the kingdom of God has come: he has judged the great beast-like power, which had “corrupted the earth with her immorality”; he has avenged the martyrs; and he has established his own rule over the nations in the place of the old régime. It is the stunning historical climax towards which the central narrative of scripture, at least from the exile onwards, has been moving. The God of sinful, oppressed Israel is now in charge of the nations—or, at least, of the ones that mattered.

At the same time, the “marriage of the Lamb has come and his Bride has made herself ready” (Rev. 19:7). It has been granted to her to clothe herself in “fine linen, bright and pure”, which represents the “righteous deeds of the saints”.

The apocalyptic story is like the story of Cinderella: in the end, after all the pain and hardship, the wicked stepsisters are defeated, and the prince marries his lowly, overlooked, but vindicated and transformed bride.

The “saints” in Revelation are a suffering community: their prayers for deliverance and vindication are heard by God (Rev. 5:8; 8:3); the beast makes war against the saints (Rev. 13:7), so they are called to endure (Rev. 13:10; 14:12); Rome is judged because it has “shed the blood of saints and prophets” (Rev. 16:6; 18:24), the “great prostitute” is “drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of the martyrs of Jesus” (Rev. 17:6); judgment is given for the persecuted saints, apostles and prophets against Rome (Rev. 18:20).

The “righteous deeds” (dikaiōmata) of the saints, therefore, are not general “good works” but the faithful testimony—matched by a holiness of life—of that part of the church that would be subjected to the sort of vicious pagan opposition that the “beast” represented. Notice that the call for the endurance of the saints in 14:12 comes after the proclamation of the coming fall of Babylon the great and the wrath of God against those who worship and serve the beast (Rev. 14:6-11). The saints are characterised as “those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus”—faithful testimony matched by holiness of life. A voice from heaven then pronounces a blessing on “the dead who die in the Lord from now on…, for their deeds (erga) follow them” (14:13). These are the deeds in which the church will be permitted to clothe herself when finally pagan Rome is overthrown and the marriage of the Lamb and his Bride is celebrated.

Then the angel says to John: “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Rev. 19:9). So we have the Lamb, the Bride, and the wedding guests. The symbolism is getting crowded. Mounce thinks that “the church is pictured both as the bride and as the guests who are invited to the wedding”, and that the inconsistency is “a normal characteristic of apocalyptic writing”.1 Perhaps. There is always a danger of over-interpreting.

But Jewish eschatological expectation may suggest that these guests are outsiders in some way, invited to celebrate the establishment of YHWH’s rule—the nations that will make pilgrimage to Zion, or perhaps more specifically those brought in to the banquet from the highways in Jesus’ parable, or the righteous Gentiles who are “blessed by my Father” and offered an inheritance in the kingdom (Lk. 14:23; Matt. 25:34).

So here’s how we should read John’s symbolism. The Lamb is Jesus, who was slain, by whose blood an international people was ransomed for God, and who therefore was found worthy to open the seals that would lead to judgment, first on Israel, then on Rome (Rev. 5:9-10). The Bride is the church that has faced Roman aggression and has at last seen the downfall of this supreme opponent of YHWH and his people. What makes the church beautiful to the bridegroom are the “righteous deeds” of the martyrs, who bore witness to Jesus as Lord without transgressing the commandments of God even to the point of death. The wedding supper is, therefore, above all a celebration of the triumph of YHWH over the pagan empire through the suffering of Jesus and of those who confessed his name.

The nearest parallel in the New Testament is probably the apocalyptic narrative of 1 and 2 Thessalonians: when Jesus is revealed to the nations, the suffering of the saints is ended, their persecutors are punished, the Nero-like man of lawlessness is destroyed, the dead in Christ are raised to be with him, and the living church at the time is vindicated (1 Thess. 4:14-17; 2 Thess. 1:5-2:12).

But what happens next? What happens after the marriage supper?

The not-so-happy-ever-after

The apocalyptic story is like the story of Cinderella: in the end, after all the pain and hardship, the wicked stepsisters are defeated, and the prince marries his lowly, overlooked, but vindicated and transformed bride. But the final chapter in the courtship story is the opening chapter in the marriage story. Life doesn’t stop at the wedding, as many of us know. There’s a honeymoon period, and then the happy couple have to get on with the difficult business of living together.

This is just as true for the marriage supper of the Lamb. From the point of view of the church today, it is not our destiny, it is not the climax to our story; it is the beginning of the story of Christendom… and post-Christendom, and so on.

What came next was the difficult business of living together.

According to John’s vision, the martyrs are raised in a first resurrection and reign with Christ throughout the coming ages; they are imagined serving as “priests of God and of Christ” in a heavenly temple (Rev. 20:4-6).

The people ransomed from “every tribe and language and people and nation”—that is, the church, the Bride—will similarly be “a kingdom of priests to our God”, but when God establishes his rule over the nations by defeating Rome, they will “reign on the earth” rather than in heaven with the martyrs. The point could be made in the words of Daniel 7:27:

And the kingdom and the dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High; his kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey him.

This state of affairs—Christ and the martyrs in heaven, the church serving the living God as his priestly-prophetic people on earth—will last for a thousand years. Satan is not active during this period, he is chained in the abyss, which will disappoint a lot of people. But since this is still a thoroughly human, flawed people serving God on earth, we can expect mistakes to be made—from the big mistakes of Christendom to the small mistakes in Christian living and ministry that we make on a daily basis.

At the end of the thousand years, Satan, for some obscure reason, is released but is quickly defeated (Rev. 20:7-10). There is a final judgment of all the dead, and then at last we get to the spectacular vision of the new Jerusalem descending from heaven to be part of a new creation, “prepared as a bride adorned for her husband”.

So the Bride whose marriage to the Lamb was celebrated at the beginning of the thousand year period appears in the new creation as the new Jerusalem, which is the dwelling place of God with humanity.

The “holy city” is again described as “the Bride, the wife of the Lamb” in Revelation 21:9. This could be a repeat of the vision of 21:2, but I have argued elsewhere that what John sees in 21:9-22:5 is not the final new creation but, in symbolic terms, the outworking of the eschatological vision of a restored Zion and the pilgrimage of the nations to pay homage and tribute to Israel’s God. The point is that the church that overcomes pagan oppression through its faithfulness will be the church that becomes a beacon among the nations of the ancient world for the glory of the living God of Israel.

So the church will be the Bride of the Lamb in the new creation, but only because the church became the Bride of the Lamb at the climax to an eschatological narrative that foresaw the eventual triumph of God and his Christ and his people over Rome.

As a final note, I have been in the habit recently of suggesting that Christians will be judged at a final assize, along with all the dead, according to what they have done. If the church is the Bride through to the new heaven and new earth, this view probably needs correcting.

  • 1R.H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation (1997), 348.
Daniel | Wed, 02/28/2018 - 17:31 | Permalink

As this plays out in history, it’s interesting that “Christendom” (if we’re counting from Constantine to the break-up of the Western Church at the Reformation) was indeed about 1,000 years.

Yes. Was it you who suggested that before? I wouldn’t see the Reformation as the end of Christendom, though—anymore than the Great Schism between East and West was. To my mind, it was the Enlightenment that was really the beginning of the end to the church’s authority in the West. I suppose it’s possible, though, that John briefly included the release of Satan after a thousand years because he sensed that the “reign” of the church on earth following the collapse of Roman imperial paganism would not last forever.

Alex F | Wed, 02/28/2018 - 18:50 | Permalink

Perhaps you’ve written on this before, Andrew, but do you think John believed the first resurrection would be a physical one (one like Jesus’)? Or is he imagining something akin to the resurrection as political renewal found in Ezekiel 37?

That’s a good question. John is clearly not trying to describe a literal resurrection, something that might have been seen happening some time in the fourth century. So how are we to assess the descriptive force of this sort of visionary language? I’m not sure that it fits the Ezekiel 37 category since the martyrs are distinct from the surviving historical community. But John offers no way for his readers, or later readers, to test the validity of his vision. He does not say, “You will see them rise from their tombs and ascend into heaven.” He leaves us somewhere between the physically literal and the symbolic.

It’s actually rather harder to know what Paul was thinking when he wrote 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17:

For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.

Again there’s the visionary, apocalyptic language, but did he imagine a more realistic resurrection of the dead in Christ and meeting with Christ in the air? Or is he simply developing the parousia metaphor as a way of speaking about the vindication of the living and the dead when Christ is finally confessed as Lord by the nations?