Why the “bride, the woman of the Lamb” is not what I thought it was

The story so far…

At the end of the book of Revelation the holy city, new Jerusalem, is twice seen descending out of heaven, from God, “prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” These are two different moments in the apocalyptic narrative, I think, not the same moment repeated. To make matters worse, they are presented in the wrong order.

The first visionary descent (Rev. 21:2) occurs after the final judgment. It represents the re-uniting of heaven and earth in a new creation after the absolute destruction of all evil in the lake of fire. The Seer is then taken back to the circumstances of the churches in Asia Minor and shown the descent of the holy city in history, as a replacement for the very unholy city of Rome (Rev. 21:9-10). This time, what he sees is a revision of Ezekiel’s restored temple on mount Zion, in the midst of nations which need healing, with sin still present in the world. Essentially, the presence of the new Jerusalem in history anticipates the presence of the new Jerusalem in the new creation.

The difficulty with this interpretation lies in the relationship between the holy city and the “bride.” Kaz raised two good questions. First, why do we have the bride motif, which is introduced at the climax to the judgment against Rome, in the new creation setting in Revelation 21:2? And secondly, if the bride descends to be present in history throughout the thousand year period, why are the martyrs still in heaven?

I addressed the first question in “So here’s the real reason why the holy city descends twice at the end of Revelation,” arguing that the final descent of the holy city is “the means by which the martyrs, the bride of the Lamb, get to experience the renewal of full created life… after the long reign in heaven.” I think that the basic point is probably correct, but the identification of the bride with the martyrs is wrong, which is why we have the second question.

So we ask here: who or what is the “bride of the Lamb”? This means looking at the marriage supper passage more closely, but we also need to consider the letter to the church in Philadelphia (Rev. 3:7-13), which I have so far neglected to bring into the discussion.

The marriage supper of the Lamb

It is always important to keep larger narrative structures in view. John is taken into the wilderness by one of the seven angels of God’s wrath against Babylon the great to witness the judgment of the great prostitute (Rev. 17:1). He sees an angel coming down from heaven to announce the fall of Babylon the great; a voice from heaven calls God’s people to leave the city; kings, merchants, and seafarers lament; and a mighty angel tosses a millstone into the sea, saying, “So will Babylon the great city be thrown down with violence, and will be found no more” (Rev. 18:21). That is the second and arguably most important horizon of New Testament eschatology.

Then John hears a great hullabaloo in heaven—voices celebrating, first, the judgment of the great prostitute, which has taken place on earth, and secondly, the marriage of the Lamb and his bride (Rev. 19:1-10).

The usual assumption at this point is that the “bride” is the church. Paul writes to the Corinthians that he “betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ” (2 Cor. 11:2). The relationship between Christ and the church is analogous to that between the husband and his wife (Eph. 5:22-33).

So who is descending in that first vision? Or better, what? The context suggests that what we have here is a tale of two women.

But why would the church descend out of heaven from God, either at the beginning of the rule of Christ over the nations or following the final judgment? There is a group of believers in heaven in this section the story—the martyrs, who are raised in the first resurrection (Rev. 20:4-6). But they reign with Christ in heaven throughout the thousand year period; they do not descend to earth to be the church in history.

So who is descending in that first vision? Or better, what?

The context suggests, I think, that what we have here is a tale of two women. The prostitute “seated on many waters,” the “woman sitting on a scarlet beast,” who engages in sexual immorality with the kings of the earth, is the city of Rome, or some expression of the corrupting influence of Rome.

Once this woman has been judged and destroyed, and her overthrow celebrated in heaven (Rev. 19:1-5), another woman appears—not a harlot but a chaste bride, adorned with “the righteous deeds of the saints” (Rev. 19:6-8), not seated on a beast but married to a Lamb, who will soon judge the misguided nations and be acclaimed as “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Rev. 19:15-16). This woman, therefore, is not the church but the city that will replace Rome. She is adorned with the righteous deeds of the saints, but she is not the saints.

Isaiah says of restored Jerusalem: “your Maker is your husband, the LORD of hosts is his name…. For the LORD has called you like a wife deserted and grieved in spirit, like a wife of youth when she is cast off, says your God” (Is. 54:5–6). He then goes on to describe the city in language that foreshadows John’s description of the new Jerusalem:

O afflicted one, storm-tossed and not comforted, behold, I will set your stones in antimony, and lay your foundations with sapphires. I will make your pinnacles of agate, your gates of carbuncles, and all your wall of precious stones. (Is. 54:11–12; cf. Rev. 21:18-21)

Jerusalem is both the wife of the Lord and a city dazzlingly constructed with precious stones. There we have the precise Old Testament basis for John’s identification of the new Jerusalem as the bride of the Lamb. When he is shown the “bride, the woman (gynaika) of the Lamb,” descending from heaven, what he sees is the city that will take the place of Rome. Aune says that:

The phrase “the wife of the Lamb” is probably a later expansion of the text…, and it may be that the term gynaika, “wife,” was introduced expressly to underline the parallels between the gynē, “woman, wife” = Rome in Rev 17:3, 4, 6, 7, 9, 18 and the γυνή = the holy city in Rev 19:7; 21:9.1

The better antecedent in Paul’s writings, therefore, is his argument about the “Jerusalem above” (Gal. 4:25-27). Because this is Galatians, the contrast is not with Rome but with the “present Jerusalem,” but he accounts for the idea by quoting from the same chapter in Isaiah:

For it is written, “Rejoice, O barren one who does not bear; break forth and cry aloud, you who are not in labor! For the children of the desolate one will be more than those of the one who has a husband.” (Gal. 4:27; cf. Is.54:1)

The “Jerusalem above” is conceived as a woman who will have more children than than the earthly Jerusalem. John takes the thought of eschatological success in a different direction, but it is essentially the same metaphor with the same Old Testament background.

Now for the neglected letter to the church in Philadelphia

To start with, Jesus is described as the one “who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens” (Rev. 3:7). This is an allusion to the story in Isaiah 22:15-25, where Eliakim the son of Hilkiah is given the office of steward over the household of David: “And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David. He shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open” (Is. 22:22). Jesus, of course, famously promised to give this key to Peter (Matt. 16:19), but in the context of the letter, as we will see, this is the key to civic management of the new Jerusalem.

The church is facing opposition from “the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not” (Rev. 3:9). There’s a debate about who these opponents are, but the important point for now is that Jesus “will make them come and bow down before your feet, and they will learn that I have loved you” (Rev. 3:9). That appears to mean that the church in Philadelphia will be publicly vindicated on account of their faith in the future rule of Israel’s crucified messiah over the nations. When Rome is overthrown, when paganism is defeated, when the nations formerly under Rome’s vitiating influence confess Jesus as Lord, the enemies of the churches, whether Jews or pagans, will be obliged to prostrate themselves (proskynēsousin) in deference and submission before the saints in Philadelphia.

Because the church has kept the word about “patient endurance,” Jesus will keep them from the upheaval that is coming on the whole Greek-Roman oikoumenē—“I am coming soon.” But in any case, the promise to the believer who conquers is that Jesus will make him “a pillar in the temple of my God. Never shall he go out of it, and I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name” (Rev. 3:12). These publicly vindicated believers will find a place in the new Jerusalem, which comes down from God.

Isaiah 54 concludes fittingly: “This is the heritage of the servants of the LORD and their vindication from me, declares the LORD” (Is. 54:17).

The promise is that if the churches in Asia Minor remain true to their calling and endure the coming “hour of trial” (persecution, etc.), they will have a role in the age to come, in the thousand year period of Christ’s reign from heaven. But the role is described in ways which presuppose the presence of a “city” on earth, in history. They will be entrusted with the keys of the messianic household, they will be pillars in the temple of God, which is not really a temple (cf. Rev. 21:22), and the name of the city will be written on them (Rev. 3:12). Therefore, John is shown the new Jerusalem descending from heaven on to Mount Zion, in the midst of the nations, as the holy and righteous antithesis to Rome (Rev. 21:9). The communities of eschatological witness will constitute the priesthood that will serve the living God in the non-temple in this city (Rev. 22:3-4).

So the marriage supper of the Lamb is a celebration of the replacement of Rome with a new holy city adorned with the righteous deeds of the saints. That city is seen descending twice, in two settings, for different reasons. The first descent, second vision, is to function as the alternative to Rome, in which the faithful communities of witness will serve as priests of the living God for the sake of the nations of the empire—Christendom, in other words. The second descent, first vision, is to seal the final re-uniting of heaven and earth:

Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. (Rev. 21:3–4)

  • 1. D.E. Aune, Revelation 17–22 (1998), 1151 (transliterated).
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Fascinating! Now I think I have a coherent understanding of the two visions of the heavenly Jerusalem within the narrative of Revelation. Thank you so much for taking time for this conversation. I really like your three-horizons approach to eschatology (may I call it a “historicized eschatology”?).

Thank you—and thanks for probing the interpretation. Yes, a mostly historicised eschatology. I think it is right to hold to a transcendent or post-historical understanding of John’s final judgment and new creation.

Hi Andrew.  Any thoughts on why the visions would be in that order?

The “Jerusalem above” is conceived as a woman who will have more children than than the earthly Jerusalem. John takes the thought of eschatological success in a different direction, but it is essentially the same metaphor with the same Old Testament background.

Andrew… always enjoy your thoughts. Just coming from a slightly different perspective, I’m not sure, yet, that John does take the eschatological scenario “in a different direction”. I think, John’s new creation simply reflects Paul’s new creation (2Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15)… speaking to the reality of Israel’s covenant renewal — a reality that finally changed the world (2Cor 5:19).

This reality is reflected in Paul’s two women of Gal 4, where Paul clearly identifies the two women, accordingly, as two covenants (Gal 4:21-24). This, I think, better equates to the demise of the Jerusalem below, i.e., the casting out of the bondwoman and her son (aka John’s synagogue of Satan’ cf. Paul’s Rom 2:28), being superseded by the Jerusalem from above, i.e., the free woman. Thus we have both Paul and John’s new covenant/creation — very much in history. Just a thought.

Hi davo. The point about a “different direction” was only that John is less interested in the size of the population than in the function of the city in the midst of the nations. That is consistent with your perspective, isn’t it? But otherwise, as I have said before, I think that both resurrection, John’s apocalyptic narrative in Revelation 20, and his vision of a final obliteration of death and Hades require us to hold to a transcendent third horizon, even if it is peripheral to the vision of the New Testament as a whole.