Summary: Although the specific phrase “bride of Christ” does not appear in the NT, the concept is found in several NT works as a description of the Church. Paul describes the Corinthian believers as having been betrothed to Christ and presented as a bride to her husband (2 Cor 11:2; cf. Rom 7:1–6). In Eph 5:21–33 the relationship between husband and wife is explained in terms of the relationship that exists between Christ and the Church. The author of Revelation applies the metaphor of the bride of the Lamb (Christ), not only to the Church (19:7), but also to the New Jerusalem, the heavenly city, which is the eschatological manifestation of the people of God (21:2, 9). The source for this imagery is found in the OT where the relationship between Israel and God is often spoken of in marital terms (Isa 54:1–6; Jer 31:32; Ezek 16:8; Hos 2). The transference of this imagery to Christ and his Church was natural for the NT writers who viewed the Church as the New Israel (The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary. New York: Doubleday).
The Bride of Christ
It is commonly agreed that the picture of believers as the “Bride of Christ” is a NT metaphor for the church or relating to the Kingdom of God. Old Testament scriptures refer to Israel as the bride. However it is the Church of Christ (His Body) that is the New Israel of the NT where Christ is pictured as a husband and the Body or church as his betrothed. No more pure or deeper relationship could exist than a marriage relationship between Christ and His beloved.
Addressing the church at Corinth, the apostle Paul said: “For I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy; for I betrothed you to one husband, that to Christ I might present you as a pure virgin” (2 Co. 11:2). “Betrothed to one husband” means an exclusive marriage relationship is to occur between Christ and His Body.
Referring to jealousy he goes on to warn the Corinthians of being “betrothed” to a Christ other than the one he taught. “But I am afraid, lest as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, your minds should be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ. [I warn you concerning] “one comes and preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached, or you receive a different spirit which you have not received, or a different gospel which you have not accepted” (2 Co 11:3-4). In ancient Near Eastern culture the father gave his daughter in marriage to the bridegroom, assuring him of her purity. To Paul, understanding himself as the church’s spiritual father (1 Cor 4:15), the thought of the church as his daughter sprang readily to mind. To be Christ’s pure bride requires on the church’s part is pure and simple devotion.” Like a concerned father, Paul was worried that the young bride (the church) might commit adultery by her willingness to accept “another Jesus,” “another Spirit,” or “a different gospel” (2 Cor 11:4).
The OT furnished Paul a rich background for that image of the church. God’s covenant with Israel was commonly pictured as a marriage troth, with Israel as God’s bride. Through the prophet Jeremiah, the Lord said to Israel: “I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride” (Jer 2:2). He went on to lament the fact that Israel had been faithless; by going after other gods, she had actually prostituted herself and become an adulteress (3:6–9, 20). Isaiah 49:18 says: “Lift up your eyes and look around; All of them gather together, they come to you. As I live,” declares the LORD, “You shall surely put on all of them as jewels, and bind them on as a bride”.
The theme of Israel’s desertion of her lover (God) was explicitly treated in Ezekiel 16 and in Hosea. The terms “harlotry” and “whoredom” were used to connote disloyalty to God and allegiance to other gods. Thus, adultery and idolatry became synonymous. Through his own struggles with a faithless wife, the prophet Hosea experienced God’s agony over his bride Israel and his longing for her to return. Hosea was given a vision of a future day in which God would betroth his people to him forever “in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Hos 2:19, 20; see chapter 1). That vision may have enabled Paul to transfer the image of Israel as God’s bride to the church as the bride of Christ.
In Ephesians 5:22–28 Paul compares the relationship between Christ and his church to the relationship between a husband and wife. He said: “Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her; that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she should be holy and blameless” (Eph 5:22–28).
The image is taken from the common understanding of the husband-wife relationship in that part of the world. The church’s submission to Christ is compared with the wife’s submission to the husband, but the stress of the passage is on the role of the husband: he is to love her “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (v 25). Christ relates to the whole church on the basis of self-sacrificial love. Just as a husband is joined to his wife, with a mutual interdependence so intimate that they become one, so Christ and his church become one body (vv 28–33). As the man’s love for his wife intends her wholeness, so Christ’s love of the church intends her completeness (v 25–27) (with assistance of Baker encyclopedia of the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House).
In Revelation 19 and 21 the metaphor of the church as the Messiah’s bride is further developed. The vision in Revelation 19:7, 8 announces the marriage of the Lamb (Christ) to the bride (church) who is clothed in the “fine linen, bright and pure” representing “the righteous deeds of the saints.” In Revelation 21 the vision depicts the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven, “prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (v 2). Then the seer is invited to behold “the Bride, the wife of the Lamb (v 9) and to see the holy city “coming down out of heaven from God” (v 10). The “new Jerusalem” is identified as the people of God, as the bride of Christ, among whom and with whom God will be present forever.
The book of Revelation pronounces this Christ as Bridegroom and believers as wife in various scriptures. Revelation 21:2 states: “And I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband”. From the wording of the scripture it seems clear that the New Jerusalem is comprised of individuals who are the Bride of Christ collectively. This is not a new concept. Various NT writers defined the temple as the church or Body of Christ. In his attempt to overcome the divisions within the church at Corinth, Paul pictures the church not only as the body of Christ, but also as God’s temple, as the dwelling place of God’s Spirit (1 Cor 3:16, 17). Contrary to much interpretation, this passage is not concerned so much with individual Christians as “temples” of God but with the Christian community, in its common life and work, as God’s temple. In the concept of a temple we find God Tabernacling with His people and being one with them; comparable to the husband-wife example set forth above. In Revelation 21:9 the same concept is brought forward. “And one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues, came and spoke with me, saying, “Come here, I shall show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb”.
The “wife” is afforded many privileges and promises. “And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He shall dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself shall be among them, and He shall wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there shall no longer be any death; there shall no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.” And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” And He said, “Write, for these words are faithful and true.” And He said to me, “it is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give to the one who thirsts from the spring of the water of life without cost. “He who overcomes shall inherit these things, and I will be his God and he will be My son” (Rev 21:3-8).
The Bride of Christ finds herself at the marriage supper of the lamb. “Let us rejoice and be glad and give the glory to Him, for the marriage of the Lamb has come and His bride has made herself ready.” And it was given to her to clothe herself in fine linen, bright and clean; for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints. And he said to me, “Write, ‘Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.’” And he said to me, “These are true words of God“(Re 19:7–9).
This is comparable to the 144,000 from Revelation who kept themselves pure for the marriage relationship: “AND I looked, and behold, the Lamb was standing on Mount Zion, and with Him one hundred and forty-four thousand, having His name and the name of His Father written on their foreheads. And I heard a voice from heaven, like the sound of many waters and like the sound of loud thunder, and the voice which I heard was like the sound of harpists playing on their harps. And they sang a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and the elders; and no one could learn the song except the one hundred and forty-four thousand who had been purchased from the earth. These are the ones who have not been defiled with women, for they have kept themselves chaste. These are the ones who follow the Lamb wherever He goes. These have been purchased from among men as first fruits to God and to the Lamb. And no lie was found in their mouth; they are blameless” (Rev 14:1-5).
In order to partake of the marriage supper the bride candidate must have made herself ready. This is exemplified in the parable of the 10 virgins. Five virgins were ready and five were not (Matthew 25:1-13). All were virgins (i.e. they were pure), all were in the right place to be able to take part in the marriage supper and all brought lamps. But five had brought extra oil and five had not. Those with the extra oil were let in to the celebration but the other five “foolish” virgins were not. By the time they were able to purchase the extra oil the door had been shut and they were on the outside. The requirements for being a bride are indeed stringent.
Further OT scriptures regarding the bride. “For this cause a man shall leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and they shall become one flesh” (Ge 2:24). “I will rejoice greatly in the LORD, My soul will exult in my God; For He has clothed me with garments of salvation, He has wrapped me with a robe of righteousness, As a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, And as a bride adorns herself with her jewels” (Is 61:10). “And I will betroth you to Me forever; Yes, I will betroth you to Me in righteousness and in justice, In lovingkindness and in compassion, And I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness. Then you will know the LORD” (Hosea 2:19-20).
It is the purity that makes one a bride of Christ. The human heart is cleansed from all unrighteousness. His ways become our ways. We serve Him in great humility.