Week 3: Divine Husband
Today, we reach the last of the three images that we find in the New Testament of what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah. The last of the three is a less familiar image to us: Jesus as the Divine Husband. This one may come as a surprise! It is not necessarily an image to which we relate and give much thought. Yet it is a prominent image for God and His people in the Bible.
Take the story of Hosea, a man whose marriage to Gomer was used as a living metaphor for the relationship between God and unfaithful Israel. As Gomer prostituted herself with other men, so Israel claimed to be in covenant with God, but worshipped other gods and pursued idols (see also Ezekiel 16). On the more positive side, while Song of Songs is at its core a love story between a man and woman, it has been interpreted and used as an example of the love between God and His elect, His chosen people.
Why is marriage such a key metaphor? Because marriage in ancient Israel was not the pairing of man and woman with equal status. The husband offered to provide, protect and give security, and the wife would give him loyalty, leaving behind her parents’ home and ties. However, most importantly, she would seek to bear him a son to bear his name and continue his lineage. The covenant between one who has power and more agency, and one who has less and is dependent has a lot within it that reflects the covenant between a powerful God who provides for His people and fights on their behalf, and the people’s response of faithful obedience and reflecting Him in their lives.
Jesus the Divine Husband in John’s Gospel
As a result, it’s not surprising that the New Testament continues to use marriage as a metaphor. In John 2-4, we have three stories that capture something of Jesus as the one who is the Messiah and the Divine Husband or Bridegroom. First, there is the story of Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding in Cana (John 2). We know the story: there was a wedding, the wine ran out, and Jesus’ mom Mary pressed Him to do something about it and He performs a miracle of turning water into wine, and the wine tasted better than the original wine the groom had provided.
And that is the point: Jesus provides wine. It was the bridegroom’s role to provide the alcohol–wedding parties were celebrated at the father of the groom’s home, after the bridegroom had gone out to take his wife from her family home and bring her back to her new life. Jesus identifies Himself with the role of the bridegroom by providing wine. Here we have a hint John is making to the attentive reader: Jesus is the divine groom, the divine husband, the one who is here to restore His covenant people with wine that was better than the first.
The second story is a short exchange between some Jews and John the Baptist in John 3. John’s disciples came to him to talk about Jesus: “Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” (v. 26) They’re worried Jesus might be a distraction to John’s work, but look at John’s reply:
“…You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him.’ He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled...” (John 3:27-30)
John the Baptist openly acknowledges that Jesus is the Messiah and, as such, He is the Bridegroom to the Bride. John knows his role–he’s a groomsman, there to support and encourage–and to rejoice in the groom’s rejoicing. We don’t know exactly what it is that the friend hears–it could be the bridegroom’s voice in calling his bride from her home; it could be words he whispers to her in the wedding; or perhaps it was celebration from their sexual union and consummation of their marriage. We don’t know, but we do know this: Jesus, as the bridegroom, rejoices over His bride and she gives Him cause to celebrate. And so it leaves us with a question: where–or who–is Jesus’ bride?
If you’ve ever watched the Hallmark movie channel, you know the formula for many of the Christmas romance movies. There’s a young woman who works too hard in a big city. For the holidays, she ends up in a small town where everything is picture postcard perfect: snow on the ground, wood-burning stoves and Christmas lights. At some point along the way, after initial frustration with country life, she falls for the local eligible bachelor–carpenter, bookshop owner or mechanic. We know how the story will go and how it will end; the happily ever after will come.
There is a formula equivalent in ancient Jewish scriptural stories about betrothal. The key? A well. Yes, a well! There are various examples of this in the Bible: Isaac and Rebekah meet by a well in Genesis 2, as do Jacob and Rachel (Genesis 29), and Moses and Zipporah (Exodus 2).
In the third story in John 4, Jesus is headed through Samaria with His disciples and Ge meets a woman by a well. Like a Hallmark movie, this story in John 4 should play out a certain way. It has all the hallmarks (pardon the pun!) that indicate a romance is beginning and a marriage is coming. Yet there’s a twist in this story and, as the story unfolds, we find God is doing something new.
From the stories of the Old Testament, we know that God’s bride is Israel–even in her faithlessness and idolatry. John 4 is surprising because yes, there’s a woman and there’s a well, but the story takes place in Samaria–a foreign land. Worse than that, it's a foreign land whose people had been at odds with the Jews for centuries. The Samaritan woman knows this herself: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (v.9) (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)
Jesus, as the Divine Husband, is taking a Bride for Himself that is going to defy expectations! Here we have a Samaritan woman, who has been the wife of multiple men, none of whom have stepped up to the plate of being a good husband, and she’s been passed around like an object. Jesus talks with her, engages with her and speaks directly to her brokenness and hurt. Then He speaks of a time when those who worship God will not be in Jerusalem or the Samaritan temple, but worship in Spirit and Truth. The Bride to whom Jesus is going to be betrothed is not tied to a place or limited to a certain people. The story concludes with the Samaritan woman expressing faith in the arrival of the Messiah, and Jesus confirming that “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” (John 4:26) The woman runs home and tells folk that she might have met the Messiah and many come to believe.
The ‘Hallmark movie’ that is the story in John 4 does not pan out as we think. Jesus was never married: the story here is obviously not about human marriage. The point is that Jesus, as Messiah, as Divine Husband, is looking for a bride that is a people who are not worried about external labels, divisions or boundaries, but spiritual hearts and true worship. As such, it asks some questions of us: are we ready to be part of that faithful Bride of Christ?
Hoping in a Divine Husband
Marriage in the ancient world was about honor, security and preservation of the family line. In marriage, the wife would join the husband’s household. The wedding ritual involved the groom going to the wife’s home and literally bringing her back to his, but she would not be on the ‘inside’ in the new family. She would be something of an outsider until she bore her husband a son. Then she would be able to claim status within the household. With all that in mind, I want to close today by drawing attention to one other place in which this image of Jesus as the Divine Husband is elaborated, Ephesians 5:25-33:
“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, because we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church. Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband.”
The amazing thing about Jesus as the Divine Husband is that He loves His wife–His people–sacrificially in order that she might be cleansed and purified. His love is not manifest in harshness, cruelty or self-righteousness. The love of the Divine Husband is shown in sacrificial love. He loves His bride more than He values His own life. We are not a worthy bride; we are not enough for the King of Kings. Yet He died for us to be cleansed and made new. Like the bridegroom collecting His bride and taking her back to His Father’s house, so Jesus is coming for His Bride: the Church. And the great crescendo is that the Divine Husband and His Glorious Bride will one day be unified. The two will become one. By His Spirit, we know something of that now, but one day we will know it fully.
Our hopes for this season, this year, our families, our lives... all of them will be out of joint if we fail to see the Love Story of which we are a part. It is the Great Romance in which the God of all rescues a broken people from evil and death, wins them for Himself and will come again—with us as the Bride waiting for her Groom to take her home. Waiting for the hope we have in Jesus as the Messiah is not a hope that lives in fear or doubt. It is a hope that is based in anticipation and excitement for the marital union of when we are united with Christ. That is something truly worth hoping for!