Mustērion


7. THE MYSTERY OF MARRIAGE.

Ephesians 5.32

The third of the five mysteries referred to by Paul which are yet to be fully revealed is the mystery of marriage. Towards the end of Ephesians 5, Paul tells his readers not “to be drunk with wine --- but to be filled with the Spirit” (v.18); both these imperatives are in the present tense, implying a regular lifestyle rather than a single event. Then, after listing several of the more obvious evidences of a Spirit-filled life, such as joyful worship and heartfelt thanksgiving, he adds “submitting to each other in your reverence for Christ” (v.21); still in the same (typically Pauline) sentence, he applies this principle to wives’ submission to their husbands, and (in the next chapter) children’s to their parents (6.1-4) and slaves’ to their masters (5-9). This, however, is not one-sided teaching, for husbands, parents and masters are also instructed about the equally demanding obligations of their ‘headship’. It is, of course, the first and longest of these passages which concerns us here. Paul says that wives should submit to their husbands as the church submits to Christ (v.24), and that husbands should love their wives with the sacrificial love of Christ, who gave himself up for the church (v.25). But not only is the church, as implied by these analogies, the bride of Christ, it is also his body, as implied by the analogy of headship: a husband should “nourish and cherish” his wife as everyone does his own body, and as “Christ nourishes and cherishes the church”. Paul then clinches the ‘body’ analogy by quoting Genesis 2.24: “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (v.31). Then follows the key verse: “This mystery is a great (‘mega’) and profound one, but I am applying it to Christ and his church” (v.32). There is an echo here (probably a pre-echo) of the other ‘mega’ mystery, “the mystery of godliness”, that we studied a while back (1 Tim. 3.16): just as perfect righteousness and holiness, the character of God, had never been fully revealed in human form until the coming of Christ, so God’s perfect plan of marriage, declared at the very beginning of creation, has been foreshadowed by human marriage, but will not be perfectly fulfilled until the creation of a new heaven and a new earth where Christ will for ever be united with his bride, the church, so that God’s eternal purpose is at last consummated.

The OT: God’s marriage to his people
Exodus 20.2,3,5,14

This great truth is taught and illustrated in several ways in the NT, but before looking at these we need to go back to the OT to see how marriage is used there as a metaphor of the relationship between God and his people. We might, perhaps, begin at Mount Sinai, where the covenant God makes with his people could be seen as a marriage contract: “I am the Lord your God --- you shall have no other gods before me --- you shall not bow down to [idols] or worship them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God” (Ex. 20.2,3,5). In English, ‘jealousy’ has acquired entirely negative connotations (“Othello” has a lot to answer for!), so that we might paraphrase God’s statement here as: “I the Lord your God love you and am zealously concerned for what is best for you, and implacably opposed to all the so-called ‘gods’ who try to seduce you”. The Decalogue is, therefore, an emphatic declaration not only of monotheism but also of monogamy: Israel belongs to God as exclusively as husband and wife belong to each other, so that “thou shalt not commit adultery” (Ex. 20.14) applies just as much to Israel collectively as it does to its married couples individually.

‘porneuō’
1 Chron 5.25,Psalm 73.27

What is only implicit here is spelt out explicitly and repeatedly by the prophets. But history comes before prophecy, so we will look first at a verse in 1 Chronicles which uses the image of sexual infidelity succinctly and straightforwardly. In chapters 2-7 the chronicler gives brief accounts of the 12 tribes of Israel; chapter 5 ends with the sad history of the half-tribe of Manasseh: “They were unfaithful to the God of their fathers, and prostituted themselves to the gods of the peoples of the land” (v.25). The Psalmist, Asaph, is wider-ranging but equally succinct, and just as judgmental: “Thou hast destroyed all them that go a whoring from thee” (Psalm 73.27, AV). The verb used in the LXX version of both these verses is ‘porneuō’, whose basic stem ‘porn-’ is all too familiar to us in English, as well as providing a whole family of words in Greek which will feature largely in the passages from the prophets which we will look at next.

The Prophets: (1) Jeremiah
Jer 2.2-3, 32, 3.1-3

First, we will revisit Jeremiah 2.2-3, which we looked at earlier in our study of ‘aparchē’. Here, God, speaking through his prophet, says to his people Israel: “I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved me and followed me through the desert --- Israel was holy to the Lord, the first-fruits (‘aparchē’) of his harvest”. In view of Israel’s tendency to grumbling rebelliousness during their 40 years in the desert, this is a lovely testimony to God’s willingness to “forgive their wickedness and remember their sin no more” (31.34). Nevertheless, it is not hard to sense that there is a ‘but’ coming, and, sure enough, by chapter 3 the loving bride of the wilderness years has become a faithless wife - and worse. The bridal image is echoed wistfully in 2.32: “Does a maiden forget her jewellery or a bride her wedding ornaments? Yet my people have forgotten me”. But in chapter 3 wistful regret turns to outright condemnation: “You have lived as a prostitute with many lovers” (v.1); “you have defiled the land with your prostitution and wickedness” (v.2); “you have the brazen look of a prostitute” (v.3). These verses are addressed to Judah, but the northern kingdom of Israel has already taken the lead in unfaithfulness: “I gave faithless Israel her certificate of divorce, and sent her on her way because of all her adulteries” (v.8). We have already noted (on 2 Thess.2.3) that the word used here (in the LXX) and elsewhere for ‘divorce’ is ‘apostasion’, a close relative of ‘apostasia’, which virtually transliterates into ‘apostasy’. Apostasy is idolatry, putting other ‘gods’ before God, and idolatry is spiritual adultery. There is, however, always “a way back to God from the dark paths of sin”; this way is the way of repentance in response to God’s loving offer of forgiveness: “‘Return, faithless people’, declares the Lord, ‘for I am your husband, I will choose you’” (v.14).

(2) Ezekiel
Ez. chapters 16 and 23

If Jeremiah’s language seems strong, there are two chapters of Ezekiel where the imagery is even more explicit and extreme; neither chapter is likely to feature in the Sunday-School syllabus. In chapter 16, the first 14 verses describe in allegorical language all the love God has lavished on his people: “I gave you my solemn oath and entered into a covenant with you” (v.8); then the Lord beautifies and adorns his people like a husband beautifying and bejewelling his bride, until “you became very beautiful, and rose to be a queen” (v.13). Then, as in Jeremiah, comes the ‘but’: “But you trusted in your beauty, and used your fame to become a prostitute” (v.15). In fact the NIV is generously euphemistic here; the LXX, which the AV more closely resembles, could be translated: “You trusted in your beauty and prostituted yourself on the strength of your fame, and you poured out your prostitution on every passer-by”. This is the start of a passage of 25 verses in which the various members of the ‘porn-’ family, verbs, compound verbs and nouns, occur no fewer than 25 times in the LXX version - but no further quotation is needed to make the point. Chapter 23 may only use ‘porn-’ words 19 times in its 45 verses, but the imagery is even more graphic, and its condemnation of both Judah and Israel (allegorised as two wives vying with each other in sexual promiscuity) is unremitting.

(3) Hosea
Hos.1.2, 2.2-4, 3.1-2

It is, therefore, a relief to turn to the prophet Hosea, where, in the first 3 chapters, the image of a broken marriage and a faithless wife is again prominent, but condemnation modulates into reconciliation, and judgement is tempered by mercy. Indeed, these chapters are probably the most moving and beautiful picture of God’s relationship with his people as his bride in the whole of the OT. The beginning of the story, however, is not very beautiful: the second verse of the book outdoes even Ezekiel in using four ‘porn-’ words in one sentence. Hosea is told by the Lord to “take for yourself a wife of prostitution and children of prostitution, for in prostituting itself the land will turn away from the Lord in prostitution” (Hos 1.2, LXX, literally). Hosea’s marriage is to be a parable of God’s relationship with Israel and their faithlessness to him. At first, all seems to go well: his wife, Gomer, is, it seems, faithful, and bears Hosea three children, two sons and a daughter, to whom God gives prophetically significant names - though we do not need to explore that significance here. But in chapter 2 it becomes clear that Gomer is indeed “a wife of prostitution”. Hosea tells his children to “rebuke your mother, for she is not my wife, and I am not her husband. Let her remove her prostitution from before my face, and her adultery from between her breasts --- I will not have pity on her children, for they are the children of prostitution, for their mother prostituted herself. The one who bore them brought shame on herself” (vv.2,4-5). To this unfaithfulness God responds with judgement, but only so that it may lead to repentance and reconciliation. “‘In that day’ declares the Lord, ‘you will call me ‘my husband’, you will no longer call me ‘my master’ - or ‘my Baal’ --- I will betroth you to me for ever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion. I will betroth you in faithfulness, and you will acknowledge the Lord” (vv.16, 19). Then, just as God’s judgement has been illustrated by his command to Hosea to marry an unfaithful wife, so in chapter 3 his mercy is illustrated by the prophet’s redemption of his wife from her prostitution. God tells Hosea: “Go, show your love to your wife --- love her as the Lord loves the Israelites” (3.1). Presumably Gomer has become a temple prostitute, perhaps at a temple of Baal, or in some other way enslaved herself in her life of sin, for Hosea says “so I bought her for 15 shekels of silver and about a homer and a lethek of barley” - the whole total, presumably, amounting to 30 shekels of silver, the price stipulated in Exodus 21.32 as compensation for a slave killed by a bull - and, of course, the price paid to Judas for betraying Jesus. Much of the detail of these three chapters is difficult and obscure, but in its narrative outline it is one of the clearest and most heart-warming foreshadowings in the OT of the ‘mystery’ of the gospel of grace - Jesus buying us back from the slavery of sin, so that we, the church, might in the fullness of time become his bride, just as Gomer was redeemed by and for Hosea: the ‘mystery of marriage’.

The NT: (1) Revelation
‘porneia’

When we come to the NT the vocabulary of adultery and prostitution is still much in evidence. The ‘porn-’ family is again well represented, though mostly used of sexual sin rather than spiritual rebellion. The exception is the Book of Revelation, where the abstract noun of the family, ‘porneia’, meaning ‘fornication’ or ‘prostitution’, occurs 7 times - a number which seems inescapable in this book. The first two of these are literal, referring in 2.21 to the sexual immorality encouraged at Thyatira by the false teachings of ‘Jezebel’, and in 9.21 occurring in a list of the sins of mankind as a whole of which they (we?) refused to repent. The remaining 5 uses are all associated with the great whore of Babylon. The Greek word for ‘whore’ is ‘pornē’, another member of this family of ill repute; it is used 5 times in this context, and the verb ‘porneuō’ 3 times. All this imagery seems to symbolize the apostasy of mankind, turning away from the true Creator God to worship false gods, and to indulge their own sinful pleasures, just as Israel turned away from trusting and obeying Jehovah to worshipping idols and making alliances with heathen nations.

(2) 1 Corinthians 6. 13-15
‘sōma’

Before we finally wash our hands of the ‘porn-’ family of words, there is one important passage we need to look at: 1 Corinthians 6.12-20. There are 5 occurrences of ‘porn-’ words in these 9 verses, all referring literally to sexual sin. But in this passage, more profoundly, perhaps, than in any other, Paul shows that sexual sin is not just a symbol of apostasy and unfaithfulness in our relationship with God, but actually a cardinal, and carnal, embodiment of it. For Paul’s main emphasis in this passage is not the negative one of condemning ‘prostitution’ or ‘fornication’ (‘porneia’), but his positive teaching about the body (‘sōma’ in Greek), a word which, with 8 occurrences in these verses, outnumbers even the ‘porn-’ words. This passage therefore is a most helpful link with our last ‘mystery’, the mystery of the resurrection body, and this one, the mystery of marriage. Nor is this the only place in 1 Corinthians where Paul is teaching about the body: the word is something of a leitmotif in this epistle. In chapter 11, it occurs 5 times referring to the bread of Christ’s body, broken and eaten by Christians at the ‘communion’service, a service which is more than just a ‘supper’, being a symbol and a sacrament of the union our bodies with Christ. Then in chapter 12 ‘sōma’ is used no fewer that 18 times, here referring to the church collectively as the ‘body of Christ’, and to the differing roles which Christians individually perform within it. Finally, as we have already seen, ‘sōma’ is used 9 times in chapter 15 referring to our resurrection bodies. We saw there that at the resurrection we will be radically changed yet remain essentially the same, like Jesus physically recognisable, yet freed from the limitations of the merely physical. Paul adumbrates that teaching here in chapter 6: “Food is for the stomach, and the stomach for food, and God will bring an end to both” (v.13a). It is only our earthly bodies that need food to sustain them, so that the sin of gluttony is not against a part of us that will live for ever. Sexual sin, however, is very different, as the antithesis in the second half of the verse makes clear: “but the body is not for prostitution (or ‘fornication’ - ‘porneia’), but for the Lord Jesus, and the Lord Jesus is for the body”. In English translations the preposition ‘for’ occurs 5 times in this verse, but there is no corresponding word in the Greek (nor is there a word for ‘is’ - Paul here is in telegrammatic mode!); instead, Greek uses the dative case of the nouns concerned. But the dative can express both purpose and possession, the latter, of course, usually when the noun is personal. In the first half of the verse it is obvious that the stomach does not ‘belong’ to food, but rather that it is ‘designed for’ it, and vice versa - one of the great providences of God’s creation! But in the second half of the verse Paul’s point is, surely, that “the body belongs to the Lord” and “the Lord belongs to the body”, just as the bridegroom belongs to the bride. And, as Paul goes on to say, just as God raised Jesus to resurrection life in a resurrection body, so too will he raise us up, so that “your bodies are integral parts” (literally ‘limbs’) of Christ’s body. “How on earth, then”, he goes on to ask, “am I to take the parts of my body which belong to Christ and make them parts of a prostitute’s body? No way!” (vv.14-15).

1 Corinthians 6 and Ephesians 5
'proskollōmai'
Gen 2.24

There is a clear link here with Ephesians 5, though of course the two passages are antithetical, the one portraying human marriage as a beautiful foreshadowing of the relationship between Jesus and his church, and the other showing that ‘porneia’ is a foul betrayal not just of marriage but of Christ. Here Paul uses the fact that we are “limbs of Christ’s body” to stress our obligation to be faithful to him in this ‘marriage’; but in Ephesians 5.29-30 he uses the same fact to show that, just as any normal person “nourishes and cherishes” his own body, so Jesus faithfully “nourishes and cherishes” us, the limbs of his body, the church; and so, too, a husband ought to “nourish and cherish” his wife because the two have become “one flesh” in marriage. The word in verse 29 I have translated ‘body’ is in fact not ‘sōma’ here, but ‘sarx’, ‘flesh’, which makes Paul’s reference to Genesis 2.24 even more telling. He uses this verse again in 1 Corinthians 6.16, another link between these two passages: “Do you not know that the one who has sexual union with a prostitute becomes one body with her? For ‘the two shall become one flesh’”. Sexual union is the physical expression of the spiritual oneness in the sight of God which should only be between husband and wife in marriage. Furthermore, the marriage between husband and wife in this life is, like the communion service only more fully and more beautifully, a sacrament physically and visibly looking forward to the next life when our union with Christ will be consummated in our resurrection bodies. Exactly how this will be, we do not yet know; that is why it is “a great and profound mystery”! There is another link between these two passages which is, perhaps, worth drawing attention to. In Ephesians 5.31 Paul quotes the whole of Genesis 2.24 (in the LXX version): “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother, and be united to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”. The verb translated “be united to” (“cleave to”, AV) is ‘proskollōmai’. In 1 Corinthians 6.16 Paul says that “the man who unites with a prostitute becomes one body with her”; here he uses the simple verb ‘kollōmai’ without its ‘pros-’ compound. ‘Pros’ can imply relationship, most notably in John 1.1: “the Word was [in relationship] with (‘pros’) God”. So perhaps Paul is deliberately contrasting the ‘one-night stand’ of prostitution, sex without relationship, with the lifelong partnership of marriage, where sexual union expresses total oneness. David Prior in his BST commentary on 1 Corinthians (p,101) sums up this point with admirable clarity, so I will borrow his words to conclude: “Jesus himself taught this perfect oneness between himself and those who believe in him (John 17. 20-21). This language, though often described as mystical, also has clear overtones of physical/spiritual union. This is why Paul uses the same vocabulary, explicitly in connection with marriage, to describe the relationship between Christ (the bridegroom) and the church (his bride - Eph. 5.21 ff.) The complete and permanent oneness between husband and wife is a powerful pointer to the relationship, for time and for eternity, between Christ and his church. In God’s ideal purpose for marriage, two believers should be so united as persons that “two become one”, expressed in the physical oneness of sexual intercourse. Yet even that approximation to the ideal plan of God is, at its very best, only a pointer (and in that sense a sacrament) to the perfect union/marriage between Christ and his church.”

'moicheia', 'moichalis'
James 4.4, Matthew 12.31, 16.4, Mark 8.38

We will take a brief look now at a word which is a virtual synonym for ‘porneia’, namely, ‘moicheia’, ‘adultery’. Both words refer to sexual sin, but while ‘porneia’ implies promiscuity, ‘moicheia’ emphasises infidelity, the betrayal of one’s partner in marriage. Like ‘porneia’, ‘moicheia’ is one of a family of 4 words, the other 3 being the verb ‘moicheuo’, and two personal nouns, ‘moichos’ a male adulterer and ‘moichalis’ an adulteress. While the first 3 of these forms, like all the ‘porn-’ word-group, are used only in the literal sense except in Revelation, ‘moichalis’ is used to express infidelity to God, the feminine form being appropriate in this context, where God is the ‘husband’. This is most explicit in James 4.4, where he tells his readers that their prayers are not answered “because you ask badly - intending to squander any good thing God gives you on your own sinful pleasures” (v.3 - the first part a literal translation, the rest a paraphrase). Then he really tells them: “Adulteresses, do you not know that to love the world is to hate God? Any one who wants to be a lover of the world makes himself an enemy of God”. This is very much the language and the message of the OT prophets: God demands our wholehearted love and loyalty - he is a “jealous God”, zealous for our spiritual wellbeing. Jesus himself uses ‘moichalis’ in this sense 3 times, though as an adjective describing “this generation” (‘genea’). Since ‘genea’ is a feminine noun, the feminine ‘adulteress’ could be used here simply as a matter of grammatical agreement. But as James has shown us, not to mention Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Hosea, a world which is unfaithful to God is well described not just as adulterous, but as “an adulteress generation”. The two instances in Matthew (12.31, 16.4) are parallel: in each case Jesus is asked by the scribes and Pharisees for a sign (“a sign from heaven” in 16.1), and in each case he replies: “A wicked and adulterous/adulteress generation seeks a sign” - seeking for a sign shows a lack of faith in a God who has already given so much and shown his love so clearly; and lack of faith is infidelity. The third instance is in Mark 8.38. Jesus is talking about the cost of discipleship - “taking up the cross”, verse 34 - and a part of this cost is not being ashamed to confess publicly our faith in Jesus to a hostile world - “this adulterous and sinful generation”. We saw earlier that Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit as an ‘arrabon’, the ‘pledge’ of Jesus’ commitment to us, and how that word is used in modern Greek to mean ‘an engagement ring’ (2 Cor. 1.22, 5.5, Eph. 1.14). Just as the Sinai covenant was God’s ‘betrothal’ to his people in the OT, so the giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost can be seen as Jesus’ ‘betrothal’ to his church under the New Covenant. To be ashamed of Jesus is an act of infidelity, like hiding, or removing, our engagement ring in public.

(4) Parables of Marriage
(a) The groom and the best man
John 3. 28-30

It is a relief now to turn away from those sexual sins, the enemies of marriage, which are so characteristic of “this adulterous generation”, and to focus at last on the glorious future that awaits us in heaven - the ‘mystery’ of the marriage between Jesus and his bride, the church. Like all the mysteries we have looked at, this one has been dimly revealed in the OT in the ‘on-off’ relationship between God and his people, the Jews. In the NT this revelation becomes clearer, though it remains, of course, only partial. In the gospels there are 4 passages which shed light on this glorious truth, all of them by means of a parable. Two of these are simple comparisons, or analogies, and the other two more elaborate narratives of the kind which conform to the Sunday-school (but not the scriptural) definition of a parable as ‘an earthly story with a heavenly meaning’. The first of these parables is also untypical in that it is found on the lips of John the Baptist, whom we usually associate with straight-talking literalism. In John 3, John’s disciples seem rather put out that the crowds that once flocked to their rabbi are now flocking to Jesus for baptism. John’s reply is not only a lovely parable but also a model of humility: “You yourselves can bear me witness that I told you ‘I am not the Christ’ --- The one who has the bride, he is the bridegroom. The groom’s friend, the best man, who listens to his speech, rejoices with great joy at the groom’s words. This is the joy that I have now fully experienced. It is he who must now increase in importance, while I decrease” (vv. 28-30). Why does John use this particular analogy, or parable, to make his point? Surely because it is more than just an analogy, it is a prophecy, and John, in the words of Jesus, was “more than a prophet” (Matt. 11.9). John’s ministry was to “prepare the way” for Jesus (Luke 1.76 - more on this later) and point people to him, a ministry which he most memorably fulfilled when he twice pointed to Jesus and declared “Behold! The Lamb of God1” (John 1.29,36). Before Jesus can fulfil his role as the bridegroom of the church, he has to pay the bride-price in his role as the sacrificial ‘Lamb of God’. Thus John’s two prophecies bring together both the story of Hosea and Paul’s prescription for marriage. Hosea, as we have seen, also had a prophetic mission, to buy back his unfaithful wife as a parable of God’s faithfulness to Israel. Paul tells the husbands of Ephesus to “love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up as a sacrifice for her” (5.25).

(b) the groom and the groom’s friends
‘numphē’, ‘numphios’
Matthew 9.15, Mark 2.19-20, Luke 5.34-5

The Greek words for ‘bride’ and ‘groom’ are ‘numphē’ and ‘numphios’, the same stem with either the feminine ending ‘-e’ or the masculine ‘-ios’. The two words are found together, appropriately, in verse 29 of the above passage - literally, “the one who has the bride, bridegroom is”: it works better in Greek! ‘numphē’ occurs 7 more times in the NT, 4 of them in Revelation, and ‘numphios’, after its 3 appearances here, another 16 times. Of these, 7 are found in the 3 synoptic versions of the next parable we will look at, in Matthew’s version. There is a connection with John the Baptist, for it is his disciples who are again asking puzzled questions: why don’t Jesus’ disciples fast as John’s do ? Jesus replies with a parable that is, perhaps deliberately, very similar to John’s: “Surely the groom’s friends cannot grieve during the time that the groom is with them ? But the days will come when the groom is taken from them, and then they will fast” (Matt. 9.15, = Mark 2.19-20, Luke 5.34-5). The phrase “the groom’s friends” introduces us to another member of the ‘numph-’ family, ‘numphion’, which means ‘the bridal chamber’; the literal translation of this phrase would be “the sons of the bridal chamber”. It is also worth noting here that the verb translated “taken from”, ‘apairomai’, literally means to ‘raise away from’, and is a slightly different compound of the verb used by Luke to describe Jesus’ ascension in Acts 1.9.

(c) the 7 parables of Matthew 21 - 25: an overview

The two narrative parables of marriage are the parable of the wedding feast and the parable of the ten bridesmaids. These both occur in the later chapters of Matthew, which recount the events and the teaching of the last week of Jesus’ earthly ministry, beginning with his triumphal entry into Jerusalem in chapter 21. Before looking at these two parables individually, it will be helpful to look at their wider context. Each one occurs in a group of three, the first at the end of its group, the second in the middle. The first group (21.28 - 22.14) depicts the apostasy of Israel as embodied in its religious rulers, in particular the chief priests and Pharisees, as they themselves indignantly recognise (21.45). This leads to a series of confrontations between Jesus and the Pharisees, and then to Jesus’ long denunciation of them (the ‘five woes’ of chapter 23), and his lament over Jerusalem, since apostasy will inevitably lead to judgement. Chapter 24 is Matthew’s version of the ‘synoptic apocalypse’, which we looked at earlier when dealing with Paul’s reference to the “mystery of lawlessness” in 2 Thessalonians 2.1-12. Here the passage begins with the prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem, but develops into a description of the last days, and the promise of Jesus’ return in glory - and in judgement. This is the context of the second group of parables, which, rather than a condemnation of Israel’s faithlessness, is a challenge to Jesus’ own followers to be faithful and watchful as that promised day approaches. Although separated by several chapters - and some unhelpful chapter-divisions, which in each case cut one parable off from the other two - there are some interesting parallels between the two groups. Each begins with a short, non-narrative parable, the obedient and disobedient sons of 21.28-31, and the faithful and unfaithful servants of 24.45-51. The two ‘wedding’ parables are linked not only by the wedding theme but also by the contrast between those who enjoy the wedding celebrations and those who miss them or are shut out from them. The two remaining parables both depict “a man who was going abroad”; the first entrusted his lovingly created vineyard to his servants (21.33-41), the second entrusted his considerable wealth to his servants, five talents to one, two to another and one to the third. Each man expected a return on his investment; the first found, in Israel, only rebellion, the second found two faithful servants and one who was “unprofitable”, or, more literally, “useless”. Finally, this sequence of 6 parables is concluded, as one might expect, by a seventh, an explicit depiction of the second coming of Christ and the last judgement, when all the antithetical characters of the previous six parables are summed up as either “sheep” or “goats” (25.31-46).

(d) the parable of the wedding banquet
Matthew 22. 1-14

The first of the two ‘marriage’ parables is the parable of the wedding banquet (22.1-14), the third of this group of three aimed at the apostasy of Israel. There are clear links between these three. In the first (21.28-31), the father tells each of his two sons in turn: “Son, go today and work in my vineyard”, the vineyard being a picture of Israel well known to all Jesus’ listeners from Isaiah 5.1-2, and developed in more detail in the next parable, the parable of the rebellious tenants (33-41). These two parables are also linked by an unusual feature they both have in common: in each, the ‘punch line’ is supplied by the audience in response to a question from Jesus: “which son was obedient?” (v.31), and “what will the owner of the vineyard do to the tenants?” (v.40). The vineyard parable, in turn, is quite clearly linked, despite the chapter-division, to the next one by two verbal repetitions. Both the vineyard owner and the king “sent out his servants” (21.34, 22.3), the one to collect his fruit, the other to issue an invitation. This repetition is echoed immediately afterwards, when the response to the first group of servants is negative: “again he sent out his servants” (21.36, 22.4); the Greek in both these quotations is identical. There is a point to these parallelisms: God wants from his people their faithful and obedient service, symbolized by the ‘fruit’ of the vineyard (see also vv. 41,43); but just as much, if not more (if the second parable is regarded as climactic), God wants the company of his people, their loving devotion and their joyful participation in his banquet. This repeats, in parable form, the point made simply and directly in Mark 3.14, when Jesus appoints the twelve disciples “to be with him and to send them out”: fruitful service is both inspired and expressed by personal devotion. And a further link between the two parables is that in each some of these servants “sent out” (‘apostellō’ in Greek, so ‘apostles’) are killed, the ultimate cost of faithful discipleship.

‘gamos’
Luke 12.36">Hebrews13.4, Luke 12.36, John 2. 1-3

‘Our’ parable begins: “The kingdom of heaven is like a human king who made a wedding banquet for his son” (22.2). It is significant that Luke’s version of this parable (14.15-24) makes no mention of a king, a wedding or a son, just “a man” and “a great feast”. Here, by contrast, it is clear from the beginning that the “king” of the “kingdom of heaven” is God, so that the wedding banquet celebrates the marriage of God’s Son, Jesus, to his bride, the church. So although the story, as aimed at Israel, looks back to the marriage imagery of the OT prophets that we sampled earlier, it also looks forward to the imagery of Revelation (coming shortly!). The imagery may be the same, but the guest-list has changed. The wording of verse 3 is noteworthy: “He sent out his servants to call those who had been called to the wedding” - the Greek verb ‘kalō’ (to ‘call’) is deliberately repeated. The Jews had received their initial invitation long ago, at Mount Sinai, perhaps; now the bridegroom is here, their long-awaited Messiah, and it is time to deliver a more immediate summons. But now, the invitation is rejected. Jesus sums up the parable with the words: “Many are called, but few chosen” (v.14). The Jews are often referred to as God’s chosen people, and that title expresses an important truth; but this parable suggests that a better title would be ‘God’s called people’. Although this is a ‘marriage’ parable, there is no word here for ‘bride’ or ‘groom’, so that we now need to introduce the Greek word for ‘marriage’, ‘gamos’, familiar in its English derivations ‘monogamy’ and ‘polygamy. It is used 17 times in the NT, 8 of them in this parable. In the singular it means ‘marriage’ as an institution (Hebrews 13.4 is the only instance of this); a ‘wedding’ or ‘wedding banquet’ is usually ‘gamoi’, the plural form, though the singular may also be used in this sense, as in its 3 occurrences in John 2 (vv. 1,2 and 3), the account of the ‘wedding’ at Cana. We have seen that Luke’s version of this parable makes no mention of a wedding, but his account of Jesus’ teaching contrasting the faithful and the unfaithful servants, or stewards (12.35-48), whose equivalent is the first of Matthew’s second group of parables (24.45-51), begins with a mini-parable of his own: “You are like men waiting for their master to return from a wedding”. The context in Luke does not make it clear whether it is his own wedding that the master is returning from, but Matthew’s parable of the ten bridesmaids, to which we now turn, perhaps provides the appropriate context for Luke’s analogy.

(e) the parable of the tem bridesmaids
‘chronizō’
Matthew 24.28, 25.5

As we have seen, the context of all three of this second group of parables is the return of Jesus in glory and judgement, which has been the subject of his discourse throughout chapter 24: after the prophecies come the parables. In each story, the servants have responsibilities to fulfil in their master’s absence as they wait for his return, and in each case their master’s return is long delayed. In 24.48, the “bad servant” says to himself: “My master is staying away a long time” (NIV). The single verb used in the Greek here, and in the equivalent passage in Luke’s version of the parable (12.25) is ‘chronizō’, derived from ‘chronos’, ‘time’, so that a simpler translation might be “my master is taking his time”. This is not a common word, with only 5 occurrences in the NT, but Matthew uses it again in the 'bridesmaids' parable: “As the bridegroom was taking his time, they all nodded off and fell asleep” (25.5). In the third parable, the same point is made but ‘chronizō’ is not used. There, the servants are entrusted with talents by their master before he goes abroad, and it is only “after a long time” (‘chronos’) that he returns (v.19). But although the ‘bridesmaids’ parable is similar in context and in outline to the other two, it stands out from the others in is details. Jesus is represented not as a master but as a bridegroom (‘numphios’ occurs 4 times, vv.1,5,6 and 10), and his disciples feature as bridesmaids - literally, ‘virgins’, which goes some way, at least, to counterbalance the predominantly male imagery used to describe Christians in the NT. The ‘wedding banquet’ gets a mention in this parable (v.10), to remind us of the link with the parable in the earlier group, but here there is no mention of the bride, either in Matthew or Luke. The ‘mystery’ that it is the church which is the bride of Christ is not revealed, appropriately, until Revelation, and then, of course, only partially, since its full reality is a mystery still. But even a limited understanding of this great truth enables us to appreciate an interesting irony in the parable which would probably have escaped its original hearers. The five wise and faithful bridesmaids whose lamps were still burning, and who were thus able to light the bridegroom on his way into the wedding banquet, when they themselves entered into the house, and the doors were closed behind them (v.10) would have discovered that they were no longer bridesmaids - they were brides! So in this life, all Jesus’ followers, men and women, are ‘always the bridesmaids’, faithfully waiting for Jesus to return, and ‘aglow with the Spirit’ (Romans 12.11) even when the wait seems interminable, sustained by the sure and certain hope that in the next life we will be ‘for ever the bride’.


(5) The ‘Mystery of Marriage’ in Revelation
(a) chapter 18: Babylon

So we come, at last, to the Book of Revelation, where the ‘mystery’ of the marriage of Christ to his church is most clearly depicted. All the hints and all the images of marriage which are scattered, in prophecies and parables, throughout the books of scripture which precede this final book are gathered together like threads woven into a tapestry - a ‘wedding photograph’ of a marriage banquet which at last features both a bride and a groom, not just guests and bridesmaids. But before the wedding celebrations of a sanctified church must come God’s judgement on a sinful world. The destruction of Babylon, depicted in chapter 18, must precede the descent from heaven of the New Jerusalem in chapter 21, so that these final chapters of the bible are indeed ‘A tale of Two Cities’. Moreover, this chapter is relevant to our study. So far we have looked at both God’s ideal of marriage and man’s (all too often in the gender-specific sense) betrayal of marriage; this chapter brings the two sides of the coin together. For John and the early church, Babylon most immediately symbolised the mighty and godless Empire of Rome; for us, it more generally represents ‘the world’, a human society which has turned its back on its Creator God and his laws, and shamelessly pursued every kind of sinful pleasure and self-indulgence.

‘mulos’
Matthew 18.6, 24.40-1, Mark 9.42, Luke 17.2

At the beginning of chapter 18, an angel announces that “Babylon the great has fallen” (v.2), a judgement which has come upon her because “all the nations of mankind have drunk deeply the intoxicating wine of her fornication (‘porneia’), and the kings of the earth have fornicated (‘porneuō’) with her” (v.3, repeated in v.9). In the next verse, another voice urges “my people, come out of her”, so as not to be involved in Babylon’s destruction. In his ‘high-priestly prayer’ in John 17, Jesus had specifically not asked his Father to “take them [his disciples] out of the world” (v.15), and in his final commission he had told them, on the contrary, to “go to all the nations of mankind” to make disciples of them, too (Matt. 28.19). But now it is too late: the world has had its last chance. The destruction of Babylon is graphically symbolised in verse 21: “And one mighty angel picked up a stone as big as a millstone and flung it into the sea”. It is worth taking a brief look at the Greek word for ‘millstone’ here, ‘mulos’. It is used 6 times in all in the NT, sometimes, in some MSS, in the slightly variant forms ‘mulinos, and ‘mulikos’, and 2 of its occurrences are in this passage. Of the remainder, 3 are found in the synoptic versions of one of Jesus’ most awesome sayings: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who has faith in me to stumble in his faith, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung round his neck and he were thrown into the depths of the sea” (Matt. 18.6, Mark 9.42, Luke 17.2, the latter, as so often, slightly less synoptic than the other two). Matthew and Mark describe it as a “mule-worked millstone”, that is, not just a domestic appliance but an industrial-scale millstone too big for a man - or, more likely, a woman - to work unaided. This image of devastating judgement is clearly echoed in the symbolic act of the angel here: a millstone thrown into the depths of the see is lost beyond recall. It is instructive to set these verses alongside the lovely words of the prophet Micah, who reminds us that God delights to show mercy: “You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot, and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea” (7.19).As someone has commented on this verse, “God has buried our sins at the bottom of the sea, and put a notice on the surface: ‘No Fishing!’”. Our sins are indeed like a millstone round our necks, and we have only two choices: either we can find forgiveness from a merciful God by laying our sins on Jesus, so that they are buried with him; or we ourselves suffer the judgement we deserve, weighed down by the unbearable millstone we have made for ourselves. In its other two occurrences, ‘mulos’ is not so much a symbol of judgement, but an emblem of normal human society. In Matthew 24, the ‘synoptic apocalypse’ which precedes the parable of the ten bridesmaids, Jesus emphasizes this stark alternative between mercy and judgement. At his ‘parousia’, he says, “Two men will be in the field; one will be taken [to be with Jesus], the other left behind. Two women will be grinding corn at the millstone; one will be taken the other left behind” - presumably, to share the destruction of ‘Babylon’ (40-41). Tilling the fields and grinding the corn are representative of the regular routines of rural life.

Bride and bridegroom together
Revelation 18. 23b, John 6.37

With this contrast in mind, we can now move on to the rest of Revelation 18. After the millstone has disappeared into the depths of the sea, the “mighty angel” reveals the symbolism of his action: “With just such a sudden act of violence will the great city of Babylon be thrown down; it will never be seen (literally, ‘found’) again - never!” (v.21) The Greek here uses the double negative, with the verb in the subjunctive. This construction expresses a guaranteed future certainty. It is used, for instance, in the context of God’s mercy rather than, as here, his judgement, in John 6.37, where Jesus gives us one of his most wonderful promises: “The one who comes to me I will never cast out - never!” This double-negative construction is used 5 more times in the next 2 verses, each one emphasising the utter destruction of a feature, not of Babylon’s wickedness, but of its normal civilised life. Each of these features is an example of the way man raises himself above the level of the animals by his God-given gifts of intelligence, ingenuity and invention, and so is able to live together in civilised communities. From basic sounds, man creates music as a medium of worship and a means of cultured enjoyment; from the raw materials of nature craftsmen devise all sorts of implements and machines to make life more comfortable; from nature’s gift of the corn-crop, man - or more probably woman - makes bread, and in the darkness of night by lighting a lamp they create light, showing that they are indeed made in God’s image. But now, “the sound of the millstone will never again be heard in you - never!” (v.22b). Here, too, as in Jesus’ vignette of judgement, grinding the corn is instanced as a normal feature of the regular routine of life: it is the daily grind which produces our daily bread! But the supreme feature of a harmonious and civilised community is left to last: marriage. “The voice of the bridegroom and the bride will never be heard in you again - never!” (v.23b). We saw earlier that in the words of John the Baptist (John 3.29) ‘numphios’ and ‘numphē’ come together, as ‘bridegroom’ and ‘bride’ should; this is the only other verse in the NT where these two words come together (only an ‘and’ separates them here). This is God’s perfect plan for human happiness and for the continuation of the human race - God creates, man procreates. But God’s plan and man’s happiness depend on the faithfulness of husband and wife, and in Babylon that has succumbed to ‘porneia’. God’s perfect plan ‘B’ (though in fact plan ‘A’ all along) is the marriage between Jesus and his church, and now that Babylon and all its works are no more, we can move past chapter 18 to “the marriage feast of the Lamb” in the next chapter.

Jeremiah 25.10, 33.10-11

But before we do, finally, leave chapter 18and the destruction of Babylon, it is worth looking again at the language and imagery with which that destruction is described. Although there are no obvious quotations from Jeremiah here, it is clear that his prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem in chapter 25 (in the LXX version, of course) is the source of quite a lot of John's writing. First, a minor detail. Twice in Revelation 18 (vv.17 and 19) we are told that "within a single hour Babylon will be laid waste"; the verb used here is the one that provides the noun 'desolation' in the familiar phrase 'the abomination of desolation', and the even more familiar noun 'erēmos', meaning 'desert' or 'wilderness'. In Jeremiah, this verb appears in the active voice, and the subject is God: "I will lay them waste" (v.9). But it is the next verse that provides the closest parallel: "I will banish from them the sounds of joy and gladness, the voices of bride and bridegroom, the sound of millstones and the light of the lamp" (NIV - the LXX does not include 'the millstones').The similarity with Revelation 18.22-23 is obvious. Less obvious, perhaps, is the irony suggested by these cross-references. Who is it who will bring about the destruction of Jerusalem, God's holy city? It is God himself, working through the agency of "my servant Nebuchadnezzar" (v.9) and the armies of Babylon: in this context, it is Babylon which is executing God's righteous judgement on his rebellious people. These echoes of Jeremiah, then, subtly suggest another chapter to 'the Tale of Two cities': in the OT it is Jerusalem which is destroyed and Babylon triumphant; but ultimately - almost at the end of the last book of the bible - it is Babylon and all that it represents (for John that would be primarily Rome, which also destroyed Jerusalem) which will be "desolated in a single hour", while New Jerusalem stands for ever: God's devastating judgement is now balanced by his glory and grace - "Hallelujah!" indeed (19.1). I do not suppose that 'Hallelujah!' was in Jeremiah's vocabulary, but he, too, looks forward to the day when Jerusalem will be restored, and he uses the same imagery to paint this new city as he used to forecast the destruction of the old one: "This is what the Lord says: "You say about this place, 'It is a desolate waste, without men or animals'. Yet in the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem that are deserted, inhabited by neither men nor animals, there will be heard once more the sounds of joy and gladness, the voices of bride and bridegroom ---" (33.10-11).

(b) chapter 19: “The marriage feast of the Lamb”
‘bussinos’, ‘periballomai’
Luke 16.19, Revelation 18.12, 16, 17.4

Revelation 19 begins with a fourfold “Alleluia” chorus (vv. 1,3,4 and 6). The first praises God for his judgement of “Babylon the great whore, who corrupted the earth with her whoring” (v.2, ‘pornē’ and ‘porneia’, their final appearance in scripture); and the fourth praises him for his almighty power (v.6). These are the only 4 occurrences in the NT of ‘alleluia’ (‘praise Jehovah’). The much travelled David Pawson remarked that, whichever country he visited, two words were universally understood: ‘Coca Cola’ and ‘Alleluia’ - the language of the world and the language of the church! This final ‘alleluia’ leads us to the climax of our study on ‘the mystery of marriage’. The heavenly host give glory to God “because the marriage feast of the Lamb has come, and his wife has made herself ready; it has been granted her to clothe herself in fine linen, clean and gleaming-white; for the fine linen represents the righteous acts of the saints” (v.7). The first thing to notice is that the bride has now become ‘the wife’ (‘gunē’, mother of all things ‘gynecological’): the long wait is over at last! Next, the “fine linen”. The Greek word used here, ‘bussinos’, is strictly an adjective derived from the noun ‘bussos’. This noun occurs only once in the NT, in Jesus’ parable of ‘Dives (Latin for ‘rich’) and Lazarus, the beggar who sat at his gate. Dives’s wealth is evident in his clothes: “he used to dress himself in purple and fine linen (‘bussos’)” (Luke 16.19). The adjective ‘bussinos’ is only used in these 2 chapters of Revelation, and we will, regrettably, need to return to Babylon and chapter 18 to make this point. Here, as in Luke, it is used as a symbol of wealth and conspicuous consumption, in both its occurrences bracketed with ‘purple’, an expensive dye only available to the rich. In verses 11-12, the merchants mourn the destruction of Babylon because now no one will buy their “fine linen and purple”; and in verses 16-17 their mourning becomes a lament: “Woe, woe to the great city, clothed in fine linen and purple --- because in a single hour such great wealth has been utterly laid waste”. The other 3 instances of ‘bussinos’ come in chapter 19, as we have already partly seen. The parallel (which is, of course, an antithesis) between the bride’s fine linen and Babylon’s fine linen is strengthened by the use of the same word for ‘clothed’ in each case, ‘periballomai’, literally, “I throw round myself”, or “wrap myself in” (18.16 and 19.8). More importantly, the contrast is stressed by the two adjectives: the bride’s wedding dress is not an ostentatious purple, but “clean and gleaming-white”, the outward expression of her inward purity. Purple is for whores, as we see in 17.4, where John is shown the “great whore” of Babylon, “clothed (‘periballomai’ again) in purple and scarlet and adorned with gold and precious stones”. More valuable in the sight of God than all such ostentatious finery is the holiness of his people and the “precious blood” of his Son by which that holiness is made possible (1 Peter 1.19: ‘precious’ in both verses is ‘timios’ in Greek). There is one further instance of ‘bussinos’ in this chapter, rather a surprising one. In verse 14 the angels of the heavenly army who ride out to follow Christ into battle are “clothed in fine linen, clean and gleaming-white”, which shows that such material is not just for brides and wedding dresses: the distinction between ‘the fair sex’ and the ‘macho male’ is not one that seems to be recognised in the New Jerusalem. Rather, as John tells us in verse 8 (in fact, it is not clear whether this is John’s own comment or the last line of the ‘alleluia chorus’), “fine linen” is not an indication of the wearer’s gender but of his or her righteousness. The angels are entitled to wear fine linen by virtue of their own sinlessness, but for the bride it is not her own righteousness that she wears, but the sinlessness of Jesus. To grasp this point, we need to look at another key word in verse 8, and then take another look at the parable of the wedding banquet.

The parable of the wedding banquet revisited
Matthew 22.11-14, John 19.23
'keklēmenos'

Verse 8 begins “And it was granted to her---”, or, literally, “it was given to her”: her righteousness is essentially a gift of grace, purchased by “the precious blood of Christ” (1 Peter 1.19, a verse which will feature again later). This takes us back to the second half of the parable of the wedding banquet (Matt. 22. 11-14), which we did not look at earlier. When those on the original guest-list (“those who had been invited”, vv.3, 8) proved to be unwilling and unworthy, the king sent out his servants again to bring in any one they could find on the streets, so that eventually “the wedding banquet-hall was filled with diners” (v. 10). When the king walks through his hall to greet these new guests, he sees one not wearing a wedding robe, and has him thrown out “into outer darkness” (v.13). Since all the guests had been brought in off the streets presumably still in their working clothes, it might seem unreasonable now to expect them to be dressed in tail-coats and posh frocks. The usual explanation is that ‘wedding robes’ would be provided by the host to the guests as they came in; this one guest clearly thought he was well enough dressed as he was. This tailpiece to the parable, then, which is not included in Luke’s version, makes the same distinction that we find elsewhere in Luke, in the parable of the Pharisee who boasted to God in prayer of his own righteous acts, as against the tax-collector who knew he was a sinner and pleaded to God for mercy - it was he, Jesus said, who “went down to his house justified”, that is, “made righteous” (19.14). This suggests that the wedding guest thrown into outer darkness was guilty of the sin Jesus most insistently condemned: Pharisaic self-righteousness. The link with the wedding banquet parable is further strengthened by the next verse in Revelation 19, verse 9, where John is told to write: “Blessed are those who have been called to the marriage feast of the Lamb”: the Greek word for “called”, or “invited”, is ‘keklēmenos’, the perfect participle passive of ‘kalō’, exactly the same word as that used twice in the parable. The imagery of clothing in scripture deserves a study of its own, but we will look briefly at just two key instances. In Genesis 3, immediately after their act of disobedience, Adam and Eve become aware of their guilty nakedness before a holy God, and try to conceal it with self-made “aprons” (AV) of fig-leaves. These proved utterly inadequate, unable to hide their guilt from God. God nevertheless tempered his judgement with mercy, giving them (n.b.) instead of fig-leaves clothes of animal skins, the first hint in scripture that sin can only be forgiven through sacrifice. The ultimate sacrifice, of course, was Jesus himself, and many have seen John’s description of Jesus’ robe, a tunic “seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom” (19.23) as a symbol of his sinless righteousness, and the fact that it was ‘given’ by lot to one of the soldiers at the cross as a parable, showing that Jesus’ righteousness is conferred freely by the grace of a sovereign God on all those who come to the cross to seek forgiveness. We are not told whether that ‘robe’ was made of ‘fine linen’, but it is certainly Jesus’ righteousness that his bride is clothed in at this heavenly wedding banquet, and which the self-righteous wedding guest in Jesus’ parable was offered but rejected.

(3) chapter 21: The New Jerusalem: the Bride
'eidon'
Revelation 22.1,22

Revelation 21, not surprisingly, brings us almost to the end of our journey. John has seen many remarkable things during the course of his ‘revelation’: the verb ‘eidon’, meaning “I saw”, occurs 44 times in the book, plus a 45th, referring, uniquely, to what he did not see, a temple in the New Jerusalem (21.22). The very last positive instance of this word comes at the beginning of the chapter, and refers to perhaps the most wonderful and beautiful of all the sights revealed to him: “the holy city of Jerusalem, made new, descending from heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband” (v.2). Just as our last passage (19.7) referred, for the first time in the NT, to the bride at the wedding feast as “his wife”, so this verse is the first to describe Christ, the bridegroom, as “her husband”. And in case we should think that the phrase “as a bride” is a simile and a purely figurative description of the New Jerusalem, we need to move on to verses 9-10, where one of the seven angels says to John: “Come over here: I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb”. He takes John to the top of a high mountain and shows him “the holy city of Jerusalem”. Jerusalem is not just “like a bride”, it is “the bride, the wife of the Lamb”, and the bride is the church. Just as the synagogue is not primarily a building but the ‘gathering together’ of God’s people; and just as the church is not essentially a building, though Paul likens it to a temple in Ephesians 2.21, but an ‘assembly’ of God’s family (the ‘ecclēsia’ was the ‘assembly’ at Athens, the heart of its democracy); so the New Jerusalem is not essentially a city but the bride of Christ, the redeemed and sanctified people of God.

The Bride described
(a)
‘kosmō’, 'kosmos', 'kosmios'
Matthew 25.7, 1 Peter 3.3-5, 1 Tim 2.9-10

Back to verse 2, where the bride (‘numphē’) is described by means of two passive participles, “made ready” and “adorned”. Both these words deserve further study. The Greek verb ‘to adorn’ is ‘kosmō’, related, obviously, to the noun ‘kosmos’. This is one of the most common words in the NT, occurring 77 times in John’s gospel alone (John loved 7’s!). Its basic meaning is ‘order’, and since God’s world, the heavens and the earth, have always (rightly) been seen as gloriously ordered creations, ‘kosmos’ came to mean ‘the world’. What, then, is the connection between ‘kosmos’ and ‘cosmetics’? The Greeks (rightly!) regarded order as an essential feature of beauty, and so the noun came to mean ‘beauty’ as well as ‘order’, and the verb ‘kosmō’ can therefore mean either ‘to set in order’, ‘to arrange neatly’ (it must have been used daily by Greek mothers telling their sons to ‘tidy’ their rooms!), or to ‘beautify’, hence ‘cosmetics’. The verb is used 10 times in the NT, mostly in the ‘cosmetic’ sense, but one example of its primary meaning is worth citing because it occurs in the parable of the bridesmaids. When the bridegroom finally arrives in the middle of the night, the five prudent girls “all got up and put their lamps in order” - conventionally translated as “trimmed”. Of greater relevance to the “bride of Christ”, however, are the teachings of Peter and Paul about how women should ‘beautify’ themselves. The two apostles are clearly singing from the same song-sheet: “Your beauty (‘kosmos’) should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair or the wearing of gold jewellery and fine clothes. Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight. For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to make themselves beautiful ” (‘kosmō’ - 1 Peter 3. 3-5, NIV, excellent here). Nor is Paul impressed by elaborate hair-do’s: “I also want women to adorn (‘kosmō’) themselves decently, with modesty and moderation, not with elaborately braided hair, bejewelled with gold or pearls, or with excessively expensive designer dresses; beautify yourselves rather with good works” (1 Tim. 2.9-10 - I have repeated the verb here, and updated a bit, to make the point). Paul makes a pun here, or, to put it more charitably, makes use of subtle word-play to underline his point, though inevitably it gets lost in translation. AV’s more literal version of verse 9 reads: “I will --- that women adorn themselves in modest apparel”, the word for ‘modest’ being ‘kosmios’; this adjective is derived from the basic meaning of ‘kosmos’, and so essentially means ‘orderly’, and so, perhaps, ‘with a proper sense of what is fitting’. This word is only used twice in the NT, the other instance being in the very next chapter, where Paul says that the ‘bishop’, or ‘overseer’, of a church should, among other things, be ‘kosmios’ (v.2). NEB translates ‘courteous’, AV ‘of good behaviour’, NIV ‘respectable’: it is not an easy word to pin down! Essentially, Paul is telling women that the essence of beauty is simplicity, not extravagance, and modesty, not ostentation. Perhaps, when women go to the 'fitting-room' in the dress shop, it is this Pauline sense of 'fitting' that they should be most concerned to get right!

‘polutelēs’, ‘timios’

Further evidence that Peter and Paul are as one on this issue is provided by another word, used in each passage but in different contexts. This is a synonym for ‘timios’, which we came across earlier and will meet again, the word ‘polutelēs’, ‘very precious’. It is used in Mark 14.3 to describe the ‘very precious’, or ‘very expensive’ (NIV) perfume poured over Jesus’ feet. Its only two other occurrences are in these two verses. Paul uses it in a pejorative sense in 1 Timothy 2.9, where I translated it ‘excessively expensive’; Peter uses it to refer to the “inner unfading beauty of a peaceable spirit”, which, he says, is “very precious in God’s sight” (1 Peter 3.4). Once again we see how God’s scale of values is quite different from man’s - let alone woman’s! Man “looks at the outward appearance”, the beauty of the body and its adorning; but “God looks on the heart” (1 Sam. 16.7). In Revelation, too, this point is made by using the same word in different contexts. Here, we are back to ‘timios’ again, and to our final example of ‘kosmō’. ‘Timios’ is used 6 times in Revelation, 4 times of Babylon and twice of New Jerusalem; 5 of the 6 refer to ‘precious’ stones. The great whore of Babylon, as we have seen, is clothed in “purple and scarlet”, but also “gilded with gold and precious stones and pearls” (17.4), and this description is repeated, more or less word for word, in the cry of “woe” for the fall of Babylon itself (18.16). In Babylon, then, gold and precious stones and pearls are the emblems of extravagance and ostentation, of the external, eye-catching ‘beauty’, or ‘adornment’, of the prostitute - meretricious beauty. In New Jerusalem, by contrast, these same things are symbols of inner beauty, the beauty of holiness. When John is taken on his tour of the “holy city”, he sees it “descending from heaven, radiant with the glory of God, its brilliance like a very precious stone” (21.10-11). One of the ways that NT Greek differs from its Classical forebear is in its reluctance to use the superlative form of the adjective, but here we have an exception: everything about the new Jerusalem is superlative! So the “stone” here is not just ‘timios’ but ‘timiotatos’, ‘very precious’. This leads us on to our final instance of ‘kosmō’. The foundations of the city wall are clearly visible, “beautified with every kind of precious stone” (v.19 - NIV’s ‘decorated’ suggests a superficiality which is utterly inappropriate), and this and the next two verses specify 12 kinds of precious stone, one for each foundation - more on this later. The fact that it is the foundations of the 12 walls and 12 gates that are ‘adorned’ or ‘beautified’ with jewels may perhaps be taken to symbolize the truth that holiness is not something on the surface, an add-on to our outward appearance to the world, something that can be assumed or acted: it is the Greek word for an ‘actor’ that gives us the English word ‘hypocrite’. The beauty of holiness is, on the contrary, the bedrock of Christian character, of Christlikeness, without which the superstructure of our lives, our attitudes and actions, can never be truly beautiful or precious in God’s sight.

The Bride described
(b)
‘hetoimazō’
Ephesians 2.9-10, Philippians 2.13

The second of the two passive participles used to describe the New Jerusalem, though in fact it comes first, is ‘hetoimazō’, to ‘prepare’ or ‘make ready’: John saw the city “descending out of heaven from God made ready as a bride beautified for her husband” (Rev. 21.2). This verb occurs 40 times in the NT, which is appropriate, for 40 is the number which suggests a time of preparation: the Israelites spent 40 years in the wilderness ‘preparing’ for the promised land; Jesus was tempted in the wilderness for 40 days as he ‘prepared’ for his ministry, and then ‘prepared’ his disciples for their ministry by 40 days’ of post-resurrection appearances. We will not look at all 40 of its occurrences, but it is an important word with an important message for the church today, and so this study will be rather more substantial than the preceding one. But before we embark upon what will be quite a long journey, it is worth noting that both these two participles are passive, ‘made ready’ and ‘beautified’. That should lead us to ask the important question: by whom has the bride been beautified, and by whom has the city, which is both a city and a bride, been prepared ? If the bride of Christ is, as we have seen, the church, does the church prepare herself and make herself beautiful, or is that the work of Jesus the bridegroom? The answer, of course, is “both --- and”, an answer implicit in our study of ‘kosmō’, and before that in Revelation 19. 7-8. There we saw that “the marriage feast of the Lamb has come, and his wife has prepared herself: she had been given fine linen to wear, clean and gleaming-white”. Yes, the bride has “prepared herself”, but the wedding-dress she has put on has been prepared for her and "been given" to her as a gift of grace; it is, as we have seen, the seamless robe of Christ’s sinlessness. The moment we put on this robe, however unrighteous we ourselves may be, we become righteous in God’s eyes: he sees, not our innumerable sins, but his Son’s perfect sinlessness. This is ‘justification’, an instant miracle of God’s grace, our debts paid, our leprosy cured, our lives “born again”. To prepare ourselves, we need only do what the ejected wedding-guest in the parable failed to do, put on the wedding robe prepared for him by his royal host. But a moment of justification should be followed by a lifetime of sanctification: there should increasingly be a ‘daily beauty’ in our reborn lives, the beauty of holiness and the beauty of good works. Is this beauty achieved by our own efforts and determination and self-discipline, or by the work of the sanctifying Holy Spirit within us ? Again, “both --- and”. To become holy, we need God’s help and strength, but he needs our obedience. We saw earlier that Paul tells women to “beautify yourselves with good works” (1 Tim. 2.10). In Ephesians 2. 9-10, Paul makes it quite clear that we are not saved by good works, but for good works; moreover, these good works have been “prepared beforehand by God for us to walk in”. Not only does God provide for us the “fine linen” of Jesus’ righteousness for us to put on, but he daily prepares for us good works to do for his sake, a jewel-box of precious stones to adorn ourselves with as we walk in the footsteps of Jesus. Even when we are obedient we cannot boast, for (Paul again) “it is God at work within us who gives us both the willingness and the inner strength to do what pleases him” (Phil. 2.13): “both --- and”!

‘proetoimazō’, 'skeuos'
Ephesians 2.10, Romans 9.3, 2 Tim 2.21, Luke 12.20-21

In Ephesians 2.10, quoted above, the Greek verb translated “prepared beforehand” is, in fact, a compound of ‘hetoimazō’, ‘proetoimazo’. Preparation is, of course, something which by definition is done ‘beforehand’; Paul adds the compound ‘pro-’ here, and also in the only other passage where this word occurs, to stress the foreknowledge of a sovereign God, who somehow weaves our freely willed decisions into his predestined plan. The other instance is in Romans 9.3, where Paul talks about God’s making known “the riches of his glory to us, vessels of mercy whom he ‘prepared beforehand’ for glory”. ‘Vessels’ here is the AV translation of the Greek word which, in this context, means a ‘clay pot’, but ‘vessel’ sounds archaic and ‘pot’ sounds banausic, so NIV ‘solves’ the problem by not translating it at all. Paul uses the same image to describe Christians, and the same word, ‘skeuos’, in 2 Timothy 2.21, posing NIV the same problem. They respond with ‘articles’ in the previous verse, where its use is literal, and ‘instrument’ in its metaphorical sense in 21. If someone wants to be useful to the Master, Paul says, he must “purify himself” (just as a kitchen utensil must be thoroughly washed before use); then he will be “a vessel prepared for every good work”. Here the emphasis is not on the predestination of God but the freely willed obedience of the Christian, so that Paul uses the simple, not the compound, form of the verb. And ‘vessel’ seems to me more appropriate than ‘instrument’, despite its archaism, since it suggests a container which need to be filled (like a pot!) to fulfil its purpose - filled by God’s energising and enabling Holy Spirit. These two uses of ‘proetoimazo’ draw attention to an interesting feature of the 40 uses in the NT of the simple verb: the distinction between the preparations made for us by God, and the preparations he tells us to make for him. Only a handful of its occurrences fall into neither category: Claudius Lysias tells his centurions to “prepare 200 soldiers” to escort Paul from Jerusalem to Caesarea (Acts 23.23); Paul tells Philemon to “prepare a guest-room for me” (v.22); and the locusts which John sees in Revelation 9.7 look like “horses prepared for battle”. But one such instance is more instructive. The ‘rich fool’, in Jesus’ parable in Luke 12, far from ‘purifying himself’ for service, “stores up treasure for himself, not for God”, and God asks him the killer question: “All that you have prepared [for yourself], who will this belong to now?” (vv.20-21).When a wealthy man dies, the answer to the inevitable question “how much did he leave?” is always the same: “everything”. But the majority of the uses of ‘hetoimazō’ in the NT are in the context of service, not self-indulgence.

Preparing for the Passover
'hetoimos'
Mark 14.12,15,16

Of these occurrences, no fewer that 9 are found in the three synoptic accounts of the ‘preparations’ for the last supper; they form a neat arithmetical progression, with two instances in Matthew (26.17,19), 3 in Mark (14.12,15,16), and 4 in Luke (22.8,9,12,13). We will look at Mark’s version, partly because it introduces us to the adjective related to ‘hetoimazō’, but mostly because it helpfully introduces us to the distinction between our ‘preparing’ and God’s. The disciples ask Jesus: “Where do you want us to go and prepare for us to eat the Passover?” (v.12). Jesus then ‘sends out’ two of them into Jerusalem to follow a man carrying a water-jar into his house, and ask the master of that house to show them the room where he is to eat the Passover. “He will show you”, say Jesus, “a large upper room, furnished and ‘prepared’: there ‘prepare’ for us” (v.15). The disciples obediently followed these instructions and “prepared the Passover”. The word in verse 15 translated ‘prepared’ is ‘hetoimos’, the aforementioned adjective derived from ‘hetoimazō’. The ring-structure of this episode is characteristic of Mark’s careful arrangement of his material in the narrative passages of his gospel. Here, the section begins and ends with ‘preparing the Passover’, and centres on the two ‘preparations’ in verse 15, which are our centre of attention - but the other verbal echoes and repetitions also repay careful study (in the Greek!), and enhance one’s admiration for Mark as a writer. Our point, which presumably is Mark’s, since it is carefully placed at the heart of the narrative, is that the disciples ‘sent out’ to make the Passover preparations found that all the important preparations had already been made by Jesus: the upper room was already “prepared”.

‘hetoimazo’ and ‘apostellō’
Luke 9.52-3

I have drawn attention in the previous paragraph to the fact that Jesus ‘sent out’ two disciples (Luke uses the same word, and tells us that the two were Peter and John) because the Greek word here is ‘apostellō’, from which ‘apostle’ is derived. It is linked to several other instances of ‘etoimazo’ as well. There is a pre-echo of this incident in Luke 9.51ff. This verse marks the beginning of Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem, and to the cross, where the Passover Lamb of God would offer himself as the final sacrifice. Luke tells us that Jesus “fixed his face” on going to Jerusalem; we might say “set his sights”. The rejection he is to meet in Jerusalem from his own people is foreshadowed by the rejection he meets here in a Samaritan village. “He sent out (‘apostellō’) messengers (‘angeloi’ - plural form) before his face; they went and entered a Samaritan village to ‘make preparations’ (‘hetoimazō’) for him - but they did not receive him” (vv.52-3 - Luke actually says “and” here rather than “but”, as though this rejection were only to be expected).

‘hetoimazō’ and ‘kataskeuazō’
Ex 23.20, Mal 3.1, Is 40.3

Luke’s use here of the Hebraism “before his face” takes us further back, initially to John the Baptist in chapter 7, and then into the OT prophets, and then right back to Exodus. In Luke 7 (also in Matthew 11) John sends two of his disciples to ask Jesus if he really is the Messiah (“the one who is coming”, v.19); Jesus replies by pointing out how his healing and teaching ministry fulfils the OT Messianic prophecies. When these messengers (‘angeloi’) have gone, Jesus refers to OT prophecy to show that John himself had fulfilled a scripturally predicted ministry. He quotes Malachi 3.1: “Behold, I will send out (‘apostellō’) my messengers (‘angeloi’) before your face, who will prepare your way before you” (v.27, = Matt. 11.10) The word ‘prepare’ is not ‘hetoimazō’ here but a synonym, ‘kataskeuazō’, which is used 4 times in the gospels (one of which we shall look at shortly), all in quotations of this verse in Malachi, even though the LXX uses a different verb again. Elsewhere, it is used another 7 times, 6 of them in Hebrews, meaning to ‘build’ - building a house (3.3-4), building the Tabernacle (9.2,6), and of Noah’s building of the ark (11.7, 1 Peter 3.20). The other key prophecy of John’s ministry is in Isaiah 40.3: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord’”. Here, ‘prepare’ is ‘hetoimazō’, both in the LXX ‘original’ and in its three synoptic citations (Matt. 3.3, Mark 1.3, Luke 3.4). Mark, however, rather muddies the waters by citing only Isaiah, but then quoting both Malachi and Isaiah together. Malachi, in turn, is echoing God’s promise to Israel in Exodus 23.20: “And, behold, I will send out (‘apostellō’, LXX) my angel (‘angelos’) before your face, so that he may guard you on your way, and lead you into the land which I have prepared (‘hetoimazō’, LXX) for you”. Both AV and NIV have ‘place’ for the ‘land’ of LXX, and we will see in a moment that God promises to prepare a place for his new covenant people just as he did for the Israelites. But the other side of this precious coin of promise is that God’s people need to prepare themselves for this place that God has prepared.

‘apostellō’ and 'kataskeuazō
Hebrews3.3-4, 9.2,6, 11.7

It is Luke who most consciously, it seems, weaves together all these scattered references into some kind of pattern. His gospel begins with the angel (‘angelos’, of course) Gabriel, who meets Zechariah in the Temple, and tells him that he has been ‘sent out’ (‘apostellō’) by God “to speak to you and to give you this good news” (1.19) - the news that a son would be born to him and his aged wife, Elizabeth. This son would “go before” the Lord to prepare for him a people “made ready” (v.17. Luke here (presumably Gabriel spoke in Hebrew!) uses both Isaiah’s and Malachi’s word for ‘prepare’, ‘hetoimazō’ first, and then ‘kataskeuazō’. After John’s birth, Zechariah, inspired by the Holy Spirit, (and again, presumably, speaking in Hebrew, or Aramaic) conflates the words of both prophecies in a prophecy of his own: “And you, my son, will be called a prophet of the Highest; for you will go before the Lord to prepare (‘hetoimazō’) his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people for the forgiveness of their sins” (vv.76-7). A people that is ‘prepared’ and ‘made ready’ is, first and foremost, a people that has been saved and forgiven. It is significant, I think, that the 3 contexts in which ‘kataskeuazō’ is used in Hebrews (referred to earlier) are all images of the church: the “household” of God (3.3-4), the tabernacle (9. 2,6), and the ark - “by faith Noah built an ark for the salvation of his household” (11,7 - see also 1 Peter 3.20). In each case, the building is done either by God himself (Heb. 3.4), or by his obedient servants Moses and Noah, faithfully carrying out his instructions and building to his exact specifications (Gen. 6.14-21, Exodus 25 - 27).

3 Pairs of Complementary Truths:
(1) the ‘Apostolic’ Church
Luke 1.26, Revelation 1.1, 22.6, John 20.21, Acts 13.2

Luke thus leads us on to reflect on 3 pairs of complementary truths. The first truth is that God is ‘apostolic’, actively apostolic: he is a God who ‘sends out’ his messengers, whether angel-messengers or human messengers, to reach out to the world which he has made and which he loves. He promised to ‘send out’ his guardian angel to protect and guide his people in the wilderness ; he ‘sent out’ Gabriel, his prophet-angel, to reveal to Zechariah that his wife would bear a son, who in turn would be ‘sent out’ to prepare the way for Jesus. Just six months later, Gabriel is again ‘sent out’ (Luke 1.26) to announce to Mary that she, too, will bear a Son, God’s Son, whom he is ‘sending out’ into the world to save us. And God is still ‘sending out’ angels at the very end of scripture: John’s revelation comes to him through an angel who has been ‘sent out’ to reveal “what must happen” at the end times (Rev. 1.1) - and this point is repeated at the very end of the book (22.6). God sends out human messengers, too, in the OT, the prophets. This is clearly shown in the parable of the vineyard and the tenants in Matthew 21. 33-41, a passage briefly referred to earlier as one of the three consecutive parables aimed at the apostasy of the Jewish nation. Here, Israel is represented as a vineyard (echoing Isaiah 5.1-2), lovingly planted and protected by its owner, who then goes away, entrusting it to tenants. Three times ‘apostellō’ is used in the next three verses (34-6). The first two refer to “his servants the prophets”, whom he “sent out --- to receive the fruit” of the vineyard. These the tenants beat or killed or stoned. The third ‘apostellō’ refers to his Son, whom he “sent out” as a last resort. But him, too, “they threw out of the vineyard and killed”. And just as in the OT God ‘sends out’ his prophets “to prepare a people made ready for him”, so in the NT Jesus ‘sends out’ his disciples , as we have seen, both to preach and to prepare for his coming. So, therefore, if God is an ‘apostolic’ God, his church must be a truly ‘apostolic’ church, passively apostolic, at first, ‘sent out’ into the world like the first apostles, and then itself, too, actively apostolic, reflecting the character of God and the commission of Christ. The basic meaning of the word in the creed, of course, is ‘founded on the teaching of the apostles’, so called because they were ‘sent out’ by Jesus. But a church that is truly apostolic must not only be based on their teaching, but must also follow their calling. Jesus told the eleven, “as the Father has sent out me, I also send you” (John 20.21). It is often said that the church is so called because its Greek original, ‘ekklēsia’ means ‘called out’ - of the world. That is good theology, if dubious etymology! But the church is only ‘called out’ of the world so that it may be ‘sent out’ into it again. Better etymology is provided by the Latin version of ‘apostolic’, which is ‘missionary’. The church’s mission is the same as that of John the Baptist, to prepare the world for the coming of Christ, this time, his second coming in glory. The church is only truly apostolic when it is a missionary church. To some extent, every individual member of the church should be a ‘missionary’, ‘sent out’ into his or her home or school or workplace to bear witness to Jesus, and so to ‘prepare his way’ to enter the lives of those who have not yet received him. This ideal is more likely to be a reality if the church collectively is actively ‘apostolic’, sending out its members, as God calls them, for specific kinds of missionary service, whether in the local community or further afield. Our model here is the church at Antioch. In Acts 13, God calls Barnabas and Saul to mission (by the end of the chapter Saul is Paul, and in the lead!); the church then commissions them and ‘sends them out’ - though Luke here uses a synonym of ‘apostellō’, ‘ekpempō’.

(2) a prepared church and a preparing church
Mark 3.14, Matthew 25.10, Romans 12.11, 1 Peter 3.15

This leads us to the second pair of complementary truths: the church is called both “to prepare the way of the Lord”, and to prepare herself for his coming. This is another way of expressing an age-old balance which the church collectively and each one of us individually must maintain, between activism and pietism. Pietism which does not lead to active and obedient service is not true holiness; and activism which does not drive us to our knees in humble and urgent prayer for God’s help through the power of his Holy Spirit is so much wasted effort. We need to remind ourselves again and again of the “Mark 3.14 balance”: Jesus appointed the 12 apostles “to be with him and to send them out (‘apostellō’) to preach”. If the calling of the 12 was the founding of the church, this verse is its foundation charter. The church should be like a concertina - an image which Paul somehow omitted from his letter to the Ephesians! It must constantly come together for worship and fellowship, to renew its devotion to Jesus and to draw strength from him, and it must constantly be ‘sent out’ in that strength to bring the message of life to the dying world around us - a responsibility recognised in the beautiful closing prayer of the Anglican communion service - “Send us out into the world ---”. Just as a concertina needs to draw in air to make music, so the church (that is, each one of us individually) needs constantly to be refilling itself with the breath of God’s Spirit if the glorious sound of the gospel is to be fruitfully heard. To anchor this point rather more solidly in NT language, we need to look at two usages of the adjective ‘hetoimos’ (‘ready’, or ‘prepared’), which we first met in the upper room already ‘prepared’ for the 2 disciples Jesus sent out to ‘prepare’ for the Passover (Mark 14.15). The first instance is in the parable of the ten bridesmaids, which we have already visited, in Matthew 25. The 5 prudent girls, who had brought with them enough oil to keep their lamps burning through the long hours of waiting, are referred to as “the ready ones” (‘hetoimos’, v.10), or “the ones who were prepared”. Since oil is often used in scripture as a symbol of the Holy Spirit, this detail of the parable has been traditionally interpreted to mean that these were the bridesmaids in whom the Spirit continued to burn - they were “aglow in the Spirit”, as Paul urges the Romans to be (12.11). Since the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus, one can only be ‘aglow in the Spirit’ if one stays close to Jesus. So the song, or the prayer, of ‘the prepared’ is that old favourite “Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning - keep me burning till the break of day” - when the bridegroom will come. The other instance is in Peter’s first letter, where he tells his readers “to be always prepared to give a reasoned defence to any one who asks you for an explanation of the hope that is in you” (3.15). The closer we stay to Jesus, the more ready we shall be to greet him on his return, and the better prepared we shall be to be ‘sent out’ to witness for him, whether to a friend in the pub or to a distant people on another continent. To ‘be prepared’ is not just being a good Boy Scout; it involves both sanctification and service.

(3) our preparations for God and his for us
[a] a place prepared
Matthew 22.4,8, Kuke 14.17, John 14.2-3

But the preparations we need to make for Jesus, so that he finds “a people made ready” for him at his return, are nothing in comparison with the glorious preparations he has made to receive us. This is the third of our three pairs of complementary truths. It is a truth clearly foreshadowed in the parable of the wedding banquet which we looked at earlier, though we rather skated over this particular point. The parable contains two instances of ‘hetoimos’ and one of ‘hetoimazō’ - and just to show that this is no accident, Luke also uses ‘hetoimos’ in his version of the parable (14.17): “Come! All is prepared”. In Matthew, it is a king who is the host, and the banquet is the wedding feast for his son. He tells his servants to say to those who have been invited: “Look! I have prepared (‘hetoimazō’) my supper, the bulls and the fatted calves have been killed: everything is ready (‘hetoimos’) - come to the wedding feast” (22.4). Then, just in case the glorious truth still has not sunk in, when the original guests have refused the invitation, the king tells his servants: “my wedding feast is ready” (‘hetoimos’) - and we gentiles are graciously invited to fill the empty places. This place has been prepared for us by Jesus himself, as he said to his disciples - a verse which should be included in the ‘comfortable words’ of the Communion service: “I am going to prepare a place for you, and if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be” (John 14. 2-3 - ‘hetoimazō’ twice). Once again, we meet this wonderful truth (the ‘Mark 3.14 balance’) that Jesus chooses his disciples because he wants them to be with him, and he wants to be with them for ever. There is also an echo here of the Exodus angel, ‘sent out’ by God to guard his people’s way through “the wilderness of this world” (Bunyan) to “the place I have prepared for you” (Ex.23.20).

[b] salvation prepared
Luke 20.30-31, Matthew 20.23, Mark 10.40

But the seats prepared at the wedding feast are only for the saved - and salvation, too, is something that God has prepared for us. When Simeon sees the infant Jesus in the Temple, he takes him in his arms and blesses God in the words of the ‘Nunc Dimittis’, Simeon’s song: “My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have made ready (‘hetoimazō’) before the face of all people” (Luke 2.30-31). Perhaps this should be translated “my eyes have seen your Saviour”, for it is, of course, Jesus that he has seen. But he has also foreseen (since he came into the Temple “in the Spirit”) that in Jesus God has prepared “from before the foundation of the world” (1 Peter 1.20) to make salvation available to all nations, Jew and gentile alike. It seems, moreover, that the very places in which we will sit at the table have been prepared for us by God - a name-card by each place! The mother of James and John, the sons of Zebedee, seems to be what we would now dub a ‘pushy parent’: she asks Jesus that her two sons may sit, presumably enthroned, on his left and right hand sides in his kingdom. Jesus replies that this privilege is not his to grant; it is for those for whom it has been “prepared” by God his Father (Matt. 20.23, Mark 10.40 - both ‘hetoimazō’). It is enough for the rest of us, surely, that God has ‘prepared’ a kingdom for us, regardless of what the precise seating-plan may be.

[c] a kingdom prepared
Matthew 25.34

In the ‘parable’ of the sheep and the goats, which should be more accurately be described as Jesus’ prophecy of the last judgement, the king will say to the sheep on his right: “Come, my Father’s blessed ones, inherit the kingdom which has been prepared (‘hetoimazō’) for you from the foundation of the world” (Matt. 25.34). When God said “Let there be light” (Gen. 1.3), and then created the sun and the moon to provide that light, these were not just reflections of his own light, but a foreshadowing of the eternal light that would illumine his kingdom in his heavenly city. For 66 books later we read in Revelation 21.23: “The city does not need the sun or the moon to lighten it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp”. The timescale of God’s preparation is as awesome as its result!

[d] ‘eternal fire’ prepared
Matthew 25.41

This parable, or prophecy, introduces us to another pair of complementary truths, but this time the other side of the coin, though just as awesome, is appallingly, rather than gloriously, awesome. To the goats on his left, the king utters the most devastating words any one could ever hear: “Go away from me, you who are under God’s curse, into the eternal fire which has been prepared (‘hetoimazō’) for the devil and his angels” (v.41). God’s heavenly kingdom of light is only for those who accept his kingship: the single Greek word ‘basileia’ means both ‘kingdom’ and ‘kingship’.

‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’
Matthew 8.12, 13.42,50, 22.13,24.51,25.30

To reflect for a moment on the appalling fate which awaits those who refuse to accept Jesus as their king, we will look briefly at a sentence which might well have been used to conclude the teaching about the sheep and the goats which we have just referred to: “There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth”. This black prophecy occurs 7 times in the gospels, 6 of them in Matthew. The first word, “there”, means “in that place”, and “that place” is the “outer darkness” which is life without Jesus, separated from him by the great gulf of sin. This gulf Jesus died to bridge, but those who refuse to cross this bridge into God’s kingdom must remain in the darkness they have chosen for themselves. “Thy will be done”, as someone has said, are the best words we can ever say to God, but the worst words we can ever hear him saying to us. The first example of this dire prophecy is in Matthew 8.11-12, and it anticipates the ‘wedding feast’ imagery we have been considering. Jesus, amazed by the faith of the gentile centurion who is prepared to trust his simple word that his servant would be healed, says that he has “not found such great faith in any one in Israel. I tell you,” he continues, “many will come from East and West and take their places at the table in the Kingdom of Heaven with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; but ‘the sons of the kingdom’ will be thrown out into outer darkness: there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Two more instances occur in chapter 13, each concluding a parable, each clearly dividing mankind into two camps, those who belong to God’s kingdom and those who do not. There may be a ‘third way’ in contemporary politics, but there is no such thing in biblical Christianity. Jesus’ explanation of the parable of the wheat and the weeds ends with the weeds (“the sons of the evil one”) being thrown “into the furnace of fire: there will be ---” (vv. 37-42). By contrast, “the righteous will shine like the sun in the Kingdom of their Father” (v.43). This message is reinforced, and the imagery repeated, in the third of the three short parables which follow (this is the ‘chapter of the 7 parables’). Here, the kingdom of heaven is likened to a net cast into the sea which collects all kinds of sea creatures - but in fact, there are ultimately only two kinds, the “good” and the “rotten”. The “good” are “collected together”, the “rotten thrown out” (vv.47-8). Then parable becomes prophecy: the “good” are the righteous, the “rotten” are the wicked, who, like the weeds, are “thrown into a furnace of fire: there shall be ---” (vv. 49-50). The gospel is starkly binary: either/or, good/bad, darkness/light. The next instance is at the conclusion of the parable of the wedding feast - the only bit we have not yet looked at. The guest who did not accept the offer of a “wedding garment” (a robe of righteousness) , but relied on his own righteousness, is “thrown into outer darkness: there shall be ---” (25.13). The last two uses of this sentence are equally binary: there are only two kinds of servant, the “faithful” and the “unfaithful” - or the “useless”. The latter becomes tired of waiting for his master to return - “he is taking his time”, he says to himself, as we saw earlier, and so “begins to beat his fellow-servants, and eats and drinks with the drunkards”. But his master returns unexpectedly, and “cuts him off” - an even more devastating verb than the more usual “throw out” - and ranks him with the hypocrites: “there will be ---” (24.48-51). In the next chapter comes the parable of the talents. The “worthless servant”, instead of trading with the talent with which he has been entrusted, digs a hole and buries it in the ground. While the other two servants, the faithful ones, are bidden to “enter into the joy of your Lord”, this one is thrown out “into outer darkness: there will be ---” (v.30).

Knowing Jesus
Luke 13.28, John 17.3, Revelation 3.20

Luke’s one use of this sentence is in some ways a version of Matthew’s first. Here, though, the dividing line is even simpler. Jesus says that the door into the kingdom is narrow (13.24), and that many will stand outside that door and knock, asking to be let in. The ‘key’ question, which will either open the door or leave it locked against them, will be this: does “the master of the house”, Jesus, know them ? If not, he will say “Go away from me, you evil-doers”. “There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and all the prophets in the Kingdom of God, while you are being thrown out” (v.28). This truth is directly expressed in John 17.3, not this time in parable but in prayer, Jesus’ ‘high-priestly prayer’: “This is eternal life, that men and women come to know you, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent out” (‘apostellō’ -welcome back!). So how do we “come to know” Jesus Christ? The imagery of this parable reminds us of one of the best known verses in the bible, Revelation 3.20. There, by contrast, it is Jesus “standing outside the door” - the door of our lives - “and knocking”, asking to come into our lives to live in us and with us. If we open the door to him when we hear him knocking, and so get to know him, to begin with as a guest (“I will come in and eat with him ---”), but before long as “the master of the house” (“--- and he with me”), he will open for us the narrow door into the Kingdom of Heaven when the time comes that we are knocking for admittance. The rather cynical saying “It’s not what you know but who you know that counts” may have an element of truth in the secular world of networking and nepotism, but spiritually it expresses a truth that is, literally, vital, life-giving and life-saving: to know Jesus “is eternal life”.

‘prepare the way’
Matthew 24.44, Luke 3.5, 12.40, Acts 2.7, John 3.3

This seven-fold reminder of the horror of being excluded from God’s kingdom and Jesus’ wedding feast should provide us with an added incentive to ‘prepare’ and ‘be prepared’ for the return of our Saviour. Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of Jesus’ teaching about the faithful and unfaithful servants are interestingly complementary. Both are introduced by the injunction: “You also become prepared (‘hetoimos’), because the Son of Man will come at a time when you are not expecting him”(Matt. 24.44 = Luke 12.40, same words, slightly different word-order). Matthew concludes this section, as we have seen, with “weeping and gnashing of teeth”, which he uses 6 times to Luke’s once; Luke concludes his version with a use of ‘hetoimazō’, which he uses 14 times to Matthew’s 7: “that servant who knew his master’s will and did not prepare [for him] --- will be beaten with many blows ---” (12.47). But if fear of such a fate should drive us to prepare ourselves for that great day, surely love for our fellow men and women who are still in darkness and “without hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2.12) should inspire us to “prepare the way of the Lord”. I said earlier that the church should be ‘apostolic’ in the sense of being obedient to its ‘sending out’ by Jesus, just as the first apostles were, and so should be a missionary church. In the spirit of ecumenism, I would add to this that the church should also be a ‘Baptist’ church, its mission statement that of John the Baptist, to “prepare the way of the Lord”, by filling in the gaps in people’s knowledge of gospel truth (“every valley shall be filled”), and by arguing away by our words and witnessing away by our lives the doubts and difficulties and obstacles which hinder people’s journey to faith (“every mountain and hill shall be made low” (Luke 3.5 = Isaiah 40.4). But ultimately, however ‘apostolic’ or ‘baptist’ the church is, all it can do is to “prepare the way” for the coming of Jesus. It has been observantly pointed out that Acts 2.7 does not read “the church added to the Lord daily those who should be saved”, but rather “the Lord added to the church”. The miracle of the new birth comes “from above” (John 3.3 - “born again” is the usual translation, but ‘anōthen’ can also mean “from above”), the gracious gift of a sovereign God; the church’s role is to “prepare the way of the Lord”.

God’s preparations
Matthew 35.34

If to be holy is to be like God, then part of being holy is to prepare, since God has been making his preparations for us “from the foundation of the world”. We saw this a little earlier, just before our brief study of “weeping and gnashing of teeth”. There are many places in Jesus’ teaching where the ‘either/or’ challenge of the gospel is clearly spelt out, but nowhere are the contrasting destinies of the ‘saved’ and the ‘lost’ more starkly stated than in the parable of the sheep and the goats. The fate of the goats we have looked at long enough, but it is worth reminding ourselves of the wonderful words addressed to the sheep: “Come, you blessed of my Father; inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matt. 35.34). We have already seen some of the other preparations God has made for the ‘saved’; including, most crucially, salvation itself (Luke 2.31), and the “place” prepared for us in the kingdom by Jesus himself (John 14.2-3), and the magnificent marriage banquet made ready for him and his bride, the church, by his Father. There are two more great verses on this theme to look at, but first it is worth another brief detour to consider the phrase “from the foundation of the world”, since this emphasises the scope of God’s preparations, and is an essential feature of ‘mystery’.

‘from the foundation of the world’
'katabolē'
Hebrews6.1, 11.11, Matthew 13.35, John 17.34, 1 Peter 1.20

The phrase ‘the foundation - or creation - of the world’ occurs 10 times in the NT; 7 times it is preceded by ‘from’ (‘apo’ in Greek), and 3 times by ‘before’ (’pro’). Of these, 3 are not related to God’s eternal purpose and character, and so do not concern us here: “the blood of the prophets shed from the foundation of the world to this generation” (Luke 11.50), and 2 verses in Hebrews, “God’s work has been finished since the foundation of the world” (4.3), and the hypothetical comment that, if Jesus had been merely a human high priest, he would have had to suffer “many times since the creation of the world”. While Hebrews may not be relevant to our main purpose, it does help us linguistically, providing the only NT use of ‘katabolē’, the Greek word translated ‘foundation’ or ‘creation’, that occurs independently of this phrase, as well as a helpful example of the verb ‘kataballō’, literally, to ‘throw down’, from which this noun is derived. This we will look at first. At the start of chapter 6, the writer urges his readers to press on “to maturity, not continuing to ‘lay down’ the foundation of repentance and faith ---” and other ‘basic’ teachings, the ‘fundamentals’ of the faith. His usage of the noun ‘katabolē’ is more contentious, and has provoked widely differing translations. He is listing Sarah as one of the ‘heroes of faith’ in chapter 11 (she and Rahab are the only two - named - heroines), and says of her: “By faith Sarah herself also received the power for the creation of a son, though barren and past the age of childbirth, since she believed that he who had promised this was faithful” (11.11, my translation). In this context, ‘creation’, though giving the essential sense of the noun, is not the most natural translation; Sarah clearly received the power “to give birth to” a son, but there is no noun to express this in English. In any event, both the noun and the verb refer to the beginning of something completely new - like the creation of the world. Of the 7 instances of this phrase which concern us, the first is one we looked at earlier on, when considering parables as a kind of mystery. In Matthew 13, after the first 4 of its 7 parables, Matthew comments: “All these things Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables --- in order to fulfil the prophecy, ‘I will open my mouth in parables, and utter what has been hidden from (‘apo’) the foundation of the world’” (vv. 34-5). Only with the coming of Jesus and his teaching is the glorious truth of the gospel, planned before the beginning of time, now at last being made known. Next comes Jesus’ wonderful prayer to his Father in John 17: “Father, I desire that where I am they too, my disciples, may be, so that they may see my glory which you have given to me, because you loved me before (‘pro’) the foundation of the world” (v.34). Here, we are allowed a brief glimpse into the mystery of the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit united in perfect love throughout all eternity. Yet it has been God’s eternal purpose to widen that tight-knit circle of mutual love into a family circle by including - us, his disciples! It is one of the most amazing truths of the amazing gospel of grace that Jesus, as on earth, so now, chooses his disciples “to be with him” (Mark 3.14 - again!), with him for ever: that is the essence of ‘agapē’ love, utterly undeserved. How can sinners like us enjoy the presence of a perfectly holy God? Only because we have been “redeemed by the precious blood of Christ, like a lamb spotless and without blemish, foreordained before the foundation of the world, but not fully revealed until these last days” (1 Peter 1.20).

"the Lamb's Book of Life"
Revelation 17.8">Revelation 13.8, 17.8, Ephesians 1.4

The 2 occurrences of this phrase in Revelation are closely parallel to each other, yet each expresses a quite different truth - different, but complementary. The context of each verse is that the whole world will “worship” (13.8) or “be amazed at” (17.8) the beast, except those “whose names are in the book of life”. In 13.8, this book is described as “the book of life of the Lamb who was slain from (‘apo’) the foundation of the world”. This takes Peter’s statement, quoted above, a stage further: because the cross has been “foreordained”, and because God is outside time (time was, or is, his first creation: “In the beginning, God ---”), what he decides can be described as having already happened, even before time began. The same Jesus “through whom all things were made” (John 1.3) had already accepted willingly his role as the “Lamb of God”, and so, in a sense, had already been “slain”. The mystery of eternity is one we can never hope to understand while still trapped in time. This is also the mystery of predestination, which the parallel verse, 17.8, confronts us with; here, it was only “those whose names had been written in the book of life from (‘apo’) the foundation of the world” who did not succumb to the beast. Since this book was/is written outside time, it does not compromise our freedom of choice within time. Paul, too, uses the language of election in Ephesians 1.4: “God --- chose us in Christ before (‘pro’) the foundation of the world to be holy and without blemish in his eyes in love”. The (single) Greek word translated “without blemish” here, ‘amōmos’, is the same as that used by Peter in the verse quoted above: we can only be sinless in God’s sight because the sinlessness of “the Lamb who was slain” is credited to us. Consideration of these six instances of our phrase should help us to appreciate more fully the significance of the seventh, with which we began: this is what it took for God to ‘make ready’ for us “the kingdom prepared (‘hetoimazō’) from the foundation of the world”; this is what it took for the Trinity to become a family.

Back to ‘hetoimazō’ (a) the gospel prepared
1 Corinthians 2, 7,9

Of the two remaining instances of ‘hetoimazō’ referring to what God has prepared for us, the first gloriously sums up all the others, and the second conveniently leads us back to the New Jerusalem. The first occurs in the middle of one of our key ‘mystery’ passages, the mystery of the gospel, and we will look at it in more detail a little later. One of the main topics of 1 Corinthians, especially in the first two chapters, is ‘wisdom’, ‘sophia’ in Greek. This word Paul uses 17 times in the letter, 15 of them in chapters 1-2. Of these 17, 10 refer to the wisdom of the world and 7 to the wisdom of God - and the wisdom of God is, essentially, the gospel, “the wisdom of God, hidden in mystery, which he foreordained before time began” (2.7), a variant on the (now!) familiar phrase “before the foundation of the world”. Paul then quotes from Isaiah (64.4) to attempt to express the full wonder of the gospel: “No human eye has seen, no human ear has heard, nor has the heart of man even imagined the blessings which God has prepared (‘hetoimazō’) for those who love him” (v.9). For thousands of years, mankind lived with only a shadowy knowledge of God’s grace, with only occasional foreshadowings of the gospel providing a gleam of light. “But to us”, Paul continues, “God has revealed” the full glory of the gospel. His preparations are completed, his plan of salvation perfectly executed. How privileged we are to live in the gospel age!

(b) a city prepared --- a city with foundations
Hebrews11.16, Revelation 21.2

This sense of our privilege should make us admire all the more those who lived before the gospel age and yet were utterly faithful to their God, who had only partly revealed his full glory. To find that admiration expressed for us, we need only, of course, turn once again to Hebrews 11. Perhaps the greatest of these is Abraham, whose name in the NT is virtually synonymous with faith. He, like the other patriarchs, lived in tents, “for he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (vv. 9-10). He and the other heroes of faith lived in this world “as strangers and pilgrims”, sustained only by a promise “of a better country. Therefore”, the writer continues (v.16), “God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared (‘hetoimazō’) a city for them”. It is not until almost the end of the last book of the bible that the details of this city are revealed to us: the New Jerusalem. This study of ‘hetoimazō’ should, I hope, have prepared us (sorry!) to take a fresh look at the heavenly city as described in Revelation 21.2, the verse that launched us on that study: “And I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, descending from heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautified for her husband”. We saw earlier that New Jerusalem is not just the city that God has prepared for his people - the “city with foundations” - but that it is also, and essentially, the holy people God has prepared for his holy city. This is made clear in verses 9-10, where the angel offers to show John “the bride, the wife of the Lamb”, and then shows him “the holy city, New Jerusalem”. We have also seen that ‘hetoimazō’ is used elsewhere in the NT in two different but complementary contexts, both of the ‘preparations’ we are told to make for the coming of Christ and the ‘preparations’ God has been making from “before the foundation of the world” for the salvation and eternal joy of his people. We should now, therefore, be able to appreciate that the description of New Jerusalem as “prepared like a bride beautified for her husband” is rich with meaning. Jerusalem is “like a bride”, but it also is the bride, the bride of Christ. As a city, it is the “place” which Jesus promised to ‘prepare’ for his disciples (John 14.2-3), and the “city with foundations” which God has been preparing for his people from before time began (Heb. 11.10). As the bride of Christ, Jerusalem is the church, his faithful servants obedient to Jesus’ command to ‘be ready’ for his coming, and, as the bride, both arrayed in the ‘fine linen’ of the ‘wedding robe’, the symbol of justification, and adorned with the precious jewels of sanctification, the ‘good works’ which God has ‘prepared in advance’ for his people to walk in (Eph. 2.10).

the foundations - 12 precious stones
Revelation 21.19-20

For the writer to the Hebrews, the phrase “a city with foundations” serves merely to contrast the eternal resting-place of the saints with the nomadic existence of the tent-dwelling patriarchs. But when we get to Revelation, we find that these foundations are much more than merely functional. As we saw earlier, these foundations are made of 12 ‘precious stones’. It would be easy for our eyes to glaze over as we read through the list of these (vv. 19-20), but David Pawson records a remarkable fact about them in his book “When Jesus Returns” (p.161). Our ability now to create ‘pure’ light, by means of lasers and polarisers, has revealed that there are two distinct types of precious stone, ‘isotopic’ and ‘anisotopic’. Pawson states: “Isotopic stones lose all their colour [in pure light], for they depend on random rays for their brilliance (e.g. diamonds, rubies and garnets). Anisotopic stones produce all the colours of the rainbow in dazzling patterns, whatever their original colour. All the stones in the New Jerusalem belong to the latter category. No one could possibly have known this when Revelation was written - except God himself!” We know that the light in New Jerusalem will not be the light we live with on earth - the old earth - but will be perfectly pure, for in verse 23 we read: “The city has no need of the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God illuminates it, and its lamp is the Lamb”. What light could be purer than God’s light? And what a spectacular sight it will be to see God’s glory and the glory of the Lamb reflected by these precious stones in a light-show of dazzling brilliance! Once again, we are faced with the question: does this refer to the building materials of the city or to the jewellery of the bride? In my translation of verse 23 I referred three times to the city as “it”, as do AV, NIV and NEB - and probably all the other versions as well. But because ‘polis’, the Greek for ‘city’, is a feminine noun, the pronoun referring to ‘it’ is also feminine, and so could be translated ‘she’ or ‘her’: the ambiguity continues! As before, the answer is ‘both/and’: both the bride, the church, and the city, her dwelling-place, will reflect the glory of God, the God who, from before time, has prepared such a dazzlingly beautiful city for his dazzlingly beautiful bride. He has also graciously prepared, in his creation and the ‘natural’ laws that govern it, this proof of the divine inspiration of this Revelation, and so of the whole of scripture, for our scientifically sceptical age. In this instance, science, instead of breeding scepticism, should dispel it.

“The Spirit and the Bride”
Revelation 22.17,20

Our study of “the mystery of marriage” is nearly at an end; we have just one instance of ‘numphē’, the ‘bride’, to consider. When looking at the first mention in Revelation of “the marriage feast of the Lamb”, I was much helped, and much moved, by Hendriksen’s commentary (“More that Conquerors”, pp. 178-81). “In order to understand this sublime passage”, he says, referring to 19.7-9, “we must briefly review the marriage customs of the Hebrews”. He then identifies four separate stages in a Jewish marriage. First comes the betrothal, which makes the couple legally man and wife. Then there is an interval, during which arrangements are agreed, a dowry paid and preparations made. At the end of this period of waiting comes the double wedding procession, first as the groom, with his groomsmen, goes to collect his bride from her home, and then as he conducts her back to his own home; it is this stage which is the setting for the parable of the 10 bridesmaids. Finally comes the wedding banquet, which could last for many days. Collectively, the church is the bride of Christ, betrothed to him since the gospel age, when the apostles responded to his call to follow him: to be betrothed to Christ is to belong to him. Individually, we each belong to him from the moment when, in our hearts, we say “I do” in response to his love for us, and then, in public, proclaim this relationship in baptism. And as a pledge of our belonging to Jesus, we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, just as the early church did at Pentecost: he is our ‘engagement ring’. The dowry, the ‘bride-price’, has been paid; as Paul puts it in Ephesians 5.26 (part of the passage from which this whole study of the “mystery of marriage” stems), “Christ loved his church and gave himself up for her” - his own life the bride-price. We are now in the ‘interval’ - and Christ, from our perspective, at least, certainly seems to be “taking his time” (‘chronizō’), just as the groom did in the parable of the bridesmaids (Matt. 25.5, v. also 24.48 = Luke 12.45). This is a time not to grow weary or to lose heart; it is a time for faithful preparation, as our study of ‘hetoimazō’ has shown, and eager expectation, as our final verse exemplifies, Revelation 22.17: “The Spirit and the Bride say ‘Come’”. And this prayer, which should be the daily prayer of the church, Jesus’ bride, is echoed by John himself, setting us a good example, in verse 20, the penultimate verse of scripture: “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus”.

The wedding at Cana
John 2.1-11

John’s first mention of marriage, of course, is the wedding (‘gamos’) at Cana, where Jesus worked his first miracle. John’s account begins “On the third day ---”; presumably, in its context here (2.1), this refers to the third day after the calling of Philip and Nathaniel, which concludes chapter 1. But surely this seemingly irrelevant detail would not be recorded unless John were looking forward to the “third day”, so referred to by all four gospels, which we know as Easter Sunday. It is probably a good exegetical principle to regard no details in John’s gospel as irrelevant! Here, certainly, the miracle that Jesus performed at Cana, the turning of water into wine, is for John more than a miracle - it is a “sign” (v.11), an acted parable: it is a ‘resurrection miracle’, a symbol of new life. There have been many interpretations of the symbolic meaning which John sees in this miracle, but I would like to suggest, at the end of this lengthy study of ‘the mystery of marriage’, that this is, indeed, the key to its significance. When the master of the banquet had tasted the water-made-wine, he said to the bridegroom: “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then serves the less good later, when all the guests are too drunk to notice the difference” (I paraphrase rather freely here); “but you have kept the good wine until now” (v.10). It is easy to think that human, earthly marriage is the real thing, and that the idea of the marriage of God to his people and Jesus to his church is just a rather high-flown, far-fetched metaphor. This miracle shows us that it is, in fact, the other way round. There is no suggestion that the wine being served at the Cana wedding was in any way inferior: marriage (like wine!) is one of God’s greatest blessings to mankind, and one of his most sacred ordinances. But “the wine ran out” (v.3), as human marriage always must; it can only last ‘till death us do part’. But then comes “the good wine”, the resurrection miracle, which will make even the most blissful marriage seem like water in comparison with the wine served at Jesus’ own wedding feast. We describe such a blissful earthly marriage as ‘a marriage made in heaven’; but the marriage made in heaven is the marriage of Jesus to his bride, the church. That marriage is still a ‘mystery’, a glorious hope; one day, all will be revealed, and it will be a glorious reality.

Next->the mystery of the Jews