Jesus’ “betrothal promise” is His bride’s guarantee of heaven

Seven reasons why Christians who believe in the return of Jesus should not be anxious about whether they will be found in His kingdom.

Lennox Abrigo pastors the Seventh-day New Covenant Church, Germantown, Maryland, United States.

Why do Christians who eagerly anticipate and passionately proclaim the second coming of Christ often find themselves trapped in a feeling that they may not be among those who will be taken home by the returning Savior to be with Him forever?

A possible answer may be found in the Master’s parable of the ten virgins (Matt. 25:1–13). We draw that infer­ence from two literary features of the parable. First, Jesus Himself stated His purpose of telling the parable: since no one, including the disciples, knew the date of His return, He wanted all of them to be ready for it (v. 13). Second, to help His hearers better understand, retain, and relate to His second com­ing, Jesus framed His message in the familiar setting of a first-century Jewish bridegroom returning to his bride’s home, where she was earlier betrothed to him,1 for the sole purpose of taking her to his father’s house for the mar­riage ceremony, to consummate their union, enjoy the wedding feast, and occupy their new house.

Amy-Jill Levine comments, “Jesus had to have made sense in His own con­text, and His context is that of Galilee and Judea. . . . Jesus cannot be fully under­stood unless He is understood through first-century Jewish eyes and heard through first-century Jewish ears.”2 This means that the specific Messianic role in “the kingdom of heaven,” illustrated by the bridegroom in the parable, will become clearer to modern readers only as they take into consideration the first-century Jewish constructs.

A critical question, therefore, is what was the first-century Jewish concept of bridegroom in Galilee and Judea? The title “bridegroom” was commonly given to one who permanently covenanted in betrothal ceremonies to marry his bride at a later date. Jews had no concept of temporarily committed or uncommitted bridegrooms. Therefore, if modern readers think of Jesus as the kind of bridegroom His parable indicates, then they are also required to see Him as having a bride who was betrothed to Him.

But who is this bride? Writing to the church at Ephesus, Paul used two familiar comparisons that assumed the existence of a first-century bridegroom/ bride relationship between Christ and the church.3 We know this because he appealed to it as the authentic model that believing wives must emulate in their relationship to their husbands. The same appeal undergirded his com­mand that believing husbands must love their wives (5:22–25, 32).4 He also stated it explicitly: “for I have espoused (betrothed) you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ” (2 Cor. 11:2b).5

Jewish wedding customs

According to Ari Goldman, “there are two aspects to the Jewish wedding: erusin, or the betrothal, and nissu’in, the marriage proper.”6 And because of the deep moral, religious, and existential significance marriage had in the com­munity, the beginning of each aspect was marked with ceremonial activities. The marriage covenant was made and ratified in a betrothal ceremony some 12 months before the wedding ceremony.

The bridegroom’s father took control of initiating his son’s marriage. Sticking, at least in part, to the Abrahamic model (Gen. 24:1–4), he or a representative made the match by selecting the right woman for his offspring. Once that step was completed, the young man went to the bride’s parents’ home, with gifts and the dowry, to ritualize their formal acceptance of the marriage covenant, in the betrothal ceremony.7

As such, betrothal ceremonies were the first public steps in Jewish weddings. They required both parties to obligate themselves to binding terms. These were enjoined upon the bride and groom, and the covenant ratified, when the bride’s father received the bridegroom’s negoti­ated monetary payment—“bride price” (mohar).8 Once the set amount was paid in full, the community considered the couple to be husband and wife.

Betrothals also included a feature that was later used to commemorate the establishment of the marriage covenant: the bridegroom and bride shared a cup of wine, over which a betrothal benediction was pronounced. Partaking of the cup signified accep­tance of the covenant, so it became the defining symbol of the existence of the marriage covenant relationship.9

When all betrothal tasks were com­pleted, the bridegroom returned home and began constructing an addition to his father’s house to accommodate the new couple. During the building period, his wife, who was now set apart exclu­sively (sanctified) for him, remained with her parents, preparing herself to undertake the enormous task of establishing a home and raising a family.

Betrothal gave a bride a high degree of certainty about her husband’s loyalty and reliability regarding these mat­ters. That certainty made her joyfully confident about him returning to take her to their new home, even though she had no knowledge of the day and hour of his “second advent.” But not only was the bride unaware of the specific time he would arrive, the groom, too, did not know when his journey would begin; only his father knew. The reason is the new house and all other preparations for the wedding had to meet the father’s approval, so the husband customar­ily waited on the patriarch’s consent before leaving to go to his wife’s home.

Despite these unknowns, the betrothed wife immersed herself in excited preparations for her husband’s arrival. In almost every instance, she anticipated and waited for the event with ecstatic expectation, without apprehen­sion created by confusion, uncertainty, and doubt about their marital status and its consequent future blessings.

When the bridegroom did come, his entourage was comprised of friends shouting and blowing trumpets, and if at night, carrying torches. As they got closer, messengers ran ahead of the procession to inform the bride of her bridegroom’s soon arrival. This early warning helped her to know it was time to get dressed and be ready, along with her brides­maids, to receive her bridegroom.

Carried along by festive excitement, the procession finally reached the bride’s home. This arrival marked the end of the period of separation. Upon arrival, two things occurred: he received his bride unto himself, and her entou­rage joined his en route to his father’s house for the marriage proper. When they arrived there, it was customary for the bridegroom’s father to receive the bridal party and guests.

Normally, the marriage ceremony was a very simple exercise that included partaking of wine and hearing the pronouncement of blessings. Once those rituals were completed, the couple retired to the bridal chamber to consummate their marriage. After all this was accomplished, they began to live out the rest of their lives together.10

The wedding analogy and the Second Coming

How can we use the lessons from the wedding analogy to better understand the events that are related to the minis­try of Jesus, such as the Lord’s Supper, the Cross, the Ascension, and the Second Advent? At each of these ministry mile­posts, a point of equivalency emerges. Discovery of its right meaning depends much on a working understanding of the literary principle of analogy.

To the extent one recognizes our Lord’s appeals at similarities between His present relationship with His bride and betrothals, one will be able to determine the primary meaning of one of His eschatological promises recorded in John’s Gospel—a prime example of Jesus’ explicit use of betrothal lan­guage. Jesus promised:

“Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:1–3).

Although the passage refers to the reality of the second coming of Jesus, the text contains analogical references to two literal betrothal obligations: “I go to prepare a place for you” and “I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there you may be also.” The presence of these betrothal obligations in His statement of intent is the basis of my argument that this is His antitypical betrothal promise.

The promise of the Second Coming in John 14 is made in the context of the ceremony in which Jesus established the new covenant with the church, seeking her acceptance by offering her representatives “the cup” (Matt. 26:27, 28; Luke 22:19, 20; see also 1 Cor. 10:16; 11:23–25).11 From what we have discussed thus far, and out of the cultural nuances of the parable of the ten virgins, we may conclude the following:

  1. Jesus told the parable of the ten virgins to teach His followers the need to be ready to meet Him at His second coming, just as a bride is waiting with great anticipation the arrival of her Bridegroom.
  2. Jesus is the Bridegroom.
  3. Jesus has given two betrothal obligations to His bride—His preparation of a house for her in His Father’s home and His return to receive her and take her home.
  4. The betrothal obligations are covenantly sealed through Jesus’ broken body and shed blood, which the bride commemorates in her waiting period through par­ticipating in the Lord’s Supper. The Bridegroom has promised to fulfill the obligations at His return.
  5. The church as the bride has accepted the betrothal covenant.
  6. The betrothal covenant expects from the bride one obligation­ waiting faithfully for the return of the bridegroom, with lamps trimmed and burning.
  7. If the bride is faithful to her part of the betrothal obligations, there is no need to fear being lost at the second coming of Christ.

Should Christians who believe, affirm, anticipate, and proclaim the return of Jesus be anxious that they might not be found in His kingdom when He returns again?

The answer is plain, and Jesus Himself provided the answer in His parable of the ten virgins. Those who remain faithful to Christ as His bride have nothing to fear. They shall have the joyful reunion with Christ at the Second Coming and will be with Him forever and ever.

References:

1 In harmony with torah (Exod. 21:8, 9; 22:16; Lev. 19:20; Deut. 20:7; 22:23, 25, 27, 28), first-century betrothal was the two-party covenant-making ceremony that permanently gave a woman’s hand in marriage to a petitioning man.

2 Amy-Jill Levine, The Misunderstood Jew (San Francisco, CA: Harper Collins, 2006), 20, 21.

3 For our purposes, the invisible church is born-again believers (“sheep”) in the fold, as well as those “which are not of this fold” (John 10:16).

4 See also Matthew 9:14, 15 (the antecedent of “the children of the bridechamber” is “thy disciples,” making Jesus the “bridegroom” in view).

5 All scripture is from the King James Version of the Bible.

6 Ari L. Goldman, Being Jewish (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), 73.

7 “Betrothal,” The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion, eds. R. J. Zwi Warblowsky and G. Wigoder (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 120.

8 H. E. Goldberg, Jewish Passages: Cycles of Jewish Life (Berkeley and

Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2003), 129.

9 A. Edersheim, Sketches of Jewish Social Life in the Time of Christ (West Valley City, UT: Waking Lion Press, 2006), 119–136.

10 “Marriage,” The Student’s Encyclopedia of Judaism, ed. G. Wigoder (New York: New York University Press, 2004), 221–223.

11 G. E. Ladd, A Theology of The New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), 186–189.


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Lennox Abrigo pastors the Seventh-day New Covenant Church, Germantown, Maryland, United States.

June 2014

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