The romantic English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning showed enormous insight into human life in her well-known quotation, “Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God; But only he who sees, takes off his shoes—The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.”
In so saying, Ms Browning expressed one of the central features of Jesus’ teaching. In seeking to make spiritual realities understandable to His hearers, Jesus invariably used metaphors drawn from the existing world around Him. For example, when Jesus told the parable of the sower, there was almost certainly a farmer sowing wheat not far away that He used as an illustration. When Jesus called Himself the Good Shepherd, He used a very common aspect of Hebrew life to open their understanding to His tender, protective care of them. In all these illustrations, He was saying that everything that existed, without exception, was deliberately designed by God to teach us something about Himself.
Another 19th century author expressed her awareness of the same truth when she said, “To those who thus [through nature] acquaint themselves with Christ, the earth will nevermore be a lonely and desolate place. It will be their Father’s house, filled with the presence of Him who once dwelt among men” (Ellen White, Education, page 120).
The most telling metaphors of spiritual realities for us are those relating to our human experience, especially those dealing with family life and marriage.
When, for example, a mother holds her newborn baby in her arms for the first time and looks into the face of the one she has just delivered, God is shouting at her, “Can a mother forget the infant at her breast, walk away from the baby she bore? But even if mothers forget, I’d never forget you—never” (Isaiah 49:15, The Message).
Similarly, when fathers hold their children in their arms for the first time and experience a sense of awe and love in their hearts for this little person they have helped bring into the world, God is shouting at them, “Now that I have allowed you to experience this on a human level, do you gain a glimpse of insight into just how much I, as your heavenly Father, actually love you?”
God, however, reserves marriage as the most powerful and dominant metaphor of them all, probably because the level of intimacy involved is the most significant and influential experience that humans encounter. Several scholars have actually constructed whole biblical theologies based on this theme as a foretaste and understanding of heavenly realities.
The apostle Paul spells it out very clearly when, in describing the relationship of husband and wife, says, “‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:31, 32).
God uses this metaphor of marriage comprehensively throughout Scripture.
The first book of the Bible begins with something about our basic maleness and femaleness that reflects the image of God (see Genesis 1:26, 27).
God is variously described throughout the rest of Scripture as a strong warrior and protective provider on the one hand (see Exodus 15:3) and yet as a nurturing mother on the other (see Isaiah 66:13; Matthew 23:37). Both of these human stereotypes that tell us about God’s heart are drawn from deeply embedded gender differences still existing in much of society.
The basis of God’s relationship with Israel is described in terms of a covenant.
In Genesis 15, God entered into a covenant with Abraham that out of his descendants a Messiah would come who would bless the whole world. The essence of a covenant such as this is different to that of a contract. In a con tract, terms are drawn up allowing for dissolution should any terms of the contract be violated through loopholes. A covenant, however, promised commitment to an agreement despite any failure by a partner to keep the agreed terms.
Jesus made it clear that the human experience of a couple entering into a marriage covenant with each other was given primarily to keep before them the inviolate nature of God’s commitment to us. It was only because of the hardness of our hearts that God permitted divorce on the grounds of unfaithfulness, and that was only given as social protection for women who were treated as chattels to be dispensed with on the whim of abusive husbands (see Deuteronomy 24:1-4).
The book of Hosea illustrates that even should one partner be unfaithful, physically or emotionally, that should not necessarily be the end of the marriage.
Despite his legal right to divorce his wayward wife, Hosea was to take her into the desert away from her temptations and allure her back into the marriage (see Hosea 2:5-20).
God was using that illustration to remind Israel of His love to her during her time in the wilderness under the leadership of Moses. Ezekiel uses a similar allegory of Israel’s unfaithfulness to her heavenly bridegroom, emphasising His decision to be faithful to the covenant He had made with her at the beginning (see Ezekiel 16:8, 60-63).
The whole process of a Jewish marriage in Bible times was a living enactment of the plan of salvation. The couple did not choose each other as in current Western romances. The father of the groomto- be would visit the parents of the prospective bride and arrange the marriage without the couple ever seeing each other. The groom would then leave his father’s house and bring a dowry to the parents of the bride, a process that cemented the arrangement in a way that became legally binding. Having paid the sum, he returned to prepare another room in his father’s house where he would eventually live with his new bride.
During a period of waiting, the bride would make herself and her garments ready for the pending wedding service at some unknown time in the future.
Usually the groom would appear unannounced and the two would meet for the first time. They would approach each other backwards and after slowly turning around, she would take off the veil that covered her face, and the couple would look into each other’s face.
He would then take her back to his father’s house for a wedding breakfast and the physical consummation of the relationship.
The Song of Solomon portrays the reality of all this from a human perspective and gives us some idea of Jesus’ literal passion for us, a passion that was revealed in His willingness to even die for His bride, an enormous price for a dowry payment.
This explains why Jesus talked so much about weddings in His parables.
He was the bridegroom and we were His bride. As He was about to leave His disciples, He used the imagery of preparing a room for them in His father’s house (see John 14:1-3).
The New Testament constantly uses the imagery of Christ entering into union with us, leaving His seed in us, and reproducing Himself through us. At the Second Coming, the veil between the seen and the unseen will be removed and we will look into our Bridegroom’s face for the first time. The book of Revelation portrays the climax of the whole plan of salvation as a wedding feast in our Father’s house, where we sit down with our Bridegroom, who promised to eat and drink with us again as He did originally, when He entered into a new covenant with us (see Revelation 19:7, 8; Matthew 26:26-29).
All this explains, however, why the great enemy of us all seeks, above everything else, to debase the elements of intimacy in earthly marriages. It is a tragedy that sin has all but obliterated this wonderful metaphor. All of us bring to our prospective marriages some dysfunction, brought from our families of origin. But “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17).
The intimacy of the marriage relationship forces us to face our own personal dysfunction, which needs healing by the integrating power of the Holy Spirit. It is only the indwelling of Jesus Himself through the Holy Spirit that can help us view our partners with the same eyes that He views them (see Romans 5:5). Our primary purpose as fellow travellers on this spiritual journey is to help our partners into the kingdom of God embodied so powerfully in this very human experience (see Ephesians 5:21-32).