All heaven praises the Lord for his righteous judgment of immoral seducers and corrupt persecutors of his faithful Bride. In reply, the Bride (Christ’s Church) must join heaven in worshiping God and glorifying her Bridegroom: the King who delivers, justifies, vindicates, glorifies, and loves her forever.
Introduction – I think most of us are familiar with the story of Cinderella—the lovely maiden, abused by her stepmother, who never gives up hope her life will turn around when someday her prince will come. Disney just released a live-active version of the classic fairy tale. It’s only been showing for a month, but has already grossed nearly half a billion dollars worldwide! Why does this old folktale continue to grip the hearts of millions? Because Cinderella is a glorious love story of salvation that reveals the deep longings embedded in every human heart. To be chosen, to be loved, to be saved, and to live happily ever after.
Most people sense that love is glorious and is expressed mysteriously in the institution of marriage. But as a culture (Christians included) we have lost the plot to the grand story of Love. Few understand why weddings are glorious celebrations. Is all the pageantry just a party around two people who have decided they love each other enough to tie the knot? Or do human love and marriage point to something more glorious?
I. Starting at the End of Love
A. Praise the Lord for the judgment of the Great Prostitute (vv. 1-5)
Every story must have conflict. And every love story must have a threat to the couple living happily ever after. That threat may be a third party suitor trying to break up the relationship. It might be someone forbidding or preventing their love. It might be a tempting alternative to pursuing love—a career, a hobby, anything really. When I first met my the woman I would later marry, we faced some early threats to our relationship (her job opportunity in FL, the guy she was dating at the time, my past dating failures coming back to haunt me, our family skeletons in the closet). Here at the end of the Bible’s story of Love there is a corrupt and immoral enemy threatening to destroy the love between God and his Church. The book of Revelation calls that enemy Babylon the Great Prostitute. She has been the downfall of many who were seduced by her corrupt use of money, sex, and power. We considered her place in the Bible’s storyline when we looked at the story of the Fall. Now we consider her role in the story of Love, as love’s vanquished enemy. God has rightly judged her, avenging on her the blood of the Bride that stained her hands. She was the last obstacle standing between the Lamb and his Bride.
B. Praise the Lord for the marriage of the Lamb and his Bride (vv. 6-10)
The last time the Bible mentions marriage is in this passage. We hear thunderous praise in heaven because, finally, the wedding day of the Lamb and his Bride has arrived. And the timing couldn’t be better! God Almighty has conquered all his enemies, he has rescued his Bride from the hand of Babylon the Great Prostitute, and through her trial of testing she has prepared herself for the wedding. She is ready as she stands pure and spotless, in a beautiful white wedding gown that symbolizes her righteousness and faithfulness to her betrothed. It is an absolutely glorious, heavenly wedding. Remember the weddings of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, or Prince William and Kate Middleton? The most extravagant royal wedding on earth would pale in comparison to the wedding of the Lamb and his Bride.
II. What is the Story of Love?
Every marriage has a backstory—the account of how each spouse’s individual story became intertwined with the other’s. To understand the grand story of Love, we have to go back to the very beginning. The story of Love, as told in the Bible from beginning to end, provides the context for this wedding in Revelation 19. It is the story of how love and glory are intertwined.
A. Act One: Creation
Before the beginning, the three persons in the Godhead (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) shared a perfect eternal love for each other. They were totally satisfied and fulfilled in their love. Then for some reason, perhaps because love is meant to be shared, God chose to share his love through relating to creation. So in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. At the end of that creation week, God rested and began to reign over his creation that he declared very good. It was not only functional, but beautiful too. It was glorious, and God loved his creatures. But there was something that was not good. In the Garden of Eden, the first man, who was the first king to rule over creation, could not find a mate, a helper, a lover suitable for him. So God made the first woman from the man’s rib, for she would be near to his heart. Then God presented the woman Eve to the man Adam as his wife. Thus the Bible begins with a royal wedding, as King Adam and Queen Eve rule over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the animals of the earth. God charged his people whom he loved, his children made in his image, to be fruitful and fill the earth, ruling it as the kingdom of God. Don’t miss this: in a mysterious way, the marriage of the first man and women was a shadowy picture of how they were married to their Creator. God as the cosmic Royal Bridegroom chose his people as his cosmic Bride (Dt 7:6-8; Isa 62:5; Jer 2:2; Ezek 16:8; Sol 1-8).
B. Act Two: Fall
But tragically, God’s chosen people chose to reject his rule over them by spurning his love. In an adulterous act of betrayal, they gave their love to their sworn enemy the Serpent. Now God, as a rejected lover, had every right to reject his chosen ones. But he chose to love them instead. In righteousness he judged their sin, but he was also merciful. In love he granted them clothing to cover their nakedness and shame. Then he sent them away from his Garden home until the day he would rescue them from their captivity to the Serpent, the evil suitor who had wooed their hearts away from their one true love.
C. Act Three: Israel
Generations passed, and it became clear that God’s people would never return home unless God rescued them. Most of Adam and Eve’s children did not want to be married to God. But God chose to set his special exclusive love on those in the line of Adam’s son Seth, and they began to call on the name of the Lord their true love. The rest of the OT is the story of the people of Israel, God’s chosen Bride, descended from Seth, Noah, Shem, Abraham, Isaac, and Israel. It is the story of Israel—her kings and her kingdom—repeatedly returning to the Lord her Bridegroom only to betray his love again and again. There does always seem to be a remnant of faithful Israelites who long to be rescued from their captivity to other lovers—those who immorally mistreat the Bride and shamelessly persecute her. Time and again, God proves to be a patient husband by disciplining them, forgiving their sin, and taking them back each time. But when her adulteries become too widespread, and there seems to be no remnant of a faithful Bride in sight, God sends his wife away into exile from his home, just like he sent away Adam and Eve. Even so, the Bridegroom promises that one day, he will come to rescue his beloved Bride once and for all, this time by changing her wayward heart from the inside out. On that day she will begin longing for her Bridegroom with all her heart, and he will strengthen her faithfulness through trial and temptation by his heart-transforming love for her. He will move heaven and earth to win her back, even if it costs him his life.
D. Act Four: Jesus & the Church
In the fullness of time, God came to earth to rescue his Bride (Jn 3:16). God the Father chose for his Son a people to be his Bride. Jesus left his home in heaven to seek his captive Bride. His presence on earth was like a spiritual lightning rod. Those who continued to spurn God’s love felt threatened. But those whose hearts had been changed yearned to be rescued by their Bridegroom. The Bride was drawn to him in love. She sought to be with him, to live with him, to share in intimate relationship with her one true love. Meanwhile the enemies of the Bridegroom succeeded in executing him on the cross. But they did not realize his death and resurrection was God’s sacrifice of love to win his Bride back to himself. True love cannot die! And so with his Bride forgiven and restored, Jesus the Royal Bridegroom returns home by ascending to his throne in heaven. While he sets all things in order for the appointed wedding day, his people the Church live to spread the good news of the Bridegroom’s promise to one day return. Until that day, people who had formerly spurned God’s love are called to return to their one true love. All those who respond to the call show God’s faithfulness to save all whom he has chosen, the full number of his people, his Bride. And God will continue to strengthen the Bride to overcome her enemies, to resist temptation, and to remain faithful until her Bridegroom the King returns.
E. Act Five: New Creation
When the day of the royal wedding finally arrives, Christ the cosmic Bridegroom will return for his cosmic Bride, the Church, whom he loved from age to age, beginning to end. He will deliver her from all his and her enemies, and take her to himself in marriage. And they will live and rule together, happily ever after for all eternity.
III. Why the Story of Love?
A. To remind us what is glorious about love in marriage
1. The plotline of the story is glorious. He is a valiant warrior who has stormed the gates of the castle where his beloved princess is held captive. She is tormented for refusing to love her captor. She is tempted to give in to the seductions of her evil suitor. She is threatened, persecuted, and even killed for her faithfulness to her true love. Someday her King will come. He will rescue her, and she will stay faithful to him until he comes.
2. The symbolism of the characters is glorious. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has become King of kings and Lord of lords. Christ and his Bride (the Church) will be King and Queen of the new heaven and new earth, ruling together over a glorious kingdom of truth, justice, and peace—filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea (Hab 2:14). She submitting to him in love forever. He protecting and providing for her in love forever. Their marriage is built on each complementing the other. They are not the same, but are united as one together. He is her head. She is his glory.
Note that although this passage does not directly address same-sex marriage, it certainly speaks indirectly to it. Please, let’s think soberly and carefully about this, especially because just mentioning it in conservative Christian circles can have the same effect as playing with fire in a gasoline suit. The majority in our culture believes that the male and female genders are interchangeable in marriage. To those who have lost the plot to the story of Love, marriage is only a love-commitment ceremony, two friends that make promises of sexual fidelity to each other. But there is no glory in that story because the plotline and the symbolism of the characters don’t point to the gospel. From the beginning, marriage between a bridegroom and his bride pointed to the marital relationship between Christ and the Church (Eph 5:31-32). Marriage always points forward to the end of history and upward to heaven. That is the mysterious glory of human marriage. This is why Doug Wilson (pastor, teacher, author, blogger) calls homosexual marriage “same-sex mirage”. There is no glory there, thus the so-called “marriage” is a fake. It’s a mirage. Do you wonder why same-sex activists and their followers want more than tolerance? It’s not really about discrimination. That’s just the legal argument to get what they really want: to compel conscientious objectors (usually Christians) to participate and celebrate because same-sex marriage inherently lacks the glory of Love’s Story. Think about it. Where is the front line of this cultural battle over marriage right now? Christian bakeries, florists, photographers, and caterers. Why these kinds of businesses and not others? Because these are in the “glory business.” When such a business contracts to do a wedding, it is supposed to make the wedding look glorious. The business owner’s participation and celebration is the substitute glory same-sex marriage proponents demand. But a beautiful “wedding-like” celebration is a mirage without the gospel plotline and symbolism. It is glory-less, not glorious, because the only glory of marriage is the story of Love between Christ the King and his radiant Bride. Far from being a neutral mirage, it is a sad and sinful mockery of the gospel because it purports to be an alternative story of Love. Although not purposefully, even non-Christian marriages display the glorious story of Love because when a man and woman get married, they do so in God’s world where Jesus Christ is Lord of all creation. So your task as a Christian is to understand that all people, even same-sex couples, very much want their love relationships to be glorious. Instead of fighting, try first pointing them to Christ who loves his Bride as the true source of glorious love. When human love mirrors and follows the basic contours of the story of Love, it is glorious and moves hearts to praise and worship.
B. To stir us to praise and worship the God who loves us
The praise and worship coming from heaven begins as a great roar and keeps getting louder. It’s not the same sound you might hear at a megachurch worship service or a Christian rock concert. This heavenly roar erupts from all the saints who have passed from this life into glory (cf. Rev 7:9-10). They have all run the race, kept the faith, and endured trial and temptation to the end. They are a multitude from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation who all cry aloud “Hallelujah!” They praise God for loving them enough to vindicate their faithfulness by righteously judging their enemies. Then more characters from Revelation join the praise and worship in antiphonal response, calling all God’s servants, from the smallest to the greatest, to sing praises to our God. Then the praise becomes louder still, “like the roar of many waters and mighty peals of thunder.” John is so stirred he foolishly falls down to worship the messenger of this glorious message of God’s love! Every time you remember the story of Love it should bring you to your knees, worshiping God and his Christ.
C. To strengthen our faithfulness to Christ our Bridegroom
At the wedding, the Bride is adorned with “the righteous deeds of the saints”. What does this mean? First, her adornment of righteousness is a gift from her beloved. Righteousness is a gift from God to those who trust in the righteousness of the Bridegroom Jesus Christ on their behalf. We call this “justification” in theological language when God declares a sinner not only forgiven, but actually sees him with the perfect righteousness of Jesus. When you understand this gift of righteousness, your guilt and shame melt away under the warmth of God’s love for you. It gives you confidence that nothing can separate you from God’s love. That kind of humble confidence makes you beautiful from the inside out. It always strengthens your faithfulness. Second, her adornment of righteousness vindicates her faithfulness to her beloved while she was tested in trial and temptation by her enemies (personified in Babylon the Great Prostitute). The story of Love gives you strength to keep waiting for Christ’s rescue, and to resolve again and again to stand fast in your love for your Bridegroom.
Commentator Greg Beale writes, “The marriage could not take place without the removal of the Babylonian archenemy and the coming of God’s kingdom in complete form…The existence of Babylon was a necessary factor in the bride’s preparation for the marriage. How is this so? Babylon’s oppression and temptation was the fire ultimately used by God to refine the saints’ faith to prepare them to enter the heavenly city.” And to prepare them for the heavenly marriage.
Conclusion – God has designed every test of faith to be another stitch of righteous in the Church’s wedding gown. That pure, bright fine linen testifies to every believer’s testimony of Jesus. Opposition and temptation are God’s means of preparing us for the eternal marriage, as we ready ourselves through faithfulness for our wedding day. Christ our eternal Bridegroom will even redeem the heartache of divorce, the drudgery of a loveless marriage, and the loneliness of being single or widowed. Our love for God is made glorious by faithfulness through all kinds of trials. Be strengthened knowing there is a purpose in your faith being tested. For all those who hold to the testimony of Jesus the Bridegroom, take heart, be strong and courageous, for someday your Prince will come!
*Note: the idea and title for this sermon, and for the sermon series “God’s Stories,” came from Michael Lawrence’s excellent book Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church.