John runs a theme throughout his gospel that bubbles under the surface—Jesus is searching for, and finding, a wife.
John launches into the narrative proper with a statement of where he’s going. “On the third day there was a wedding” (John 2.1) is about as good an example of flash fiction as Hemmingway’s legendary six-word story “For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.”
It’s a great joke for those with ears to hear, a summation of the gospel—the church united with Christ in the resurrection—and a statement of narrative intent. In the midst of this strange opening with Jesus having his arm twisted by his mother to restock the bar at this local wedding, Jesus is making a series of announcements about his ministry. One of which is that he’s looking for a wife.
How do we know? We’re told there are six jars (John 2.6). Whenever there are six of something in the Bible we’re supposed to look for the seventh. John is layering meaning, these jars representing the old order of Jewish ritual replaced by the new wine of the church, but we are supposed to look for that seventh jar.
The seventh jar turns up in John 4 when Jesus meets an unmarried woman at a well, which is the only other occurrence of the Greek word in John. She has had five husbands and is with a man who is not her husband, perhaps she is looking for a seventh husband, even if she doesn’t know it? She’s carrying a water jar, the seventh we encounter. Finally, her and Jesus encounter each other at a well, a common setting for a betrothal (Genesis 24.11, 29.2, 9-11, Exodus 2.16-17). In Jesus she meets her seventh husband, the bridegroom, and is betrothed. Jesus finds the seventh jar, though this one doesn’t appear to be filled.
We find the water to fill that jar in John 20 when it comes out of his side along with blood—wine for the church to drink as we have a foretaste of the wedding supper every time we come to the Table.
Of course, we know from Ephesians 5 that the bride is a term for the church, and one with rich Old Testament echoes, but John wants to paint us a picture of what the bride is like. Jesus is in search of a wife like a mythic questing prince, much like those princes he finds her in the most unlikely places.
Throughout John’s gospel he continues to have these encounters with women that fill in the picture of the bride he is looking for. In John 4 with the Samaritan woman he chooses the most shameful woman he could find, outcast by the Jews, outcast by her own community, and bids her come to join him. This is a church of outcasts finding a home.
In John 8 he encounters a woman caught in adultery, presented to him for judgement. The bride Jesus is searching for is unfaithful to her husband, but gently wooed by her husband (Hosea 2.14-15). Whatever sinful mess she finds herself in, she is not condemned but set again on the right path. This is a church of sinners being welcomed and changed.
In John 19 he addresses a woman—his mother, a superb example of faithfulness—and announces to her that John is her son. The bride Jesus is searching for is part of a family that is found and declared, not an accident of birth. This is a church that’s a family made by water, not blood.
In John 20 he meets a woman, another Mary, in a garden outside a tomb. Surprisingly reminiscent of another garden where the first man met the first woman and exclaimed ‘bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh’ and later named her. Jesus speaks her name and she sees who he is. The bride Jesus is searching for is found by the empty tomb, in the heavenly temple, by the garden of God. This is a church that sees Christ when he names her, and who enjoys his gifts.
John launches into his narrative proper in chapter 2 by announcing the third day wedding. He ends his narrative proper on the third day in John 21. Or at least, we’re told it’s his third resurrection appearance, so a third day typologically, ready for a wedding (John 21.14). We do find a wedding breakfast of sorts. Now, John couldn’t have intended that pun as it doesn’t make sense culturally or linguistically, but it is fun.
You would imagine that if we had written the story the conquering hero who has walked out the back of death would present himself in Rome to unseat the emperor, or in the temple to display the folly of those who killed him. That isn’t what happened because God, unlike me, has little need for self-aggrandisement, and loves his friends much more than I love mine.
So the risen Christ goes to sit on a beach and wait for his confused followers to finish fishing in the lake, and while he’s waiting he cooked them breakfast. I think John 21.12 is one of the most beautifully gracious sentences in the Bible, ‘Jesus said to them, “come and have breakfast”’.
Jesus’ search for his bride continues as the church is established and grows, as he calls people to himself who are stinking in their sin and declares them part of his spotless bride. John depicts the woman who Jesus loves as chased and tormented by the Enemy (Revelation 12), like a fairy-tale prince, the Lord must rescue his bride from the clutches of a dragon. Which is where all those stories find their source.
His hunt requires that he denounce false brides who would drink the blood of the saints (Revelation 17), not as though Jesus were tempted by an adulterous woman who would lead him away from his betrothed, but we can be. The Lord names her as she is, and we would do well to listen.
The bride is finally met in her fullness—adorned for a wedding—in Revelation 21.2 as the new Jerusalem descends. The city from which flows a river, where a single tree stands on both banks, a garden befitting a man finding his wife. The surprise here of course is that the city is the wife for whom the Lord searches. As heaven marries earth, Jesus finds his wife in a great multitude prepared and spotless. She is perfectly fitted to him (Genesis 2.18), and as the groom sees his bride we imagine he too will exclaim “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” (Genesis 2.23). After all, we become what we eat.
What is that marriage like, of God and his bride? Like a marriage where the husband freely offers of himself for his wife’s nourishment and her delight. Like a God who sits on a beach to cook breakfast. Like a God who gives. Like a God who turns water into wine.
I preached John 2 at a wedding recently. We found our way to John 21 and I gave them this advice: if you want to do well in your marriage, live this story. Which isn’t terrible advice for the church either. That in the midst of all of our building and renewal and the difficult work of pastoring we would do well to remember what the bride is like.
She’s a mess, she’s resplendent. She threw up on her wedding dress from imbibing too much of the fine wine, and she matures into a queen whose wisdom matches her beauty. Our God freely offers himself to us, he gives. The church is the bride who receives, and then learns by the patient witness of her husband to give freely as well.
T. M. Suffield is a Pastor, Writer, and University Manager from Birmingham, England. He tweets at @timsuffield. You can read more of his writing at nuakh.uk.
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