Heaven: The Greatest Love Story Ever Told
David Schrock pastors Calvary Baptist Church in Seymour, Indiana, and is a doctoral student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He is married to Wendy, and they have two sons, Titus and Silas. He blogs at Via Emmaus.
Cinderella. Sleeping Beauty. Snow White. Much Ado About Nothing. Pride & Prejudice. Princess Bride. All these epic romances end with a wedding, and more often than not, they include the famous tag line “And they lived happily ever after.”
Why do people love watching these stories? Perhaps it is because deep down it resonates with one of their greatest longings—namely, that someone would rescue them and love them for who they are.
Now maybe you are not drawn to one of these “chick flicks,” but movie preference alone does not mean that this grand narrative does not appeal to the most macho among us. From Cinderella Man to The Lord of the Rings, the majestic plot line of the Bible—the one that centers on a loving Hero who wins or defends His bride and defeats His enemies in the same self-sacrifice—is reenacted again and again in countless lesser versions.
These other versions are not divine revelations as much as they are dramatic reflections of the one true tale that God is telling in all the Bible and over the course of human history. It is the story that begins with a broken covenant (Gen. 3) and culminates in a glorious wedding (Rev. 19-22). It is a glorious story, and to see the divine romance of heaven, let’s look at Revelation 19:6-10.
Being and Becoming a Beautiful Bride
In Revelation 19, there is a numberless multitude, a beautiful bride, that feasts with the Lamb. To get a handle on this beautiful scene, we need to answer three questions: (1) Who is the bride? (2) What is the bride doing? (3) What is the bride doing today to prepare for the final day?
First, who is the bride? In Revelation 19, the bride is the one who praises God for His justice, truth, and victory over Babylon (vv. 1-3). In verse 5, there is the command from the throne of God to the servants of God to offer praise. If we unite the people of God through the whole of Revelation, we learn that those at the banqueting feast are the redeemed from every age (7:9-10), the ones who have come out of the tribulation (7:13-14), the priests of the Lord who are marked out by God and have kept themselves pure for God (14:1-5).
Indeed, the picture of the saints with the Lord is a majestic and merciful one. It is majestic in that it includes people from every tribe and language and people and nation (5:9). The picture is a beautiful mosaic, comprised of divergent races, colors, and generations.
But even more, the beauty is enhanced when we considered that mercy, not merit, is what qualifies the bride. Christ’s blood cleanses and qualifies His beloved for marriage (Rev 5:9). Accordingly, the church of Jesus Christ—which is frequently plagued by ugliness in this age—will one day be so glorious that, quoting C. S. Lewis, we would worship them if we saw them today. In this way, the bride of Christ will reflect the beauty of God, and thus, the way we consider Christ’s bride today should be informed by this later, purer image.
Second, what is the bride doing? Revelation 19:7 records that the bride is rejoicing and exulting in the glory of the Lord. So great is the praise, the chorus sounds “like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder.” In other words, the praise is not quiet. It is deafening because the multitude is so overwhelmed by the joy they feel in the Lord.
As a general rule, the saints of the Lord follow the lead of their head, Jesus Christ. Thus, the saints sing because they have first been serenaded. Consider what the prophet Zephaniah says of God’s people in the age to come:
The LORD has taken away the judgments against you; he has cleared away your enemies. The King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: “Fear not, O Zion; let not your hands grow weak. The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing. (Zeph. 3:15-17)
What we see in Revelation 19 is the antiphonal response of God’s people responding to the loving song of God that is forever reverberating in the heart of their King. This leads to the last question, the one most applicable to the church militant.
Third, what does the bride do today? Meditating on the future union with our God inspires hope and calls us to purity. Thus, it provides energy to strive for holiness as we await the day of Christ’s return. Notice how Christ’s bride is described.
In verse 8, the bride of Christ is adorned with “fine linen, bright and pure.” As with the rest of Revelation, it is impossible to understand anything in the book without a working knowledge of the Old Testament. And here the “linen” puts us back into Exodus.
In Exodus, the priest wore a clean linen vestment under his more ornate ephod. The fine linen was part of his apparel that was expressly designed for beauty and glory (28:2). Sadly, as history unfolds, the beauty of the priestly attire is quickly tarnished. Scripture records how the priests defile their garments. Malachi even describes how dung was smeared on the polluted priests. But now through Jesus Christ, a new priesthood is clothed with the righteousness of Christ; thus, the bride is granted the right to wear beautiful raiment.
Still, the beautiful garments in Revelation 19 are more than just priestly attire, they are garments fit for a wedding. (See Isa. 61:10-11 for another place where bridal and priestly apparel conflate). Verse 8 concludes by explaining the source or make up of the beautiful apparel: “for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.”
While the meaning of this phrase requires more critical commentary than we have space and it raises significant questions concerning God’s monergistic salvation and man’s ethical response, let me make three observations that may help us appreciate how Christ’s atoning death graciously provided His bride with all that she needed:
- The bride must make herself ready for the marriage, but she cannot make herself the bride. It is Christ’s blood that purchases her, purifies her, and pleads her case before His Father. The bride in Scripture is not like “The Bachelorette.” In redemptive history, the Father chooses the bride, gives her to His Son, and the Son, when He is seated in glory, sends forth His Spirit to seal His beloved until He comes again.
- The bride must clothe herself, but she is given the clothes that she will wear. The church is active in adjusting and arraying our garments of praise and righteousness, but our clothing is not our own. We wear what God gives us (cf. Gen. 3). In this way, the righteous deeds flow from the antecedent grace of God.
- The bride is accepted because of her readiness, not her righteousness. By adorning the bridal garments, she is clothing herself in the attire of someone else. Verse 8 describes them as “the righteous deeds of the saints,” however, a full reading of the New Testament teaches that our righteous standing comes from the Lord Himself (Phil. 3:9) and that the Spirit of God is the One who purifies and empowers us to do those righteous deeds (1 Thess. 4:8).
Purified and Preserved by the Beauty of Christ
There is so much more to say about the believer’s eternal state and the way Scripture points to the beauty of a perfect marriage to anticipate what it will be like. For instance, Jesus uses marital imagery to speak of His departure and return: “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:3). Ephesians 5 informs us that our marriages reflect the true and everlasting union of Christ and the church. And Revelation 21 describes the people of God as a glorious bride being brought to her overjoyed Lord.
In this way, Scripture employs the most evocative word pictures to capture our attention and affections. While this world is filled with strife and separation, the age to come promises Christians a never-ending union with their beloved Lord. Jesus says that we will be one with Him just as He is one with the Father (John 17:22). This is the beauty that only exists in heaven, and yet it is a beauty that has impact today.
For those who set their mind on things above, God promises that they will become like the Lord whom they cherish (2 Cor. 3:18). Those who think on what is excellent and praiseworthy will be beautified. We become what we behold. And as we behold our warrior King, the One who died for us in order to be eternally with us, it gives us reason to say no to false suitors and yes to Him.
Just the same, those who behold their bridegroom are literally “captivated” by Him—and that is a wonderful promise. Perseverance of the saints is secured by the beatific vision of Christ, mediated by God’s Word. Thus, through this gracious gift of seeing and savoring the all glorious Son of God, Christ’s beauty becomes a means of purification and preservation.
And it is for this reason that aesthetics is not just a peripheral subject. It is a matter of life and death. Only those who delight in the beauty of the Lord in this life will spend eternity with God in the next life. Accordingly, we who teach, lead, counsel, and witness must not only proclaim the realities of heaven and hell, we must glory in their respective beauties. Only when we do that will we and those who hear our message have a sense of what heaven and hell are really like.
May we go and see the beauty of the risen Christ in the pages of Scripture, and then may we go and tell the world of His unsurpassed value, glory, and beauty. But to do the latter, we must first do the former—and thus we must begin with a conscious, prayerful pursuit of God’s beauty. We have been given the invitation; now let us, with the psalmist, say:
“You have said, ‘Seek my face.’ My heart says to you, ‘Your face, LORD, do I seek.’ Hide not your face from me.”