Jesus understood how upsetting hearing his words would be for his followers. “Don’t let your hearts be troubled,” he told them. He was preparing a good future for them, and for all the generations who would come after them. This was the eternal perspective. Jesus would be gone only for a little while, but when he returned for them, they would be with him for all eternity.
He began his teaching with a saying that would have instantly both intrigued and heartened them. “I go to prepare a place for you in my Father’s house.” Bridegrooms had been saying such words to their fiancés in the ancient near east for thousands of years. It would have been even stranger if Jesus had not already, throughout his ministry, likened himself to a bridegroom and his followers as the collective bride.
Now, Jesus’ words made more sense.
As in the role of Bride, they of course could not come with Jesus. They must stay in their own place and prepare themselves for the upcoming nuptials, all the while waiting eagerly and expectantly for Jesus’, the Bridegroom’s, return. In the meantime, they would be marked by something—as a Bride was to be with her veil—as belonging to Jesus, available no longer to any other. Jesus said that mark would be the quality of love they had for each other that Jesus had himself shown them.
The first two steps of an ancient near-eastern marriage process are described in Gospel of John: Wedding Motif. The second two steps are below.
Marriage in the Ancient Near East: Part 3 and Part 4 of Four Parts
Part 3: Nissuin
“The Wedding” was the next stage of the marriage process. It was always a surprise for the bride, she never knew when the groom was going to come—in fact, the groom did not know either, since this decision was settled solely by the father.
Place here Jesus’ words in answer to his disciples’ burning question,
When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”
“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”The disciples and Jesus, Matthew 24:3, 32 (NRSV)
Finally, the groom’s father would approve the quality and completion of all the preparations his son had made and would release him to go get his bride.
A great processional would be made, to the bride’s home. Typically, this processional would happen at night. The groomsmen and other attendants would carry large torches through the streets to illuminate their path, with lots of noise, horns blowing and fanfare.
The bride and her attendants would be able to hear the approaching party giving her a few minutes to get ready.
Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this.
Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.
As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’
Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’
And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut.
Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’
Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.Jesus, Matthew 25:1-13 (NRSV)
In the final minutes of readiness, the bride was to put on her veil. The bridal veil was a symbol of authority. By placing the veil on her head, she was demonstrating to herself and the whole world that she was preparing to come under her husband’s authority.
Remember, these marriage practices came out of a patriarchal culture. Nevertheless, for the believer, Jesus is our guide in how this looks in our real lives. For, as we are filled with the Spirit of Christ, our desires are aligned with God’s, and what God commands is, in the end, our real pleasure to obey.
Ancient wedding ceremonies were actually quite simple.
Before witnesses the bride accepted gifts from her groom, and the groom spoke a few words of acceptance and consecration to his bride. During the wedding ceremony the bride’s veil was placed on her husband’s shoulder. This signified the bride yielding to her husband’s authority.
After this the husband drew his wife into the bridal chamber for seven days of celebration.
Part 4: Marriage Feast
The joyful celebration would last one week. As the happy couple stayed in their marriage chamber, being served by their attendants, the guests would partake of a week-long feast.
It is this marriage feast Jesus referred to often as he taught on the Kingdom of God, and this feast is depicted in Revelation as the Marriage of the Lamb.
Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty thunderpeals, crying out,
For the Lord our God
the Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and exult
and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
and his bride has made herself ready;
to her it has been granted to be clothed
with fine linen, bright and pure”—
for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.
And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are true words of God.”Revelation 19:6-9 (NRSV)
There is no question in my mind the wedding motif appeared as whole cloth in the minds and imaginations of Jesus’ disciples as they listened to these first words.
I AM the Way, Truth, and Life
Ever the practical, down-to-earth, concrete thinker, Thomas spoke up.
Sir, we do not know or perceive where you are going [so] how are we to know the way?Thomas, John 14:5
Jesus reassured his followers they actually did perceive the way because
I AM the Way and the Truth and the Life, not even one comes to the Father if not through me. If you all had known me, then my Father you all would have perceived and known. From right now you all are knowing him even as you are seeing and perceiving him.Jesus to the disciples, John 15:6-7
Notice Jesus did not tell them he could show them the way, and teach them the truth, and lead them into life.
The Lord Jesus, Messiah is the Way. They, and we, will go to the Father in Jesus.
The Lord Jesus, Messiah is the Truth, the very embodiment of reality.
The Lord Jesus, Messiah is the Life, something he was going to explain to them in just a few more verses.
Thomas the Twin
As an aside, John had earlier described Thomas as “the Twin,” probably something the other disciples had nicknamed him with. Some Bible scholars think Thomas was Jesus’ actual twin brother. (This is based on one way to read Jesus’ words in a non-canonical document written in the mid-second century called “The Gospel of Thomas.”)
I know, I am just telling you because you might read it somewhere, anyway.
What seems way more likely to me is that Thomas looked so much like Jesus he could have been mistaken as his twin. Whenever Thomas spoke, in John’s Gospel, then, there would have been a sense of irony to it, as it would have seemed like Jesus’ mirror image was speaking to them.
In my opinion, stories had already started circulating that it had really been Thomas others had seen, and not Jesus, when the disciples had begun to claim Jesus’ Resurrection.
John put that rumor firmly to rest.
[Path in the forest; modified with a bible quote | Larisa Koshkina, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons]