Brethren Archive
Song of Solomon iv. 10

My Sister-Spouse

by John Dickie

KNOWLEDGE is good, but love is better; nay, knowledge is good only as it ministers to the growth of love. And yet, though we assent to the proposition in words, in practice, we too often prefer the gift of knowledge to the grace of love. We fence and double fence our heads, while the crafty foe prefers to assail us, in nine cases out of ten, through our unguarded hearts. Let us rather keep our hearts above all keeping, for out of them are the issues of life. The powerful love of Christ in the heart shall do more to keep the head sound than any amount of light in the head can do towards keeping the heart safe.

But we do not need to set true knowledge and love in opposition to each other, as if the two were incongruous. They are both precious gifts of God; they are mutually helpful to the increase of each other; they are both needed by us; and they are both combined in every beam which shoots down on us from the Sun of Righteousness. Only let us remember that, like the Corinthians of old, most of our hard-headed Anglo-Saxon race are tempted to exalt the sparkling gift of knowledge above the better but humbler grace of love; forgetful that knowledge without love is worthless (1 Cor. xiii. 2), and can only puff us up. We believe this to be one of the prevalent temptations of the day. In considering the subject of our meditation, we desire at present rather to have our affections quickened than to have our intelligence increased; and we shall be contented to lay it aside without having gained a new idea, if our hearts have been refreshed with the gentle fervours of a revived love.

"My sister, my spouse;" or rather, omitting the supplemented "my," "my sister-spouse;" that is, my spouse who is also my sister, my sister who is also my spouse. What wonderful words are these for the Son of God to speak of creatures like ourselves! They are only figures, it is true; and therefore we must be careful not to press them too far, not a hair-breadth further than the analogy of Scripture warrants. Nay, we rejoice to think that these words are only figures; for, like all the figures of Holy Scripture, they fall infinitely short of the reality, a reality which always goes beyond the power of the figure to express. The figures of the Bible never exaggerate. In order then to discover the true value of the reality which is shadowed forth, we never need to subtract from the illustration, but to add. In every case the shadow is but an inadequate representative of the glorious substance which lies behind.

And let us remember, too, as we meditate, that it is the Church as a body, and not any individual member of it, that is here spoken of as the "sister-spouse" of Jesus. This consideration will not in the least abridge our personal enjoyment of our Saviour's love; it will only guard us against certain abuses of this enjoyment, and will secure that we shall not selfishly eat our morsel alone, but shall hand round the viands of the feast to all who are our fellow-guests. The same holy rapture which constrains our love-looks upward is designed also to make us grasp more affectionately the hand of the brother at our side. In this spirit, too, our Lord has taught us to pray, saying, not "My Father who art in heaven," but "Our Father;" meaning us to remember that we have brethren beside us on earth, as often as we remember that we have a Father in heaven.

"My sister-spouse;" these words plainly enough indicate, what we are taught everywhere throughout this little book, that the whole song is allegorical. In a literal sense, the two elements of this complex relationship are incompatible; a sister can never be also a spouse. And yet, as a veil to cover the spiritual, this very incongruity suggests a precious truth. The one word "sister" expresses the identity of nature; the other word "spouse" expresses the closeness of union. When we speak of Christ and his Bride—-the true Church—-being the same in nature, we speak of him, of course, as the glorified Man who now sits on the right hand of the Father. In his supreme Godhead, as the divine and eternal Son, the creature can have no share. In Heb. i. 3, he is set before us in three aspects. First, he is the brightness of the Father's glory, and the ex- press image of his person, his co-eternal, co-equal Son. Then, secondly, he lays aside all this glory, "empties himself of all but love," in order that by himself he may purge our sins. This being done, he, thirdly, is exalted to the right hand of the Majesty on high; and this as the second Adam. In this last stage, he reassumes the glory which he had with the Father before the world was (John xvii. 5); but he now takes it as the Man Christ Jesus. To the divine side of his adorable person we could not have been directly united, as we now are to the human side. And so closely are we linked to his glorified humanity, that he draws as near to us, and grasps us in a bond as close and tender, as, on the side of his Godhead, he is essentially one with the Father. For, severed from his old parent-stock—-the first Adam—-the believer has now been united to the second Man, who is the Lord from heaven. Having borne the image of the earthly and lived in his fallen life, grace has united him to the heavenly Man, and he is to bear the image of the heavenly. And how closely is he united to his Head: "He that is joined to the Lord is one spirit." He lives by his Redeemer's life; nay, it is not he that lives, but Christ that liveth in him. We are in Christ (1 John v. 20); and Christ is in us (Eph. iii. 17). We are "his fellows" (Heb. i. 9); his "brethren" (Heb. ii. 11), his "sister-spouse." Most hurtful would it be to us to press too far into the depths of this great mystery of godliness. Rather than idly speculate would we listen, and believe, and muse, till the fire burns within us, and our glowing hearts are forced to praise.

"My sister" implies unity of nature with the man Christ Jesus; and the being made a partaker of this divine nature (2 Pet. i. 4) con- constitutes the new birth, without which fleshly man can no more enter on the true spiritual life than the crawling worm can enter on the moral and intellectual life of man. All the religions of merely human growth can be entered on and enjoyed by man as he is; but divine life in Christ can be entered on only by a new creation. Whatever else a man may have, if he lacks this new birth, he lacks all; for, while he remains a member of the body whose head was, and still is, the first Adam, he never can be a member of the glorious body to whom Christ addresses the tender words, "My sister-spouse."

But the Church is not only Christ's sister, she is his spouse as well—-"the Bride, the Lamb's wife." The first relationship prepares the way for the second. We are his, to love him wholly; his, to be wholly beloved by him. We are his, to have with him the most entire oneness of sentiment, of sympathy, and of interest. We have the same Father, the same home, the same joys. The stone is not so united to the foundation on which it is built, the branch to the vine in which it grows, the member to the head, by virtue of its union to which it is a living limb, as every true believer is one with the Christ of God. It is his life that makes us living; it is his Spirit that makes us holy; it is his joy that makes us glad; it is his righteousness that makes us accepted. We are blessed, not only for his sake, but in him, we hope to be glorified, not on his account merely, but with him. His cross was also our cross (Gal. ii. 20); his death was our death; his ascension was virtually our ascension (Eph. ii. 6); his glory shall be our glory forever. So closely united is he with his people, that the stroke of divine justice which was aimed at our sin fell on his head; so closely united, that the Father's smile of love, as it rests on the Son of his love, falls also on ourselves. Words cannot adequately express the incomprehensible wonders of this grace. Though he be Lord of all creation, there is no creature in heaven or earth so peculiarly his own as his "peculiar people,"—-no creature so near his heart as the dear possession which he purchased with his blood, that he might make it his "sister-spouse."

In the fifth chapter of the Epistle to the Ephesians, the institution of marriage is referred to in a most remarkable way, to shadow forth the amazing union of Christ and his people; and the words in verses thirty-first and thirty-second seem to send us back to Eden for the type, in the union of Adam and Eve. Accepting this as a type of the higher union between him who is the greater Adam and her who is the true Eve, the mother of every living human soul, let us look at it briefly.

Adam, as lord of the lower world, has surveyed his subjects, and has called every beast by its fitting name. Among them all he has found no companion for himself. There are animals before him, delicate in form, splendid in colour, graceful in movement; but none of them is fitted to be the bride of man. There can be no communion of sentiments or sympathy between him and them. Creation has been completed; and this without providing a help-meet for the man. Where, then, shall a bride be found by Adam,—-where but in his own person? Cast into a deep sleep, and divided asunder, the portion taken out of himself shall be fashioned into a companion fitted for him. His "sister-spouse" shall be taken from his own person. And similarly, with the Antitype in redemption. Among men, as men, could no companion be found for the King of kings. Poets and philosophers, the world's loftiest and most idolized, were as unfit for companionship with him, as the brute beasts were unfit for his type in Eden. Nay, angels and cherubs and seraphs, burning as they sing, could furnish no suitable bride for the glorified Son of man. How could they enter with sympathy into the experiences of him who walked along every path of human sorrow, who learned obedience by the things which he suffered, and who had knowledge of sin, in so far as that he bore the horrors of its curse? Ah no! admirable servants are they, each in his own place and sphere; but among their shining ranks there was none fitted to be the companion spouse of the Man of sorrows, now become the King of Glory.

Shall there then be none? Yes,—-out of himself, his "sister-spouse" shall be taken. He who took not on him the nature of angels, assumed the seed of Abraham. In our nature, he met all our responsibilities, he bore the curse for our sin, he carried his obedience to the Father's will so far as to lay down his human life an atoning sacrifice for his people's guilt. Out of that sleep of death, his Father has raised him up, the fountain of a new and glorified humanity, which is made alive only by the life derived from him. This, and this only, is the Bride—-the Lamb's wife.

And this union is a lawful union. Lost by law, we are saved by law (Rom. viii. 2). There is no injury done to any interest; there is no violence done to the holy law of God. The Father recognizes this union; every individual member of the Bride is the Father's gift to his Son (John vi. 37). The Son recognizes this union, for "he is not ashamed" of us. The universe will yet recognize it. Let us daily, hourly recognize it ourselves; let us never forget that, as believers, we now belong entirely and exclusively to Christ. The Church is not yet manifested to the universe, for the person of the Bride is not yet completed; but so soon as this is accomplished, then shall he present it to himself a glorious Church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing—-worthy of her Lord, and known by her incomparable beauty and glory to be the companion of the King.

But we must never forget that these truths lay upon us the most weighty obligations. Indeed, one chief reason for our being taught them is to provoke our hearts to realize the responsibilities of our happy place. We are here to be trained for eternal companionship with Christ; to be educated into a sympathy with him the most perfect that can be conceived. We are to be taught to look on things with his eyes, and to feel in our measure towards them all as Jesus feels. Our affections are to be the very bowels of Jesus Christ (Phil. i. 8). To train us to this perfect sympathy, companionship in sorrow with him who was "the Man of sorrows" is an indispensable requisite. Our present experience, its trying side quite as much as its joyous, is slowly working out in us a growing capacity for holy sympathy with our Saviour, and an increasing conformity of character to his, as well as working out for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory. Led, each one of us, along a path of trial sufficiently similar to his, we shall finally, when our education is completed, be enabled to enter into his stupendous plans, to become the intelligent instruments of his loving purposes, and the congenial sharers of his unspeakable joys; and this in a degree to which unfallen angels could never have been trained. O weeping saint, is it not enough to dry up the fountain of thy tears, if thou wouldst only recollect the purpose for which these blessed griefs are given thee! It is, that through the momentary experience of sanctified sorrow, thou mayest have wrought in thee the strange capacity of sharing forever with a perfect sympathy the entire range of the Saviour's feelings. Without these present sorrows, thou wouldst not be fitted for the place he means to give thee in the corporate body which is the Bride, the Lamb's wife, who, alone of creatures, shall be able to enter with appreciation into the great thoughts and feelings of her Lord. The education of the child is not so needful to fit him for taking his part in the active business of the world, as your education in the school of sorrow is for training you to take your happy place beside your Saviour in the glory. What, do you grudge the momentary pang, for which the briefest hour of the everlasting results would be infinite overpayment?

The grand distinguishing characteristic of the true believer lies in the fact that he has been redeemed by the death and quickened by the Spirit of Christ; and that his spiritual life is now held, and will eternally be lived, in dependence on his Saviour, and in the most intimate communion with him. Should not this fact influence him continually, and give a colouring to all his present life? Whatever he has he ought to enjoy it, whatever he does he ought to do it, whatever he suffers he ought to bear it, as one who is in fellowship with the glorified Son of God. Paul seems never to have lost his hold on this truth; and when we see how constantly he realized it, we cease to wonder at his unequalled holiness of life or devotedness of service. Let us, too, understand where our real strength lies, and let us permit nothing to drive this fact from our remembrance. Do we suffer?—-let us endure as becomes men who are suffering with Christ (Rom. viii. 17). Do we labour?-----let us labour as those who are working under Christ's eye, and serving only Christ's will. Do we look forward in hope to the promised inheritance?----we are not heirs of it by any claim whatever, except as being joint-heirs with Christ. Nay, if we are spiritually alive, it is not we who live, but Christ who liveth in us. We should never forget that Christ died for us, in order that "whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with him."

What a satisfying portion is this full, free love of God in Christ! No other portion can give perfect rest to the heart of man. Apart from it, all besides are merely swine-husks. Even when a man obtains the object on which he has set his heart, the very setting of his heart on it has made it rather his possessor than his possession. Whatever may be the person or thing of which we can say, "My beloved is mine," we may equally add, "and I am his;" for the love which makes the possession of the beloved object so sweet to us, binds us equally in a bondage of the heart to the person or thing possessed. It is therefore most unsafe, it is even degrading, to be thus enslaved to any being but God alone. Of course, the insufficiency of the incompetent portion is speedily discovered; but instead of rectifying his original mistake, man generally goes further in his path of error. Finding that no single possession has hitherto satisfied him, he labours to make new acquisitions, as if some new possession were to give him what he has never got in any measure from the old. But all this toil is vain. The aggregate can never give him what is not to be found in any measure in any one of its details. Instead of possessing so many things, he is rather possessed by them; and the harmonious unity of his life is more and more rent into a chaos of fragments, by being divided among so many tyrants. No; there is no true happiness possible to man till he recalls his vagrant affections, and accept for his portion the love of that gracious Redeemer who makes his people his "sister-spouse."

It is by virtue of this vital union with Christ that the Christian has power to produce the fruits of good works. Apart from him, we can do nothing; abiding in him, no work is too great or too good for us to accomplish. "Without Christ's help," says one, "I could not be trusted with the care of half-a-dozen of sheep; with Christ's help, I will undertake to govern half-a-dozen of worlds." It was this continual realization of his union with Christ that gave the Apostle Paul courage to attempt and strength to execute works so far beyond the capacity of a mere man. "I can do all things through Christ, which strengtheneth me." And we may be sure that, so far from indulging in self-reliant boasting of his own, might, the apostle, when he so spoke, felt his weakness unspeakably more than any of us has ever felt his own. He had the sentence of death in himself, that he should not trust in himself, but in God which raiseth the dead. It was when he was thus weak that he was really strong; for the strength which sustained him was a strength that is made perfect only in the weakness of its subject. God girded him with strength; and this in a way which did not in the least abate his consciousness of his own weakness. This grace, which was sufficient for the apostle, is equally available for us for the discharge of every duty. We who in ourselves are so feeble that it were presumption in us to undertake the smallest duty in our own strength, are, nevertheless, so strong in Christ, that, at his bidding and in humble dependence on him, we need not shrink from attempting the most difficult. O! to know our weakness! O! to know as well our strength! Alas! we are blamably ignorant of both. Therefore it is that we so often attempt things presumptuously in our own strength; and, as a matter of course, we shamefully fail. Taught our weakness, in part, by our distressing experience of it, and still imperfectly instructed as to where our true strength is to be found, we make a wrong use of our trying lesson, and are discouraged from attempting commanded duties by the fear that they are still further beyond our reach. We think that if we have been put to shame in trying to lift the ounce-weight, it would be madness for us to attempt the ton. No, my brother; the only madness lay in our attempting the ounce-weight in our own strength; as for the ton-weight, if only it is our duty to lift it, we are in Christ perfectly able to do so. Beyond our strength! Why, no real duty can ever be beyond a believer's strength, for it is never beyond Christ's. His strength is our strength—-is all ours, is always ours; that is, for the doing of our appointed work. If, then, we venture on it in faith and in faithfulness, we shall find to our joy that, like the unnamed heroes in the eleventh chapter of Hebrews, we too out of weakness have been made strong.

Since Christ and his people are thus united, should not this blessed fact be one of the commonplaces of Christian faith? While availing ourselves of the comfort and the strength which it brings us, should we not be equally ready to give the advantage of it to our brethren? To borrow an expression frequently on the lips of the warm-hearted Christians in the first ages, should we not feel that in seeing a brother's face we are looking on our Lord? The man who cannot discern the Lord's body in the symbols of the bread and wine, feeds on the holy Supper after a corporal and carnal manner, and profanes the spiritual feast into a fleshly meal. Can he be more spiritual who fails to discern the Lord Jesus in his beloved members—-to whom this, and that, and the other poor but gracious soul is nothing more than he seems to be in the eyes of his fleshly neighbours? Can such a blind one be a man of faith? High Church theologians tell us that the incarnate presence of Christ is continued to us in the consecrated elements of the Supper. But if, in any subordinate sense of the term, we may find the Redeemer still incarnate on the earth, we should prefer to seek him in the persons of his lowly members. In a modified but still important sense, he is still incarnate in our midst in his suffering members. "Christ is the head," says Chrysostom, "we are the body; he is the vine, we are the branches; we are the temple, he is its inhabitant; he is the life, we are the living." Since the Church of Christ, then, is spoken of as his "sister-spouse"—-since she is so dear to his heart, and destined to such honour in him—-no inference can well be clearer than this, that for his sake all her members should be dear to us, and that it is by serving them that we can lovingly and gratefully serve him. "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me."

How near the Lord Jesus is to his people! Do we wish to serve him?—--we shall always find him beside us in his suffering "sister-spouse." Do we wish to have spiritual communion with him?—-we shall find him still nearer, even within our hearts. Thou, who hast Christ's word in thy mouth, and Christ dwelling in thy heart by faith, and Christ's life living in thee, and Christ's members suffering at thy side—-thou needest never complain that the Redeemer is inaccessible to thee. Inaccessible! He is as near thee as the hungry neighbours whom thou art permitted to feed, as the sick sufferer whom it is thy duty to visit; and it is only thine own feebleness of faith which keeps thee at a virtual distance from him. To borrow a thought of St. Augustine's—-"he is near to thee even when thou art not near to him."

Our present subject has led us to meditate on the very loftiest theme to which the mind of man can be directed. For persons of a certain cast of mind such subjects of thought have a peculiar fascination. We must therefore be on our guard against the abuse of them. We need, indeed, the powerful and elevating stimulus of such truths; but we need equally to have our hearts kept under the influence of every truth revealed to us in God's Word. We must not permit ourselves to make favourite selections from the Bible; we should prayerfully attend to each truth, only in its fitting measure and proportion. "A whole Christ and an unabridged Bible," must be our motto, if we would be growing, healthy Christians. In this world we never get beyond the condition of new-born babes, who need the sincere, the unadulterated milk of the Word, which God has provided for our spiritual nutriment. How instructive is this analogy of the apostle! Amid all the dietetic abominations in which man indulges, misled by a depraved and fantastic appetite, there is at least one article of food which is absolutely perfect. The milk which nourishes the young is of God's own providing and preparing, and, like the rest of his works, it is very good. Every element which is needed to build up the body of the child, and every element in its due proportion, is to be found in healthy milk. And so is it with the sincere milk of the divine Word. With infinite wisdom, the marvelous compound has been concocted. It contains everything that the believing sinner needs, and nothing else but what he needs, in order to build up the feeble babe a healthy man in Christ. But the mother's milk can be adulterated by abstracting some of its essential elements, as well as by putting some foreign substance into it. The casein may be extracted, and given to the child for its exclusive food; but the infant will die as surely as if it had been fed on poison. Or the butter or the sugar may be taken from the milk, and given to the new-born babe as its only nutriment; but these will not keep it alive. Milk, as God has made it—-the entire, unsophisticated milk—-is the proper food of the healthy infant. And so is it with the milk of the divine Word. One man may extract from it the warm, sweet, comforting statements about the love of God, and may foolishly try to live on these alone; but his soul will infallibly be starved. Another may permit himself to select the precepts of the Word, and may try to feed himself with these; but no man can live on such bread. We need every word which proceedeth out of the mouth of God; and it will be sin and loss to him who adulterates his Bible, by dropping out some of its contents, as well as to him who adulterates it, by adding foreign and incongruous elements to it. "Every word of God is pure;" and "to this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit and trembleth at thy Word."

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