The Relationship of Christ to the Church

The Relationship of Christ to the Church Connected With the Tradition of the Prophets

Pope John Paul II


The general audience of 22 September took place in St Peter's Square in the presence of a large crowd, in spite of threatening weather. Pope John Paul delivered the following address.

1. The Letter to the Ephesians, by means of a comparison of the relation between Christ and the Church with the spousal relationship of husband and wife, refers to the tradition of the prophets of the Old Testament. To illustrate it we recall again the following passage of Isaiah:

"Fear not, for you will not be ashamed; be not confounded, for you will not be put to shame; for you will forget the shame of your youth, and the reproach of your widowhood you will remember no more. For your Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is his name, and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer; the God of the whole earth he is called. For the Lord has called you like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit, like a wife of youth when she is cast off, says your God. For a brief moment I forsook you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love, I will have compassion on you, says the Lord, your Redeemer. For this is like the days of Noah to me: as I swore that the waters of Noah should no more go over the earth, so I have sworn that I will not be angry with you and will not rebuke you. For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed, says the Lord, who has compassion on you" (Is 54:4-10).

Back to the mystery hidden in God

2. The text of Isaiah in this case does not contain the reproaches made to Israel as an unfaithful spouse, which echo so strongly in the other texts, especially of Hosea and Ezekiel. Thanks to this, the essential content of the biblical analogy becomes more evident. The love of God-Yahweh for the chosen people-Israel is expressed as the love of the man-spouse for the woman chosen to be his wife by means of the marriage alliance. In this way Isaiah explains the events which make up the course of Israel's history, going back to the mystery hidden in the heart of God. In a certain sense, he leads us in the same direction in which, after many centuries, the author of the Letter to the Ephesians will lead us. Basing himself on the redemption already accomplished in Christ, he will reveal much more fully the depth of the mystery itself.

3. The text of the prophet has all the coloring of the tradition and the mentality of the people of the Old Testament. Speaking in the name of God and, as it were, with his words, the prophet addresses Israel as a husband would address the wife he chose. These words brim over with an authentic ardor of love. At the same time they place in relief the whole specific character both of the situation and of the outlook proper to that age. They underline that the choice on the part of the man takes away the woman's "dishonor." According to the opinion of society, this "dishonor" seems connected with the marriageable state, whether original (virginity), or secondary (widowhood), or finally that deriving from repudiation of a wife who is not loved (cf. Dt 24:1) or in the case of an unfaithful wife. However, the text quoted does not mention infidelity, but it indicates the motive of the "love of compassion."(1) Thereby it indicates not merely the social nature of marriage in the Old Testament, but also the very character of the gift, which is the love of God for the spouse-Israel: a gift which derives entirely from God's initiative. In other words, it indicates the dimension of grace, which from the beginning is contained in that love. This is perhaps the strongest declaration of love on God's part, linked with the solemn oath of faithfulness forever.

Creator and Lord

4. The analogy of the love which unites spouses is brought out strongly in this passage. Isaiah says: "...for your Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is his name, and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer; the God of the whole earth he is called" (Is 54:5). So then, in that text God himself, in all his majesty as Creator and Lord of creation, is explicitly called "spouse" of the chosen people. This spouse speaks of his great compassion, which will not depart from Israel-spouse, but will constitute a stable foundation of the alliance of peace with him. Thus the motif of spousal love and of marriage is linked with the motif of alliance. Besides, the Lord of hosts calls himself not only "Creator," but also "Redeemer." The text has a theological content of extraordinary richness.

Continuity of analogy

5. Comparing the text of Isaiah with the Letter to the Ephesians and noting the continuity regarding the analogy of spousal love and of marriage, we should point out at the same time a certain diversity of theological viewpoint. Already in the first chapter the author of the letter speaks of the mystery of love and of election, whereby "God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ" embraces mankind in his Son, especially as a mystery "hidden in the mind of God." This is a mystery of eternal love, the mystery of election to holiness (" be holy and blameless before him"—Eph 1:4) and of adoption as sons in Christ ("He destined us to be his adopted sons through Jesus Christ"—Eph 1:5). In this context, the deduction of the analogy concerning marriage which we have found in Isaiah ("For your Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is his name"—Is 54:5), seems to be a foreshortened view constituting a part of the theological perspective. The first dimension of love and of election, as a mystery hidden for ages in God, is a paternal and not a "conjugal" dimension. According to the Letter to the Ephesians the first characteristic note of that mystery remains connected with the paternity of God, set out in relief especially by the prophets (cf. Hos 11:1-4; Is 63:8-9; 64:7; Mal 1:6).

Theological perspective

6. The analogy of spousal love and of marriage appears only when the Creator and the Holy One of Israel of the text of Isaiah is manifested as Redeemer. Isaiah says: "For your Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is his name, and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer" (Is 54:5). Already in this text it is possible, in a certain sense, to read the parallelism between the spouse and the Redeemer. Passing to the Letter to the Ephesians we should observe that this thought is fully developed there. The figure of the Redeemer(2) is already delineated in the first chapter as proper to him who is the first "beloved Son" of the Father (Eph 1:6), beloved from eternity, of him, in whom all of us have been loved by the Father "for ages." It is the Son of the same substance of the Father, "in whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses according to the riches of his grace" (Eph 1:7). The same Son, as Christ (or as the Messiah) "has loved the Church and has given himself up for her" (Eph 5:25).

This splendid formulation of the Letter to the Ephesians summarizes in itself and at the same time sets in relief the elements of the Canticle on the Servant of Yahweh and of the Canticle of Sion (cf. e.g., Is 42:1; 53:8-12; 54:8).

And thus the giving of himself up for the Church is equivalent to carrying out the work of redemption. In this way the "Creator Lord of hosts" of Isaiah becomes the "Holy One of Israel," of the new Israel, as Redeemer.

In the Letter to the Ephesians the theological perspective of the prophetic text is preserved and at the same time deepened and transformed. New revealed moments enter: the trinitarian, Christological(3) and finally the eschatological moment.

His salvific love

7. Thus St. Paul, writing the letter to the People of God of the new covenant and precisely to the church of Ephesus, will no longer repeat: "Your Maker is your husband." But he will show in what way the Redeemer, who is the firstborn Son and for ages "beloved of the Father," reveals contemporaneously his salvific love. This love consists in giving himself up for the Church, as spousal love whereby he espouses the Church and makes it his own Body. Thus the analogy of the prophetic texts of the Old Testament (in this case especially of Isaiah) remains preserved in the Letter to the Ephesians and at the same time obviously transformed. A mystery corresponds to the analogy, a mystery which is expressed and, in a certain sense, explained by means of it. In the text of Isaiah this mystery is scarcely outlined, "half-open" as it were; however, in the Letter to the Ephesians it is fully revealed (but of course without ceasing to be a mystery). In the Letter to the Ephesians both dimensions are explicitly clear: the eternal dimension of the mystery inasmuch as it is hidden in God ("the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ"), and the dimension of its historical fulfillment, according to its Christological and at the same ecclesiological dimension. The analogy of marriage referred especially to the second dimension. Also in the prophets (in Isaiah) the analogy of marriage referred directly to a historical dimension. It was linked with the history of the chosen people of the old covenant, with the history of Israel. On the other hand the Christological and the ecclesiological dimension was found only as an embryo in the Old Testament fulfillment of the mystery; it was only foretold.

Nonetheless it is clear that the text of Isaiah helps us to understand better the Letter to the Ephesians and the great analogy of the spousal love of Christ and the Church.


1. In the Hebrew text we have the words hesed-rahamim, which appear together on more than one occasion.

2. Even though in the most ancient biblical books the word "redeemer" (Hebrew Go'el) signified the person bound by blood relationship to vindicate a relative who had been killed (cf. e.g., Nm 35:19), to help a relative who was unfortunate (e.g., Ru 4:6) and especially to ransom him from servitude (cf. e.g., Lv 25:48), with the passage of time this analogy was applied to Yahweh, "who redeemed Israel from the house of bondage, from the hand of Pharaoh, king of Egypt" (Dt 7:8). Especially in Deutero-Isaiah the accent changes from the act of redemption to the person of the Redeemer, who personally saves Israel as though merely by his very presence, "not for price or reward" (Is 45:13).

Therefore the passage from the 'redeemer' of the prophecy of Isaiah chapter 54, to the Letter to the Ephesians, has the same motivation of the application, in the said letter, of the texts of the Canticle on the Servant of Yahweh (cf. Is 53:10-12; Eph 5:23, 25, 26).

3. In place of the relationship "God-Israel," Paul introduces the relationship "Christ-Church," by applying to Christ everything in the Old Testament that refers to Yahweh (Adonai-Kyrios). Christ is God, but Paul also applies to him everything that refers to the Servant of Yahweh in the four canticles (Is 42:49; 50; 52-53) interpreted in a Messianic sense in the intertestimentary period.

The motif of "head" and of "body" is not of biblical derivation, but is probably Hellenistic (Stoic?). In Ephesians this theme is utilized in the context of marriage (while in First Corinthians the theme of the "body" serves to demonstrate the order which reigns in society).

From the biblical point of view the introduction of this motif is an absolute novelty.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
27 September 1982, page 1

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