The Groom Will Be Taken Away from Them: The Gospel Twist Nobody Saw Coming

Then John’s disciples came to Him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but Your disciples do not fast?” Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests be sad while the groom is with them? The time will come when the groom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast.” (Matthew 9:14-15)

Last week, we connected Jesus’ words here to the bridegroom whose coming was prefigured and prophesied by Hosea. It’s Hosea’s tragic love story, complete with powerfully redemptive ending, that helps us understand the bigger picture Jesus was walking out.

We need to understand this bigger picture because it gives context and meaning to everything we read in the gospels and the rest of the New Testament. Over the years the Bible has been dissected and dismembered in so many ways that we’ve lost the forest for the trees.

But the forest matters. The forest is the country in which we walk, the landscape we are moving through.

To draw this “forest” in very broad strokes:

  • Early in their history, God entered into a spiritual “marriage covenant” with the nation of Israel.
  • Israel fell away from God and worshipped other gods, breaking the covenant and committing spiritual adultery.
  • Rather than destroy or abandon the adulterous nation (which he had every right to do under the terms of the covenant), God brought necessary judgment upon them but promised to return to them in a powerful way in the future and “remarry” them under a new covenant.

So when Jesus says the bridegroom is with his followers, he isn’t just making up a nice way of talking about himself. He’s placing himself inside Israel’s story.

In fact, he’s declaring himself to be the climax of that story: God has returned. He has come to make a new covenant and redeem and marry his people again.

It wasn’t a surprise to the people of Israel that God would do this. He had clearly declared his intention to return in this way through all of his prophets. Daniel had even given a timeline for it: it would be roughly 490 years from the rebuilding of Jerusalem to the coming of the Lord and the making of the new covenant.

People in Jesus’ day could count. They knew they were living in messianic times. That is one reason they were so eagerly looking for a messiah when Jesus came on the scene.

But then there was a twist they didn’t see coming.

The Bridegroom Will Be Taken Away from Them

Jesus begins his answer to John’s disciples in Matthew 9 by pointing out that they’ve misread their season. It’s not a time for mourning, fasting, and beseeching God to come, because he’s already here. The bridegroom is present: we are all children of the bridechamber now.

Anyone who was paying attention would understand this. Jesus was declaring himself the Messiah. He was declaring himself to be the one who would restore Israel to God and God to Israel. He was declaring himself to be the one who would overthrow the rulers of this world and establish the kingdom of God on earth.

Calling himself the bridegroom was another way of restating his inaugural message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17).

But then, for the first time in Matthew’s account, he introduces a twist in the story:

The time will come when the groom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast. (Matthew 9:15)

Everyone who knew the prophets assumed the story of redemption and kingdom would take place in a straight line: a linear narrative in which God returned to Israel, made a new covenant with them, freed them from oppression, and set up his kingdom on earth in a visible, obvious way.

And in a sense, they were right — but there was a twist in the road, a left turn that was always hinted at in Scripture but never clearly seen.

The bridegroom would come, would make a new covenant with God’s people, would redeem them from their sins and set them free … spiritually.

He would set up his kingdom … invisibly.

He would overthrow the oppressors and rulers of this world … through love and sacrifice. He would do all it by subverting Rome’s might-makes-right assumptions, by empowering the poor in spirit and setting up his kingdom in seed form in the hearts of human beings — not just in Israel but all over the world.

And also, the bridegroom would be taken away from his followers, and the people of God would enter into a whole new era in which they would again fast. But now for very different reasons.

Visible Lives in an Invisible Kingdom

When we speak of God’s kingdom being “spiritual,” that doesn’t mean it isn’t real or that it has no bearing on the world around us. In fact, everything we know as “real” — by which we usually mean material or visible — has grown out of spiritual realities.

Think of your closest relationships. Are they real? Yet they have grown out of intangible, immaterial things like words, emotions, and love. Think of your work. Is it real? Yet it comes out of intangible, immaterial things like skill, knowledge, and intention.

The creation itself, Genesis tells us, began as the imagination and then the words of God.

Everything in this world begins as a spiritual seed and grows into a material reality.

That’s how the kingdom of God works. It begins as a seed planted in our spirits. It grows out to shape our actions, our words, our relationships, our creative projects, our societal shifts — everything we do as human beings.

The kingdom is actually a far more radical and transformational enterprise than what Jesus’ contemporaries expected him to undertake — pick up a sword, smash some Roman heads, and set up a throne in Jerusalem.

Any human revolutionary could do that, given enough chutzpah and the requisite divine blessing. Only God could set up a kingdom that starts in the hearts of individuals and grows into the redemption and restoration of absolutely everything.

But God’s kingdom tends to do this in subversive ways. Jesus overthrows Rome by dying on one of their crosses. He judges sin by paying for it with his own blood. He defeats the devil by going to hell.

It’s a strange, radical, and powerful story.

And it leaves us, on the other side of the cross, needing to live equally subversive lives. We are still here in the world, but we are citizens of heaven. We are sinners in bodies of flesh, but we are redeemed, filled with the Holy Spirit, and marked out as God’s.

The bridegroom has been taken from us, so we are in an era again where fasting is appropriate. Yet he is always with us, to the end of the age. We are the bride of Christ, today, but we are looking forward to a wedding in the future. We live visible lives in an invisible kingdom.

The story has taken a long left turn, but it has done so for the best of reasons — so that creation can be transformed, so that generations can come to know God, so that the whole world might be saved.

Seeds of the Future

In the story Matthew is telling, it’s clear no one really understood what Jesus meant. They still expected the “bash heads together” type of kingdom come. They thought the story would progress directly from Point A — the return of the King — to Point B, the fully consummated kingdom.

They were wrong. Between their time and the full consummation of the kingdom of God lies another season — ours.

In our season, our already-not-yet time, we fast. Not because we are begging God to come and rescue us, but because he has already done so. We fast to express the reality of our spiritual lives with him and to take part in the mission of the kingdom. We fast, pray, and walk out lives of obedience in the Spirit because we are seeds of eternity planted in the present world.

Jesus’ veiled statement about the bridegroom is Matthew’s first real hint of the upcoming twist in the gospel story. It’s a hint that will grow as the story continues, until finally it becomes the full-fledged mystery of the cross — and grows into our lives, our era, our times of fasting and waiting for the fullness of the kingdom to come.


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This is Part 125 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.


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