Today I want to discuss images of the Church. BUT, do not think of the ‘images’ forbidden in the 2nd commandment when I say images of the Church. Rather, think of the ways in which the Bible describes the Church; the metaphors and the descriptions of it. There are many of such images given to us, let’s take a look at the ones most often used.
The Church as a Building
Many people often refer to the ‘church’ as a building, and while they may not know it, they’re closer to the truth than they realize. The Church is a building. Of course I’m not referring to the physical brick and mortar, but the individual men and women who have believed in Jesus who are then made into a spiritual building by God.
Peter makes this point in 1 Peter 2:4-8 saying, “As you come to Him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in Scripture: “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in Him will not be put to shame.” So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” and “A stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense.” They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.”
Jesus is portrayed here as the chief cornerstone, rejected by men but chosen and precious to God. All mankind responds to this cornerstone by believing or not believing. Those who believe on Him, Peter says, are being built up as living stones into a spiritual house. The function of this spiritual house, which is the Church or the New Covenant priesthood, is to offer up acceptable worship to God through Christ. When they do this, they will never be put to shame. For those who do not believe, this cornerstone isn’t chosen and precious but offensive and uncertain. The picture we get here is that while the believers are being built up into a spiritual house with a firm foundation, being built together for the purpose of worship, all those who do not believe are shamed and stagger about in life aimless and hopeless with no foundation.
In Matthew 16:18 Jesus promises that the Church will always be because He will build it though all hell is afraid of it and eager to wreck its success. Though the Church appears weak in this world we are indeed ever steady and ever firm because of our foundation stone, Jesus. There is no more physical temple any longer, Jesus has tabernacled among us and in His flesh fulfilled the physical temple. Now, all believers are the temple of God, made not with human hands but by the hand of God Himself, and in which God dwells. “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:19-20). The Church is the building of God.
The Church as a Body
Another image used for the Church through Scripture is that of a body. To say this is to say that the Church is the Body of Christ. Jesus is our head, we are the body; the hands, feet, toes, fingers, knees, ankles, and elbows of Christ. You see the correlation right? Just as the correct operation of all the parts of our physical bodies is necessary for normal life to occur, so too to say the Church is the body of Christ is to say that each member of the Church is vital to the correct operation of the whole. So each member is a living extension of the greater body, and is dependent on all the others. And just as the body as a whole only works rightly when it works together as a unified whole, so too the each member and each local congregation of the global Church should always strive to be so united. Also, just as our physical head leads the body it sits atop, so too Jesus is the head of the Church. Naturally then, as goes the head so goes the body. Or to say it another way, the Church ought to submit to the Head and only go where Jesus leads.
Body is used as a designation to refer to the universal Church as well as the local church. In Col. 1:24 Paul shows us the universal nature of the body of Christ saying, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of His body, that is, the Church…” Paul’s suffering in his own flesh is a witness and presentation of Christ’s sufferings to the universal Church, or body of Christ. Ephesians 4:11-12 is an example of this designation being used to refer to the local church. “And He gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ…” In context, Paul is referring to the gifts Jesus gave to the Church after His ascension. Though there are ways in which we can clearly see the universal Church being spoken of here, especially as we continue into v13-15, we also clearly see ordinary activity of the local church too. How? Where is it that the saints, the body of Christ, are equipped to do the work of ministry? In the local church. Where do those saints exercise these work of ministry once they’re equipped to do so? In local churches all around the world. So held within the image of the Church as the body of Christ we see the necessity of unity in that all the members ought to be striving toward the same goals with the same purpose. We see the activity of the local church to equip the saints for the work of ministry, and we see the grand scope of the universal Church as the context into which those saints are sent to do the work of ministry. The body of Christ is indeed simultaneously the most diverse and unified group of people on the planet.
The Church as a Bride
One of the most famous images of the Church is one of the most intimate images given in Scripture. This of course, the Church as the Bride of Christ. Throughout the Old Testament God refers to Israel as His unfaithful and adulterous wife. As we cross over into the New Testament we see it’s the Church who, though unfaithful like Israel, has a husband in Christ that is ever faithful. Ephesians 5:25-27 says, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her, that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that He might present the church to Himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” It may seem strange to some of you that as believers we all have a common husband already in Christ, but this is how the Bible encourages us to think of ourselves in relation to Jesus. We are His bride and He is our husband. We submit to Him and He lovingly leads us. He labors in us and through us to see to it that we are made more and more holy like He is until the day we see Him face to face.
That day will be a day unlike any other, and we’ll realize that every wedding ceremony we’ve ever seen or been in was just a foretaste of the greater marriage to come. Rev. 21:2-4 says, “And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be His people, and God Himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’” This is the marriage supper of the Lamb, when we will be presented holy, spotless, and flawless to our Lord Jesus. We will forever be His people and He will forever be our God.
The Church as the Pillar and Buttress of the Truth
Lastly, in 1 Tim. 3:14-15 Paul makes use of an image of the Church we don’t often speak of. In that passage he tells Timothy, “I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth.” To say the Church is a pillar and buttress of the truth is to say the Church is the guardian, the defender, the protector, and the citadel of the truth in all ages against all those who oppose the gospel. This has a twofold application. As the Church defends the truth by proclaiming the truth unapologetically, the Church also protects the truth by teaching it to the Church every time it gathers together.
But what truth is the Church to guard, defend, and protect? Paul mentions this truth in the very next verse in 1 Tim. 3:16 when he says, “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.” This is none other than one of the earliest and most concise summarizes of the work of Christ we have. Some people even think this was one the early creeds of the Church. All that to say, the truth the Church is to guard, defend, protect, teach, spread, rejoice in, and treasure above all things is the gospel itself. In a day when deep convictions about religious beliefs are seen as arrogant, narrow-minded, and even antiquated do you see the calling the Church has from Scripture? She is called and equipped by God to be an institution of proclamation, an bastion of propagation, that preaches the truth of gospel of God from the whole counsel of the Word of God to everyone soul that will hear.
The building, the body, and the bride of Christ. Called out of this world to boldly and lovingly proclaim the truth of God to this world. This is the Church.