What is the Church? If someone were to ask you that question, how would you respond? Would you reference the difference between the local and universal Church? Would you explain where your particular church is located? Maybe you would talk about the people who make up your church. Or, perhaps you would describe the programs and activities that your church is engaged in. Whatever your answer to that question may be, Scripture provides us with a number of descriptions which help us understand the nature and identity of the Church.
The Church is the Body of Christ
In Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthian believers, he writes to them, saying:
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body (1 Cor 12:12-20).
Certainly, the most familiar of all the metaphors and descriptions for the Church found in Scripture, is the body. God, in his infinite wisdom and grace, has provided us with reference points, if you will, in order to better help us understand who and what the Church is. In doing so, he takes something far beyond our mind’s comprehension and brings it down to a level that we can begin to consider. Like a loving and patient father, our God stoops down, as it were, and provides us with descriptions we can understand.
Here, in 1 Corinthians 12, he does so through the Apostle Paul by referencing our own human bodies. The point of comparison is simply to say that just as the human body is one entity, yet has many members, such as ears, eyes, feet, and hands, so it is with the Church. The universal Church is one entity, yet it is comprised of believers from every nation, language, and people group of the world, with Christ as the Head (Col 1:18, Rev 7:9).
Now, there is certainly a profound mystery found within this metaphor, as we also find it utilized in the book of Romans, Ephesians, and Colossians, and recognize that in some unfathomable way we are spiritually united to Christ, who is seated at the right hand of the Father (Eph 2:6). Yet, at least one thing is obvious. This glorious description of the Church stands in blatant contradiction to the division and individualism found to be so prevalent in our culture, today. The Church of Christ is a living, active body of believers who are dependent upon their Head and upon one another.
The Church is the Temple of God
Turning our attention to the next description of the Church we find in God’s Word, the Apostle Paul writes to the Ephesian believers, saying:
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit (Eph 2:19-22).
The magnificence of this metaphor should not be overlooked. Since every genuine believer is indwelt by the Holy Spirit, Paul uses the picture of a temple to explain that the Church is being built as a place where God, himself, lives both now and for eternity. Testifying to the Spirit’s divine authorship, the Apostle Peter echoes this same idea, 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 (1 Pet 2:4-5).
Through the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Lord is adding his people, like living stones, to the eternal temple, where we will dwell with God forever. As the Church of the one, true, and living God, it’s vitally important for us to meditate on the reality that we are no longer a ruinous heap of rubble characterized by our past. Rather, because we are in Christ, we are precious in his sight and a perfect fit for our place in his temple. Therefore, we can look ahead to the day when we will hear the words of Revelation 21:3 loudly declaring:
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.
The Church is the Flock of God
In addition to being described as a body and a building, we also discover Scripture referring to the Church as a flock. Returning once more to the words of the Apostle Peter, he writes specifically to the elders of the church, saying:
shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock (1 Pet 5:2-3).
The description of God’s people as his flock doesn’t originate in the New Testament. We see it, of course, in Psalm 23, as well as from the prophets like Isaiah and Zechariah. But, the New Testament is where we realize that Jesus is the Lord who is our Good Shepherd. Jesus is our shepherd who makes us lie down in green pastures and leads us beside still waters. Jesus is our shepherd who is with us even when we walk through the valley where the shadow of our grief feels as heavy as death, itself. And, Jesus is our shepherd who providentially directs his mercy and goodness to follow us all the days of our life. In addition, Jesus declares in John 10 that his sheep hear his voice and that he lays down his life for them.
Thus, as we consider the beautiful sheep and shepherd metaphor, in reference to the Church, it provides us with an incredibly rich and intimate picture. It’s a picture of gentleness and tenderness by which our shepherd gently cares for us. It’s a picture of Christ providing for and protecting the sheep of his pasture. From the opposite perspective, however, it’s also a picture of the Church’s role in submitting her life to the Lord Jesus Christ like sheep to their shepherd. For, we are the flock of God who belong to him.
The Church is the Family of God
Among the places we find the next description of the Church, one of the most prominent is 1 Timothy 3. Paul, there, writes to his protégé, Timothy, saying:
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 (1 Tim 3:15).
So, what is the truth that this family of God, which is the Church, should reinforce like a pillar, in both its supporting and its confessing?
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 (1 Tim 3:16).
The overarching and astonishing reality is simply this: we, as the Church of the living God, are a family. From the vertical perspective, we are a family, because we now have God as our Father. Although we were once orphans, rebels, and enemies of God, separated from him as targets of his divine displeasure, our good and gracious God has sent his Son into this sin-cursed world to pay the penalty for our sins. Therefore, because of Christ’s atoning work on the cross, and his resurrection from the dead, we have now been adopted into God’s family. He’s blessed us with a new name, placed a robe of righteousness over our shoulders, brought us into his household, and provided us with a chair to sit at his table. As his beloved children, we now have the divine privilege of calling him Father, growing in our relationship with him, and coming boldly to his throne anytime we so desire.
From the horizontal perspective, we belong to God’s family, because we are now brothers and sisters in Christ. Although we were once filled with hostility, enmity, and hatred, finding every possible reason imaginable to separate ourselves from one another, our Father has reconciled us, both to himself and to one another. With hearts full of love, joy, peace, and more, we no longer have any reason to express maliciousness and antagonism towards one another. There’s no reason for jealousy and strife to dominate our relationships. With our collective identity now found in Christ, we sit together at the table of our heavenly Father, and we share in his divine blessings. We are brothers and sisters of the living God, members of his royal family, representing, supporting, and proclaiming the truth of the gospel, which is the good news that brought us home. The Church of Jesus Christ is a family which is permeated with gospel-centeredness and has, as its brother, the one who condescended, and was vindicated, witnessed, proclaimed, believed, and who ascended. This brother of the family is the Lord of both heaven and earth.
The Church is the Bride of Christ
The great love with which Jesus, our Lord, has demonstrated for the Church, leads us to the fifth and final description of the Church we’ll consider. Once again, we look to the Spirit-inspired words of the Apostle Paul, this time from the fifth chapter of his letter to the Ephesians:
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 (Eph 5:25–27).
Through this final metaphor, we find Paul directly addressing husbands, but in doing so, he provides us with a beautiful description of the Church. She is the bride of God’s Son, and the extent of Christ’s love for her is seen vividly in the blood that was shed and the life that was sacrificed for her. We also discover the three-fold purpose of Christ’s sacrifice for his bride:
- First, he desires to sanctify his beloved. Christ has set the Church apart from the world from which she came, according to his own gracious will and grand, redemptive purpose.
- Next, he desires to wash and cleanse his bride from all her sinfulness and stains of shame, particularly from her previous life of rebellion and wickedness, with the Word of God.
- And, third, Christ accomplishes these things, because he desires to present his bride to himself in splendor, without spot, or wrinkle, so that she will be holy and without even the slightest mark of imperfection on the day of their wedding.
As genuine believers and members of the Church, we are the body of Christ. We are the temple of God. We are the flock of his pasture. We are members of his family. And, we are the bride of Christ. As we consider our calling as the Church of the living God, may we begin by recognizing how God sees us in Christ. May we start by realizing what God has declared about the purpose and nature of the Church, not settling for something that falls far short of the divine reality, but instead, setting our gaze upon the glorious certainty of what God is actually accomplishing through His Son.
Therefore, as we strive to catch a glimpse of the Church’s glorious realities, may we latch on to what God has declared, embrace it with great excitement, and then begin to walk in a manner that aligns with the worthiness of the gospel to which we have been called.