The Bible's teaching about the church isn't easy to grasp. The church is a mystery, and it is only with the help of the Holy Spirit that we can really begin to understand it at all. But God wants us to know who we are, and so he teaches us through pictures, analogies, and images. Today we're going to look at the analogy of the church as the body of Christ.
False pictures of the church
Before we go to God's pictures of the church, I want to point out some of the false pictures that some people have of the church today. As we get rid of the distortions, we'll be ready to receive the truth. Tom Nelson, who serves as a pastor in the Free Church, has identified four distorted images.
First, the church as a gas station. For some people today, the church is a place where you fill up your spiritual gas tank when you're running low. Get a good sermon, and it will keep you going for the week.
Second, the church as a movie theater. For many people, the church is a place that offers entertainment. Go for an hour of escape, hopefully in comfortable seats. Leave your problems at the door and come out smiling and feeling better than when you went in.
Third, the church as a drug store. For other people, church is the place where you can fill the prescription that will deal with your pain. For many the church is therapeutic.
Fourth, the church as a big box retailer. Other people see the church as the place that offers the best products in a clean and safe environment for you and your family. The church offers great service at a low price—all in one stop. For many people, the church is a producer of programs for children and young people.
You won't find any of these pictures of the church in the Bible. All of them are distortions, and they all have one thing in common—they're all about me. Fill me up! Entertain me! Take away my pain! Give me the programs my family and I are looking for! It's pure consumerism. This isn't surprising. This mindset is pervasive in our culture. I don't know about you, but I don't have any particular loyalty to a gas station, a movie theater, a drugstore, or a big box retailer. I move around looking for the best deal at the time. Christians who think about church in these ways find it hard to settle and miss so much as a result.
I want to help us move away from these self-centered ways of thinking about church and look at the pictures God gives to help us understand what it means to be the church. We begin today with the marvelous picture of the church as the body of Christ.
A true picture of the church: the body of Christ
When Paul prays in verse 19 for "His incomparably great power for us who believe," he's praying that God will open our eyes to see that God has power. He has great power—incomparably great power! There is nothing to compare with God's power! It's not like any other. Satan has power. Temptation has power. Government has power. The media has power. But God's power is of an altogether different order. It is incomparably great, and this power is "for us who believe"!
Since God's power is incomparably great, it can't be compared to anything else. So Paul gives us an example of this power at work. He says it is "like the working of [the Father's] mighty strength which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead." The power that raised Christ from the dead is "for us who believe." Not only did God's power raise Jesus from the dead, but the Father "seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come."
Then Paul says, "God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything." Why did the Father raise Christ from the dead? Why did he seat Christ at his right hand in heaven? Why have all things been placed under the feet of Christ? Here is the astonishing answer: "God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way."
The Bible uses this wonderful picture of the church as the body of Christ in two distinct ways. It's important not to confuse them. In 1 Corinthians 12, the whole body (including the head) works together. But in Ephesians 1 we have a different picture: Christ is the Head and we are the body.
In 1 Corinthians 12, the hand, the foot, the eye, and the ear all play distinct roles. The main point is that we need each other, and we all have something to contribute. This is given primarily to teach us about what is commonly called "the priesthood of all believers." Keep in mind that every analogy of the church points us to Christ. D. A. Carson said, "If the church is a bride, Christ is the Bridegroom; if the church is a flock, Christ is the Shepherd; if the church is a temple, Christ is the Builder, the Foundation or the Cornerstone."
In Ephesians 1, the church is a body and Christ is the Head. There's no such thing in the New Testament as a Christ-less church. Let's think about the analogy of the body and the head. The whole body is directed by the head, out through the central nervous system. The head acts through the body. The body itself derives life from the head; without the head the body is lifeless.
Think about what happens when you pick up a pen. The direction to pick up the pen comes from the head. The desire of the head is communicated through the body, and members of the body collaborate together to fulfill the command: The arm stretches out. The fingers gather. The thumb presses against the fingers in order to form a grip. The arm lifts, and the pen is ready to write. The head acts through the body.
By describing himself as the head and the church as the body, Christ is telling us that he has chosen to operate through the church. Of course, Jesus is able to act without the church and sometimes does. When Saul of Tarsus was converted on the road to Damascus, there wasn't a Christian or a local church in sight, but that's not how Christ normally acts.
The analogy of the head working through the body tells us that Christ has united himself to his people and chooses to do his work in the world through local congregations which are "the body of Christ, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way" (Ephesians 1:23). Since Christ is committed to work through the church, why wouldn't we do the same? Since Christ is building the church, isn't that what we should be doing? Since Christ loves the church, shouldn't we love her, too? Why wouldn't we want to be doing what he is doing?
You might be thinking, Well, that sounds a bit limiting. I'd rather do my own thing for Christ. Maybe you would rather do your own thing, but is that what Christ wants you to do? You say, "I don't want to get tied up with the church." But that is what Christ has chosen to do. Why does our glorious Head join himself to such a feeble body? Isn't that amazing to you that he would do that? The church is where he chooses to display his glory.
Jesus shows the incomparable riches of his grace in the salvation of individual sinners (Ephesians 2:7). He displays the glorious spectrum of his wisdom in gathered congregations of believers: "His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known" (Ephesians 3:10). Christ displays his glory through the gathering of believers. Why would you not want to be part of that? Why would you not want to belong to the body of Christ, to serve in the body of Christ, to give to the body of Christ, to live and die for the body of Christ? There is no greater privilege for a believer in this world.
When you grasp that we are the body of Christ, you come to see the church in a whole new light. The gas station, movie theater, drug store, and big box retailer are means to an end. They're not inherently valuable in themselves. But the church is not a means to an end. The church is an end in itself. Local congregations gathered by God are of supreme value. The Father has exalted Christ as head over all things for the church! That's why the primary strategy for evangelism in the New Testament is to plant churches. The Book of Acts records how Paul went into one city after another, preached the gospel, gathered a few converts, and established a church. Then he went back and appointed elders to lead these local congregations.
Why did Paul do this? Because God's great purpose is more than that people should be converted. Bringing this new community into existence is his plan of salvation. It's not a detachable extra. The head works through the body.
Paul did more than lead people to Christ. That is half a strategy. He planted churches—local congregations of believers gathered by God to worship and sent out by God to serve.
Five lessons from the body of Christ picture
There are at least five things we can learn from this analogy of the church as the body of Christ. First, Christ is the head of the church. The church belongs to Christ, not because we've decided to make him the Head, but because he is the Head and he's decided to make us the body. Christ has gathered us together. We are his people. The body serves at the direction of the head. Our calling is to be responsive to him.
Second, every member of the body needs to be connected to the Head. John Stott speaks about the "grotesque anomaly [of] an un-churched Christian." We must be careful not to press any analogy too far. We are saved by grace through faith in Christ. The thief on the cross arrived in heaven without ever being part of a local church, but that's an anomaly. Last week my wife and I watched the film 127 Hours. It's the story of Aron Ralston, an adventurer from Indiana who got trapped in a canyon in Utah when a falling rock trapped his arm. Nobody knew where Aron was, and he waited 127 hours with his dying arm trapped behind an unmovable rock. In the end there was only one solution. With a dull knife, Aron cut off his own arm. It was the only way to survive.
Aaron can get along without his right arm, but he would surely be glad if there was a way for him to get it back. That's how it is with the church. One writer, George Philip, speaks about "amputated saints" severed from the body—"Detached members belonging nowhere, have neither the capacity to grow nor the opportunity to serve." Have you committed yourself as a member of a local church? If not, why not? Why do you stay detached? Why would you think that staying detached is something Christ wants you to do?
The Gospels tell us that when Jesus was arrested, Peter drew his sword and cut of the ear of the high priest's servant, a man named Malchus (John 18:10). Merely cutting off his ear probably wasn't what Peter intended. My guess is that when he raised his sword, he was aiming to split Malchus down the middle. But he missed and sliced off his ear. So this ear was lying on the ground. It was severed. What use is an ear when it is severed from the body? The body needs the ear and the ear needs the body. Luke tells us that Christ touched the man's ear and healed him (Luke 22:51). Can you imagine Jesus picking up this limp piece of flesh from the dust and sealing it to the body? That is what I'm praying Christ will do for some of us today. If you're an amputated Christian, a Christian disconnected from the body, you've been a "lone ranger" for far too long. I'm praying that through the Scriptures you will hear the Holy Spirit saying to you, "This is where you belong, and I am placing you here to do my will."
Third, every member of the body must be responsive to the Head. There is a story in the New Testament about a man who had a shriveled hand. The hand was connected to the body, but it wasn't doing anything useful. It had lost the capacity to function. There was a breakdown between the commands of the brain and the function of this limb. Christ said to this man, "Stretch out your hand." I've always found this fascinating because it's the one thing that this man could not do. But Jesus commanded, "Stretch out your hand," and the Scripture simply says, "He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored" (Mark 3:5).
Maybe you've come to think of yourself as someone who is unable to function and who has nothing to contribute. But when you're connected to Jesus Christ, you draw life from him. In as much as his Spirit lives in you and you are joined to the body, he says to you today, "Stretch out your hand." You are able to fulfill the work that he has for you to do. If people are to experience the love of Christ, how is that going to happen? Yes, he can do it directly, but people are first going to experience the love of Christ mediated through the members of his body. That is why it is often said that we are, in this sense, his hands and his feet.
Fourth, every member of the body will suffer with the Head. I'm calling you today to reconsider service within the body of Christ. You cannot be a pastor, a missionary, or a faithful member of the body of Christ without suffering wounds. The body of Christ will always have scars.
Think about the incarnation and the physical body of Christ. He was born in the manger. What happened to his body? The same body in which he fulfilled all obedience, he was lacerated, pierced, and broken. It was the body in which he suffered.
The world inflicted pain on the body of Jesus. In over 2,000 years of history, the world has always hated the church, which is the body of Christ. It always has and it always will. Don't expect the world to love you. Jesus said, "If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first" (John 15:18). If you devote your life to serving Christ, you will have scars and wounds to show for it. Paul says, "We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus" (2 Corinthians 4:10). We all want to be part of a healthy body, but the body of which Christ is the Head is also a despised body, a suffering body in this world.
Some of you struggle with scars that came to you in the course of serving Christ. You suffered in the body. Scars suffered in the body are evidence that we are joined to the Head, who wore a crown of thorns and whose hands and feet were pierced. To be identified with Christ means sharing the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings (Philippians 3:10). The body of Christ will always be known by its scars. Many years ago, a pastor named Joseph Parker spoke about how "doubting Thomas" came to faith after the resurrection of Jesus: "'Unless I see the prints of the nails in his hands I will not believe.' What Thomas said of Christ, the world is saying about the church: 'Unless I see in your hands the prints of the nails, I will not believe.'"
The physical body of Christ was broken for the life of the world. How can this body live within cautiously safe limits? Where did we get the idea that the highest good in the body of Christ is ministry marked by a life of comfort and convenience? Pastor James Philip says, "Christ still wants to say to men, 'This is my body broken for you,' and for this to have any credence …. The church, which is his body, must become broken bread and poured out wine for the life of the world." Are you ready for that?
Fifth, every member of the body will be glorified with the Head. One day the scarred body of the church, the body that has so often been feeble and weak, the body so despised and hated and persecuted by the world will be taken up into the presence of God, and that scarred body will become like his glorious body. The Head that once was crowned with thorns is crowned with glory now. And the body known by its scars will be known by its glory. You will say, "I am so glad that I am part of the body of Christ."