February 2011 Issue
~ A Bride, A Building, A Body
by Malcolm B. Yarnell, III
It is common to describe relationships,
such as that between two lovers, through similes and metaphors.
For instance, one may say to a beloved, "I miss you like
the flower misses the rain." Or, "Our love is forever
in bloom." In referring to a flower, the speaker does not
literally mean the two lovers have petals, anthers, and stamens.
The point in the first statement, a simile, is that the lover
longs for the beloved; the point in the second, a metaphor, is
that their love is constantly experiencing new life. Such images
are not intended for scientific detail. Rather, they evoke profound
truths individual words are unable to convey on their own.
Biblical metaphors allow us to understand more clearly the
mysteries of God. For example, when Paul spoke of the relationship
between a husband and wife, his purpose was to reveal a deeper
"mystery" (see the Ephesians discussion below). The
relationship a husband has with his wife is supposed to model
a spiritual truth concerning Christ and His church.
This is only one of the metaphors Scripture uses to describe
the church. There are nearly one hundred such images in the New
Testament, images that reveal the church for what it is theologically.
Three of the more significant metaphors reveal that the church's
relationship with God is one of utmost proximity. In the metaphors
of the church as a bride, a building, and a body, we learn that
our life as a community of disciples proceeds from within the
life of the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These three
metaphors unfold the mystery of Christ's intimate relationship
with His beloved church.
The Bride of Christ
The first person to picture Christ
as a groom was John the Baptist (John 3:29). As the forerunner
of Christ, John knew that he must decrease while Jesus must increase.
In his understanding, Christ is a groom and His bride is the messianic
community. As the groom's friend, John rejoiced to attend the
heavenly wedding feast where Jesus and His bride are united. Every
marriage should be cause for celebration, but the marriage between
Christ and His church is something for the entire universe to
celebrate for all eternity.
The apostle Paul also used the metaphor of the church as Christ's
bride. In Ephesians 5:22-33, Paul compared the relationship between
Christ and the church to that of a husband and wife. In this most
perfect of relationships, Jesus Christ is the "head of the
church," while the church submits humbly to Him. He loves
the church and sacrifices His own life for her (25). He sanctifies
and cleanses the church through His Word (26). Jesus Christ presents
her to Himself "in splendor," unmarred by any imperfection
Paul continued at length his moving portrayal of Christ's nuptial
love for His church. Like Christ, a husband is to care for his
wife in the same way he cares for his own body, nourishing and
cherishing her (28-29). There is love between the husband, Christ,
and His bride, the church, with no hint of anything untoward or
Moreover, drawing upon the divine plan at creation for the
marriage between a husband and his wife, Paul pointed to God's
design for husband and wife to "become one flesh" (31-32).
The relationship between the church and her Lord is so intimate
that nothing remains between the two of them: they have become
John the Apostle also found the metaphor of the bride of Christ
helpful. In the book of Revelation, he pictured the church as
"the bride, the Lamb's wife" in her eschatological glory
(Revelation 21:9). Especially prominent is the
portrait of the church as dressed in white; her clothes indicate
her blameless character. Among the promises given to the local
churches at the beginning of the Apocalypse are that those who
overcome will be clothed "in white garments" and allowed
into His presence (Revelation 3:5). Those martyred for witnessing
faithfully to Christ will be given a white robe (Revelation 6:11).
A multitude from the nations comes out of the great tribulation
wearing robes "made white in the blood of the Lamb"
(Revelation 7:14). The glorious church is blessed because it will
be called to the "marriage supper of the Lamb," where
she is given "fine linen, clean and bright" to represent
her "righteous acts" (Revelation 19:7-9).
The church as the bride is then declared to be the New Jerusalem,
the city of God coming down from heaven. What is unique about
this huge, glorious city is that there is no temple, for "the
Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb" are its temple (Revelation
21:9-23). God Himself dwells with and among His people, the glorious
church. The church is the bride of the Lamb, the Lamb who takes
away the sin of the world, who judges in righteousness as a Lion,
and lives with His people forever.
All of these references to the church as the bride of Christ
indicate proximity between Christ and His church. Christ's intimacy
with His bride is characterized by righteousness, purity, and
faithfulness, and their marriage is worthy of the most wonderful
wedding celebration ever, one that will begin the new age.
The Building of God
The New Testament also employs
the image of a building, specifically a temple, to describe the
relationship of God to His church. In the Old Testament, the temple
was the place where God revealed Himself to His people. From the
pillar of fire by night and smoke by day, to the wilderness tabernacle,
to the temple of Jerusalem, God was personally present with His
people. But when the Son of God came in human flesh, He referred
to His own body as the temple (John 2:20-22). In the person and
work of Jesus Christ, the concept of the temple and its religious
implications were thereby radically transformed. The old covenant,
temple, priesthood, and sacrifices were surpassed and fulfilled
in the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the high priest,
who has established a new covenant (Hebrews 5-8).
Paul informed the Corinthian church that they were "God's
building." The church is built upon only one foundation,
Jesus Christ, and none other can be laid. The apostle and other
Christian ministers build on this foundation and the quality of
their work will be judged by fire (1 Corinthians 3:9-15). Paul
applies the image of the temple to individual Christians (1 Corinthians
6:19-20), to the local congregation (1 Corinthians 3:16-17), and
to the universal church (Ephesians 2:21). Taken together, these
three passages teach us that the temple is owned by the Father,
made pure by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and intended to
grow into the Lord Jesus.
Both Peter and Paul treated the church as a living building.
According to Paul, the church is built upon the foundation of
Christ, "the chief cornerstone," as well as the apostles
and prophets, whose words reveal Christ (Ephesians 2:20). However,
Jesus is not merely the foundation; He also provides the limits
into which the building will grow. Jesus Christ is at once the
church's substructure and her superstructure. As the church is
built, it "grows into" the holy temple that is "in
the Lord" (Ephesians 2:21). Reflecting its participation
in the life of the entire Trinity, the church is simultaneously
"in" the Son, is "the dwelling place of" the
Father, and is "in the Spirit" (Ephesians 2:22). The
metaphor of the temple compels the reader to see the church living
in unity with the ever-present Three-in-One God.
According to Peter, the Son has come to the earth in Christ
as a "living stone," who was rejected by men but elected
by God (1 Peter 2:4). Like their Lord, Christians are "living
stones" who are being built into a "spiritual house"
(1 Peter 2:5). The old temple imagery runs fluidly through this
passage, but its metaphorical intent should not be forgotten.
Old Testament Israel possessed a distinct Levitical priesthood,
but the New Testament church in its entirety is now a "holy
priesthood" and a "royal priesthood" (1 Peter 2:5,
9). Those who were not among God's people, but who believed in
the elect and precious cornerstone, Jesus Christ, are thereby
now considered elect and special (1 Peter 2:4, 6-7, 9-10). The
church as a priesthood has been given the privileged works of
offering "spiritual sacrifices" through Him (2:5) and
of proclaiming His praises (2:9). The key to understanding how
the temple imagery is applied to the church is to remember that
the propitiatory sacrifice of the Lamb of God sanctifies us as
His temple through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit.
The church is made holy in and through the presence of the triune
The Body of Christ
Whole books have been written about
the "body of Christ," but we have space only to cover
the highlights. In some of his writings, Paul referred to the
literal body of Christ. To begin with, sinners are delivered
from "the body of this death" through "the body
of Christ" (Romans 7:4, 24-25). Christ's bodily resurrection
altered the dynamics of creation, and Christians possess surety
for their resurrection through His resurrected body (1 Corinthians
15:20-23). The first Adam was a living being, but this second
Adam, Christ, is "a life-giving Spirit" (45). The resurrection
life of the God-man is the source of life for believers.
But the church as the body was also one of Paul's favorite
metaphors; he utilized it extensively in Romans, 1 Corinthians,
Ephesians, and Colossians. This "body" of Christ has
both a "head" and "members." The "head
of the body, the church," is Christ Jesus. He is simultaneously
the source, sustenance, and goal of all that exists (Colossians
1:15-18). The fullness of the deity dwells in Him, and He reconciles
us with God through His death upon the cross (1:19-22). The complete
life of God comes to the church through her head (2:9-10). All
things in creation have been placed "under His feet,"
for God "gave Him to be head over all things." Through
Christ's headship, we share fully in the divine life and in His
rule. All things are "under" Christ and "to"
the church, "which is His body, the fullness of the One who
fills all things in every way" (Ephesians 1:22-23). Christ's
life thoroughly permeates the church.
The body also has "members." Southern Baptists' emphasis
on regenerate church membership is rooted, in part, in the biblical
teaching that we are "members of Christ" (1 Corinthians
6:15); and, correspondingly, we are members of His body (1 Corinthians
12:18, 20). To be a Christian is to be united with Christ Himself.
The bodies of Christians are not their own, for "he who is
joined to the Lord is one spirit with Him" (6:17).
Moreover, through her head, the church is "nourished and
knit together by joints and ligaments [and] grows with the increase
that is from God" (Colossians 2:19). As the church speaks
truth in love, it grows in every way "into Him who is the
head Christ" (Ephesians 4:15). Growing in life with
Christ is why being a member of the body the church
is so important for Christians.
Likewise, Christians grow in Christ through service in His
body. The diverse gifts of the church have their one source in
the one God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians
12:4-6). The diverse gifts are practiced through diverse members,
and each is necessary for the proper functioning of the body (12:14-22).
Moreover, each member is granted unique honor (12:23-25). Furthermore,
each member shares in the life of the other members, both suffering
and glorying together (12:26). Just as our lives depend upon our
participation in Christ, so Christians also are called to participate
in His sufferings "for the sake of His body, which is the
church" (Colossians 1:24). Finally, God gave gifts to the
members of the body, not for selfish reasons, but for her mutual
"edification" or the "common good" (1 Corinthians
Christians also live with Christ through the ordinances He
gave to His body. First, when Christians believe, it is a spiritual
work inwardly, which should be subsequently seen in water baptism
outwardly. "For by one Spirit, we were all baptized into
one body" (1 Corinthians 12:13); we were "buried with
him in baptism" (Colossians 2:12; cf. Romans 6:4).
Second, when Christians partake of the Lord's Supper, they
memorially participate in the very "body of Christ,"
in Christ and one another, "for we all partake of that one
bread" (1 Corinthians 10:17). Christians must learn to "discern
the body" (their own, Christ's, and His church) if they wish
to avoid judgment in celebrating communion (11:29).
In summary, we see that the mystery of God is revealed in Christ
through His Spirit, and He invites us to experience life with
Him. He is an intimate God. The Father calls us to come
"to" Him "through" His Son and "in"
His Spirit (Ephesians 2:18). He is our intimate God. He
calls us to live from, in, and with Him, which also entails that
we worship and serve with those who believe in Him. In this community,
the church, "we who are many are one body in Christ, and
individually members of one another" (Romans 12:5).
As His bride, we experience intimate communion with
Him now, while anticipating the wedding feast to come when the
Groom will reveal Himself in all His splendor. As His building,
the temple, we experience the glorious reality of God actually
dwelling in us and among us. As His body, we operate and
cooperate as one whole unit, under the direction of the Head,
to grow and function according to His purposes and to accomplish
His assignments until His return.
We, the church, are God's building, Christ's bride and body,
and the Holy Spirit's temple. We are His because God made Himself
ours. These images picture that glorious mystery of God's love
for His people and the opportunity He has given for us to live
and function in intimate fellowship with Him and each other, now
1. In 2 Corinthians
11:2, Paul even indicated his intent to present the church as
a "pure virgin" to Christ.
Malcolm B. Yarnell, III, is a member of
Birchman Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, and is director
of the Center for Theological Research and associate professor
of Systematic Theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
in Fort Worth, Texas.
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