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 (27).1
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 hateful.
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 one!
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 God.
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 12:7; 14:5).
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 and forevermore.
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.