What Is the Church?

How does the Bible describe it? You need to know, so you can fit into God’s plan with other believers.

Teachers nowadays say each individual needs to know who he or she is in Christ. And that’s true. But let’s look at this teaching from another angle. Who is the church in Christ, as a collective or community? We are in this together.

For a Greek and Hebrew word study on “church” and related terms, please see this post:

Bible Basics about the Church

Now let’s get started on this article.

1.. The church is the people of God.

The background to the New Covenant people is the Old Covenant people.  Deut. 7:6, 8 says that the Lord had chosen the old covenant people for his own possession because he loved them and to keep the oath he made with their forefathers. This is a perfect picture of God’s grace and love. But then after hundreds of years of covenant-breaking and disobedience to the law, God judged them and sent them into exile. So does this mean God has given up on his Old Covenant people? He gives up on no one who remains true to him, but he has abandoned the Sinai Covenant, and people who refuse to leave it behind are misguided. It is time to enter the New Covenant, the new thing God is doing.

Now the people of the New Covenant are the chosen “race,” a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people (1 Pet. 2:9), terms borrowed from the Old Covenant (Exod. 19:6; Is. 43:20-21). “Race” is applied to Christian believers everywhere and from every tribe. Together, Christians are now the people of God, living under a better and New Covenant, ratified by the blood of Jesus.

2.. The church is made up of a new people.

The new people of his church consists in the redeemed people. Titus 2:13-14 says that Christ our great God and Savior gave himself for us—his people—to redeem us from all iniquity and to purify for himself a people of his own. This is reflected all the way back to Deut. 7:8, which says that the LORD brought his people out with a mighty hand and redeemed them from the house of bondage, from the Pharaoh, king of Egypt. Now Christ’s redemption is expanded to include everyone who surrenders to God through Christ and are redeemed from their personal bondages and from the house Satan’s bondage.

The new people of his church who are in the new covenant are a purified people. Recall that Titus 2:13-14 says that God’s redemption has a purpose—to purify his people. It is not only to make us feel good, but to lift us higher than our old sinful-mammal nature and make us holy.

In one of my favorite verses, Heb. 10:22 says our consciences have been sprinkled, and v. 10 talks of the blood of Jesus that cleanses. So your conscience has been sprinkled with the blood of Jesus, and it does not need to condemn you about your past sins, but it will warn you to avoid future sins.

The new people of his church are a changed people. Jer. 31:31 says that in the New Covenant the law of God will enter our hearts. Let’s never forget that the moral law contained in the Old is imported into the New and into our hearts. 2 Cor. 5:17 says that when anyone is in Christ he is a new creation; the new has come, and the old has passed away—died. The Spirit of God changes people, as well. Ezek. 36:26-27 says that God will put a new spirit in his people and give them a new heart. The Spirit will move his new people to follow his decrees and keep his laws—his moral law. The Spirit, who causes us to be his new creation, is what makes us new.

3.. The church is the new people in whom God dwells.

2 Cor. 6:16 is an extremely important verse. The people of God is the temple of the living God, and God lives in them and move among them. He will be their God, and they shall be his people.

This fulfills the Old Covenant promise in Lev. 26:12, which says God will walk among them and will be their God, and they shall be his people.

It fulfills Ezek. 25:8 which says that God will make a sanctuary that he will dwell among them.

It fulfills 76:2 that his abode is in Salem and in Zion. God is no longer limited by a geopolitical site. He lives in his people around the globe.

Eph. 2:19-22 says that the church is the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, and Christ Jesus himself is the chief cornerstone; the church is built into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit. So this is a Trinitarian formulation: God, Christ Jesus and the Spirit appearing in one passage. The church is built up on a foundation, guided to remain correctly plumbed by the chief cornerstone and lived in by God through the Spirit.

4.. The church is the building of Christ.

Jesus said, “I will build my church” (Matt. 16:18). In Jer. 24:6 God says he will bring back Israel (Judah) from exile, and he will build them up, not tear them down, and plant them, not uproot them. In Matthew, Jesus said he will build his church, which equates him with God—continuing the process of building with his Father; indeed, the preincarnate Son of God was the one building up the exiles.

Jesus said that anyone who hears and obeys his words will be like a man who built his house on a rock (Matt. 7:24). So Jesus’s teaching is the foundation of the kingdom community.

To continue with Matt. 16:18, Jesus told Peter that on Peter’s words of proclamation that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God Jesus will build his church. The church was to be built on the divine revelation that Jesus was the Messiah, the divine Son, not on Peter’s words. However, let’s not discount apostolic authority too stridently, because Eph. 2:19-20 says that the church is built on the foundation of the apostles. Surely Peter, the lead apostle, was at least one stone in the temple. However, it is Peter’s confession and teaching (cf. proclamation in Acts 2), not Peter the man, who was one foundation stone.

So the church is not to be built on our obedience, but on Jesus himself.

In 1 Cor. 3:9-11 Paul announces that the church is God’s building, and no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has already been laid, Christ Jesus.

In Rev. 21:12, 14 the heavenly Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, has twelve foundation stones, the names of the twelve apostles.

Jesus is the cornerstone of his own building. Is. 28:16 says that God is laying in Zion for a foundation a stone, a tested stone, a valuable cornerstone, a sure foundation. In Is. 8:13-15 if anyone stumbles over the rock, they will fall and be broken. Christ is also the rock, and if Jews reject him as their Messiah, they will fall—even though God loves than and calls them to receive their Messiah. Peter quotes this verse and everyone who believes in him will not be disappointed (1 Pet. 2:6).

Ps. 118:22-23 is the most important passage here. The stone that the builders (the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, four decades before the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70) has now become the chief cornerstone. Jesus quoted this psalm in Matt. 21:42 // Mark 12:10 // Luke 8:13-15; 20:17-18). Matthew’s Gospel adds that the kingdom of God will be taken from the Jewish leadership who represents the Jewish nation and given to a people that will produce fruit—the Gentiles and Messianic Jews around the entire globe.

Individual members of the church are like living stones that are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood where spiritual sacrifices are offered (1 Pet. 2:4-5). So once again the New Covenant Scriptures spiritualize Old Covenant rituals. We don’t offer animal sacrifices, but spiritual ones. The new sacrifices are ones of praise (Heb. 13:15), gifts we send (Phil. 4:18) and our bodies (Rom. 12:1).

Finally, Eph. 2:21 says that Christ is the person in whom the whole structure is joined together. That’s the bottom line. All the talk of apostles and confessions take second place to Jesus.

5.. The church is the body of Christ.

1 Cor. 12:27 says clearly that we are the body of Christ and individually members of it. Rom. 12:5 says that though we are many, we are one body in Christ. Eph. 5:23 says Christ is the head of the church, his body. And Eph. 1:18 says the same. Rom. 7:4 says that we have died to the law through the body of Christ; that is, as we are members of the body, and Christ’s body died on the cross, so we died with it. But note: as Christ’s body was raised to new life, so are we too raised to new life.

So what is the significance of our being in the body of Christ?

We are connected to the life source because we are incorporated into his body (Eph. 1:1). In Eph. 1:3-13 Paul uses the phrase “in Christ.” However, in this connection, let’s not draw the odd and erroneous conclusion that as the human head cannot exist without the body, so Christ cannot exist without his body. Wrong. That may be true with a natural body, but not for the spiritual one. Jesus is Lord, and he is not dependent on humans. He has a glorified, resurrected body in heaven right now, so let’s not stretch the metaphor too far. The church is not the bodily extension of Christ, for he is above and beyond it. However, he uses his body to reach people through the power of his Spirit. The main point is that the head does not depend on the body in this theological, miraculous metaphor.

As noted, Rom. 12:5 says that we are members one of another. We need each other. We are equal to each other in our souls. We are benefitted with the love of God equally. We are all servants.

In 1 Cor. 12:15-25 Paul extends the body metaphor. The hands, eyes, and feet need each other. No member of the body can say he does not need the hand, or the hand cannot say he is not part of the body. IN v. 26 if one member suffers, the other members suffer with it. If some member is honored, all members rejoice with it. No jealousy or rivalry, please.

One should not say, “I love Jesus” and say by words or actions “I don’t love the church.” That is like saying, “I love your head, but I don’t love your body.” Therefore we should be in love with his church. We need to belong to a local body. Take responsibility. Contribute your gifts. 1 Pet. 4:10 says that as each one has received a gift, we must employ it for one another as good managers of God’s varied graces. In other words, contribute your gift that God has given you. “To each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7).

We are his body to serve humankind. Jesus took the form of a servant on earth (Phil. 2:7-8), so we should take the forms of servants and serve. Jesus said that he was one among the earliest followers as one who serves (Luke 22:27). Recall that Matt. 25:31-46 teaches us that when we serve the hungry, thirsty, stranger, those without clothing, the sick and the prisoner, then we have done it for Jesus. He identifies with the needy and suffering. It is almost—almost—as if he is there with them, as if he is them!

6.. The church is the bride of Christ.

Eph. 5:21-33 discusses the relationships between husbands and wives, and Christ is the head of the church. Husbands are to love their wives, “as Christ loves the church and gave himself for her … to present her as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish. … This is a profound mystery, but I am talking about Christ and the church. … This is a profound mystery” (vv. 26, 33). Christ sacrificing himself for the church is the ultimate act of love. Is a husband willing to sacrifice himself for his wife? Is. 54:5 teaches us our Maker is our husband. The people of Israel followed God in the wilderness, just a bride loves him (Jer. 2:3). Ezek. 16:8 says God gave his oath to Israel and entered a covenant with her, and she became his. However, Israel repeatedly cheated on God with other men—gods (Ezek. 2:16, 19-20; 3:20).

The Gospels refer to Jesus as a bridegroom (Mark 2:19; cf. Matt. 9:15; Luke 5:34). In John 3:29, John the Baptist compares himself to the friend of the bridegroom (Jesus), while the bridegroom is the one who has the bride. And the friend rejoices when he sees his friend the bridegroom step into the calling that is rightfully his—marrying the bride.

In the Parable of the Wedding Feast (Matt. 22:1-14), the king invites people to his Son’s wedding, but they refuse to come. The king punishes the ingrates. Then he sent his servants out to gather anyone they could find, good or bad, and the wedding hall was filled with guests. Clearly the first guests were Jews (Jewish leaders), but they rejected the king’s sons. Now we Gentiles are invited to the wedding feast. The picture of the church being the bride of Christ is not fully developed, but the imagery gets us closer.

In Matt. 25:1-13, the Parable of the Five Wise and Foolish Virgins says that the wise bridesmaids were ready with the oil (of the Spirit), while the foolish ones were not. This shows that the ones who have the Spirit are the bride of Christ.

2 Cor. 11:2 says that Paul betrothed the Corinthian church to one husband, Christ, to present her as a pure virgin. So Paul is the best man, and Christ is the husband.

Rev. 19:6-7 says that the marriage supper of the Lamb is prepared, and the bride has made herself ready. Rev. 21:2 says that the New Jerusalem is prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And 21:9 says that the bride is the wife of the Lamb. And 22:17 says that the Spirit and the bride say come. Clearly these passages in the Revelation equates the Lamb with Christ, and the Bride with the church, and 22:17 shows how the church is in heaven.

Three features of the bride-husband imagery stand out.

First, the church and her Lord are united in love. Eph. 5:25 says plainly that Christ loved the church. Unity in love, and love in unity. This unity is not corporeal, but spiritual. If a Christian from Africa meets a Christian from New York, they have instant unity in Christ, and then God’s love flows through them to each other.

Second, the bride must keep herself pure and faithful. Eph. 5:25-27, says that Christ sanctified his bride—set her apart for his purposes—and cleansed and washed her with he Word. The church has been cleansed the moment God saved her, but she needs continual sanctification, because she lives in the world. She needs to remain faithful and have no other gods or “Baals” (2 Cor. 11:2). Don’t let the serpent deceive you, as the serpent deceived Eve (2 Cor. 11:2-3). She must hold on to the truth.

Third, the bride lives in expectancy. Whoever heard of a bride who doesn’t look forward to her wedding day? Rev. 19:7 says that we should rejoice and exult (jump for joy) because the marriage of the Lamb has come. Prepare to meet the Lord when he comes back. Have your lamps filled with oil. Be filled with the Spirit. Walk in holiness.

7.. The church is the community of the Holy Spirit.

John 3:3 says that his people must be born again, and he later clarifies that this is done by the Spirit (v. 6). John 6:63 says that Spirit gives life. Ezek. 37:14 says that God put his Spirit within us. In John 20:22, the resurrected Jesus breathed on his disciples and said to receive the Holy Spirit.

Therefore, the church is the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. The fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all, Paul writes to the Corinthians (2 Cor. 13:14).

8.. The church is the communion of the saints.

The communion of the saints means that the “holy ones” or “saints” are in unity and fellowship.  1 Cor. 10:16 says that we have the communion of the body of Christ, or the church. Holy ones or saints does not mean a special class of believers who are above everyone else. Everyone is a saint, because he has been set apart by God for service to him, the church, and the world. Together, we form a communion. The Greek noun is koinōnia, and I have already covered this term.

See the post What Is Fellowship?

9.. The church is the fullness of Christ.

This is startling.

In Eph. 1:22-23 Paul makes a remarkable statement. God put all things in subjection under Christ’s feet and gave Christ to be the head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

Jesus has been so highly exalted that he is not only the head of the church, but of all things. And he is the Lord of the church, so he is the head of the world and the church. Christ is not limited in his exaltation. “Do I not fill heavens and earth? (Jer. 23:24). Eph. 4:10 says that he ascended far above the heavens that he might fill all things; Christ is the head over all things.

What does the fullness mean? It is the Greek word pleroma (pronounced play-roh-mah), which means the fullness of divine excellence and powers. The church is not perfect, far from it. But it is the answer to humanity’s need, only when it preaches Christ Jesus. We are called to be filled with the fullness of God (Eph. 3:19). To walk in his fullness, we need to be filled with his Spirit and continually filled (Eph. 5:18).

How does this article help me grow in Christ?

You are not lost in the collective. You are individually called by God. God knows you personally. However, you are called to join a local church, where you can be part of a team. No spiritual lone rangers. Your individual calling needs to rub its shoulder with other people, so they can test it.

This post helps you grow in Christ because you are part of the royal family of God. You walk in his fullness by being filled with his Spirit. Then his Spirit cleanses you from your baser, mammalian, sinful behavior and raises you up so you can recover the broken image of God (Gen. 1:27 and 9:6). Understand who you are in Christ individually and corporately. We are in this journey through the world, together.

Use your gifts for one another (1 Cor. 12:7; 1 Pet. 4:10)

SOURCES

Works Cited

At that link, look for Williams, vol. 3, chapter 3.

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