The Church that Christ is Building
“The church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.” (Ephesians 1:22,23) When Christ told His apostles one day in Caesarea Philippi that “upon this rock I will build My church” (Matthew 16:18), He was announcing something totally new. Although it would be based on the eternal fact of His deity, as confessed by Peter, this church had not yet been brought into existence. The word “church” as used in the Bible does not have the same meaning as it is often given today, which is a physical building used for religious purposes. The word church in the New Testament is a translation of the Greek word “ekklesia,” from which we get our English word “ecclesiastical.” It means people who have been called out to be together, a distinct assembly or congregation. Thus, when the Lord said that He would build His church, He was referring to people, and it was to be spiritual, not physical.
Old Testament clues
Various clues had been given about this church in the Old Testament, but never before had it been referred to explicitly. Later the apostle Paul would describe it as “the mystery of Christ” (Ephesians 3:4). What was this mystery and what were some of these pointers that had been given previously? First of all, for instance, when God created the first man, Adam, He provided Eve as a wife for him (Genesis 2:21–25). However she was also a picture of this future company of believers who would become Christ’s eternal companion, an illustration of the church the Body of Christ. Eve had been taken from Adam’s side while he was in a deep sleep, just as this church is the result of Christ’s deep ordeal at Calvary.
Another picture that is given is that of Asenath, who was the Gentile bride that Joseph had been given while he was in Egypt (Genesis 41:45). Joseph was heir to the promises that God had given to his great-grandfather Abraham. On the other hand, Asenath was a Gentile, an Egyptian woman, and so she did not have the same heritage. Yet she was given to Joseph to share his life and inheritance.
Similarly the church the Body of Christ is not restricted to Jews, but is inclusive of all nationalities. Although it had been hinted at back in Old Testament times, this church did not exist at that time. It did not apply to Israel as God’s chosen people on Earth. It was something new that began when the present age began, after Christ’s exaltation to heaven, on that day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was poured out (Acts 2:1–4). It required that the Gentiles be included so that it might be universal.
Building this church
The details of this church that Christ is building were revealed first to the apostles, including the apostle Paul who provided most of its teaching in Scripture, and through them to all the saints (Ephesians 3:2,5; Colossians 1:26). It was an all-inclusive message: all believers regardless of culture or background were equal members of this church, called “the church which is His body” (Ephesians 1:22). Each believer in Christ was then, and is now, built into it by being baptized by Christ in the Holy Spirit. Today this invisible spiritual baptism takes place simultaneously with the believer’s new birth:“By one Spirit were we all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free; and were all made to drink of one Spirit”
(1 Corinthians 12:13) Once believers are in this church, they cannot ever be put out of it or leave it. Their place in it is permanent. It is eternal and the Body itself is indestructible.
Each believer is an indispensable member of it, like a part of a human body, and each member is intended to have an important part in its on going strengthening (Ephesians 4:16). We are told that Christ Himself cares for this church and preserves “her”, because one day she will be united with Him as His bride (Revelation 19:7): “Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless” (Ephesians 5:25-27).
This church began at Pentecost. Believers will continue to be added to it until the Lord returns to the air for her, at which time she will be complete and intact. Those believers who have died will be raised; those still alive will be changed, and together—as one church—they will meet Him in the air (1Thessalonians 4:16,17). And so the first time that Christ will meet His church bodily will be when He comes to the air for her. That is why the dead in Christ cannot go to meet Him ahead of those who are alive at His coming. He will meet her intact, as His bride—all believers together at once. That is what He is looking forward to. The apostle Paul told the Ephesians that, when Christ returned to heaven, God His Father: “put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:22,23). This tells us that this church, which would consist of all believers in Him from Pentecost on, is intended to be His “fullness,” to magnify the glory of Christ, by being His complement. This will reach its culmination in the future, when all believers are perfectly united with Him and there is no created being outside His active authority.
Building up the Body
Meanwhile Christ continues to build up His church, by feeding her, caring for her, and holding her together, as believers hold fast to Him as Head: “no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church” (Ephesians 5:29); “…holding fast to the head, from whom the entire body, being supplied and held together by the joints and ligaments, grows with a growth which is from God” (Colossians 2:19). He takes personal responsibility for her. He does this through the work of the Holy Spirit, whom He has sent to indwell all believers, as He explained to His apostles on the night before Calvary: “I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever; that is the Spirit of truth…He abides with you and will be in you.” “The Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you.” “The Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify about Me.” “When He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take of Mine and will disclose it to you.” (John 14:16,17,26; 15:26; 16:13,14)
Christ said that the believers who would come after Him would multiply the works of God that He had been doing in His life on Earth: “I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do, he will do also; and greater works than these he will do; because I go to My Father” (John 14:12).
What should members of the Body aspire to?
It is the Lord’s desire that the character and unity of this Body be reflected by all living members on Earth. For this to be accomplished, all these members must be fully linked together and be under the direct control of the Head, Christ Himself. Just as a human body cannot function properly if any part is missing, dislocated, or damaged, or if there is any blockage to the brain, so it is with the functioning of this spiritual Body. If there is any disunity or any disconnection from the Head, or any underdevelopment of any part, then the display on Earth of the nature of the relationship into which believers have been brought will be impaired. That is why Christ prayed to His Father on His last night: “I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me” (John 17:20,21). Not only would the behaviour of individual believers be impaired, but so would the fulfillment of the Lord’s desire for believers to be together in unity.
Paul went on to tell the Ephesians what this building up of the Body was intended to result in. He expressed it this way: “until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).
In other words, full maturity of believers together will mean that they express the divine unity which characterizes the church which is His Body. This is not just describing the personal spiritual growth of each of us as individual Christians. It is describing the full coordinated development of such believers joined in divine testimony. He described it as the result of each individual member doing its proper part, being equipped spiritually to do so, and being fully joined together with the other parts: “He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ … but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love” (Ephesians 4:11,12,15,16).
Paul said that we are to not be like children, but we are to become mature. (In 1 Corinthians 14:20 he elaborated on this by referring to being “children in understanding.”) As long as we as believers together are lacking in our understanding and in our devoted adherence to all the teaching that Christ has given us to carry out (which is described as “the faith”), we will not experience our full relationship with Him. We will limit His work for us today as He lives and serves in the presence of God (the unity of “the knowledge of the Son of God”), to progress to this goal of expressing the full relationship implied in the figure of His Body.
Paul warned the Colossians about the possibility of falling short of this when he wrote: “Not holding fast to the head, from whom the entire body, being supplied and held together by the joints and ligaments, grows with a growth which is from God” (Colossians 2:19). He was talking to them about indulging in worldly things or wrong teaching and practices. In verse 16 he had said, “Don’t let anyone judge you.” We are not to be influenced or led astray by any teaching, example, or criticism of others, no matter how convincing it may be. We are to keep pressing on towards the goal together.
It is about relationships
This imagery of a body is all about our relationships—with Christ as our Head, and with each other as members. The Body, with its different but interdependent parts, is all under the control of the Head. The supply of everything it needs in order to grow up and mature as one united person all comes from Him, but it flows to them through each other (Ephesians 4:15,16)2 . But there is a lot more in the New Testament that applies to us as Christians than the teaching about the church which is Christ’s Body, as wonderful as that is.
When the apostles wanted to provide teaching on how disciples should gather together, how they should serve God, and how they should deal with problems such as sin and disobedience, they did not use the imagery of the Body. Those are things that are dealt with in the teaching about churches of God and the kingdom of God, which are not identical to the church the Body, but are intended to depict it.
For example, no person can ever be put away from the Body of Christ; his or her position in it is absolute, unlike their position in a local church of God, which can change. Also there is no reference to admonishing or disciplining other members of the Body, but there are such references to those in churches of God (Romans 15:14; 1 Thessalonians 5:14). The reason for this is that the church the Body is blameless and perfect (Ephesians 5:25-27), and this is what saints and assemblies on Earth should aspire to.
Fellowship within the Body
While all believers are members of the one Body and therefore do have an invisible spiritual connection with each other “in Christ” (Romans 12:5), in practice there can be limits to the fellowship they should have with each other.
Paul shows that the Body can only function and be built up as it receives what it needs from Christ, and as it ministers those things to its members: “…and not holding fast to the head, from whom the entire body, being supplied and held together by the joints and ligaments, grows with a growth which is from God” (Colossians 2:19). As a result, not all sharing that takes place among believers can automatically be assumed to be the fellowship of the Body. We are each responsible to hold fast to the Head by engaging only in teaching and service that is according to Christ and not to things that are of human origin (Colossians 2:20–23). This means that we each have to learn from Scripture to tell the difference.
And so there can be limits in practice to the degree to which Christians may feel free to join in fellowship with others (1 Timothy 1:5). Understanding this fundamental and unique teaching from Scripture about the church the Body of Christ is important for us as we begin this study of what the Scriptures teach about the three issues of God’s house, God’s church, and true worship. In this way we can properly relate it to, and distinguish it from, other things.
Why is it that this inherent spiritual unity among those who are “in
Christ” is not evident today to a greater extent? Why are there so many divisions among Christians? For the answer to these questions, we will have to go back in history to understand how the Christian world developed to the state that it is in today. That is the subject of our next chapter.
The preceding article is taken from Keith Dorricot’s book Are You Missing Something