Portraits of the Church
Including today, we have five weeks left in this series on the church. And in this last section of the series we’ve really been answering the question, “what is the church?” In our journey through Timothy and Titus we learned a lot about how the church is to be structured and organized and what the church is to do. But it’s important that we round out our study of the church with a really clear understanding of what the church is.
And so that’s been the focus of our study in these past few weeks in Matthew’s gospel. We’ve seen that the word church has the basic meaning of “assembly.” It’s a word rich in political meaning, referring to the assembly of the citizens of a city, and it’s used many times in the Greek Old Testament to speak about the assembly of God’s people.
Today we’re going to move on from Matthew and spend the morning in the book of Ephesians. And what we’re going to discover here are three more answers to the question, “What is the church?” We’re going to see how the book of Ephesians describes the church as the body of Christ, the temple of God, and the bride of Christ.
Now it’s important that we understand that these three descriptions of the church are not alternatives to or in competition with what we’ve already learned. They are not necessarily different answers to the question, “What is the church?” Rather, they compliment and fill in this big picture for us.
It’s like if someone was to ask me to tell them about my wife. I could tell them that she is a sharp and practical thinker with a great sense of humour. I could also say that she’s a loving and supportive wife and my best friend in the world. I could also say that she’s a hardworking and fun homeschooling mom. I could also say that she’s an amazing cook and a gifted baker and a good photographer.
Each of those descriptions are equally true and each of them helps fill out your understanding of who this person is that I’m trying to describe.
And so it is with these different portraits of the church we see in Ephesians. The church, most fundamentally, is the assembly of God’s people. And these three portraits fill in our understanding of what kind of assembly that is, what it’s like, and how it works.
And I trust we’ll see that these three portraits of the church have big implications for how we should expect the church to work, and how we understand our place in it.
The Church is the Body of Christ
So let’s begin with our first passage and first portrait of the church as the body of Christ. This truth is introduced for us in Ephesians 1:22, a passage we spent time with back on Easter Sunday, because of the way it describes the resurrection of Jesus. Beginning in verse 20, we read about the great power that God “worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come” (Ephesians 1:20–21).
And then verses 22-23 tell us that “he put all things 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).
The church is the body of Christ. This is a phrase we often use to talk about the church. “Body of believers” might be one version you’re familiar with. But have you ever stopped to really think what it means for the church to be the body of Christ?
What does Ephesians 2:22 & 23 tell us? What does it mean for the church to be the body of Christ? I see at least three answers to that question in this passage.
1) First, being the body of Christ means that we are under Christ. Verse 22 says that Jesus was given “as head over all things to the church, which is his body.” Jesus is our head. He is over us. We are under Him.
If you think of our own body, you’ll see that our heads are “over” them literally, but also in the sense that our heads are the control centre for our bodies. Four out of the five senses—sight, hearing, taste and smell—all get their information from our heads. This is where the nourishment comes from—food and water and oxygen. And by the time of Paul, the Greeks had started to figure out that the brain was the seat of intelligence, or at the very least had a role in making us rational.
And so what the head is to the body, Jesus is to the church. He is our source of truth. He is our source of life. And we do what He wants us to do. We submit to Him fully. He is over us and we are under Him.
2) Second, being the body of Christ means that the church is Christ’s representative here on earth. There’s that common phrase about being the hands and feet of Christ, and there’s quite a bit of truth to that. Our Head is in heaven, and here on earth there is His body. So if you want to see Jesus, encounter Jesus, interact with Jesus, meet the church.
This representative idea is described in verse 23 which says that the church, as Christ’s body, is “the fullness of him who fills all in all.” If you want to encounter the fullness of the risen Christ, you will find it in His church. Filled by and with Christ, we are His representatives here on earth.
When Jesus ascended to heaven, He didn’t leave a portrait behind. He didn’t leave a statue behind or some other way for us to know what He looks like. Instead, He left us the church. His body. The church is how we know what Jesus looks like. In our love for each other, in the community we share, in the way we speak the truth in love to one another, every facet of body life should be living, breathing portrayal of the living, breathing Jesus Christ.
3) And that leads to the final idea that comes out of being the body of Christ, which is that we’re in this together. None of us on our own as individuals is going to be a well-rounded representation of Jesus. We all have strengths and weaknesses, specific abilities and, in other areas, a real lack of ability, and on our own we would give a fairly lop-sided portrayal of Christ.
But together, we represent Jesus. We’re in this together. “For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another” (Romans 12:4–5).
And we're going to come back to the passage in a couple of weeks when we talk about membership. The big idea here is that being the body of Christ, being the fullness and the representatives of Jesus, is not something we do on our own. By definition, we’re in this together.
The Church is the Temple of God
More could be said about this, but let’s move on to our second stop this morning in Ephesians. And that’s chapter 2, beginning in verse 20.
This is also a passage that we’ve touched on at least once or twice together in recent years. It speaks about what Christ did to bring together the people of God. Before Christ came, there was a “dividing wall of hostility” (v. 14) between Jew and Gentile. This is suggestive of the literal wall in the temple courts which Gentiles could not go past on pain of death.
But this passage in Ephesians 2 shows us how all of this has changed in Christ. Jesus has created “in himself one new man in place of the two,” says verse 15. As you’ve heard me say before, there are not two peoples of God—the people of Israel and then the Gentile church. There is only one people of God. And so verse 19 says to us Gentiles: “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19).
And then verse 20 gives us this incredible picture that we’re going to think about for the next few minutes: that this household of God is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:20–22).
The people of God are the new temple of God.
Now, it’s true that the word “church” is not used in this passage. But I hope you can see that this is who is being referred to. That is clarified in 3:10 where the word “church” is used to describe this one body of believing Jews and Gentiles.
So this passage in chapter 2 is talking about the church. And what it tells us is just incredible. In the Old Covenant, God’s people would travel to the temple to encounter God’s presence together. In the New Covenant, God’s people are the temple.
So once again we ask, “What does that actually mean? What does it mean for the church to be the temple?” And here in verse 20-22 I see four aspects of being a temple that I want us to think about.
1) First, being a temple means that we are based on Christ and His truth. That’s in verse 20: “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” (Ephesians 2:20).
If the church is a body, Christ is the head. If the church is a temple, Christ is the cornerstone. He’s what we’re built on. He’s where it all begins. Jesus is the foundation and the basis for everything we do as a church. He’s what brings us together. He’s what we have in common with each other.
This world is full of social groups that are bound together by common interests or similarities. In the church, what brings us together and ties us together is Christ. He’s the cornerstone upon which we all are built.
2) Second, we see that the church is holy. That’s in verse 21, which says that we are “a holy temple in the Lord.” The word “holy,” you might remember, means “devoted to God.” As the church, we are devoted to God, together. That’s our purpose: to be devoted to God and His purposes.
So this tells us that God is not our mascot or an agent who gives us the power to accomplish our purposes, who helps us win at whatever game we’ve decided to play. Rather, as His temple, we are devoted to Him: His worship, His purposes.
And this devotion to God isn’t just something we do together for an hour on Sunday morning. This is who we are, 24/7. A holy temple.
3) Third, we are the place where people encounter God. That’s implicit in the idea of the temple. The temple was where you went to meet with God, like verse 22 suggests. And if we are the temple, then the church is where we should expect to do the same.
Now I don’t know what comes to mind when you hear about the idea of “meeting God” or “encountering God.” If you’ve been exposed to certain church traditions you might immediately think of emotional worship experiences or mystical encounters.
And if that’s your framework, than as you read through the rest of Ephesians you’ll be disappointed. Because there’s no further information given on how to plan a worship experience that really helps people experience God’s presence in that sense. Instead, we find instruction on how to live loving and holy lives. How to speak the truth in love to one another. How to be different from the sinful world around us.
But if we’re thinking biblically we’ll understand that those things are how we encounter the living God. We encounter the love of God in the love of God’s people. We encounter the holiness of God in the holiness of God’s people. We encounter the voice of God as God’s people speak His truth to one another.
So every time we come home from a Sunday service, or a small group gathering, or having a meal together, we should be able to recognize that we encountered the living God. Because we understand and are experiencing that our life together is energized and empowered by the Holy Spirit who causes us to reflect His holiness and love.
4) Fourthly and finally, being the temple, at this point, means that we are unfinished. Verse 22 says that we “are being built together.” In other words, we’re not a finished product yet. We’re still growing, still being built.
I don’t know what comes to mind when you think about the church as a “temple.” I want to suggest that we should not think “beautiful finished product.” That’s who we will be in eternity. Here and now today, the church is still under construction. We can see the building taking shape, and it’s already being used to serve it’s function, but it’s obvious that it’s not finished yet. We’re still under construction.
I don’t know about you, but I struggle with this idea a little bit. When I’m doing a project on my house, I don’t like the tools and the dust everywhere. I want to get it done so I can enjoy the finished project.
But the church is never done until Jesus returns. And so we should expect our life together as a church to be always under construction, always experiencing change of one kind or another. If we try and grab on to the way the church is or was and say, “That’s good, don’t change it,” we’ll miss out on so much. And we might find ourselves fighting against the Holy Spirit Himself, who is the Builder here.
One brick at a time, one person at a time, He is shaping us as a part of His church into the temple of God that He wants us to be.
The Church is the Bride of Christ
Let’s move on to the third stop this morning, which is that the church is the bride of Christ. This comes in chapter 5, starting in verse 22. And something we see right away is that being the bride of Christ is quite connected with being the body of Christ.
“Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior” (Ephesians 5:22–23).
And then beginning in verse 25, the metaphor of “bride” is opened up to show us some wonderful glimpses into Christ’s heart for His church. “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:25–32).
This is an incredible passage and worthy of a few sermons of its own. But for our purposes this morning I’m going to highlight three truths in these verses that will help us understand what it means for the church to be the bride of Christ.
1) First, it means that Jesus gave Himself up for us. That’s right there in verse 25. “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” When Jesus died, Jesus died for his church.
This is a truth that’s often neglected in our conversations about the death of Jesus. We often tend to focus on the passages in Scripture that speak about Christ’s death in relation to everybody. Like John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only son.”
And it’s very true and very wonderful that the death of Christ has implications for everybody, everywhere. Anybody, whoever they are, would find forgiveness and salvation in the death of Christ if they turned to Him by faith.
But it just as equally needs to be said that when Jesus died, He died for His bride, for His church, for His people, in a special and effective way. We can put it this way: when Jesus died on the cross, He did not die just to make salvation possible for all people. He died to actually make salvation a reality for His church. He “gave Himself up for her.”
Several other passages of Scripture teach this same truth. In Matthew 1:21, the angel told Joseph that Mary would “bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” said Jesus in John 15:13.
Perhaps the clearest and one of the most wonderful passages in this regard is in John 10. “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:14–15).
Jesus knew who he was dying for. His people, His elect. And He died to actually give them salvation. His death actually accomplished that for them.
And so if we have come to have faith in Christ, then we can say with Paul in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
Jesus died for His bride in a special and specific and an effective way, and this is a truth worth celebrating.
2) Secondly, being the bride of Christ means that Jesus is making us holy. And we see that in verses 25-27. This is the result of Christ’s death for us and is the goal of His work in us: to present us “to himself in spender… holy and without blemish.” Jesus is working to present to Himself a perfect bride.
Once again this theme of holiness surfaces again. Jesus died for us while we were yet sinners, but the result of His death is to make us holy. And that’s the work that He is still doing today.
3) Thirdly and finally, Jesus nourishes and cherishes His church. “For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church” (Ephesians 5:29). We are His body and His bride and Jesus is committed to taking care of us.
Have you ever wondered how Jesus feels about His church? What is heart towards us is like? These two words open up a window into that answer for us. Jesus cherishes His church. He loves us on a very personal level. He is taking care of us, is committed to making us perfect, and loves us better than the best husband ever loved His wife.
The Church Is the Display of God’s Glory
So, there we have our three portraits of the church. The body, the temple, and the bride. These are not the only descriptions or pictures of the church we see in Scripture, but they are some of the more significant examples, and they serve an important role in rounding out our understanding of what the church is.
We’ve definitely seen some ideas and themes running through all of these pictures. We’ve seen the idea of holiness. We’ve seen that we’re not finished yet, but that Jesus, through His Spirit, continues to build us and make us holy. We’ve seen the truth that we’re all in this all together. None of us fly solo as a part of the people of God.
Each one of these pictures of the church shows us how completely connected to the triune God we are as a church. We are Christ’s body and bride, being built by the Spirit into a temple for God. The church is a supernatural institution, so far from being just a religious club. We are the personal, hands-on project of the living Creator, connected vitally to Him and drawing all of our life from Him.
And that means that when we look at the church, we are seeing the handiwork of God. “We are his workmanship,” as Ephesians 2:10 says.
And that’s perhaps one of the best ways we could pull this message together and sum it up. We are the church, but the church is not about us. The church is about God and is about displaying His glory.
Ephesians 3:10 says that the purpose of Paul’s apostolic ministry was that “that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 3:10).
God is displaying His many-sided wisdom to the unseen spiritual world through the church.
Just think about that for a minute. We would think that if angels or demons wanted to see God’s wisdom, they’d be able to just look at Him and see it. But God has chosen to display His wisdom to the watching heavenly court by saving and gathering and building this beautiful body, temple, and bride.
We are a display of His glory. And this means that the most boring day in the life of the church is still dripping with eternal and heavenly significance, because our most boring day is still a day when the unseen spiritual powers are looking at us and seeing God’s wisdom and glory on display.
And this is why Paul writes in chapter 3 verse 20-21, “Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen” (Ephesians 3:20–21).
That’s what it’s all about. Not us, not our dreams, not our preferences, not our hopes, not our desires. But God bringing glory to Himself as He builds His body, His temple, His bride according to His perfect plan.
COVID-19 has made things interesting for us as a church, and these interesting days are not over yet. In these coming weeks and months we’ll have hurdles to clear as we begin to re-gather. There will be aspects of this process, like wearing a mask, that might not be our personal preference.
But that’s why we need to pray that God will help us remember what the church is and what it’s all about. Not us, but Him. Not our glory, but His.
What are the opportunities for glorifying God that will be open to us in the days ahead? Those are exciting questions to ask and ponder.
And that’s about as specific as I’m going to get in this application portion of the message this morning. Because I want to encourage each one of us to think deeply about what we’ve heard from God in His word today. And then think about ourselves and our place in the church and the role we have played or can play. Perhaps we even need to think about some of the struggles we’ve had with the church or even this church.
And then we need to think about how these three pictures of the church—body, temple, and bride—help us out with all of this, help us understand the part that we can play in bringing glory to God as a part of His church.
As we think about these things, we’ll hopefully be preparing our hearts for what we’ll be hearing next week, when we talk about the local church. Today has mostly been about the church. Next week is going to be about local churches, and answering the question, “what is a church? How does a local church relate to the church, this global body of Christ?” And in the next two weeks we’ll be challenged to consider our role in the local church.
But it all starts here. Assembly, body, temple, bride. Christ’s church, built by the Sprit for the glory of God. I encourage you to pray and ask the Holy Spirit to help you as you meditate on these things.