Baptism is the entry way into the church of Jesus Christ. It is the identifying marker that God has made good on His promises and has brought new life to someone. It is also a public statement to the world that new Christians are now “all-in” with Jesus. They left everything, picked up their crosses, and are following Jesus.
Once we enter the church, we encounter various description, metaphors, and pictures of what the church is. The church can be described as a “temple” (1 Peter 2:4-5), a bride (Revelation 21:9-10), and commonly, the “body of Christ.” What does the Bible mean when it talks about the church being the “body of Christ”? Two main things. First, Jesus is the “head”, meaning that He is the authority over the church. He tells the church what to do and how to do it. Second, the metaphor of church as the body of Christ is used to explain how all Christians are dependent upon each other and work together to advance God’s mission.
Christ as Head
The Bible repeatedly talks about Christ as the “head” (1 Corinthians 11:3; Ephesians 4:15, 5:23; Colossians 1:18, 2:10, 2:19). He is the “head” of men (1 Corinthians 11:3), the church (Ephesians 5:23), and all rule and authority (Colossians 2:10). Christ rules over all people, places, and things. But Christ is especially “head” of the church, because only the church is described as His “body.” Just as our head (i.e. in today’s language brain), guides, directs, and tells our body what to do, so also, Jesus guides, directs, and tells the church what to do.
Ephesians 1:19-23 further describes Jesus relationship as head both to the cosmos and to His body, the church:
These are in accordance with the working of the strength of His might 20 which He brought about in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. 22 And He put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church, 23 which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.
Notice that Christ’s rule is based upon His death and resurrection. Jesus died and is raised from the dead, and then seated with God at the supreme place (1:20b). When Jesus came into the world, He had a job to do: die for the sins of the world (1 John 2:2). Due to His complete obedience during His lifetime (what theologians call Jesus’ “active obedience”) and His complete obedience by dying on the cross and fulfilling God’s mission (what theologians call Jesus’ “passive obedience”), God highly exalted Christ and gave Him the most supreme name above all names. Consequently, everyone will bow in adoration of Christ (Philippians 2:6-11).
In Christ’s exalted, post-resurrection state, God has now given Christ “as head over all things for the church.” Christ rules over the whole universe for the benefit of the church (Peter T. O’Brien, Ephesians, pg. 145). The church is then described as Christ’s “body.” Paul, however, explains even further what this means. The church is the Christ’s “fullness.” Christ’s presence fills the church just as God’s presence filled the temple in the Old Testament. What this means is that Jesus is present to bless His people when they gather together. He is present with the church. He sees what’s going on. He guides and directs our decisions. He shows us the different decisions we should be making. He reminds us of our acceptance before God through Him.
But how does Christ rule?
Christ as “head” also means He rules over the church. Christ’s rules over His church through His Word. First of all, the church gets it very existence from God’s Word:
It has been rightly claimed that the church is the creation of the Word (creature verbi). The new birth, as part of the new creation, is effected in the church (i.e., through its ministry of the Word), but not by the church. The individual does not give birth to him- or herself, nor does the community give birth to itself; both are born from above (Jn 3:3 – 5). The origin and source of the church’s existence is neither the autonomous self nor the autonomous church: “So then, it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Ro 9:16). Where there is God’s Word and Spirit, there is faith, and where there is faith there is a church. (Michael Horton, The Christian Faith, pg. 752).
If the church derives its existence from God’s Word, it is entirely natural for Christ to continue to sustain the church through His Word as well as guide and direct (i.e. rule) the church by His Word. Ultimately, all Scripture is Jesus’ Word because all Scripture points to Jesus (Luke 24:27-47). So all of Scripture guides the life of the church, not just the “red words” of Jesus. Both the Old Testament and the New Testament letters, properly interpreted, inform how the church should live in the world.
So what does this mean?
Christ as head fills the church with His presence. So God’s presence does not need to be sought for anywhere else other than in the gospel–The good news that Jesus died for sinners. Once embracing the gospel, we grow in Christ not by looking outside the church but by looking to the practices and forms of worship God has established within the church. Regular corporate worship with all of God’s people who have committed themselves to a local church is foundational for growth.
Since Christ rules over the church by His Word, careful, focused, repeated reading of God’s Word is necessary. To repeat: the foundational activity for growth is to attend corporate worship with open ears. To hear God’s Word prayed, preached, and sung will grow you. Moving into your week, however, calls for further devotion to Word of God. Reading it, memorizing it, and meditating over it are good personal practices for growth. Attending a Bible study or Community Group throughout the week is also a way of being devoted to the word.
Vertical and Horizontal
Christ as the head of the church is a “vertical” reality–how we relate to God. Christ’s presence fills the church and He rules over the church by His word. But being the “body of Christ” also has “horizontal” implications–how we relate to one another as believers. To that horizontal reality is what we will turn to next time.