|EXPLORING CHRISTIANITY - THE CHURCH||
LIFE AFTER DEATHChristianity's Hope & Challenge.
New Testament images of the church
The New Testament contains a number of images of the people of God, each of which tells us some significant things about what the church is meant to be. Most of these have their origin in the Old Testament.
1. The Bride of Christ.
This metaphor speaks of his great love for the church (Mark 2:18-20; John 3:29; Romans 7:1-4; 2 Corinthians 11:2; Ephesians 5:22-33; Revelation 19:7; 21:2*). Sandy Harshberger catches something of the joy the Lord will feel at the "wedding of the Lamb" (Revelation 19:7) in a poem, quoted in Decision magazine:
©1998 Sandy Harshberger; printed in Decision magazine, June 1999; published by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
*For the Old Testament backgrpound see: Isaiah 54:5-7; 62:5; Jeremiah 2:2; 3; 31:3, 32; Ezekiel 16:8-32; Hosea 2. A beautiful picture of the ministry of the Holy Spirit is given us in Genesis 24 in the person of Abraham's servant. He is sent by Abraham to find a bride for his son. He finds her, equips and adorns her, and escorts her safely to the bridegroom.
2. Vine or Vineyard.
The emphasis here is on the need of the members to maintain a close relationship with Christ if they are to be fruitful (John 15:1-8; cf Mark 12:1-12)*.
*Psalm 80:8-19; Isaiah 5:1-7.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd (John 10:11), the Great Shepherd (Hebrews 13:20) and the Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:4) who knows and watches over his sheep and gives his life for them. They know his voice and follow him (Luke 12:32; John 10:1-16; 27,28; Acts 20:28, 29; 1 Peter 5:2-4)*.
* Psalm 77:20; 80:1.
It is the kingdom of God's beloved Son (Colossians 1:13), a kingdom of "righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Romans 14:17) in which he exercises his rule in his people through the Spirit*.
*Exodus 19:6; Psalm 95:3.
4. Household or Family
This is the most pervasive metaphor for the church in the New Testament. The Fatherhood of God is constantly in view, whose children we become by faith in Jesus Christ and receiving the Spirit (Galatians 3:26; 4:6, 7). Baptism is the symbol of our adoption into the family of the triune God (Matthew 28:19). "Brother" or "brethren" (sisters included!) is the most common word for Christians in the letters of the New Testament. Jesus is our elder brother (Romans 8:29; Hebrews 2:10-18).*
*The Fatherhood of God is only dimly viewed in the Old Testament. Israel is named God's son (Hosea 11:1) and occasionally God is likened to a Father (e.g. Psalm 68:5; 103:13).
5. Building or Temple
God's people are a building "not built by human hands" (2 Corinthians 5:1) which God is constructing. The Old Testament temple has become the people in whom he now dwells by his Spirit, Jesus Christ being the foundation or cornerstone (1 Corinthians 3:11, 16; Ephesians 2:20-22). Individual Christians are stones built into this temple (1 Peter 2:4-8).
This is the most prominent image in Paul's letters and the only one with no Old Testament equivalent. Christ the Head rules and nourishes the Body, its only head, and the Holy Spirit is the breath to animate it. There is a strong emphasis on the relationship of all the members of the body, diversity and equality within unity, as we have seen above. Every member is to be a functioning member (e.g. Ephesians 2:22, 23; 4:4, 15, 16).
If there is anything common to these images of the church it is relationships. In each image the stress is either on God's gracious initiative as Husband, King, Father, Builder, etc., or on his people as a community, both in relation to him as his bride, flock, family, body, etc., and in relation to each other as branches in the same vine, sheep in the same flock, children in the same family, members of the same body. In every instance there is only one church. From God's perspective, all who have received the Spirit are members of it, whether they acknowledge it or not. It is "the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven" (Hebrews 12:23).
New Testament images of the church