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Theology > Church > Nature of the Church > Illustrations of the Church


The New Testament abounds with metaphors that teach truth regarding the Church, and the illustrations are multiple and varied. These symbols impress us with the essential nature of the Church: it is spiritual, not material—mystical not organizational. It is a fellowship of those who are related to Christ and are therefore related to one another. Whatever is affirmed of the Church must be affirmed in terms of people.

The Church is not any one of these Biblical metaphors but rather it is all of these things combined and understood in a spiritual sense. The Church is not literally any of these symbols but it is the sum of the meaning of all of these symbols. The point is not the metaphor but the teaching of the metaphor.

Shepherd and sheep

The Lord is the Shepherd, and His people, the Church, constitute His flock. As the Shepherd He creates the flock by giving His life for the sheep, and the sheep He redeems He brings to Himself when He causes them to hear His voice:

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd give His life for the sheep . . . I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by My own . . . and I lay down My life for the sheep. And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd (Jo. 10:11, 14-16; see: the Parable of the Lost Sheep in Lu. 15:1-7).

Over the flock of the Lord are placed shepherds whose responsibility is to care for the flock as representatives of the Lord, the Chief Shepherd:

Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers . . . willing examples to the flock; and when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away (I Pet. 5:2-40).

To shepherd the flock means to care for, to direct, to protect, to correct the sheep—the shepherd is responsible for the sheep. To shepherd the assembly of God is to instruct in the things of the Lord, to teach the ways of the Lord. Following His resurrection Jesus instructs Peter beside the sea: “Feed My lambs” and “Tend My sheep” and “Feed My sheep” (Jo. 21:15-17); the “lambs” and the “sheep” constitute the “Church.” The feeding is the care and teaching of the people. Paul gave instruction to the shepherds at Ephesus:

Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God . . . For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock (Acts 20:28-29).

The images of shepherd, sheep, and the care for the sheep are constant themes in the Old Testament; these facts closely relate the nation of Israel to the Church—both are view as a flock of sheep, a congregation of people, needing the oversight of a Shepherd.

O God, why have You cast us off forever? Why does Your anger smoke against the sheep of Your pasture? Remember Your congregation, which You have purchased of old (Ps. 74:1-2);

You led Your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron (Ps. 77:20);

He made His own people go forth like sheep, and guided them in the wilderness like a flock . . . He also chose David His servant . . . to shepherd Jacob His people . . . so he shepherded them according to the integrity of his heart (Ps. 78:52, 70-72);

We, Your people and sheep of Your pasture, will give You thanks forever (Ps. 79:13);

Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, You who lead Joseph like a flock (Ps. 80:1);

He is our God, and we are the people of His pasture, and the sheep of His hand (Ps. 95:7; “of His hand” means “under His care”);

He will feed His flock like a shepherd; He will gather the lambs with His arm, and carry them in His bosom (Isa. 40:11);

He remembered the days of old, Moses and His people saying, Where is He who brought them up out of the sea with the shepherd of His flock? Where is He who put His Holy Spirit within them, who led them by the right hand of Moses (Isa. 63:11);

My eyes will weep bitterly and run down with tears, because the Lord’s flock has been taken captive (Jer. 13:17);

He who scattered Israel will gather him, and keep him as a shepherd does his flock (Jer.  31:10);

You are My flock, the flock of My pasture; you are men, and I am your God (Ezek. 34:31; see: 34:1-31);

I will surely assemble all of you, O Jacob . . . I will put them together like sheep of the fold, like a flock in the midst of their pasture (Micah 2:12);

Shepherd Your people with Your staff, the flock of Your heritage (Micah 7:14).

The church is the end-times gathering of the scattered sheep of Israel and the nations under the sovereign care of Yahweh the Good Shepherd (Michael Horton, The Christian Faith, 720).

The Lord is my Shepherd;
I shall not want.
Ps. 23:1

Vine and branches

Jesus says to His disciples: “I am the vine; you are the branches” (Jo. 15:5). This image teaches us that our life is from Christ; in fact, the life we live is Christ living in us. The believer is connected to the Vine and nourished by the Vine; therefore, the fruit of the believer is the result of the life and ability flowing from the Vine.

The life of the branches comes through the Vine. Like the image of the shepherd and sheep, the symbol of vine and branches appears in the Old Testament: Ps. 81:8-16; Isa. 5:1-7; Jer. 3:21; Ezek. 15:19; Hos. 10:1. This is another example of the point that the New Testament is hidden in the Old Testament and the Old Testament is revealed in the New Testament.

Head and body

“He put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:22-23; see:  Rom. 12:5; I Cor. 12:12-27; Eph. 5:23); a nearly identical statement appears in Colossians: “He is the head of the body, the church” (1:18; 2:19).

This image gives prominence to the unity of believers with Christ, as well as our dependency upon Him as the Head. The head has authority and gives orders to the body; and Christ, as its Head, controls the Church—it must constantly look to Him for its life and conduct. He is the Head of the body.

As the Head Christ gives direction to the body, direction to which the body must submit; there is no place for the hand to do its own thing, independent of the Head. The body must function together, in harmony and union. The body is inclusive—all the individual parts are parts of the whole—Jew and Gentile become one (I Cor. 12:13). In fact, in the diversity is the unity; and the diversity, with all the particular parts, which create the unity, must reveal oneness. The parts of the body are all equal in that each has a specific function, which contributes to the working of the whole. And over the whole, the body, is the Head.

Foundation and building

To the believers at Corinth Paul states: “you are God’s building” (I Cor. 3:9), and “no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (I Cor. 3:11). Peter informs believers that they are “living stones” and are “being build up a spiritual house” (I Pet. 2:5; see: Eph. 2:11-18, 20). And he further adds that Christ is the “living stone,” meaning that He is the “chief cornerstone” (I Pet. 2:4, 6-7; see: Acts 4:11).

For the building to be secure it must have a firm foundation; for the Church to endure its foundation must be the Eternal One.

Groom and bride

In the midst of a passage, Eph. 5:22-33, dealing with wives, husbands, and marriage, Paul writes the following: “Christ also love the church and gave Himself for her . . . that He might present her to Himself a glorious church” (vs. 25, 27; see: II Cor. 11:2; Rev. 19:7-9; 21:2, 9). Jesus is the Groom and the Church is the bride. Such is the relationship of the Lord to Israel in the Old Testament (Isa. 54:4-8; 61:10; 62:5; Ezek. 6, 16, 23; Hos. 1-3), a relationship which anticipates this prominent New Testament image.

This illustration speaks of union, love, and intimacy; in oriental weddings the bride waited for the groom to come and take her for himself. And this is exactly what the Lord has done for us in His call to us and converting of us. He has come to where we were and has brought us to Himself.

The relationship of Christ to the Church is like the relationship of a groom to a bride. Of course, this is anchored in the creation of the man and the woman. Several thoughts here: the man was first, the woman second; the woman was made for the man; the woman was made from the man; the woman completes the man; the man is responsible for the woman. While there is structure in the relationship the fundamental point is the relationship, the fellowship. Adam "knew" his wife. And the relationship was established when God gave the woman to the man. The entire matter is God's doing.

The creational act of God that brought man and woman into existence and gave them to each other, and the guidelines for the relationship of man and woman that were given at the time of their creation and that also were given in the NT become the content of the only model that we have for the relationship of the Church to Christ as bride to Groom. It is the Father who gives to His Son a people.

The implications are: Christ is first, the Church is second; the Church exists for the sake of Christ; the Church is from Christ—it is the realization in time of His plan before time; in a sense the Church completes Christ—we fill up the sufferings of Christ; Christ is responsible for the Church (because of this our apologetic is never defensive but affirmative); the Church is to be submissive to Christ; Christ is to love and does love the Church—in that love we rest and are secure.

To affirm that the best model for the fellowship of Christ and the Church is the fellowship of husband and wife is to anchor the concept of Church to Creation and Redemption; if fact, the Church cannot be properly interpreted apart from the model of marriage that is in turn interpreted in terms of creation and redemption.

Priest and priesthood

Scripture affirms that “we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God” (Heb. 4:14; Heb. 5, 7 and 8 discuss Christ as Priest; see: 2:17; 8:1), and Scripture affirms that believers are “a holy priesthood” (I Pet. 2:5) and “a royal priesthood” (I Pet. 2:9).

As a priesthood believers are “to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (I Pet. 2:5), and to “proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (I Pet. 2:9). In other words the Church is to be a congregation of people who worship. We are “priests to our God” (Rev. 5:10; see: 1:6; 20:6).

Like most of the other illustrations of the Church, this concept has ties to the Old Testament; Israel was told at Sinai that it would be to God “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:5-6).

The Family  

The Church, the redeemed followers of Christ, can be viewed as the family of God; we have become part of a family that does not belong to us in our natural state—we have been adopted, meaning we have received Grace.

God is the heavenly Father, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, our Father (Eph. 3:14; 4:6). Jesus taught His disciples to pray: “Our Father” (Matt. 6:9). Children need a father, and believers have a heavenly Father.

Christ is “bringing many sons to glory” and “is not ashamed to call them brethren” (Heb. 2:11), especially “the children” given to Him by God (Heb. 2:13). Jesus is a “Son over His own house, whose house we are” (Heb. 3:6).

With God as our Father and Christ as our brother, believers become part of the family of God, sons and daughters (II Cor. 6:18; see: Matt. 12:49-50); believers are “members of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19). And the mark of belonging to the family is how well the brothers  love each other (I Jo. 3:10-18). The image of family expresses belonging, security, and intimacy.

I will be a Father to you,
and you shall be My sons and daughters,
says the Lord Almighty.
II Cor. 6:18

The Temple

According to the Scriptures each individual believer is a Temple, and the believers together constitute a Temple, meaning the Church is the dwelling place of God on earth.

Each believer is a Temple:

Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are (I Cor. 3:16-17);

Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and your spirit, which are God’s (I Cor. 6:19).

Believers together constitute a Temple:

You are no longer strangers and foreigners . . . having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets . . . in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit (Eph. 2:19-22; see: I Pet. 2:4-10; Rev. 3:12).

The image of Temple reflects the primacy of sanctity and worship; it also gives emphasis to mission as the two images of single and corporate temple testify to the world the presence of God. The Temple is the dwelling place of God; the Temple is testimony to the world of the fact that God is among men. And man’s responsibility is to submit to God.

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