I have mentioned before that I Corinthians is a letter that deals exclusively with church related issues and problems. It could be subtitled "Answers to common problems in the church." In chapter 12 Paul uses a figure to describe what the church is like and how it functions. The figure he uses is that of the human body.
In this chapter I'd like to review some reasons why the body is the perfect figure to represent the church.
Vs. 12 – For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ.
Why "body" for church
In the Bible there are over 50 "figures" used to refer to the church, or God's people. Here are a few examples of these:
- City of the living God – Hebrews 12:22
- God's building – I Corinthians 3:9
- Holy mountain – Zechariah 8:3
In each instance the figure represents some aspect or feature of the church that God was trying to accentuate. When the Holy Spirit uses the human body as a figure for the church He is trying to convey three particular things about the church not possible with any other imagery:
1. Glory of the church
In Ephesian 5:27 Paul says that Jesus wishes to present to God the "glorious church." No other figure quite captures the gloriousness of the church than the figure of the human body. In Genesis we read that God creates time, space, matter, and builds on these to fashion the form of the earth and the heavenly bodies. Scientists are still being amazed by the wonders yet discovered under the seas, and estimate that there are billions of stars and heavenly bodies in the universe. And yet, as wonderful and awe-inspiring as those are, God then created living creatures that surpassed these in the fact that they could perceive themselves, and actually interact with the environment (no star or planet can do this).
As overwhelming as the number of stars is, the life experienced by animate creatures such as animals and birds are still more wondrous than a zillion inanimate stars. But then, as a crowning act, God created a being that was made in His own image. Animals could perceive themselves and others, but God created a being that could perceive God and relate to the creator.
For all of these other things, the stars, the earth, the vegetation, the animals, God merely spoke and they came into existence. But when it came to the being that was to exist in the image of God, the one who could see the stars and rule over the animals, God specifically formed a body.
The human body was a unique and separate act of creation, and for this reason only after the human body was created did God say, "It is very good" (Genesis 1:31). So far as the book of Genesis is concerned, the human body rests at the apex of God's creation. When we look at things that were created, the human body is the very best of what God has done. So good, in fact, that God Himself inhabited one!
My point here is that in order to signify how glorious, how marvelous is this thing called the church, God uses the figure of the human body to describe it. The human body is His most glorious creation in the natural world, a thing we can see and appreciate, and so God uses this image to describe His most glorious creation in the spiritual world: the church.
He uses the human body to explain the glory and…
2. The unity of the church
Now when I use the word unity I don't mean conformity. Conformity is for ball bearings. Each one is designed and manufactured to look, feel and weigh exactly the same. No deviations, no changes and no variations. When I use the word unity, I'm referring to a quality that the church possesses. The way that each of its parts work together perfectly in order to make the entire unit function and grow.
Paul points out this wonderful quality of the church by comparing it to the human body that is infinitely complex but functions in such a way that each part, no matter how small or great, is connected to all the other parts, and has a very specific duty that contributes to the overall well being of that body.
These ideas are brought out in several epistles:
- In Romans 12:4-5 Paul contrasts the interconnectedness and diversity of the body.
- In I Corinthians 12:12-19 he demonstrates the cooperative nature of the body where every part is in harmony, not in competition with, every other part; and every part is necessary.
- In Ephesians 4:16 Paul shows that not only are the parts connected and necessary, but each part makes a very specific contribution to the growth of the body.
The church described in the New Testament is united, and by using the human body as a figure to represent it, the Holy Spirit is able to clearly demonstrate what unity means.
- Interconnectedness – each member is related, through faith in Christ and hope of salvation, to every other member. Everyone equally shares a history of being saved and a future of eternal life with God. This is how we are connected.
- Diversity – although each is connected, there is room for individuality. Not everyone thinks, acts and understands in the same way or at the same pace. Not every organ and member of a human body looks the same or grows at the same rate, but it is still part of the body. In the same way, not every member of the church looks, acts or grows at the same pace but nevertheless, it belongs in the church.
- Function – there is a role for every member of the church, and each role is necessary for the overall growth and well being of the church.
You do not produce unity by forcing everyone to think, act and grow exactly the same way. That is conformity and manipulation. This is what Paul is arguing against. He says that unity is created in the following ways:
- Celebrating our interconnectedness. Worships horizontal purpose is the celebration of our interconnectedness in Christ (I Corinthians 10: 16-17).
- Accepting each other's diversity within the body (Romans 14:3-4). Denouncing our differences destroys unity. We have to guard against false teachings and those who cause division, but simply looking different or having a different opinion does not make one a heretic.
- Promoting the value of each other's contribution to the whole. "Therefore encourage one another and build up one another…" (I Thessalonians 5:11). The fastest way to build up the body is by praising your brother's work.
The body is the perfect symbol to represent the dynamic element of unity present within the church.
1. The position of Christ
The church is related to, united to and connected to the divine savior Jesus Christ, the Son of God. He is the living Lord and so any symbol or figure used to represent an intricate part of His nature must itself be alive, and alive with the same life as Jesus. In other places the church is referred to in various ways:
- As a city – Hebrews 12:22
- As a flock – Ezekiel 34:15
- As a temple or building – I Corinthians 3:9
- As a portion – Deuteronomy 32:9
These and many others signify various aspects of the Lord's relationship with His people, but only in the use of the body as a figure do we clearly see the three main truths regarding God's position in the church:
1. He is the head of the church
He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything.
- Colossians 1:18
There is but one leader of the church and that is Jesus Christ. That each human body has one head is easily seen and accepted. This natural phenomenon is an absolutely perfect reflection of the natural position of Jesus Christ with His church. Although there are many diverse members with many functions, there is clearly only one head and that position is not shared or challenged by any of the members.
2. He is the nourisher of the church
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
Science explains to us that the control center for the body is the brain contained in the head, and it directs our thoughts, feelings, body functions and reactions.
All are controlled and initiated by the brain. We could lose almost every organ and member of our body and continue to be "alive" or "conscious" if the brain remains healthy. But, if our brain is damaged, the entire body goes to waste.
What a perfect analogy for the position of Christ and His church. He provides everything we need for life as His body, the church, and without Him the church would not function. We can lose members, damage different parts, but the body itself continues to live because Christ, the head, continues to live.
Jesus Himself alluded to this when He said, "I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in me, and I in him, he bears much fruit; for apart from me you can do nothing" (John 15:5). In this passage He is referring to His headship of the church.
3. He is united to the church
15 but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, 16 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 4:15-16
Think about this now:
- Jesus has always existed – John 1:1
- The church has not always existed because it is made up of humans, and humans came into existence with Adam – Genesis 1:27
- Now, the church is united to Christ and has become part of His being – John 17:22-23
I don't claim to understand completely the dynamics of our relationship with the Lord, but the head on a human body is not detachable – it is part of the body, it is one with the body. The use of the body as a figure for the church can also reveal to us that God so loved us that He attached us into the Godhead through Jesus Christ.
This concept could not have been conveyed in any other way except by using the human body as a mirror of what took place in the Godhead. We see in this that Jesus, through His incarnation, resurrection and ascension, eternally attaching the church to Himself and the Godhead.
There is symmetry in the Bible. No wasted words or notions. Every idea and symbol carefully plotted to reveal the marvelous plan of God to save man through Jesus Christ.
The creation of the human body was God's greatest revealed achievement, and it is fitting that the human body also be used as a figure for God's final revealed creation: the church of Christ.
Through this symbol God is able to reveal to human eyes and minds:
- The glory of His church
- The unity of His church
- The relationship of His church to Himself (not only are we one with Christ but he has condescended to be one with us)
One other idea conveyed by the use of the body that is less obvious at first glance:
- Only the body, the human body is alive with "human" life.
- Animals no matter how powerful
- Stars no matter how numerous
- Water no matter how deep
- Do not share the consciousness of life that is evident only in human life.
- Only human bodies are "human." In the same way, only the body of Christ is alive spiritually.
- Religion, no matter how zealous or old
- Philosophy, no matter how complex
- Do not have the "life" that only the church/the body of Christ has.
- Only that which is attached to God through Christ has the life that God gives. All other bodies have movement, have substance – but they don't have the spiritual, divine life that the "body of Christ" has.