Getting a Handle on the Body of Christ

by Bob Bradley

Texts: I Cor. 12: 27, Eph. 1: 22

Several years ago I read three or four books by Jim Peterson, who has served for over 40 years as a missionary, church planter, and evangelism trainer for the Navigators. Until recently he was an International Vice President for the Navigators. His specialty is winning and discipling people outside the walls of the church--people who would ordinarily never be reached by traditional churches. Peterson says that traditional discipleship efforts consists of exhorting new converts to:

  1. read their Bible
  2. go to church; and
  3. do their best to avoid sin.

And he goes on to say that this model is a dismal failure. You don’t change people by telling them what they ought to do, or even showing them how to do it. People are changed when their worldview changes. That is, when the way we view the world is radically changed, our behavior begins to be transformed. When we begin to understand who Jesus is, and to grasp the nature of the relationship with Him He offers us, we cannot help but be changed. You will recognize that this is very much a New Testament truth. Therefore, if any man be in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new (II Cor. 5: 17, NKJV). Clearly, this Scripture is not saying that our environment changes when we become a believers, but rather that the way we view our environment changes--and thus we change, by the power of the Spirit. This theme of change by illumination, by revelation, or by the renewing of our mind is a truth that is constantly emphasized by the New Testament writers (for example, Romans 12: 2; II Cor. 3: 18; Hebrews 10:32; Eph. 1: 17, 18; Colossians 1: 26, 27).

I would like to suggest that all the Word of God revolves around two central truths:

  1. Having atoned for our sins, God has fully revealed Himself to us in the face of Jesus Christ (II Cor. 4: 6),.
  2. God has called all true believers into a relationship with Himself that is so close that the attempt to describe it stretches our language and our minds.

Just as it would seem impossible to the natural, unspiritual mind that Almighty God, the infinite Creator of the universe, would incarnate Himself in Jesus of Nazareth--so it would seem impossible that sinful men could be called into such intimate relationship with God that they are described as “members of Christ’s body.”

Paul uses the concept of the body of Christ in several contexts. First, there is the practical, tangible context of local church life and how the members of the church relate to one another and to outsiders. The local church seems to be the primary emphasis of Paul’s discussion of various ministry gifts in Romans 12. His teaching here is put in the context of ministering to one another. In I Cor. 12 Paul discusses the various gifts of the Holy Spirit in what seems to be the context of the local church, using such phrases as “but the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all (I Cor. 12: 7). The context of this statement is clearly a small, local assembly of believers where each has a spiritual gift to contribute in the course of a gathering.

And then in verse 12 Paul makes an amazing statement. For as the (physical) body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ (parenthetical statement and italics mine). We tend to read that and think, Sure, the body of Christ has many members, and it is a spiritual body just as our physical bodies are unitary and yet have many parts. But read that statement of Paul again. As the great Greek scholar, A. T. Robertson noted, Paul does not say, so also is the body of Christ, but rather says, so also is Christ. In other words, Paul seems to be saying that our Lord Jesus is so identified with us, and we by the saving and sanctifying action of His Spirit are so identified with Him, that we are part of Him. He is defined as head and body. To put it another way, we are inseparable from Him who is the Head.

Paul does not continue to develop this theme of the union of Christ with His body here, but he takes up this incredible topic in the first chapters of both Colossians and Ephesians. In the next verse (12:13) Paul goes on to say that “by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body…”. Here he is clearly talking about the universal body of Christ, not the local body. He completes the chapter by launching into a discussion of the importance of each single member of the body of Christ, no matter how insignificant one may seem to be. At the end of the chapter Paul touches on the gift ministries of apostles, prophets, teachers, etc. Because apostles are not confined to a single church or even to a single city, Paul is again alluding to the extended body of Christ. But the full flowering of Paul’s thoughts on the body of Christ does not appear until the Prison Epistles, where the wonder of our union with Christ, and of our union with one another as members of His body, is fully developed.

Before we go further, let me say that this is not theoretical stuff. Remember my comments above about the process of transformation that occurs when we begin to understand and believe spiritual truth. I am convinced that an accurate and growing understanding of the implications of being a member of Jesus’ body will greatly strengthen and even transform our spiritual lives.

In Colossians chapter one Paul uses a phrase which is loaded with meaning: giving thanks to the Father who has qualified us to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in the light. This inheritance is mentioned in Romans 8: 17: and if children, then heirs — heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together. Our inheritance is to be joint heirs with Christ. A joint heir receives everything the heir receives. A joint heir qualifies for this inheritance because he is a son in the family, and he inherits everything that his Elder Brother inherits. Paul goes on in Colossians 1: 18 to identify Jesus as the head of the body, the church…. Here Paul speaks of Jesus’ indissoluble union with His church. Just as our physical bodies are in effect an extension or expression of the head (brain), so we are the expression of Christ, who is the head of the church. Paul completes the chapter by alluding to the mystery which has been hidden from ages and from generations, but now has been revealed to His saints, and he defines this revealed mystery as Christ in you, the hope of glory. The you in this last phrase is plural. Paul is saying that Christ actually dwells in you (plural); that is, He is resident in His body.

Finally, in Ephesians 1:22 and 23 Paul makes a most dramatic statement about Christ and His body. Speaking of the purpose of God the Father, Paul says and He (the Father) put all things under His (Jesus’) 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. The first statement, that the Father put all things under Jesus’ feet, is something that most believers understand, at least in part. We are familiar with the passage in Philippians 2: 9-11 which states that every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess…. But the next statement takes things a step further: Jesus is head over all things to the church. In other words, He is master of everything not for His own sake, but for the sake of the church. It is for the church that he was born, overcame temptation, suffered and died, rose from the grave, ascended to His Father, and now rules over the universe. We need to remember that before time, in perfect union with the Father, the Eternal Son was Lord of all. With the Father and the Spirit, He already sat on the throne of the universe. His incarnation, suffering, and glorious ascension was not for Himself, but for His church. There is a sense in which the throne to which He has ascended, that of the perfect God/Man, is more glorious than His former throne, because this throne was won by obedience and suffering. And He has done all this for the church!

Paul’s final statement is even more grand. He simply says that the church, which is His body, (is) the fullness of Him who fills all in all. This is the point at which language is inadequate, and at best only approximates reality. Note that our Lord is the one who fills all in all. Another translation is everything in every way. He fills the universe; He fills the realm of science with knowledge and regularity; He fills the minds of men with artistic creativity; He fills the animal realm with diversity and tender care; He fills the inanimate world, and even the rocks would give vocal assent to His glory if they could speak. And now for the capstone--in some glorious way, that is currently beyond our comprehension, the church is the fullness of Him who fills all in all.

Now that we have examined some key Scriptures, let’s think about the implications of the truth of the body of Christ in our everyday experience. As a believer, I am part of the body of Christ. I may consider myself to be just a little toe in the body, but my connection to the Head is just as real as if I were the right hand. The right hand may seem more prominent, but just let a little toe become broken or infected, and the whole body limps. And the Head is very aware of the pain in the little toe.

Let’s follow this body analogy a little further. The sensory nervous system is so structured that any pain or discomfort registered anywhere in the body is immediately perceived by the brain. The sensory nerves are, in effect, extensions of the brain, and the pain is felt in the part of the body where the damage occurs. Conversely, the motor nerves convey the intention of the brain to every muscle in the body almost instantaneously. The connection between the brain (head) and every part of the body is functionally perfect. The brain (self) feels sensory input in the affected body part. By analogy, we can say that Jesus feels your distress and pain or happiness and joy not as abstract knowledge, while He occupies the throne, but as shared experience, because He lives within you. The connection between you and Him is just as real as that of the brain and the left elbow or the right knee.

When we are struggling with doubt, temptation, or negativity we tend to feel that we are disqualified and that we have to get back into a spiritually positive mood before the Lord will be available to us. We so quickly forget that, as members of His body, we are in Him no matter how we feel, and He is in us. The actual reality of being “in Him” as a member of His body is an objective fact in the spiritual realm. It does not depend upon how we feel. Even when we fail Him, we are united to Him. Does a fight between husband and wife cancel the legal and personal reality of the married state? Of course not! You may not feel married, and sometimes you may fleetingly wish you weren’t married, but that does not alter the reality of your union with your spouse. If these things are true at the level of the marriage relationship, how much more are they true in the spiritual realm?

We live in a celebrity-oriented culture, and the Christian world is deeply infected with the unfortunate consequences of this social and spiritual virus. In America, as soon as a talented pastor’s weekly church attendance reaches about 10,000 he becomes something of an instant celebrity, and is often in great demand as a “model of success” at church growth “how-to” conferences. If the mega church pastor has written a couple of best-selling books, his position in the pantheon of Christian leadership is assured. Many of these brethren are truly godly men, and have substantive things to say. This is not a slap at any man or group of men. But it is a reflection on processes within our Christian culture that operate at an almost unconscious level, and yet are fundamentally very detrimental to the rank and file of average believers. In fact, there is no such thing as an average believer. Every true believer is a member of Christ’s body, and there is nothing average about the body of Christ, in whole or in part.

The unstated standard by which our celebrity-oriented culture evaluates the significance of one’s person and ministry is size. If you have the numbers, you have the blessing of God. This shallow standard of evaluation has been particularly hurtful to tens of thousands of faithful pastors whose flocks are relatively small. The pastor of a smaller church is continually reminded by his more successful brethren that if he would just get his act together, he too could have a large and growing church, with the visible sign of God’s blessing. While no one would be so crass as to say such things publicly, the message is conveyed in a thousand more subtle ways in the advertising for every church-growth conference.

The New Testament teaching about the body of Christ, if rightly understood, is a powerful antidote to the poisonous effects of celebrity-ism in the church. Paul’s doctrine of the body of Christ affirms the uniqueness and importance of every member of the body, and does not permit those who have a more public function to be valued more highly than those who serve in relative obscurity (see I Cor. 12: 12-25). Remember how firmly Paul rebuked the Corinthian church for its preoccupation with the relative importance of certain leaders (I am of Paul, or I am of Apollos, or I am of Cephas….). Paul sums up his teaching on the body in Romans 12 by saying Be of the same mind toward one another. Do not set your mind on high things, but associate with the humble. Concern with the status of leaders (celebrity-consciousness) was one of the symptoms of the carnality of the Corinthian church.

As we begin to understand the wonderful reality of the body of Christ, we begin to understand the amazing access we have to Him. To put it very simply, we do not have to stand in line to get His attention. Paul’s analogy of the physical body has some powerful implications. Even in our extreme limitation, we can be aware of pain or discomfort in several areas of our body at once. And of course, we rush to alleviate the pain and to fix whatever is wrong. If we have this capability, how much more does our infinite Lord, so that there is no delay in getting His attention? On the other hand, instantaneous relief is not always best. Shooting a painful knee full of Novocain may bring instant relief, but it doesn’t resolve the problem over the long run. Permanent relief may require surgery, weight loss, and physical therapy. Likewise, our perfect access to the Head (Jesus) does not guarantee an instant answer. However, our access to Him does guarantee that He will immediately initiate the action we need, and that He will comfort us with His presence and an enhanced sense of His love.

Our Lord is utterly unaffected by considerations of status or prominence. Listen to what He says in Isaiah 57:15: ….I dwell in the high and holy place, with him who has a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble…. And again, James 4: 6-- God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble. You and I have the same access to the Lord as does Billy Graham or any other well-known Christian celebrity. To think otherwise is to undercut the wonderful truth of the body of Christ.

So many of the truths that Jesus spoke in John chapters 14 through 17 are based on the reality of our spiritual union with Him and with the Father. Jesus makes a number of seemingly simple statements in these chapters, but on close examination we discover these to be very dramatic statements that are based on the reality of His body. For instance, in John 15:9 Jesus says “as the Father loved Me, I also have loved you; abide in My love.” Think for a minute about the nature of the Father’s love for the Son. It is a perfect and infinite love. It is beyond our comprehension, because it deals with the love that flows within the Godhead! And Jesus uses this perfect and infinite love as the measure or model of his love for us.

Jesus does not precisely define what He means when He uses the adverb as. But it is clear that He is saying His love for us is beyond our comprehension, and that it flows out of His Father’s love for Him. We have to remember that Jesus is speaking as Almighty God incarnate, and that the Father chose us in Him before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1: 4) as members of His body. The love of Jesus for us flows out of the eternal purposes of God, which found their expression in God before the foundation of the world (universe), that is, before time began. When Jesus makes the statement as the Father loved Me, I also have loved you, we must interpret the meaning of “as” in the light of Who He is, and in the light of the fact that His body, and its individual members, were chosen in Him before the creation of the universe. Each of us needs to grasp the Biblical truth that we were chosen to be a part of His body before the foundation of the world, and that the love Jesus has for each of us, in some marvelous and indefinable way, is measured by the Father’s love for the Son.

In His prayer in John 17 Jesus takes up this theme again. In what is perhaps the most illuminating passage in Scripture regarding the union of Christ and His body, Jesus prays (v. 21) that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us… Jesus is obviously asking for more than a unity in His body that would be like the unity between the Father and the Son. The key to understanding his intention is the phrase “in Us.” The unity Jesus is asking for is a unity that occurs in Us, that is, through the agency or in the substance of the divine unity. Note that Jesus did not say that they also may be one with Us. This would imply that the body of Christ was being elevated to, or absorbed by, the Godhead. Such would not only be an impossibility, but would be gross error. But Jesus’ use of the word in communicates that the wonderful unity of His body is a unity that occurs as His body is immersed in or enveloped by the unity of the Father and the Son.

In the next five verses Jesus twice more compares the Father’s love for Him to His love for the disciples. In verse 23 He prays that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me. And in verse 26 He says that the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them. These verses from John 17 are perhaps the most profound statements in all of Scripture. They illuminate the nature of our relationship to Jesus and His Father as members of His body. As we meditate on these glorious truths, and as we open our hearts and focus our minds to believe them, we will find Paul’s prayer is being fulfilled in us:

that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him, the eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the exceeding greatness of His power toward us who believe.…(Eph. 1: 17-19)

With much love,

Pastor Bob
(888) 653–1933