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2. Metaphors of the Church

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In the New Testament, there are at least eight metaphors used of believers and the church in general, which tell us something about God’s purposes for the church. We will consider each one and its applications:

1. The church is pictured as salt.

In Matthew 5:13, Christ said this to his disciples: “You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its flavor, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled on by people.” Salt was very valuable in ancient times. It was even used as payment for work. This is where the saying, “He is not worth his salt!” comes from. Christ was saying his church and the disciples within it would be very valuable to the world. Part of the reason salt was so valuable was because it was used as a seasoning, but more importantly, it was used as a preservative. Since they did not have refrigerators in ancient times, they would often use a saline solution to preserve food and keep it from decay.

In what ways does the church function as a preservative for the world? (1) As believers live righteous lives, pray, and share the gospel, they keep society from decaying morally and spiritually. This happens because righteous living influences others towards righteousness and staves off ungodliness. First Peter 2:11-12 says,

Dear friends, I urge you as foreigners and exiles to keep away from fleshly desires that do battle against the soul, and maintain good conduct among the non-Christians, so that though they now malign you as wrongdoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God when he appears.

The implication from Peter’s exhortation is that as believers live holy lives, nonbelievers may at times mock them and even persecute them; however, some will eventually accept Christ and glorify God when Christ returns because of his people’s righteous example and witness. Though believers are often mocked, rejected, and mistreated, they are needed. Their saltiness positively influences society and holds back moral decay.

(2) Also, in being righteous, believers hold back Gods’ wrath from the world. We get a great picture of this when God promised Abraham, he would not destroy Sodom if only ten righteous people were found in it (Gen 18:32). In addition, in Ezekiel 22:30, God promised that if he could find one person to pray for the land, he wouldn’t destroy it. It says, “I looked for a man from among them who would repair the wall and stand in the gap before me on behalf of the land, so that I would not destroy it, but I found no one.”

2. The church is pictured as light.

In Matthew 5:14, Christ said to his disciples, “You are the light of the world.” John MacArthur’s comments on the figurative use of light are helpful. He said:

In Scripture the figurative use of light has two aspects, the intellectual and the moral. Intellectually it represents truth, whereas morally it represents holiness … The figure of darkness has the same two aspects. Intellectually it represents ignorance and falsehood, whereas morally it connotes evil.1

We see this in many places. Psalms 119:105 says, “Your word is a lamp to walk by, and a light to illumine my path.” Here light refers to intellectual truth as seen in God’s Word. In Romans 13:12-14, it refers to moral deeds, and darkness refers to immoral deeds. It says,

The night has advanced toward dawn; the day is near. So then we must lay aside the works of darkness, and put on the weapons of light. Let us live decently as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in discord and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to arouse its desires.

Light exposes darkness and gives off light, brightening a room or space. Therefore, in an intellectual sense, the church exposes lies, gets rid of them, and promotes truth. As the world continually loses a grip on truth, as relativism rules in our day, the church holds to it, as taught in Scripture. In 1 Timothy 3:15 (NIV), Paul called the church “the pillar and foundation of the truth.” Also, in a moral sense, as right becomes wrong and wrong becomes right in the world, the church exposes and condemns evil and promotes and practices righteousness. The church is the light of the world!

3. The church is pictured as a body.

In 1 Corinthians 12:13-18, Paul says:

For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body. Whether Jews or Greeks or slaves or free, we were all made to drink of the one Spirit. For in fact the body is not a single member, but many. If the foot says, “Since I am not a hand, I am not part of the body,” it does not lose its membership in the body because of that. And if the ear says, “Since I am not an eye, I am not part of the body,” it does not lose its membership in the body because of that. If the whole body were an eye, what part would do the hearing? If the whole were an ear, what part would exercise the sense of smell? But as a matter of fact, God has placed each of the members in the body just as he decided.

The metaphor of the church being a body tells us several things: (1) It teaches that believers are interdependent upon one another. Again, Paul said, the eye can’t replace the role of the ear, and the ear can’t replace the role of the nose. We need to see, hear, and smell. All three are necessary. Likewise, God has gifted believers differently—one may be a teacher, another a leader, another a counselor, and another an administrator or helper, and we need each to do God’s work. Therefore, believers are interdependent. To neglect the church by not using our gifts or relying on the gifts of others is to disable the church and to, also, spiritually impoverish ourselves. We need the eyes—the insight of others—and we need the ears—someone who will listen to us and care—and they need us as well. (2) The body metaphor also teaches us how Christ gets his work done on the earth. The church is Christ’s hands, feet, mouth, eyes, and ears. We may be the only Christ others will see, hear, or touch. Through us, his message is told, the weak are encouraged, the sick are healed, the lost are saved, and his justice is manifested.

Are we participating in Christ’s body and therefore his work of building up believers and saving an unbelieving world?

4. The church is pictured as a family.

In Matthew 12:49-50, Christ said this as he pointed to his disciples: “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” By saying this in the context of his mother and brothers asking for him (v. 47), Christ elevated spiritual family, even over natural family at times.

This reality shows us at least two things about the church. (1) It teaches that we should treat members of the church as family. In 1 Timothy 5:1-2, Paul said: “Do not address an older man harshly but appeal to him as a father. Speak to younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters—with complete purity.” In fact, in Paul’s letters, he commonly used family terminology to address the church and its members—calling them brothers (or brothers and sisters, depending on the Bible translation used). (2) In addition, the family metaphor reminds believers that they should prioritize the church over other people and things. In Galatians 6:10, Paul said, “So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who belong to the family of faith.” Believers should do good to all, but especially to other believers. This, no doubt, includes prioritizing gathering together to worship, fellowship, and serve. Hebrews 10:24-25 says:

And let us take thought of how to spur one another on to love and good works, not abandoning our own meetings, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and even more so because you see the day drawing near.

With spiritual family, we should continually think about them, love them, and meet together for mutual edification.

5. The church is pictured as a soldier.

In Ephesians 6:10-12, Paul said:

Finally, be strengthened in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Clothe yourselves with the full armor of God so that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavens.

Then in verses 13-18, he describes the spiritual armor believers must wear such as the breastplate of righteousness, the belt of truth, the shield of faith, the sword of God’s Word, etc. These primarily refer to godly character traits and disciplines, which enable us to stand in our spiritual war against the devil and his demons. This means one of God’s purposes for the church is to be combative—defeating the devil and his work in individuals, society, and the world.

Christ mentioned this in Matthew 16:18, when describing his plan to build the church. He said, “… on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.” This is not a defensive picture but an offensive picture. It’s a picture of the church moving forward against the kingdom of Satan and the gates eventually falling. This happens as believers share the gospel and unbelievers come to Christ. It happens as unrighteous practices in communities and government are exposed and destroyed, as races are reconciled, unborn babies are delivered from abortion, trafficking is abolished, and justice happens in courts. Since the church represents Christ, it should expose evil and seek to bring righteousness in all areas. Ultimately, Christ will bring perfect righteousness when he comes to judge sin and rule the earth with his saints.

6. The church is pictured as a temple.

In 1 Corinthians 3:16-17, Paul says: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you? If someone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, which is what you are.” When Paul says, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple,” the “you” is plural. Paul was referring to the church as God’s temple. Likewise, in 1 Peter 2:5, Peter said, “you yourselves, as living stones, are built up as a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood and to offer spiritual sacrifices that are acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”

What does this mean practically about the church’s purpose? (1) It means the church is a place where God meets with believers. In Matthew 18:20, Christ said, “For where two or three are assembled in my name, I am there among them.” Though given in the context of church discipline, Christ is present any time people gather in his name to worship and serve him (cf. Ps 34:7, 1 Cor 3:16). (2) In addition, the church’s ultimate focus, before serving one another or others, is to worship God. Hebrews 13:15-16 says:

Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, acknowledging his name. And do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for God is pleased with such sacrifices.

The writer of Hebrews, in using the metaphor of sacrifices offered at the temple in worship, said that the believers’ praise, acts of goodness, and generosity are spiritual sacrifices that please God. Being a temple reminds us that the church’s focus is meeting with the living God and worshiping him. In fact, Romans 12:1 says that we should offer our bodies—referring to every part of our lives—as living sacrifices to God.

7. The church is pictured as a workmanship or masterpiece.

In Ephesians 2:10, Paul says, “For we are his workmanship, having been created in Christ Jesus for good works that God prepared beforehand so we may do them.” (1). Being called “God’s workmanship” demonstrates how the church was created for good works. This is true both individually and corporately, as the letter was written to local churches in Asia Minor and the individuals in those churches. As individuals, God has given us various gifts, talents, and experiences to use in building his kingdom. But, this is also true of local churches. Not all churches are the same. Some are especially gifted in missions, others deep teaching, others caring for the poor (possibly because of the community they are in), and others charismatic gifts. This reminds us that we not only need other believers as Christ’s body but also other churches. The body of Christ is not the local church, as though each could function independent of others; the body is the church universal, consisting of many congregations, which need each other to do the works God has called us to. (2) Also, “workmanship” can be translated “masterpiece” (NLT). This seems to demonstrate the beauty of God’s church and how perfectly he made her. This reminds us that the church is meant to bring glory to God, as it builds up believers and serves its communities. Matthew 5:16 says, “In the same way, let your light shine before people, so that they can see your good deeds and give honor to your Father in heaven.”

8. The church is pictured as a bride.

Ephesians 5:25-26 and 31-32 says:

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her to sanctify her by cleansing her with the washing of the water by the word … For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and will be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. This mystery is great—but I am actually speaking with reference to Christ and the church.

Paul taught that the marriage between a husband and wife is really meant to picture how Christ loves the church, his bride. The church being a bride teaches us several things about the church: (1) It demonstrates God’s everlasting commitment to her. Marriages today may end because of the fault of one or both mates. However, God’s love for his bride, as flawed as she may be, will never end. Romans 8:35-39 says,

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will trouble, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we encounter death all day long; we were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we have complete victory through him who loved us! For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor heavenly rulers, nor things that are present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

God’s unfailing love and commitment remind us of the eternal security of every true believer (cf. John 10:27-30). God is committed to his church eternally and the individuals who are part of her—not one of them will ever be lost (cf. John 6:37-39). (2) Also, the church as a bride pictures how the church should submit to Christ, even as the Christian wife should her husband as the leader of their home (cf. Eph 5:22-23). One of the identifying characteristics of true believers is doing the will of God. In Matthew 7:21, Christ said this: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (3) Finally, the bride as a wife reminds us that the church is a co-heir and ruler with Christ. Romans 8:17 says, “And if children, then heirs (namely, heirs of God and also fellow heirs with Christ)—if indeed we suffer with him so we may also be glorified with him.” When Christ returns, the church will rule the heavens and earth with Christ, as his bride (cf. Rev 19:7-8).


  1. What metaphor stood out most and why?
  2. Why does God give us metaphors of the church?
  3. What other metaphors does Scripture use for the church or believers specifically (cf. John 15:1-11, etc.)?
  4. What other questions or applications did you take from the reading?

Copyright © 2020 Gregory Brown

Unless otherwise noted, the primary Scriptures used are taken from the NET Bible ® copyright © 1996-2016 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. All rights reserved.

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1 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1986). Ephesians (pp. 205–206). Chicago: Moody Press.

Related Topics: Ecclesiology (The Church)

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