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9. Three Metaphors of the Church: How to Be the Church and Not Just Attend It

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Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. (Ephesians 2:19-22)

What is the church? How can believers be the church instead of just attending the church?

The problem with most Christians is that they have a low “ecclesiology”—a low understanding of what the church is and their role in it. For most, being the church simply means that they call themselves Christians and attend church on a regular or semi-regular basis. But outside of that, they have no real commitment to or investment in the church.

If we don’t fully understand the purpose of something, it is destined for misuse. And that is exactly what is happening in Christ’s church today. Most Christians don’t really understand it; therefore, they misuse it.

There was something of this happening in the early church, and Paul addresses it in Ephesians 2:19-22. In the previous verses (11-18), Paul calls for the Gentiles to their past—they were hated by the Jews, called “the uncircumcision,” without citizenship in Israel, without covenants, without hope, without Christ, and without God.

The Jews were called to be a holy nation that drew the other nations to God. However, they became prideful in their lofty position as God’s people, and instead of ministering to the Gentiles, they hated them. There was tremendous animosity between the two groups. But through his death, Christ brought these two hostile groups near God. He made them one man—one body; he made them his church.

It seems that Paul addressed this, because there was still division happening in the early church. Though they were saved and part of Christ’s body, they weren’t being the church. In Romans 14, Paul writes of division over eating meat offered to idols, practicing the Sabbath day, and other things that divided Jew and Gentile Christians. Even the apostle Peter would not eat with Gentiles when certain Jews were around (Galatians 2). No doubt, they started to form separate congregations—Jewish churches and Gentile churches. The early church did not fully understand what Christ had done for them, and therefore they were not being the church.

The same is true today. Many Christian don’t understand the church and therefore are not living as the church. Church is often something simply attended—with few ramifications other than that.

What is the church and how can we be the church and not just attend it? In this text, Paul gives three metaphors to help us “Be the Church.”

Big Question: What three metaphors does Paul use for the church, and how can we live out these realities?

To Be the Church, We Must Live as Heavenly Citizens

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household (Ephesians 2:19)

The first metaphor Paul uses is that of citizens in the kingdom of heaven. He says, “you are no longer foreigners and aliens.” William Barclay’s comments are helpful in understanding the terms “foreigners” and “aliens”:

Paul uses the word xenos for foreigner. In every Greek city there were xenoi, and they did not lead an easy life. One wrote home: ‘It is better for you to be in your own homes, whatever they may be like, than to be in a strange land.’ The foreigner was always regarded with suspicion and dislike. Paul uses the word paroikos for stranger. The paroikos was one step further on. A person described in this way was a resident alien, someone who had taken up residence in a place but who had never become a naturalized citizen; such people paid a tax for the privilege of existing in a land which was not their own. Both the xenos and the paroikos were always on the fringe. Paul uses the word xenos for foreigner. In every Greek city there were xenoi, and they did not lead an easy life. One wrote home: ‘It is better for you to be in your own homes, whatever they may be like, than to be in a strange land.’ The foreigner was always regarded with suspicion and dislike. Paul uses the word paroikos for stranger. The paroikos was one step further on. A person described in this way was a resident alien, someone who had taken up residence in a place but who had never become a naturalized citizen; such people paid a tax for the privilege of existing in a land which was not their own. Both the xenos and the paroikos were always on the fringe.1

Foreigners and aliens were often looked at with suspicion and discriminated against, and this is how the Gentiles were treated before Christ formed the church. They were like second class citizens as far as worshiping God. They could not enter the temple; they could not be priests and, in most cases, were despised by Israel. However, in Christ, Gentile Christians are now full citizens of the kingdom of heaven.

Among Christians there is some disagreement over what the kingdom of heaven is. John the Baptist preached the kingdom of heaven and so did Christ and his apostles (cf. Matt 3:2, 10:7). However, in studying texts on the kingdom of heaven, it clearly has both a present and future reality. For instance, Luke 17:20-21 says:

Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.”

Christ says the kingdom of God is within you, or it can be translated “in your midst.” The kingdom of heaven is present, and yet, we still wait for it. In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray, “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10, KJV). Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is wherever people proclaim submission to God. It is in our hearts, and yet it is a coming reality. One day, at Christ’s coming, he will literally rule on this earth as in heaven. And as the church, we should currently live as citizens of this kingdom.

Application Question: How should believers live out the reality that they are citizens of heaven?

1. Heavenly citizens have different cultural norms than those of the earth.

These different cultural norms include different speech, dress, values, etc. Ephesians 4:29 says, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” Citizens of heaven should only let words come out of their mouths that will be helpful and build others up. They should not be known for sexual jokes, cursing, or other language that defiles.

First Timothy 2:9 says, “I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes.” Though Paul speaks to women in this text, the principles apply to all Christians. Christians should be known for their modest dress, avoiding extremes in clothing. In the world, clothes are often used to show one’s wealth and to draw attention and glory to the wearer. But the Christian should want all glory to go to God, and therefore avoid lavish, sexually alluring, or ragged clothing (often another way of seeking attention).

Not only should Christians be different in their talk and their clothing, but also in the way they think. Romans 12:2 says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” The world culture trains people how to think about beauty, success, life, and death. However, citizens of heaven should think very differently about these things, because their views are based on Scripture. Citizens of heaven should be continually transforming their minds through the Word of God.

2. Heavenly citizens should continually practice the righteousness of the kingdom.

Romans 14:17 says, “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” These are all present realities that should be growing in our lives. We should be growing in righteousness and helping others to do so as well. We should be growing in peace with God, peace with others, and peace of heart. We should also be growing in joy regardless of our circumstances because our joy is in God. Philippians 4:4 says, “Rejoice in the Lord, again I say, ‘Rejoice!” 

3. Heavenly citizens should continually proclaim the kingdom to others.

Acts 28:31 says this about Paul: “Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul continually proclaimed the kingdom of God—preaching the gospel and the return of Jesus Christ.

This should be true for us as well. As citizens of heaven, we must continually proclaim the gospel to all who will hear. The gospel is that this present world is not it—there is more. The sin, discord, death, and decay of this world are not it. God has more. There is a kingdom coming, and those who repent and follow Christ shall enter it.

4. Heavenly citizens should long for the kingdom of heaven.

Hebrews 11:16 says this about Abraham and the other patriarchs of the faith: “Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.”

Though living on the earth, Abraham and the patriarchs longed for their heavenly home—and God is not ashamed to be called their God. No doubt God is ashamed of some Christians. Why? Because they don’t really desire the city he prepared for them; instead, they love and worship the things of this world (1 John 2:15). However, God is pleased with those who long for the coming kingdom.

One of the ways we long for this coming kingdom is by praying for it. Again, the Lord’s Prayer is “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done.” We should long for it especially as we see the sin and destruction happening daily in our world.

Another way we long for the kingdom is by longing for our King—our Savior—to come. Paul says this in Philippians 3:20-21:

But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.

Are you being the church? Are you living as a citizen of the kingdom of heaven? Is your language, your behavior, your priorities, and your hopes different? To be the church, we must live as citizens of heaven.

Application Questions: What aspect of being a heavenly citizen is most challenging to you and why? How is God calling you to grow in this area? What keeps us from longing for his kingdom? How can we foster a longing for his kingdom and its righteousness?

To Be the Church, We Must Live as Family Members

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household (Ephesians 2:19)

The next way that Christians can be the church is by living as family members. Not only has Christ made us heavenly citizens, but also members of the same family. There is greater unity and intimacy between family members than between citizens.

This should be something that characterizes Christians. Christ says this about his followers in Matthew 12:48-50:

“Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

Christ regarded his disciples as family members and God as their Father. He taught the disciples to pray, “Our Father, who is in heaven, hallowed be thy name” (Matt 6:9). When we began following Christ, we became family. This family includes people from different socio-economic backgrounds, races, and ethnic groups, and it includes believers both in heaven and on earth. Ephesians 3:14-15 says, “For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name.”

In 1 Timothy 5:1-2, Paul says this about how believers should treat one another: “Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity.” We should treat one another as family. Christ said, “They will know you are my disciples by the way you love one another” (John 13:35). We are to be known by this intimate familial love.

Application Question: How should we practically apply the reality of the church being family?

1. As family, believers should consider using familial terms.

Paul calls Timothy his “son in the faith” (1 Tim 1:2). He refers to himself as a “father” to the Corinthians (1 Cor 4:15), and calls the Romans “brothers” (Rom 12:1). We should consider using these familial terms as well. 

2. As family, believers must make the church their priority.

Galatians 6:10 says, “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” Yes, we should do good to all, but especially to believers. They must be our priority. When something is your priority, you invest your time, money, and energy in it, and you give up other things to focus on it. This should be true of our investment in the Body of Christ.

Sadly, for most, job, schooling, and housing are the main priorities instead of their church. Believers often uproot their families from a great church where God is using them and move for career and other opportunities. This often leads to spiritual struggles. They find a new church, but often struggle to get involved—and it never feels like home. Their spiritual life suffers because they didn’t prioritize their church home—their Christian family.

Where has God planted you? How is God calling you to make church your priority?

3. As family, believers must develop intimate relationships with one another.

Family is a place where we share intimate secrets and struggles, and this should be true of the church as well. James 5:16 says, “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.” Sadly, many have no transparency in their church relationships. Everybody in the church is kept at arm’s length, if not an entire body’s length.

We must develop intimate relationships within the body of Christ. We must learn to confess our sins and share our successes with one another, and also to seek the prayers of the saints. These are practical aspects of being family.

4. As family, believers must encourage one another in their spiritual growth.

In families, parents invest their lives, money, and time in helping their children grow as individuals. Church members should help one another grow as well, especially in their relationship with Christ. This is the priority of people who are “being” the church. As the writer of Hebrews says, “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24).

Are you considering how you can help your church—your brothers and sisters in Christ? Are you considering how you can serve and help them reach their potential in Christ? If we are going to be the church and not just attend it, we must live as family members.

Application Question: In what ways is God calling you to apply the reality of the church being a family?

To Be the Church, We Must Live as God’s Temple

built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. (Ephesians 2:20-22)

Next, Paul teaches that the Gentiles are being built into a holy temple where God dwells. No doubt this conjured up images of the Jewish temple, which Gentiles could never fully enter. However, they were now God’s temple.

Application Question: How can we apply the reality of the church being God’s temple?

  • As God’s temple, we must constantly worship God.

That was the primary purpose of the temple. There, people gathered to worship and offer sacrifices pleasing to God. Hebrews 13:15-16 says: “Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that confess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.”

Here the author says praise, good works, and giving are sacrifices that please God. This must be our continual endeavor as God’s temple. We must ask ourselves daily, “How can I please and worship God today both individually and with other believers?”

Similarly, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:31, “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” Everything we do can and should be worship.

  • As God’s temple, we must live carefully—in a God-honoring manner.

In one of Watchman Nee’s books, he says that if you have a little bit of change in your pocket, you can walk around carefree. However, if you have a large sum of money in your pocket, you will walk very carefully lest you lose it. Not that we can lose God, but he who dwells in us is so valuable that his indwelling should drastically change how we walk.2 We should be different. Let us walk carefully in order not to dishonor God with our mouths and our meditations. Let us always remember that our individual bodies, and also we as the church, are his temple.

  • As God’s temple, we must practice holiness.

The priests and Levites made sure that God’s temple never became defiled. There were ceremonial washings and cleansings even for the plates in the temple. In the same way, as the temple of God, we must keep ourselves from anything that might defile. First Thessalonians 5:22 says, “Avoid every kind of evil.” When Jesus went into the temple, he made a whip and turned over tables because God’s house was being defiled. We must have that same type of zeal for God’s temple—our bodies and the church. We must get rid of all sin and anything that does not honor God.

Paul further expands on this idea of God’s temple by considering three critical elements.

Observation Question: What are the three elements of the temple that Paul refers to in Ephesians 2:20-21?

1. The apostles and prophets are the foundation of the temple.

Interpretation Question: Who were the apostles and prophets and in what way are they the foundation of the temple?

Ephesians 2:20 says the temple is built on the “foundation of the apostles and prophets.” There is some controversy over this. Is Paul referring to the Old Testament prophets and the New Testament apostles? Or is he referring to New Testament apostles and prophets? Most likely he is referring only to those who ministered in the New Testament. The primary support for this view is the order in which he lists the two groups. If he is referring to the Old Testament prophets, then it would make sense that the prophets would be listed first. Instead, he is probably referring to those who ministered with the apostles in building the foundation of the church. Ephesians 3:4-5 also supports this:

In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets.

The apostles were specifically a “small and special group whom Jesus chose, called and authorized to teach in his name, and who were eyewitnesses of his resurrection, consisting of the Twelve plus Paul and James and perhaps one or two others.”3

How are the apostles and prophets the foundation of the church, especially since Scripture says Christ is the foundation of the church (1 Cor. 3:11)? The primary way the apostles and the prophets are the foundation of the church is through their teaching. They wrote the New Testament Scripture on which the church is built, and they founded local churches based on these truths. Paul says this in 1 Corinthians 3:10-11:

By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.

The apostles and prophets laid the foundation of the church through their teachings, and their emphasis on the resurrected Christ. There are several principles that we can learn from this about being the church.

Application Question: How can we apply the reality that the church is built on apostolic teaching?

  • Since the church is built on apostolic teaching, we, as members of the church, must be devoted to apostolic teaching.

The early church “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42). We must be devoted to daily studying God’s Word, memorizing it, teaching it, and sharing it with others.

  • Since the church is built on apostolic teaching, when seeking a church, we should look for one that faithfully preaches the Word of God.

Many churches no longer preach the Bible. They say it is too antiquated, full of errors, and irrelevant to the needs of the people. Instead, they preach psychology, history, stories, and jokes. Second Timothy 4:3-4 says:

For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.

Because Satan realizes the Word of God is the foundation of the church, he always attacks it to bring the church down. Even at the beginning of time, Satan attacked the Word. He asked Eve, “Did God really say?” When seeking a church to raise your family in, find one that unashamedly preaches the Word of God.

Application Questions: In what ways have you seen churches stop preaching the Word of God, particularly the gospel? What effect does it have on believers? How is God calling you to be more devoted to apostolic teaching?

2. Christ is the cornerstone of the temple.

Ephesians 2:20-21 says: “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord.” The cornerstone was a messianic picture of Christ in the Old Testament. Isaiah 28:16 says, “So this is what the Sovereign LORD says: ‘See, I lay a stone in Zion, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone for a sure foundation; the one who trusts will never be dismayed.”

Interpretation Question: What is a cornerstone and how does Christ fulfill that role?

James Boice says this:

A cornerstone was important for two reasons. It was part of the foundation, and it also fixed the angle of the building and became the standard from which the architect traced the walls and arches throughout.4

  • Since Christ is the cornerstone of the church, it is on him that the church is built.

When Jesus asked Peter who he was, Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of God.” And Jesus replied, “On this rock, I will build my church” (Matt 16:16-18, paraphrase). Christ is this rock. He is the cornerstone on which the church is built. Only those who accept Christ and his teachings are part of the church (cf. Matt 7:24-27).

Is your life built on Christ—his life, death, resurrection, and teaching? Any other foundation will fail.

  • Since Christ is the cornerstone of the church, it is through him that the church is unified.

Paul says this in Ephesians 2:21, “In him the whole building is joined together.” As mentioned in Ephesians 2: 14, “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one.” He is the one who joins the Jew and Gentile together, abolishing the ancient hostility. And he is the one who brings the church together today. We can be unified because of him, whether we are Jew, Gentile, rich, poor, male, or female.

In fact, Paul pleaded with two women fighting in Philippi to be unified because of Christ. Consider what he says in Philippians 4:2, “I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord.”

It must be noticed that he doesn’t say, “Work out your differences.” He says, “Agree with each other in the Lord.” They were to agree based on their commonality, which was bigger than any difference they had. In the same way, we can only have unity based on Christ. If our unity is based on culture, affinity, gender, socio-economic status, hobbies or anything else, it will not stand. Only Christ can unify the church and keep it unified.

Are you walking in unity with the rest of the church? Yes, certain people’s personalities may get on your nerves. They may think differently than you, and they may even hurt you. However, you can seek unity because of Christ—he is the unifier. Let that commonality trump all differences. Christ is our cornerstone.

  • Since Christ is the cornerstone of the church, it is through him that we grow.

Ephesians 2:21 says, “In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord.” It was upon the foundation, the cornerstone, that the rest of the building was built. In the same way, both our individual and our corporate spiritual growth come through Christ. Christ says, “‘I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). It is only by abiding in Christ, our cornerstone, that we can we grow and ultimately fulfill our purpose.

We abide in Christ and therefore grow spiritually through studying Scripture, prayer, fellowship with other believers, and serving. Many are not growing because they are not abiding in Christ—they are not staying connected to the cornerstone. Therefore, they are useless in building up the temple of God.

What is the next aspect of the temple that Paul refers to?

3. The people of God are bricks in the temple.

Again, Ephesians 2:22 says, “And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” Though Paul does not actually say so, the implication is that he is referring to individual believers as bricks or stones in the temple of God. Peter uses this same analogy in 1 Peter 2:5 when he says, “you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”

Yes, Scripture teaches that individual believers are the temple of God. First Corinthians 6:19-20 says, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body.”

However, Scripture also teaches that when believers gather together, God is with us. First Corinthians 3:16 says, “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you?” The word “you” in this passage is plural, referring to the church. Similarly, Christ says in Matthew 18:20, “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.’” When believers are present together, there is a special way in which God meets with them. In fact, there are some things he does in a corporate gathering that he does not do when we are alone.

Application Question: How can we apply the reality that individual believers are bricks in the temple of God?

  • As bricks in the temple of God, we need one another.

A brick is not good for much by itself. But when it is with other bricks, it goes into making a beautiful building. In the same way, apart from the body of Christ, we may miss God’s best.

Are you living in union with the body of Christ—the beautiful bricks that make up God’s temple?

  • As bricks in the temple of God, God is constantly adding other bricks until the temple is complete, and we must aid in that process.

One day the temple will be complete. God will add the final Jews and Gentiles to the church, and the temple will be finished. He has called us to aid in that process by faithfully sharing the gospel with others. As Matthew 28:19 says, we must go throughout the earth and make disciples of all nations.

Are you being the church and not just attending it? In order to do that, we must remember that we are God’s temple.

Application Questions: In what ways is God calling you to live out the reality that the church is the temple of God—built on the foundation of apostolic teaching, with Christ as the cornerstone and believers as bricks? In what ways is this teaching new or challenging to you?

Conclusion

How can believers be the church instead of simply attending it?

  1. To be the church, we must live as heavenly citizens.
  2. To be the church, we must live as family members.
  3. To be the church, we must live as God’s temple.

Copyright © 2016 Gregory Brown

Unless otherwise noted, the primary Scriptures used are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version ®, Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by the International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House. All rights reserved.

Scripture quotations marked (ESV) are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®) Copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. All rights reserved.

Scripture quotations marked (NASB) are from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972,1973,1975,1977,1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Scripture quotations marked KJV or AKJV are from the King James Version or Authorized (King James) Version of the Bible.

All emphases in Scripture quotations and commentators’ quotations have been added.


1 Barclay, W. (2002). The Letters to the Galatians and Ephesians (p. 136). Louisville, KY; London: Westminster John Knox Press.

2 https://bible.org/seriespage/lesson-18-church-why-marry-it-ephesians-219-22

3 Stott, J. R. W. (1979). God’s new society: the message of Ephesians (p. 107). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

4 Boice, J. M. (1988). Ephesians: an expositional commentary (p. 92). Grand Rapids, MI: Ministry Resources Library.

Related Topics: Ecclesiology (The Church)