A picture is worth a thousand words
The phrase ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ is usually attributed to Frederick Barnard’s 1921 article encouraging advertisers to embrace the power of graphics in their work. It certainly rings true when we open our Bibles and discover the pictures and metaphors used extensively to explain the true nature of the church. Metaphors concerning fields, flocks, families, trees, tabernacles, priesthoods and even a nation, help us to grasp more fully all that the church is, and how it relates to God.
Here are three of the Bible’s pictures which speak most vividly to me.
The church is a BUILDING — built on a firm foundation
The biblical authors utilise the imagery of buildings to show us many things. In Ephesians 2, Paul paints a picture of the church (a house) being built on a solid foundation with a particular cornerstone. In his picture, the foundation is ‘the apostles and prophets,’ (shorthand for the New Testament teachings about who Jesus is and what he has done) with ‘Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone’ (Ephesians 2:20).
Most of us will immediately understand that a firm foundation leads to a robust, lasting building. But what about the cornerstone, what is its purpose? That section of the foundation serves as a reference from which all other measurements are made. Even the remaining foundations are marked off from this guide. Get the cornerstone right, and the result is a sturdy dwelling. Get it wrong, and the consequences could be disastrous.
The picture of the church as a building built on this foundation shows us what must determine everything about our church’s life, teaching, values and so on. Jesus and his completed work must be at the centre. A church which does not rest on the Christ we meet in Scripture is weak and wobbly — a church that does is strong and stable.
The church is a BODY — united yet diverse
Bodies are thought of as one complete unit. We can focus our attention on different parts, but a ‘body’ is an indivisible whole. You can’t split it down the middle and get two bodies! However, on closer inspection, we do see that the unified whole is made up of some surprisingly diverse parts. You’d struggle to find many similarities between brain cells and bones, or chromosomes and skin. Though a body is one, it consists of many components. This is the picture Paul employs in 1 Corinthians 12 when calling for unity in a church that is confused about a diversity of gifts and callings among its members.
Just as all healthy bodies should, Jesus (the head) is said to have in his body (the church) feet, hands, eyes, ears, noses and even ‘unmentionables’, with each part belonging to the whole. This is how a healthy body is constructed, ‘God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be’ (12:18). Conversely, a body that is dominated by a particular part (12:17–19) or is missing it altogether (12:21–26) is severely disadvantaged. Uniformity or absence of a part is evidence of ill health in this picture.
The picture of the church as a body made up of different parts shows us that in Christ we should have unity, yet diversity. Moreover, it shows us how, in the church, we should have a mutual dependence, ‘If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it’ (1 Corinthians 12:26). A church in which everyone is identical might display a fascinating uniformity but not necessarily any real unity. It certainly won’t be healthy, and it won’t be the sort of church pictured in our Bibles.
The Church is a BRIDE — loved to death
Right through the Scriptures, in both the Old and New Testaments, runs the picture of God’s relentless pursuit of a bride. This imagery culminates in the marriage feast of the Lamb, found in Revelation 19, at which point we see a perfect bride coming before our all-conquering Saviour. This bride is the church, and Christ is her groom.
Even on the surface, this picture speaks to us of the love which the church receives from Jesus. The simplest way for any of us to understand a wedding is in terms of love between two people. Sometimes that love spills over, and those simply witnessing the occasion begin to cry! Yet this picture goes deeper than vows and rings. It isn’t Jesus who is named in the place of the groom, it’s the Lamb. The same Lamb that was slain. The groom is the one who loves the bride even to the point of dying for her. No wonder Paul drew on this picture when instructing husbands to love their wives as ‘Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her’ (Ephesians 5:25). The picture of the church as a bride shows us the true extent of God’s care, concern and love for us.
A church that has not been loved in such a way would never be acceptable to the groom, coming in filthy rags rather than fine, bright, clean washed linen that the Lamb has secured for her. But a church that has received so much from her groom already can take immense confidence in the care he’ll continue to show her.
So far so good – but so much more to explore
Stable, united (yet diverse!) and loved. Even a quick glance shows us these three amazing truths about the church. Of course, all these things are only true because of Jesus – if we leave him out of the picture we have nothing. But with him, what a wonderful thing to be a part of the church.
Those are my three favourite pictures of the church in the Bible. There are many more — why not pick your Bibles up and start looking at the pictures. There’s more to be learnt than you might have thought at first.