“Images” of the Church in the Scripture
Jesus Christ used the term “Church” (ἐκκλησία) only twice, but under very important circumstances. The first time was in reply to Saint Peter’s famous confession (Mt. 16:18), which we will review below; the other time was when the Lord, talking to His disciples, gave to the Church the Old Testament meaning, “community,” “assembly” of Israel (Mt. 18:17). The Lord, in fact, used many images, metaphors, allegories and parables to illustrate His Church. All these descriptions point to the interior character and spiritual dimension of the Church, as well as her exterior aspect and characteristics. The following is not an exhaustive list:
- Kingdom (Mt. 12:25-26, 13:24ff., 18:3-4, 31ff.; Lk. 18:29ff., etc.)
- seed, planted by God in people (Mt. 13:3-9.18-23)
- field, in which wheat and weeds grow together (Mt. 13-24ff.)
- mustard seed, which grows into a tree (Mt. 13:33)
- leaven, working in a hidden way, changing the world (Mt. 13:33)
- treasure, hidden in a field (Mt. 13:44)
- pearl – he who finds Christ finds this precious pearl (Mt. 13:45-46)
- fishing net, full of good and bad fish (Mt. 13:47ff.)
- structure, Christ being the cornerstone (Mt. 16:18. 21:42)
- vineyard, worked by laborers (Mt. 20:1-16)
- fig tree in a vineyard (Lk. 13:6-9)
- vineyard, let out to tenants (Mt. 21:33-41, Mc. 12:1-12, Lk. 20:9-19.45)
- inn (parable of the Good Samaritan) (Lk. 10:30-37)
- nation (Mt.21:44)
- marriage feast, given by a king for his son (Mt. 22:2-14, Lk. 14:16-24)
- wedding, a marriage feast (parable of the 10 virgins) (Mt. 25:1-12, Lk. 12:35-48. See also Mt. 9:15, Mc. 2:19-20, Lk. 5:34-35)
- bread (John 6:220.127.116.11)
- shepherd and His flock (John 10:1-16)
- vine (John 15:1-8)
Similarly Saint Paul used various images and metaphors:
- a tree (an olive tree) (Rom. 11:17-24)
- the kingdom of God (Rom. 14:17-18)
- a temple (1 Cor. 3:17, 2 Cor. 6:16, Eph. 2:21)
- a structure (1 Cor. 3:9)
- a house (1 Tim. 3:15, Heb. 3:6, 10:21, 1 Pet. 2:5, 4:17, Heb. 10:21)
- a city (Jerusalem) (Heb. 12:22-23)
- a body (the Body of Christ) (Rom. 12:4-5, 1 Cor. 6:15, 10:17. 12:12-27, Eph. 1:22-23. 2:13-18. 4:4-6.11-12.16, 5:23.30, Col. 1:18-24, 2:19. 3:15)
- Israel of God (Gal. 6:16. Cf. also Gal. 3:7.29 and Rom. 9:6-8 – the true descendants of Abraham, and Fil. 3:3 – the true circumcision)
- Bride of Christ (Eph. 5:23-32, 2 Cor. 11:2)
- bread (1 Cor. 10:17)
- shepherd and sheep (Heb. 13:20)
Saint John, besides the images used in his gospel, uses the following images in his other writings:
- a woman (Rev. 12:13)
- a bride, the wife of the Lamb (Rev. 21:9; Cf. also Song of Songs in the Old Testament)
- the holy city Jerusalem (Rev. 21:2.10, 22:14-15 – cf. Mt.21:33)
Other New Testament writers use a variety of descriptions and images:
- people of God (1 Pet. 2:10)
- household of God (1 Pet. 4:17)
- flock of God (1 Pet. 5:2)
- the faithful (Acts 2:44)
- cornerstone (Acts 4:11)
We will pause to analyze just a few of these images and allegories that especially illustrate the structure and breadth of the Church.
1. Image of the Church as One Shepherd and one Flock
Reading: John 10:1-16
“‘Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber; but he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens; the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers’. This figure Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what He was saying to them.” [Do we?!]
“So Jesus again said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers; but the sheep did not heed them. I am the door; if any one enters by me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hireling and not a shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hireling and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd.”
- Is the Church an open field, or does it have a border, enclosed and guarded?
- Is it a matter of preference to belong to the Church or not?
- How many churches are there?
- How does one “belong” to the Church?
Reading: John 21: 15-17
“So when they had eaten breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon, son of Jonah, do you love me more than these?’ He said to Him, ‘Yes, Lord; You know that I love You. He said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ He said to him again a second time, Simon, son of Jonah, do you love me?’ He said to him, Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.’ He said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon, son of Jonah, do you love me?’ Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to Him, ‘Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.’ Jesus said to Him, ‘Feed my sheep.’”
- What is the Church’s interpretation of this passage?
- Is Peter anointed chief shepherd of the Church?
- How does Peter’s preeminence make him differ from the other Apostles?
The image of a flock, governed by a good shepherd is one of the images that impresses upon one’s imagination most vividly and makes the significance of peace and tranquility that would be realized in Messianic times comprehensible. Jesus Christ uses this image frequently.
According to the Lord’s thinking He is the Good Shepherd (John 10:1-16), who came to reunite the dispersed sheep (Mk. 6:34, 16:2.25). He is the “great shepherd” (Heb. 13:20), the “prince of shepherds” (1 Pet. 5:4), who is disposed to give everything for the salvation of the flock (John 10:11). Being a shepherd, He counts, leads, guards and defends the flock (Lk. 15:3-7, John 10:4, Lk. 12:32). He purifies it and sets it apart from the other flocks and leads it to rest * (Mt. 9:36) and to life (John 10:10). He gives to every sheep its own name (John 10:3). He has become shepherd not only of the Church, but of the whole world (Rev. 2:27, 12:5, 19:15).
As God in the Old Testament picked His own shepherds with supreme independence (cf. Jer. 3:15, Ps. 78:57), so Jesus Christ with full authority entrusts His flock to Peter (John 21:15-17) and to the other Apostles, and establishes the shepherds of the Church (Mt. 10:6, Eph. 4:11), who shepherd the Church in His name.
But if the Church is a flock, it becomes clear that belonging to the Church does not by itself guarantee salvation, that is, if one does not stay in the Church. The sheep that goes astray from the flock will encounter mortal danger; so does the faithful Orthodox Christian, who withdraws from the community. One is not safe apart from the fold. The shepherd goes looking for the lost sheep to reunite it with the rest of the flock. It is not safe until it rejoins the flock.
Thus, in the mind of Christ the Church is one, as the shepherd is one (John 10:16).
2. Image of the Church as a building under construction
The second image, dear to the Lord, is that of a building, of a structure. Of course that is the image behind the famous promise to Peter:
(Reading: Matthew 16:13-19)
“Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesaria Philippi, He asked His disciples, ‘Who do men say that the Son of man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter replied, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the powers of Hades shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.’”
- It must be important for the Lord to ask the question…What is its importance?
- Who do you say Jesus is?
- Can others be blessed, if they too make the true confession?
- Was Peter blessed in any special and unique way?
- In what sense is he the “rock”?
- Can others also be “rocks”?
- How do we know God or things about God?
Whatever we see as its foundation, the Church Christ promises to build must be a building. Is it on Peter (on his person, in his capacity as the leader of the Apostles) or is it on the true faith confessed by him that the Church is based on? The following passages should shed some light to the question:
Reading: Matthew 21:42-44 (cf. Mc. 12:10-11)
“Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’? Therefore I say to you, the Kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a nation bearing the fruits of it. And whoever falls on this stone will be broken; but on whomever it falls, it will grind him to powder.”
The Lord resumes and continues on the ancient image taken from the Psalms (Ps. 118:22.23) to demonstrate that “the cornerstone” rejected by the builders is Himself. Indeed He is that stone over which people stumble and fall (Rom. 9:32-33). The Lord is the Rock, and the faithful who build on Him will not be shaken (cf. Mt. 7:24-27, Lk. 6:47-49).
Later, this same image will be developed by Saint Paul (see below), but without the polemic sharpness used by the Lord. This image as well depends on the Old Testament, being its continuation and, at the same time, its antithesis. Indeed, from the mouth of the Lord this image is polemic, in the sense that the ancient Israel (until that time the only “edifice of God”) has received its fulfillment (and also its significance), from the Lord Himself and from the new people of God.
Saint Peter will present the Lord as a glorious, spiritual, “living stone” of the building constructed of living stones, the members of the Church:
Reading: 1 Peter 2:4-8
“Come to Him, to that living stone, rejected by men but in God’s sight chosen and precious; and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in scripture: ‘Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and he who believes in Him will not be put to shame’ [Is. 28:16]. To you therefore who believe, He is precious, but for those who do not believe, ‘The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner’ [Ps. 118:22], and ‘A stone that will make men stumble, a rock that will make them fall’ [Is. 8:14-15]; for they stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do”.
The entire quotation from Isaiah is as follows:
Reading: Isaiah 8:13-15
“The Lord of hosts…will become a sanctuary, and a stone of offense, and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many shall stumble thereon; they shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken.”
The image of the structure is completed by the Lord with another, similar, yet distinct image: that of a temple. With this image, which is also treated in the Old Testament (see previous reading above), the Lord wants to indicate that a straight relationship exists between Himself and His own, between them and God. Jesus Christ proclaims His desire to build a new Temple (Mc. 13:2, 14:58); but having declared that it is not in buildings of stones that one must worship God (John 4:24), it is clear that He is speaking of a spiritual building—the congregation of those who believe in Him.
The temple is at the heart of Judaism, it is the guarantor of Jahve’s presence in the midst of His people. Therefore the prophesies on the ruin of the temple (Mc. 13:1, 14:58, Mt.26:61, etc.) are equivalent to true prophesies of the ruin of the people of God. By tying however its ruin with His own death and resurrection (John 2:19-22), the Lord proclaims Himself as the new Temple: “Behold, I make all things new” (Rev. 21:5).
Reading: Ephesians 2:19-22
“So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God (οἰκεῖοι τοῦ Θεοῦ, God’s own people), built (ἐποικοδομηθέντες) upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure (οἰκοδομή) is joined together and grows into a holy temple (ναὸν ἅγιον) in the Lord; in whom you also are built (συνοικοδομεῖσθε) into it for a dwelling place (κατοικητήριον) of God in the Spirit.”
3. Image of the Church as a body (one body, head and members)
Now we move on to one of the most characteristic images of the Church in Saint Paul’s writings, that of a body (cf. pertinent references above). This image has profound implications for the life of the Church.
Reading: Ephesians 1:22-23
“And He has put all things under His feet and has made Him the head over all things for the Church, which is His Body, the fulness of Him who fills all in all.”
Reading: Ephesians 4:11-16
“And His gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up (εἰς οἰκοδομήν) the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ; so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into Him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds (εἰς οἰκοδομήν) itself in love.”
Reading: 1 Cor. 12:12-27
“For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the organs in the body, each one of them, as He chose. If all were a single organ, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the parts of the body which seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those parts of the body which we think less honorable we invest with the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior part, that there may be no discord in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. Now you are the Body of Christ and individually members of it.”
- Just who belongs to the Body of Christ?
- How does one belong to the Body of Christ?
4. Image of the Church as a vineyard
Reading: Matthew 21:33-41 (and parallel)
“There was a householder who planted a vineyard, and set a hedge around it, and dug a wine press in it, and built a tower, and let it out to tenants, and went into another country. When the season of fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants, to get his fruit; and the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other servants, more than the first; and they did the same to them. Afterward he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ And they took him and cast him out of the vineyard, and killed him. When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ They said to Him, ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and let out the vineyard to those tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons’”.
The parable of the vineyard draws from the famous Song of the Vineyard in prophet Isaiah, a clear image of the Church, as it is revealed by its last verse:
Reading: Isaiah 5:1-7
“Let me sing for my beloved a love song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He digged it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; and he looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah, judge, I pray you, between me and my vineyard. What more was there to do for my vineyard, that I have not done in it? When I looked for it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes? And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and briers and thorns shall grow up; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it. For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting; and he looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, a cry!”
The image of the Church as a vine is also described in Psalm 80:
Reading: Psalm 80:8-15
“Thou didst bring a vine out of Egypt; Thou didst drive out the nations and plant it. Thou didst clear the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land. The mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches; it sent out its branches to the sea, and its shoots to the River. Why then hast Thou broken down its walls, so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit? The boar from the forest ravages it, and all that move in the field feed on it. Turn again, O God of hosts! Look down from heaven, and see; have regard for this vine, the vineyard which Thy right hand planted.”
(Note: Orthodox Christians will recognize the last two lines, spoken by the bishop when he blesses the people during the divine Liturgy.)
Image of the Church as a grapevine and its branches
Reading: John 15:1-8
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, He takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit… Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples.”
- What does it mean to “abide” in Him?
- Who is “with” Him, and who is “apart” from Him?
Article graphics and editing: Tony Hatzidakis