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Let’s play a word-association game. Here’s a word: “church”. What’s the next word that springs to your mind? You may have named a particular person you know at church. Or you may have identified an emotion related to church: excitement, guilt, gratitude, boredom, joy, pain, disappointment, inspiration, optimism, fear, love, anger, encouragement, frustration, refreshment, exhaustion, or something else. You may have thought of something to do with church gatherings, church music, church worship, church community, church buildings, church outreach, church leadership, church abuse, church reform, church doctrine, church family, church structures, church systems, church finances, church rosters, church politics, church councils, church unity, church priorities, church growth, or church planting. You may have in mind the timing of church, the mission of the church, the purpose of the church, the reputation of the church, the size of the church, the priority of the church, the location of the church, the use of the church, or the health of the church.
Here in Ephesians 1:22–23, for the first time in his letter, the apostle Paul uses the word “church”. He’s taken quite some time to get to this point. That might make you think that the church isn’t very important to Paul. But actually, the reverse is true. This is a climactic statement. So far in Ephesians, Paul has poured out his praise to God for his blessings and plans and purposes. He has told his readers how he is praying for knowledge and hope and strength in God. Now, finally, at the highest peak of this amazing prayer, Paul names “the church”. So what is the first thing Paul has to say about the church? What is the word he associates most closely with the church? What matters most to Paul when it comes to the church?
The answer is, in fact, obvious. It’s so obvious that you might think it doesn’t need to be said. You might even wonder why Paul bothers saying it, when there are so many other more practical things he could say about the church. But while it might seem obvious, it needs to be said first. Why? Because it’s so easy to assume it. Yet without it, nothing else about the church makes sense.
And God subjected everything under Christ’s feet, and he gave him, the head over all things, to the church, which is his body, the fulfilment of the one who is being fulfilled in all things in every way.Ephesians 1:22–23
The first thing to say about church is, of course: Christ. There are three things to say about Christ and the church. Firstly, Christ is the head over all. Secondly, Christ is for the church. And thirdly, the church is for Christ.
Christ is the head over all
Before we come to talk about Christ and the church, we need to remember who Christ actually is. Paul reminds us that “God subjected everything under Christ’s feet”. This is a reference to Psalm 8 in the Old Testament. The Psalm is about the place of human beings in God’s creation. Even though we human beings are so small and seem so insignificant—especially when we look up at the stars and see how much greater God is—God has made us the rulers over his creation. He has “put everything under his [i.e. humanity’s] feet”. That’s what the Psalm says: that human beings are (surprisingly!) the pinnacle of God’s creation. But as Paul quotes the Psalm, he sees a new dimension in it. It’s actually all about Christ. Christ is the fulfilment of God’s plans for his universe. Everything is under his feet. That means Christ is the “head”—the ruler over all things.
This isn’t a new idea in Ephesians. Back in Ephesians 1:10, Paul had already said that God’s great plan is “to sum up all things in Christ”. God is bringing everything in the universe to the point of honouring and serving Christ. That’s something we need to remember, so that we can understand what Paul says next.
Christ is for the church
Christ, the pinnacle and focus and centre of God’s plans for the universe, is for the church! God “gave him, the head over all things, to the church”. The ruler of the universe is for us! This is an amazing truth, a gift beyond imagining, which gives us strength to live in the face of powers that might scare us and threaten us (see verse 21). How has God given Christ to the church? Through giving Jesus to die on the cross, so our offenses can be forgiven (see verse 7). And through giving the Holy Spirit, who seals us as God’s possession in Christ (verse 13).
That’s great. Christ is for us. But why doesn’t Paul just say that God gave Christ “to us”? Why does he say that God gave Christ “to the church”? The word “church” means a “gathering” of people. Paul says it like this because it’s not just that God has given Christ to each of us individually, so that we can each be strengthened by ourselves. He has given Christ to us together. God is gathering us together. And that idea of being gathered together really matters. Why? Because of what Paul says next.
The church is for Christ
It’s not only that Christ is for the church. The church is for Christ! Paul speaks about the church as Christ’s “body” and Christ’s “fulfilment”. In other words, the church is central to God’s great plans for the universe in Christ (verse 10). Paul has already said that God’s purpose is for “all things” to be summed up in Christ (verse 10). But here, he says that these plans aren’t just huge cosmic plans that have nothing to do with us. God’s plans have a special focus: the church. We believers, as we are gathered together in Christ, are central to God fulfilling his plans for the universe. That’s another amazing truth, isn’t it? We who have come to trust and know Jesus and receive these spiritual blessings—we exist especially to make him great. We are his “fulfilment”. That means our lives are all about him. And that’s true, not only for us as individuals, but for us together, as “the church” is gathered.
What, then does that tell us about church? It tells us the most important things! Most fundamentally, it tells us about the purpose of church. We exist for the sake of Christ. As we are brought together by the gospel message about Jesus Christ, we are fulfilling God’s plans for his universe. This means that church isn’t only about what things are like now—it’s about heading for the future, when all things will be summed up in Christ. It also tells us that the church is a heavenly reality. Christ is now risen from the dead and seated with God “in the heavenly places”. So we can’t make sense of church just by thinking about it as an earthly reality in the here and now. Church is not just an institution or community or organisation. It is a purposeful, future-focused, heavenly reality, because it is the fulfilment of the risen Christ who is now ruling in the heavenly realms.
Yet this doesn’t mean that the church has nothing to do with the here and now. The church is also Christ’s “body”. That word suggests something “embodied” and earthly. It means that what happens on earth matters, among us who live in bodies that aren’t yet risen from the dead. Paul doesn’t say much about that earthly reality at this point. But as we go on in Ephesians, and especially when we get to chapter 4, we read more about what Paul says about the church as Christ’s “body”. It’s fundamentally about the mission of the gospel. Paul talks about the risen and ascended Christ “descending” to earth, through his Spirit, to equip people for gospel ministry and mission. As the truth of the gospel is spoken and believed and lived out in love, Christ’s body is built and united. And this gospel mission is how God is fulfilling his plans for his universe.
What to say about church
There is a lot more to say about church, isn’t there? All those questions about people, family, gatherings, community, leadership, structures, priorities, mission: they all matter. But they are not the first thing. And if we only ever talk about those things, we will miss the first thing. The first thing is Christ. Christ, the head of all things, is for the church. And the church is for Christ, who is the head of all things.
Let’s never forget that. Let’s not just assume it, as if it’s so obvious we don’t need to say it. Paul says it. We need to say it. This is the first thing to say about the church: Christ is for the church, and the church is for Christ.
How might these verses change the way you think about church?
What is one concrete way that these verses might change the way you act towards your own church?
This post is part of a series of ~70 reflections covering every sentence in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. You can see all the posts so far, and subscribe to receive updates via email, audio podcast, and social media, by following this link.
The academic details behind these reflections
In this series, I don’t go into detail justifying every statement I make about the background and meaning of Ephesians. I’ve done that elsewhere. If you’re interested in the reasons I say what I say here, and want to chase it up further with lots of ancient Greek, technical stuff, and footnotes, check out my book Reading Ephesians and Colossians After Supersessionism: Christ’s Mission through Israel to the Nations.