Christ: Head of the Church

September 30, 2012 / No. 3639

Dear Radio Friends,
The letter to the Ephesians is the Bible’s great treatise on the church. The designation “church” is used for the first time in this letter in the verses we would consider today. These are the last two verses of Ephesians 1, that is, verses 22 and 23. “And hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all.”
Though it is true that Paul mentions the word church for the first time in these verses, that does not mean he has not expounded the doctrine of the church prior to these verses. We already found, in the address of this epistle, that Paul addresses the church in Ephesus. In our last broadcast we learned that the church of Jesus Christ is made up on those whom God has chosen or elected unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ. Everything this letter to the Ephesians teaches us about the church, therefore, is rooted in sovereign, free election. What we learn of the church today, too, is grounded in that truth. So, though the term “church” is first used in the verses we study today, this whole chapter has defined for us already somewhat the doctrine of the church.
The focus of these verses before us is not really the church as much as it is Jesus Christ. They speak of Christ as the head of the church. What we study today, therefore, is the relationship of Christ to His church and why such a relationship exists.
A proper understanding of our text today hinges on what it means to be a head. We read of that figure in verse 22: God gave, or has set, Christ to be “head over all things.” In verse 23 Paul uses the term “head” in relation to the body: our head dictates to the various members of the body what to do. When the head, or the brain in our heads, sends an order to the mouth to speak, the mouth speaks. When it sends an order to the feet to move, we walk, and so on. The head of the body dictates what the body does. The body, therefore, is subject to the head.
Well, such is Christ. He is given by God to be head, or to be ruler, over the church in all things. One who is a head is a master or lord. We use this word in that sense all the time. We refer to the head of state, or speak of a person heading a project. So this idea is certainly not foreign to us.
The term as used in the verse we consider makes reference to one’s preeminence over others. Christ has the preeminence. He is supreme ruler over all things and, in that connection, ruler of the church as well. Everything is subject to Him.
This figure is supported by the rest of verse 22. There we learn: God has “put all things under his feet.” Now, here is another figure Paul uses. This figure is a little more puzzling perhaps, because we do not use it anymore, but it was well understood by the saints then. You see, when a king defeated another nation’s army and another nation’s king in battle, there was a certain ritual that was held with the surrender of that defeated king. The king whose army defeated the armies of the other nation would force the defeated king to the ground and would put his foot on the neck of that defeated king. We read this, for example, in Joshua 10:24-26. This, then, is where the expression “and has put all things under his feet” comes from.
Through His cross and resurrection, Christ has won a great victory over His enemies. As a result of that victory, God puts all things under His feet. That is to say, everything in heaven and on earth has become subject to the rule of Jesus Christ, and He reigns supreme over all. He has conquered His enemies. Every knee in heaven and on earth must bow to Him. We will come back to this in a moment after considering how Christ attained unto the position of head over all things.
We learn of how Christ attained unto this position of highest glory in verse 20. There we learn that God wrought this power in Christ “when he raised him.” It becomes clear that Christ attained unto His headship by means of His death, resurrection, and, really, His ascension, too. These are great events in the exaltation of Jesus Christ, events that the church even commemorates every year. Christ earned His place as head over all things when He died, first of all. Christ went to the cross as our conquering king. There He fought a battle against our enemies: sin, Satan, and the wicked world. There He won the battle. Christ defeated the hold of sin over us. Christ crushed the head or power and rule of Satan over us. And Christ has overcome the wicked world. This victory Christ received from God when God raised Him from the dead. By means of the resurrection, Christ proved that sin and the grave had no hold over Him. He rose from the dead a victor. It was then that He put His foot on the neck of Satan. Christ now lives, instilling in us His resurrection life so that we live in connection with Him.
Then we read that God set Christ at His own right hand in heavenly places. Christ rules in heaven, supreme in might and power. All things have been subdued by Him and, therefore, everything is subject to His will. He has been given the preeminence, we learn in Colossians 1:18. He is now become the head of all things. This, then, is the way Christ has attained to His headship. He earned it through the work of the cross and He received it from God in His resurrection and His ascension to God’s right hand.
Now, we have not yet addressed the scope of Christ’s headship. We have not yet tied Christ’s headship together with the church, His body. And that, too, the passage before us does. We read in verse 22, “And gave him to be the head over all things to the church.” Now, we might think, when we read this verse superficially, that the headship of Christ is much more general than just over His church. His headship is said here to be over all things, and therefore the conclusion that is assumed in verse 23 that just the church is His body—well, that cannot be true. But if Christ is head over all, then everyone in this world, wicked and righteous alike—indeed, even the fallen angels in heaven—belong to Christ’s body. That is not the idea expressed here.
The idea is this. God gave Christ to be the head to the church. Or, Christ is the head pertaining to the church. Or, more simply yet, Christ is the head of the church. And, as head of the church, He also rules over all things on behalf of the church. We must not overlook the beautiful truth that Paul is teaching his church here. By means of His death, resurrection, and ascension to God’s right hand, Christ has been given the power and the preeminence over all creatures. He rules. He rules over all things—the brute creation, the nations of this world. He even rules over all principalities, powers, might, and dominion in heaven. In other words, Christ’s rule indeed does extend over men—the wicked as well as the righteous. Christ’s rule does extend over the nations of this world and what happens in the governments of this world. Christ’s rule extends over the highest and most powerful angels, including the devils who have fallen together with Satan. All are under Christ’s sovereign rule. And Christ rules over these, for the benefit of His church over which He is the head. As the head of the church, He directs all things in this world for her protection and her care. Christ, and all the blessings found in Him, are God’s gift to the church.
Neither ought we to overlook that He is God’s gift. God put all things under Christ’s feet. God gave Christ to be the head of the church. God does this. Why? In order to fulfill His plan or counsel to bring glory to His name through the salvation of the church unto Himself. We may not divorce the instruction of these verses from the election of the church. God chooses His church, in eternity, and He loves that church with an unchangeable love. He gives the church her head, Jesus Christ, out of that sovereign, free love and grace.
Ah, yes. The church. Here at the end of this first chapter, we are given the official name of the saints and faithful whom Paul addressed in verses 1 and 2. Together, these saints and faithful are the church. And that church is the body of Christ.
Paul uses the figure he began in verse 22, where he calls Christ the head of the church: Christ is the head, the church is His body. This is a figure common to Scripture. Paul uses this figure to describe the church, for example, in I Corinthians 12, where he spends much time speaking of the members of Christ’s body and their relationship to each other. Paul will use this figure throughout Ephesians. And it is common, likewise, in Colossians. The figure is a beautiful one. The church as a whole is one unit, that is, one living organism, one entity together with Christ. When we spoke of the election of the church, we noticed that the church was chosen in eternity already in Christ. God has never viewed the church apart from Jesus Christ, not even when He predestinated her. When speaking of the church, therefore, in the verses before us, we can define her, first of all, as that body of people elected in Christ from eternity. Every member of the church is elect, chosen of God, to be a member of that body.
In the second place, the church is that body of saints saved in Christ. This was specifically that body of people whom God gave to Christ, for whom He died on the cross. Jesus recognized this when He said in John 6:37, “All that the Father giveth me shall come to me.” Or, again, in John 10:14: “I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep.” Or, once more, in John 17:6: “I have manifested thy name unto the men which thou gavest me out of the world: thine they were, and thou gavest them me.” This is exactly why the church is called the body of Christ. It is made up of those people out of this world whom Christ loved and laid down His life to save. The names of these are written in the Lamb’s book of life. They belong to Jesus in such a way that they are inseparably connected to Him as one flesh.
Further, this body of people, the church, is that over which Christ stands as its head. He rules this body. He is its king. Her members are the citizens of this kingdom. Just as the members of the body are subject to the head and willingly fulfill exactly what the head wills, so also the members of the church.
Further, this church is united to Jesus Christ in one flesh because the church consists of those who have been called out of darkness and into that church. The term “church” literally means “called out ones.” The church is made up of all those who have been irresistibly called out of sin by God’s grace in His Holy Spirit. No man of himself would desire to come to Jesus and to be a part of His body in this world. But God, who is rich in His mercy, while we were yet sinners sent forth His Spirit to dwell within each one of His chosen people. As a result, they hear the call of the gospel. And by God grace, they separate themselves from this wicked world of sin and cast in their lot with the saints and faithful in Christ Jesus. They do this by means of faith. God works faith in their hearts, that is, a conscious knowledge and confidence by which they flee to Christ. They seek their salvation in Him and they join together with the other members of Christ’s body. That is the church.
There is more to the definition of the church, however. The term “church” means those who are called out to assemble in worship. The church is a gathering of citizens called out of their homes into an assembly gathered for worship. This stands in keeping with the Old Testament definition of the church. This means, dear readers, that the term “church” does not simply refer to a vague, ill-defined body of people that have little to do with each other. It refers to the church institute, as she is called out of this world and unto the assembling of itself together. Yes, the body of Christ as the body of elect believers must needs be distinguished from the church institute where these believers gather for worship. But, to make a false disjunction between the two is wrong. The elect body of Christ always manifests itself in the church institute. And this church institute manifests itself, in turn, in the gathering together of that body of believers in worship. In the house of God, in our very worship, we manifest the body of Christ, the church.
Now, the implications of this Word of God are very plain. In the first place, Christ, as the head of the church, fulfills all the needs of the church and her members. Paul calls this to our attention in verse 23 when he states that Christ is He that fills “all in all.” This simply means that Christ supplies all the needs of everyone of the members of the church. Christ is head not only in the sense that He rules the body, but also in that He takes care of the members of His body. Every need that any one of the members of His body has is filled by Christ. He fills those needs in all, that is, every member of the church.
And this, in turn, means that in times of trouble, when we need comfort, courage, and strength, we turn to God alone in Christ. When we seek direction in the right way to walk, we ask God through Christ. We may pray to no one else. To do so is an insult to God. We do not need to pray to deceased saints. They have no ability to supply our needs. To ask favors of angels is pure superstition. Angels, too, are useless when it comes to supplying our needs. The angels have no authority to do anything of themselves. God alone, through Christ, fills us all in all. These only supply our needs. Ask of them and it shall be given unto you.
There are a couple of other applications of these verses that are clear too. First of all, there is only one head of the church, that is Christ. There is no other head. No man can fill that position. For a man to claim to be the head of the church, or the vicar of Christ, is the height of folly and arrogance. The Bible is clear in II Thessalonians 2:3, 4 that a man who makes this claim is that man of sin, the son of perdition. He is the wicked one who sits in the temple of God making the claim that he is God. Christ alone is the head of the church, and He gives that position to no man. All church government must be based upon this one fundamental principle: Christ alone is the sole head and the ruler of the church.
One final application. If the church is indeed the assembly of those called out to worship, then we must realize that the church exists to worship. The body of Christ in this world is called to assemble itself together in order to worship. The reason is clear. It is by the praises of the church met together in worship that God chooses to glorify Himself. This is the purpose of God’s counsel—to bring glory to Himself through His church. And this He does when He calls His church to worship.
It is often argued that having two worship services every Sunday is merely unnecessary tradition. And, I suppose, in a certain sense, that is true. But then, meeting once each Sunday is tradition too. But meeting in worship on the Lord’s Day is a practice that flows out of the very purpose of God for His church. We are called out of the darkness of sin in order to show forth God’s praises. The church is called out of this wicked world and into an assembly as a body, as a whole, in order to praise God in worship. This is why God has set apart the first day of the week as a day of rest—so that the body of Christ, the church, might become manifest in a worship.
This, in turn, reveals what Paul also writes in verse 23. The church is the body of Christ, “the fulness of him.” The church is the fullness of Christ. It is true that Christ fills the needs of every one of His children. He fills all in all. But, on the flip-side of the picture, we find that the church is Christ’s fullness. We are the body of Christ. A head is never without a body. Christ is never without the church. In a certain sense, we could say that Christ is incomplete without the church. We fill Him. This is true because Christ was elected as the chief cornerstone of the church. Christ was chosen in eternity as the firstborn among many brethren. We belong to Him, chosen and saved, as one body with Him. Right now that picture is so fragmented. The body of Christ is scattered throughout this world. And it is so small and so despised. Besides, the body of Christ is spread out through the annals of history. We cannot see that body of Christ as a whole. But the day comes, my friends, when that body of Christ will be seen in all its fullness. Then our faith will be made sight. We will see that glorious body of Christ with all its members in heavenly glory.
But until then, we see that body of Christ only in the church as she becomes visible in this world through the walk and witness of her members. And we see her when she gathers together for worship on Sunday. Oh, how the believer enjoys that time when he can be with his fellow saints and faithful in Christ. In the house of God we experience a little taste of what heaven will be like. There is the fullness of Christ. I am not alone. I am a living member of the church of Christ.
Let us pray.
Father in heaven, we thank Thee that we are members of the body of Christ in this world and that we might be able, as Thy children, to gather together for worship. May our worship be to the praise of the glory of Thy name. Bless us, Father, as the members of Thy church. For Jesus’ sake we pray. Amen.