What Is the Body of Christ?

Study the three-fold meaning of the body of Christ in Christianity

Body of Christ
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The body of Christ is a term with three different but related meanings in Christianity. First and foremost, it refers to the Christian church all over the world. Second, it describes the physical body Jesus Christ took on in the incarnation, when God became a human being. Third, it is a term several Christian denominations use for the bread in communion.

In the Bible, the meaning of the term is determined by its context. References to the church as the body of Christ far outnumber the other two usages.

Key Takeaways

  • The body of Christ is also referred to as the universal Church, the Christian church, incarnation, and Eucharist
  • Christ had to have a physical body to be a fitting sacrifice for humanity's sins. Only the shedding of his blood saves believers from hell.
  • Christian churches remember Jesus' Last Supper through the practice of communion.

The Church Is the Body of Christ

The Christian church officially came into being on the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles gathered in a room in Jerusalem. After the apostle Peter preached about God's plan of salvation, 3,000 people were baptized and became followers of Jesus.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, the great church planter Paul called the church the body of Christ, using a metaphor of the human body. The various parts--eyes, ears, nose, hands, feet, and others--have individual jobs, Paul said. Each is also part of the whole body, just as each believer receives spiritual gifts to function in their individual role in the body of Christ, the church.

Until the Reformation in the 1500s, there was only one church: the Roman Catholic Church. As Protestant churches were established, differences in doctrine led to a "them vs. us" mentality that carried well into the 20th century. However, ongoing efforts at ecumenism in the past hundred years have healed many rifts, leading again to the attitude of all Christian churches as the body of Christ.

The church is sometimes called the "mystical body" because all believers do not belong to the same earthly organization or denomination, yet they are united in unseen ways, such as salvation in Christ, mutual acknowledgement of Christ as the head of the church, indwelling by the same Holy Spirit, and as recipients of Christ's righteousness. Physically, all Christians function as Christ's body in the world. They do his missionary work, evangelism, charity, healing, and worship God the Father.

The Physical Body

In the second definition of the body of Christ, church doctrine states Jesus came to dwell on earth as a human being, born of a woman but conceived by the Holy Spirit, making him without sin. He was fully man and fully God. He died on the cross as a willing sacrifice for the sins of humanity then was raised from the dead.

Over the centuries, various heresies arose, misinterpreting the bodily nature of Christ. Docetism taught that Jesus just appeared to have a physical body but was not truly a man. Apollinarianism said Jesus had a divine mind but not a human mind, denying his full humanity. Monophysitism claimed Jesus was a type of hybrid, neither human nor divine but a mixture of both.

God's plan of salvation demanded that Jesus come to earth as a human being. Only a human being could be the sacrifice for human sin, and Christ, the Sinless One, was the sole man qualified as a spotless offering.

Further, God declared that only blood could make atonement for sin (Leviticus 17:11), so Jesus had to be a human being who could bleed and die.

Ironically, the Gospels do not tell us what Jesus looked like. In the Transfiguration, he is majestically described in his glorified body, a far cry from his everyday appearance. The descriptions of him in the book of Revelation also reveal a divine being, not a common human being.

His ordinariness as a man is hinted at by the prophet Isaiah:

He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. (Isaiah 53:2, NIV)

The earliest depictions of Christ were mosaics in ancient churches. When European artists began showing him in paintings, he was portrayed with light skin, hair, and eyes, not as a typical first century Jew.

The Body of Christ in Communion

Finally, the third use of body of Christ as a term is found in the communion doctrines of several Christian denominations. This is taken from Jesus' words at the Last Supper: "And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:19, NIV

These churches believe the real presence of Christ exists in the consecrated bread: Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Coptic Christians, Lutherans, and Anglican/Episcopalian. Christian Reformed and Presbyterian churches believe in a spiritual presence. Churches that teach the bread is a symbolic memorial only include Baptists, Calvary Chapel, Assemblies of God, Methodists, and Jehovah's Witnesses.

Eating this body of Christ unites the communicant with Jesus in a way most churches do not attempt to explain. For many people, it is the most sacred moment of the worship service.

Bible References to the Body of Christ

Romans 7:4, 12:5; 1 Corinthians 10:16-17, 12:25, 12:27; Ephesians 1:22-23; 4:12, 15-16, 5:23; Philippians 2:7; Colossians 1:24; Hebrews 10:5, 13:3.