The Apostle Paul used the “body of Christ” metaphor as his way to identify the collective Son of God. He used this term for the local church, all baptized Christians within a local community in fellowship with one another, with Jesus Christ as the head of the body. That this is local is evident from his following statement which can only apply to a local setting, not to all Christians everywhere.
1 Cor. 12:24-27 (NKJV) 24 … But God composed the body, having given greater honor to that part which lacks it, 25 that there should be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another. 26 And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it. 27 Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually.
Thus, Jesus Christ is the “head” of each faithful local church.
Eph. 1:22-23 (NKJV) 22 And He put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, 23 which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.
Yet, while Paul viewed the local church as the current expression of the “body of Christ” in this age, He also looked forward to the day when all of Jesus’ elect will be gathered together in one grand assembly together with Him.
Hebrews 12:22-24 (LGV) 22 But you have approached toward Mount Zion, the city of the living God, Jerusalem of heavenly dominion, and tens of thousands of messengers, 23 toward the universal congregation and assembly of first-produced ones having been preregistered in the skies, and toward God the Judge of all, and toward the breaths of the just ones who have been perfected, 24 and toward Jesus, the administrator of the New Covenant and the blood of sprinkling that says better things than Abel.
This is the “universal church,” the assembly of all of Jesus’ elect together with Him. Notice that Paul referred to the complete gathering of all of the faithful, which includes the resurrected saints of the Old Testament, as “the universal congregation and assembly of first-produced ones having been preregistered in the skies.” The NASB renders this statement as: “the general assembly and church of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven.” This rendering can easily be misunderstood, with the term “first-born” referring to Christ Himself. But the Greek word translated “first-born” is plural not singular, which is why a few English translations have “first-born ones.” This distinction is very important because the whole collective of the redeemed, having been resurrected and gathered at Jesus’ return, is referred to as “the first-born” or “first-produced” (ones – plural).
Yet, the Son of God is called by Paul “the first-produced (or first-begotten) of all creation.” Paul used the same term πρωτότοκος (lit. first-produced) for the Son of God (in the singular) and all of the redeemed (in the plural). Paul and his readers were also familiar with God’s statement to Moses in Exodus 4:32. “Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD: “Israel is My son, My firstborn. So I say to you, let My son go that he may serve Me. But if you refuse to let him go, indeed I will kill your son, your firstborn”.’” (NKJV). The word “first-born” in the LXX is πρωτότοκος, “first-produced,” the same word used by Paul in Colossians 1:15 and Hebrews 12:23. This raises the question: How many “first-born” (first-produced) Sons can God have? The answer is ONE, the one John repeatedly called “the only-begotten” Son of the Father. He was and is “the first-produced of all creation,” and the “only-begotten Son.” But Israel, under the Mosaic Covenant, was joined to the Son of God, thus Israel collectively was “My Son, My first-born.” The Messenger of Yahweh was the Son of God, the one who led them through the wilderness, and who was God’s agent in establishing the covenant on Mt. Sinai, upon whom was God’s personal name. He was “the image of the invisible God, first-produced of all creation.”
Exod. 23:20-23 (NKJV) 20 “Behold, I send an Angel [lit. Messenger] before you to keep you in the way and to bring you into the place which I have prepared. 21 Beware of Him and obey His voice; do not provoke Him, for He will not pardon your transgressions; for My name is in Him. 22 But if you indeed obey His voice and do all that I speak, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries. 23 For My Angel will go before you and bring you in to the Amorites and the Hittites and the Perizzites and the Canaanites and the Hivites and the Jebusites; and I will cut them off.”
Judges 2:1-4 (NKJV) 1 Then the Angel of the LORD came up from Gilgal to Bochim, and said: “I led you up from Egypt and brought you to the land of which I swore to your fathers; and I said, ‘I will never break My covenant with you. 2 And you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall tear down their altars.’ But you have not obeyed My voice. Why have you done this? 3 Therefore I also said, ‘I will not drive them out before you; but they shall be thorns in your side, and their gods shall be a snare to you.’” 4 So it was, when the Angel of the LORD spoke these words to all the children of Israel, that the people lifted up their voices and wept.
Consequently, Paul did not invent the idea of those in covenant relationship with the Son as being the collective “Son” of God, His “first-produced” (first-born). This was already established regarding Israel under the Law which had been contracted with them on Mount Sinai through the Messenger of Yahweh, God’s “only-begotten Son,” the “first-produced of all creation.” Paul simply extended this principle to New Covenant believers, those grafted into the Olive Tree, since most of the natural branches had been broken off and no longer partook of the root.
As mentioned earlier, Paul viewed the “body of Christ” primarily from a local church perspective. The general assembly and church of the first-produced ones (the universal church) was yet future awaiting the second coming of Jesus Christ and the resurrection and gathering of the entire collective Son of God.
After Paul’s martyrdom about AD 66, John took up the task of shepherding the local churches among the gentiles which were the results of Paul’s ministry. John settled in Ephesus after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. Under John’s apostolic leadership, the Ephesian church became the headquarters of apostolic Christianity and authority until after John’s death about thirty years later. John’s purpose was to reinforce Paul‘s earlier teachings, especially to the Gentiles, and to head off the Gnostic heresies which were being developed by false teachers within some of the churches misusing Paul’s letters.
Paul’s letters had been written to individual local churches and/or leaders of local churches. This is probably why Paul tended to take a local church perspective regarding the “body of Christ.” But John, in his new role as the last remaining living apostle, was the sole remaining apostolic authority with whom all the churches of Asia Minor could have contact. John’s Gospel and his first epistle were not directed to any specific local church, but to all of the churches under his supervision and influence. As such, it should not be surprising that he took a more inclusive and universal tone in instructing the “body of Christ.”
This was, no doubt, the reason that John used these phrases:
- πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων “the whole believing (collective)”
- πᾶς ὁ γεγεννημένος “the whole having been begotten (collective)”
- πᾶς ὁ ἀγαπῶν “the whole loving (collective)”
The first clause, πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων “the whole believing (collective)” was used by Paul in Romans 10:11, but only when quoting Isaiah 28:16 where this whole collective concept is found. Peter also used it once in Acts 10:43, saying that “all the prophets testify” to this. John used this clause as his own words in his editorial comments in his Gospel and his first epistle. However, he recorded that Jesus spoke these words Himself in John 12:44-46: “But Jesus cried out and said, ‘The one believing unto Me is not believing unto Me, but unto the one sending Me. And the one seeing Me sees the one sending Me. I have come a light into the world so that the whole [entity] believing unto Me should not remain in darkness.” (LGV)
Note the contrast between ὁ πιστεύων (the one believing) in v. 44 and πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων (the whole believing) in vs. 46. This statement by Jesus is chronologically the first time this language is used in the New Testament, since the others in John’s Gospel were his commentary written from Ephesus decades after Jesus’ ascension. Jesus, no doubt like Paul, was implicitly referencing a theme found in the prophets, including Isaiah 28:16, “The whole believing upon Him [entity] shall not be ashamed.”
The other two clauses, πᾶς ὁ γεγεννημένος “the whole having been begotten (collective)” and πᾶς ὁ ἀγαπῶν “the whole loving (collective),” are unique to John’s writings. In part 4 we take a closer look at these.
 Acts 7:35,38
 Rom. 11
 2 Pet. 3:14-18
 Hebrews was probably written to the Jerusalem church in light of the impending destruction of Jerusalem.