As I explained in the “Introduction” of this series, I am stepping through the passages in the New Testament in which the authors (primarily Paul – perhaps only Paul) use the term “body” in a metaphorical sense. As I read through these passages, I’m going to be asking these kinds of questions: What is Paul comparing to a “body”? What comparison is he making? At what point does it seem the comparison ends? How is this usage similar to or different from other usages?
Now, the term “body” is found often in Scripture. It usually refers to an actual body… that is, a person physical body. But, there are a few times when the term “body” does not refer to a person’s physical body, but is used in a metaphorical sense. I’ve already discussed the usages of “body” in Romans 12:4-5, 1 Corinthians 10-11, 1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians, and Colossians and in this post I’ll look at the use of the term body in Hebrews 13:3.
Here is the passage in its context:
Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body. Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous. Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have… (Hebrews 13:1-5 ESV)
There is very little explanation about the use of “body” in this particular passage. The author wants his readers to “Remember those who are in prison… and those who are mistreated,” because the readers are also “in the body.” The connection with the phrase “as though in prison with them” is important, I think. It shows what it means to be “in the body” – it means that you are still connected with one another even though they are physically separated by prison bars.
While “body” here certainly points to a community or corporate unity as we’ve before, this usage is not really the “unity in diversity” illustration that we’ve seen in other letters. Similarly, there’s no indication that the “body/head” connection is in view in this particular metaphor, and the “body” is not specifically described as either belonging to Christ or resulting from being “in Christ” as we’ve seen before.
The “body” connections pointed to in Hebrews 13:3 is closest to the connections illustrated in 1 Corinthians 12:26 –
If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. (1 Corinthians 12:26 ESV)
As far as I can tell, these two uses of the term “body” (1 Corinthians 12:26 and Hebrews 13:3) are unique among the various uses of the metaphor. Only in these two instances do the authors use the “body” metaphor to indicate a close emotional association between the parts of the community.
Finally, if you haven’t noticed before, this final use of the term “body” is found in the Book of Hebrews. The authorship of Hebrews is contested. So, since “body” is only used metaphorically here and in the letters of Paul, this would be a stylistic or linguistic indicator in favor of Pauline authorship of Hebrews. (Of course, you can’t build an entire argument for Pauline authorship of Hebrews on the metaphorical use of the term “body,” but it could be one part of an extended argument.)
So, in Hebrews 13:3, the author uses the “body” metaphor to point to the close personal connection between parts of the community, even if they are physically separated from one another (because one or more are in prison).
“Body of Christ” Metaphor Series
- Romans 12:4-5
- 1 Corinthians 10-11
- 1 Corinthians 12
- Hebrews 13:3