There seems to be a lot of confusion today in some cultures, including my own, about the Church. If you simply listen to people speak of the Church, it becomes obvious that their understanding of church is tied to a building and the events and programs held in that building.
However, no reality could be farther from the biblical image of the Church than this. The Church that we find in the Bible, which is our only model for what the Church must be today, more closely resembles a movement of people unified around a single, mobilizing mission. The Church was a people that prayed together, ate together, lived life together, and radically sacrificed for one another in ways that are foreign and strange to many of us.
Was There Church in the Old Testament?
Though the word, “church” is not found in Genesis 12, it is here that we begin to see the idea of a particular group of people set apart by God for His own purposes. This is not the beginning of the church, but its birth cannot be divorced from the words which God spoke to Abram when God said, “And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” (Genesis 12:2, ESV).
It is here that we are introduced to God’s intention to gather to Himself a particular people who will represent Him in His world. The phrase, “So that you will be a blessing,” is not merely a statement about what will be, it is an imperative statement about what must be. God is saying to Abram that his descendants are to be a blessing to those around them. God, of course, would reveal Himself and His power to all nations through plagues, miracles, and other great signs.
But when God set out to demonstrate His nature, character, and message, He purposed to accomplish this through a community of people. The greater context of Scripture confirms this through the prophet Isaiah when he says,
I am the LORD; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you; I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness (Isaiah 42:6-7, ESV).
When Did the New Testament Church Begin?
The New Testament opens with the Lord, Himself, echoing this same purpose for the people of God when He says, “You are the salt of the earth. . . .You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:13-14), which clearly speaks of the disciples’ influence and impact in the world. The word “church” has yet to be used in the Bible, but allusions to God’s people participating in God’s mission saturate each page of Scripture, and though many questions need to be answered, the one regarding the direction and movement of God’s people could not be clearer.
From Abram to Jesus, God’s people are always portrayed as a people moving outward to bless others as they faithfully bear witness to the presence of Christ and His kingdom. This movement will come into sharper focus with each turn of the page and will set the stage for us to recognize the Church when she is born and to understand the objective for which she was created.
It is in Matthew 16 that we first encounter the word, “church,” which in the original Greek is the word, ekklesia. It will help us to know that this word was not a uniquely Christian word in Jesus’ day. In the common language of that day, the word simply referred to a public assembly. But certainly, the church is more than a public assembly, is it not?
When Jesus spoke to Peter and announced to him that He would “build his church and the gates of Hades will not overpower it” (Matthew 16:18), undoubtedly, He must have had more in mind. How would Peter have understood Jesus’ use of this very common word? Would he have understood Jesus’ meaning in the fullest sense by which Jesus intended? Peter likely would have walked away scratching his head as he would do many times having heard the hard sayings of the Lord.
This gathered assembly would not be like any other, it would be the very embodiment of the Lord Jesus Himself, and it would be nothing less than the assembled community of saints whom He would redeem through His sinless life, death, burial, and resurrection (1 Timothy 1:15).
This ekklesia would become the very instrument through which the Spirit of Christ would further and complete the mission of God to extend his rule and reign into every part of creation until the earth is “filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14). But the question still remains. When was the Church born? Is it right to speak of the Old Testament saints as the Church?
Jesus Established the Church
In order to answer this question, let’s fast forward to the Book of Acts where we find the resurrected Christ addressing His disciples. Much has happened in the three years of Christ’s earthly ministry, but now He is literally moments from His kingly processional to take His rightful place on His heavenly throne.
And as redemptive history unfolds before our eyes, Luke tells us that the topic of Jesus’ last words before His departure was exactly the same that was on His lips at the beginning of His public life: The kingdom of God (Acts 1:3).
Christ did not come to earth to merely announce the coming of the kingdom of God. His coming was the signal that the kingdom had arrived in the person of Christ. The long-awaited kingdom, which had been spoken of by the prophets, was now a present reality!
The gospel writer tells us that Jesus commences His redemptive objective by quoting the prophet Isaiah and then announcing this staggering claim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:16-17).
The Kingdom of God was the central and dominant teaching of Jesus from the first day He opened His mouth to teach. However, with careful evaluation, one will see that the kingdom rule and reign of our God has been the dominant theme of the Bible since the garden (Genesis 1:26-28).
It has always been God’s intention to saturate creation with His glory by reigning and ruling through a people of His own choosing. This is what Peter meant when he said, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellences of Him who called you” (1 Peter 2:9).
On the Mount of Olives Jesus’ disciples stand gazing into the clouds stunned by what they’ve just witnessed and maybe more stunned by what they’ve just heard. Christ promises, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you will be my witnesses even to the remotest part of the earth” (Acts 1:8). As Jesus ascends into the heavens, His followers are certainly left with many questions, but those questions would soon be answered in a most dramatic manner.
The Early Church in Acts
The day of Pentecost was at hand, and the obedient disciples were praying and waiting as the Lord had instructed. What was about to happen would change the world and history as we know it.
The room where they were gathered was shaken and filled with the Spirit (Acts 2:2), in much the same way as they themselves would be filled with the Spirit (Acts 2:4) and not unlike God’s purpose to fill the world with His own presence.
At this moment, a birth had occurred. Reminiscent of God filling Adam’s lungs with the breath of life, the Holy Spirit, on the day of Pentecost, breathed the same breath into the Church and it became a living, breathing organism brought about for the purpose of bearing witness to the kingdom of God.
Why Does This Matter?
Never has it been more important than now for those of us who identify as Christ-followers to reacquaint ourselves with the biblical identity and purpose of the church, and the best way to do that is to revisit often the very birth of the Church so that the Holy Spirit might refocus and empower us to be the instrument which we were intended to be.
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Rick Kirby, along with his wife and children, live in Anderson, South Carolina. Rick serves as a corporate chaplain in the upstate of South Carolina, in addition to shepherding micro-church movements, which he does in partnership with the Evangelical Free Church in America and the Creo Collective. Rick has written as a freelance writer in the past with organizations such as The INJOY Group, InTouch Ministries, and Walk Through the Bible. Rick holds a Master of Divinity degree from Erskine Theological Seminary and presently is a Doctor of Ministry student at Erskine, as well. Through the years, Rick’s family has been deeply engaged in discipling efforts globally in Brazil, Ecuador and most recently in Puerto Rico. Among the many things Rick enjoys are woodworking in his woodshop and roasting (and drinking) coffee.