The Beginning and Distinctiveness of The Church

In light of the fact that Covenant Theology and Dispensational Theology disagree concerning when the Church began in history, the previous article examined four lines of evidence to the effect that the Church began on the Day of Pentecost of Acts 2. Those lines of evidence were as follows: First, the Church is not formed apart from the baptism with the Spirit, and Spirit baptism did not begin until the Day of Pentecost; second, Peter asserted that something new began when the believers were baptized with the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost; third, in his teaching concerning the mystery in Ephesians 3, Paul indicated that God intentionally waited until the time of the apostles and New Testament prophets to reveal to man knowledge concerning the Church and to reveal to angels the facets of His wisdom which the formation of the Church required to be exercised; and fourth, Paul presented teaching which indicated that the Church could not exist until after the death of Christ. The present article will present more evidence to the same effect.

The fifth line of evidence concerning the time when the Church began is as follows: The Church could not exist before the apostles and New Testament prophets. In Ephesians 2:11-16, Paul taught that God had started to do something new. In past ages, the Gentiles had been alienated from the Jews and had been “without God in the world” (v. 12), but during Paul’s lifetime, God started to bring Gentiles and Jews together as equals to form “one new man” (v. 15), “one body” (v. 16).

In Ephesians 2:19-22, Paul continued his teaching concerning this new work of God through the use of a metaphor – the metaphor of a building. He declared that Gentiles are no longer strangers and aliens, but are members of the “household of God” (v. 19). In 1 Timothy 3:15, Paul clearly stated that the household of God is the Church; therefore, in Ephesians 2:19, he was teaching that Gentiles are members of the Church.

Paul began to use the metaphor of a building by asserting that the members of the Church “are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets” (v. 20). Several things should be noted concerning this assertion. First, since the Church consists of its members, and since the members are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, then Paul was indicating that the Church itself is built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets. Second, since Paul was using the metaphor of a building, he was thereby pointing out the following: Just as a building has a foundation and superstructure, so the Church has a foundation and superstructure. The Church’s foundation consists of the apostles and prophets, and its superstructure consists of the other Church saints. Third, the prophets who, together with the apostles, make up the foundation of the Church are New Testament prophets, not Old Testament prophets. The context indicates that this is so, for in Ephesians 3:5, where Paul referred to the apostles and prophets again, he said, “as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets.” Through the use of the word “now,” Paul made it clear that the prophets to whom he referred were living during the time of himself and the other apostles. Fourth, since a building cannot be built without its foundation, and since the Church’s foundation consists of the apostles and New Testament prophets, then the Church could not have been built before the time of the apostles and New Testament prophets. According to Arndt and Gingrich the word which Paul used for “foundation” has the meaning of the indispensable prerequisites for something to come into being” in Ephesians 2:20.1  In other words, the Church could not come into being apart from the apostles and New Testament prophets.

The sixth line of evidence for when the Church began is Jesus’ promise in Matthew 16:18. Jesus said, “I will build my church.” The verb which is translated “will build” is future tense and indicative mood in the text, and “the future indicative expresses anticipation of an event in future time.” 2

The implication of Jesus’ statement is that the Church was not in existence when He said this. The Church would be something new which He would build in the future. Thus, Michel stated that the verb “will build” in Matthew 16:18 “denotes an eschatological act of Christ, a new authorisation by God. The Messiah will build . . . the new community.” 3

Prior to His Matthew 16:18 statement Jesus had been presenting Himself to Israel as its Messiah, the One who would set up the promised Theocratic Kingdom of God. He had claimed to be the Messiah (Jn. 10:24-25); through His miracles He had given Israel a foretaste of the miraculous powers by which Messiah would usher in the Theocratic Kingdom (Lk. 7:19-22; Jn. 10:25; 12:37; 20:30-31; Acts 2:22; Heb. 6:5); He had preached the gospel of the Kingdom: “Repent; for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt. 4:17, 23; 9:35), and He had commissioned His apostles to preach the gospel of the Kingdom and to perform the miracles associated with the Kingdom only to the people of Israel (Mt. 10:1-8).

In spite of Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah who would set up the Theocratic Kingdom, and in spite of the foretaste of miraculous kingdom powers which demonstrated the truthfulness of His claim, Israel was determined to reject Him and His claim (Jn. 12:37-41). This determination had become obvious before Jesus’ Matthew 16 declaration that He would build His Church. In Matthew 12, the religious leaders of Israel had begun to plot His death and to assert that Satan was the source of His miraculous powers. In Matthew 16, the apostles reported the reaction of the people to Jesus (vv. 13-14). The Jews were saying that He was John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the prophets, but they were not acclaiming Him to be the Messiah.

In light of Israel’s obvious determination, in Matthew 16 Jesus began to give His apostles several indications to the effect that things would change significantly for Him and His ministry. One indication was Jesus’ shocking declaration of His death and resurrection (v. 21). Matthew’s words, “From that time forth began Jesus to show unto his disciples, how he must   . . . be killed, and be raised again the third day,” reveal the fact that Jesus had never clearly declared His death and resurrection to the apostles prior to this time. Peter’s strong negative reaction to Jesus’ declaration (v. 22) indicates that this was a shocking new concept to the apostles and that the gospel of the Kingdom which they had been proclaiming for some time did not include the ideas of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection. Thus, through this shocking declaration Jesus was indicating that, instead of Israel accepting Him as its Messiah, it would reject Him by having Him put to death.

Another indication of coming change given by Jesus in Matthew 16 was His charge to the apostles that they should tell no man that He was the Messiah (v. 20). Earlier they had proclaimed Him to be the Messiah (Jn. 1:41), but now they were forbidden to do so.

A third indication of change for Jesus and His ministry was His Matthew 16:18 declaration. Since Israel would reject Him as the Messiah who would set up the Theocratic Kingdom, He would not establish that Kingdom in the near future. Instead, He would do something different – He would build a new ekklesia, the Church. There were other ekklesias or assemblies in the ancient world, such as the ekklesia of Israel in the wilderness during its exodus (Acts 7:38) and the ekklesias of citizens of cities when they gathered together for public meetings (Acts 19:32, 39, 41), but Jesus emphasized the fact that the ekklesia which He would build would be uniquely related to Him (“my Church”). The Israel of Jesus’ generation would refuse to be associated with Him; therefore, He would build a new assembly of people which would acknowledge and belong to Him. Later, the Apostle Paul emphasized the unique relationship of the Church to Christ through the use of the body-head (Eph. 1:22-23; 4:15-16; 5:23; Col. 1:18; 2:19) and bride-bridegroom (Rom 7:1-4; 2 Cor. 11:2; Eph. 5:22-23) relationships.

The seventh line of evidence concerning when the Church began is as follows: The Church could not exist until after Christ’s ascension. Two things indicate that this is so. First, in Ephesians 1:20-23, Paul taught that God gave Christ the position of Head to the Church in conjunction with Christ’s being seated at God’s right hand after His ascension to Heaven. This means, then, that Christ was not Head to the Church until after His ascension. In Ephesians 4:15-16 and Colossians 2:19, Paul also taught that the Church is dependent upon Christ as its Head for its growth and development. Just as the human body cannot live, function or develop without its head, so the body of Christ, the Church, cannot live, function or develop without Christ as its Head. Since the Church cannot live or develop without Christ as its Head, and since Christ was not Head to the Church until after His ascension, then the Church could not have existed until after Christ’s ascension.

Second, in Ephesians 4:8, 11-12, Paul indicated that in conjunction with His ascension to Heaven Christ gave spiritual gifts to human beings so that the body of Christ, the Church, could be built. Through this teaching Paul implied that the Church could not be built apart from these spiritual gifts. Since the Church could not be built apart from these gifts, and since Christ did not give these gifts before His ascension, then the Church could not have existed before His ascension.

Evidence That Israel And The Church Are Not The Same

In the previous article, it was noted that Covenant Theology proposes the following view concerning the nature of the Church: The Church is the continuing covenanted community of God’s people throughout history. It consists of all people who have had the Covenant of Grace relationship with God regardless of the period of history in which they have lived. Thus, the Church is the same in essence throughout history.

Covenant Theology further asserts that Israel was the major people of God in Old Testament times because God entered into Mosaic Covenant relationship with that nation, and the Mosaic Covenant relationship was one aspect of the Covenant of Grace relationship.

Covenant Theology also teaches that the New Testament Church is the people of God today because God entered into the New Covenant relationship with the New Testament Church, and the New Covenant relationship is also an aspect of the Covenant of Grace relationship.

These concepts have led Covenant Theology to the following logical conclusions: Since the Church consists of all people who have had the Covenant of Grace relationship with God regardless of when they have lived, and since both Old Testament Israel and the New Testament Church have had the Covenant of Grace relationship with God, then the Church consists of both Old Testament Israel and the New Testament Church, and Old Testament Israel and the New Testament Church are essentially the same.

In contrast with this view, there are several lines of evidence to the effect that Old Testament Israel and the New Testament Church are not essentially the same. First, Old Testament Israel was a nation in the technical sense of that term, but the New Testament Church is not a nation in the technical sense. Several factors illustrate this distinctive. Old Testament Israel had a national language, but the New Testament Church does not have a national language. The Church is comprised of people with many different languages. Old Testament Israel was an earthly, political state with an earthly capital city, an earthly political government and political rulers, but the New Testament Church is not an earthly, political state. The Church does not have an earthly capital city, an earthly political government or political rulers. In His Mosaic Covenant relationship with Israel, God established and regulated that nation’s earthly, political government, but in His New Covenant relationship with the New Testament Church, God does not even establish an earthly, political government for the Church. Old Testament Israel had a common, national tradition and history, but the New Testament Church is comprised of people from many different national traditions and histories. Old Testament Israel had a national army with which to fight military battles against other nations, but the New Testament Church does not have such an army.

Second, in spite of the fact that Old Testament Israel was the people of God through its Mosaic Covenant relationship with Him, it rejected Christ, just as God had forewarned the nation that it would (Isa. 53; Jn. 1:11; 12:37-41). By contrast, the New Testament Church received Christ.

A third evidence to the effect that Old Testament Israel and the New Testament Church are not essentially the same is as follows: Old Testament Israel was the original persecutor of the New Testament Church.

Fourth, as long as a Gentile remained a Gentile, he was excluded from membership in Old Testament Israel (Eph. 2:11-12). In order to become a member, he had to become an Israelite through circumcision and placement under the Law. In other words, he had to enter fully into Israel’s Mosaic Covenant relationship with God. By contrast, a Gentile can be in full, equal membership in the New Testament Church as a Gentile. He does not have to become an Israelite in order to enter that membership (Eph. 2:13-16; 3:1-6). The Holy Spirit led the early leaders of the New Testament Church to recognize this distinction which God had made between Old Testament Israel and the New Testament Church (Acts 15:1-29).

Fifth, Old Testament Israel had both believers and unbelievers in full Mosaic Covenant relationship with God. When God established the Mosaic Covenant with Israel, He established it fully with the entire membership of that nation, saved and unsaved alike. All the Israelites were subject to the regulations of that covenant regardless of their inner spiritual state. Regeneration was not required of those at Mount Sinai in order to enter the Mosaic Covenant relationship with God, and future generations of Israelites entered that covenant relationship by virtue of their physical birth to Israelite parents, not by virtue of a spiritual birth. This means, then, that the unsaved members of Old Testament Israel were as much the Mosaic Covenant people of God as were the saved members. It also means that Old Testament Israel’s membership consisted of unsaved people as well as the saved.

By contrast, the New Testament Church (not organized Christendom, but the true body of Christ which is formed by Spirit baptism) consists only of saved or regenerated members. Two things indicate that this is so. First, Luke declared that the Lord was adding to the Church those who were being saved (Acts 2:47). In addition, it is Spirit baptism which forms the Church, and Spirit baptism happens only to the saved. On the Day of Pentecost, only the saved Jews were baptized with the Spirit; the unsaved Jews were not (Acts 2). In spite of the fact that Cornelius was a God-fearing Gentile (Acts 10:1-2), he was not baptized with the Spirit until he was saved (Acts 10:44-47; 11:13-18). Since Spirit baptism happens only to the saved, and since it is Spirit baptism which forms the Church, then the Church has only saved people in its membership.

Sixth, the Scriptures never called the saved Jews of Old Testament Israel “the Church of God” in contrast with the unsaved Jews of Old Testament Israel, but the Scriptures did call the saved Jews (and the saved Gentiles) of the New Testament Church “the Church of God” in contrast with the unsaved Jews (and the unsaved Gentiles) of the New Testament era (1 Cor. 10:32). The fact that the Scriptures applied the term “the Church of God” to the saved Jews of the New Testament Church but did not apply it to the saved Jews of Old Testament Israel implies three things. First, there is a distinction between the saved Jews of the New Testament Church and the saved Jews of Old Testament Israel. Second, the term “the Church of God” can be applied legitimately only to the New Testament Church but not to Old Testament Israel. Third, Old Testament Israel and the New Testament Church are not essentially the same. Seventh, in Romans 11, the Apostle Paul presented the following teaching: As the covenant people of God, Old Testament Israel was in the place of God’s blessing. Because Old Testament Israel rejected Christ through unbelief, God removed it temporarily from the place of His blessing. During the time that Israel is removed, God has placed the New Testament Church into the place of blessing. Thus, the Church is in the place of God’s blessing while Israel is out of it. God will restore Israel to the place of His blessing when Israel will receive Christ at His Second Coming. In light of this teaching, the following conclusion can be drawn: Since Israel is out of the place of God’s blessing while the Church is in it, Israel and the Church are not the same.

ENDNOTE
  1. William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon Of The New Testament (4th rev. ed.; Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1957), p. 356.
  2. H. E. Dana and Julius R. Mantey, A Manual Grammar Of The Greek New Testament (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1927), p. 191.
  3. Otto Michel, “oikodomeo,” Theological Dictionary Of The New Testament, Vol. V, ed. by Gerhard Friedrich, trans, and ed. by Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1967), p. 139.
  4. For an excellent study of the biblical doctrine of the Church see: Earl D.Radmacher What The Church Is All About (Chicago: Moody Press, 1978).

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