The Beginning and Nature of The Church
The Problem Stated
Covenant Theology and Dispensational Theology disagree concerning two major matters related to the Church. Those two matters are: first, the time that the Church began, and, second, the nature of the Church. Both of these matters will be examined in this article.
The Time That The Church Began
Covenant Theology declares that the Church began during Old Testament times. Some covenant theologians believe that it began during the days of Adam. For example, R. B. Kuiper wrote that it may be asserted that Adam and Eve constituted the first Christian church.”1
Other covenant theologians are convinced that the Church started when God established the Abrahamic Covenant with Abraham. One such theologian, Charles Hodge, stated the following: “The Church under the New Dispensation is identical with that under the Old. It is not a new Church but one and the same. It is the same olive tree (Rom. xi. 16-17). It is founded on the same covenant, the covenant made with Abraham.” 2
In contrast with the Covenant Theology view, Dispensational Theology declares that the Church did not begin until the Day of Pentecost of Acts 2. Thus, the Church did not exist in Old Testament times. Radmacher wrote that “the church did not come into functional existence until the day of Pentecost.”3 Although the Church was an essential part of God’s plan for history which He determined in eternity past, God did not put that part of His plan into effect until ten days after His Son ascended from earth to Heaven.
The Nature Of The Church
Concerning the nature of the Church, Covenant Theology asserts that 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. The earlier quotation of Charles Hodge clearly indicates that such was his understanding of the nature of the Church. Louis Berkhof, another prominent covenant theologian, wrote that “the Church existed in the old dispensation as well as in the new, and was essentially the same in both.”4
It should be noted that the Covenant Theology view of the nature of the Church leads logically to several conclusions. Those conclusions are as follows: Israel and the Church are the same; there are not distinctive groups of saints throughout history; all saints of all periods of history are members of the Church; since saints will be on earth during the Tribulation Period, the Church will be on earth during the Tribulation, and there will be one general resurrection of dead saints at one time, not more than one resurrection of saints at different times.
In contrast with the Covenant Theology view of the nature of the Church, Dispensational Theology asserts that the Church consists only of those saved people who live between the Day of Pentecost of Acts 2 and the Rapture of the Church from the earth. Saints who died before the Day of Pentecost and people who get saved after the Rapture of the Church are never part of the Church. Thus, the Church consists of a distinctive group of saints who live during one particular period of history – namely, those saints who are baptized with the Spirit.
It is essential to note that the Dispensational Theology view of the nature of the Church also leads logically to several conclusions. Those conclusions are as follows: Israel and the Church are not the same; there is something distinctive about the relationship of the Holy Spirit to saints between the Day of Pentecost and the Rapture of the Church; there are distinctions between groups of saints throughout history (Old Testament saints, Church saints, Tribulation saints, Millennial saints); the fact that saints will be on earth during the Tribulation Period does not require the Church to be on earth during the Tribulation; and there will be more than one resurrection of dead saints at different times of history, not just one general resurrection of saints.
Evidence That The Church Did Not Exist In Old Testament Times But Began At Pentecost
The New Testament presents several lines of evidence to the effect that the Church did not begin until the Day of Pentecost of Acts 2. The first line of evidence is as follows: The Church is not formed apart from the baptism with the Spirit, and Spirit baptism did not begin until the Day of Pentecost. In Colossians 1:18, 24 Paul declared that the body of Christ is the Church. In 1 Corinthians 12:13 he indicated that all believers in Christ (Jew and Gentile alike) are placed into the body of Christ through Spirit baptism. Thus, Paul was teaching the necessity of Spirit baptism for the formation of the Church.
John the Baptist clearly indicated that he was not baptizing people with the Spirit in his time. Instead he stated that Jesus would baptize with the Spirit in the future (Lk. 3:16). On the day of His ascension Jesus declared that His believers should remain in Jerusalem for a few more days to receive the baptism with the Spirit to which John referred, which the Father had promised and about which Jesus had talked (Acts 1:4-5). The language of Jesus’ statement implied that Spirit baptism had not yet begun historically and would not begin until a few days after His ascension. Acts 2 indicates that it began on the Day of Pentecost, ten days after Jesus’ ascension.
On the basis of the statements by Paul, John the Baptist and Jesus, two conclusions can be drawn. One conclusion is: Since Spirit baptism is necessary for the formation of the Church, and since Spirit baptism did not begin historically until the Day of Pentecost of Acts 2, then the Church did not begin historically until the Day of Pentecost of Acts 2.
The other conclusion is this: On the Day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit began to be related to believers in Jesus Christ in some ways in which He was not related to Old Testament believers. Certainly the Holy Spirit was at work in the world in certain ways before the Day of Pentecost (cf. Gen. 6:3; Ex. 35:30-33; Num. 11:26-30; 24:2), but on Pentecost He came with some new ways of working which had not been present before. Thus, there is something distinctive about the relationship of the Holy Spirit to saints in the period of history since Pentecost. That this is so is substantiated by other statements in the New Testament. On the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles, Jesus promised that the believer would have rivers of living water flowing out of his heart (Jn. 7:37-38). John explained Jesus’ statement this way: “But this spoke he of the Spirit, whom they that believe on him should receive; for the Holy Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified” (Jn. 7:39). John was indicating that the Spirit would come in a new, distinctive sense after Jesus would be glorified through His death, resurrection and ascension (Jn. 12:16, 23-27; 17:1, 5; Phil. 2:8-9).
The night before Jesus was crucified He promised that, after He would return to the Father in Heaven, the Father would send the Holy Spirit to His disciples (Jn. 14:2-4,16-17, 26; 16:12-16). He declared that the Spirit would not come while Jesus was present on earth (Jn. 16:7). He also drew a clear distinction between the relationship of the Spirit with His disciples before His ascension and what it would be after His ascension: “for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you” (Jn. 14:17).
The second line of evidence to the effect that the Church did not begin until Pentecost is Peter’s assertion that something new began when the believers were baptized with the Spirit on Pentecost. Speaking of his experience at Cornelius’ house (Acts 10), Peter said, “And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them, as on us at the beginning. Then remembered I the word of the Lord, how he said, John indeed baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 11:15-16).
In this statement Peter indicated two things. First, Jesus’ promise concerning Spirit baptism was fulfilled when the Spirit fell on the Jewish believers at Pentecost. Second, the baptism with the Spirit on Pentecost took place when something new began. The word which Peter used for “beginning” “denotes beginning in the exact sense, i.e., ‘the place in a temporal sequence at which something new, which is also finite, commences’”5
Since the new thing began on Pentecost when the baptism with the Spirit took place, and since (as noted earlier) Spirit baptism was necessary for the formation of the Church, it would appear that Peter was indicating that the Church was the new thing that began on Pentecost.
The third line of evidence for the Church beginning in Acts 2 is Paul’s teaching concerning “the mystery.” Concerning the meaning of the term “mystery,” Arndt and Gingrich say the following: “Our lit. uses it to mean the secret thoughts, plans, and dispensations of God which are hidden fr. the human reason, as well as fr. all other comprehension below the divine level, and hence must be revealed to those for whom they are intended.”6 (lit. means literature; fr. means from.)
In line with this meaning, Paul used the term “mystery” to refer to a body of divine knowledge which was kept completely hidden from man in ages past (Rom. 16:25; 1 Cor. 2:7-8; Eph. 3:4-5, 9; Col. 1:26), which man could never have discovered through the use of his senses or reason (1 Cor. 2:9) and which God has now revealed to man (Rom. 16:25-26, 1 Cor. 2:10; Eph. 3:3-5; Col. 1:26-27).
The specific body of divine knowledge which Paul called “the mystery” in Ephesians 3 was that there would be a period of time in which believing Gentiles would be equal heirs of God’s blessings, equal members of the same body and equal partakers of God’s promise in Christ with believing Jews (v. 6). In Ephesians 2:11-19 Paul made it clear that Gentiles did not have these privileges before the death of Christ.
Several things should be noted concerning the Ephesians 3 mystery. First, it contained knowledge to the effect that there would be a period of time when believing Jews and Gentiles would be united together as equals in one body. Second, in the passage which is parallel to Ephesians 3 Paul indicated that this body, which is related to the mystery, is the Church (Col. 1:18, 24-27). Thus, in Ephesians 3 Paul was saying that the mystery contained knowledge to the effect that there would be a period of time when there would be a body called the Church existing in the world. Third, Paul made it clear that this knowledge concerning the Church had been known by God from eternity past. He said that it had been hid in God “from the beginning of the ages” (literally, “from the ages,” Eph. 3:9) and that the Church had been part of God’s eternal purpose (Eph. 3:11). Fourth, Paul declared that this knowledge concerning the Church had been kept hidden from man in past ages (Eph. 3:4-5, 9).
Fifth, Paul asserted that God did not reveal this knowledge concerning the Church until the time of the apostles and New Testament prophets (Eph. 3:3-5). In Colossians 1:26 he talked about “the mystery which hath been hidden from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to his saints.” Paul’s use of the word “now” was his way of indicating that knowledge concerning the existence of the body called the Church was not revealed to man until Paul’s lifetime.
Sixth, in Ephesians 3:8-10 Paul stated that one of the purposes of God’s revealing the mystery concerning the Church during the time of the apostles and prophets was “To the intent that now, unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places, might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God.” This statement of purpose indicates that there were certain aspects of God’s wisdom which were totally unknown to the angels before the Church came into existence. Nothing prior to the Church had required the use of these facts of God’s wisdom. The formation of the Church demanded the exercise and, therefore, the display of aspects of divine wisdom which God never before had operated or revealed, because only this unique wisdom could bring about the peaceful, equal union of such confirmed, implacable enemies as Jews and Gentiles into one body.
Once again Paul used the word “now,” indicating that God intended to wait until the time of the apostles and New Testament prophets to reveal to the angels the facets of His wisdom which the formation of the Church demanded. In Ephesians 3:11 Paul stated that God’s intention to wait until that time to reveal these aspects of His wisdom was part of His eternal purpose. Following is a summary of Paul’s teaching concerning the mystery in Ephesians 3. As part of His eternal purpose for history, God in eternity past determined that there would be a time in history in which He would bring together believing Jews and Gentiles as equals to form one body, the Church. Since this was His own plan, God knew about it all along, but He kept this knowledge about the Church completely hidden in Himself and from man throughout many ages of time. Man could not discover this knowledge about the Church on his own. 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.
This teaching of Paul concerning the Ephesians 2 mystery leads to several conclusions. First, since God kept knowledge concerning the Church completely hidden from man until the time of the apostles and New Testament prophets, and since man could not discover this knowledge on his own, then man knew nothing about the Church until the time of the apostles and New Testament prophets. Second, since man knew nothing about the Church until the time of the apostles and New Testament prophets, then the Church did not exist before that time. If the Church had existed before the time of the apostles and New Testament prophets, then certainly man would have known about it before then.
Third, since God did not reveal knowledge concerning the Church until the time of the apostles and New Testament prophets, then the Old Testament contained no revelation concerning the Church. The Old Testament did contain revelation to the effect that Gentiles would experience great salvation in the future, but revelation concerning salvation and revelation concerning the Church are not the same. This is so because salvation and the Church are not the same. Just as a ticket, which is necessary to enter a sports stadium, is not the same thing as the stadium, so salvation, which is necessary to enter the Church, is not the same thing as the Church. Although the Old Testament contained revelation concerning the salvation of Gentiles, nowhere did it contain revelation to the effect that there would be a time when saved Gentiles would be united with saved Jews as equals in one body.
Fourth, since the revelation of certain aspects of God’s wisdom came to the angels through the formation of the Church, and since that revelation was not given to the angels until the time of the apostles and New Testament prophets, then the Church was not formed until the time of the apostles and New Testament prophets. Had the Church been formed earlier, then the angels would have known about those aspects of God’s wisdom earlier.
The fourth line of evidence concerning when the Church began is this: The Church could not exist until after the death of Christ. In Ephesians 2:13-16 Paul made statements that Gentiles, who used to be far off, now have been brought near “by the blood of Christ” (v. 13); that Jesus himself is the peace between Jew and Gentile (v. 14); that He is the one who has made Jew and Gentile one, has broken down the dividing wall between them, has abolished the enmity “in his flesh,” has made one new man of Jew and Gentile “in himself” and has reconciled both Jew and Gentile unto God in one body “by the cross” (vv. 14-16).
Several things should be noted concerning these statements. First, the statements clearly indicate that the uniting of Jew and Gentile together as equals to form one new man, one body was the result of Jesus shedding His blood or dying on the cross. Second, a comparison of these statements with Paul’s statements in Ephesians 3:6 and Colossians 1:18, 24 makes it obvious that the one body of Ephesians 2:16 is the Church. Third, since the one body of Ephesians 2:16 is the Church, and since that one body was formed as the result of Jesus’ death, then the Church was formed as the result of Jesus’ death.
Fourth, in the statements of Ephesians 2:13-16 Paul was emphasizing the situation of Gentiles after the death of Christ in contrast with their situation before His death (vv. 11-12). One aspect of the contrast was this: Before the death of Christ the Gentiles were alienated from the Jews, but after Christ’s death Gentiles were united with Jews in one body. Paul’s use of the word “now” (v. 13) indicated that this radical change of situation had taken place during his lifetime. This means, then, that the one body, the Church, was not formed until Paul’s lifetime after Christ’s death.
Fifth, Paul described the union of Jew and Gentile as “one new man” (v. 15). The word which is translated new has the following meanings: “what is new and distinctive as compared with other things,” “what is new in nature, different from the usual” and “new in kind.”7 It would appear, then, that this union of Jew and Gentile had formed a new body which was different in nature and kind from anything that had ever existed before. It was not a continuation of something which already had been in existence and which was essentially the same in nature. Since the uniting of Jew and Gentile together as equals to form one body was the result of Christ’s death, since that body was formed only after Christ’s death, since that body was new and different in nature and kind from anything that had ever existed before, and since that one body is the Church, then the Church did not and could not exist until after the death of Christ. A statement which Paul made to the Ephesian elders also leads to the conclusion that the Church could not exist until after Christ’s death. In that statement Paul referred to “the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). The word which is translated “purchased” means “acquired, obtain, gain for oneself.”8 Paul, therefore, was declaring that Jesus acquired or obtained the Church through His death. The implication is that Jesus did not have the Church before He shed His blood.
Further lines of evidence concerning when the Church began will be examined in the next article.
- R.B. Kuiper, The Glorious Body of Christ (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, n.d.), p.22.
- Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1968), 3:549.
- Earl D. Radmacher, What The Church Is All About (Chicago: Moody Press, 1978), p. 201.
- Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (second revised and enlarged edition; Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1941), p. 571.
- Gerhard Delling, “arche,” Theological Dictionary Of The New Testament, Vol. I, ed. by Gerhard Kittel, trans, and ed. by Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1969), p. 479.
- 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. 532.
- Johannes Behm, “kainos,” Theological Dictionary Of The New Testament, Vol. III, e d. by Gerhard Kittel, trans. and ed. by Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1965), p. 447.
- Arndt and Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon Of The New Testament, 655.