Last Sunday we began a new sermon series called “Church Basics”. We talked about Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ, and what Jesus said in reply to his confession. We learned that Jesus established the church upon the foundation of His own identity. Therefore, only those who confess that Jesus is the divine Son of God - that is, born-again Christians - are true members of the church. Non-believers are not and cannot be members. We also learned that the church belongs completely to Jesus and that it has been given significant power and authority on earth.
In today’s message, we are going to determine when the church actually began. Has it existed as long as mankind has, or did it start up some time later? Was the church operational during the Old Testament or did it begin in the New Testament? Is there a specific moment that we can pinpoint as the beginning of the church? Also, what or who is the source of the church’s power that Jesus spoke about during his aforementioned conversation with Peter? These are some of the questions we will seek to answer this morning.
The Greek word ekklesia is translated “church” in the English Bible. Ecclesiology is the study of the church. The word ekklesia actually means “a called out assembly or gathering”. Though used well over 100 times in the New Testament, the word “church” doesn’t appear anywhere in the Old Testament, despite the fact that God clearly had a called out group of followers during this era. This might lead us to wonder if perhaps the congregation of God’s children that existed during Old Testament times was in fact the church, even though it was never called explicitly by that name. Is there any distinction between the congregation of God’s people in the Old Testament and the church of the New Testament?
I. THE OLD TESTAMENT CONGREGATION - Acts 7:38
In Acts chapter 7 Stephen is giving a defense before the high priest. In some Bible translations, he refers to the Children of Israel who followed Moses during the exodus as the “church in the wilderness”. Clearly, as revealed by his choice of words, Stephen thought of them as being very much like the New Testament church - but were they the church?
Jesus said in Matthew 18 that “upon this rock I will build my church”. His declaration seems to indicate that He had not yet built it at the time that He spoke. According to Jesus, the beginning of the church would take place sometime following this statement, which means that the Old Testament saints could not logically be included.
The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew, before being translated into Greek around 300 BC. There was no word for “church” in the Hebrew language back then, because the notion did not exist. The Hebrew word “qahal” was used by the writers to mean an assembly or congregation of people, such as the Children of Israel. When translated into Greek, the word ekklesia replaced qahal. Even still, in order to preserve the integrity of the original language, in modern Bibles ekklesia is generally translated to read “assembly” or “congregation” in the Old Testament, while in the New Testament it is translated as “church”.
While God has always had a chosen group of called out people, it seems that the assembly of people in the Old Testament - primarily the Jews - is distinct from the church of the New Testament. They are definitely similar, as the one serves to foreshadow the other, but most Biblical scholars agree that there was and is a difference. Thus, we regard the people of God who lived during the Old Testament as a congregation, but not as the church.
II. THE PROMISE OF COMING POWER - Mark 9:1, Luke 24:49
Not long after declaring His intention to build the church, Jesus promised His disciples that some of them would still be living to see the kingdom of God “come with power”. Because it would happen within their lifetimes, the event He is referring to could not be the second coming. It seems, instead, that Jesus is telling them that the kingdom of God would soon come into a new power. Jesus had just stated that the church would be so powerful that “the gates of Hell would not prevail against it.” It is quite reasonable to believe that Jesus’ promise of this coming power is linked or connected with the beginning of His powerful church. Therefore, one possible interpretation of Mark 9:1 is that Jesus was telling his disciples that some of them would soon see the beginning of His church.
Following His resurrection Jesus appeared to His disciples on several occasions. Just before His ascension to Heaven the Lord instructed His disciples to wait in Jerusalem until being “clothed with power from on high” [Luke 24:49]. This gathering of disciples - all of whom were God-fearing believers and probably all Jewish, just like those who went before them in the Old Testament - was about to experience a radical change. A power from heaven was about to fall upon them, which would forever transform them from an Old Testament-like “assembly” into the New Testament “church”. The beginning of the “church” is directly tied to this coming power that Jesus spoke of.
III. THE NEW TESTAMENT CHURCH - Acts 2:14
Just as they had been instructed, the disciples waited in Jerusalem until they received power from on high. This empowering took place on the day of Pentecost. A noise like a violent rushing wind suddenly filled the house where they were gathered. Tongues of fire rested upon them. These visible signs accompanied the spiritual occurrence that was taking place - they were being filled with the Holy Spirit.
Immediately they began speaking in other languages, which were familiar to and spoken by the many sojourners who had come to Jerusalem for the celebration of Pentecost. These pilgrims came from numerous distant places and spoke several different languages, yet they heard and understood the disciples because they were supernaturally speaking in their native tongues. The Holy Spirit not only emboldened the disciples to proclaim Jesus, but also enabled the crowd to hear in their own dialect what was being preached. By the end of the day, about 3,000 people became followers of Christ.
Many of these people began meeting together to hear the apostle’s teaching, to fellowship one with another, to pray and to worship, and to break bread together. These people represented the beginning of the “church”. During the decades that would follow, the church would spread beyond Jerusalem throughout all of Judea, into neighboring Samaria, and eventually throughout the earth. This progression is recorded in the book of Acts.
Most theologians agree that the church began on the day of Pentecost. This was marked by the coming of the Holy Spirit to empower the followers of Christ. Up until this point, the people of God served and worshiped Him apart from the collective indwelling of the Holy Spirit. But following Pentecost, they were endued with the power of the Holy Spirit. It is the presence and power of the Holy Spirit that distinguishes the church of the New Testament from the assembly of God’s people in the Old Testament.
One of the most important truths that we have talked about today is the relationship between the church and the Holy Spirit. We have discovered that the two are inseparably linked. Let me again emphasize - the church did not exist until the Holy Spirit fell upon it. That said, apart from the power and activity of the Holy Spirit the church cannot function as it was intended. The church is not the church without presence and working the Holy Spirit. Individual churches who neglect the critical role of the Holy Spirit within them are severely hampered.
As we close, let’s briefly review some of the “Church Basics” that we’ve encountered this morning during our study together. First, the church began on the day of Pentecost. Second, the people of God prior to Pentecost were a congregation of believers, but were not the “church”. Still, they are part of the household of God, were redeemed retroactively by the atoning work of Christ, and will dwell with us as fellow citizens in heaven. Third, the church is characterized by the filling of the Holy Spirit.
Over the next few weeks we are going to explore a couple of metaphors that are frequently used in the Bible to describe the church - the Body of Christ and the Bride of Christ. As we study these metaphors, we will find several more fundamental principles to add to our growing list of church basics. I hope you'll join us for these messages.