While there is no one Bible verse which states when the church began, we can pinpoint the time of its “birth” with precision by comparing Scripture with Scripture. Let us begin by using the process of elimination.
The Church Was Not Revealed in the Old Testament
In Eph. 3:1-6, Paul states that he was given revelation of a marvelous mystery concerning the church. In vs.1-3, he was given revelation concerning a new dispensation, which he calls the dispensation of the grace of God. In vs.4, he notes that God gave him KNOWLEDGE in the mystery. Paul could never have discovered this truth on his own. (I Cor.2:7-10) God had to reveal this new truth or it could not be known. Paul was God’s chosen vessel to reveal this new truth relating to the church. In verse five he writes that these truths relating to this “mystery” (church truth) were NOT made known unto the sons of men in other ages. Paul makes it clear that there have been several “ages” – dispensations – in the past, though he does not name them all. In NONE of those ages was this truth made known. Adam, Noah, Abraham, David, or Jeremiah knew NOTHING about the coming of a church – the Body of Christ. This truth is now revealed by the New Testament apostles and prophets.
Ephesians 3:6 records the central part of this mystery truth, namely, that Jews and Gentiles are now equal members of the SAME body – the Body of Christ, the church. The Old Testament did reveal the fact that gentiles could come to the Light, be saved (Isa.60:3), and participate in the Millennial Kingdom. However, Ephesians 3:6 is about an entirely new & previously unrevealed plan & program of God. This revelation has to do with a new entity which is called “one NEW Man” in Eph.2:15. This One New Man (church – consisting of both Jew & Gentile) came into being as a result of the reconciling work of the cross. Thus, it could not have existed before the cross, and was not revealed in the Old Testament. Throughout the Old Testament, no one knew about this glorious plan which was hidden in the mind and heart of God.
In Col. 1:26, Paul states that this new truth [called a mystery] had been HIDDEN from ages and from generations. In all those previous ages, NO ONE knew that one day God would form a new entity, a New Man, a New Race of men called new creatures IN CHRIST JESUS and in His Body, the church. This was all “hidden.” One must not assume that this truth was revealed in the Old Testament, but that those saints were not discerning enough to see it or understand it. It was “hidden” in the mind of God – and NOT revealed! They could not possibly have found it in the OT – because it was not there! It was not only unknown, it was unknowable!
Note that it was not just hidden from the people in Old Testament times. It was hidden from the entire time period – from the ages and generations. In other words, it would not be accurate to say that this truth is found in the Old Testament, but it was hidden from the understanding of OT saints. It was hidden from the entire age. Those former ages had NO such revelation!
The Church Was Not Revealed In the Gospels
In Matt.16:18, Jesus mentioned the church, but He never revealed what it was. He said, “I will build my church.” Note also that in the gospels, the church is still FUTURE. (I will build…) We DO find in Matthew 13, parables of the kingdom. These parables describe the character of the age between Christ’s comings. This inter-advent period encompasses the time of Christ’s first coming until His Second Coming. The church age does fall within that time period. But so do the gospel period and the Tribulation Period. While a general description of “professing believers” and the character of the age are revealed here, there is NO truth directly relating to the establishment of or the nature of the church. It is a mystery until revealed to Paul.
Robert Newell wrote, “In His earthly ministry to Israel the Lord Jesus gave none of the great heavenly truths for the present Church dispensation. He but mentioned the Church, giving no explanation. Nor were these vital truths related to the Twelve Apostles.”[i] During the gospel period (Matthew – John) the apostles knew NOTHING of an intervening program called the church – the Body of Christ. At the end of the gospel period, the apostles were still anticipating the redemption of Israel and the Kingdom. (Luke 24:19-21) Throughout the gospel period, John the Baptist, Jesus, and the apostles spoke not a word about a church. Rather, their ministry was to the lost sheep of the house of Israel exclusively. (Matt.10:5-7) Their message was “Repent for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Matt.10:7; 4:17; 3:1-2) Thus, we see that the church was not revealed in the gospels. It was still FUTURE from the vantage point of our Lord’s earthly ministry.
The Church Could Not Begin Before the Cross. (Eph.2: 13-16)
The church is called the “One New Man.” (2:15) This New Man consists of Jew and Gentile “reconciled” (2:16) into ONE BODY. It was the cross that “reconciled” these two and made both one by breaking down the middle wall of partition (Mosaic Law) which formerly separated them (2:14-15). Since they were reconciled into one Body by the cross, this New Man could not exist before the cross. There was no church in the Old Testament, in the gospel period, or before the cross.
The church was not revealed in the Lord’s post-resurrection ministry.
Even after His resurrection, the Lord Jesus appeared to the disciples, and continued to teach them the things concerning the Kingdom of God. (Acts 1:3) He did NOT reveal to them the things concerning the church. In Acts 1:5, we learn that the apostles did not know when the baptism of the Spirit would occur. They knew that would occur soon, but this ministry of the Spirit had not yet begun. When it DID occur, Peter could only explain it in terms of the prophecies concerning the coming Kingdom (Acts 2:16-21). Peter knew only that the outpouring of the Spirit which they had just witnessed on the Day of Pentecost was similar to “that” which was described by Joel. Both were outpourings of the Holy Spirit. Peter did not say that Pentecost was a fulfillment of that prophecy or even a partial fulfillment. Rather, he said, “this is that” same sort of thing (vs.16) – a supernatural outpouring of the Spirit of God! The apostles were still expecting the Kingdom to begin at any time. (Acts 1:6) They had no idea that an intervening church age would occur.
The Church could not have begun before the ascension & glorification of Christ.
It was the risen and ascended Christ who SENT the Holy Spirit to begin His work of baptizing believers into the Body of Christ. (Acts 2:33) Paul tells us that God raised Christ from the dead and seated Him at his own right hand in the heavenly places and THEN made Him Head of the Body. (Eph. 1:20-23) Thus, the church was not formed until AFTER Christ was raised, ascended to heaven, and was seated at the right hand of the Father. If the church began before the ascension, then we have a Body without a Head!
It was the risen and ascended Christ who gave GIFTS unto men, namely gifted men that the Body might function. (Eph. 4:8-12) The church cannot grow or function apart from its Head. (Col.2:19; Eph.4:15-16) The church could not have begun before the ascension, or it would have been a non-functioning Body! Anyone who tries to place the beginning of the church before the ascension of Christ will end up with a Body with no head and no functioning parts! Such a situation is unthinkable!
Also, this new relationship of the Spirit to believers could not begin until Christ was glorified. (John 7:39)
The church was built upon the foundation of the apostles and New Testament prophets. (Eph.2:19-22)
In context, Paul was speaking about BOTH Jew and Gentile as having been reconciled in ONE New Man. (Eph. 2:13-18) Together, (Jew & Gentile) constitute the household of God in this age. (vs.19) I Tim.3:15 indicates that the household of God today is the church. Paul continues his description of the church by stating that it is a “house” or a “temple” built upon a foundation. (Eph. 2:20) The foundation consists of the New Testament apostles and prophets. Certainly one does not build a temple until after the foundation is laid. Thus, the church was not built UNTIL the time of the New Testament apostles and prophets. Some insist that apostles and prophets must refer to the New Testament apostles and the Old Testament prophets. Hence (they assume), to the Old Testament prophets was this mystery revealed. However, in Eph.3:5, the word “now” indicates that Paul has New Testament prophets in mind. Paul states clearly that the time of the “revealing” of this mystery was “now.” “Which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit” (Eph.3:5).
The church began by means of Spirit Baptism, which occurred for the first time on the Day of Pentecost. (I Cor.12:13)
By means of the process of elimination, we have seen that the church could not have existed in the Old Testament, in the gospel period, before the Cross, during the post-resurrection ministry of Christ, or before the ascension and glorification of Christ as Head of the Body.
I Cor.12:13 states clearly HOW a person becomes a member of the Body of Christ, the church. It occurs by means of Spirit baptism. In this age, the Spirit of God places the believer INTO Christ’s Body at the moment of saving faith. There is no other way to get INTO Christ!
Yet, Spirit baptism was still future in Acts 1:5. However, by the time of Acts 11:15-16, it had already taken place. Here Peter states that the Gentiles had received the gift of the Spirit of God just as the Jewish believers in Christ had received at the beginning. The beginning obviously refers back to the beginning of the church as recorded in Acts chapter two! This was the beginning of the baptizing work of the Spirit of God.
Thus, in Acts 2:1-4, on the Day of Pentecost, we have pinpointed the exact BEGINNING of the church. It was then that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit to begin His work of baptizing believing Jews & Gentiles into the Body of Christ occurred for the very first time in human history. Renald Showers wrote, “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.” [ii]
What difference does it make? Does it really matter when the church began? The answer is YES! It matters greatly that we rightly divide the Word of truth and keep God’s plan for Israel separate and distinct from His plan for the church. There is a dangerous “blurring” of truth taking place in our generation. There seems to be a feverish attempt to blend together dispensational truth with Covenant/Reformed theology. Merging the two will result in legalistic living. Reformed Theology teaches justification by faith, but sanctification by self-discipline and law. That results in nothing but defeat and frustration for the believer! (Rom.7:14-25) If we are ever going to have a right concept of what the church is and what it is not, we need to study what the Bible says about this new Man! A right understanding of the church will keep us from confusing it with earthly Israel. It will keep us away from the errors of liturgical type churches, from the errors of the Reconstructionist movement, the Moral Majority-type movements, and countless other errors! It will also keep us focused on what our function in the world ought to be: to manifest the indwelling life of our Risen and glorified Savior, Jesus Christ! Doctrine affects practice.
[i] Miles J. Stanford, Pauline Dispensationalism, Englewood, MJS Books, 1993, p.9
[ii] Renald Showers, There Really Is a Difference, p. 170