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Identity and Beginning of the Church

We continue with Systematic Theology III with an examination of the issue of when did the Church begin, and a vitally related issue of the relationship between the Church and Israel.

We are jumping into something that is fiercely debated in many circles. Unfortunately, there is often a lot of heat but very little light on the subject.

In reality we find that very few actually have studied these issues to any real degree, but we also find that many have strong positions regardless. This makes it very challenging to discuss with others, but it is a good topic for a podcast.

Why is this worth the time?

Perhaps the biggest reason is the nature of worship.

We are called to be worshippers of God. How that occurs and what that looks like is quite different in the New Testament, as opposed to the Old.

For example, in the OT you will see many cultic practices mandated by God as part of proper worship, but in the NT you don’t see those things restated and applied to the NT church. So why, and how do we deal with that?

This gets into the very fun topic of the regulative vs. normative principle of worship.

It also affects how you interpret massive parts of the bible, specifically OT prophets.

So with that introduction we will introduce these two theological points, and hopefully shed some light on them for you. We won’t devote massive amounts of time because neither of them lend themselves to in-depth discussion in this format.

The beginning of the Church

We actually did a whole episode on this. We would recommend you listen to it. Today is going to be a very abbreviated version of it.

What we also would suggest is that before you go any further in this podcast either say out loud or in your mind when you think the Church began.

Ok, now that you said it, ask yourself how you know that is when the Church began?

Some say it began with Adam.

Some say it began with Abraham.

Some say it began with Moses.

Some say it began with the earthly ministry of Jesus.

Some say it began on the Day of Pentecost.

Some say it began during the ministry of Paul.

We want to give you seven reasons to see that the Church began on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2.

These seven points are given in detail in the former podcast so here we are going to go rather quickly over them again. Before you dismiss them ask why you are doing so. And then ask how much of your rationale is derived from the biblical text as opposed to a theology book or confession.

So with that, here are seven reasons to believe the Church came into existence in Acts 2.

First, there is evidence that the Church was yet future in the time of Christ (Matthew 16:18, “I will build My Church).

Second, the Church is uniquely indwelt by the Holy Spirit.

In the Old Testament the Spirit would come upon people for special power to accomplish a task. But there is no indication that the Old Testament believer had the Holy Spirit indwelling them like the New Testament church.

All believers throughout time have been regenerated by the Spirit, but that is not the same as being baptized by Christ with the Spirit or being indwelt by the Spirit as described in 1 Corinthians 12:13.

This is important to note for it is through this spiritual baptism that you become joined to the Church.

Third, those who believe in Jesus Christ have a unique relationship with Him.

(en Christou)“in Christ.” (unique to the epistles)

The term, “in Christ,” is something that is not applied to those in the Old Testament.

This is tightly connected to being baptized in the Spirit into the Church, which is the Body of Christ. No OT event can come close to describing this.

Fourth, the gifts of the Spirit.

Ephesians 4:7ff and 1 Corinthians 12:12ff. God gives spiritual gifts to the Church for the well-being of the Church. So, these gifts are for the Church but they are never described as part of the people in the OT.

Fifth, Christ is called the “Head” of the Church (Ephesians 1:18-23).

How was He the Head prior to existing?

It is worth noting that Paul makes Jesus the “Head” after His death, resurrection and ascension. So prior to that, was the Church without its Head?

Sixth, there is a new work that is being done now, a work that has never been done before (Ephesians 2:11-22).

In vs 15 Paul explains that in the Church God is bringing the Jew and Gentile together to form a “new man.” That term, “new,” speaks of something unique and fresh as compared to updated. In other words, the Church is something unique and fresh.

Seven, the mysterious character of the Church.

You will want to go back to the other episode to get the totality of scriptural references on this point.

The point is this though, the Church and what it represents was a mystery hidden until it was revealed in the NT. This fits with the idea that this is something new and unique as we said in the prior point.

As a result of these passages it appears proper to understand that the Church was not something that was prophesied in any clarity in the Old Testament. It was part of the mysteries that God chose to reveal later, just as He has chosen to reveal Himself and His plan in a progressive manner since the Fall.

This leads to the closely related point of the relationship between Israel and the Church.

There are two main perspectives: Tends to be very divisive within the Church today. They are vitally connected to the discussion above as to the inauguration of the Church.

- Replacement view

- Distinct groups

Grudem gives a helpful (but long) summation of the positions so listen carefully:

Among evangelical Protestants there has been a difference of viewpoint on the question of the relationship between Israel and the church. This question was brought into prominence by those who hold to a ‘dispensational’ system of theology. . . . On this view, the church did not begin until Pentecost (Acts 2). And it is not right to think of Old Testament believers together with New Testament believers as constituting one church. . . . [However] a number of leaders among more recent dispensationalists. . . . would not see the church as a parenthesis in God’s plan but as the first step toward the establishment of the kingdom of God. On a progressive dispensational view, God does not have two separate purposes for Israel and the church, but a single purpose—the establishment of the kingdom of God—in which Israel and the church will both share. Progressive dispensationalists would see no distinction between Israel and the church in the future eternal state for all will be part of the one people of God. Moreover, they would hold that the church will reign with Christ in glorified bodies on earth during the millennium. . . . However, there is still a difference between progressive dispensationalists and the rest of evangelicalism on one point: they would say that the Old Testament prophecies concerning Israel will still be fulfilled in the millennium by ethnic Jewish people who will believe in Christ and live in the land of Israel as a “model nation” for all nations to see and learn from. Therefore they would not say that the church is the “new Israel” or that all the Old Testament prophecies about Israel will be fulfilled in the church, for these prophecies will yet be fulfilled in ethnic Israel” . . . . Both Protestant and Catholic theologians outside of the dispensational position have said that the church includes both Old Testament believers and New Testament believers in one church or one body of Christ” (Grudem, pp. 859-861).

Within the Covenant Theology position, the New Testament Church is seen as “spiritual Israel."

“Third Proposition. The Commonwealth of Israel was the Church. (1.) It is so called in Scripture. (Acts vii. 38.) (2.) The Hebrews were called out from all the nations of the earth to be the peculiar people of God. They constituted his kingdom. (3.) To them were committed the oracles of God. They were Israelites to them pertained the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service, and the promises. (Rom. ix. 4.) Nothing more can be said of the Church under the new dispensation. They were selected for a Church purpose, namely, to be witnesses for God in the world in behalf of the true religion; to celebrate his worship; and to observe his ordinances. Their religious officers, prophets, and priests, were appointed by God and were his ministers. No man could become a member of the Commonwealth of Israel, who did not profess the true religion; promise obedience to the law of God as revealed in his Word; and submit to the rite of circumcision as the seal of the covenant. There is no authorized definition of the Church, which does not include the people of God under the Mosaic law” (Hodge, Theology, 3:548-549).

You will notice Hodge argues that because the term ekklesia was used in Acts 7 in reference to Israel that this is evidence. But remember what we said about the term in one of our earlier episodes; it is neutral in meaning and simply refers to an assembly.

He also says that nothing new can be said of the Church that did not belong to Israel, but we gave seven clear differences that are not minor.

In addition, within the Covenant Theology camp there is a lot of movement within, and it is not easy to make a hard and fast statement regarding Israel and the Church. In other words, they really don’t even agree with themselves.

Now there are real consequences to this whether you think so or not. It affects how you view much of what is written in the OT. For example, the prophets give very specific promises to Israel that have yet to be fulfilled.

Again we would say this is no small thing.

Either the prophets’ words meant what they said or they didn’t. But to make whole swaths of scripture change in its meaning is disturbing to say the least.

We will deal with this more when we get to eschatology so we will leave it here

The final area that is affected is on the nature of worship.

One of the main arguments behind what is known as the regulative principle of worship is that only what is prescribed/commanded in Scripture can be practiced in a church service.

That seems fine and reasonable, but where do you look in the bible for those prescriptions?

For those who see that Israel and the Church are one and the same in some manner, there is no issue in looking at the OT and rules of worship in Israel.

Which is fine if they are the same, but if they are not then there is a real problem.

And another challenge to it is how literal are you going to take the commands? There are some commands, such as to greet one another with a holy kiss that are called cultural and therefore not practiced as commanded. Or, the use of organs, when never is an organ spoken of in the Bible, but it is explained that musical instruments were used in the OT worship.

This is why Spurgeon considered any type of musical instrument to be worldly--no NT reference to musical instruments. “The human voice is so transcendently superior to all that wind or strings can accomplish, that it is a shame to degrade its harmonies by association with blowing and scraping. It is not better music which we can get from organs and viols, but inferior sounds. . . . What a degradation to supplant the intelligent song of the whole congregation by the theatrical prettiness of a quartette, the refined niceties of a choir, or the blowing of wind from inanimate bellows and pipes. We might as well pray by machinery as praise by it."

The reality is that though many claim the regulative principle, they really don’t follow it, at least literally. But, then, this is the point of contention we have in so many other parts of how people treat the subject of the Church and Israel. They are literal (in the proper sense of the word) when it suits them and spiritual when that suits them.

The same person complaining about a video campus is sitting on a pew arranged in such a way that did not exist in either the days of Israel or the early Church.

The other position is called the Normative Principle of Worship.

This view says that if something is not prohibited in the bible then it is allowable in the church gathering.

Proponents explain that this allows for dramatic pieces, modern musical instruments, praise songs or other songs that are not strictly psalms. Videos and cameras and soloists and such are also often explained by this position.

Critics point out that there is little by way of limitation as a result. Since the bible was written in a time where it did not have video screens, fog machines, and Harley Davidson motorcycles it did not actually prohibit those things. So what would keep the Church from including them?

And, of course, these things and many more are used in churches.

Where do we land? In neither of these places in a formal sense.

We will describe the basic elements of a worship service (which is not even a biblical term) in another episode. We would simply argue that these elements need to be front and center when the Church assembles.

In turn, we then would argue that anything that potentially distracts or detracts from those elements should be rejected as the norm or carefully used with care.

At the core, we see that for some, this debate is so important that they end up missing the point that all of one’s life is an expression of worship, not only when the Church gathers.

We do not hold that the Church is Israel, is the fulfillment of Israel, replaced Israel, or is the New Israel due to being in Christ. So we do not look to the worship in the OT as a description of what we are to do.

We would also argue that the motivation behind what is done or not done is far more important.

Consider the rebuke by YHWH in Isaiah 29:13 to Israel, “Then the Lord said, "Because this people draw near with their words And honor Me with their lip service, But they remove their hearts far from Me, And their reverence for Me consists of tradition learned by rote.”

Jesus told the woman at the well, "But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth." (John 4:23-24)

A non-instrumental, Psalm-only church that is filled with worldly hearts is an abomination. A church with a full band or orchestra and theatrical lighting and sound that has a sincere love for God and a fidelity to His Word is a joy.

At the same time, there are things that ought to be done regardless because they are commanded.

You must read and preach the Word.

You must pray.

You must serve one another.

You must remember the Lord’s death in communion.

It is interesting what Jesus said in Matthew 23:23, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.”


So there you go, when did the Church begin? At Pentecost. Are the Church and Israel the same? No.

Did we resolve the issue? Nope, not in the least. Some of you are shaking your heads and some of you are nodding in agreement.

Hopefully, though, we helped show that there are sincere differences on these things.

And those differences have real consequences. Therefore each of us should be very slow to shake our head and dismiss something unless we have thoroughly looked at it.

We will develop some of this in greater detail further down the road so consider this a precursor; something that makes you aware of some of the challenges so that you might be able to do some reading and thinking ahead of time.


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