"THE CHURCH" (AND HOW IT CHANGED DURING THE ACTS)

 

Does the nature and destiny of "THE CHURCH"
stay the same throughout the book of Acts?


"THE CHURCH" of Matthew 16 IS THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN

with its sphere of blessing on the earth,
Not the "Body of Christ" with its blessing "in heavenly places"

The word "church" simply means any "gathering" of people

(either believers or even unbelievers)


The word can describe "gathered" believers

in several ages and dispensations,

because the word "Church" by itself has NO doctrinal implications

 

All who have ever believed in Christ are part of His “Gathering” (ekklesia),

whether that “Gathering” was earthly or heavenly in nature


However, not all of these “gathered” believers

were members of the “Body of Christ”

with a sphere of blessing "in heavenly places"

 

But, does the Bible teach that there are two "Christian Churches"

existing side by side in the book of Acts?

(i.e., a "kingdom" church

that was gradually replaced by

the "Body of Christ")

 

Finally, the truth of Christ's atonement is the foundation

which does not change
regardless of dispensational practices which do change

R.L.B.

 

        The Lord Jesus Christ declared to the apostle Peter that He (Christ) would build His "church":

     "And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church. . . ." (Mat. 16:18)

What is the "church"?

        Brethren writer Charles Henry Mackintosh (1820 - 1896) was one of the earliest expositors of the scriptures since the apostolic age to begin to comprehend the true meaning of the word "church" and its changing dispensational character as history marched forward.  As C.H.M. studied the scriptures he accurately identified the church that existed between Pentecost and Acts 28:28 as a kingdom church with a distinctly earthly character.  Furthermore, he clearly understood that the remarkable manifesting by Paul of its never-before-revealed heavenly character took place in his prison epistles ONLY AFTER national Israel was temporarily set aside, or "shut up" (to use Brethren language):

"The doctrine of the Church's heavenly character was developed in all its power and beauty by the Holy Ghost in the Apostle Paul.  Up to his time and even during the early stages of his ministry, the divine purpose was to deal with Israel.  The thought of a church composed of Jew and Gentile, 'seated together in the heavenlies', lay far beyond the range of prophetic testimony.  The Kingdom was still the very highest thought.  The Church as seen in the opening of the Acts ... was still the Kingdom, and not the great mystery of the Church.  Those who think that the opening chapters of Acts present the Church in its essential aspect, have by no means reached the divine thought on the subject."  (C. H. Mackintosh, Life and Times of Elijah, Concluding Remarks, Miscellaneous Writings, Loizeaux Brothers, Volume 5, pp. 127-130).

        With this thought provoking introduction, we now ask two questions:

            1. What is this "church" that the Lord promised to build?  And,

            2. What does the word "church" actually mean?

The New Scofield Reference Bible defines the word 'church' as follows:

"The word 'church' (Gk. ekklesia, from a verb meaning to call out) is used of any assembly and in itself implies no more than a gathering of people who have been called forth, e.g. the town meeting at Ephesus (Acts 19:41), and Israel, called out of Egypt and assembled in the wilderness (Acts 7:38).  Israel was a 'church,' but not in any sense the N. T. church - the primary point of similarity being that both were 'called out' and by the same God." (The New Scofield Reference Bible (1967), p. 1021 - footnote on Matthew 16:18-19).

W. E. Vine adds:

"In the Sept. [ekklesia] is used to designate the gathering of Israel, summoned for any definite purpose, or a gathering regarded as representative of the whole nation." (W. E. Vine, An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, Fleming H. Revell)

       When referring to those making up Christ's "church" on earth this word "church" (Greek ekklesia), simply means a gathering, meeting, assembly, or congregation, consisting of individuals who believed the message Christ revealed to them at a particular historical time in God's purposes.  In a spiritual sense it is a "gathering" of individuals who profess to have a spiritual link with the One who has the words of life eternal, whether their "sphere of blessing" is millennial in character (i.e., on the earth), or in the New Jerusalem which will come down out of heaven and rest on the new earth, or whether this sphere of blessing is "in the heavenlies in Christ."

        When we encounter the word "church" in the scriptures many fall back on pre-conceived notions of the word, and often attach specific, inappropriate, meanings to it.  To make sure we are on the same page insofar as the scriptural meaning of the word "church" is concerned let us briefly review the following:

How is the word "ekklesia" used in the scriptures?

        The word "ekklesia" simply means any "gathering of people" with no particular doctrine or agenda in mind.  Thus we have it describing

It may be noted that some translators use the word "church" to translate "ekklesia" when it refers to a spiritual gathering, but use a different English word when it refers to a non-spiritual gathering.  That's too bad, because it tends to confuse us. It is the same word "ekklesia" in the Greek. That practice perpetuates the erroneous notion that whenever we see the word "church" in our Bibles it must mean the Body of Christ (the specific "church" or "gathering" that has its ultimate blessing in the heavenly places in Christ).

The word "ekklesia" simply means a "gathering of people", ANY gathering of people, with no particular agenda, doctrine, or sectarian identity inherent in its meaning.

Is it a building, cathedral, chapel, gospel hall?

Is there a difference between a "church" and an "assembly"?

        No.  Some people wrongly differentiate between being a member of a "church" versus being with an "assembly." Someone who says, "I have been with the Assemblies for 25 years" may actually be implying that they left a denominational or independent "church" to join a different type of religious group.  Such talk is simply sectarian language which the apostle Paul strongly condemns (1 Cor. 1:11-13).

Where is a church composed of believers physically located?

        Scripture mentions several cities where believers "gathered" together.  Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Thessalonica, the 7 gatherings mentioned in the Apocalypse, etc.  The Bible also mentions that believers "gathered" in private houses (Acts 2:46; 5:42; 12:12; 20:20; 28:30; Rom. 16:5; 1 Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15; Philemon 2).  The gathering of Israel was in the wilderness (Acts 7:38), where Jews gathered after departing from Egypt. Later it referred to Jews, and perhaps Christians, who met (gathered) under the open sky to pray to God by the riverside (Acts 16:13).

What do Christians do when "gathered" together?

        Depending on the dispensation a few of the things the Bible says Christians have done when gathered together are fellowship, break bread (i.e., eat meals) together, pray, sing, anoint with oil, speak in tongues, prophesy, resolve doctrinal or practical problems, remember the Lord with unleavened bread and wine, write and receive/read letters from other gatherings, reach out to the outside world, and sometimes even sin.

When did Christ's church begin?

        There are several conflicting ideas as to when "the church" began.  Did "it" began at Pentecost, or at Acts 9 with Saul's conversion, at Acts 13 with the commending of Barnabas and Saul to missionary work?  Did it begin after Israel's final rejection of the good news about the Lord Jesus Christ at Acts 28:28, or at some undisclosed time after the close of the Acts? 

        Actually, this is not the correct question to ask, because our Lord Jesus Christ has always had those whom He has "gathered" to Himself.  The group of 12 disciples might be considered a "church", but the Lord probably had in mind that AFTER His resurrection and the 40 day's of teaching there would be a very special Jewish festival when the First Fruits of the harvest would be offered to God (i.e., on the Jewish feast day of Pentecost).  That particular day marked the first-fruits of the final fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies having to do with the "gathering" of Israel back to the holy land and their potential restoration to personal communion with Jehovah.  It would seem that Christ's particular "gathering" (ekklesia) referred to in Matthew 16 first began to be "built" at Pentecost.

        However, let us be quick to acknowledge that the character and stance of Christ's "gatherings" subsequently changed as time progressed.  What began as a kingdom-of-the-heavens "gathering" (Mat. 16:19; Acts 2 & 3) composed (by God's design) of Jews only, took on a different characteristic when it became clear the Jewish leaders at Jerusalem would reject their Messiah (Acts 7), at which time God began to include non-Jews into the "gathering" (Acts 10).  And this "gathering" changed again very significantly when the Jewish diaspora throughout the world and finally at Rome turned final deaf ears and sightless eyes to God's offer of national restitution through the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 28:28).  But even after Acts 28:28 when Israel was shut up, the remaining "ekklesia" was still Christ's "gathering" because the word "ekklesia" does not carry with it any doctrinal, dispensational, or moral description.  All such "gatherings" of believers from Pentecost onward are Christ's gatherings "built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone" (Eph. 2:20).

        So, the question, "When did the church begin?", is the wrong question to ask.  The correct question should be, "When did the present dispensation begin?"

       When referring to those making up Christ's "church" on earth this word "church" (Greek ekklesia), simply means a gathering, meeting, assembly, or congregation, consisting of individuals who believed the message Christ revealed to them at a particular historical time in God's purposes.  It is a "gathering" of individuals who profess to have a spiritual link with the One who has the words of life eternal, whether their ultimate "sphere of blessing" is millennial in character (i.e., on the earth), or in the New Jerusalem which will come down out of heaven and rest on the new earth, or whether their sphere of blessing is "in the heavenlies in Christ."

Summary of the meaning of the word "ekklesia" (church, assembly, gathering)

        The word "church" (ekklesia) does not always refer to "the church, the body of Christ."  Nor does it always refer to a "Christian" assembly of God's people.  Of the 114 occurrences of ekklesia in the New Testament, once it refers to the "congregation" or "gathering" of Israelites who wandered 40 years in the wilderness (Acts 7:38).  In Acts 19:32 the word ekklesia means the unruly "gathering" of the mob who wanted to harm the apostle Paul.  In Acts 19:39 it refers to the regular local government meeting where people "gathered" to debate Roman political matters, and in Acts 19:41 it again refers to the unruly "gathering" previously mentioned in Acts 19:32.  None of these four references speak of any so-called "Christian" gatherings.  If I attend a meeting of the board of adjustment in my local city I have "gone to church" insofar as the New Testament usage of the word ekklesia is concerned.  And if I "gather" at the stadium to watch a football game I have "attended church."  The point being that an ekklesia can be a earthly kingdom gathering (as in Matthew 16:18-19), or it can be a gathering anticipating a heavenly terminus, as we await "the blessed hope and appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ" (Titus 2:13).  And it can even be a non-religious "gathering" such as a party in one's home.

Local "church" versus the true church

        When we speak of 'The Church' we must be careful to distinguish between the ekklesia which exists in heaven and the local expression of that ekklesia which existed (or exists today) on earth.  It is incorrect, for example, to say the assembly on earth should always picture that which exists in heaven.  Christian assemblies on earth may appoint people to hold property, make repairs to meeting facilities, reach out to the poor.  On earth it may be necessary to discipline those who stray from 'the Way.'  Individuals in Christian groups on earth may become foreign missionaries, hold Bible conferences, etc., whereas such will be unnecessary for the ekklesia in its eternal manifestation in the heavenly places.  On earth there once were healings, interpretations, tongues, all of which "sign gifts" disappeared when God temporarily ceased offering the earthly kingdom to National Israel.  Today in our Christian meetings we have marriages, children, need for food, clothing, financial support, all of which only have to do with our passage through this physical life as strangers and pilgrims. 

        Put simply, God's church on earth is simply a "gathering" of His people.  In Old Testament times God's gathering included the people making up the nation Israel, by covenant relationship, but, for example, not the descendants of Ishmael, Esau, or Lot's two daughters and their sons (Moab and Ammon), even though the descendants of those individuals that became nations had specific earthly promises made to them. (See Gen. 17:20; 27:39; Deut. 2:19).  Why the difference between the nation Israel and the other nations?  It was a matter of "covenant."

     "And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget, and I will make him a great nation.
     "But my covenant will I establish with Isaac, which Sarah shall bear unto you at this set time in the next year." (Gen. 17:20-21)

        Stephen, in his defense of the gospel, mentions the ekklesia in the wilderness, referring to God's gathering which wandered for 40 years.

     "This is he that was in the church [ekklesia] in the wilderness with the angel that spoke to him in the Mount Sinai, and with our fathers: who received living oracles to give unto us." (Acts 7:38)

God's prophetic promises to His covenant people

        Jehovah had promised to reward Israel as long as they were obedient.

     "If ye walk in my statutes, and keep my commandments, and do them. . . ." (Lev. 26:3)

     "And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and ye shall be my people."  (Lev. 26:17)

But if they failed to observe His statutes:

     "But if ye will not hearken unto me, and will not do all these commandments; and if ye shall reject my statutes, and if your soul abhor mine ordinances, so that ye will not do all my commandments, but break my covenant; I also will do this unto you . . .

     "I will scatter you among the nations, and I will draw out the sword after you: and your land shall be a desolation, and your cities shall be a waste." (Lev 26:14 & 33)

        Throughout their history God's covenant people Israel forgot Jehovah and failed to observe His commandments.  As a result 10 tribes of Israel were captured by the Assyrians and were deported.  Judah and Benjamin were deported to Babylon for 70 years.  At the time of the Lord Jesus God's people were living under Roman rule, and many remained scattered throughout the known world.  These scattered Jews were known as the diaspora, and were the primary targets of the apostle Paul's ministry "to the Jew first."

        However, in spite of their scattering because of sin, the Hebrew prophets, consistently foretold of the day when Jehovah would "gather" His scattered people, and bring them into untold blessing.  He would be their God, and they would be His people.

        Today many Bible believers hold a form of "replacement theology," believing that God's promises to the Jewish covenant nation are fulfilled in the present day "church."  They think the kingdom church (ekklesia) which our Lord promised to build is precisely what exists today, as if God had only one plan in mind for the particular ekklesia that He would "build" during the historical period that began shortly after His death, burial, and resurrection. It is a commonly held theory that God's purpose for the "gathering" that took place at Pentecost is the same purpose He later revealed for the "gathering which is His body" which exists today. After all, isn't "the church" "the church"?  But in fact at various historical points in time God has revealed a number of differing purposes and plans for the believers He has 'gathered.'  He administered these differing purposes during the historical period beginning at Pentecost and throughout the Acts. 

        Absolutely chief among His purposes was to send His Son, "the Word", to become "flesh" (John 1:1-14), and to be the substitute for the sins of those He chose to be included in His eternal plans.  Without the sacrificial death of our Lord Jesus Christ absolutely no one could possibly take part in any of the glorious plans God revealed for His people in any of His economies (or dispensations).

        As stated above, one of God's long-term purposes was to gather His earthly covenant people Israel from all the nations where He had scattered them because of their unbelief and sinful conduct.  God's plan to gather His people Israel is one of the primary subjects of prophecy, (see Isa. 11:12; 27:12-13; 40:11; 43:5; 54:7, etc.) but many Christians are unaware that this prophesied plan was renewed and placed in full force starting at Pentecost and that it continued throughout the entire book of Acts.  In fact this prophesied "kingdom purpose" was God's PRIMARY plan being carried out during the historical period covered by Luke's record in the Acts.

The nature of God's plan for Israel

        Jehovah had promised to gather a remnant of Israel and to make them into a believing nation (Jer. 31:34).  He promised to pour out His Holy Spirit on them (Isa. 44:3; Ezek. 39:29; Joel 2:28-29) and to put His Holy Spirit within them (Ezek. 36:27; 37:14).  This, of course, sounds exactly like what began to happen on the day of Pentecost when God's Holy Spirit was placed upon and within a remnant of Jewish believers called out exclusively from His covenant people Israel?  As a matter of fact the apostle Peter specifically said

                "but this IS that which was spoken through the prophet Joel." (Acts 2:16)

In other words, the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the Jewish feast day of First Fruits (Pentecost) actually began to fulfill the prophecies having to do with ISRAEL'S latter days on earth, and of their "gathering" together from their various scattered locations throughout the world. As a result a "gathering" of about 3000 people took place on Pentecost in fulfillment of these Hebrew prophecies, and that gathering was called a "church" (ekklesia), although this "church" differed substantially from the body of believers we call "the church" today.

How was that "church" different from the Church today?

"For to one, by the Spirit, is given the word of wisdom; and to another the word of knowledge, according to the same Spirit; and to a different one faith, in the power of the same Spirit; and to another gifts of healing in the power of the same Spirit; and to another operations of miracles; and to another prophecy; and to another discerning of spirits; and to a different one kinds of tongues; and to another interpretation of tongues." (1 Cor. 12:8-10)

All of these special sign gifts explicitly show the Jewish character of the church that began on the day of Pentecost. And this fact is actually a key that allows us to clearly see the three dispensational differences that characterize the church at Pentecost, the church after Acts 10, and the church after the end of Acts (the church as we know it today).

 

The Three Phases of the "church" Christ is building

The Church - Acts 2 through Acts 7 The Church Acts 8 through Acts 28 The Church after Acts 28 (The Church today)
The gospel to the Jew only. The Jewish people are to be the missionary people sent to convert the Nations (Gentiles) and subject them for God's earthly purpose along with National Israel. The gospel to the Jew first because they must first be converted in order to fulfill their missionary purpose. The gospel to all without distinction. Israel's "Great Commission" to convert the Gentile Nations is put on hold.
The earthly kingdom offered to Israel. Gentiles parcipate in Israel's kingdom, grafted in as wild olive branches. This is the mystery of Romans 11:25 to provoke Israel to jealousy. Israel's kingdom shut up, withdrawn temporarily.
Miracles, signs & wonders performed by Jews. Miracles, signs & wonders performed by both Jews and Gentiles. No miraculous signs and wonders appropriate because Israel is no longer in view.
The church at Jerusalem rejects the Messiah culminating in the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7). The gospel to the diaspora is finally rejected at Rome (Acts 28:28) after God's patient The gospel has been completely rejected at Jerusalem and at Rome, and the earthly kingdom is no longer offered to Israel.
The sphere of blessing is earthly. Twelve apostles will sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel. No change is evident in the expected sphere of blessing except for mention of a "heavenly city" in Hebrews. First mention of believers blessed "in heavenly places in Christ."
God's purpose created "from" or "Since" the foundation of the world No change God's purpose created "before" the foundation of the world
Peter holds the keys of the kingdom of heaven.  Peter uses the keys of the kingdom to open the door of salvation to Samaritans and Gentiles. Paul becomes the apostle to the Gentiles, and Peter & James to the Jews.                       Paul reveals the mystery of Gentile blessing entirely apart from Israel's earthly blessings.
     

 

As long as Israel is in view the signs and wonders appropriate to Israel are exhibited  by believers.  Once God withdraws His offer of the earthly kingdom these signs and wonders are no longer mentioned.  This has nothing to do with the level of 'spirituality' of individual believers, or whether all of the New Testament scriptures had been completed at the time. The Corinthian believers were far from spiritually minded but possessed abundant miraculous signs and wonders. And the signs and wonders had long since passed away many years before John's Gospel and the Apocalypse were written in about AD 96, thus disproving that commonly held misconception.

     So, when did the "church" begin? Actually, the Lord Jesus has been building His "church" since Pentecost. The "church" at Pentecost is Christ's Church. The "church" that existed following the stoning of Stephen changed by bringing in the Gentiles but it still was Christ's Church. Once Israel at Jerusalem and at Rome rejected Christ the believers that remained, and believers today, are part of Christ's "church" because the word "church" does not denote the three important dispensational differences shown in the chart above.

There is one "church" (ekklesia), but thus far three very significant divisions have marked it. To try and import Ephesian truth into Acts 2 is superfluous. To say that the book of Acts is "the pattern church" to be followed today is to misunderstand completely the words which the Holy Spirit has given. So let me again quote the thoughts of Charles H. Mackintosh:

"The doctrine of the Church's heavenly character was developed in all its power and beauty by the Holy Ghost in the Apostle Paul.  Up to his time and even during the early stages of his ministry, the divine purpose was to deal with Israel.  The thought of a church composed of Jew and Gentile, 'seated together in the heavenlies', lay far beyond the range of prophetic testimony.  The Kingdom was still the very highest thought.  The Church as seen in the opening of the Acts ... was still the Kingdom, and not the great mystery of the Church.  Those who think that the opening chapters of Acts present the Church in its essential aspect, have by no means reached the divine thought on the subject."

For those who may have difficulty accepting the above conclusions, may I indulge the reader who has plodded through this paper to this point, with two additional quotations from the thoughts of that beloved Brethren writer C. H. Mackintosh.

When Christ was raised from the dead, all the members of His body were raised also; when He ascended into heaven, they ascended also; when He sat down, they sat down also; that is, in the counsel of God, and to be actualized in process of time by the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven.  Such was the thought and purpose of the divine mind concerning them.  Believers did not know this at the first; it was not unfolded by the ministry of the twelve, as seen in the Acts of the Apostles, because the testimony to Israel was still going on; and so long as earth was the manifested scene of divine operation, and so long as there was any ground of hope in connection with Israel, the heavenly mystery was held back; but when earth had been abandoned and Israel set aside, the apostle of the Gentiles, from his prison at Rome, writes to the Church, and opens out all the glorious privileges connected with its place in the heavens with Christ.  (C. H. Mackintosh, Concluding Remarks, Miscellaneous Writings, Volume 5, Loizeaux, p. 144)

As to Acts 28:28, C.H.M clearly understood the significance of Paul's quotation of the Holy Spirit's words to Israel from Isaiah 6:9-10, that this was God's final closing judgment on Israel.

There was now no more hope.  Every effort that love could make had been made, but to no purpose; and our apostle, with a reluctant heart, shuts them up under the power of that judicial blindness which was the natural result of their rejection of the salvation of God.  ...now all was over...he must therefore set himself to bring out that holy and heavenly mystery which had been hid in God from ages and generations---the mystery of the Church as the body of Christ united to its living Head by the Holy Ghost.  Thus closes the Acts of the Apostles, which like the Gospels, is more or less connected with the testimony to Israel.  So long as Israel could be regarded as the object of testimony, so long the testimony continued; but when they were shut up to judicial blindness, they ceased to come within the range of testimony, wherefore the testimony ceased.  (Op cite, pp. 141-142).

We have only to glance at the history of the Church for the last eighteen centuries to see how feebly [the mystery revealed through Paul the prisoner] was held and how speedily it was let go.   I am deeply conscious of how feebly and incoherently I have developed what I have in my mind concerning the doctrine of the Church, but I have no doubt of its real importance and feel assured that as the time draws near, much light will be communicated to believers about it.  At present, it is to be feared, few really enter into it.  (Op cite, pp. 146-150)

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For more information you might enjoy the following two papers:

How many "churches" existed during and following the Acts record? 

(In the above paper we question the theory that two "churches" simultaneously existed during the Acts period.  In the article we stress why it is so important to take seriously the conclusions raised by the paper you have just read on the real meaning of the word ekklesia - church, gathering, assembly, meeting, etc.)

                  The Birthday of the Church vs. the Beginning of the Present Dispensation

(A survey of dispensational truth as its understanding developed under the ministries of J. N. Darby, C. H. Mackintosh, E. W. Bullinger,  C. H. Welch, C. I. Scofield,   J. C. O'Hair, C. R. Stam, and others)

                  Return to Thy Testimonies / Bible Studies

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