The word, church, does not appear in any Old Testament text.
In Matthew 16.18, where it first appears, it is still something promised, but not yet materialized. Does this mean, then, that God never planned on creating his church — that the church was some sort of spur-of-the-moment accident?
Remarkably, many believe that to be so! But the Biblical record says otherwise.
A Purposeful Creation
In the early 1900s, C.I. Scofield popularized the theory known as dispensationalism. Though there are several flaws with this theory, there are a few flaws that are of particular interest to our present topic.
First, dispensationalists contend that Christ came to rebuild an earthly kingdom — to sit on David’s literal throne in Jerusalem.
For instance, John Pentecost, one of the leading lights of the dispensational movement, took issue with
“some [who] contend that neither the Lord nor John ever offered Israel an earthly kingdom, but only a spiritual kingdom.”
“[s]uch a view entirely fails to comprehend the nature of ‘the kingdom’ preached by John, the Lord, and His disciples” (455).
Yet, the Lord himself argued that his “kingdom is not of this world” (John 18.36). Indeed, it “does not come with observation,” because “the kingdom of God is within you” (Lk. 17.20-21). Christ had no intention of establishing an earthly kingdom.
Second, dispensationalists argue that the Jews unexpectedly rejected Jesus from being an earthly king (yet see, Ps. 118.22; Mt. 21.42; Isa. 53.3); and, therefore, Christ temporarily withdrew his offer of an earthly kingdom (Pentecost, 463-464). The opposite is true!
The first-century Jewish people, by and large, kept looking for an earthly king. On one occasion, the Jews even attempted to make Jesus their king “by force” (Jn. 6.15) — i.e., by means of a violent overthrow of the political authorities. But he rejected their desires and withdrew from their presence.
In other words, he rejected their offer to become an earthly king, for that was not his mission (cf. Mt. 4.8-10).
Third, dispensationalists believe that the supposed earthly kingdom was merely postponed, due to Israel’s rejection. Pentecost suggests that Christ prepared “the disciples for a long delay in the kingdom program,” which would not come to pass until after his second coming (ibid.). Yet, the kingdom of Christ was not delayed, for it existed during the lifetime of his disciples, and throughout the first century (cf. Mk. 9.1; Mt. 16.19; Col. 1.13; Rev. 1.6, 9).
Fourth, dispensationalism teaches that the church is “an entirely new, unheralded, and unexpected program” (ibid.) temporarily substituting for the supposed earthly kingdom — that “the church is manifestly an interruption of God’s program for Israel” (ibid., 201). They describe the present church-age
“as a parenthesis unexpected and…not predicted by the Old Testament and therefore not fulfilling or advancing the program of events revealed in the Old Testament foreview” (sic, Walvoord, 227, 231).
The Biblical record flatly contradicts such claims. The church is not an unexpected afterthought. Its creation was purposefully planned, for it was contemplated in the mind of God since before the world began.
“…and to make all see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the ages has been hidden in God who created all things through Jesus Christ; to the intent that now the manifold wisdom of God might be made known by the church to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places, according to the eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Eph. 3.9-11).
Note especially that it was God’s “eternal purpose” that “the church” be assigned the task of making “known” the “manifold wisdom of God” — that is, the gospel “mystery.” This “eternal purpose” has already been “accomplished” — not interrupted or delayed.
The church was purposefully created to fulfill an eternal plan, fully expected by God “from the beginning of the ages.”
A Predicted Creation
Contrary to dispensationalism, the Old Testament predicts the establishment of this eternally-purposed church. In fact, it gives us the 1) what, 2) when, 3) where, and 4) who.
(1) What would be created?
The Old Testament announces (1) God’s final rejection of national Israel and (2) the establishment of a spiritual kingdom, later called “the church.”
First, as a result of Israel’s frequent rebellion, God finally rejects national Israel, declaring that he will “break” them “as one breaks a potter’s vessel, which cannot be made whole again” (Jer. 19.11f). Although he would continue to use the Israelites to accomplish his eternal purpose, the Lord would no longer regard them as his “people,” or be their “God” (Hosea 1.9).
Instead, a new class of individuals, a “remnant” of both Jews and Gentiles, would become his people (Hosea 2.23; cf. 1 Pt. 2.9-10). In short, as Jesus taught six hundred years later, national Israel has lost its kingdom-of-God status, never again to be restored; instead, God’s kingdom would be “given to a nation bearing the fruits of it” — viz., the church (Mt. 21.43; cf. Rm. 9.6-8, 22-33; 11.1ff).
Second, the kingdom of God would assume a distinctly spiritual form.
The prophet, Daniel, predicted the rise and fall of four great earthly kingdoms (Dan. 2.37-43; 7.1ff) — which correspond to Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome. These four kingdoms “arise out of the earth” (7.17). However, a fifth kingdom, made “without hands” (Dan. 2.45), would be different from these earthly kingdoms. It would be “set up” by the “God of heaven,” and would “never be destroyed” (2.44). No other kingdom could inherit its riches; for “the saints of the Most high shall receive the kingdom, and possess the kingdom forever, even forever and ever” (7.18; cf. 2.44 “not left to other people”).
Furthermore, it would “break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand forever” (2.44). Thus, God predicted the establishment of a spiritual kingdom, one that does not “arise out of the earth,” but one that is made “without hands.” No wonder, then, that when Jesus came he proclaimed: “my kingdom is not of this world” (Jn. 18.36). When he built his “church,” his spiritual “kingdom” was opened for one and all (Mt. 16.18-19; cf. Heb. 12.23, 28).
(2) When would his spiritual kingdom be established?
First, Daniel, speaking of the fourth earthly kingdom in the vision, declares that God would “set up” his kingdom “in the days of these kings” — i.e., the Romans (2.44). Notably, the church was established during the reign of Tiberius, a Roman king.
What’s more, Rome was in power when God “translated” Christians “into the kingdom of the son of his love” (Col. 1.13), in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy.
Second, the prophets also predicted that “the mountain of the Lord’s house” would be established during “the last days” (Micah 4.1f; Isa. 2.2f). As observed in our previous article, “The Lord’s Church (1): Its Meaning,” the term, church, itself refers to “the Lord’s house” (cf. 1 Tim. 3.15; Eph. 2.19).
And in prophetic literature, mountains and hills frequently stand for kingdoms and nations (cf. Jer. 51.24-25). Hence, Isaiah predicts the kingdom of the Lord’s house (the church) being “established on the top of the mountains and exalted above the hills” (i.e., superior to all earthly kingdoms and nations) during “the last days.”
What, then, are “the last days”? The Spirit affirms that the "last days" were already present during New Testament times (cf. Acts 2.16-17; 11.15; cf. Heb. 1.1-2).
Third, Joel predicts this “remnant” kingdom would find “deliverance” in “the last days” when the Spirit would be “poured out” on “all flesh.” Again, Peter assigns the fulfillment of that prophecy to the day of Pentecost (Acts 2.1, 16ff). In like manner, the Lord himself affirmed the following:
(1) his kingdom would come during his disciples’ lifetime, before they experienced death (Mk. 9.1);
(2) his kingdom would come “with power” (Mk. 9.1);
(3) the “power” would come “when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (Acts 1.8) in the city of “Jerusalem” (Lk. 24.49);
(4) the “Holy Spirit” came upon his disciples in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost, at which point he began to be “poured out on all flesh” (Acts 2.1-4, 17f; 39).
Thus: the kingdom came on the day of Pentecost, when the Spirit came with power from on high.
In short, the kingdom would come 1) during Roman rule; 2) in the last days; 3) when the Spirit was poured out on all flesh, giving his disciples miraculous “power from on high.”
All three temporal predictions find their fulfillment in the spring of A.D. 30, on the day of Pentecost. Hence, the promised spiritual kingdom came that very day in Jerusalem.
(3) Where would his kingdom be established?
Again, the prophets predict that it would be established in Jerusalem (Isa. 2.2-4; Micah 4.2; Joel 2.32). In fact, the “foundation” of this house would be laid in “Zion” — the most prominent hill in the city (cf. Isa. 28.6; Eph. 2.19-20).
Accordingly, before the Lord ascended to heaven, he instructed his disciples “not to depart from Jerusalem” until the promise of the Holy Spirit would come upon them (Acts 1.5f), as the prophets had predicted.
Thus, the first church met in the temple complex in Jerusalem (Acts 2.46; 3.1; 5.42). It is not without significance, then, that “the church” is described as “the heavenly Jerusalem” (Heb. 12.22-23).
(4) Who would be citizens of this kingdom?
According to the prophets, people from “all nations” would migrate to the kingdom (Isa. 2.2; Micah 4.1f). In fact, though a remnant of Jews would be counted among the citizenry, the vast majority of citizens in the kingdom would come from the nations of the Gentiles (Zech. 8.20-23).
Thus, before his ascension, Jesus instructed his disciples to begin their ministry in Jerusalem, and then to expand to “all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1.8). Their ultimate mission required them to “make disciples of all the nations” (Mt. 28.19). The gospel message was to be made known “by the prophetic Scriptures…to all nations” (Rm. 16.26), with the intent of reconciling both Jew and Gentile into “one body” — the “church” (Eph. 2.16; 1.22-23; cf. 2.11ff).
Consequently, the Old Testament predicts the creation of the church — the spiritual kingdom of Christ — established
(1) during Roman rule, in the last days, when the Spirit was poured out on all flesh;
(2) in the city of Jerusalem;
(3) consisting of all nations, both Jew and Gentile.
A Prepared Creation
Before its establishment, John, Jesus, the apostles, and his disciples each made preparations for the creation of the church. The prophet Malachi had foretold of such preparations some four-hundred years prior.
“Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight. Behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts” (Mal. 3.1).
John the immerser was the first “messenger” sent to “prepare” the Jewish people for the coming of the second “messenger of the covenant” — the “Lord” himself (Mt. 3.1-4). In his preparatory work, he announced: “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt. 3.2). He, more than any other previous prophet, was responsible for popularizing the kingdom of heaven (cf. Mt. 11.1-13; Lk. 16.16; Mt. 21.31-32).
Jesus likewise prepared his contemporaries for the coming kingdom (Mk. 1.15; Mt. 16.18), and he sent his disciples out with the same message (Lk. 10.9). Their preparatory work served mightily both to soften the hearts of the Jewish people, and to teach them that they ought to have been looking for a spiritual kingdom, rather than the earthly dominion their rabbis had been promoting (cf. Lk. 1.17, 32-33, 76-79).
Still, final preparations for the Lord’s church needed to be made, as follows:
(1) His church would not be completed until after the Jews rejected the Lord as their Messiah (cf. Isa. 28.16; Ps. 118.22), when they crucified him (Mt. 21.38-42), at which point he could “purchase” the church “with his own blood” (Acts 20.28). His death, in other words, laid the foundation for the church-kingdom (1 Cor. 3.11; cf. Mt. 16.18). Still, the church was not completed.
(2) The Lord would not receive his kingdom until after his resurrection and ascension into heaven (Dan. 7.13-14; cf. Lk. 19.11ff). God had promised to “set one upon his throne” who came from the “loins” of David, but only after he had been “raised up” and “ascended…into the heavens.” Once those events occurred, he took his place “by the right hand of God exalted” and was made “both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2.29-36). Still, the kingdom, though established in heaven after his ascension, had not yet “come” to the inhabitants of earth.
(3) Finally, his kingdom would not come until after his disciples received “power” from the “Spirit” (cf. Mk. 9.1; Acts 1.8). During his earthly ministry, the Lord had promised to “come” to them, but that it would be through the agency of “another helper” — “the Spirit of truth” (Jn. 14.18, 16-17).
He likewise promised that they would “see” him “coming in his kingdom” (Mt. 16.28; Lk. 9.27). Yet, after his resurrection, he was visibly “seen” by his disciples “during forty days,” even “speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God” (Acts 1.3), but, still, the kingdom had not yet come (Acts 1.6f). At that time, he instructed his disciples to return to Jerusalem, where they would be “baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (i.e., about a week later; Acts 1.5; cf. 2.1-4).
Once they received “power” from the Spirit (Acts 1.8), they would then be able to “see” their Lord “coming in his kingdom,” for they would then know that “he” (Jesus) had “poured out” the Spirit in his exalted state, just as he had promised them (Acts 2.33). In other words, they could “see” him in his kingdom behind the Spirit-given tongues.
A Perfected Creation
Once all preparations had been made, the kingdom of Christ was poised to arrive on the global scene.
On the day of Pentecost, then, the Lord finally completed his eternally purposed, predicted, and prepared church: 1) the Romans were in power; 2) the Lord had already been killed, resurrected, and ascended into heaven; 3) the last days were present; 4) the disciples were in Jerusalem; 5) the Spirit had begun to be poured out on all flesh; and 6) inhabitants “from every nation under heaven,” including “both Jews and proselytes (Gentile converts)” had gathered together, unknowingly ready to bear witness to the occasion (Acts 2.5-11). All the pieces were in place. The foundation had been laid.
After Peter’s sermon on that day, the superstructure of the church, consisting of some three-thousand baptized souls (Acts 2.41), had finally been built on top of the bedrock of Christ (cf. Mt. 16.18; Eph. 2.19-22).
Consequently, Christians now proclaim Jesus as “king of kings” (1 Tim. 6.15; cf. Rev. 1.5). We attempt to persuade “all nations” to become citizens of this very same kingdom (Acts 8.12; 19.8; 1 Thess. 2.12; Col. 1.13; cf. Phil. 3.20; Rev. 1.9). This church-kingdom is thus a present reality, and it all started on the day of Pentecost, two-thousand years ago, as recorded in Acts chapter two.
The Lord’s church was eternally purposed, prophetically predicted, meticulously prepared, and concretely perfected. All of this was “accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Eph. 3.11). It was not a mere afterthought or accident, nor was God’s plan temporarily interrupted or delayed. The wisdom of God created it!
Accordingly, there is no need to adjust or modify the design of this church-kingdom, for the Lord’s plan regarding it is flawless. Indeed, this kingdom “cannot be shaken” (Heb. 12.28), for it was created to manifest the “glory” of “Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen” (Eph. 3.21).
This is a series of articles, with the following parts:
The Lord's Church (2): Its Creation
Miller, Rodney M. The Lion & The Lamb On Planet Earth, Second Edition. Orlando, FL: Miller Publications, 1981. Pentecost, J. Dwight. Things to Come. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1964. Scofield, C.I. The New Scofield Reference Bible. London: Oxford University Press, 1970. Walvoord, John F. The Millennial Kingdom. Grand Rapids: Dunham Publishing House, 1957.