It is so important to make sure when we look at the scriptures that we are drawing out truths that are actually there. When a teacher of God’s word takes a presupposition–a template if you will, and tries to whittle orthodox Bible doctrine to fit into that template, it is called eisegesis. The example of this that I have heard most recently, and that prompted this post is that Jesus was the first church planter, that the church existed in the gospels and that Jesus was right there bringing people into the church. “If you teach this,” this teacher said, “people will stone you.” Now, this is a dangerous statement. It creates us versus them mentality in the church and sets adherents to this incorrect teaching up to consider themselves martyrs. It hardens them to correction, a correction I intend to make in this post, if nowhere else.
Was Jesus Himself the first church planter?
Jesus was not the first church planter. He was sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. (Matthew 15:24). He came with an offer of the Kingdom to the nation of Israel. He told the woman at the well in John 4 “salvation is of the Jews” (John 4:22), and in Galatians 4:4-5, Paul says, “Christ was “born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law”. Jesus came in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. When Jesus entered Jerusalem “riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9) He was offering Himself as King to Israel. And when Jesus gave the parable of the sower in Luke 8, when Peter made his great confession in Luke 9, and when Jesus sent the seventy-two out in Luke 10, He is using Kingdom language. The call is to advance His Kingdom. This is why Jesus could condemn entire towns for rejecting the message of the Kingdom, “‘The kingdom of God has come near you.’” (Luke 10:9b). Church planters have neither the call nor the authority to condemn entire towns. When the high priest tore his garments in Matthew 26:65, the human priesthood ended (Lev. 21:10). When the veil of the Temple was rent, the Kingdom was temporarily torn from Israel and placed on “hold”.
The New Testament church is not in the gospels. Jesus twice uses the word that we translate “church”, ἐκκλησία, or ekklēsia. The word, in its literal sense, means “an assembly.” First, He uses it in Matthew 16:18 when He tells Peter that He will build His church on Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. This ekklesia is the coming New Testament church. The other use is only two chapters later in Matthew 18:17. In speaking of discipline, our Lord tells His disciples that if a sinning brother will not listen to two or three who rebuke him, “Tell it to the church”. Here, ekklēsia almost certainly means an assembly.
When did the church begin?
The church did not begin when Jesus was born. It did not start when Jesus began His public ministry, and it certainly didn’t begin when God chose Israel in the Old Testament and worked in and through that covenant people. The church began on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2.
When we read Ephesians 2:11-3:13, it is clear that the church began after the cross. This overarching theme of this passage is that those who were near to God and those who were far from God have become one people, one body in the family of God.
Gentiles were those who were far from God. (V. 12) Here are the factors of their lamentable position: 1) without Christ, 2) excluded from the citizenship of Israel, 3) foreigners to the covenants of promise (Abrahamic Covenant), 4) without hope, 5) without God in the world. The Gentiles were brought near by the blood of Christ. (v. 13). After the cross. But the Jews, who were near to God were still not saved. They were not “in Christ” until after the cross when individuals (like individual Gentiles) by faith trusted Christ.
Vv. 14-15 of this Ephesians 2 passage make it clear that at the cross Jesus became peace for all who would trust Him. He tore down the dividing wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile. He made the law (Mosaic law) of no effect (thus the end of the priesthood when the high priest tore his garment-Leviticus 21:10), “so that he might create in himself one new man from the two, resulting in peace. He did this so that he might reconcile both to God in one body through the cross by which he put the hostility to death” (v. 16). All these things happened at the cross. The language used is that of a family, not a kingdom. “So then you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with the saints, and members of God’s household (oikeios)” (v. 19).
But why is this not using the word “church”? Were there not groups that existed in family-like relationships in the gospels? Could this not just be speaking of another of those family-like groups, but now including Gentiles? No, this is speaking of the church. In Ephesians 3:1-13 we have three references to the “mystery”. In scripture, a mystery is an open secret. It is something that was not revealed in the Old Testament but is now revealed in the New Testament. This mystery is also called “the mystery of Christ”. This mystery is described as the “multifaceted wisdom of God” that is now manifested through the church. (V. 10).
Some may say that in the gospels we have a shadow of the church…a prototype. I would argue that God has done something entirely new and entirely different in the church. We see this in Ephesians 3:5. “which in other generations was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed to His holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit;” There have been two different understandings of the phrase, “as it has now been revealed to His holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit.” One understanding says that “as” is a comparison of degree. That is, adherents of this understanding say that the mystery of the church was partially revealed in the Old Testament, but is now fully revealed in the New Testament. The other understanding says that “as” is a comparison of kind. No revelation was given in the OT, but it is now fully revealed in the NT. Hoehner gives five reasons why the latter is the better understanding.*
- Though the restrictive sense for “as” is more common, the descriptive sense is used sometimes (Acts 2:15 for example.)
- The context supports this view for Paul wrote that this mystery was hidden in the past (Eph. 3:9)
- Colossians 1:26, parallel to Eph. 3:5, does not use the comparative adverb “as” but clearly states that the mystery was “kept hidden for ages…but is now” made manifest to the saints.
- The position of the temporal adverb “now” agrees with Colossians 1:26 in marking the contrast between the two Ages. In the past the mystery was not known but “now” it is.
- “Revealed” means “to uncover or unveil” something that has previously been completely covered or hidden. Therefore it would be wrong to say the mystery was partially uncovered in the Old Testament.
What or who is the church
The church, sometimes called “the universal church” or “the catholic (small ‘c’) church”, is made up of every person since the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2 who has placed his or her faith in Jesus Christ alone for the forgiveness of sin. (Acts 8:3; 9:31, for example). The local church is an extension of the universal church and is a specific body of believers who 1) meet together on a regular basis for fellowship 2) study the Word of God together 3) pray together 4) take Communion together 5) practice believer’s baptism 6) share their material wealth with one another 7) have Biblically qualified leadership. (Acts 2:41-47)
Nowhere in the scripture is a building referred to as the church except in the case of Eph. 2:19-22 where Paul is obviously using a metaphor. Churches are sometimes said to meet in houses (Philemon 2 for example), but the building itself is not the church. People are the church.
Why is this important? A summary
In January 2018 I had the privilege of working in a South Sudanese refugee camp in Uganda. My work was to give the gospel, disciple believers, and plant churches. The training that our team received prior to going to Africa was hazy on the difference in a small group and a local church. Nearly all our training came from the gospels and the words “group” and “church” were used interchangeably. (I have even heard it erroneously stated that when Jesus took Peter, James, and John with Him and met with Moses and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration, He was having church!) The local church is, by definition, an extension of the Universal Church, which began after the cross. So when we were speaking to an established church in a Nuer refugee village and one of my team members said, “you can all establish churches, you can all be pastors”, this created tremendous problems. It seems that an elder of this local church was present and he happened to also be THE village elder. He thought we were there to take people away from his church to start new churches. During our time there, we were not able to repair the damage that had been done when this dear brother who had suffered so much as a refugee thought these North American brothers were now coming to steal people from their village church.
Finally, though Jesus was not a church planter, Jesus is the head of the body, the Church. He is the bridegroom. Just as there can be no bride without the groom, just as there can be no operative body without the head, there can be no church without Christ at the center. There is no attempt to remove Christ from the church in saying that Jesus was not a church planter. He was not a planter. He is the Savior of the church. He is the redeemer of the church. He is the great High Priest of the church. He is the shepherd of the church. He is the firstborn among many brethren, our Advocate, our Mediator. And by His Great Commission and promise to be with His church in His authority, WE are to become church planters.
*Harold W. Hoehner, in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, published by Victor Books in 1983, says that this point is important because when we come to OT passages such as Isaiah 2:1-4 and Isaiah 61:5-6, if we understand the Ephesians 3:5 passage as being a comparison of degree, we will see Gentiles and Jews together, the church, in those scriptures. However, scriptures in Isaiah speak of the Millennium, not the church. (p. 629)