|A48 : by Tony Garland |
You mention that 'most people' you talk to 'say the Church began in New Testament times (usually at the time of Pentecost).' Perhaps there are reasons why they associate the beginning of the Church with the Day of Pentecost? Could it be that there are solid Biblical reasons for their idea that the Church did not exist prior to Pentecost? Indeed, this is the case.
Most people who merge all people of faith into 'the Church' fail to understand the significance of the events of the Day of Pentecost—and their relation to the 'Promise of the Father' which Jesus told the disciples to wait for:
Behold, I send the Promise of My Father upon you; but tarry in the city of Jerusalem until you are endued with power from on high. (Luke 24:49)
And being assembled together with [them], He commanded them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the Promise of the Father, 'which,' [He said], 'you have heard from Me; 'for John truly baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.' (Acts 1:4-5)
Jesus said they were to wait for this specific promise which 'you have heard from Me'. But when did they hear about this promise from Jesus? Jesus spoke of this unique promise many times:
If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will [your] heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him! (Luke 11:13)
And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever— the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you. I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you. A little while longer and the world will see Me no more, but you will see Me. Because I live, you will live also. (John 14:16-19)
But when the Helper comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify of Me. (John 15:26)
Nevertheless I tell you the truth. It is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you. (John 16:7)
Notice that the promise involves a unique coming of the Holy Spirit. But I thought that the Holy Spirit was omnipresent (being God) and was already ministering throughout history—even from the very beginning (Gen. 1:2)? Yes, indeed! But there was something very special about a new ministry of the Spirit. This new ministry could not occur until Jesus went to the cross. As Jesus Himself said:
It is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you. (John 16:7b)
How mysterious! The Holy Spirit is already ministering on earth, but Jesus says that He can't come unless Jesus leaves! Fortunately for us, John sheds more light on this situation in another passage:
On the last day, that great [day] of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, 'If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.' But this He spoke concerning the Spirit, whom those believing in Him would receive; for the Holy Spirit was not yet [given], because Jesus was not yet glorified. (John 7:37-39)
John explains that the Holy Spirit was not yet [given] because Jesus was not yet glorified! There is something holding back this new ministry of the Spirit. He is active on earth, but there is something He cannot do until (1) Jesus departs and (2) Jesus is glorified. What is this which holds Him back? I submit to you that it is SIN!
Jesus plans to build a new Temple 'made without hands' (Mark 14:58) — like the physical Temple, before God's Spirit would set up residence in the Temple, it must be cleansed. The cleansing of this new Temple (within the believer, 1Cor. 3:16; 6:19) required the sacrifice of Jesus' blood which would occur at the cross. Prior to the cross, the Holy Spirit could not perform His baptizing work to form 'the body of Christ' which is the true technical phrase describing the Church (1Cor. 12:13).
You rightfully observe that the term 'church' is not a technical term. That is, its meaning varies with context. In Acts 7:38, Stephen applies the term 'church' (KJV) to the congregation (NKJV, NASB) or assembly (NIV) of Israel in the wilderness. 1 Later in Acts, Luke applies the term even to non believers ('assembly', Acts 19:32, 39, 41). Thus, we see that the Greek term for 'church' means nothing more than those who are 'called out' as a group. The term doesn't even have the restricted meaning that your question implies (the faithful through the ages) because it doesn't necessarily denote people called out by God.
Since the term 'ekklesia,' often translated 'church,' doesn't really tells us whether people are even believers, how do we go about defining the Church? Well, we let scripture define what the Church is. And when we do that, we find that the key identifying characteristic of the Church is Holy Spirit baptism (1Cor. 12:13). This is what forms the body of Christ which is actually a much better designation for the world-wide body of believers than the term 'church.'
Now, as to the relationship between those baptized by the Spirit and Old Testament Israel, we look to Paul:
Therefore remember that you, once Gentiles in the flesh—who are called Uncircumcision by what is called the Circumcision made in the flesh by hands— that at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation, having abolished in His flesh the enmity, [that is], the law of commandments [contained] in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man [from] the two, [thus] making peace, and that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity. And He came and preached peace to you who were afar off and to those who were near. For through Him we both have access by one Spirit to the Father. Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief [cornerstone], in whom the whole building, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit. (Ephesians 2:11-22)
Notice some important points Paul makes to the Ephesian believers: (1) they were not party to the covenants of promise (including the Abrahamic covenant); (2) at the cross, Jesus joined Gentiles and Jews together to form 'one new man'; (3) this new 'household of God' is built on a foundation made up of apostles and prophets; (4) this is the Temple which the Holy Spirit now indwells permanently — something that never occurred prior to Pentecost.
Paul makes reference to a foundation. One might have expected him to refer to the person some contend to be 'the first member of the church': Adam. Not so! He refers to a foundation of apostles and prophets. Notice that there are no apostles in the OT. Then too, the near context establishes that the prophets he has in mind are NT prophets, not OT prophets (Eph. 3:5; 4:11).
What have we learned so far?
- Something very special happened at Pentecost. The baptizing work of the Holy Spirit which had never before occurred and which is the defining work which places people into the 'body of Christ' which is the Church (1Cor. 12:13). Even Peter recognized that Holy Spirit baptism, which first occurred in Acts 2, was a 'beginning' (Acts 11:15). Thus, the 'body of Christ' did not exist prior to Pentecost.
- The Greek term for 'church' ('ekklesia') merely means a gathering or group of people. It can even describe nonbelievers. It is not a precise technical term. In other words, it can appear in contexts which have nothing to do with the baptizing work of the Spirit which defines the body of Christ.
- When Gentiles were brought into the faith, they were not joined into Israel. Instead, the barrier between Jews and Gentiles (the Law of Moses) was removed 'in Christ' and God created a new spiritual organism, the 'one new man' (Eph. 2:15).
Are there other indicators that the Church does not exist in the Old Testament? Yes:
- Jesus Himself indicated that 'on this rock I will build my Church' (future tense, Mat. 16:18).
- Peter referred to the arrival of the Holy Spirit as the 'the beginning' (Acts 11:15).
- James referred to the giving of the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles (Acts 10:45) as 'at the first' (Acts 15:14).
- The joining of Gentiles and Jews into the same body is described as a 'mystery' which was not made know previously to the sons of men (Eph. 3:4-7; Col. 1:26-27).
You state that there is 'rampant Dispensationalism' in today's liberal churches. This is news to me! My experience is just the opposite: Dispensationalism thrives in conservative churches where people take the scriptures at face value. Replacement and Covenant Theology are more prevalent in liberal realms than Dispensationalism ever has been. (To be fair, Replacement and Covenant Theology are also found in conservative churches, but my point is simply that of the three, Dispensationalism is less frequently found associated with liberalism than the others.) I believe you falsely associate Dispensationalism with Arminianism—perhaps an indication that you don't understand Dispensationalism very well yet. Every dispensationalist I've met (so far) has been more Calvinist in theology than Arminian (this writer included). Consider people such as Scofield, Chafer, Walvoord, Ryrie, Pentecost, Fruchtenbaum, and a host of others.
I think your main challenge is that you are trying to force conclusions out of passages which you don't yet fully understand. In particular, you seem to be lacking a comprehensive overview of the scripture which would help you to systematize God's revelation and understand where there are discontinuities vs. where things remain the same. You are reading the book as if it were 'flat' — everything it says applies equally in its original context to all readers. This is simply not the case. There are things we have as NT believers which people in the OT did not have (e.g., Holy Spirit baptism, permanent indwelling of the Spirit, sealing of the Spirit). And there are things with certain OT believers were beholden to that we are no longer (e.g., the laws of Moses). It is these sorts of issues that are the very heart and soul of what makes a person a Dispensationalist: recognizing that the scriptures make distinctions and that to make any sense of the scriptures we must account for them. All of scripture is for our learning, but not all of scripture is written directly to us as the primary audience (e.g., Matthew 24).
I would suggest you seek to more fully understand the teachings of dispensationalists before assuming they are false. Perhaps it would be fruitful to spend time studying out the details of the 'Promise of the Father' and the 'Coming of the Spirit' on the Day of Pentecost. Consider how these events tied to Jesus' work at the cross and how the 'body of Christ' is dependent upon them? Once you grasp these implications, you will be well on your way to appreciating that the Church did not exist prior to Pentecost.
For more background on the events associated with the Day of Pentecost, see our teaching on The Promise of Pentecosta.
 Notice that the scholars who translated the NKJV, NASB, and NIV believed it best not to render 'ekklesia' as 'church' in Acts 7:38. They understood a different usage was afoot.