Copyright 2008 by James D. Sanderson
I have attended many different churches over the years and each one seems to be trying to do things their own way. When we look at the New Testament, however, we see that a particular pattern was set out for the Church – one that we have never been given permission to change.
In Matthew chapter 16, verses 18 and 19 Jesus said in part, “…and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” This is the first we ever hear about the church. Then, in the first chapter of the book of Acts, verses 4 and 5 we read, ‘On one occasion, while he (Jesus) was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”’ A short time later he said, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.’
The disciples did as they were told. They returned to Jerusalem and waited. When they arrived they went up to the room where they had been staying. This ‘upper room’ may have been the very place where Jesus shared the Lord’s Supper with them, and where he had appeared to them twice before. There they joined together constantly in prayer – at that time they numbered about a hundred and twenty. Ten days later was the day of Pentecost, which fell on a Sunday, the fiftieth day after Christ’s resurrection. Pentecost was called the Feast of First Fruits.
This was the day the church began!
On the day of Pentecost they were all together when a sound like a mighty wind came upon them with what looked like flames that came to rest upon them. A crowd gathered, amazed that the Galileans were speaking in languages that even these foreigners could understand. We are told that some were from the Parthian region of northeast Iran; some from Media dressed in their blue robes. There were Elamites from the Persian Gulf – whose language was not related to any other Iranian language. There were those from the southern shores of the Black Sea in modern Turkey called Pontus – theirs is a land of wild rivers crashing down through gorges heading for the sea - and Cappadocia, also in modern Turkey – land of the colored-rock plateaus and the temples cut into sandy-colored rock faces; and Phrygia in central Anatolia, the people were dressed in their tunics and capes. (Alexander the Great once passed through that region). And Pamphylia which extended from the Mediterranean Sea to Mount Taurus; and Cyrene in present-day Libya, located in the verdant Jebel Akhdar highlands, (it was Simon the Cyrene, you may recall who carried the cross of Christ). All of these and more were in the crowds that day. They came from Mesopotamia (that fertile crescent between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers). They came from Rome, Crete and Arabia. Peter preached a sermon calling for them all to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. As a result some three thousand joined the new church that day!
In the verses that follow we are given a clear and astonishing picture about what the early church looked like: ‘They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.’ Who would not want to be part of such an exciting fellowship of believers even today?
In chapter three Peter preached his second sermon and the fourth chapter reveals that the number of believers increased to five thousand. In spite of the arrest of Peter and John, and in spite of the threats of the authorities, the church continued to grow. Up until this time the apostles seem to have dealt with all the details of the growing church themselves, but they came to recognize that their main mission was the preaching of the gospel, so seven from among the believers were chosen and put to work serving the people.
As the story of the early church unfolds one of the seven chosen, Stephen, of whom it is said he was “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit,” and later, “a man full of God’s grace and power, did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people.” This caused opposition to build against him and he was accused of blasphemy against Moses and against God. In Chapter Seven Stephen is stoned to death. He is the first Christian martyr. During his stoning a young man named Saul stood by, watching over the clothes of those who were doing the stoning. In Chapter Eight the first persecution of the church began under Saul and the believers were dispersed.
Also in Chapter Eight is the story of Philip, another of the seven, who was on his way down the desert road from Jerusalem to Gaza where he met an Ethiopian eunuch. Upon hearing the gospel message this influential man asked to be baptized.
In Chapter Nine we read one of the great stories of the Bible, and witness an important turning point in the history of the church, and in the world. Saul, who was continuing his persecution of Christians wherever he could find them and “still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples,” got letters from the high priest to the synagogues in Damascus so if he was able to apprehend any Christians there, he could bring them back to Jerusalem as prisoners. But as he neared Damascus a light flashed down from heaven and he fell to the ground. A voice said to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
“Who are you Lord?” Saul asked.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied.
From that moment Saul, who came to be known as Paul, was a changed man. As an apostle of Jesus Christ he took the Good News into the gentile regions of the world and Christianity spread beyond the bounds of Israel at last.
Christianity will not be bound. Christianity will not be bound by the rules and regulations of man, nor will it be confined to a particular region or place or ‘sacred’ space. The Church is not a building nor does it gather only at certain times or on certain days. Permanent buildings used to house the Church did not begin to be found until after the time of Constantine in 312 A.D. The Church is a body – the body of Christ – and a body is always assembled. There is never a time when it is not assembled. She, the bride of Christ, can be as simple as the verse Matthew 18:20 tells us, “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I (Christ) with them.” Or it can be considered to be a supernatural community of all who have ever come to a saving grace of Jesus Christ – those from all time and of all places.
The history of the church has its roots in the Old Testament. One Hebrew word we can look for is hd which is transliterated in English as ‘edah’, a feminine noun meaning assembly, multitude, people, swarm or herd, and generally refers to a gathering of the people of Israel as a whole. The Hebrew word Ihq, transliterated as ‘Qahal’ is the masculine noun meaning an assembly, especially one for religious purposes, and a congregation – as an organized body. This word most closely matches the Greek word Ekklesia.
The word Ekklesia is used to translate the word ‘qahal’ and means what in English has been translated as ‘church’. There is one Body of believers we are told in Romans 12:4. In the Christian sense the word Ekklesia is defined as an assembly of Christian believers gathered for worship in a religious meeting. Those believers who anywhere; in a city, village or those scattered throughout the world - even those already dead and who are in heaven - conduct their rituals and manage their religious affairs.
The Ekklesia is made up of the people of God in an assembly in a specific city, or as believers in any given city, or as the church meeting in particular homes.
Which brings us to the word ‘church’. Nowhere can we find the Hebrew word ‘qahal’ or the Greek ‘ekklesia’ to mean a building. A quick look at a dictionary reveals that the word church can be traced back to its Anglo-Saxon root: circe. Circe was the daughter of Helios, the Sun god. Circe was originally a Greek goddess whose name was written ‘Kirche’ and in Dutch it is “Kerk’, and in Scotland it is ‘Kirk’. Since our modern practice of church has gotten all wrapped up in owning a building and property, perhaps we would be better to use the word ‘Ekklesia’, as it means an assembly or congregation, to better define who we are.
For three centuries the church considered herself to be mainly small group gatherings of the body of Christ. The Apostle Paul taught publicly and from house to house. Homes were used specifically as meeting places. The large gatherings were not held in buildings owned by the church, but in places where believers could preach the good news to others – those outside the church body. They preached and taught the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christ is the head of the body. The Church is a fellowship of believers where the believers exercise their spiritual gifts and the Church can be seen as the family of God.
How far we have strayed from this original plan for the Church! All around us we are hearing cries for revival. Everywhere we turn we hear believers calling out for a ‘New’ Reformation, or ‘Modern’ Reformation. Some are calling us to ‘Cell’ churches and ‘Home’ churches, or ‘Simple’ church or ‘Organic’ church. There is a whole movement called the ‘Emerging’ church. What we are being called to, however; what we have always been called to, is the New Testament Church. There is no need to call her anything else. She does not need to be made ‘new’ or ‘improved’. She does not need buildings or pews or pipe organs or the latest sound equipment or a business plan or a hierarchy of believers. The New Testament Church ‘is’ simple, organic, and does form herself into cell-like networks. She does meet in homes, or businesses, or soup kitchens, or anywhere else there may be space for believers to meet together. She does bring about reformation. She does reach the lost and hurting world for Jesus Christ.
The Protestant Reformation brought liberation from the idea that we must work our way into God’s grace. The Bible was liberated from the hands of the few and placed into the hands of the many. The shift has not been completed, however. There is still work to be done. The New Testament Church has not yet been attained. The time has come for believers to re-examine God’s plan for the Church, and to be honest and faithful in our response.
James D. Sanderson has for eleven years been the
pastor of a New Testament Church that meets in a soup kitchen. He is
the author of one book: ‘Called To Love’, about Christian
love. He is married and lives in Colorado with his wife and a
granddaughter they are raising. He is currently working on a book
about the New Testament Church.
in the subject line of the message.)