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I hope this does not come as a shock, but the Christian church wasn’t founded by the Jesus People in the 1960s. Nor was the church founded by Billy Graham or even by Charles Finney a century earlier. The church was not founded by Jonathan Edwards or George Whitefield during the First Great Awakening. The church was fifteen centuries old when Martin Luther and John Calvin sought to reform it at the time of the Reformation. Yes, there is a sense in which the church is as old as Adam and Eve and the first family. And Calvin was correct to affirm that the church existed in its infancy in the midst of Israel before the coming of Jesus Christ. But the fact of the matter is that the Christian church was founded by Jesus Christ when He called His apostles to follow Him. When we consider that the church of Jesus Christ is apostolic, this is where we must begin.
Although it is fashionable in circles dominated by critical biblical scholarship to think of the church as a worshiping community in need of a Messiah (the first Christians supposedly elevated an itinerant apocalyptic prophet [Jesus] to that status), biblical revelation tells a different story. The church was not the fruit of the organizational genius of a group of zealots who came to believe that Jesus had risen in their hearts as they tried to cope with the disappointment they felt once Jesus was put to death by the Romans and His glorious kingdom did not manifest itself as promised.
Instead, the biblical record tells us that the church was founded by a risen Savior who appeared to His chosen witnesses the first Easter, confirming that His death on Good Friday was the ultimate triumph over human sin. The church was not organized by Jesus’ disappointed followers trying to cover-up their embarrassment. The church was founded by Jesus Christ Himself.
This becomes clear when we consider that the post-resurrection appearances of our Lord to His disciples do not take place in a vacuum. Our Lord’s resurrection appearances take place against the backdrop of His three-year messianic ministry during which Jesus demonstrated that He was the One promised throughout the Old Testament and that He had come to establish His kingdom and found His church. Pentecost (Acts 2), which is often considered the official birthday of the church, is the culmination of all of our Lord’s promises and only makes sense against the backdrop of our Lord’s messianic ministry.
While Israel may have had an infant church in its midst, the on-going progress of redemptive history meant that one day the infant church must grow to maturity. Indeed, when the fullness of time had finally come, God sent forth His Son to redeem those born under the Law (Gal. 4:4–6). When Jesus began His public ministry shortly after His baptism and reception of the Spirit, we read in Matthew 4:23 that Jesus “went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people.” The proclamation of the Good News of the kingdom and the confirmation of its arrival through the miracles of our Lord, are the critical signs that the messianic age has finally dawned. A new epoch in redemptive history has begun. The people of God would no longer be limited by the strictures of the Mosaic economy and Jewish nationalism. The Gospel must now go to the ends of the earth as God’s rule is extended to include every race, nation, and language under heaven.
Shortly after Jesus’ own messianic ministry had begun, we learn in Matthew 10:1 that Jesus “called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction.” Having called these men to Himself, Jesus sent them out on a very important mission. They must preach the message of the kingdom as defined in Matthew 10:5–42, just as Jesus had commanded. Why these twelve men? And why this particular message?
To answer these questions we need merely consider the fact that the apostles are sent to bear witnesses about Jesus Christ, to go throughout the towns of Israel proclaiming the message that Jesus had entrusted unto them. From the moment the twelve are called to follow Jesus, they are also commissioned to be preachers of the Gospel that Jesus personally taught them. As witnesses of Jesus Christ and His Gospel, they will become the foundation of the church of Jesus Christ. We see this in Ephesians 2:20, when Paul looks back at the founding of the church several decades earlier. Paul speaks of the church as being “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.” Jesus not only founded a church, He founded His church upon the preaching of the Gospel, the message that Paul will later define as the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ according to the Scriptures (1 Cor. 15:1–8). The connection between the calling of the twelve and the preaching of the Gospel is an essential one. When we confess that the church is apostolic, we confess that the church was founded upon the very same Gospel that Jesus gave to His apostles.
In Matthew 16:18, we read that Jesus gave His disciples the promise that the gates of hell will not prevail against His church. In that same passage, Jesus entrusts His church with the keys of the kingdom (Matt. 16:13–20). Confessing Jesus to be “the Christ, the son of the living God,” Peter will become the leader of the early church, later joined by other apostles and elders, meeting together to use the keys given them by Jesus and to make decisions regarding the doctrine and practice of the church (Acts 15:1–21). When we confess that the church is apostolic, we mean that the church exercises the authority of its founder, through those officers called and commissioned to rule in the name of their Lord (Acts 6:1–7; 20:17; Eph. 3:2–7; 1 Tim. 3:1–15).
Finally, before His ascension into heaven, Jesus gives His disciples one last point of instruction, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:19–20). Through preaching the Gospel, making disciples, and administering the sacraments, Jesus will preserve His church. Although things may seem bleak at times for the people of God, it is God who will preserve His people and His church upon the earth. Recall that in the days of Noah, the people of God had dwindled to eight in number! In the days of Elijah, the number of believers in Israel who had not bowed the knee to Baal was a paltry seven thousand.
But the final words of Jesus to His church tell us that this will not be the case in the future. As we read in Acts 2:41, some three thousand were saved on the day of Pentecost alone. That number had grown to more than five thousand shortly thereafter (Acts 4:4). Let us not forget that in Revelation 7:9, the multitude clothed in white and standing before the throne is so vast that no one can count them. They are from every nation, tribe, and people. But they all confess the same thing: “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” Jesus has founded His church by calling His apostles. He gave to them His Gospel and His authority to bind and loose. Now Jesus promises that He will be with His Church until the end of the age. Jesus is not an absentee landlord, He is present with His people until He comes again.
When we confess that the church is apostolic, we are confessing that the churches to which we belong today stand in direct continuity to the church we see in the book of Acts. It is not the formal structure of the church that endures, nor do we need trace an unbroken line of popes from Peter down to the present day. But it does mean that the Gospel Jesus gave to His apostles is the same Gospel we preach today. This Gospel summons men and women to faith in Jesus Christ. This Gospel gives us authority to bind and loose and calls us to serve our Lord in His church, just as when Jesus called His first apostles. And when we preach this apostolic Gospel, we can be assured of our Lord’s favor, protection, and presence. This, then, is what we mean when we speak of Christ’s church as apostolic.