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In the fall, I had the honor of teaching a class on ecclesiology—the doctrine of the church—at Reformation Bible College. On our first day of class, I asked this question: When did the church begin? One of my students made the observation, “Well, it depends on what you mean by ‘the church.’”
He was exactly right. If we understand the church as merely a new covenant phenomenon, the church did not start until Pentecost or perhaps the Last Supper. If, however, we understand that the church is part of God’s eternal plan for His creation, we will see that it actually began long before the new covenant was inaugurated, although under the new covenant the church reaches its fullest expression.
Reformed theology sets itself apart from some other theological traditions in affirming that the church actually predates the new covenant. As Belgic Confession 27 states: “[The] church has existed from the beginning of the world and will last until the end, as appears from the fact that Christ is eternal King who cannot be without subjects.” In my experience, many people have difficulty understanding that the church has existed from the beginning. But when we look at the Scriptures carefully in light of the mission Christ gave to the church, I believe it becomes clear that the church started not in Jerusalem at Pentecost but in Eden.
The Mission of the Church
Surely, every Christian can agree that Matthew 28:18–20 lays out the fundamental mission of the church. This mission tells us that the church is to do several things:
1. Make disciples of Jesus—multiply followers of the one true God in Christ
2. Baptize them in the name of the triune God—administer and receive sacraments
3. Teach them to observe/obey Jesus—instruct them in keeping the commandments of the one true God in Christ
4. Go into all the world—do the above three things worldwide
If these mandates belong to the church, then it seems that any entity that possesses them is the church. Let us see how we find the components of the Great Commission, and thus the church of Christ, throughout biblical history.
From Adam to Moses
Genesis 1–2 describes the creation of Adam and Eve and their placement in the garden of Eden. In this act of creation, God actually gives them a mission that parallels the Great Commission in significant ways. First, we find the command to multiply. Adam and Eve were commanded to have many children (1:28). However, we should not think that this meant simply giving birth to lots of babies. Adam and Eve walked with God in the garden, fellowshiping with Him and learning from Him (3:8). He spoke to them. Surely, Adam and Eve and their children were to continue talking to one another about the Lord even when He was not visiting. In other words, their task in the garden involved reflecting on the Lord and His words, learning from and about Him. In other words, in the garden they were becoming His disciples. Our first parents were to multiply followers of the one true God, teaching them to keep His commandments.
In the garden of Eden, we also find a sacrament. Genesis 2:9 tells us that in the middle of the garden stood the Tree of Life, which imparted continuing life to those who ate from it (see 3:22). We should not think there was something particularly special about the tree that gave its fruit inherent power to impart life apart from any other consideration. That tree imparted life because it was connected to the promises of God. Its granting of life came through Adam and Eve’s trust in the Lord, trust displayed in their willingness to do what He said. The tree was a visible sign of an invisible grace; eating of it brought life because God promised to give life to Adam and Eve as they relied on Him, proving this reliance by following His rules regarding what to eat and what not to eat and the other tasks given to them in the garden. As long as they partook in faith, they were renewed in life by our Creator.
We can hardly talk about the Tree of Life without referencing the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in Genesis. Eating of this tree would bring death (2:16–17). Here we have a reference to what we might call church discipline. Adam and Eve would be cast out of the garden, away from the blessing of God, if they ate of the forbidden tree. Under the new covenant, we cast people out of the church through excommunication, sending them away from the blessing of God, for persistent, impenitent, serious sin.
Finally, the mission of Adam and Eve was worldwide. God told them to take dominion over creation (Gen. 1:26–28). I lack space to develop this in full, but the Hebrew words used here convey the idea that this was a call to expand the borders of Eden. Adam and Eve were to bring the ordered world of the garden to the whole earth. The place where human beings fellowshiped with God and worshiped Him was to be extended around the world.
Under Noah, we see most of these things as well. Noah was given dominion over creation and told to be fruitful and multiply just as Adam and Eve were (9:1–7). He was given commandments and teachings to learn and obey. Thus, he and those who followed the one true God had the same “churchly” mission given to our first parents of multiplying disciples worldwide. The one exception here is that it is not entirely clear whether Noah had a sacrament. The rainbow might qualify, but it is not a tangible thing like the Tree of Life or, later, baptism. At least we can say that the rainbow was a sign of God’s promise, and in that respect it is similar to a sacrament (9:8–17).
With Abraham, we have the presence of the church made especially clear. Here it becomes evident that the church will accomplish its mission only by the grace of God, for God promises to bless the world through Abraham (Gen. 12:1–3). The church constituted from Abraham's family would take the blessing of the knowledge of God, fulfilling its worldwide mission, in the power of God. Abraham was commanded to obey the Lord and to instruct his children to do the same—discipleship. He was also given the sign and seal of circumcision, which became the chief sacrament of the old covenant church. Moreover, those who did not obey the command to circumcise were to be disciplined by the church and cut off—expelled—from the people (17:1–14).
Four hundred years after Abraham, the church received an even more formal expression in the covenant made at Sinai. Here, again, we find a worldwide expression of the church’s mission despite Israel’s separation from the nations. Deuteronomy 4:1–8 explains that through Israel’s worshiping and obeying the Lord, other peoples would be attracted to the God of Israel. Discipleship—teaching people to obey the one true God—was key to the old covenant. This was to happen on the level of the household, with parents teaching children the commandments of God, and on the level of the broader community, with the priests and Levites teaching the law in Israel’s cities (6:4–9; 33:10). Moreover, multiplication was a factor as well, for in following the terms of the covenant, the Israelites would be blessed with many offspring (28:1–6). Finally, sacraments appear in the Mosaic covenant, most notably circumcision and the Passover (Ex. 12:48), but we could perhaps include all the sacrifices and festivals of the old covenant as well. Church discipline was to be found there as well. Under the old covenant, one could be cut off—executed or cast out of the nation—for various sins and crimes (e.g., Lev. 18:29).
From Moses to Christ
The Mosaic covenant governed the life of God’s people and established the structure and practice of the church from the period of Moses until Christ. Thus, the same sacramental, discipleship, and multiplication principles of the church’s worldwide mission applied then as well. It is worth noting, however, that the understanding of God’s global purposes for the church deepened over the many centuries between Moses and Jesus. Over time, the worldwide focus of the church’s mission became even clearer. Jonah was sent to preach to Assyria. Psalm 68 calls for God to bless Israel so that the nations would see it and come worship the Lord. Isaiah 42:6 declared that Israel had been called specifically as a light to the nations. Various gentiles including Rahab, Ruth, and Naaman came to faith in the God of Israel (Josh. 2:11; Ruth 1:16–17; 2 Kings 5).
In addition, although Israel broke the old covenant and went into exile, blessing started coming in force to the world. During the exile and its aftermath, the synagogue system was established, allowing Jews to grow in their knowledge of God’s Word even outside of Israel. But many gentiles were exposed to the God of Israel by visiting these synagogues and talking with Jews in Babylon, Rome, and elsewhere. In Persia, the rescue of the Jews through the efforts of Queen Esther led to many Persians’ joining the people of God (Est. 8:17).
The introduction of synagogues provided a new way for the old covenant church to engage in the work of discipleship. Jesus and the Apostles clearly approved of the synagogue system, for they took part in its worship and discipleship activities (Luke 4:16–27; Acts 13:13–43). Furthermore, there were analogues to the new covenant church officers of elders and deacons in the leadership of the synagogues, and much of early Christian corporate worship was based on worship in the synagogue. God was apparently preparing for the new covenant church by allowing His old covenant church to develop structures for leadership and worship that the Apostles would use for the new covenant church.
The Church Is Forever
This very brief look at the church throughout history is not exhaustive. More could be said about its development, but I do want to briefly note one significant application to our understanding of the church as a result of this survey. Since the church was present under the old covenant as well, and since the old covenant church included both believers and nonbelievers (all Israelite males were circumcised, even those who rejected the Lord for idolatry), then we cannot say that the difference between the old and new covenant churches is that the new covenant church includes only believers, at least not yet. One day that will be true, but until Jesus returns, people who lack true faith in Christ will join the visible church by outward profession of faith. We strive and pray to prevent this from happening, but it will occur. The new covenant church as we wait for Jesus’ return includes all professing believers and their children, even those who do not really trust Jesus.
In turn, this has ramifications for our view of the sacraments. Under the old covenant, one joined the church by circumcision before one could profess faith if one was a child of church members. If that was the case and the church then existed under that covenant, then we should follow the same principle by baptizing the children of those who have professed faith in Christ during this new covenant era.
However, this does not mean there is no real advance under the new covenant as we wait for Jesus to return. Clearly, the new covenant church has a better understanding of its mission. The world is also coming into the church in a way it never did under the old covenant. Even now, the church is growing around the world until the fullness of the elect come in. Then the church will include people from every tribe and tongue, who will worship the Lord God forever (Rev. 7:9–12).