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).