The second chapter of the book of Acts tells the story of the birth of the New Testament church. It was born in a dynamic display of power that was a dramatic witness to its divine origin. The community of believers multiplied as the power of God was evidenced by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The disciples of Jesus Christ were filled with zeal. The sermons of the apostles proclaimed Christ and his resurrection from the grave. Jesus Christ and the power of his resurrection ignited the church.
On that first New Testament Pentecost, the apostle Peter bridged the gap between the old and the new by proclaiming this outpouring of the Holy Spirit to be the fulfillment of the words of the prophet Joel: “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams” (Acts 2:17).
Nearly 2,000 years later, Christians still band together as a community of believers. The Holy Spirit still bonds and unites Christians as in the first century. In common with our New Testament family, we are conscious of our link with the past. Just as Peter declared that the New Testament church had its roots in Old Testament Israel, so Christians today must be established and founded in the faith of our first-century forefathers. Paul wrote:
You are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. (Ephesians 2:19-22)
Paul gives us a clear historical foundation for the church. He traces the Christian heritage, the roots to which every believer is connected, to the New Testament community of believers.
The identifying sign
The primary sign that identifies Christians is found in John 13:35. After washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Love, concern for others, doing good to our brothers and sisters, sharing and caring for those who need us, is central to Christianity. We are enabled to love one another through Jesus Christ (1 John 4:7-9). Christians are different because Christ lives in them. Their lives bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit — “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). The difference is inward, not outward.
As Christians, we need to ask ourselves about particular beliefs and distinctive practices that make us unique. For many people, their nationality, race and professions are key signs of identification. But Christians, children of God, do not establish their primary identity through nationality, race or profession. For Christians, the primary key must always be love.
A parable of identification
Parables are a literary and teaching device usually designed to emphasize one or two major themes. Generally, parables are not predictive, nor does every element have a specific or literal meaning.
The parable of the sheep and goats teaches us how Christians can be known by their selfless acts of giving and service. This parable identifies love as an attitude that reveals itself in the actions we take to serve and care for others. Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats can be understood as a parable of identification. The principal difference between the sheep, who inherit the fullness of the kingdom, and of the goats, who do not, is expressed in the loving actions of service by the sheep. The goats failed to feed, clothe and visit the “least of these” (Matthew 25:31-46).
In addition to being identified by their love, believers accept the supremacy and sovereignty of Jesus as Lord. Believers no longer live for themselves, but, they live to do the will of God. Paul said: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). By believing in, accepting and receiving Jesus Christ, the Christian submits to his Lordship. Christ is our ruler. We submit to him and follow him.
Believers are identified by our acceptance of and identification with Jesus Christ. The fact that we are called Christians draws attention to our desire to find our fundamental identity in him. As a result of our identification with Christ (or rather, Christ identifying himself with us), we are:
- Reconciled to God. We are told in 2 Corinthians 5:18, “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.”
- Forgiven and cleansed. “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:4). “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and. the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin” (1 John 1:7).
- Born again, from above. Jesus declared, “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again” (John 3:3).
Sharing our faith
Being an active part of the church is vital to the spiritual health and growth of each Christian. Paul tells us that Christ
gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (Ephesians 4:11-13)
The church provides a necessary framework and structure for each member of the Body of Christ. The church has been given the responsibility of making disciples and of teaching them (Matthew 28:18-20). Together, as the Body of Christ, we can accomplish this mission.
Jesus had instructed his disciples, “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” (Acts 1:8). Jesus expects his disciples to share their belief. As Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, Christians must not hide their light (Matthew 5:14-16). Jesus said, “No one lights a lamp and puts it in a place where it will be hidden, or under a bowl. Instead he puts it on its stand, so that those who come in may see the light” (Luke 11:33).
Christians must share the love that dwells within them. Jesus Christ’s commission to the church in Matthew 28:19-20 identifies the Christian responsibility to proclaim the gospel: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”
The challenge to adhere to New Testament teaching and the responsibility to make disciples apply to all whom God calls. Jesus promises to be with us and live in us, strengthening and empowering us: “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (verse 20).
On that first New Testament Pentecost, when Jesus Christ founded the church, the apostle Peter preached a sermon that personally confronted each of his listeners. He challenged observant Jews, gathered at Jerusalem from all over the Roman world, to believe in and accept Jesus Christ. He told them that Jesus is the Messiah. “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36).
Peter also told the assembly that the risen Jesus Christ could change their lives. After the people had heard Peter’s appeal, they wanted to know how they should respond. “Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off — for all whom the Lord our God will call’” (verses 38-39).
Three thousand people were baptized after Peter’s sermon in Acts 2. The church began when the believers came together to be taught, to fellowship and to share their lives. They were able to mature as disciples of Jesus Christ as a result of being joined to the community of believers.
Jesus Christ gave another promise to Christians of every generation since: “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matthew 16:18). The church has survived, and will continue to survive, any and all attempts to overcome it. Christ, the head of the church, promises us that.
We have committed ourselves to faithfully understanding and practicing the Christianity of the New Testament. We want to extend our help to you as you seek to worship and follow Christ. As the Holy Spirit leads you, we are committed to serving your spiritual needs. May God bless and guide you as you seek him and his Son. Christ founded the church, and as we follow him, we should seek to find how we can more perfectly understand his will, and how we can “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18).
Members of one body
Paul provides a significant metaphor that explains the church and its functions. He tells us that the church is the Body of Christ. “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:12). He explains further, “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (verse 27).
This is a metaphor rich with meaning for Christians. It allows for and demands both unity and diversity, cooperation and individuality. No matter how we or others may perceive our function, our individual role is vital to the functioning of the whole. Paul emphasizes the worth of every Christian with the metaphor of the Body of Christ.
In their book, Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, Paul Brand and Philip Yancey comment on this relationship:
In our Western societies the worth of persons is determined by how much society is willing to pay for their services. Airplane pilots, for example, must endure rigorous education and testing procedures before they can fly for commercial airlines. They are then rewarded with luxurious life-styles and societal respect. Within the corporate world, visible symbols such as office furnishings, bonuses, and salaries announce the worth of any given employee. As a person climbs, he or she will collect a sequence of important sounding titles (the U.S. government issues a book cataloging ten thousand of them).
Brand and Yancey continue:
Living in such a society, my vision gets clouded. I begin viewing janitors as having less human worth than jet pilots. When that happens, I must turn back to the lesson from the body, which Paul draws against just such a background of incurable competition and value ranking. In human society, a janitor has little status because he is so replaceable. Thus, we pay the janitor less and tend to look down on him. But the body’s division of labor is not based on status; status is, in fact, immaterial to the task being performed. The body’s janitors are indispensable. If you doubt that, talk with someone who must go in for kidney dialysis twice a week. (pages 38-39)
It should be encouraging to realize that we have a contribution to make, that we are members of the Body of Christ and that Christ needs us as part of the good news of the gospel message.
The people of God
Perhaps the most fundamental term that is applied to the church is that of the people of God. The church is composed of those who are God’s own people.
You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:9-10)
At the beginning of the church, the majority of its members were Jews. Their race, culture, heritage and former religion was Jewish. The term Jew had, and continues to have, the dual connotation of ethnicity and religion. However, Paul later wrote to the Galatians that the New Testament people of God, the church, should remember that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
The ethnic origin of church members has no bearing on their relationship with God. The people of God are called and chosen by grace, not by heritage or right. The church becomes the children of Abraham through the righteousness given to Christians because of the saving work of Jesus Christ (Romans 4:6; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 3:29). Paul called Christians “the Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16).
Just as God was present with the nation of Israel in the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire, so he was with his called-together and chosen New Testament church (2 Corinthians 6:16; Ezekiel 37:27).
The transition from children of Abraham to followers of Jesus Christ involved trauma and turmoil in the New Testament church. A change in focus from race to grace formed the background for most of Paul’s epistles. Many people found it difficult to accept a change from righteousness through heritage to salvation by grace.
The watershed event in the conversion of Gentiles, those who were not Jewish, was the calling of Cornelius. He was a Roman officer, a centurion, a Gentile. The story of how God revealed his plan to include Gentiles in the household of faith is recorded in the 10th chapter of Acts. God provided supernatural guidance for Peter, leading him to understand that Cornelius was to be accepted as a child of God.
Paul further explained, “As he says in Hosea: ‘I will call them “my people” who are not my people; and I will call her “my loved one” who is not my loved one,’ and, ‘it will happen that in the very place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” they will be called “sons of the living God”’” (Romans 9:25-26).
The church is a people, not a corporate body. The church is not a building or a structure. The church is not a multinational institutional conglomerate. The church is people—all who believe in Jesus. This does not mean that the people of God should not be organized, or that no formal structure should exist. The New Testament gives a basic structure and coherency to the people of God. But the church should never forget that it is composed of people, special people, the people of God. Unfortunately, the history of Christianity demonstrates that the people of God have often been overlooked, forgotten and even abused by the corporate institution of the church.
Jesus’ disciples used the Greek word ekklesia to refer to the church of God. The fact that God inspired the writers of the New Testament to use this word is instructive. Until the New Testament writers applied ekklesia to the church, the Greek word was used in a political context and meant an assembly. It did not refer to a religious body. In Christianity, the word referred to the people of God, whether they were assembled or not.
Many have broken the word ekklesia into its two constituent parts and have defined it by the etymology, the origin of the word. The word comes from roots meaning “out of” and “call.” Some have then explained that the church consists of those “called out of the world.” Although Christians are “called out,” the word ekklesia does not have this exact meaning. The word might be better translated “called together.”
Members of the New Testament church saw themselves as a people called together, a chosen people, the people of God. They were the people of God at all times, and not just when they were assembled for worship services.
The kingdom of God
Jesus Christ has saved us sin and its consequences (Ephesians 2:5, 8). We have received the Holy Spirit, the seal and guarantee that we will one day inherit eternal life in the kingdom of God (2 Corinthians 5:5; Ephesians 1:13-14; Titus 3:5-7).
Jesus brought the gospel of the kingdom of God. He preached, taught and started that kingdom. It started as small as a mustard seed and began to grow (Matthew 13:31-32). He called his church together “from the dominion of darkness” of this world and brought us into his kingdom (Colossians 1:13-14). The kingdom is a present reality for those who believe and accept Jesus Christ and his gospel.
Christians become part of the kingdom of God on earth. However, we experience the kingdom in only a partial sense. The fullness of the kingdom is our destination and our goal. Yet, a foretaste of the kingdom is present now in the Body of Christ. It is this present reality that enables and empowers us to be Christian pilgrims (2 Peter 1:3-4).
We have confidence and trust that our leader is the eternal Son of God. He is our Savior, the One who gave his life for us on the cross and rose from the grave to be the living head of the church.
Humans whom Jesus Christ may use to serve his Body are just that: human. Christians can, and should, always look beyond the humanity that composes the Body of Christ. They should look to the divine love and mercy of the One who leads the church, Jesus Christ.
We can apply the concept of ecology to the church. Ecology refers to the way created things interact with one another and with their created environment. The church is the Body of Christ, a living organism that is mutually interdependent. We all need one another, and especially, we need the head, Jesus Christ. Christian life and growth is primarily focused on the community, because the part always contributes to the well-being of the whole.
Christians grow as a result of being nourished and taught. The role of the church is to provide the nourishment and direction that will enhance spiritual growth for individual members. Christ told his disciples to teach what he had taught them. “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).
Individual Christians should not shirk their responsibilities to help others by casually assuming that the church will do all of the teaching and nurturing. Every Christian has a responsibility to be a spiritual environmentalist. We must bear one another’s burdens. We must nurture, care and assist rather than use, abuse and throw away. Our brothers and sisters are precious resources we should treat and handle with care. We must practice Christian recycling. Each of us contributes to the health of the church, our spiritual life-support system.