In his book People of Spirit: Exploring Luke’s View of the Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), Graham H. Twelftree examines the church from the perspective of Luke through his Gospel and Acts. In the second chapter of this very interesting book, Twelftree asks when the church started. Is the origin of the church found at Pentecost with the coming of the Holy Spirit? Twelftree says, “No.”
In considering Luke’s view of the origin and purpose of the Church, two points can be made. First, an unavoidable conclusion to be drawn from this chapter is that from Luke’s perspective the Church has its origin in the ministry of Jesus and is recreated by the risen Jesus to be the renewed people of God. In the simple unaided call of the apostles and the collection of them around Jesus, the Church had its origins or birth..
We can say that Luke would not call Pentecost the birth of the Church. For him the origins of the Church is in the call and community of the followers of Jesus during his ministry. Perhaps Luke would say that what was born in hope in the ministry of the earthly Jesus was given the ‘breath’ (pneuma) of life and power in the promised coming of the ‘Spirit’ (pneuma). This means that, for Luke, the Church does not occupy a period in history separate from that of Jesus. Rather, the Church was called into existence by him and is a continuation of his ministry. (p 28)
Twelftree bases his conclusion on several pieces of textual evidence. First, Luke writes in Acts 1:1 that his previous work (the Gospel of Luke) was about “all that Jesus began to do and teach.” It follows, then, that the Book of Acts is about what Jesus continued to do and teach. Thus, one of the connections between the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts is found in the ministry of the earthly Jesus and its continuation in the life of the church.
Also, Twelftree demonstrates that Luke uses the twelve apostles as characters to connect his Gospel to Acts. In fact, as the first people who were called to follow Jesus in his earthly ministry, the apostles form the core of the church after Jesus’ ascension. However, not long into the Book of Acts, Luke demonstrates how the ministry of Jesus which had been continued by the twelve apostles, was then further continued by others.
Thus, while the twelve apostles connect the Gospel to Acts, and while the twelve represent the birth of the church and the continuation of Jesus’ ministry, the importance of the twelve soon diminished, being replaced by the importance of all believers as they continued what Jesus did and taught. Twelftree writes:
In eventually promoting Barnabas and particularly Paul to the rank of apostle, Luke is able to show his readers that the purpose of the Church portrayed in his Gospel and the early parts of Acts is to be the same as for the Church in the life of the readers. There is no closing of one age (the apostolic) and the initiating of another (post-apostolic) period. The kingdom, inextricably bound to the notion of mission, is conferred on the apostles, and experienced by them and expressed by them. The kingdom is also the subject of Paul’s attention as Acts closes. But this closing is the opening for the readers to continue experiencing and expressing the kingdom in their lives. (p. 29)
I’ve always considered Pentecost to be the birth of the church. But, I think that Twelftree’s arguments have merit, and that his conclusion warrants consideration. In fact, while studying the Gospel of Matthew in the last few months, I’ve recognized that Jesus called his followers to continue his ministry, especially when he sent the twelve out two-by-two in Matthew 10:5 (compare to Matthew 4:23, 9:35).
If the church’s origin is found in the ministry of Jesus, and if the church’s purpose is to continue the ministry of Jesus, what should we be doing today as the church? How should gathering together (the focus of this blog) aid in this purpose? How can gathering together distract from this purpose?