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The Birth of the Church Demonstrates its Purpose

Posted by on Nov 23, 2009 in books, definition, missional, service, spirit/holy spirit | 7 comments

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?


7 Comments

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  1. 11-23-2009

    Well, this may not be popular, but if the Church is called to continue the ministry of Jesus, then the Church’s purpose quite obviously has, at its core, urging folks to enter and receive the Administration of God as Jesus’ apprentices, while healing people and removing demons and teaching about God’s reign brought and led by the Christ.

    Whatever else may be flawed about Pentecostal theology and practice, it seems more than plausible that because they pursue that core mission through the Spirit, they better identify and execute the mission of God as revealed by Jesus than most Christians. Hence their global effectiveness.

  2. 11-23-2009

    Hi Alan,

    I do not really believe that Pentecost was the birth of the church. It was a significant point in the church’s beginning but I would not consider it the birth. I think I fall more in line with Twelftree’s views about the birth of the church. I believe it was born when Jesus began his ministry, when he started to call his followers, teach them, and send them out.

    As the church today, we should be following Jesus’ lead in serving the world and each other. Our gatherings can aid this by, one, serving each other, but also by loving, encouraging, teaching, exhorting one another. Our gatherings can distract this by focusing on secondary issues or worldly goals, etc.

    God Speed,
    Lew

    p.s. interesting…

  3. 11-23-2009

    That the church was “born” at Pentecost is one of those statements that I heard at seminary and kept written in pencil in my mind. It make sense on some levels and not on others. I know that one of the reasons for this thought is to show the break or otherness between the church and Israel. From that perspective, I can agree. The church is not new Israel as some covenant theologions might say.

    On the other hand, Jesus talked with his disciples about church in the famous church discipline passage, and never did Jesus say… “when the church begins, do this.” His disciples didn’t seem to wonder what the church was either. So, that’s something to think about.

  4. 11-23-2009

    T,

    I would agree that the Pentecostals are correct in their desire to see people healed. I think this is part of the church’s purpose or mission. I don’t think that healing was the extent of Jesus’ mission nor should it be the extent of the church’s mission. Also, what should a believer do if someone is not healed but is still suffering?

    Lew,

    Thanks for considering the church gathering along with the mission of the church. I’ve been convinced lately that the assembling of the church can either facilitate or hinder the church (the people) in carrying out its (their) mission. Unfortunately, I think many church meetings have become ends in themselves, as if the meeting (“worship service”) is the purpose of the church. What do you think?

    Stephen,

    Was there a break between Israel and the church? Weren’t the apostles and all of the earliest followers of Jesus also Jews? Lately, I’m beginning to view the “separation” between Israel and the church much more like the idea of the remnant in the Old Testament. If this is the case (i.e. the church begins with the remnant of faithful and obedient Jews), then this would be another indication that the church began in the earthly ministry of Jesus and not at Pentecost. What do you think?

    -Alan

  5. 11-23-2009

    Alan,

    We agree, I think. I’m not arguing that (physical) healing is the sum total of Jesus’ mission, only that if you’re arguing that the Church’s mission is a continuation of Christ’s through the Spirit, we can’t put healing on the back burner as much as we tend to in the West. I think it is fair to say, though, that ‘healing’ is one of the few terms that is conceptually large enough to almost completely capture God’s mission in Christ toward the world. We are sick/broken in every possible way, and God wants to heal us and make us an instrument of his healing Administration.

    Regarding what to do if someone isn’t physically healed (or not healed in other ways) on the spot when we ask, I guess the short version is that we accept it and, at the same time, be willing to keep asking God to heal (instead of one or the other). I think it’s best to view physical healing as one form of love from a God/king with “all authority in heaven and earth.” I feel like the church in the West needs to embrace the fact that healing was a mark of Jesus’ and the early church’s service to the world, and at the same time, Lazarus isn’t still walking around. Some folks get healed when we ask, some don’t. And so, far, every one that’s been healed or raised from the dead has died eventually, and likely been sick again, too. It’s like feeding the hungry. Sometimes we can do it, other times we can’t. Either way they’re going to need food again; it’s the nature of these bodies. That doesn’t mean we should stop doing it altogether. (On a related note, I don’t know if there’s anywhere our gnosticism on the one hand and deism the other is more clear than in our squeamishness about divine healing.) In any event, it’s hard to talk about continuing Jesus’ mission and not discuss healing in an serious way. But we’re scared of the practice and therefore more ignorant and less nuanced in our thinking and practice than we could be. The same Spirit that empowers patience (over violence, for instance) empowers healing, which makes perfect sense, if we think about it. Healing can, but hasn’t really been, thoughtfully integrated into who we are and what we do and what we think God is doing in the world.

  6. 11-28-2009

    Here’s another view that I find interesting:

    I like something about the idea that God had two parallel tracks happening in the the Gospels and the Acts. Jesus presented plan A to Israel: The Kingdom.

    But there also existed an alternate plan B: The Church. If Israel had turned and repented, even after the crucifixion of Jesus, He would have returned for her then. By Acts 10, we have the church made up of both Jew and Gentile. But now, for an interim period, partly to make Israel jealous until she returned to her Husband and the Kingdom is bestowed, the church has the honor of bearing witness to Jesus.

    Some have put it this way:

    Israel rejects and rejects her Messiah. Instead of the Kingdom, which the nation rejects, she bears the church, a birth emerged when both Jew and Gentile were formed into one Body (that would be Acts 10…).

    I know this may seem a strange view, but read Eph 3 with this perspective in mind. The ministry given to Paul, a ministry to the Gentiles before unknown by the twelve and the early followers of Christ, who were rightly expecting the Kingdom for Israel. They preached only to the Jews for 8-10 years.

  7. 2-19-2013

    Good post and comments. Thanks!

    Three related articles which recognize both continuity and discontinuity. Jesus began something new and powerful via the New Covenant. This was secured at the Cross but began with His pouring out of His Spirit upon His people. Our Lord poured out His Spirit upon a kingdom and a people already in place in some measure, but ushered this further forward by transforming it into a New Covenant reality centered in Christ.

    “God’s New Covenant Reality in Christ”
    http://lambblood.com/god-s-new-covenant-reality-in-christ.html

    “The Church That Christ Built”
    http://lambblood.com/the-church-that-christ-built.html

    Please note an excellent article linked in the second resource above by Brian Schwertley – “Pentecost and the Coming of the Holy Spirit.” In fact, you might want to start with this article and work backward through the first two I linked. He does a fine job of digging into the significance of Pentecost, moving from its OT shadow form to its NT reality and fulfillment in Christ.
    http://www.reformedonline.com/view/reformedonline/Pentecost%20,%20part%201.htm

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