Previous section: “The Christian Church.”
The Historical Foundation of the Church
A large portion of the New Testament is occupied with the details of its establishment of the Church as His own new institution: more particularly, this is a prominent subject down to the beginning of the Acts. We may embrace the whole under two heads: the preparations made by our Lord in the Gospels, and its actual foundation on the Day of Pentecost.
The Preparations in the Gospels
1. Our Lord proclaimed the advent in His own person of the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 4:17), or the kingdom of God (Mark 1:15). His new revelation to mankind was the Gospel of the Kingdom (Matt. 24:14): the Baptist preached its coming, as the forerunner both of Christ and of the Apostles; and the Saviour made it the subject of His teaching until the day in which He was taken up (Acts 1:2, 3). By this term He linked His own government with the ancient Theocracy: but not with its earthly form; for His was the kingdom of heaven, as such predicted, though not by that name, throughout the prophets. The new kingdom, however, was a mystery (Matt. 13:52) revealed: and the main secret of that mystery lay in the fact that, while it was still the kingdom of God (Rev. 11:15), it was also the Messiah’s, the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ (Rev. 1:9), the kingdom of Jesus the Son Incarnate. The phrase pervades the Lord’s teaching; down to the last He was speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God (Acts. 1:3). It was not however His purpose that it should be retained as the denomination of His new community. The company of His people is the sphere of His reign to the end of time; but the name and character of the dominion is held in abeyance until the consummation of all, until its final manifestation as the one kingdom of heaven and earth, of God and man, of Christ and His saints: it was of that the Incarnate Redeemer spoke, when, at the close of His ministry, throwing off all reserve, He termed it My kingdom (Luke 22:30). As our study here begins with this name, so it will revolve back to it at the close; and meanwhile the first prayer of Christendom is, Thy kingdom come (Matt. 6:10): a prayer that will end only when all prayer shall cease.
The company of His people is the sphere of His reign to the end of time.
2. At a memorable crisis in His history our Lord gave His institution its new name: My Church (Matt. 16:18; 18:17). Twice, and twice only, He used it; and on two occasions closely connected: both instances, be it observed, occurring in the very midst of St. Matthew’s special collection of parables and discourses concerning the kingdom. In the former, it seems to be the great temple or house of prayer for all nations (Mark 11:17), in all ages, and for the worship of eternity; in the latter, the visible assembly of Christian people, gathered together in one place for the administration of His laws. Putting the two passages together, we have a summary of the Saviour’s will concerning His future congregation. He gave it then a name that we need not yet further expound: the word ἐκκλησία has from that day had the pre-eminence over every other by which the fellowship of Christians may be described. No one who considers this origin of the term will consent to allow it to be displaced by any other. The abuses of it should not bring it into contempt.
The word ἐκκλησία has from that day had the pre-eminence over every other by which the fellowship of Christians may be described.
3. It is observable that our Lord, having given this new name, and thrown a brief but effectual ray of light upon first the invisible and then the visible congregation of the future, did not again mention the word: leaving it for future use. His parables and discourses flowed on in their former channel, keeping the kingdom of God in view. But the last discourses including the last prayer give some elements of teaching concerning the future Church which are of the deepest interest. These will only be alluded to now: the fuller exposition of their meaning must be reserved for the future. Provision was made for the permanent memorial of redemption in the Holy Supper: the sacrament of His people’s corporate unity with Himself and with each other as the heirs of a new covenant. Baptism, the sacramental rite of initiation, was also substituted for the ancient rite of circumcision, now virtually abolished. The new congregation or church was, as it were, formally consecrated to God by its Head in what may be called the High-priestly Prayer: the first Prayer in His own house (Heb. 3:6; John 17). In it He refers to the company of believers as given Him of the Father: the suffering obedience which nevertheless purchased the gift is kept back or dimly alluded to; as kept from the world, or, as one afterwards said who heard the words, preserved in Jesus Christ (Jude 1); and to be made perfect in one, in that spiritual and eternal unity of perfection of which the highest type is to be sought though it can never be found in the interior relations of the Trinity. But it is observable that the Saviour speaks of this new community, describes it, and prays for it, as future. Even after His passion, when the resurrection had put all power in His hands, and He appeared in the midst of His disciples as their glorified Head, the New Fellowship was yet in the future. He spent forty days in speaking about its history or destiny, and His Apostles’ duty in the coming days (Acts 1:3, 4); doubtless gave many instructions that have not been recorded; but always His Church was yet to come.
4. While it is true that the Church, in the strict sense of the word, and as a corporate institute, was not founded while the Lord was upon earth, in another sense He was laying its foundation during the whole of His ministry. He left a large body of instruction concerning it which waited only for the Day of Pentecost to disclose its fulness of meaning. The germs and principles of all that is to follow in this branch of theology are to be found in the Gospels: indeed, we may be more bold, and say that nothing on this subject, or any subject, can go beyond the meaning of the Lord’s own words. He spoke of the Comforter as the future Divine Presence in the congregation; but His office was only to glorify, expound, and expand the sayings of the Redeemer Himself. We shall find that this holds true in a very remarkable degree concerning the doctrine of the new Church or Kingdom. A large part of the Saviour’s teaching in the four Gospels treats of its nature, of the methods of its spread, of the character of its subjects, of its relations to the world, and of the principles of His own government in it. The development of this teaching will appear in all that the subject brings before us.
This excerpt is from William Burt Pope’s Compendium of Christian Theology (London: Beveridge and Co., 1879). Read more in Logos Bible Software, Google Books (links via Society of Evangelical Arminians), or PDF (scans from Fred Sanders).