A Biblical understanding of what the church is, who makes up its membership, and what its responsibilities are is crucial if we are to be adequately prepared for the Second Coming of Christ and the judgment of mankind that follows.
The church is that religious organization one reads about upon the pages of the New Testament planned from eternity (Eph. 3:8-12) with the purpose to contain all those heeding the Gospel call (2 The. 2:13-14; Rom. 16:25-27) in loving obedience (Heb. 5:8-9) upon which obedience the Lord adds them, as the saved, to His church (Acts 2:47). It is the church Jesus promised to build (Mat. 16:18-19) which began on the Pentecost after the resurrection of Christ (Acts 2:1-47). This church is not a Jewish synagogue. It is not the Roman Catholic Church. It is not any Protestant denomination (Mat. 15:8-9). It is not an afterthought or replacement for any previous plan of God which man somehow was able to thwart.
This lesson deals with the church beginning in Jerusalem on the Pentecost following the crucifixion of Christ, which beginning is recorded in Acts 2. It continues through Revelation and, by implication, unto the Second Coming of Christ.
The mission of the church is gleaned from the Great Commission passages of Matthew 28:18-20, Mark 16:15-16, and Luke 24:46-47. It is one of instruction in the Gospel (Mat. 28:19; Mark 16:15) that required repentance and remission of sin be preached in His name beginning in Jerusalem (Luke 24:46).
The parable of the Sower should also be considered (8:11-15), as this passage gives us some insight into our work. Jesus tells us the seed is the Word of God and the soils are representative of the hearts of the various people with whom we will come in contact. Furthermore, we learn we are to sow only the Gospel seed, that we will not convert the world, that evangelism is our task, and our audience is accountable for its own response (Mat. 13:10-18).
Jesus, in His last instructions before ascending into heaven, informs the apostles they are to be His witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and then into all the world. The record of Acts gives more than ample testimony to the faithfulness of the apostles of Jesus in carrying out this command. However, for this to happen, and it be self-sustaining, the church, yet to be established, had to be structured in such a way that it would be able to continue the work of evangelism (28:20).
The church—that is the blood-bought body to which the Lord added the souls of those being saved (Acts 20:28; 2:47)—is pictured as a kingdom over which Jesus is now reigning (Mat. 16:18; Dan. 7:13-14; Acts 1:9; 2:22-36). The kingdom of heaven, as any kingdom, has a ruler or king sitting on His throne (2 Sam. 7:12-13; 1 Chr. 17:11-15; Acts 2:29-36; 5:31; Phi. 2:9-11; 1 Tim. 6:15). This heavenly kingdom has a territory which is all the world (Mat. 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-16) and every nation (Isa. 2:2-3; Rom. 16:25-26). It also has subjects—all nations (Isa. 2:2-3; Acts 10:34- 35), every creature (Mark 16:15-16), and whosoever will (Rom. 10:13; Rev. 22:17). Christ the Lord is our King (Jer. 23:5-6; Mat. 2:2; Luke 1:31-33), on His throne (Isa. 9:6-7; Acts 2:22-36), and is now reigning in actuality (Acts 2:30-33; 1 Cor. 15:24-26). The Word of God is its law (Psa. 19:7; Jam. 2:12), a perfect law (Jam. 1:25; John 12:48), all-sufficient for God’s ends (2 Tim. 3:16-17; 2 Pet. 1:3; Eph. 3:1-4).
Jesus is the head of the church which is His body (Eph. 1:22-23; Col. 1:18, 24). There are no other positions of overall leadership of a single individual in the church of the New Testament. The local congregation consisting of saints, a plurality of bishops overseeing the local church, along with those serving as deacons is the only structure authorized by God to carry out His work here on earth (Phi 1:1). The only references we find regarding church are only mentioned in regards to a local congregation (as is the one in Philippi), to congregations in a district (1 Cor. 16:1-2), or to the church as made up of all the saved (Acts 20:28). There is no other hierarchy or government authorized.
The very first congregation of that church purchased by God’s blood (20:28) is described in Acts 2:41-47. In verse 41 we see it founded and partially organized. It begins its work of teaching to bring spiritual maturity to its members in verse 42. We see love for one another (1 Pet. 1:22) expressed by physical needs being seen to (Acts 2:43-45). Both evangelism and edification are pursued as demonstrated in verses 46-47 with the inevitable conversions taking place. We see Peter and John vigorously pursuing their apostolic mandate by going into the temple and preaching the Gospel with the results expected (3:1-4:4) in spite of being arrested. This then is the work Christ assigned to the apostles and which work has been passed down to us (Mat. 28:20).
As we contemplate this religious organization started and purchased by Christ, and we begin to see it functioning under the hands of the apostles, we wonder how congregations would organize themselves after the passing of the apostles and the cessation of the miraculous. Acts, as well as the epistles, gives us ample information to guide our efforts going forward through time to the coming of our Lord with His mighty angels (2 The. 1:6-10).
Inevitably, in any organization needs will arise that require additional hands to assist in carrying the burden. In Acts 6, we see such an occasion. Regardless of the reasons for which a want arose, the fact is that more efficiencies were needed to see that the needs of everyone were met (5:34-37; 6:1). Whether or not the seven men chosen were in fact the first deacons, it is the case that they “served tables” (6:2-7). This was merely the ongoing effort in organizing local congregations.
The Holy Spirit has provided for the church in all times and places a plan for governing and ordering the affairs of the local congregation. As stated previously, there is no organization larger than the local church yet smaller than the church universal and such being the case the only appropriate conclusion is that each local church is self-governing with no higher earthly authority to direct its affairs.
It is not until the first missionary journey of the apostle Paul (13:2-14:28) that we see the first elders being appointed (14:23) to a leadership capacity. The Holy Ghost has provided qualities which must be possessed by any man to be appointed for the work of an elder (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Tit. 1:5-9). We see the need for men to possess these qualities when we recognize the practical work they do (Acts 20:17-28; 1 Pet. 5:1-4).
They serve in submission to Jesus as the head of the church (Eph. 1:22-23; Col. 1:18) and in His capacity as Chief Shepherd and Bishop (1 Pet. 2:25; 5:4). They serve in an oversight capacity to a congregation (Acts 14:23; 20:17; Tit. 1:5) with a plurality of men serving (Acts 14:23; Tit. 1:5). Their Head, Jesus, and His headquarters, is in heaven (1 Pet. 3:22; Acts 2:29-36). Each congregation is autonomous or self governing with no authorized oversight or interference from any outside, much less superior, authority (1 Pet. 5:2).
A local church (congregation) is authorized to do only that and all of that which is specifically stated or implied by what is revealed in Scripture (Col. 3:17). They are to see to the physical needs of their own members (Acts 2:44-45; 4:34-35). A local congregation is able to assist any church member (Gal. 6:10), as they are able (2 Cor. 8:1-6), regardless of locale (Acts 11:27-30; Rom. 15:22-29; 1 Cor. 16:1-2). They also have the authority to help any person in need (Gal. 6:10). The church is to have a teaching program for the body to edify and bring itself to spiritual maturity (Acts 2:42; Eph. 4:11-16; 1 Tim. 4:6-16; 2 Tim. 2:2). Each member is to participate in this and all other efforts of the local church (Heb. 10:19-25).
A local church is to see to the spiritual purity of its own membership. By taking heed to the doctrine (1 Tim. 4:16), we are able to discern truth from error (Mat. 7:15-20), to try the spirits (1 John 4:1) to see if they are in fact faithful (Rev. 2:2). Spiritual and mature brethren also have the ability and obligation to see that members are walking in the faith, living pure lives (1 Cor. 5:1-13), and if not, to exhort them to return to faithfulness (Jude 23). Should they not desire to do so, then we are mark and avoid (Rom. 16:17), or to note and have no company with those walking disorderly all the while admonishing him as a brother (2 The. 3:6-15). The purpose of this effort is not to be vindictive but to see whether the sinful will destroy the works of the flesh (1 Cor. 5:5; Col. 3:5ff).
As head of the church, the Lord has given instructions to all those that would believe on Him, through the words of the apostles (John 17:20-21), what the mission of the church is (Mat. 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-16; Luke 24:45-49; Acts 1:8). Evangelizing the world, therefore, is what the church is to be doing. What happens when a local congregation faithfully carries out its responsibility to teach and preach God’s will?
Persecution by evil-minded, ignorant individuals can result simply because the Gospel is faithfully preached (Mat. 10:32-42; 2 Tim. 3:12). The events of Acts 3, 4, and 5 provide insights as to how the church in any age is to conduct its affairs. Those guilty of sin need to be clearly charged not only with their conduct but also the consequences (3:11-18). Repentance needs to be specifically called for on the part of the guilty (3:19-26). Not only will the guilty not like it (4:1-3), they will also attempt to suppress the message and silence the messengers (4:5-18). The faithful have no recourse but to stand firm (4:19-22) and continue the Lord’s work (4:31).
This same lesson applies to brethren that seek to maintain a faithful walk in the Lord. Paul warned the Ephesian elders that their congregation would face false teachers not only from without, but even from among their own selves would some men arise seeking to draw away disciples after them (20:29-30). Paul faced false brethren that persecuted him (2 Cor. 11:26; Gal. 2:4). Peter and Barnabas at one time caused problems (2:11-21).
We also see how the church is to handle problems of internal discipline and how the Lord views even secret sins (Acts 5:1-11). There arose a need in the congregation to raise funds to support members in financial need, and the brethren rose to the occasion (4:34-37). Ananias and his wife Sapphira conspired to appear to be more generous than their covetous hearts would allow in selling a parcel of land and representing the money donated from proceeds as if it were the whole amount (5:1-2). The inevitable discipline was swift and sure, resulting in their deaths (5:3-10), with far-reaching effects on both the congregation and the community at large (5:11-16).
There is a greater lesson here for any congregation and the church at large as well, one that would appear to be obvious. Whereas Peter, being inspired by the Holy Spirit, was able to discern the thoughts and the intents of the heart (5:3), the only way we have of determining the thoughts of the heart is by the words we hear or the actions we see (Mat. 7:15-20; 12:33-37; Gal. 5:19-21; Col. 3:5-9). When we see or hear actions identified by the Holy Spirit as works of the flesh, then we are not merely justified to judge them as carnal; we are commanded to do so (Eph. 5:11; John 7:24). How serious is the issue of congregational faithfulness? We can see how relatively little time can pass before congregations find themselves in spiritually dire circumstances. It is commonly accepted that the apostle John is the author of the Revelation letter having written it in about AD 96. The dating of Acts 2 in which the church was founded is about AD 33. Assuming these dates to be correct, then a period of 63 years has passed. The Ephesian church had its beginning under the hand of Paul in about AD 54-55 as recorded in Acts 19. This gives us a period of about 41-42 years for the Ephesian church to become as described in Revelation 2:1-7. Some of the brethren addressed by Paul in Acts 20:17-38 may have still been alive and serving. Even though doctrinally correct (Rev. 2:2-3, 6), the church had left its first love. One writer speculates that the first love may have been the burning of the books in Acts 19:19-20, after which the Word of God grew and prevailed. It may also have been their love manifested towards Paul in Acts 20:36-38. He also suggests the love they expressed towards the saints (Eph. 1:15) (Hailey 122). Whatever the first love actuality was, it was clear that what they had become was not what they had been, and the Lord admonishes them to repent and return to that first love.
What can a local congregation do to acquire and maintain their good standing with the Lord? It is reasonable to believe that the answer to the question would be applicable to any congregation of the Lord’s people at any time up to and including the Lord’s second return.
The Ecclesiastes writer provides the answer (Ecc. 12:13; John 14:15; 4:23-24). The clear-cut answer for church soundness from her founding until Christ returns to receive the kingdom unto Himself and to deliver it back to God is to remember Who we worship and why.
We must understand why it was necessary for an innocent Lamb to be sacrificed for us; then we will be a long way towards the same sort of heart possessed by the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8:26-40). When we can appreciate God’s gracious gift to us as much as did Paul, our worship will become deeper and richer (Rom. 5:15-18; 6:23). The heart that appreciates God’s great gift of salvation will truly worship God as completely as He expects and desires. Paul expresses the sort of devotion this kind of worship must have (Gal. 2:20).
If I eagerly look forward to each opportunity to gather together with other saints of the Lord to offer up prayers, songs of praise, listen to preaching that magnifies and extols God, pay into the treasury a portion of God’s physical blessings to me, participate in communion with the Lord as I examine my own faithfulness in light of God’s Word, how would I ever become unfaithful? The answer is that I would not (2 Pet. 1:5-11).
What would be the effect on my desire to spread the good tidings of God’s grace to those around me so they too might share in the blessedness to be obtained by a heart set on God and His Will? Would it not be equal to or even greater than the brethren of the first century church, especially when we have a more complete revelation than they at any given time?
If a congregation were truly in possession of such a spirit of humility, thanksgiving, and spiritual awareness as this, would there be much of an ongoing need to exhort brethren to be faithful to congregational gatherings? Would there be a need to actually recruit Bible class teachers, or would we instead have an eager waiting list of well-qualified and mature Christians?
If the churches of Asia admonished by Jesus in the Revelation letter had kept this focus, would there have been a need for a call to repent? If brethren in our own time truly accepted the testimony of the Holy Spirit, would there ever be a breach in fellowship occurring at all, much less continuing on for years with no end in sight?
There are a few thoughts in regards to the church and its progress into the future which we might consider. The Parable of the Sower teaches us that the Word of God is a seed to be sown in the hearts of men in which it will have varying degrees of success at growing and bearing spiritual fruit (Luke 8:11-15; Mat. 24:35). That the seed will not pass away and will produce today what it did in the first century provides hope for the future of the church, as long as there are honest and good hearts to receive the Word. It may well be that should the Lord delay His return long enough that the church could become cold in its prayer vigils and many formerly faithful fall away (18:1-8; 2 Pet. 3:1-13; Mat. 24:12-13). Realizing the dangers, we should continually study and lay hold on the faith.
Every Christian in each congregation of God’s people must make a determination as to whether or not they will continue to watch and wait for the Savior (Mat. 25:13; 1 The. 5:5-6). May the faithful of the Lord be vigilant until His return!
All Scripture quotations are from the King James Version unless otherwise indicated.
Hailey, Homer. Revelation: An Introduction And Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1979.
Reprinted from the 43rd Annual Bellview Lectures, The Church, Pensacola, Florida, June 8-12, 2018, Ed. Michael Hatcher.