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The Old/New Testament Church

Question
When did the church begin?
Answer

The Church - that is God's Church - is seen both in the Old and New Testaments. The origin of the Church should be understood to have a much longer history than just the assembly of "many nations" in the New Testament (Acts 2; Rev. 5:9, et al.) of which Abraham in the Old Testament is the father (Gen. 17:4-5; Rom. 4:17-18; see also Re-newed Covenant).

Some theologians make the argument that Adam and Eve walked with God in the Garden of Eden and this was the first Church (Gen. 3:8). A parallel is seen in God's Tabernacle where God could walk with Israel (Lev. 26:12; Deut. 23:14; 2 Sam. 6:6-7). Along with the overtones of the Garden being represented in the Tabernacle, Heaven, and the New Testament Church, some see the first church as present from the book of Genesis forward:

1. The Garden had "all kinds of trees" (Gen. 2:9), and on the walls of the Tabernacle were images of palms, flowers, and cherubs (1 Kings 6:29; Ezek. 41:18).

2. Rivers flowed out of Eden (Gen. 2:10) and "flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb" is the river of life in Heaven (Rev. 22:1-2; cf. John 7:38-39).

3. God planted the Garden in the east, in Eden (Gen. 2:8; 3:24), and the Tabernacle gate faced east (Num. 3:38; Ezek. 43:1-7).

4. The Tree of Life was in the Garden (Gen. 2:9; 3:22) and is in Heaven itself (Rev. 2:7; 22:2, 14, 19).

5. The "cool of the day" (Gen. 3:8) represented the evening sacrifices of Israel. In the Greek Septuagint (LXX), cool of the day is translated as deilinon (at evening), which is used 5 other times in the LXX referring to the time of the evening sacrifices (Ex. 29:39, 41; Lev. 6:13; 1Kings 18:29; 2 Chron. 31:3).

6. God gathered Adam and Eve for Church discipline (Gen. 3:8 ff), and Church discipline is commanded in the New Testament church (Matt. 18:15-20).

So, the Garden being viewed as God's first Tabernacle upon earth, coupled with the fact that it takes very few people to have an assembly (Matt. 18:20), we may view the first Church as in Eden. It carried forth from there to the worship of God as demonstrated after the Fall in Genesis 4. Then Israel assembled before the Lord, and God said to Moses:

Deuteronomy 4:10 Remember the day you stood before the Lord your God at Horeb, when he said to me, "Assemble the people before me to hear my words so that they may learn to revere me as long as they live in the land and may teach them to their children."

The LXX, or the Greek version of the Old Testament, translates the word for "assemble" with the Greek term ekklesia meaning "Church": (ek meaning "out" and kaleo meaning "call," and put together ekklesia means the "called out." The term ekklesia is used 92 times in the LXX.

Even in the New Testament, Israel is spoken of as ekklesia or Church. Stephen speaks of the people of Israel in the wilderness as the assembly (ekklesia) in Acts 7:38. The author of Hebrews quotes Christ as saying, "I will declare your name to my brothers; in the presence of the congregation (ekklesia) I will sing your praises" (Heb. 2:12). (cf. Psa. 22:22). He also writes that the Church is surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses (Heb. 12:1). Who are these witnesses? The Old Testament saints referred to in Hebrews 11. The writer then goes on to say in Hebrews 12:23 that when the New Testament Church worships, it comes into the assembly ekklesia) of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven." The Lord has continued to the present to add to the Church (Acts 2:27).

Paul writes that Jewish believers and Gentile believers are united in the Church. Christ "has made the two one" (Eph. 2:14), they are "one new man" (Eph. 2:15), "fellow citizens with God's people and members of God's household" (Eph. 2:19); there is "one Lord, one faith, one baptism" (Eph. 4:5). The Old Testament Church taught the same salvation as the new one salvation - Gen. 3:15; Gal. 3:8). In Christ, the fulfillment of the everlasting covenant with Abraham continues. Are there differences? Of course, but as the Church matures, there is also a redemptive continuity throughout.

The title of Church is given to believers from Genesis to Revelation. From beginning to end, there is only one "called-out" assembly. Simply stated, the Church consists of the saints in all ages. The Westminster Confession of Faith states in Chapter 25.1 (Of the Church):

The catholic or universal Church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fullness of Him that fills all in all.

Answer by Joseph R. Nally

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).