Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20, NIV)
Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24:44-49, NRSV)
The word “church,” at its core, simply means “assembly,” “community,” “gathering,” or “congregation.” 1 However, in both the Old and New Testaments the term does at times take on added layers of meaning in certain contexts, and, in many cases, the promises of the covenants are assumed in the background.
As part of his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, God made a number of specific promises related to these men and their “offspring” (see, e.g., Gen. 22:18). Some of these promises pertain to the nation of Israel, some pertain to the nations, and some pertain to Israel’s role as God’s instrument of blessing to the nations (cf. Jn. 4:22—“salvation is from the Jews”).
God promised that from these men he would bring forth both “a great nation” (Gen. 12:2) and an “assemblage” (Gen. 35:11, LEB), “company” (ESV), or “community” (NIV) of nations, and that through Abraham and his seed/offspring all the nations of the earth would be blessed (see, e.g., Gen. 12:3, 22:18).
As a result, Abraham would be both the father of Israel (see, e.g., Is. 51:2) and “the father of many nations” (Gen. 17:5, CSB). Accordingly, those whom God considers to be his faithful followers among the Jews make up the righteous Jewish “remnant” (see, e.g., Is. 10:22; Rm. 11:5) who will inherit the “great nation” promise.
Those whom God considers to be his faithful followers among the nations are those who will inherit the “community of nations” promise. Together they make up one grand, intergenerational “assembly of the righteous” (Ps. 1:5) in God’s eyes. It is they whose names are registered in God’s “book,” that is, the “book of life” (see, e.g., Ex. 32:32; Ps. 69:28; Ph. 4:3; Rev. 3:5), and whom God, therefore, will spare eternal punishment, acknowledge as his own, and include in his everlasting kingdom (see, e.g., Mal. 3:17; Rev. 20:11-15).
They are the ones who will be allowed to congregate in God’s presence in his kingdom when Jesus returns (see, e.g., Re. 7). Because the Creator had loyal followers both before and after the first coming of Jesus, there is a sense in which the “assembly” refers to God’s faithful, accepted followers from all time (see, e.g., Heb.12:23). They are God’s “assembly” in the big-picture, all-times and all-places sense.
At the same time, Jesus also uses the word “church” or “assembly” to refer to something that he himself would “build” in the days following his first coming (Mt. 16:18). The specific assemblies or congregations that make up Jesus’ assembly, moreover, are specifically called “churches in Christ Jesus” (1 Th. 2:14), a designation obviously impossible prior to Jesus’ arrival in the first century.
These assemblies are open to both Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus, who together form “one new humanity” (Eph. 2:15; ISV, NRSV), and who have all been given the same Holy Spirit and same right of access to the Father on the basis of the same Messianic sacrifice (see Eph. 2-4).
The term “church” is typically used today to denote this post-First Coming reality, in context to which Jesus, through the Spirit he has poured out, is preparing the Jewish and Gentile members of his assembly for their respective destinies as outlined in the covenants (i.e., although both Jewish and Gentile believers share in the glorious privileges and benefits of the new covenant, the new covenant does not undo their respective destinies and callings as delineated in the previous covenants [see Rom. 11:28-29], but rather qualifies and enables them to inherit and walk in them).
Jesus is the leader and head of his assembly, which is his “body” and his “bride” (see, e.g., Eph. 4:12, 5:22-32; Rev. 22:17).
Before Jesus ascended to the height of the heavens to intercede for his people and to wait for the time of his Second Coming, he gave his Jewish followers an important assignment that accorded with Israel’s God-given calling as a nation (see, e.g., Gen. 12:1-3, 22:18, 26:4, 28:14; Dt. 4:6-8; Ps. 2:7-8; Is. 42:6-9, 43:10-11, 49:6-7, 51:4).
He told them that they were to go into all the world and instruct or make disciples of all nations, “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Mt. 28:19-20, NIV). By the power of the Spirit whom he would pour out, they were to be his “witnesses,” bearing solemn testimony to his resurrection and pointing to it as evidence that the dead are in fact going to rise to life at the end of the age (Lk. 24:46-49; Ac. 1:7-8, 4:2; 1 Cor. 15:23), calling Israel and the nations to repentance, and declaring God’s offer of forgiveness on the basis of what Jesus accomplished at the cross (Lk. 24:46-49; Ac. 1:7-8).
In the days after Jesus’ ascension, the Spirit-enabled endeavors of the witnesses whom he had appointed resulted in many communities “in Christ Jesus” (1 Th. 2:14) and in growing numbers of Jesus-followers in many different regions (see, e.g., Ac. 6:7, 12:24, 13:49, 19:20), who themselves joined in the work of proclaiming and living out the gospel and making new disciples of Jesus (see, e.g., Rom. 16; 2 Cor. 8:23; 1 Th. 1:8; Php. 2:19-30, 4:2-3).
Bold and courageous verbal testimony, self-sacrificial conduct and holy living, loyalty to Jesus even through suffering, and righteous deeds of all kinds are all vital components of the church’s witness (see, e.g., 2 Cor. 1, 11-12; Php. 4:9; Col. 3:17; 1 Th. 1; 2 Pt. 2:2; Rev. 2-3).
As “children of light” and “children of the day” (1 Th. 5:5, ESV) who live in an evil age of darkness (Gal. 1:4; Eph. 6:12) but no longer “belong to the night or to the darkness” (1 Th. 5:4-8, NIV), Jesus’ church or assembly, through its witness in both word and deed, is called to be a living signpost pointing ahead to the light of the age to come.
As pointed out above, God’s assembly can be understood, on one level, as referring to all people from all time—pre- and post- the First Coming of Jesus—who have humbly and loyally followed the God of Israel and placed their faith in the things he promised in the covenants. People like Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David, for example, even though they lived prior to the First Coming of Jesus, placed their faith in God’s promises and therefore will be included in the great assembly that will gather around Jesus in the age to come. In this sense “the church” began not long after the Fall (see Gen. 3:15, 4:26).
At the same time, the term “church” is also sometimes used in the Bible to refer to God’s assembly in its present historical situation, namely, subsequent to the Messiah’s First Coming, through which his specific name and human identity was revealed (“Jesus Christ is Lord” [Php. 2:11]), and through which God opened the door for the Gentiles/nations to enter into covenant with him as Gentiles/nations (see, e.g., Ac. 10:44-48, 11:18, 14:27).
Therefore, while God’s B.C. and A.D. people are all part of one big family in God’s eyes and as such will all share in the glories of the age to come, the Messiah’s First Coming also represents an important new phase and beginning point in the life and history of the assembly.
This does not mean, however, that God has abrogated, redefined, or annulled the Jewish people’s destiny and calling as a nation (see, e.g., Rom. 11:1-2, 28). Rather, through the Messiah, believing Jews are being prepared for their destiny as Israel, and the nation as a whole will join them when they turn to the Messiah at the end of the age (see, e.g., Dt. 30; Rom. 11). In the same way, Gentile believers are also being prepared as Gentiles for a glorious inheritance in the age to come (see, e.g., Eph. 1:13, 15-22). Together Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus form “one new man” (Eph. 2:15, ESV, HCSB), or “one new humanity” (ISV, NRSV), in union with the Messiah. (Passages like Col. 3:9-11 and Gal. 3:26-29 refer to a common experience of renewal into the image of God [see NASB and NRSV at Col. 3:11], not to an erasure of all distinction between Jew and Gentile or to a cancelation or redefinition of Israel’s national vocation, calling, and destiny.
The “one new humanity” [genus] = redeemed/new Israel [species] + redeemed/new nations [species]; it ≠ species redefined as genus [i.e., Gentiles as “spiritual Israel,” or the new humanity as the “new Israel”].)
Although the word “church” is often used in reference to buildings or places in which Jesus’ people meet, in the Bible it refers to an “assembly” made up of people who belong to God and with whom he has entered into covenant.
Because of this, wherever Jesus’ people are located and gather together, that is where his assembly is, and that is where his assembly does its work and carries out its mandate and assignment.
Wherever God’s assembly is, moreover, there, too, is Jesus, since Jesus, according to the New Testament, has taken up residence in his people through the Holy Spirit, whom he has put into them as a “seal” (1 Cor. 1:22; Eph. 1:13) and “down payment” (Eph. 1:14, CJB) toward the gracious salvation and deliverance from death to be granted to them at his Second Coming (see, e.g., Rom. 8:18-27; Eph. 1:13-14, 3:14-19; 1 Pt. 1:13).
Ever since God first called Abraham and his offspring out from the rebellion and idolatry of Babylon (Gn. 12–22), the Gentile nations of the earth have oppressed the Jewish people. Egypt (Ex. 1:8–22), Assyria (Is. 36–37), Babylon (Dan. 3), Persia (Est. 3), the Hellenists (Dan. 11), Rome, Nazi Germany and numerous other Gentile peoples and nations have oppressed the Jewish people at different times in history.
Though God sometimes used these empires as an instrument for disciplining his people, in their arrogance and violence the nations often went beyond what God intended (Zech. 1:15).
The Jews, meanwhile, for their part, over the centuries found themselves failing time and time again in their calling to faithfully represent God to the nations. In some periods this failure looked like Israel falling into the idolatrous ways of the nations (see, e.g., Ezek. 8), while at other times it involved Jews resisting, in various ways, God’s clearly stated plan (see, e.g., Gen. 12:3) to bless and show mercy to the nations through his chosen people (see, e.g., Lk. 4:16-29; Ac. 22:21-22; 1 Th. 2:15).
In Jesus, however, we see God working powerfully to bring about a new state of relations between Jew and Gentile. Through Jesus’ death on the cross, we are told, he reconciles both Jew and Gentile to God, “puts to death” the “hostility” between them (Eph. 2:16), and joins them to himself through the Spirit as members of one body, of which he himself is the head (Eph. 2, 4). This body makes up Jesus’ “bride,” and, as such, is the object of his most fervent affection and loyalty (Eph. 5:28–32).
According to the New Testament, God, “according to his eternal purpose accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord,” is doing something profound through Jesus’ bride or multinational assembly, namely, “making known” his “multi-faceted wisdom” to Satan and the other rebellious spiritual powers of the lower heavens (Eph. 3:10-11, CSB). Through the church, God has an important point to make to the spiritual powers who have so devastatingly deceived the human race and who have worked so hard to pit Jew and Gentile against one another down through the centuries: The way of the cross, God’s way, is the true path of wisdom.
The cross, and all that it represents about God, has the power to change even the most entrenched, Satanically-charged hatred between Jew and Gentile into heartfelt love and servanthood.
Although the way of the cross seems foolish to many in this age (see 1 Cor. 1:18-25), it will be vindicated in the end, as shown by Jesus’ resurrection. Through the gospel, God is summoning humanity to forsake the foolish path of the serpent, which leads to death, and, by becoming followers of Jesus, to step foot and continue on the path of true wisdom, which leads to “eternal life in the age to come” (Mk. 10:30, ESV).
According to the Bible, in order for people to become a part of the Messiah’s assembly, they must:
1) repent of their sins
(that is, confess and turn away from them [see, e.g., Mt. 3:2 (TEV)], and renounce and ask forgiveness for the evils of their former way of life [see, e.g., Lk. 24:47; Ac. 2:38; Eph. 4:20-24]);
2) acknowledge Jesus as Lord and swear exclusive allegiance to him,
call upon his name for salvation, and commit to obey his commands by the Holy Spirit’s enablement (see, e.g., Mt. 7:21-23; 28:18-20; Jn. 14:15; Rom. 10:9);
3) believe and humbly place their trust in Jesus and the gospel,
that is, in the promises of the covenants and in the now-revealed Messiah and First-Coming events through whom/which God has dramatically confirmed and solemnly attested to their reliability (see, e.g., Mk. 1:15; Rom. 10:9-11, 15:8-9; 2 Pt. 1:19); and
4) receive the gift of the Holy Spirit,
who empowers Jesus’ disciples to love him and obey his commands, and who washes, renews, and prepares them for Jesus’ Second Coming (see, e.g., Eph. 1:13-14; Tit. 3:4-70).
Through this process—which is accompanied by the covenantal entry rite of water baptism (see, e.g., Ac. 8:36-39, 10:44-48; Rom. 6)—people are “betrothed” to Jesus (2 Cor. 11:2; Rev. 22:17), that is, brought into covenant—the “new covenant”—with him (see, e.g., Mk. 14:24; Lk. 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25; 2 Cor. 3:7-18; Heb. 7-13).
The “consummation” of the marriage takes place at the Second Coming, when Jesus will raise his people from the dead and eat with them at the “marriage feast of the Lamb” (Rev. 19:9). Upon their entry into Jesus’ assembly, people are given the joy and privilege of taking part in the “Lord’s supper” (1 Cor. 11:20), a covenantal renewal meal through which we celebrate and remember the glorious King and Bridegroom with whom we are united through the new covenant, the wondrous events through which the new covenant was put it into effect, and the gracious provisions and blessings made available through the new covenant (see, e.g., 1 Cor. 11).