When Was the Birth of Christ’s Church?
Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God (Jn 1:1). As the second Person of the Trinitarian Godhead, there was never a time when God’s Son did not exist (Is 9:6). The terms “emanate” and “begotten” emphasize that Jesus is not a created being. In fact, the co-equality of the Persons of the Trinity suggests eternality of all three. God is eternal, and all three Person are fully God. There is one God in the community of three Persons: Father; Son; and Holy Spirit (the Trinity).
Some of the works of God are particular to One but not the other two (ie. election (Father), redemption (Son), regeneration (Spirit). Other works are identified with all three (ie. creation, salvation, resurrection, etc.). Our special interest here, however, is God’s formation of His particular and peculiar people. Who are they? When did they first appear? What terms in the Bible help us to identify them in every place and throughout history?
Christ Jesus promised to build His church (Mt 16:18), and many believe that was some future exercise detached from the work of God in the Old Testament times. These people use invented phrases such as, “birth of the church” and “the church age.” Did God have a people, chosen to be His own possession before the foundation of the world, who predated the incarnation of the promised Messiah? Presuming the “yes” answer to our question (which is correct), what relationship do these people have to God’s eternal Son, who took on flesh at a precise moment in time?
Most Christians are savvy enough to see some connection between themselves and what they read in the Old Testament. Paul wrote to the church at Galatia, “Therefore be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham (Gal 3:7).” Abraham had the Gospel preached to him some two thousand years before Christ was enfleshed (Gal 3:8), as did Adam some four thousand years before Messiah’s (seed of the woman) arrival (Gen 3:15). We are believers in the same God. The Almighty has saved His chosen people throughout history in the same way as the believing patriarch, who was called out of paganism at Ur of the Chaldees (Gal 3:9).
Is there a Christian who would deny that Abraham is one of God’s chosen people, called out of darkness and into the marvelous light of truth, as it is in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:30; Eph 4:21)? The Bible places great emphasis on Abraham’s justification by faith in God’s revealed Word. Abraham heard God’s Word of promise, to bless the patriarch via his own offspring. The Apostle Paul confirms the singular “seed” as Jesus Messiah (Gal 3:16). The family of God was registered in the Lamb’s (Christ) book of life from before the foundation of the world (Rev 13:8; 17:8). Distinct from the children of the devil (Jn 8:44; 1 Jn 3:10), the children of God are identified in a number of ways, which we will now consider.
First, Abel learned about right and necessary sacrifices from Adam. He offered his animals (blood) in obedience, whereas Cain did not (Gen 4). The Bible reveals a close relationship between faith in God and obedience to God, as seen in the life and work of Noah, a preacher of righteousness (Gen 6–9).
Second, God’s chosen people are pilgrims, sojourners who declare that this world is not their home. Abram left the comfort of his homeland and family to sojourn to the land of God’s promise (Canaan). He went forward by faith. During his pilgrimage, God revealed His covenant of grace to the patriarch. Covenant and sacrifice are intimately linked concepts. The Lord will provide both covenant terms and the acceptable sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins (Mt 26:28; Eph 1:7).
Third, the covenant of grace came with promises of what God would do to fulfill His declaration, “I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants (seed) after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants (seed) after you (Gen 17:7).” Here is the only reconciliation to God for man. God’s covenant people are manifest in every generation. They fear God like Abel and Noah. They go where God calls them to go like Abraham.
Fourth, the revelation of God’s holy Law exposed the imperfect obedience of all the sons of Adam, even the elect people who were instructed to obey all that God had commanded. Failure posed a monumental problem that only God could solve on behalf of His chosen ones. It was the prophets of God who preached the Law which convicted the people of sin, but who also proclaimed the hope of Israel…the coming Messiah (Is 7:14; 8:8; 9:6; Jer 23:6; Mic 5:2; Zech 12:10; etc.).
Fifth, Jesus Messiah was a missionary pilgrim sent from Heaven. With perfect obedience, Jesus fulfilled every point in the Law of God including right sacrifices. Jesus of Nazareth proved Himself to be the God-man, who served both God and man in the capacity of faithful covenant keeper. He was grace and truth from God, personified (Jn 1:17). Even today, Jesus Christ is the one and only Mediator between God and man (1 Tim 2:5).
Old Testament saints, the remnant people of Israel, God’s holy nation, believed God’s revealed Word to them. They were stirred by the Spirit, in their respective generations, to do as God commanded. Jesus Christ is the eternal Word of God come into the world. He was revealed to all, but He was not comprehended by His own ethnic people (Jn 1:5). Many of the Jews received Jesus as God’s promised Deliverer. As the true Israel of God (Is 49:1–3), Jesus gathered His own flock to Himself, and He gave them His name, “Israel (Is 49:4–6).”
Christians are recipients of the baptism, regeneration, and indwelling of the Spirit of Christ. Together as God’s called out ones, Christ’s church, the Israel of God, we join with our brethren from every nation, tribe, and tongue and from every era in human history, as justified believers in the revelation of God’s eternal Word of covenant promises and Law. Looking forward to Messiah’s advent, God’s remnant believers, His called-out ones (church) from one nation (Israel) are forever knit together with God’s remnant believers, His called out ones (church) from every nation to comprise the body of Christ, the sheep of His pasture, His one holy nation of royal priests, the Israel of God.
The one people of God, remnant elect Jews and Gentiles share the same Bible, the same history, centered on our one Lord, who is Christ, Messiah, the King of Israel and Head of His one church (called out people). Thus, we see the wonderful continuity of God’s salvation, from the revelation of eternity past and in time from the promise to Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:15 to the consummation of the ages, at the regeneration of the last elect soul to be secured by our gracious Savior.
In conclusion, the conception of the church must be seen from eternity. God conceived the gathering of Christ’s sheep, His beloved bride before Creation. These were made holy (set apart by name) in eternity. God’s elect were manifest in time as recipients of God’s Word of promise (written from the time of Moses) and fulfillment (Christ is the Word of promise fulfilled in the flesh). God has spoken to us through His one and only Son (Heb 1:2).
So, we ask, “Who was the first saint, the first elect believer in God’s Word, to be called out in space and time, and who upon his or her death entered the throne room of God in heaven, to worship God and the Lamb slain from before the foundation of the world?” It is our speculation he is Adam, and he represents the birth of Christ’s church victorious in heaven. Adam believed God and offered sacrifices for sins and then taught his sons to do the same.
The birth of Christ’s church militant and the first born from the spiritually dead was presumably Adam and Eve (again speculation). We reason that Cain and Abel were taught by their parents, regarding their estrangement from God and the need to be reconciled to their Creator via blood sacrifice within the eternal covenant of grace. Their offerings were acceptable types and shadows of the permanent sacrifice to be offered by God’s Son, the second Adam, Jesus Christ.
Epilogue: The church of God’s people, given to Christ in eternity, were made manifest in Creation’s time and space. Adam and Eve and Abel are prime candidates in our speculation of those born again, spiritually, after the fall into spiritual death at man’s rebellion. Assuming the inclusion of these three into body of God’s saved people, we believe they are representatives of the birth of Christ’s church, later named as God’s holy nation, “the Israel of God.”
Answering those who deny the saints in the Old Testament belong to Christ, in favor of salvation’s commencement, or “the birth of the church” being in A.D. 33, we must reject their argument. It is the error of the Dispensationalist to unhinge himself from the Old Testament. He compounds his error by separating Israel and the church. In truth, God has covenanted with one people, chosen in eternity, and from the beginning manifest as God fearers, justified by blood sacrifice in faithful and obedient response to the Word of God.
Spokane Valley, Washington
April 6, 2022