"Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations,
baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,
teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with
you always, even to the end of the age" (Matthew 28:19-20).
Jesus Christ gave His Church—this body of spiritually
transformed believers—a responsibility to carry out. The Church's mission is
to preach the gospel of the Kingdom of God and make disciples throughout the
world, teaching them exactly what Jesus taught (Matthew 24:14; 28:19-20).
The work of the Church continues; it did not cease when the
original disciples died. At first the job of the apostles, the Church's mission
has passed to each generation of God's people. Jesus promised to be with His
followers as they accomplished that work until He returns at the end of the age
Paul said Christ sent him into the world "to open
[people's] eyes, in order to turn them from darkness to light, and from the
power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an
inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in Me" (Acts 26:18).
Paul also said: "For I am not ashamed of the gospel of
Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes . .
." (Romans 1:16). The gospel is God's message of how salvation will be
brought to mankind—starting with His Church.
The Church plays many roles in the bringing of salvation to
the world. It stands as the light of the world (Matthew 5:14). It is the
household or family of God (Ephesians 2:19; 1 Peter 4:17, NIV). It is the mother
who nurtures God's sons and daughters (Galatians 4:26). It functions as the
"pillar and ground of the truth" in a spiritually confused world (1
Let's look at the multifaceted responsibilities Christ gave
His Church, His special people.
Must the Church save the world?
Paul describes the Church's responsibility as "the
ministry of reconciliation" because "God was in Christ reconciling the
world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us
the word of reconciliation" (2 Corinthians 5:18-19).
God's ultimate purpose is to gather—to reconcile—all
mankind to Himself. The Church plays an important role in that worthy effort.
God has commissioned it to preach how that reconciliation will occur. It is to
baptize those who believe that message.
When will that reconciliation take place? A common
misperception is that Jesus has commissioned His Church to save the world in
this age. But that is not what the Bible teaches and is not what Paul meant in 2
The Church's ministry of reconciliation is only the beginning
of a much greater phase of God's plan for reconciling the world to Himself
through Jesus Christ.
God has commissioned the Church to proclaim salvation to the
nations. But proclaiming Jesus' teaching about salvation is vastly different
from bringing mankind to salvation. The latter will necessitate bringing the
entire world to repentance and conversion. Only Jesus Christ can convert the
world; that task will have to wait until He returns.
Why Christ must bring Israel to repentance
At His return Christ will begin God's reconciliation to the
world by bringing the descendants of Jacob—Israel—to repentance.
At that time, Paul explains, "all Israel will be
saved." How? "The Deliverer [Christ] will come out of Zion, and He
will turn away ungodliness from Jacob" (Romans 11:26).
Then, as soon as the restored people of Israel learn obedience
as a nation, many peoples will come and say, according to the book of Isaiah,
"'Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God
of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.' The law
will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem" (Isaiah 2:3,
Zechariah tells us, "In those days ten men from every
language of the nations shall grasp the sleeve of a Jewish man, saying, 'Let us
go with you, for we have heard that God is with you'" (Zechariah 8:23).
Humanity will begin to realize that the law God gave to
ancient Israel must still be observed. Mankind will shed its prejudices and even
begin keeping the biblical festivals, which God gave to ancient Israel.
Those who remain unrepentant will soon find themselves in dire
circumstances because God will humble them by withholding rain from their crops
until they change their attitude. "Then the survivors from all the nations
that have attacked Jerusalem will go up year after year to worship the King, the
Lord Almighty, and to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. If any of the peoples
of the earth do not go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the Lord Almighty,
they will have no rain" (Zechariah 14:16-17, NIV).
Since Christ knows human nature, He will do what is needed at
that time to change the thinking of people—to bring them to repentance. But
that is to occur in the future after Christ returns.
Even though the Church is to proclaim a message to the world
that includes a call for repentance, Scripture tells us that relatively few
people will truly repent before Christ returns. Thus, bringing the world to
repentance is not the Church's role for this age.
A small group: the light of the world
To the contrary, Jesus said to His disciples: "In the
world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the
world" (John 16:33). He also said, "If the world hates you, you know
that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would
love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the
world, therefore the world hates you" (John 15:18-19).
God's people have never been a popular or powerful force.
Jesus describes their lot in life: "Enter through the narrow gate; for the
gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many
who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and
there are few who find it" (Matthew 7:13-14, NRSV).
Yes, only a few are willing to follow all the teachings of
Jesus Christ once they hear and understand them. Jesus comforted His disciples,
"Do not fear, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give
you the kingdom" (Luke 12:32).
God reveals that His people will be a little flock in this
age. He is calling only a few to be the living examples of His way of life to
the rest of world.
Jesus says to His true disciples, "You are the light of
the world . . . Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good
works and glorify your Father in heaven" (Matthew 5:14-16).
God commissioned the Church to set the example of His way of
life to the world. God is exposing humanity to His ways through the Church.
Peter exhorts the members of the Church: "Conduct yourselves honorably
among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see
your honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge" (1 Peter 2:12,
The Church: God's firstfruits
During "this present evil age" (Galatians 1:4), the
Church of God consists of only the first small part of God's great harvest of
people to eternal life.
James calls Christians: "a kind of firstfruits of his
creatures" (James 1:18). They are "redeemed from among men, being the
firstfruits unto God and to the Lamb" (Revelation 14:4).
The biblical usage of the term firstfruits was readily
understood by members of the early Church. "In acknowledgment of the fact
that all the products of the land came from God, and [in] thankfulness for His
goodness, Israelites brought as an offering to Him a portion of the fruits that
ripened first, these being looked upon as an earnest of the coming harvest"
(Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary, 1967, "First Fruits").
The firstfruits were the first part of the harvest, which the
Israelites set apart for God. After they gathered them and dedicated them to
their Creator, they harvested the rest of the crops. The apostles and other
members of the early Church understood that, as firstfruits, the Church is the
first part of God's harvest of humanity for salvation. The vastly greater
portion of the harvest will not take place until after Jesus Christ's return.
Those whom God calls in this age will participate in the
saving of the world—but not at this time and not as human beings. At the
return of Jesus Christ they will become immortal spirit beings.
God will resurrect them to eternal life as the firstfruits of
His harvest, receiving immortality at Christ's return (1 Corinthians 15:20-23,
51-53). They will be kings and priests in the Kingdom of God (Revelation 5:10).
As the immortal, resurrected children of God, they will assist
Christ in teaching God's way of obedience to the world for 1,000 years.
"Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection. Over such
the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ,
and shall reign with Him a thousand years" (Revelation 20:6). The
resurrection of these faithful servants of Jesus Christ to eternal life at the
beginning of that 1,000 years is only the first resurrection (verses 4, 6).
All the dead will be resurrected
At the end of the 1,000 years, God will resurrect all others
who have ever lived throughout human history to stand before Him in judgment
(Revelation 20:11-12). This is far larger than the first resurrection; it is the
resurrection of "the rest of the dead" (verse 5). At that time God
will raise from the dead people from all nations, along with the people of
Israel—all resurrected together (Matthew 11:20-24; 12:41-42).
"Do not marvel at this," Jesus said; "for the
hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come
forth—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who
have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation [judgment]" (John
Those who rise in this general resurrection—the resurrection
of judgment—will rise as mortal, flesh-and-blood human beings (Ezekiel
37:1-10). Then they will learn God's ways, acknowledge their sins and receive
His Spirit. Then they, too, can receive immortality.
Ezekiel describes their resurrection: "Thus says the Lord
God: 'Behold, O My people, I will open your graves and cause you to come up from
your graves . . . I will put My Spirit in you, and you shall live, and I will
place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken it
and performed it,' says the Lord" (verses 12-14). (For more information on
this vital topic, please request our free booklet
Christians are the firstfruits of the redeemed. They live in a
deceived world, and they must strive to be "blameless and harmless,
children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation,
among whom [they] shine as lights in the world" (Philippians 2:15).
The Church: The Body of Christ
We have already seen that Jesus Christ told His followers to
go into all the world, making disciples of all nations and teaching people God's
way of life. This takes cooperation and organization. To effectively describe
the organized functioning of the people of God, the apostles used the analogy of
the human body.
"Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a
part of it. And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second
prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of
healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and
those speaking in different kinds of [languages]" (1 Corinthians 12:27-28,
Directing the work of the Church as its living Head is Jesus
Christ (Colossians 1:18). To emphasize how dependent the Church is on His
leadership and inspiration, Jesus compares Himself to a vine: "I am the
vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit;
for without Me you can do nothing" (John 15:5). The success of the Church
is dependent on the power and inspiration it receives from Jesus Christ.
Functions within the Body of Christ are established by Him
"to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of
Christ" (Ephesians 4:11-12, NRSV).
Paul tells us that "there are varieties of gifts, but the
same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there
are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in
everyone" (1 Corinthians 12:4-6, NRSV).
Spiritual leadership in the Church
Among the gifts Christ gives His Church are gifts of spiritual
leadership: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers (Ephesians
4:11). They are entrusted with the responsibility of teaching, nourishing,
protecting and building the Church. Godly character and exemplary spiritual
qualifications are required of those entrusted with spiritual leadership (1
Timothy 3:1-10; Titus 1:5-9).
These are to lovingly shepherd God's flock (John 21:15-17) so
that all members of this spiritual body may "come to the unity of the faith
and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the
stature of the fullness of Christ" (Ephesians 4:13).
They are to lead the people of God to work together in
unity—to love, respect and support each other. "But God has combined the
members of the body and has given greater honour to the parts that lacked it, so
that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have
equal concern for each other" (1 Corinthians 12:24-25, NIV).
Those who are led by Jesus Christ recognize a common Spirit in
each other—the very Spirit of God, which makes them the people of God.
It should lead them to work together in unity to accomplish
the mission Christ gave the Church as its ministry when He said: "Go
therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of
the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all
things that I have commanded you . . ." (Matthew 28:19-20).
The Church that Christ built is that special body of people
who, led by God's Spirit, obey His commandments and are zealously committed to
accomplishing the commission Jesus Christ gave them.
The Historical Background of the Term
The Holman Bible Dictionary, in its article "Church,"
explains the background of the word church:
"Church is the English translation of the Greek word ekklesia. The use
of the Greek term prior to the emergence of the Christian church is important as
two streams of meaning flow from the history of its usage into the New Testament
understanding of church.
"First, the Greek term which basically means 'called out' was commonly
used to indicate an assembly of citizens of a Greek city and is so used in Acts
19:32, 39. The citizens who were quite conscious of their privileged status over
against slaves and noncitizens were called to the assembly by a herald and dealt
. . . with matters of common concern. When the early Christians understood
themselves as constituting a church, no doubt exists that they perceived
themselves as called out by God in Jesus Christ for a special purpose and that
their status was a privileged one in Jesus Christ (Eph. 2:19).
"Second, the Greek term was used more than one hundred times in the
Greek translation of the Old Testament in common use in the time of Jesus. The
Hebrew term (qahal) meant simply 'assembly' and could be used in a variety of
ways, referring for example to an assembling of prophets (1 Sam. 19:20),
soldiers (Num. 22:4), or the people of God (Deut. 9:10). The use of the term in
the Old Testament in referring to the people of God is important for
understanding the term 'church' in the New Testament.
"The first Christians were Jews who used the Greek translation of the
Old Testament. For them to use a self-designation that was common in the Old
Testament for the people of God reveals their understanding of the continuity
that links the Old and New Testaments. The early Christians understood
themselves as the people of the God who had revealed Himself in the Old
Testament (Heb. 1:1-2), as the true children of Israel (Rom. 2:28-29) with
Abraham as their father (Rom. 4:1-25), and as the people of the New Covenant
prophesied in the Old Testament (Heb. 8:1-13).
"As a consequence of this broad background of meaning in the Greek and
Old Testament worlds, the term 'church' is used in the New Testament of a local
congregation of called-out Christians, such as the 'church of God which is at
Corinth' (1 Cor. 1:2), and also of the entire people of God, such as in the
affirmation that Christ is 'the head over all things to the church, Which is his
body' (Eph. 1:22-23)" (emphasis added).
The book of Acts is an eyewitness account of the early Church from Christ's
death until about A.D. 60. Chapter 2 records the beginning of the Church, when
God sent His Spirit to 120 followers of Jesus Christ.
Many Bible readers are familiar with the miraculous events of that day—of
the house in which they met filling with the sound of a mighty wind and what
appeared to be tongues of fire alighting on those gathered there. Another
miracle occurred as those people, now filled with God's Spirit, began to speak
in the languages of people from many lands so that all could understand their
Often overlooked in this account is the day on which these events occurred,
the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1), one of the festivals God commanded for His
people many centuries before (Leviticus 23). In revealing these festivals, God
said that "these are My feasts . . . the feasts of the Lord, holy
convocations . . ." (verses 2, 4). God proclaimed that these festivals were
to be "a statute forever throughout your generations" (verses 14, 21,
The Gospels show that Jesus Christ kept the same festivals (Matthew 26:17-19;
John 7:10-14, 37-38). Both the book of Acts and Paul's letters show the apostles
keeping these festivals during the decades after Christ's crucifixion (Acts
2:1-4; 18:21; 20:6, 16; 27:9).
Most churches teach that the festivals were "nailed to the cross,"
that they were somehow annulled by Christ's death. Yet the unmistakable record
of the Bible is that the early Church continued to observe them, but with
greater grasp of their spiritual significance.
Speaking of one of these God-given feasts, the apostle Paul urged the church
in Corinth—a mixed group of gentile and Jewish believers—to "keep the
feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but
with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth" (1 Corinthians 5:8). Paul
clearly was referring to the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Leviticus 23:6;
Paul explained the significance of the Passover (1 Corinthians 5:7; Leviticus
23:5) and gave instructions on how to properly observe this ceremony (1
The many references in the Gospels, Acts and Paul's epistles prompt an
obvious question: Since Jesus, the apostles and the early Church kept these
days, why don't churches teach and observe them today? After all, Paul directly
tied the feasts to Jesus, His purpose and His sacrifice for mankind (1
The Gospels and the book of Acts are equally clear that Christ, the disciples
and the early Church kept the weekly Sabbath—from Friday evening to Saturday
evening, the seventh day of the week—as their day of rest and worship (Mark
6:2; Luke 4:16, 31-32; 13:10; Acts 13:14-44; 18:4). Jesus even called Himself
"Lord of the Sabbath" (Mark 2:28).
It was Jesus' custom to go to the synagogue every Sabbath to worship (Luke
4:16). Contrary to the teaching of those who say that Paul abandoned the
Sabbath, it was his custom, too, to go to the synagogue every Sabbath (Acts
17:1-3), using the opportunity to teach others about Jesus Christ.
The weekly Sabbath is another of God's festivals, like those mentioned
earlier. It is, in fact, the first of His feasts listed (Leviticus 23:1-4). It
is included in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:8-11; Deuteronomy 5:12-15).
As with God's other feasts, the Sabbath is ignored by the overwhelming
majority of churches. Rather than keeping the Sabbath as God commanded, most
churches meet on the first day of the week—Sunday—a day nowhere commanded in
the Bible as a day of worship. Why? If we are to observe any day as a weekly day
of rest and worship, shouldn't it be the same day Jesus Christ and the apostles
We find other differences in teaching and practice. Many churches teach that
obedience to God's law is unnecessary, that Christ kept it for us or it was
"nailed to the cross" with Christ. This is directly contrary to Jesus'
own words (Matthew 4:4; 5:17-19) and the teaching and practice of the apostles
(Acts 24:14; 25:8; Romans 7:12, 22; 1 Corinthians 7:19; 2 Timothy 3:15-17).
Following Christ's example, the apostles powerfully preached about Jesus
Christ's return to establish the coming Kingdom of God (Luke 4:43; 8:1; 21:27,
31; Acts 1:3; 8:12; 14:22; 19:8; 28:23, 31). But Paul warned that, even in his
day, some were already preaching "a different gospel" (2 Corinthians
11:4; Galatians 1:6).
We see much confusion in churches about what the gospel is. Most view it as a
message about Christ's birth, life and death without really understanding why He
came and why He had to die and without proclaiming the message of God's Kingdom
that Christ Himself taught (Mark 1:14-15).
Similarly, Jesus and the apostles did not teach that the righteous ascend to
heaven at death (John 3:13; Acts 2:29, 34), and they understood that man does
not possess an immortal soul (Ezekiel 18:4, 20; Matthew 10:28) that would spend
eternity in either heaven or hell.
Nowhere do we find popular religious holidays such as Christmas approved in
the Bible. The only time Easter is mentioned in the Bible (Acts 12:4, King James
Version), it is a blatant mistranslation of the Greek word for Passover. Lent
and its practices are nowhere found.
These are some of the major differences between the Christianity of the time
of Christ and the apostles and that commonly practiced today. Shouldn't you look
into your Bible to see if your beliefs and practices square with what Jesus
Christ and the apostles practiced and taught?