[by Greg Perry]
Request: I know, this article’s too long. I do welcome reproof and correction. But only if the correction relates to typos, grammar, or if you show me in the Bible where I erred. I really want that last kind of correction most.
(Sarcasm about to hit you!)
We all know the church began in Acts 2 at Pentecost. We know so because the Spirit of the Lord filled the people present there and they all spoke in other tongues but they understood each other. (The opposite of what occurred at the Tower of Babel.)
And it must be that the church as we know it today started precisely then because some Gentiles were present. Those Cretans!
Peter quoted Joel telling those at Pentecost exactly what was taking place:
- The church was formed!
- Gentiles can now be saved without proselytizing to Judaism!
- Americans can build all the churches they want!
We know all the church began at Pentecost in Acts 2 because, well…Everybody knows the church began in Acts 2. Everyone knows that!! [Yelling still louder] “EVERYBODY KNOWS THAT!!!”
And we have Peter quoting Joel telling us that the church would be formed when this all happened.
Only… Joel never said any of that. Joel only said all that would take place “in the last days.”
He never said anything about it being a new angle on God and that the church would be formed. Or that Gentiles would now be saved without becoming believing Jews. Or… stay with me here… or that God’s original plan for Israel might be put on hold for a while… He never once said that anywhere there at Pentecost.
Repeat after me: “Joel only said all he described would take place ‘in the last days.’”
And this is ultra-important: Peter never said that Joel’s prophecy was taking place right then! Peter quotes Joel, it seems as though it’s on the near horizon, but Peter never says Joel’s prophecy is being fulfilled right then at Pentecost. Still… We must use Joel’s prophecy as a guide somewhat. Joel’s prophecy is at the forefront of Peter’s thoughts there in Acts 2. It seemed to be vital right then in that timeframe but we cannot say that Joel’s prophecy was taking place right then. Other things are true but we can’t say it was Joel’s prophecy taking place. Still, if we discount Joel’s prophetic importance at Pentecost and we discount Joel’s audience, we discount Peter and God’s Word. Peter thought Joel’s prophecy was related to things going on at the time of Pentecost and so should we.
Since Acts 2’s events happened and since Peter’s inspired words were to quote Joel, then we have hard evidence they were in the “last days” due to what occurred at Pentecost. But we have no hard Biblical evidence that the church started then or that Gentiles had any part of God’s salvation plan at the time. And we have no soft Biblical evidence that the church started then either.
Let me be more clear: We have no evidence the church began at Pentecost.
Again… Everybody Knows the Church Began in Acts 2
The world-famous, ancient, wildly popular, critically acclaimed Neo-Christianized Hermeneutic that I recently made up explains itself this way: if most Christians believe it then it’s probably wrong.
Most Christians believe the church began at Pentecost. So, according to the Neo-Christianized Hermeneutic that belief is probably wrong.
Note: For the sake of this study, let’s call the “church today” or “today’s church” or “the church” something other than “church.” Is that okay? I like Paul’s term for us: the Body of Christ. Read just about any passage Paul wrote. You’ll see the terms “in Him” over and over. We are in him (positionally) when we’re saved. We are the Body of Christ with Him as the head.
What Does It Matter?
Why does it matter really when the Body of Christ, our place in the church, began as long as the Body of Christ (again, the church as we know ourselves) began at some point?
If the church today began at Pentecost, in Acts 2, then we need to pay attention to Acts 2 forward in history to get our specific marching instructions. This includes lots of signs and wonders we read about after Acts 2.
But if the church today – the Body of Christ – began at some other time, such as Acts 9, then Acts 2 through 8 are for us but not to us. We should read those passages in a different light than if God inspired them to us.
What Does the Bible Say?
Pentecost took place in Acts 2. What was it all about? When we don’t understand a verse, we often only have to look at the verses right before or after the one that confuses us. (Why don’t we remember to do that more often?)
In Acts 2, the Holy Spirit was poured out as follows:
Acts 2:1 – When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire distributing themselves, and they rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance. Now there were Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men from every nation under heaven. And when this sound occurred, the crowd came together, and were bewildered because each one of them was hearing them speak in his own language. They were amazed and astonished, saying, “Why, are not all these who are speaking Galileans?”
Continuing in Acts 2:8:
“And how is it that we each hear them in our own language to which we were born? Parthians and Medes and Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya around Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans [Cretans!] and Arabs—we hear them in our own tongues speaking of the mighty deeds of God.” And they all continued in amazement and great perplexity, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”
Yeah! What does all that mean? Well if only we had some Biblical clue close by.
And we do! In Acts 2: 14-16, I paraphrase Peter who basically said, “Do you all remember that prophecy in Joel about the Holy Spirit being poured out and that signs and wonders would occur? Well…. This is that.”
Here’s Peter’s precise statement:
Acts 2:14 – But Peter, taking his stand with the eleven, raised his voice and declared to them: “Men of Judea and all you who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you and give heed to my words. “For these men are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only the third hour of the day; but this is what was spoken of through the prophet Joel:”
Then Peter tells what Joel 2 said about what was taking place. Joel 2:28-32 tells about signs, wonders, darkness of the sun, lots of end times things, and he discusses that at that time the Holy Spirit would be poured forth on all mankind.
Would all mankind, believing Jews and Gentiles, have salvation? It doesn’t say anything about that. Would Gentiles only be saved? Never mentions anything like that.
But for our purposes, was this the start of the church today? Nothing in Acts 2 says that or even hints at it.
Note: Do I require that we assume a normal reading of a Bible passage is literal unless a normal reading renders it a metaphor of some kind? Yes. Yet, I don’t require that Acts 2 specifically and literally say “the church began at Pentecost” for the church to have began there. The problem is, to me, it says nothing remotely suggesting that’s when or where it happened. And nothing later suggests that from a contextual standpoint.
Doesn’t the notion of “primary application” (to whom Scripture is talking directly to or about) indicate this is still a plan primarily for Israel when Acts 2:22, the very next verse after Joel’s prophecy, begins with: “Men of Israel, listen to these words…” It sure sounds as though Peter’s talking to Israel, trying to get them to accept the fact that their Messiah was Jesus.
Acts 2:22-24 says:
“Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst, just as you yourselves know—this Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death. But God raised Him up again, putting an end to the agony of death, since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power.”
If only there was at least one other hint in Acts 2 that it’s still Israel’s plan and not a new church plan. Then we’d know.
And there is.
Luke (the writer of Acts) begins to close the chapter in Acts 2:36 with this:
“Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ—this Jesus whom you crucified.”
“all the house of Israel”? It sure seems to me as though Israel is still the focus as it’s been since Abraham through Acts 2 and even beyond! Odd, then, that Israel still seems to be the target audience in spite of the fact that both Joel 28 and Acts 2 says that some Gentiles will receive the Holy Spirit here at Pentecost. Is the inclusion of Gentiles in this phenomenon that signals the end days are close at hand mean anything about the church, the Body of Christ? No.
Is Israel the focus in the Body of Christ? No. Hmmm. Does Paul tell us that both Jew and Gentile share equal inheritance in the Body of Christ, the church, today when they become Christians? Yes.
How much of Joel was directed to us today, to the Body of Christ? None. All Scripture is for us but not all is to us.
Note: Turns out, if “last days” mean the end times were extremely close in Joel’s prophecy, then the fact it’s been 2,000 years and no end times have taken place can be a problem for some. I won’t address that here, although I see it not as a problem. I think the “last days” reference was literal and that the last days literally were close at hand with a tribulation coming rapidly. The fact it didn’t (unless you love mythology as much as Hank Hanegraaff and other preterists do) isn’t the focus here. Our focus for this study is only: Did the church begin at Pentecost? And the Pentecost verses sure indicate nothing but silence on the issue.
What Does Pentecost Even Mean?
Dr. Charles Ryrie, brilliant theologian, said this in his Balancing the Christian Life:
“Another very basic help to understanding the Bible—and one that is often overlooked—is an English dictionary. Words like ephah, ephod, spikenard, and timbrel are all defined in the dictionary. Even more theological terms like Pentecost, church, and mystery are given their theological meaning in the English dictionary. I am sure that many people do not understand the Bible simply because they do not know the meaning of the English words they are reading.”
(Charles Caldwell Ryrie, Balancing the Christian Life (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 1994), 70–71.)
So what does Pentecost actually mean?
How many of us have read about it, listened to sermons about it, and even possibly taught about it without having a clue to what the English word represents?
The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary defines Pentecost this way: The Greek name for the Jewish Feast of Weeks, deriving from its occurrence 50 days after Passover…
(Mark J. Olson, “Pentecost,” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 222.)
“Jewish feast”? I thought this was for the church! For Gentiles! Who let the Jews in???
The answer is that it was for Jewish believers. Their Messiah had come, died, and rose from the dead. It was about time for the plan put into place in Genesis 12 (actually, since Genesis 3:15 if you want to be exceedingly accurate) to begin soon. Pentecost is linked directly to everything Jewish.
Ephesians 3 is an ultra-important chapter for us today. Paul talks about a “mystery.” Paul talks about this “mystery” a lot throughout a lot of his writings.
Ask just about any Christian or preacher what the “mystery” is that Paul talks about all the time and you get responses such as these:
- “ … “
- “Mystery? Well, we don’t know, it’s a mystery!”
- “That… we are alive?”
- “Jesus died for my sins.”
And how on earth could we ever know what Ephesians 3 means when Paul talks about this all-important “mystery”? Perhaps we could… and I don’t want to be too crazy here, but perhaps we could simply read what Paul says it is in Ephesians 3:4:
By referring to this, when you read you can understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which in other generations was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed to His holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit; to be specific, that the Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel, of which I was made a minister, according to the gift of God’s grace which was given to me according to the working of His power. To me, the very least of all saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ, and to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God who created all things;…
I guess my big question is this: Was Paul given the charge to go to the Gentiles and preach the “Gospel of grace” as he calls it elsewhere? Yes.
Was anybody else ever single-handily given this clear charge? No.
Could the fact that this “mystery” that both Jews and Gentiles are equal heirs, revealed to Paul by Jesus Christ, was never before Paul hinted at before anywhere, is it possible that Paul was the first to preach it? It’s not only possible, it’s a requirement if you believe Paul. The church as we know it – the Body of Christ – was never before hinted at in Scripture before Paul.
This means not in Joel.
This means not in Acts 2.
This means the Body of Christ, the church today, could never have began before Paul was saved in Acts 9.
Again, does it matter? Completely 100% it matters. The church could not have began before Acts 9 because Paul was saved then.
But Perry, Did You Forget About Acts 2:38?
Acts 2:38 says this:
Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
These were all Jews, not Gentiles! Peter is directing this to the House of Israel. How do we know this? Because two verses earlier he says that. In Acts 2:36 we see:
“Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ—this Jesus whom you crucified.”
He’s right on track with his plan, to save a believing Israel, to inform them of their Messiah whom most rejected, to take them into the kingdom that was still close at hand (Joel’s “last days”).
Why should we practice a Jewish requirement??? Do we require circumcision on the eighth day, do we require the keeping the Sabbath, do we sacrifice animals?
Christ was already risen when this was written! Compare to far later in Acts 10:48 where they did not have to be water baptized first to receive the Holy Spirit. Water baptism was solely a Jewish thing long before your local Baptist church built their baptistery. It still was a Jewish thing in Acts 2:38. Jewish believers had to be believe and be water baptized. Unless you want to change the clear words of the Bible, specifically, Acts 2:38.
Just in Case, Could the Church have Began in Acts 3?
Lots of Acts 3 wording indicates it’s all purely for Israel. More talk trying to convince Israel that their Messiah was Jesus. Yes, unlike most of the Hebrew Bible (known as the Old Testament), Acts 3 is trying to capture a believing Israel, and that belief being Jesus.
But Gentiles? The church as we know it? No.
Was the Church Started in Acts 4?
Nothing here but trying to get Israel to believe still. The Sadducees certainly didn’t believe in a risen Jesus. They were “greatly disturbed” (they certainly were disturbed!) and they threw Peter and John in jail for preaching a risen Christ. Who were they preaching to when this happened? Acts 3:12 tells us it was to “men of Israel.”
These aren’t the Gentiles you’re looking for.
So… Chapter 5 the Church Began?
Nothing about it.
Well, the word “church” is used. It’s referring to Jewish believers; there is no other options available. The law was in effect still, baptism required, the whole thing. No person yet raised up to present the “Gospel of grace” to the Gentiles.
Surely the Church Began in Acts 6
All throughout Acts 6, we sure see lots of Jewish words. Hellenistic Jews (Greek Jews, but not Greek Gentiles). Native Hebrews.
Also, Acts 6:7 says, “…and a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith.”
Finally, priests are mentioned! Must be Roman Catholic priests perhaps? (A big resounding No.) These are priests of Israel, as Jewish as Jewish can get and fortunately, many were becoming obedient to the faith, meaning believing in the risen Jesus, getting water baptized, all of it. Praise God! But no Gentiles in the mix.
Stephen, a believing Jew, starts telling the Hebrew leaders the way it is. He quickly runs through a history of God’s dealings with Israel. The Hebrews hate hearing it and they still recalled how he said this statement in Acts 6:14: “…for we have heard him say that this Nazarene, Jesus, will destroy this place and alter the customs which Moses handed down to us.”
Note: That was future tense by the way. Jesus will destroy those customs.
So they decided to kill Stephen. This would still be a pattern 2,000 years later when tolerant liberals want to kill Christians today for stating truths about God.
At the end of Acts 7 we see Jesus, in Heaven, getting angry.
Oh, you can deny that ever happens. You can deny, as a bunch of dead Germans did, that God has no emotions. (I assume those dead Germans would black out the shortest verse in the Bible: Jesus wept.)
In Acts 7:55, Jesus stood up while at the right hand of God the Father. This means He stood in judgment. They were going to stone Stephen for spreading heresy even though he had spoken 100% truth. But Stephen wasn’t a heretic. Jesus didn’t like what was happening to Stephen at all. He stood up in judgment.
And an amazing amount of things changed right then. But those changes – other than the Body of Christ – aren’t the focus of this article.
In Acts 8 we learn of the most sinful sinner on earth, He was named Saul. We know he was the worst sinner because he tells us later he was. And he attempted to kill every single person who believed Jesus was the risen Messiah. And he was frightfully thorough in his quest to do just that.
You’ll see mention of “church” in Acts 8. Odd, if it means the church as we know it and not believing Israel because you’d think Scripture would mention where that church started. It doesn’t. Keep in mind that Jesus’ earthly ministry was only to the Jews. Once risen, they needed to understand He was resurrected. But it seems as though the believing Jews are still the goal in Acts 8 because we are not told of any change yet in something called the church or Body of Christ.
That wicked Saul, who became Paul in Acts 9 after getting saved, sure tells us about a change in Ephesians 3. Remember that from earlier? He says that a “mystery” that was never before revealed was given to him by Jesus. That mystery is that now Gentiles are equal heirs with God. Paul goes on later to tell us, the Body of Christ, that he was given the ministry (teaching requirement) to promote the Gospel of grace to Gentiles.
The Church Revisited
Does the Bible say the church began in Acts 9 when Paul was saved? No. But we know from reading Acts 2-8 that the church didn’t begin anywhere there. And we know from Paul’s writings that the church, the Body of Christ, was in play during his ministry and that it was all given to him and never revealed before it was revealed to him.
The Bottom Line
A mountain of evidence says the church as we know it – the Body of Christ – started after Acts 2.
A mountain of evidence says the church as we know it could not have started before Paul was saved in Acts 9 because nobody else ever knew anything about Gentiles being equal heirs to Jews in the Body of Christ.
There’s not even a molehill – let alone a mountain – of evidence that suggests the church began anywhere close to Acts 2 at Pentecost.
But… everybody seems to know it did anyway. Because, well, that’s what everybody says all the time.