To most people, a church is a building where people meet. But in Scripture, the word refers to a group of people—those called to follow Jesus Christ. It's important that we understand the spiritual heritage of these people special to God.
"But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy" (1 Peter:2:9-10).
Jesus Christ founded the New Testament Church in the city of Jerusalem on the biblical festival of Pentecost 50 days after His resurrection from the dead.
Between the time of His resurrection and the founding of His Church, Christ appeared to His apostles over the course of the first 40 days, further enlightening them concerning the nature of the coming Kingdom of God (Acts:1:3). During that time "He commanded them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the Promise of theFather" (verse 4). He explained to them, "You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth" (verse 8).
Later He inspired the apostle Paul to explain the crucial importance of the receiving of the Holy Spirit in the process of becoming a truly converted member of His Church: "Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His. And if Christ is in you, the body is dead [symbolically] because of sin, but the Spirit is life because of righteousness" (Romans:8:9-10).
Through the dwelling of the Holy Spirit within Christians, Jesus Christ and God the Father actively participate in their lives to strengthen and inspire them in their obedience and service to God (Philippians 2:12-13).
Therefore the Church, the spiritually transformed body of believers, began when Christ's apostles received the Holy Spirit, just as He had promised (Acts:2:1-4). The Spirit of God instantly changed them. A great many who heard them realized they had received special inspiration and power from God.
The apostles at once began preaching to those gathered in the temple area in Jerusalem on that Day of Pentecost that Jesus of Nazareth was the long-awaited Messiah—or, in Greek, the Christ (Acts:2:36). They urged their listeners to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus (verse 38).By the end of that day about 3,000 people were added to the Church (verse 41).
The Church that Jesus had promised to build had begun! Its members were repentant people who "gladly received" the truth of God (verse 41) and were baptized (immersed into water)—symbolizing their acceptance of the sacrificial death of Christ for forgiveness of their sins and the burial and washing away of their old, sinful ways.
The biblical view of the Church
As we examine the Church Jesus built, we see how the word church is used in the Bible. Throughout the Scriptures church and congregation refer to people, never to a building. The Church (the Body of Christ) or the church (a congregation of members of the Church) is made up of people called to follow Jesus Christ.
The concept of people assembling to learn the teachings of God is embedded in the writings of the Old and New Testaments. It is closely associated with one of the Ten Commandments, the law concerning the Sabbath.
During times of general obedience to God, the ancient Israelites assembled every Sabbath as a congregation. The seventh-day Sabbath (defined in the Bible as lasting from sunset on Friday until sunset on Saturday) is a "holy convocation"—a sacred assembly. God ordained that "six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation" (Leviticus:23:3). The New International Version translates the same verse, "The seventh day is a Sabbath of rest, a day of sacred assembly."
The equivalent concept—a congregation of disciples assembling to learn God's Word—was practiced by the earliest Christians. Notice Acts:11:26 regarding the apostles Barnabas and Saul (better known as Paul): "So it was that for a whole year they assembled with the church and taught a great many people. And the disciples [Greek mathetes, meaning learners or pupils] were first called Christians in Antioch."
The Church, then, is made up of disciples or students of Jesus Christ who convene to receive God's instruction.
The Bible is the textbook for these students of Christ. Paul explains that "all Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable ... for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy:3:16-17).
The teachers are the duly appointed elders of Jesus Christ who preach God's Word (Romans:10:14-15; 2 Timothy:4:2). God holds them accountable for "accurately handling the word of truth" (2 Timothy:2:15, New American Standard Bible) and for "being examples to the flock" (1 Peter:5:3; 1 Timothy:3:2-7).
The Church, however, is far more than just a spiritual assembly of students who gather to be instructed for their own benefit.
The special people of God
The Church of God can best be described as the special people of God, called and chosen by Him to receive salvation (eternal life) as the children of God. Their hope and future are inseparably tied to the return of Jesus Christ.
God calls—invites—people from all walks of life to become His servants. The apostle Paul, however, observed that the proud and powerful rarely repent and become members of the Church (1 Corinthians:1:26-29). They tend to be more reluctant to forsake the sinful ways of the world.
Those who willingly respond to God's call are sealed as His holy people by receiving His Spirit (Ephesians:1:13). The Bible frequently refers to them as the saints (holy people) or the righteous.
The apostle Paul explained that "Jesus Christ...gave Himself for us, that He might...purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works" (Titus:2:11-14).
The apostle Peter likewise calls members of the Church "a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, [God's] own special people...who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy" (1 Peter:2:9-10). This harkens back to the role given to God's nation of Israel in the Old Testament (see Exodus:19:5-6).
Christians are special to God in the sense that they are cherished for their faith and obedience (Ephesians:5:24, 29)—not because God regards them as inherently more worthy than others (Romans:2:11; 3:23).
As is clear from the tie to ancient Israel, the idea of a special people, chosen to be the servants of God, is not unique in Scripture to the Christian era. God inspired the introduction of the concept in the earliest pages of the Bible—well before the existence of Israel.
Since His creation of Adam and Eve, God has worked with particular people. Between the time of our first parents and the first appearance of Jesus Christ, God called and worked with many men and women, including the prophets.
God counts the patriarchs and prophets of the Old Testament among His special people. Jesus spoke of a time when "Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets [will be] in the kingdom of God" (Luke:13:28). The Church itself is "built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone" (Ephesians:2:20).
Hebrews 11 explains why certain outstanding people in the Old Testament were special to God. The traits they held in common were their obedience and their unshakable faith in their Creator.
The earliest roots of the Church
Ancient Israel, a nation descended from the patriarch Abraham, was, as already mentioned, also God's holy people. Moses further told the Israelites, "For you are a holy people to the Lord your God, and the Lord has chosen you to be a people for Himself, a special treasure above all the peoples who are on the face of the earth" (Deuteronomy:14:2). They were God's "congregation" (Acts:7:38) or "church" (King James Version).
God promised Abraham in the first book of the Bible that he would be the father of a special, chosen people.
The Bible describes the extraordinary relationship between Abraham, Christ and the Church. The New Testament begins by reminding us that Jesus is the descendant of Israel's King David and of Abraham (Matthew:1:1)
Why was Abraham such a significant figure in the Bible?
Abraham, who lived almost 2,000 years before Jesus Christ, was the patriarch of the people of Israel through his son Isaac and his grandson Jacob, whose name God changed to Israel. We read of Abraham as "the father of all those who believe" (Isaiah:51:1-2; Romans:4:1, 11-12). He shines as an example of faith in and obedience to God. Because of his obedience, God gave him a promise—a sacred covenant—that he would be the father of a great nation (Genesis:13:16; 15:5; 17:2-6).
God's promise to Abraham involved much more than the promise of many descendants. The apostle Peter reminded his Jewish countrymen of the importance of God's promise to Abraham: "You are sons of the prophets, and of the covenant which God made with our fathers, saying to Abraham, 'And in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed'" (Acts:3:25; Genesis:22:18).
The apostle Paul explained that the promised "Seed" in the ultimate, spiritual sense is Jesus Christ, the Savior of mankind: "Now to Abraham and his Seed were the promises made. He does not say, 'And to seeds,' as of many, but as of one, 'And to your Seed,' who is Christ" (Galatians:3:16).
The spiritual heirs of Abraham
Only through Christ can anyone claim the eternal inheritance promised to Abraham's seed: "And if you are Christ's, then you are [also] Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise" (Galatians:3:29).
Christians, those who make up the New Testament Church, are Abraham's spiritual descendants, being united in one body with the promised singular Seed, Jesus Christ.They are the heirs of the eternal inheritance promised to Abraham. This concept must be clear in our minds if we are to fully appreciate the biblically defined and sanctioned role of the Church Jesus Christ built.
One might ask: Are all of Abraham's physical descendants—all descendants of the tribes of Israel—included in the seed that is Christ and His Church?
Notice how Jesus handles this question when confronted by some who, although descended from Abraham, rejected Jesus as the Messiah: "They answered and said to Him, 'Abraham is our father.' Jesus said to them, 'If you were Abraham's children, you would do the works of Abraham'" (John:8:39).
Not all of Abraham's physical descendants followed his example of faithfulness and obedience. Paul explained: "I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom pertain the adoption [or sonship as God's children], the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises" (Romans:9:1-4).
Paul explains that more is required to be counted among "the children of promise" than being physically descended from Abraham: "For they are not all Israel who are of Israel, nor are they all children because they are the seed of Abraham ... Those who are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God; but the children of the promise are counted as the seed [of Abraham]" (verses 6-8).
Israel and circumcision redefined
Two things stand out in these words of Jesus and Paul. First, only those who are the "children of promise," those who "do the works of Abraham," are considered to be Abraham's spiritual seed as members of the Church Jesus built. Second, those in the Church have received the status of being the children of God. Therefore the Church is the "Israel of God" (Galatians:6:16), the heirs of salvation.
Paul explains why the spiritual heirs of God's Kingdom take precedence over the physical descendants of Abraham as the recipients of salvation: "For circumcision [the ancient sign of the covenant with Abraham's physical descendants] is indeed profitable if you keep the law; but if you are a breaker of the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision" (Romans:2:25). Disobedience nullifies the value of physical circumcision.
"Therefore, if an uncircumcised man keeps the righteous requirements of the law, will not his uncircumcision be counted as circumcision? And will not the physically uncircumcised, if he fulfills the law, judge you who, even with your written code and circumcision, are a transgressor of the law?" (verses 26-27). People who are acceptable to God keep His laws.
"For he is not a Jew [in the context of the eternal inheritance promised to Abraham] who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God" (verses 28-29).
The conclusion of the matter is that faith and obedience from the heart, not one's physical parentage, are essential to please God. Only those who share Abraham's heart—whose hearts are spiritually circumcised (Deuteronomy:30:6)—are the heirs of the spiritual promises made to Abraham. For this reason, salvation is available to people of all nations who are willing to be circumcised in the heart. It is spiritual circumcision of the heart, not physical circumcision of the flesh, that identifies the spiritual children of God.
God's obedient people
Reaffirming the promise He made to Abraham, God told his son Isaac, "In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed" (Genesis:26:4). Notice that God chose him for this honor "because Abraham obeyed My voice and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws" (verse 5).
Abraham's attitude of obedience, coupled with his complete faith in God, distinguished him as God's friend forever (2 Chronicles:20:7). As the apostle James states: "Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, 'Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness' and he was called God's friend" (James:2:21-23, NIV).
Things haven't changed. Those who are God's "special people" still both believe and obey God, just as Abraham did. Paul wrote to the church in Corinth about tests of faith: "For to this end I also wrote, that I might put you to the test, whether you are obedient in all things" (2 Corinthians:2:9).
Paul explains that one's obedience, like Abraham's, must spring from within—from the mind and the heart: "For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ, and being ready to punish all disobedience when your obedience is fulfilled" (2 Corinthians:10:4-6).
God's people are special to Him because they, like Abraham, trust Him and wholeheartedly obey Him.
Grafted into the Israel of God
We have already seen that Paul regarded the gentiles (non-Israelites) in the Church as spiritual Jews, even though they were not of Israelite descent physically and were literally uncircumcised. As Christians, they became an integral part of "the Israel of God" (Galatians:6:16).
What makes this remarkable relationship possible between gentiles and spiritual Israel? Paul wrote to gentile converts: "Therefore remember that you, once Gentiles in the flesh, ... were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near [to the commonwealth of Israel and the covenants of promise] by the blood of Christ" (Ephesians:2:11-13).
In Romans:11:13-21 Paul uses the analogy of an olive tree to represent God's people (compare Psalm:52:8; 128:3) to explain how converted gentiles can be members of the "Israel of God." He shows that gentiles, "being a wild olive tree, were grafted in among them [circumcised Israelites], and with them became a partaker of the root and fatness of the olive tree" (Romans:11:17).
Paul plainly shows that God's inclusion of gentiles in His special people does not mean He favors gentiles over Israelites. "For if you were cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, who are natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree?" (verse 24).
God plays no favorites. In this analogy, even those who are Israelites by physical descent have to be grafted into the tree—having been cut off due to disobedience. Thankfully, there is a way to be grafted back in—and that way is the same way available to gentiles.
Jew and gentile alike enjoy access to God's promises through Christ: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians:3:28).
The special and holy people of God, like Abraham, are obedient people—selected from all nations—who have chosen not to live by bread alone, "but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God" (Matthew:4:4). Their trust in God comes from the heart and is demonstrated by their obedient actions. God's Spirit works in them to produce faith and obedience, making them special to God.