The Church Did Not Begin at Pentecost

Today marks the church’s celebration-remembrance of Pentecost. This isn’t a day privy to only certain portions of the church. It is one to be celebrated by all Christians.

There are a few different angles one could take in remembering the importance of Pentecost. The angle of the pouring out of God’s Spirit on all flesh – male/female, young/old, Jew/Gentile. There is the aspect of the empowering of God’s people for mission that the rule and grace of Christ be made known to all peoples. Then there’s the common notion that the church began on that great day of Pentecost.

But did the church begin on that remarkable day long ago?

First off, what is this thing we call Pentecost?

What one may not know is that this feast did not begin with Acts 2. It had actually been going on for quite some time. The Feast of Pentecost and the Jewish Feast of Weeks were synonymous. The word Pentecost comes from the Greek, meaning fiftieth. It was a Jewish feast that remembered the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai. The Hebrews came out of Egypt via the great exodus; they went through a kind of baptism as they crossed the sea. Now they stood at the foot of the mountain to receive the Torah of God, his instruction.

I’ve redeemed you, now here are the ways in which you are to live. –if Moses were to summarize things.

At that very first Pentecost at Mount Sinai the Torah was given on tablets of stone. The Hebrews pretty quickly broke the instruction (remember the golden calf) and we then read that 3,000 people were put to death. See Exodus 32 for the details.

So, fast forward many, many centuries to what we have recorded in Acts 2. Here at this celebration of Pentecost, 50 days after Christ’s resurrection, the Spirit was poured out, the Torah was written on the hearts of men and women, and immediately we see 3,000 were added as disciples of Jesus Christ.

Quite a contrast between the two, to say the least! I think the Jews would have easily caught these most unique details.

But back to the belief that the church began at Pentecost. I would offer that it did not launch then.

To back up this idea, some may point to the word church (or ekklesia in Greek) being used 3 different times in the Gospel of Matthew (once in Matt 16:18 and twice in Matt 18:17). So, in some sense, one might accept that the church began in “the New Testament times,” often referred to as “the church age.”

Yet, I still believe that misses the point.

Here’s what I’m getting at. Most know that the Old and New Testaments come to us primarily in two different languages. The OT in Hebrew; the NT in Greek. Not only that, but we normally read the text in English (of course). So, we can easily miss the nuances in word translations.

As noted above, the word “church” is ekklesia in the Greek. It was a word that could be used in general, public life that meant “a convened assembly of people.” For example, see Acts 19:32, 39, 41. And ekklesia is the word that the New Testament writers took up to describe God’s people, those who were marked by faith in Christ.

But this word actually exists in Hebrew as well, or its synonym. It’s the Hebrew word qahal. It means the same thing as ekklesia – “a convened assembly of people.”

Do you see why this etymological discussion is important when the “church” began?

Our word church comes from the Greek ekklesia, which is synonymous with the Hebrew word qahal. Thus, we are working with the same meaning across the 3 languages. This is why the Israelites could be referred to as an assembly (or congregation), literally an ekklesia. See Acts 7:38.

So when you turn to the Hebrew of the Old Testament, one finds Israel being called an assembly (a qahal). A few examples to look at: Ex 12:6; Deut 9:10; Judg 21:5; 2 Chron 6:3; Neh 8:2; and so on. And the word used in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, is, you guessed it, ekklesia.

And this is where the rubber meets the road.

What I’m trying to get us to see here is that the church, the ekklesia, the qahal of God did not begin at Pentecost. It had been going on since God formed a community of people long, long ago. We’ve got one larger narrative running across the whole of Scripture.

The qahal of God, his firstborn, which we read about in the Old Testament, was to be the community of people making known the rule of the one true God to all nations. They failed. Therefore, in steps the true firstborn, Messiah Jesus. And from the Messiah the ekklesia of God’s people, marked by faith in the faithful Messiah, continue on. But now this qahal, this ekklesia, this church is very clearly made up of both Jew and Gentile.

However, it’s still one group, one people. We didn’t begin some “church age” at Pentecost, nor in the New Testament. This church-ekklesia-qahal had been going on for a very long time.

Pentecost is a fantastic marker in the history of God’s work amongst humanity. But it was about fulfillment and enlargement – into the purposes of God. The Spirit was given for all, the mission of God was to go out to all, the community of God was to include all those marked by faith in Jesus.

We are continuing what started once upon a time. And we continue to live out this Pentecost feast today.

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