by William J. Stewart
Previously we noted several prophecies in the Old Testament about the coming of the Lord’s church, and also saw the message which was spoken during the time of Jesus’ ministry upon the earth, that “…the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Today, we turn our attention to consider the New Testament church, no longer in prophecy, but now in reality, as revealed in the writings of the New Testament; primarily, the book of Acts.
THE BEGINNING OF THE CHURCH
It is important that we understand that Jesus equated the church and the kingdom to each other. In Matthew 16:18-19, the Lord said to Peter, “And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” The Lord did not change the subject of His discussion from one verse to the next. The church which He said He would build in verse 18 is the kingdom which Peter would receive keys to in verse 19. The Lord equated the church and the kingdom.
On the first Pentecost following the Lord’s death, burial, and resurrection, Peter, in Jerusalem with the other apostles, uses the keys to the kingdom, opening the door for those who would respond to the call of God. One that day, over 3,000 responded in obedience, and were added to the Lord’s church (Acts 2:41, 47).
Last week, we noted that Peter quoted from Joel 2:28-32 in the process of teaching the people. Upon hearing that Jesus was both Lord and Christ, those who were penitent asked what they should do. Peter responded, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of the Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.” (Acts 2:38-39). Notice a couple of things here. First, Peter revealed to the people what was necessary for them to come to the Lord, and thus be added to the church. In doing so, he employed the keys to the kingdom which the Lord said He would give him. And second, do you see that after telling them what they must do, Peter proceeds to again reference the prophecy of Joel, paraphrasing the prophet’s message?
|v 38 – “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins…”||v 32 – “And it shall come to pass that whoever calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved.|
|v 38 – “…and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”||v 28, 29 – “…I will pour out My Spirit … on My menservants and on My maidservants I will pour out My Spirit in those days…”|
|v 39 – “For the promise is to you and to your children…”||v 28 – “…your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see vision…”|
|v 39 – “…and to all who are afar off…”||v 28 – “…on all flesh…”|
|v 39 – “…as many as the Lord our God will call.”||v 32 – “…among the remnant whom the LORD calls.”|
The answer to their question (“Men and brethren, what shall we do?”) was in the message of the prophet. Peter simply referred back to the message which God has so many years ago spoken, and revealed how they were to call upon the name of the Lord to be saved (namely, by repenting and being baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus).
THE GROWTH OF THE CHURCH
Notice the immense growth experienced by the early church. As mentioned above, on the day of Pentecost, the day upon which the church began, over 3,000 were added by the Lord (Acts 2:41, 47). Shortly thereafter, the number had increased to more than 5,000 (Acts 4:4). And to this point, the church had not yet reached beyond the city of Jerusalem.
Following persecutions, we’re told that the disciples “…went everywhere preaching the word.” (Acts 8:4). These were the common folk, like you and I, for the apostles remained in Jerusalem (Acts 8:1). As a result, the message of Christ was spread through the regions of Judea and Samaria; and eventually throughout the provinces of Rome, even to Rome itself. But there is much more.
Notice the word of our Lord in Matthew 24:14. He declared, “…this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come.” Many will tell us that this text is still to be fulfilled, and that once the gospel has been spread through the world, the Lord will return. Certainly, we need to be busy spreading the gospel today, and it ought to be our desire to take the message of Christ to the whole world, but these words of Jesus were fulfilled in the first century. In the same context, Jesus said, “Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place.” The spread of the gospel, the end which would come, the destruction and desolation which Jesus spoke of ALL took place in the first century, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem at the hand of the Romans.
Did I just infer that the gospel was preached throughout the entire world in the first century? Yes, I certainly did. And by that, I do not mean, as some do, the “known” or “Roman” world. Jesus said it would be “preached in all the world”, not in the Roman world. A little over 30 years later, the apostle Paul wrote the following to the church at Colosse: …if indeed you continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast, and are not moved away from the hope of the gospel which you heard, which was preached to every creature under heaven, of which I, Paul, became a minister. (Colossians 1:23)
Did Paul just mean that the gospel had been preached in all the Roman provinces? Surely not. He draws upon the Lord’s command for global evangelism (“Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature…”, Mark 16:15), and then emphatically says that it “…was preached to every creature under heaven…” Peru and China are as much under heaven as Palestine and Colosse. In the span of 32-34 years, according to the word of the inspired writer, the gospel was spread through the whole world. In a day of high speed travel and information transfer, what is our excuse?
THE KINGDOM PRESENT AND THE KINGDOM TO COME
In Jesus’ example to the disciples of how to pray, the Lord said to the Father,“Thy kingdom come.” (Matthew 6:10). Since the church which Jesus built is the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 16:18-19), folks today need not (and ought not) pray for the Lord’s kingdom to come. It is present. There are several verses in Scripture which speak of the present kingdom, it’s existence and it’s nature.
The Lord spoke with Pilate about His kingship and kingdom, and revealed that it was not an earthly kingdom, but rather a spiritual kingdom (John 18:36). It is not in competition with the kingdom’s of men, but is above the kingdoms of men (Isaiah 2:1-3). Likewise, the apostle Paul in writing to the Romans spoke of a kingdom which “…is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 14:17). God’s kingdom is not governed by carnal desires and attitudes, but demands a holy and upright disposition; a focus which exceeds the temporal and clings to things eternal.
When Paul wrote to the brethren at Colosse, he called upon them to give thanks, for God “…has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love…” (Colossians 1:13). The apostle is speaking about a kingdom which is present, and in which we now can dwell, freed from the power of Satan. That kingdom is the Lord’s church.
Again, the apostle John wrote in the Revelation, that Jesus “…has made us kings and priests to His God and Father…” (Revelation 1:6). John does not speak of a relationship which is not our’s at the present. Our Lord is reigning (Acts 2:32-35), and we have become a “royal priesthood” in His kingdom (1 Peter 2:9).
But the Scriptures still speak of a kingdom to come; not the spiritual house of God which at present can be found throughout the world, built up to give praise and glory to God (1 Peter 2:4-5), but a “heavenly kingdom” which God will preserve us for in eternity (2 Timothy 4:18). This present kingdom, the Lord Jesus will deliver to His Father (1 Corinthians 15:24), which in the mere twinkling of an eye will become a kingdom into which neither flesh nor blood can enter, but is wholly spiritual and eternal in nature (1 Corinthians 15:50). God’s aim is to give us this kingdom (Hebrews 12:28); our aim should be to live in such a fashion that an entrance will be abundantly supplied to us into the everlasting kingdom of God (2 Peter 1:11).