|"HOW MANY CHURCHES EXISTED DURING THE ACTS?"
Did Christ build two distinct "churches" during
Does the Bible teach that there were two "Christian" churches
existing side by side in the book of Acts?
(i.e., a "kingdom" church
that was gradually replaced by
the "Body of Christ")
The word "ekklesia" is a general term
that can refer to Christ's
"GATHERED" believers in different ages and dispensations.
It can even refer to mobs of unbelievers!
However, not all of these "gathered" believers
were members of the "Body of Christ"
with a sphere of blessing "in heavenly places."
Finally, the truth of Christ's atonement is the foundation
for ALL of His "gathered"
believers, and that does not change
How many "Churches" existed from Pentecost to the present day?
Many bible teachers correctly understand that the early church at Pentecost was composed of Jews only (Acts 2:5), and no Gentiles, and that the revealed "sphere of blessing" of the early church was a millennial kingdom on earth and not a blessing "in the heavenlies," Because of this some bible teachers are inclined to conclude that two distinct "churches" must have existed simultaneously during the Acts period, a kingdom church (which began at Pentecost) and a grace church which began subsequent to Pentecost. So, according to this theory, as the gospel of the uncircumcision committed to Paul took hold, the kingdom gospel, (the gospel of the circumcision), committed to the twelve gradually faded away during the Acts. Thus, the early kingdom ekklesia began to fade away and a brand new ekklesia had its own distinct birthday to take the place of the church which Christ began to build on the day of Pentecost.
There are two basic positions taken by those who see two separate churches coexisting during the Acts period. We label these as positions 1 and 2.
Position 1: The present day church began not at Pentecost but at the conversion of Saul of Tarsus at Acts 9. He was the first member of the 'grace' church.
Position 2: The present day church began at Acts 13:2 when the Holy Spirit selected Barnabas and Saul, and they were commended by the disciples of Antioch to preach the gospel of 'grace.'
According to the dual-church concept, (positions 1 & 2), as God presented the kingdom gospel to Israel they very soon began to reject the message that was preached to them at Pentecost. Once Israel began to reject the truth, God raised up the apostle Paul to preach the message of grace, and a new 'church' was formed, either at Saul's conversion, or at the commissioning of Barnabas and Saul (Paul). (Acts 13) This new church existed alongside the original church that had begun at Pentecost. According to this theory the new 'grace' church gradually gained momentum while the original 'kingdom' church gradually faded away during the Acts period.
There are also two positions taken by those who believe that National Israel's final forfeiture of God's offer of the millennial kingdom took place at Acts 28:28, and that the calling and heavenly terminus of God's present-day 'gathering' or 'church' originated after national Israel relinquished the wonderful offer God had given them. Many who hold this stance also hold that the 'church' which exists today had a completely different birthday than that which existed during the Acts period, (while Israel's kingdom hope was active). We label these as positions 3 and 4.
Position 3: The present day church began after the Holy Spirit's prophecy of blindness (Isa. 6:9-10) fell on the Nation Israel at Acts 28:28, and the offer of the millennial kingdom to Israel was withdrawn. This church is described in Paul's 'prison epistles' (primarily Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians).
Position 4: The present day church began at an undisclosed time following Acts 28:28, perhaps near Paul's second imprisonment, or perhaps after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. They hold that this undisclosed time is consistent with the 'secret nature' of the present dispensation.
All four of the above positions concede that "some kind of church" began at Pentecost, but that a new church had a historical beginning after Pentecost, at either Acts 9, Acts 13, Acts 28:28, or at an undisclosed time following Acts 28:28 (depending on which of the four positions are held).
Is the word "church" (ekklesia) being misunderstood?
I have pondered the reasoning and scriptural references put forth in support of 'two church' theories, but fail to see a convincing argument that any new church (ekklesia) had a definite historical starting point other than the ekklesia (gathering) that Christ promised to "build" in Matthew 16:18-19, which assembly had its historical beginning on the Jewish Feast of Weeks (Pentecost). Or, to put it more scripturally, it was on the day of Pentecost that the Lord Jesus began to "gather" those who believed He was the Christ, the Son of the living God, and to "build" them onto Himself according to that profession of faith by Peter. (See Mat. 16:16) [Note: E. W. Bullinger believed that the 'church' promised in Matthew 16 will be born in the future]:
"The Church of God is now a spiritual building IN Christ: but the Ecclesia of Matt. xvi. 18 is the future, corporate, saved 'remnant' of Israel." E. W. Bullinger, How to Enjoy the Bible, p. 149
In our article on the meaning of the word "church" (ekklesia) we attempted to show by Scripture that the nature of the kingdom assembly which began at Pentecost changed dramatically when God, by His longsuffering, attempted to provoke Israel to jealousy by placing Gentiles in a joint Olive Tree blessing which, according to prophecy, only Israel would normally have enjoyed. And it changed again at Acts 28:28 when Jerusalem and the Diaspora at Rome had with finality told God "we will not have this man to reign over us," (Luke 19:14, & see Gen. 37:8), at which time the Holy Spirit through Paul quoted Isaiah 6:9-10 for the final time and cast God's judicial sentence of blindness upon that covenant nation. However, there seems to be little if any clear evidence that God began a new ekklesia at any of these various significant eschatological turning points. On the contrary, there are strong, easy to understand, arguments indicating that as God began to 'dispense' new features of truth to His kingdom 'gathering,' the Jewish 'kingdom saints' gladly accepted these new truths as soon as they were presented.
For example, God changed His 'Israel only' program when He commanded Peter to preach to the household of Cornelius (Acts 10), and this new plan of God was accepted by the Jewish believers then in existence):
"And when they heard these things they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, Then indeed God has to the Gentiles also granted repentance to life." (Acts 11:18)
Thus these Jewish members of the Pentecostal Kingdom ekklesia were faithful to the new light afforded them and received the reward of that faithfulness by participating in the new enhanced blessings revealed to them. In this manner the existing "gathering" (church) evolved under the hand of the Sovereign One. No new ekklesia was necessarily created at this point. However, the nature of the ekklesia began to change dramatically, because 'unclean' Gentiles had now been baptized and were therefore declared 'dispensationally clean' and were grafted into the Olive Tree blessing previously enjoyed only by members of the covenant nation Israel (Rom. 11). But it was still the same "church" (gathering) seen at Matthew 16:18-19 and at Acts 2. This act did not trigger the birth of a new "church."
Likewise, after the Holy Spirit blinded and deafened National Israel at Acts 28:28, and withdrew the offer of the earthly kingdom from them, did the believing Jews and Greeks who had been 'baptized' into one body "in the power of one Spirit" (1 Cor. 12:13, J.N.D. translation), lose their church status? No, they continued to be "gathered" to God in the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is the way the word ekklesia is used in scripture. At whatever historical time from Pentecost onward those who believe on the Lord Jesus are part of His church, because the word ekklesia is a general term which simply means a "gathering" of people, whether of believers, mob protesters, or a local government meeting (Acts 19:32, 39, 41).
Soon after the blinding of Israel at Acts 28:28 and the offer of national Israel's earthly kingdom was withdrawn, Paul penned the Epistle to the Ephesians outlining an entirely new sphere of blessing for these believers, "in the heavenlies in Christ." These believers who "gathered" to the blessed name of the Lord Jesus no longer had an earthly kingdom blessing to look forward to. But there is little indication that a "new ekklesia" (a new gathering) came into a historical existence beginning at that juncture. The same believers who had been "gathered" during the Acts period simply had wonderfully transformed and enhanced blessings to enjoy.
We completely agree that many of the events mentioned above may be significant, if they represent important dispensational turning points in God's prophetic program for the Jewish nation, as opposed to His non-prophetic program known as "the mystery." However, while there is abundant evidence that "a" church gathering (ekklesia) began at Pentecost, we find no convincing combinatory evidence that a distinctly new church or body began at any of those other specific points in time, (i.e., at Acts 9, Acts 13, or Acts 28:28).
Believing that the birthday of Christ's church was Acts 2, not some later time during the book of Acts, in no way disputes the offer of the earthly kingdom to Israel by Peter in Acts 3, nor does it contradict the purpose of Paul's ministry to provoke national Israel to jealousy and harden their heart during the second half of Acts. (See Romans 10:19 & 11:11)
Boundary conditions for Christ's church on the day of Pentecost
Specifically when does Scripture say His church (ekklesia) began? In Matthew 16:18 the Lord describes it as future ("I will build my church"). Because it was "future" we know His "gathering" (church) did not exist in the Old Testament or even during the earthly ministries of John the Baptist or of the Lord Jesus Himself. Since Christ's "gathering" is bought by the blood of Christ (Acts 20:28) we believe it could not come into existence before His precious blood was shed. Moreover, since Christ baptized believers into His ekklesia with [Greek en] the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13), it could not have existed until the Holy Spirit descended from heaven to do that work to believers on earth. Furthermore, before the Holy Spirit could come, Christ said he must go away, i.e., ascend into heaven (John 16:7). Between these boundary conditions it appears that the 'church' our Savior had announced came into being after His resurrection on the Jewish Feast of Weeks (Pentecost). The sacrifice of Christ had been accomplished, the Lord was in heaven, and on the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit had made His presence known on the earth, and had been poured out upon believers, fulfilling John's prediction that the One following John would baptize with [Greek en] the Holy Spirit (Mat. 3:11, Mark 1:8, Luke 3:16, John 1:33, Acts 1:5, 11:16, see Acts 2:1-4). And on that day of Pentecost the Lord added to their company "about three thousand souls" (Acts 2:41). By Acts 4:4 the number of new believers in this new 'gathering' had grown to about "five thousand." In Acts 2:47 and in 5:11 this company is called a "church," (ekklesia), or "assembly" or "gathering." (Note: the reference to "church" in Acts 2:47 may lack manuscript authority).
Three additional considerations
Once the Holy Spirit declared national Israel to be spiritually deaf and blind (Acts 28:26-27) He withdrew the offer of the restoration of their earthly kingdom. But the believers who had comprised Christ's initial "gathering" (ekklesia) were still part of His gathering. Additional blessings were made known to them in Paul's prison epistles. But how does God treat those believers? Are they no longer part of Christ's ekklesia? In fact, even after the great mystery is revealed in the "prison epistles" Paul takes great care to establish a vital connection between them and the "gathering" that had originally come into being at Pentecost. Please consider the following:
The Holy Spirit of Promise
1. Even in the "prison epistles" Paul is careful to connect the saints having this higher sphere of blessing "in the heavenlies" (Eph. 1:3) with the kingdom believers "gathered" at Pentecost by saying that these Ephesian believers were "sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise" (Eph. 1:13).
"in whom *ye* also have trusted, having heard the word of the truth, the glad tidings of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, ye have been sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise." (Eph. 1:13)
This word, "of promise," can refer to the promised inheritance of faith revealed through Abraham as described by Paul in Galatians:
"Christ has redeemed us out of the curse of the law, having become a curse for us, (for it is written, Cursed is every one hanged upon a tree,)
"that the blessing of Abraham might come to the nations in Christ Jesus, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith." (Gal. 3:14)
If so, this promise of faith is common to Abraham, to the believers at Pentecost, and to all who name the name of the Lord Jesus Christ regardless of the dispensation in which they might live. But it can also refer to the promise made by John the Baptist regarding the coming Messiah who would baptize with the Holy Spirit. In this case it vitally identifies the church in Ephesians with the fulfilled promise in Acts chapter two.
"I indeed baptize you with (en) water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with (en) the Holy Spirit, and [with] fire." (Mat. 3:11).
"Then remembered I the word of the Lord, how that he said, John indeed baptized [with] water; but ye shall be baptized with (en) the Holy Spirit." (Acts 11:16)
Thus, Paul in Ephesians 1:13 is stressing the unity of the church of the present dispensation with that assembly Christ began to gather to Himself at Pentecost, although each had an entirely different sphere of blessing and many other important differences. The historical basis for the salvation and eternal security of the Ephesian believers is therefore referred back to the promise of the Spirit made by John the Baptist. Paul, by inspiration, could have simply said "ye were sealed with that Holy Spirit" period. Yet it was necessary to include the words "of promise" to emphasize the continuity of, and association with, what had taken place during the earlier dispensation.
If the church that existed after Acts 28:28 was a different 'church' than that which began at Pentecost, why did the Holy Spirit through Paul not simply omit the words "of promise" to these Ephesian saints who were blessed, not according to prophesy, but with the truth of the mystery? "Promise" and "Prophecy" amount to the same thing, but they are both in sharp contrast to the "Mystery," which was not revealed in the Prophetic Scriptures. We believe the Spirit of God speaking through Paul retained the words "of promise" because He purposely wished to stress that we are "being built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets" (Eph. 2:20).
The apostles and prophets
2. Paul also stated in Ephesians that the historical foundation of the assembly was the same foundation that had existed since Pentecost.
"So then ye are no longer strangers and foreigners, but ye are fellow-citizens of the saints, and of the household of God, being built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the corner-stone." (Eph. 2:19-20)
These are the same apostles and prophets Paul later describes:
"When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men.
"And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, shepherds and teachers" (Eph. 4:8, 11)
Besides using the words "of promise" in Ephesians 1:13 to denote the connection of the local Ephesian gathering with the original gathering at Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit also says that the features of truth known as "the mystery" were revealed through Paul "to his holy apostles and prophets" (Eph. 3:5), not just to Paul alone, thus maintaining a connection with the kingdom-oriented church which began at Pentecost.
Paul's persecution of THE gathering of Christ
3. One final consideration: three times Paul regretfully confessed that before his conversion he had persecuted "the Church," certainly referring to God's "gathering" that began at Pentecost and continued to exist at the time when Paul performed his infamous purges (1 Cor. 15:9; Gal. 1:13; Phil. 3:6).
Even in Philippians (a prison epistle) he simply identifies these earlier kingdom believers as part of "the church," (not "a church," thus equating the church (gathering) that began at Pentecost with the particular church that existed at the time the prison epistles were written. Paul was not being imprecise by identifying the church of both eras as one and the same entity.
"For I am the least of the apostles, who am not fit to be called apostle, because I have persecuted THE assembly of God." (1 Cor. 15:9)
"For ye have heard what was my conversation formerly in Judaism, that I excessively persecuted THE assembly of God, and ravaged it." (Gal. 1:13)
"as to zeal, persecuting THE assembly; as to righteousness which is in the law, found blameless." (Phil. 3:6)
Note, Paul did not say he persecuted "A" church (gathering or assembly), he persecuted "THE" assembly (church). Note the definite article is present in the Greek in each of these three passages. Although the mission, the nature, and the eschatological position of "THE" church had changed dramatically since Pentecost, Paul considers that there was only one ekklesia, one church, one assembly, one gathering, built on the foundation of the apostles, and Jesus Christ the corner-stone. He clearly identified the 'church' that began at Pentecost with the particular kingdom 'church' that some claim began to fade away during the later half of the Acts. He also implies it was the same 'church' that existed at the time the prison epistles were written. Paul was not being imprecise by identifying the church of all three eras as one and the same entity. The confusion has partially arisen because teachers have wrongly attached doctrinal and dispensational labels to the word "church." The "church" that existed at the time Paul wrote Philippians 3:6 was a "church" (gathering) that had a calling and blessing in heavenly places. It partook of that wonderful body of truth known as "the mystery." Yet Paul recognizes that the "church" that once had a kingdom calling was also "THE church," because "the church" in every dispensation after the Lord had proclaimed it is "built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the corner-stone." It was one and the same ekklesia "gathering" which existed at Pentecost and the same ekklesia that existed when Paul wrote Philippians 3:6, although Christ's "gathering" at that time had widely different promises, practices, and blessings.
Thus, although God dispensed differing gifts, differing practices, and differing 'marching orders' to the ekklesia at various times during and following the Acts period, and though the calling and sphere of blessing changed dramatically as God dispensed new features of truth to His gathering, this does not imply that a new ekklesia began whenever such changes were made. In my opinion there is no clear basis for 'multiple church' theories.
The kingdom 'church' at Pentecost composed entirely of Jews was Christ's 'church', Christ's 'gathering.' The 'church' composed of Jews and Gentiles which was specifically designed to provoke Israel to jealousy was also Christ's 'church.' And the 'church' composed of Jews and Gentiles after National Israel was shut up at Acts 28:28 is also Christ's 'church.' Praise God, these "gatherings" all were His.
For more insight on the meaning of the word "church", please read our article on
The Church, Wrongly So Called
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