Saying that the church began on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2 is easy to say, but a little challenging to prove. Likewise, saying that the church began before Pentecost, whether at the resurrection of Christ or the ascension of Christ, is also very difficult to prove. Of course, there are other opinions out there, such as the church beginning with John the Baptist in the wilderness, or that the church had been around since the old testament times, but these views can be dispelled using straightforward scriptures that say otherwise (such as Matthew 16:18 and Jesus’ use of the future tense “I will build My church”). But the first two opinions that I mentioned carry some real weight to the argument, so we will be spending our time considering these two.
Let me first say that neither view has a scripture that straightforwardly states that the church was established on a certain day. Both views must rely on necessary inference, however, necessary inference cannot verify both views, for that is impossible. The very concept of necessary inference is that the scriptures are providing us with a forced conclusion of a particular matter without the addition of human thought and opinion. Therefore, two opposing views cannot claim necessary inference, either one view has properly followed conclusions from the biblical text while the other has injected bias, or neither has properly followed what is necessary to make a truthful conclusion of the matter.
To one, the pouring out of the Spirit in Acts 2 signals the beginning of the church; to the other, the coming of the Spirit is a significant event but does not necessitate the beginning of the church. To the latter, what is more significant for the church’s beginning is the resurrection of Christ, they assert then, that the 120 disciples of Acts 1:15 are already the Lord’s church. And there is some good argumentation for that view. One simple argument is that Acts 2:41 says “Then those who gladly received his word were baptized, and that day about three thousand souls were added to them.” If this is the beginning of the church on Pentecost, then why would Luke say that the 3,000 were “added”? The implication of this view is that they were added to the church, thus the church was already in existence as the 120 disciples. However, there is a flaw in the implication, for we could just as easily say that Luke was stating that the 3,000 were added to the other disciples and that the statement has no reference to the 120 already being the church.
Another argument for this position is how, on the very day that Jesus was resurrected, he breathed upon the apostles on that Sunday evening and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:19-23). Now, there is debate as to what is happening here, but I take the position that Jesus means what He said and that they did receive the Spirit that day (though unlike the way they received Him on Pentecost), and this gave them authority as men inspired by the Spirit; the same authority we see them exercising in Acts 1 with the appointing of an apostle to replace Judas. This may also be the means by which Jesus opened their understanding to comprehend the old testament scriptures (Luke 24:45). The idea that the apostles had the Spirit before Pentecost is not too hard to accept, for, in some manner, they have had the Spirit since the time that Jesus called them to be His disciples (Luke 9:1-2), and not just them but the seventy also (Luke 10:17). However, what they did not have was the promise of the Spirit which would be poured out upon them and plenty of others as well, according to the promise given by the old testament prophets and confirmed by Jesus. What is the promise? In short, that salvation would be brought down, and the Spirit of God would be revealed in a variety of miraculous (non-human and non-natural) ways to confirm this salvation in Christ. Thus, even if we attempt to prove that the church existed as the 120 disciples prior to Pentecost, we must still admit that it was lacking in some crucial things. And if it is lacking, then can it really be the church at all? More on this later.
Many accept that the church was established on Pentecost but cannot argue their position very well. If we believe something because it is what the church generally holds to, then we have a creed and not a belief established by faith in the word of God. In my experience, many who view the church as established on Pentecost hang their hat on the word “church” appearing in the Pentecost narrative in Acts 2:47 (“and the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved”), but that statement doesn’t necessitate the beginning of the church at that point. Further, they’d be disappointed to hear that the word “church” is not actually in Acts 2:47 according to the Greek manuscripts (with the exception of the 5th century Codex Bezae), and all English translations (as far as I know) do not include the word “church” in Acts 2:47, excepting the King James Version and its revisions. The statement would more literally be translated: and day by day the Lord kept on adding together those saved.
If it could be said that there is a scripture that states when the church was established, it would be Isaiah 2:2-5 and the parallel text in Micah 4:1. Consider some of what God said would come to pass: “Now it shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established on the top of the mountains, And shall be exalted above the hills, And all nations shall flow to it. Many people shall come and say, ‘Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, To the house of the God of Jacob; He will teach us His ways, And we shall walk in His paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth the law, And the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.” The prophets of God are speaking about when the “mountain of the Lord’s house” would be “established” and what that would look like. The house of God that they refer to is the church according to the new testament (1 Timothy 3:15), and in the prophetic language, the church is sometimes illustrated as a great mountain (Isaiah 2:2; Micah 4:1; Daniel 2:35, 45; Zechariah 8:3). So, Isaiah and Micah are telling of the establishment of the church. The key details they give us concerning the church’s establishment is that the “word of the Lord” would be spoken “from Jerusalem” and all nations will hear and flow to the church. This is not descriptive of the disciples prior to Pentecost, but this picture certainly fits what happened on the day of Pentecost. It was there on that day of Pentecost, a Sunday morning at 9 AM (Acts 2:15), that the word of the Lord was heard from Jerusalem and all nations heard it (Acts 2:5, 9-11). This is the event that the prophets spoke concerning the establishment of the church.
What compels me is what I find missing among the disciples prior to Acts 2. Consider for a moment something Paul said about the church in Ephesians 1:22-23. “And He put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.” The church is “the fullness of Him who fills all in all”, but prior to Pentecost, the disciples do not appear to fit the bill of being “the fullness” of Christ, thus they cannot be the church. What was missing in them was the ministry of salvation that so well defines the church from Pentecost to the present day. Paul had also spoken to Corinth concerning the “ministry of the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:3-8), but without the coming of the Spirit in Acts 2, there is no “ministry of the Spirit”. Paul said that he and others were “ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit”, thus the ministry of the new covenant came by the Spirit which Jesus told His disciples to wait for (Acts 1:4). Paul further states that “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life”. Salvation (“life”) and the new covenant came to all men by the ministry of the Spirit; so, before the Spirit’s arrival, the disciples lacked the fullness of Christ, meaning they lacked what is distinctly “the church” as defined by Paul in Ephesians 1:22-23.
Article by Tanner Campbell