Happy Birthday! To Whom?

It is increasingly common to hear the Day of Pentecost referred to as the birthday of the church. Over the last few years parties have been staged to celebrate the occasion, complete with jelly, ice cream and balloons! Furthermore, the orthodoxy of the expression has been strengthened by a song composed for congregational singing.

The theory that the church came into existence on the Day of Pentecost is not new. But in view of the fact that the concept is now so widely held as to be regarded as self evident, we must ask whether the Bible itself teaches that the events recorded in the second chapter of Acts saw the creation of something entirely new in the programme of God.

The Greek word ekklesia, translated "church" in our English versions, means basically "that which is called out". The Christian church, or congregation, has been called out of the world and gathered to Messiah. But the Lord's calling out of a people for his name did not begin at Pentecost. According to Stephen, in Acts 7:38, God had an ekklesia in the wilderness.

In the Greek Septuagint version of the Old Testament, produced in the third century BC, Israel was God's ekklesia. Abraham the father of the nation was called out of Ur of the Chaldees to be God's friend. The nation that sprang from his loins was to be a "peculiar people", separate from the other nations. They were his qahal, his congregation, his church.

The church was nothing new. Until the time of Paul's missionary enterprise the majority of the church was comprised of the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, though there were notable exceptions such as Rahab of Jericho, Ruth the Moabitess, Uriah the Hittite and Naaman the Syrian. In the 2,000 years since the time of Christ the majority of the "called out" have been Gentiles. Paul's illustration in Romans 11 is that Israel is an olive tree, the branches of which are individual believers. Some of the native branches have been "broken off through unbelief". But whether the branches be natural or wild, both are joined to the same tree.

This single fact renders the theory that the Church has replaced Israel nonsensical. How can Israel replace Israel? How can the Church replace the Church?

Neither is the church God's "new Israel". At the day of Pentecost "the church" entered a new phase, when the gospel would be proclaimed to all nations beginning at Jerusalem. "With Pentecost", writes Kai Kjær-Hansen, "God's church for the last days begins its ministry".

Shadows have been replaced by reality; the partial has been superseded by the fullness, and the preparation by the fulfilment. At Pentecost, as at the erection of the tabernacle and the dedication of Solomon's temple, the glory of God descended and filled his temple "made without hands".

Gentile believers must eschew fruitless and arid replacement theology and return to the New Testament's emphasis on fulfilment. We must acknowledge with gratitude that we who were once "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" are now "no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone".

The language of birthdays and replacement is inappropriate to the discussion. It promotes that Gentile arrogance against which Paul warns in Romans 11, whereas the recognition that we Gentiles have become "fellow heirs [with Israel], of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ through the gospel" will promote humility, wonder and a longing for the natural heirs of the blessings to enter into the fulness of their inheritance.

This article first appeared as Last Word in the Autumn 1996 Herald

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