Church History 101 - Did Jesus start 'The Church'?

The Church.

The Body of Christ.

The Church Universal.

The Bride of Christ

The Way

The One True Church

These are some of the names and phrases used to describe what Christians - or those who follow Christ - call The Church. A church is comprised of people who believe and follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. It is both an institution and a movement, according to Bruce L. Shelley, author of "Church History in Plain Language."

"Church historians often ask, 'Is the church a movement or an institution?' ... I think it is both," Shelley writes in the introduction. "So I have talked about missionary expansion as well as papal politics. Professionals in the field may not be happy with my failure to set limits by a strict definition of the term church. But that fuzziness is due to the fact that I believe the people of God in history live in a tension between an ideal - the universal communion of the saints - and the specific - the particular people in a definite time and place. The church's mission in time calls for institutions: special rules, special leaders, special places. But when institutions themselves obstruct the spread of the gospel rather than advancing it, then movements of renewal arise to return to the church's basic mission in the world. These pages will illustrate how often that has happened."

We ignore the history of the church at our peril. By ignoring the history of the church we can become prideful, or vulnerable to cultists, or we may ultimately lack a broader context for ministry, Shelley writes. I am sure that without looking too hard we can find examples of this in our day - churches gone astray from their true mission and founder. But who was that founder? Does the church represent its original purpose?

Some people say "no", some say "yes" to the second question. The answer is probably both. There are some things the Church does well and some things that it does not do well. Each denomination within The Church has its own gifts and graces. Ultimately, however, The Church recognizes Jesus Christ as its founder.

"Jesus was a Jew. He came from a Jewish family, he studied the Jewish law, he observed the Jewish religion," Shelley writes.

Tradition figures that Jesus lived on earth approximately 33 years. His ministry covered a three-year period in which, Shelley says, he became popular about one year before his death. During his ministry, Jesus taught in synagogues and on hillsides as a rabbi, healed the sick, raised the dead, fed thousands of hungry people from small amounts of food, and proclaimed the kingdom of God.

Based on Jesus' life, people have wondered whether or not Jesus started the institution of the church with its rules and sacraments. From a study of the gospels - Matthew, Mark, Luke and John - we see that Jesus did intend his disciples to carry on his work, which ultimately led to the Church. 

Shelley writes:

"For two years he worked with a faithful band of disciples; he taught them about life in what he called 'the kingdom of God'; and he introduced them to the 'new covenant' that bound them together in forgiveness and love.

"Granted, that simple company lacked many of the laws, officials, ceremonies and beliefs of later Christendom, but it was a society apart. Jesus made a persistent point about the special kind of life that separated 'the kingdom of God' from rival authorities among men. Little by little his disciples came to see that following him meant saying 'no' to the other voices calling for their loyalties. In one sense that was the birth of the Jesus movement. And in that sense, at least, Jesus 'founded' the church."

In Jesus' day, Palestine, where his ministry occurred, was controlled by the Roman Empire. His country was a melting pot of unrest because all Jews "despised their overlords; they simply disagreed about how to resist them," Shelley writes.

Central to the Jewish faith was an understanding that God would one day send a Messiah to deliver his people, the Jews, from their enemies and to establish a new kingdom on earth. According to the prophet Daniel, this would happen after God wiped out the forces of evil and established his reign on the earth. Talk of a messiah, however, could incur the wrath of the Romans, so while the Jews waited in eager anticipation, Jesus began proclaiming the establishment of God's kingdom.

During that time, the Jews were divided into four main groups, each of which interpreted in a different way how they were to respond to the Romans. The Pharisees were strict followers of the law and accepted by the people.  The Sadducees, who were today what we could call the aristocratic class, ruled the people and colluded with the Romans. The Zealots believed in taking the nation back by force and used tactics of guerrilla warfare whenever possible. Then, there were the Essenes, a peaceful monastic community that studied the scriptures and prepared themselves for the Lord's return.

"Jesus had to call for the loyalty of his followers without confusing the purpose of his mission with the objectives of these other parties among the Jews. It was a tough assignment," Shelley writes.

As a result, Jesus was constantly affirming his authority to preach to the Pharisees and the Sadducees and showing how his way overtly contrasted with the self-righteousness of the day. "His followers, he said, represented another type of society and another type of greatness. In the kingdoms of this world, powerful leaders lord it over others; but God's kingdom is governed in a wholly different way, by love and service," Shelley writes.

Jesus' claims intimidated the Pharisees and the Sadducees, the latter fearing the loss of their comfortable relationship with Rome - so much that they plotted Jesus' demise. On the night they decided to carry out their plan, Jesus told his disciples that the time had now come for a new covenant. Using examples of the unleavened bread and wine at Passover, Jesus spoke of the new covenant, formerly promised by the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel, that God would place his law on the hearts of people. "A new people of God, enjoying the forgiveness of sins, is now possible through the shedding of (Jesus') own blood," Shelley writes.

That very night, the Pharisees and Sadducees arrested Jesus, held a sham of a  trial and in the morning, brought him to the Roman governor Pilate, seeking Jesus' execution. He was soon scourged and crucified. Later that day, some followers buried him in a garden tomb. Three days later he rose from the dead and appeared to more than 500 people. Today, May 9, is what the church calls Ascension Day. It celebrates the day that Jesus ascended to heaven before the disciples eyes. His last words to them were:

"But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you;and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria,and to the ends of the earth”
                                                                                                           -- Acts 1:8

After this the disciples locked themselves in a room and prayed. A few days later they received that power from the Holy Spirit and the Church was born.

Next week: The Ministry of the Apostles.