Back in March 2013, I gave 12 reasons for the church existing before Pentecost. This is a minority view compared to those who believe the New Testament church began on the day of Pentecost. Most objections to our position seem to distill down to about four or five. For example:
If some kind of a church could exist in the Old Testament (Acts 7:38), it would be surprising that one could not exist in the Gospels before the descent of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. An excessive dispensationalism foisted on the Scriptures renders the “Pentecost” conclusion inevitable, however wrong. The objections against a church existing before Pentecost belie the error of placing the Gospels in the Old Testament, a failure to understand that God began something new with the sending of John & the baptism of Jesus Christ, and the refusal to recognize that for a brief period in time the “Old Testament” and “New Testament” eras could overlap as God brought about His purpose within the constraints of the chronological time in which man dwells.
Charles Henry Mackintosh gave four reasons:
1. It was still future at Matthew 16:18
2. It must begin after Christ's resurrection
3. It must begin after His ascension and glorification
4. It would begin when the Holy Spirit was sent down to baptize believers
Lewis Sperry Chafer gave four reasons. There could be no Church in the world until:
1. Christ's death
2. Christ's resurrection
3. Christ's ascension to become its Head
4. the Holy Spirit's Advent
I have tried to distill the objections I have read into the four listed below. After a related Scripture and the stated objection, I will give my answer why I believe the objection comes up short.
And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. Matthew 16:18
1. Christ's building of the church was still future in Matthew 16:18: Jesus said, "‘I will build My church’, not, ‘I have built My church’."
A: It is correct that “will build” in the English and οἰκοδομήσω in the Greek are future tense verbs. Does this mean that it had no present application and merely pointed to an event that was still future? My "country" way of explaining this would be like taking a person out to a building I have already started and saying, "On this slab I will build my house." It is still future, ongoing, but I have already started. Compare to John MacArthur, who believes in a universal church that began on Pentecost. Nevertheless he says this regarding Matthew 16:18:
What did they think when He said "I will build My church?"…It is not some dispensational promise about a future entity that's going to come into existence, though it is true the church did come into existence in its formal sense on Pentecost.
The future tense does not imply that God has not been doing it; it does imply emphatically that He will continue doing it until its completion.
In contrast, George Zeller wrote, “In Matthew 16:18 the Lord Jesus said, 'I WILL build My Church.' The future tense of the verb indicates that the building of the Church had not yet begun when Jesus said these words. He did not say, 'I have built My Church.' He did not say, 'I am building My Church.' No, the building project had not yet begun and thus the Church was yet future. At the time Jesus spoke the words of Matthew 16:18 the Church had not yet begun.” Zeller’s statement is an example of a radical belief that a “building project” has not yet begun in the Gospels! Why was Jesus wasting His time with the disciples? Strange indeed.
While we would not agree with MacArthur on the day of Pentecost issue, we do agree that the point of emphasis is not punctiliar – about an event that would happen at one point in time – but rather is durative, expressing continued action. The Lord is building His church, but He will keep on working and building until its completion. He did not build a church on the day of Pentecost. He was already building it, is now building it, and will continue to build it until He brings to a close this present age.
Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. Acts 20:28
2. Jesus bought the church with His own blood (Acts 20:28). If the church began before Pentecost, it would not have had the blood of Christ.
A: The context of Acts 20:28 is not about chronological establishment of a church, but about ownership and worth. Obviously, the blood of Jesus Christ was not literally shed in historical chronological time before His crucifixion – which, nevertheless, occurred before the day of Pentecost. But the reality and efficacy of the blood of Christ stood in God’s time from the foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8). This argument played against a church existing before Pentecost also impugns the efficacy of the salvation work of Jesus Christ for any sinner before the time of His crucifixion. As surely as sinners existed and were bought with the blood of Jesus Christ before the day of Pentecost (Ephesians 1:3-12), the church existed and was also bought with the blood of Jesus Christ before the day of Pentecost.
Which he wrought in Christ, when he raised him from the dead, and set him at his own right hand in the heavenly places, Far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come: And hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church, Which is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all. Ephesians 1:20-23
3. Jesus’ resurrection and ascension were necessary to His headship over the church (according to Ephesians 1:20-23). If the church began before Pentecost, it would not have had Jesus as its Head.
A: 1 Corinthians 15:27 and Hebrews 2:8 help provide some further context for "hath put all things under his feet" as a chronological statement related to the establishment of the church. God put all things under Christ from the beginning (cf. Matthew 28:18), but many of the events related to it are marked out in chronological time, not only including his resurrection & ascension, but also the final destruction of the last enemy, death. Mark 12:10 and Luke 20:17 indicate that Jesus was the headstone which the builders rejected, clearly before Pentecost. He was in fact already that head of the corner before the “builders” rejected Him. The importance of the resurrection and ascension in Eph. 1:20-23 is bona fide, and we do not reject their necessity. Ultimately, though, these prove His headship over the church rather than limiting His headship prior to these events.
Wherefore he saith, When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men. (Now that he ascended, what is it but that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth? He that descended is the same also that ascended up far above all heavens, that he might fill all things.) And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers... Ephesians 4:8-11
4. The Holy Spirit was not given until Pentecost. If the church began before Pentecost, it would not have had the Holy Spirit and would have been operating without functioning spiritual gifts.
A: Several points should be noticed here. The church or disciples who were with Jesus did have “functioning spiritual gifts” with their spiritual Head present. He gave to the twelve certain gifts, for example, as recorded in Matthew 10:1-8 – "...he gave them power against unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal all manner of sickness and all manner of disease...Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils: freely ye have received, freely give." A like gifting to seventy others is recorded in Luke 10:1-20. Also it must be noted that the Holy Spirit was in some way given to – “breathed on” – these disciples after the resurrection of Jesus Christ and before the day of Pentecost (John 20:22).