During the season of Pentecost we often hear the Day of Pentecost called “The Birthday of the Church.” I prefer (and refer) to this most important event in the history of Christ’s Church, following the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, as “The Birthday of the Church’s Power,” for that is precisely what it was. God had a church before that day when the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the community of faith that was centered in Jesus — faith in Him as “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” “the Messiah,” the One God had promised to send to redeem His people (Matthew 16:15-18). That community of faith, the followers of Jesus who had gathered in Jerusalem in obedience to Christ’s command, was the Church Christ was already building, the Church that had been told to wait there until the Holy Spirit was bestowed on them with power from on high: “He ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father “for what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit, not many days from now…You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1: 1-5, 8).
Even before the Pentecost event, God had a church, a covenant community of His own people, for that is the meaning of the Greek New Testament word for church, “ecclesia”— a gathered people. In the context of the biblical drama, the drama of salvation, it means the “gathered people of God” — those chosen by God to be His own people. In Old Testament times it was the Hebrew people, Israel, who were called and chosen to become children of the covenant God had made with Abraham. With the coming of the Christ into the world, in the person of the historical Jesus, a “new covenant” was established, just as God’s prophet, Jeremiah had foretold: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors, when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, a covenant that they broken, but this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord, I will put my law within them, I will write it on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they will be my people” (a new community of God’s own people, established by a new covenant, not based on a covenant of Laws written on tablets of stone, but a covenant of grace, written by the finger of God on the tablet of the heart).
When Jesus met with His disciples for the last time in an upper room in Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, He spoke again of this new covenant which He was now establishing, “to fulfill the scripture” (John 13:18) all that had been foretold by the prophets, Isaiah and Jeremiah (a new covenant, His own betrayal, His vicarious suffering, His atoning death, and even His victorious resurrection) (Isaiah 53). We are told that “while they were eating,” celebrating the Passover, with the large number of Jews gathered in Jerusalem for the most important feast and festival in Judaism, “..Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it He broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘Take, eat, this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:26-28) — not sealed with the blood of sacrificial animals, as in the old covenant, but with his own precious blood, not over and over again, but once and for all, for all time, for the forgiveness of all sins, of all people.
All who believed, confessing Jesus as their Savior and Lord, trusting in the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of all their sins would become a part of this new covenant community which Christ was already in the process of building, beginning with the calling of His disciples, the original twelve, continuing after His death and resurrection, with the gift of the Holy Spirit , empowering believers then and through the ages for their ministry of witnessing “to the ends of the eartjh” , until He comes again (Acts of the Apostles 1:11). The Apostle Peter, who was the preacher on the Day of Pentecost, tells us who we are in his first letter to the young Church: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called out of darkness into his own marvelous light. Once you were no people, but now you are God’s people” (I Peter 2:9-10). We may not think of ourselves in such high terms, but that’s who we are!
Perhaps some words penned by the Apostle Paul, the master interpreter of the Gospel, will make this glorious truth of who we are in Christ a bit more understandable, and even more meaningful, when we read from his letter to the Ephesians, “According to the purpose of Him who accomplishes everything according to the counsel of his own will” (not because of anything we ourselves have done, or could ever do; not even our own need moved God to do what he alone had the power to do, in Christ alone) — by His grace alone, by an act of His own sovereign will, God has “…blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 1:2-3, 11) — and even going further Paul declares that God chose us long before we chose Him, even “Before the foundation of the world’ (Ephesians 1:4). Why? “For adoption as his children…that we might be holy and blameless before him in love”— to live “to the praise of his glorious grace, that he freely bestowed on us in the beloved” (in Christ) — that we might obtain “..an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his own will,” that we who “..have set our hope on Christ might live for the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:5-12).
All this is impossible without the power of the Holy Spirit at work in our lives, personally and united together, in the Church Christ is still building. Let us never forget whose Church it is. We may occasionally say, “My church”, when speaking of the particular local church to which we belong. But let us never forget that not even that local community of faith is not really “our” church at all. It is a small part of a worldwide community of faith; it is CHRIST’S OWN CHURCH — not to do with as we please, but to do with according to the counsel of His own will, that which is pleasing to Him, and “…for the praise of his glory.”