December 29, 2021

How the Church Began

The four crucial steps Jesus took.

Thomas R. Shepherd

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).1

The church begins with Jesus. He is its source, the center of its life and its goal. The incarnation of the Son of God described here in John 1, however, has roots in the Old Testament people of God. In the phrase “dwelt among us” the word “dwelt” comes from a verb that means “to pitch a tent.”2 It is reminiscent of the sanctuary set up at Sinai: “And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst” (Ex. 25:8). The tabernacle was set up in the middle of the camp, symbolizing that God would dwell in the midst of His people. So Christ, becoming human, came to dwell in our midst. Just as the Israelites saw the glory of God in the fiery pillar above the sanctuary, so we see the glory of God in the face of Jesus our Lord (2 Cor. 4:6).

Unlikely Beginnings

If you and I were tasked with creating an organization that would have a small beginning (Mark 4:30-32) but with a worldwide mission extending to the end of time (Matt. 28:18-20), we would probably think long and hard about whom we would choose as the key initial players. We would most likely search for deeply talented, farsighted, enthusiastic, stable people.

This does not seem to be the pattern that Jesus chose in establishing the church. His followers were a somewhat motley crew, ranging from tax collector (Matthew), a despised group in Jesus’ culture, to Zealot (Simon the Zealot), at the opposite end of the spectrum and haters of sell-out tax collectors. The Twelve were certainly ambitious, but for the wrong reasons, wanting positions of power next to Jesus (Mark 10:35-40), whom they were ready to crown king (John 6:13-15). Like so many Keystone Kops, they seem to bumble and blunder through the Gospel stories. Jesus always is correcting them, sometimes with sharp rebuke. Are these the foundational leaders of the Christian church? They are (1 Cor. 12:28).

Church Building Steps

How did these men go from proud, ambitious, mixed-up followers to the stable, courageous, outgoing foundational leaders of the early Christian church? There is only one reasonable explanation, and it is one that others noticed: “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13). It was contact with Jesus that changed these men for the rest of their lives. They never again went back to their old trades.3 Their whole perspective on the world changed, and it produced a silent revolution that spread throughout the world.

But what did Jesus do that brought this about?

Step 1: He started by calling these men to be with Him and to watch what He did (Mark 4:13). They saw Him preach, probably memorizing His messages. They saw the amazing miracles that He performed and noticed the way He especially welcomed the people who were outsiders rejected by others (Luke 15:1, 2). He resisted and spoke against the religious leaders who tried to trap Him, uncovering their hypocrisy and departure from the will of God (Mark 7:6-8). When His own family came to take charge of Him because they thought Him insane, He parried their request and pointed out that it was the people who did the will of God who were His true family (Mark 3:31-35). These types of events over a three-year period changed the outlook of these men, as if they were coming up out of a valley fog onto a mountaintop in the sunlight.

But Jesus was not done training them.

Step 2: They must have their own experience of preaching, teaching, and healing while He was still with them. He sent them out two by two on a mission of their own. He gave them specific instructions on what to do, where to go, how to proceed in their mission, whether welcomed or rejected (Matt. 10). He gave them authority to heal the sick, cast out demons, cleanse lepers, raise the dead. It was a heady experience, as you can imagine. They went out and returned reporting what had happened. Jesus saw their need for rest and took them away where they could rest awhile (Mark 6:30, 31; Luke 9:10). All this was central to the establishment of the church.

But there was another crucial ingredient—in fact, the most important—for them yet to learn.

Step 3: It was the cross. After being with Jesus several years, seeing His miracles, learning His message, having their own success in mission with Jesus giving them instruction, they needed to also see where His mission was headed. When they were completely convinced that He was the Messiah (Mark 8:29), He told them, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Luke 9:22).

It was impossible. They could not see it, would not see it, and Peter voiced their objection: “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you” (Matt. 16:22). Peter and his companions just could not accept the cross. But Jesus would not be deterred: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me” (verses 23, 24). This reality is what became the center of Christianity, the central truth establishing the church. The Master would die upon a cross, and every true disciple must do the same. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it so succinctly: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”4 One more step sealed the beginning of the Christian church.

Step 4: It was the resurrection and ascension to glory of Jesus our Lord. This fact is emphasized again and again throughout the New Testament. Paul puts it in poetic language: “And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:8-11).

From this exalted position Jesus bestowed on the church the power and authority to take His message of grace and forgiveness throughout the world. “He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things. And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:10-13).

From those seemingly humble beginnings the church continues to grow throughout the world. Its mission is the same as at the start—to herald our Lord’s grace, mercy, truth, and sacrifice to the ends of the world until He returns. Experiencing this grace, we are transformed, lifted up from mundane existence into the sunlight of His love, given a purpose in life that far exceeds anything the world around us offers.

I am glad to be part of this mission. Aren’t you?

  1. Unless otherwise credited, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
  2. Skēnoō: “to pitch a tent, dwell, settle, take up residence.”
  3. John 21 does tell us of the disciples going fishing after the resurrection, probably to raise some funds. But f
    rom that point forward, after that resurrection meeting with Jesus on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, there is no record of them ever turning back.
  4. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), p. 89.

Thomas R. Shepherd is a senior research professor, Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.