Christmas is a very Old Testament sort of thing, and so is the church. When you read the Christmas story in Luke’s Gospel, the theological climaxes are found in the speeches of the main characters—the angels (Luke 1:13-17, 30-33, 35; 2:10-14), Elizabeth (Luke 1:41-45), Mary (Luke 1:46-55), Zechariah (Luke 1:67-79), and Simeon (Luke 2:28-35). These speeches are knotted with strange lines like “he will reign over the house of Jacob forever” (Luke 1:33), “a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David” (Luke 1:69) and “this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel” (Luke 2:34).
We like to think of Christmas in much simpler, more self-centered terms: Jesus was born to save me from my sins. We feel good if we remember to connect Christmas forward with Cross and Resurrection. We rarely even think about tracing it back to Israel. When was the last time you praised God that Jesus was born that Israel might be saved from her enemies (Luke 1:71)?
The same is true of how we usually picture the church. But in the first chapter of Everett Ferguson’s book The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today, he spends 67 pages rooting the church in the Old Testament. This chapter is entitled “The People and the Messiah: History and Eschatology.” (See also the Introduction to my series on this book.)
I must confess: I found much of this chapter a little dry, at least at first. I also tend to find Zechariah’s prophecy in Luke 1 a little dry, too. To my shame, I am a child of my time and place who too often forgets my debt to God’s people in the past. I am a Gentile, after all. I stand in need of the warning Paul issued to his Roman Gentile readers: “Do not be arrogant… remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you” (Rom. 11:18). But if I push past the dryness, brush the dust off the past, and feel the family of Abraham like a granite foundation under my feet, boredom turns to worship. What a merciful God! I can only exclaim with Paul, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!” (Rom. 11:33).
Just as you really won’t understand very well who Christ is without reading the Old Testament, so you won’t understand the church as you ought if you only read the New Testament. The very first time that the word “church” appears in most English translations of the Bible is in Matthew 16:18: “I will build my church.” But even more important than the word church in this passage is the word Christ. Christ—or Messiah. It is the Messiah promised in the Old Testament who still today builds his church. “Your” church. The church you belong to today is the fulfillment of promises made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Ferguson discusses these matters under four main headings in this chapter: Covenant, Kingdom, Christ (Messiah), and Community.
This first chapter offers an exploration of some topics from the Old Testament and Jewish background which are important for understanding the Christian church and then a discussion of the New Testament development of these themes. The concepts of covenant, kingdom, and messiah provide the framework for the New Testament understandings of history and eschatology and so of the place of the community of the Christ in God’s purpose and plan…
These topics emphasize something of the theological perspective important for understanding the biblical doctrine of the church. God initiates the covenant relationship in calling a people [covenant]; God rules the affairs of human beings for the redemptive purpose of saving a people [kingdom]; God anoints (selects and empowers) his chosen representatives to lead his people [messiah]; and God’s goal is to build a community of people who acknowledge him as their God [community]. In the New Testament, these items are related to Jesus Christ. The new covenant is in Christ; the authority of kingship is now given to Christ; he is the anointed king [messiah]; and the church is the community of Christ. (pp. 1-2, bold added)
Under “Covenant” Ferguson first traces the meaning of that concept, God’s sequence of covenants found in the Old Testament, and the promise of a new covenant. “The essence of the promise of a new covenant is the forgiveness of sins and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit” (p. 8).
Ferguson then addresses the topic of covenant in the New Testament. Here are some highlights:
Paul connects the Christians’ relationship to God with the Abrahamic covenant, in contrast to the Mosaic covenant…
Unlike the note of continuity sounded by the New Testament about the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants, the Sinai [Mosaic] covenant is placed in contrast to the “new covenant” in Christ Jesus…
For the Christian, the Old Testament remains the “word of God”…, but the basis of the relationship with God now is different—what God has done in Jesus and the new covenant of forgiveness in him. The Old Testament as a system of religion does not regulate the activities of the church, that is, the people of Christ…
One way of expressing the relationship of the two parts of the Christian Bible is to say that the Old Testament is still authoritative for God’s people in its theology but not in its institutions. (pp. 9, 11, 14, 16).
Ferguson ends his discussion of covenant by emphasizing that “inherent in the idea of a covenant is a community” (p. 17). Just as God brought Israel out of Egypt and formed a covenant with them, so “in the death and resurrection of Christ God did for humanity what we could not do for ourselves… Based on this mighty and gracious act of God, a covenant is offered and a people gathered” (p. 17).
Under “Kingdom” Ferguson discusses the meaning of kingdom, then relates it to Israel, Christ, the church, and the future. First, the meaning of kingdom:
In Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, the primary meaning of “kingdom” is “kingship,” that is, royal power or kingly rule. The words more often refer to the “reign” than to the “realm” in which the rule is exercised…
Of course, kingship does not operate in a void, so the word “kingdom” is often used in close connection with the people or territory living under a given reign. That usage gives the secondary meaning of “realm”…
The kingdom of God refers to his majesty and activity, more often than to his people… But God’s rule does involve a people. The rule of God presupposes a people of God in whom it can be established… (p. 19-20, bold added)
Since God had already manifested his kingdom through Israel (p. 21), “Jesus… was clearly not introducing a new concept” (p. 22) when he proclaimed the “kingdom of God.”
The newest or most puzzling thought for me in this section was Ferguson’s assertion about the end of Christ’s kingdom:
The kingdom of Christ that began at his resurrection will come to an end at the general resurrection… When Jesus comes again it will not be to set up a kingdom but to “deliver up” or “hand over” an already existing kingdom (his kingship). Jesus reigns until death is destroyed. That occurs at the general resurrection. Then his rule is returned to God, the one who subjected all things to him (1 Cor. 15:27-28). The passage not only does not refer to a millennial or interim kingdom of any duration between the return of Jesus and the final consummation, but the sequence of thought positively precludes it… The reign of Christ is concluded at his second coming. “The end” and the handing over of the kingdom to God the Father follow the resurrection at his coming (1 Cor. 15:23-24). That resurrection marks the subjection of the last enemy and so the end of his reign, not its beginning. (pp. 27-28, bold added)
There are mysteries here! On the one hand, Paul clearly states that “then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him” (1 Cor. 15:28). On the other hand, John sees “the Lamb in the midst of the throne” (Rev. 7:17) and records that “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever” (Rev. 11:15). Perhaps Ferguson is overstating things a little when he says “the reign of Christ is concluded at his second coming”? (If he defined “kingdom” in this passage as “realm” rather than “reign,” then the Son could “deliver the kingdom to God the Father” without losing all function of reigning.) Perhaps the subjected Son can still share the Father’s reign?
What is the relationship between the kingdom and the church? Ferguson explains:
The relation of the kingdom and the church has been expressed all the way from a complete identification of the two, so that the church is the kingdom, to a complete separation of the two, as expressed in the quip of the French scholar Loisy, “Jesus preached the kingdom, and the church came.” If the kingdom is defined primarily according to the word study above as the “rule of God,” and the church is defined as “the people of God”…, then a basis is laid for explaining the difference yet the interrelationship of the church and the kingdom. The church may be defined as the people who come under the reign of God… That makes the church one manifestation… of the kingdom of God, the kingdom in the secondary sense of realm, the sphere in which kingship is exercised. The church is not the kingdom but is closely related to it. (pp. 28-29, bold added)
Ferguson notes that “three passages bring the kingdom and the church into proximity with each other”:
- Matthew 16:18-19 — “I will build my church… I will give you the keys of the kingdom.”
- Hebrews 12:23, 28 — “The assembly [church] of the firstborn” receive “a kingdom that cannot be shaken.”
- Revelation 1:4, 6, 9 — John, who “shares… the kingdom” with his readers, writes “to the seven churches,” whom Christ “made… to be a kingdom.”
Further, Ferguson notes that terms such as salvation, grace, redemption, righteousness, and life–realities which are all fulfilled in the church—are also associated in Scripture with the kingdom of God. Further, the central new covenant ideas of forgiveness of sins and indwelling of the Holy Spirit are also associated with the kingdom. To experience God’s saving grace is to enter both Christ’s church and his kingdom. To be in the church is to be under Christ’s rule.
This leads us to Ferguson’s next theme.
Under “Christ (Messiah)” Ferguson first discusses the meaning of messiah:
In the Old Testament prophets, there are many passages about God bringing deliverance and blessings to his people in the future. Frequently there is a human leader involved as the agent or representative of God in accomplishing his purposes. Several different designations of this deliverer or leader are given…, but it is notable that there is no clear case where Messiah is the term chosen. (p. 37, bold)
Yet as Christians called Jesus the Messiah (Christ), the term become loaded with new layers of meaning far beyond the basic meaning of “anointed one.” Thus, “the whole Old Testament expectation of ‘a good time coming’ has been called the messianic hope” (p. 38):
All these figures have come to be subsumed under the category of the messianic hope, because Christians accepted Jesus as the fulfillment of them all: Son of David, king, priest, prophet, Son of Man, and God acting directly…
In the Jewish expectation, the center of attention was the blessings of the coming age. The emphasis was on the “age to come” itself, what has come to be called the “messianic age.” The Messiah, when he was mentioned, was to be part of the “furniture” of this new age. For the Christians, on the other hand, the important feature was the Messiah himself. (pp. 38-39, bold added)
Ferguson gives special attention to two Old Testament figures from Isaiah 40-55 and Daniel 7:
The New Testament usage of the images of the Servant of the Lord and Son of Man for Jesus is problematic from the standpoint of the Old Testament texts, for a good case can be made that in each instance these figures have a collective sense in their original context, being simply ideal figures that personify the people.
Ferguson takes a “both-and” approach and solves this dilemma by noting that both the Servant and the Son of Man represent and personify the people of Israel:
The New Testament affirmation is that Jesus as an individual gives concrete expression to these Old Testament representations of the people. He was the embodiment of the true Israelite, so that what was said of the nation of Israel was applied by Christians to him (cf. the use of Hos. 11:1 in Matt. 2:15). Jesus was seen as synthesizing three figures out of the Old Testament heritage: Messiah (Son of David), Son of Man, and Servant of the Lord. All three carry with them an association with a people. The Messiah rules over a people; the Son of Man embodies the saints of the Most High who are given the kingship; and the Servant of the Lord suffers for the people and embodies their role of serving the Lord. Hence, we are prepared for the New Testament’s presentation of Jesus as promising to found a new community. (p. 46, bold added)
This brings us to Ferguson’s discussion of Matthew 16:13-23. He argues more convincingly than I expected that “the rock is the faith confessed by Peter, not Peter confessing the faith” (p. 49). I would have said it was Peter, but now am agnostic. However:
Whatever interpretation of the “rock” in Matthew 16:18 is found persuasive, whether Peter or the Messiahship, the decision on this question should not obscure the most important declarations made in the verse, namely that Jesus is the builder and the church is his. The church belongs to him, whatever functions others may have in it. The church is Messiah’s people, not Peter’s people. (p. 51, bold added)
Regarding the keys of the kingdom promised to Peter, Ferguson argues thus:
Peter was to declare the terms of admission to the kingdom of heaven, that is, give access to the rule of God over people’s lives, which meant the forgiveness of sins. Such an understanding corresponds to the function Peter performed in the beginning of the church. He preached what people must do to obtain forgiveness of sins or to be saved, both Jews (Acts 2:37-40) and Gentiles (Acts 10:43; 11:18).
An aside: While I have heard this passage and the similar verse in Matthew 18:18 used as evidence that church leaders have authority to make final decisions in the local church, in neither passage are any church leaders besides Peter mentioned. Rather, in Matthew 18:18 it is the whole church (or perhaps even any two or three gathered in Christ’s name) who are entrusted with binding and loosing. Of course, we are given instructions elsewhere about the importance of leaders in the church; my point here is simply that the Scriptures never speak of the “keys of the kingdom” as having been given specially or uniquely to local church leaders. In fact, if we take Ferguson’s understanding of the definition of the keys, then each of us can participate in using the keys by proclaiming to others the terms of salvation.
Ferguson concludes his discussion of Matthew 16 and Messiahship:
The central points of Matthew 16:13-23 are clear: (1) Jesus is the Messiah, that is, the Anointed One, with a royal position over a covenant community. (2) Immediately upon the confession of his Messiahship is the promise of the church. We may say that the existence of the church is implied in the confession that he was the Messiah. (3) The church is the Messiah’s. (4) The authority of the apostles (in this case Peter) is delegated. (5) Messiahship means suffering.
The death and resurrection of the Messiah prepares for the next unit of this study, the community of the Messiah… The very concept of a Messiah makes sense only in the context of a people. (p. 56, bold added)
Under “Community” Ferguson begins with precedents from the Old Testament:
[It was] the church’s appropriation of the concept of being God’s people, of being truly the Israel of God, [that gave] it a sense of historical identity, a strong sense of solidarity, and a sense of ethical responsibility.
It is significant for the understanding of the church that God’s purpose was to call a people and that he dealt with individuals in relation to a people and individuals came to him as members of the chosen people…
An important part of the prophetic hope, in keeping with God’s goal of unity, was the reuniting of God’s people…
[Yet] God’s concern was not limited to Israel and Judah. The prophets anticipated a time when the non-Israelites would worship the Lord…
The second half of Isaiah is full of such predictions. “And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD… Thus says the Lord GOD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered” (Isa. 56:6, 8). “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you…” (Isa. 60:3-4). These passages in the Greek translation [the Septuagint] use for “gather” the same word that is used for the assembling of the church (on earth—Heb. 10:25; eschatologically–2 Thess. 2:1)…
According to Paul’s analogy of the olive tree in Romans 11:17-24, the Gentiles are branches from a wild olive tree grafted contrary to normal practice into the cultivated olive tree (Israel). This is the basis for the application of the language of the people of God… to the church. (pp. 57-59, bold added)
Next Ferguson identifies some prerequisites for the church. He begins again with the image of the church as a new Israel:
Jesus’ calling of twelve disciples (Matt. 10:2-4; Mark 3:14; Luke 6:13) as a symbolic prophetic action made clear allusion to his mission to all Israel (Matt. 10:5-6; 15:24) and implied the founding of a new Israel when the former Israel rejected him (Matt. 19:28). Indeed, there was implicit in many of Jesus’ teachings and actions, such as the giving of an authoritative interpretation of the law (Matt. 5-7), the formation of a community. However, before the promise of Matthew 16:18 could be fulfilled, certain things had to happen…
(1) The crucifixion was necessary for Jesus to be the foundation of the church… The prophets voiced the hope of a fully forgiven people (Jer. 31:31-34). The new covenant of forgiveness of sins required the shedding of Jesus’ blood (Matt. 26:28; Heb. 9:16-17, 22)…
(2) The resurrection was necessary for Jesus to be head over the church… At the resurrection and ascension, Jesus was exalted above all other authority and dominion and made “head over all things for the church” (Eph. 1:20-22)…
(3) The Holy Spirit had to be given as the life of the new community… Important for our purposes here… is John’s observation [John 7:38-39] that the fullness of the presence of the Spirit as a living reality within believers had to await the glorification of Jesus…
(4) There had to be a commission to give the church a mission. There had to be a message for the church to proclaim… The proclamation of Jesus as Messiah and of his forgiveness and blessings called a church into existence… (pp. 60-63, bold added)
According to Ferguson, despite all the Old Testament gestation discerned by exegetical sonogram above, the actual birth of the church of Christ occurred at Pentecost:
According to Acts 11:15, the events of Acts 2 marked “the beginning.” The beginning of what? Several items occur for the first time in Acts 2. These together mark the occasion as the beginning of a new age, the gathering of a new community, the beginning of the church.
(1) The beginning of the age of the Holy Spirit…
(2) The beginning of the public proclamation of Jesus as Christ…
(3) The beginning of the preaching of the gospel…
(4) The beginning of the offer of forgiveness in Jesus’ name…
(5) The beginning of the new covenant…
(6) The beginning of the gathering of a church…
(7) The beginning of corporate life and worship. (pp. 63-67, bold added)
The birth of the church was the beginning of a new age, an age that is known as the “last days”:
Early Christians expressed the conviction that they were living in the “last days,” and therefore the church was the eschatological [end times] community… Those who are Christ’s people are those “on whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Cor. 10:11).
The phrase “last days” does not necessarily indicate the nearness of the end… The emphasis is not on the word “days,” which simply indicates an indefinite period of time, but on the word “last.” The reference is to God’s final act on behalf of humanity (Heb. 10:26-27)… The phrase describes the last dispensation…
The covenant brought by Christ is permanent (2 Cor. 3:11) It has made all previous dealings of God with people obsolete (Heb. 8:13) and is the “eternal covenant” (Heb. 13:20)… This covenant is the covenant of the “last days”…
The church is the eschatological community, the remnant gathered by God to be saved in the overthrow of the world, the people of the End time. They are enjoying the eschatological blessings of the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit in the present, but they await the coming again of the Son of God and entrance into the final completion of God’s purposes. This dual dimension of present and future, already and not yet, influences other aspects of the church to be considered in subsequent chapters… (pp. 67-69, bold added)
The phrase “last days” also, of course, is meaningless unless there were also “former days.” And so we come full circle: The church—and Christmas, which brought to earth the church’s Christ—cannot be fully understood apart from the promises and patterns of the Old Testament.
The physical and national nature of the promises given to Abraham and David remind us that the salvation that Jesus offers is no mere “spiritual” matter, and the church is not merely an invisible reality. Although the New Testament fulfilments telescope the Old Testament promises far beyond what their first hearers could ever have imagined, the fulfillments are always more, not less. And so even today we, as the church of Christ, eagerly await with Zechariah the day when we will “be saved from all our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us” (Luke 1:71).
And, as Ferguson reminds us, “those who share the kingdom now will be those to participate in it in the future” (p. 35).
What did you learn from Ferguson’s discussion in this chapter? Do you see how the Old Testament helps us see the centrality of Christ for his church? Share your questions or insights in the comments below.
Ferguson’s second chapter (our post 3) is about the nature of the church. We’ll discuss election, some powerful images of the church such as “the body of Christ” and “the family of God,” and zero in on the meaning of ekklesia. See you there!
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