Q: Where does the concept of a “church” arise among Jesus and the apostles? I don’t remember hearing about “churches” in Jewish history and I’m wondering if Jesus intended to start a new church or if his primary intention was to reform the Jewish faith.
A: We should not be surprised that the word church does not appear in the Old Testament or that it appears only two passages in the Gospels (Matthew 16:18 and 18:17). That is because the English word church is a translation of the Greek word ecclesia meaning “those called out.” The Old Testament was mostly written in Hebrew and there was no Hebrew word for “church.” However, we do indeed find that throughout the Old Testament God did call a particular people out of the rest of humanity to be his own. These were the Hebrew people enslaved in Egypt.
This divine election definitively occurred when the 12 tribes of Israel were united by the Shechem alliance and the People of God were first formed. (see Joshua 24) Passages like Exodus 24 and Deuteronomy 8 make it very clear that God continued to call and form a people to be particularly his own in the world. Those who were called were obliged to respond with a life conformed to God’s will and with a purity of worship that did not permit idols or false gods. This relationship was sealed with a covenant.
This demonstrates God’s ongoing intention from all time to establish an intense relationship with humanity that involved mutual commitment and obligations. The Ten Commandments were given as part of this developing covenant relationship with the People of God. We might even say that this is the very reason God created humanity — to know, love and serve the Lord in this life and to be with God in eternal life.
In the Old Testament we read how the People of God repeatedly failed in their observance of God’s commands both in how they treated one another and in their purity of worship. For that reason, God sent prophets to call the people back to their covenant fidelity. Even in times when the majority of people were failing in their covenant relationship, there were always a faithful few who persevered in right relationship with God. These few were called the holy remnant (also, the poor, or the little ones — in Hebrew, anawim).
Through the prophet Isaiah the people came to understand that God desired the salvation of all the world and not just one nation. (see Isaiah 49:6) The People of God were to be the instrument by which all peoples would be called to true worship and right relationship with the Lord. The prophet Jeremiah further announced that one day God would establish a new covenant with his people — one that was greater than the covenant established with Moses. (see Jeremiah 31:31-34)
The People of God in the Old Testament are the origins of the New Testament church. The ministry of Jesus initially began within Judaism in an effort to clarify what God desires from us concerning our relationship with one another and the Lord. Early in Jesus’ ministry, however, he realized that the majority of Judaism was not responding to his message. Indeed, the opposition to our Lord’s teachings and actions actually prompted the leaders of Judaism to seek his death early in the Gospel narratives. (see Mark 3:6) Jesus responded to this rejection by calling to himself 12 disciples. (see Mark 3:13-19, Matthew 5:1, Luke 6:12)
It is this action of calling the Twelve that demonstrates our Lord’s intention to continue his intense revelation of the Father’s will through a holy remnant. The symbolism of choosing 12 disciples is an obvious connection to the 12 tribes of the Old Testament.
Jesus continued to reveal God’s will for humanity in his ministry, suffering, death and resurrection. As part of his ministry, he committed special time and effort to forming the Twelve. He also fulfilled the prophecy of Jeremiah by establishing the new (and eternal) covenant in his own blood of the Eucharist at the Last Supper.
Just as God had “called out” the 12 tribes to be a people particularly his own, so now Jesus was “calling out” the 12 disciples from the 12 tribes to live in a clarified, purified and deepened relationship with God.
The church, then, is the new People of God.
Jesus gave the Holy Spirit to those who were his own (the church) to preserve us in fidelity until he comes again. The church that Christ established is described in the New Testament with various terms such as the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27), spiritual edifice (1 Peter 2:5), bride of Christ (Ephesians 5:22-23), family of God (1 Timothy 3:5), the flock (1 Peter 5:1-5) and so forth. Each of these designations reminds us that there is always a divine initiative and a human response in the church.
During the ministry of the apostles we see the very structure of the church and the celebration of the sacraments growing to maturity. We also see that there are four permanent qualities which are always present in the church that Christ founded. These are called the four “indelible” qualities: unity (one), universality (catholic), holiness, and foundation on the teaching of those who had firsthand knowledge of Jesus (apostolic).
These four indelible qualities of the church of Christ subsist fully (and fully only) within the Catholic Church which continues to carry out its divinely appointed mission to be the sacrament of salvation for the world.
Read the Spanish version of this column.
Northwest Catholic - January/February 2019
Daniel Mueggenborg is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Seattle. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.