From the May/June 2021 issue of Discern Magazine

What Is the Purpose of the Church?

The Church that Jesus built was founded on the Day of Pentecost, almost 2,000 years ago. Does this Church still exist? If so, what value does it have today?

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In our technology-driven society, it seems that churches are becoming irrelevant—even on the verge of becoming obsolete.

Is the church irrelevant today?

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought out different views about a lot of things, including churches. Around the world, most church congregations closed their doors to in-person services in March of 2020 and were forced to hold “virtual” services online. This has deeply affected church attendance.

Barna Group president David Kinnaman predicted that as many as 20 percent of churches would close their doors for good within 18 months because of a lack of interest. He also noted that one out of three people attending a church service prior to the pandemic had stopped attending altogether, and that included both online and in-person services.

What is the Church Jesus built?

Toward the end of His earthly ministry Jesus Christ announced to His disciples that He would build His Church (Matthew 16:18) and that the gates of the grave would never prevail against it.

Matthew 16:18 is the first place in the New King James Version of the Bible that the word church appears. It is translated from the Greek word ekklesia, which in the New Testament usually refers to “an assembly of Christians gathered for worship . . . in the religious meeting” (Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament).

The Church is, by definition, a group of people with a common faith and mission, led by the Spirit of God. It is not a building or an organization, even though it meets in buildings and it is organized.The Church is, by definition, a group of people with a common faith and mission, led by the Spirit of God. It is not a building or an organization, even though it meets in buildings and it is organized.

Based on this description and promise, it is obvious that Christ meant for the Church to play an important role in the life of a Christian in the first century as well as the 21st century.

Historic event

If you exclude the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the most significant event described in the New Testament is arguably the founding of the Church as recorded in Acts 2.

If we want to understand the purpose of the Church, we need to understand how it all began. And to understand the origins of the Church, we look to the writings of Luke.

Luke, Church historian

Luke wrote two of the longer books in the New Testament, the Gospel according to Luke and the Acts of the Apostles.

So who was Luke? Based on what we know from Scripture, he was a gentile physician and a traveling companion of Paul. He dedicated both of his books to an individual by the name of Theophilus. Luke’s use of Greek grammar is excellent, and he provides a clear and precise explanation of events, thereby showing himself to have been well-educated.

Based on his reference to “those who were eyewitnesses” in Luke 1, most scholars believe that Luke did not personally witness many of the earlier events that he wrote about. Luke’s quoting of the apostles indicates a close relationship with these men. He even records events that took place during the 40 days after the resurrection, when Christ personally taught His disciples. It seems obvious that this information had to come from the disciples themselves.

Scholars believe that Luke was a traveling companion of Paul based on the switch to the pronoun “we” when Paul arrived in Troas during his second journey to Asia Minor (Acts 16:6-11). Luke was left in Philippi (Acts 17:1), where he was picked up later by Paul on his third journey (Acts 20:6).

Luke also accompanied Paul on his trip to Jerusalem and Rome and was with him during his imprisonment (2 Timothy 4:11).

Prelude to the founding of the Church

In Acts 2, in advance of Peter’s famous Pentecost sermon, Luke records several amazing things that happened in the house where the 120 were gathered on that Day of Pentecost so long ago (Acts 2:1-4):

  • The sound of a rushing mighty wind in the room where they were gathered.
  • The appearance of tongues as of fire that sat on each of them.
  • The coming of the Holy Spirit.
  • The gift of tongues or languages. These were known languages that would make it possible for the devout Jews who had arrived in Jerusalem from the four corners of the Roman Empire to understand the message in their own language.

Peter’s Pentecost sermon

After these events, Peter addressed the crowd that had arrived in Jerusalem from Parthia, Media, Elam, Mesopotamia, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, Libya and other parts of the Roman Empire.

It is unclear whether this message was delivered in the vicinity of the house (Acts 2:2) or on the Temple Mount. Because of the size of the crowd (3,000 were baptized that day), the temple is the most likely location for Peter’s sermon.

Peter’s message is the longest uninterrupted message in the New Testament, consisting of 23 verses. Of course, this was only a summary of what he said that day. During his message Peter explained that Jesus Christ was the Messiah, and as such was crucified and resurrected.

“What shall we do?”

Following Peter’s message, the miracles continued. Those who heard “were cut to the heart,” asking Peter and the rest of the apostles, “What shall we do?” (verse 37).

Peter said, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (verse 38).

Later Paul describes the Holy Spirit to Timothy as not the spirit of fear (2 Timothy 1:7) but the spirit of power and love and a sound mind.

The beginning of the Church

Pentecost concluded with 3,000 people being baptized. This is the beginning of the Church. The Church was a central focus of the New Testament from that point forward.Pentecost concluded with 3,000 people being baptized (Acts 2:41; 1 Corinthians 12:13). This is the beginning of the Church. The Church was a central focus of the New Testament from that point forward.

By definition, the Church is a called-out group of people. Called out from where? From the world. Called out to where? To an assembly of believers.

From the beginning it wasn’t a solitary calling, intended only for one person, although each individual is uniquely called. The actual calling was also made available to others, and together, they formed an assembly.

Purpose and mission of the Church

The purpose of that first congregation can be discerned from the final verses of Acts 2, where we read about their conduct in the days following Pentecost.

In these verses, the Church is not defined as a building. The Church is defined as a body of people, a body of believers who have a common faith, a common purpose and a common mission.

Continuing in Acts 2, notice the description given by Luke:

  • They had a common belief (verse 42).
  • They worshipped and fellowshipped together (verse 42).
  • They shared physical possessions (verse 45).
  • They ate together with gladness and simplicity of heart (verse 46).
  • They praised God together (verses 46-47).

Preaching the gospel and loving one another

From these events we learn about the purpose and intent of the Church. We know from the events over the following months and years that their mission was to preach the gospel everywhere. In fact, all the apostles, with the exception of John, lost their lives for preaching the gospel.

Additionally, Christ described His disciples, those composing His Church, as loving one another (John 13:35). The need to be together was evident in that first congregation on the Day of Pentecost, almost 2,000 years ago.

There are many challenges for the Christian in this life, but one of the greatest and most difficult is to be like that Church, the one founded on Pentecost, the one that preached the gospel to the world, worshipped together, prayed together, ate together, loved one another and shared its resources with one another.

Bringing many sons to glory

This Church is tasked with assisting God the Father and Jesus Christ in bringing many sons to glory (Hebrews 2:10).

Christ described the Church as something He would build. Being built by Christ, with Him at its head (Colossians 1:18), makes the Church unique in history, and it is referred to as the very “body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12). As such, it cannot be destroyed.

The Church is just as important today

The original purpose of the Church hasn’t changed. The Church was founded to be the Body of Christ, to be that group of people who were called, who were chosen and who remain faithful to the very end (Revelation 17:14).

Those called by God and who receive the Holy Spirit are the Church of God, an assembly of people that meets together with a common mission (Hebrews 10:25). That mission includes preaching the good news of the Kingdom of God (Matthew 24:14; Mark 16:15).

When you understand the Church’s purpose and place in the plan of salvation, you see that, rather than being less important in our modern day, the Church is just as important today, if not more so, than it was on the day it began, the Day of Pentecost.

For many people in our society today, the need to attend a church or even belong to a church has been lost in the maze of technology. In reality, for those who understand the Scriptures, the Church is, and always will be, a body of people who come together to worship the true God, to preach the true gospel and to love one another.

It is difficult to imagine a greater purpose for the Church—not then, not now, not ever!

About the Author

Jim Franks

Jim Franks is president of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association. He and his wife, Sharron, live in the Dallas, Texas, area.

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