Jesus Christ said: "I will build My church, and the gates of Hades [the grave] shall not prevail against it" (Matthew 16:18). Which church did Jesus build, and what happened to it?
When the Bible speaks of the Church, it is never speaking of a building or of a human organization incorporated under secular authority. The word in the Greek language that is translated "church" in English is ekklesia. It is derived from two root words in Greek and literally means "called out" or "called from." In secular usage, it referred to an assembly of citizens who were "called out" from the inhabitants of the city to consider some matter of importance. It was often used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament to refer to the congregation of Israel or to the assembly of God's people. "Congregation" or "assembly" expresses the meaning in New Testament usage as well.
However, the "called out" aspect of ekklesia is fundamental to understanding the Church. In Genesis 12 we read that Abraham was "called out" by God from Ur of the Chaldees. In Exodus 12 we read of Abraham's descendants, the children of Israel, being "called out" by God from Egypt. They then became the congregation of Israel or the "Church in the Wilderness" (Acts 7:38, KJV).
One of God's final warnings to His people is a call to "come out" of Babylon (Revelation 18:4). The saints of God are not to participate in that corrupt, end-time culture's sins so that they will not partake of the divine punishments that "Babylon" will receive.
Jesus made it plain that one cannot come to Him, and be part of His Church, without being called by the Father (John 6:44). Only those who respond to the Father's call, through repentance and baptism, will receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38), and it is only through the Holy Spirit of God that we become part of the Church that Jesus built (Romans 8:9; 1 Corinthians 12:13).
What happened to the Church that Jesus Christ said He would build? Did it adapt and change with the times through progressive revelation? Did it veer "off the track" and need to undergo a reformation at the hands of such men as Martin Luther and John Calvin? Or, has there been a body of believers, down through the centuries, continuing to believe and practice the same doctrines Jesus Christ and the first-century Apostles taught?
When we look at the story of the mainstream, professing Christian church throughout the centuries, it appears to be a vastly different church from the one described in the pages of your New Testament. In the book of Acts we find that God's Church celebrated "Jewish" holy days (Acts 2:1; 13:14, 42, 44; 18:21), talked about the return of Jesus Christ to judge the world (Acts 3:20-21; 17:31) and believed in the literal establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth (Acts 1:3, 6; 28:23).
Yet, less than 300 years later, we find a church claiming Apostolic origin, but observing the "venerable day of the Sun" instead of the seventh-day Sabbath. When that church assembled its bishops to discuss doctrinal matters at the Council of Nicea, the meeting was presided over by a Roman Emperor—Constantine! How could such an amazing transformation have taken place? What happened?
Protestant author Jesse Lyman Hurlbut acknowledged the dramatic change that took place in his book, The Story of the Christian Church. He wrote: "For fifty years after St. Paul's life a curtain hangs over the church, through which we strive vainly to look; and when at last it rises, about 120ad with the writings of the earliest church-fathers, we find a church in many aspects very different from that in the days of St. Peter and St. Paul" (p. 41).
The history of the Christian church between Pentecost of 31ad and the Council of Nicea in 325ad, almost 300 years later, is truly amazing. It is the story of how yesterday's orthodoxy became today's heresy, and how old heresies came to be considered orthodox Christian doctrine. It is the story of how church tradition and the teaching of bishops came to supersede the Word of God as a source of doctrine. It is a story that is stranger than fiction, yet is historically verifiable.
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