Did Jesus found the church?

The answer seems obvious, doesn’t it?  Everyone knows that the Church came into being after Jesus had left the earth.  The Church first came into being on the Day of Pentecost, didn’t it?  In my opinion, this question needs to be thought about more carefully. He certainly didn’t set up a multi-national organisation with plush headquarters and a complex hierarchy, nor even a national institution controlling numerous congregations and an imposed Statement of Faith.  But the New Testament gives evidence that he went further in the church foundation direction than just selecting the twelve apostles.

Two or three
There’s a well-known text that hints to another outcome of Jesus’s itinerant ministry:
“For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”
(Matthew 8:15-20 NIV).
Some scholars assume that “Jesus could not have said that, because no such groups existed at that time.” But that’s jumping to a conclusion without examining the evidence. It’s admittedly not obvious.  The gospel writers weren’t focusing on the church, but on the words and teachings of Jesus – but there are clues. Everyone agrees that Jesus was an itinerant preacher, travelling widely around the country.  So, where did he stay at night?

There’s one place we can be confident that Jesus stayed overnight, and that is Bethany – and that he stayed there several times.  But distance determined that he must have stayed in other homes elsewhere in the country. A clue to his habits is given in his instructions to the disciples when he sent them out on their own preaching mission.
“Whatever town or village you enter, search there for some worthy person and stay at their house until you leave.
As you enter the home, give it your greeting.
If the home is deserving, let your peace rest on it; if it is not, let your peace return to you.”
(Matthew 10:11-13 NIV)
Jesus told them to stay in homes that made them welcome – and he gave that instruction because that was his normal practice. Meanwhile, his ministry of preaching and healing drew large crowds, so what happened to those people when he moved on?  We know that a few of them left their homes and travelled with him, and we must assume that many of them carried on with their normal lives, unchanged by his message.  But it’s reasonable to assume that a few of them changed their lives, and formed tiny communities loyal to Jesus – communities like that one in Bethany.

Move forward into the book of Acts, and we find that the apostles used the same approach. Why not, since the system worked! But the story in Acts contains extra details about their methods of working.  As they came to a new town or village, they would visit the local synagogue and, if allowed, they would preach there. Then they would accept local hospitality, stay for a while, and initiate a small community of believers. They weren’t just following Jesus’s example. John the Baptist also left behind small communities of followers – like the one Paul discovered in Ephesus (Acts 19:2‐7).

Were the apostles more effective preachers than Jesus? I think not. What they did mirrored what he had already done – except that they could tell the rest of the story, about his death and resurrection.  Putting these elements together we have the plan that Jesus carried out to good effect.  He initiated numerous small groups of believers in the towns and villages he visited. When Peter preached on the Day of Pentecost many of those people were in Jerusalem for the feast, and thousands of them joined the disciples, making the Church evident to all.

Did Jesus found the Church? He certainly set precedents for it – and those precedents have lasted. Where freedom of worship is permitted, local churches tend to link up and form larger groups. That can be helpful, and there’s nothing to say that it’s a bad thing. But, as persecuted Christians around the world have found, the safest, surest, and most valuable form of the church is a local group of believers, sharing faith and resources, and valuing their personal commitment to one another. Worship how you will, but never forget to “keep the unity of the Spirit”[1] in your local church – whether it’s small or big.

© Derrick Phillips 2023

[1] Ephesians 4:3 (KJV)

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