Lesson 22: The Place of the Church in History | Biblical Foundations for Living

Why am I here? I am here to bring glory to God through the ministry of His Word.

Introduction to the Purpose of the Church

The church of Jesus Christ has been adversely affected by the values of the culture in which it exists. As a result, many local churches barely resemble the pattern for the church Christ and the apostles established in the New Testament. Though most believers are part of a local church, few understand its true nature. Many view the church as a welfare organization, an entertainment center, or a social club. With such confusion among God’s people, it is no wonder the world considers the church irrelevant. As long as believers are in such a confused state, they cannot correctly answer the question, “Why am I here?” The believer’s purpose in life is inseparably linked to the purpose of the church. Therefore, Christians must embrace a biblical philosophy of the church. This study of the doctrine of the church (or Ecclesiology) will present such a philosophy, beginning with the purpose of the New Testament church.

Lesson 22: The Place of the Church in History

God has revealed information about Himself to mankind throughout history. This information is contained in the Bible. In the present age, God is using the church as the means of proclaiming His revelation to man. Lessons Twenty Two through Twenty Four will examine the purpose of the church, beginning with this foundational lesson focusing on:

1. The nature of history

2. The development of history

3. The present age of history

I. The Nature of History

A. History has a definite plan .

Some teach that history is the product of chance , that is, things just happen without explanation or reason. Such thinking often leads to pessimism and a sense of meaninglessness .

[Why would this be true? Nothing would really make any difference. If everything was mere chance and random circumstances, then there would be no real meaning to anything. This would lead to a very dismal, depressed attitude.]

The Bible, however, presents a very different view of history.

Remember the former things, those of long ago; I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me. I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please. From the east I summon a bird of prey; from a far off land, a man to fulfill my purpose. What I have said, that will I bring about; what I have planned, that will I do.   Isaiah 46:9 11

From this passage we see that:

  1. History is already established in the mind of God.

[God knows all things at once. There is no “future” with God–He is timeless. Thus, events which have not yet occurred are sure to do so exactly as God has planned them to occur.]

  1. History is the outworking of God’s plan.

[Events occur because they are part of God’s plan. Everything that happens, down to the most mundane, minute detail is part of that plan. Cf. Eph 1:11.]

B. History has an ultimate goal: the kingdom of Christ.

[That is, history will culminate/conclude with the Millennial reign of Christ. That is the goal toward which history is moving.]

Some religious groups believe that history is cyclical. That is, they believe that the same historical patterns repeat themselves over and over in unending cycles. Such thinking denies that there is a goal to be reached in human history. The biblical view of history, however, is linear. These two views can be visualized as follows:


1. Historical events are moving in a planned and orderly fashion toward an established goal.

And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment  to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.   Ephesians 1:9 10

2. The goal of history is the kingdom of Christ .

When Christ came the first time, He proclaimed a kingdom message. He presented Himself as the fulfillment of the Old Testament Messianic prophecies regarding the perfect prophet, priest, and king. That message was rejected by the Jews in keeping with God’s plan. Even at His Ascension, the disciples still expected Christ to set-up His kingdom (Acts 1:6). Christ will do so when He comes again.

C. History has a singular purpose : the glory of God.

Some hold a linear view of history that is not biblical. They depart from the biblical view when it comes to purpose . All inferior explanations of history suffer from the same flaw–they have a man centered purpose for all things. A biblical view of history is always God centered in its purpose. Theologians call this the doxological view of history (from the Greek word doxa, meaning “ glory “). This is the belief that God works in history to make His character known to His creatures so that He will receive their praise .

1. The universe is to bring glory to God.

For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.   Romans 11:36

2. All activities of men are to bring glory to God.

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.   1 Corinthians 10:31

3. The work of salvation is to bring glory to God.

He predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will  to the praise of his glorious grace.   Ephesians 1:5 6 (See also Ephesians 1:11-12.)

Note: Some might argue that God’s desire to be glorified is selfish and, thus, improper. However, God, unlike us, is infinitely worthy of such praise. Because He is worthy, God’s justice demands that He seek His own glory.

[Remember that justice demands that good be rewarded. Since there is no higher thing to seek, God seeks his own glory. ]

In a loud voice they sang: “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!”   Revelation 5:12

[What is the “glory of God”? Basically, it is the sum total of God’s attributes. Since there is no higher good than God Himself, God can seek nothing higher than His own glory. For Him to seek anything else would be wrong.]

II. The Development of History

God has used different means to accomplish His plan. These differing means are known as “ dispensations .” A dispensation is a stewardship arrangement . The biblical word contains the idea of administration or management .

[A steward is a manager, like Joseph was in Potiphar’s house. A dispensation is a description of how God dealt with people at different stages. For example, God dealt with Adam and Eve differently than He did with Abraham, and God dealt with King David differently than He does with us. There are different requirements and different blessings based on what dispensation you are talking about.]

The features of a stewardship arrangement are illustrated in a parable that Christ told in Luke 12:42 48: [read text]

• It is an arrangement between two parties .

• The steward is given responsibilities .

• The steward is held accountable .

Changes can be made in the arrangement.

A. The relationship between God’s revelation and the dispensations

1. God’s will has been revealed progressively .

In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways.   Hebrews 1:1

God’s will for mankind (His Word) was not revealed all at once. Instead, He revealed it little by little throughout history. This fact accounts for the diversity of human responsibilities given by God throughout time. For example, the nation of Israel worshiped differently than Adam and Eve did; believers today worship differently than Israel did.

[Dispensationalism is really based upon the idea of progressive revelation. God revealed very little to Adam and Eve, and thus their level of knowledge and level of responsibility was much different than today. Each dispensation is characterized by new/additional revelation.]

2. God’s revealed will has contained both eternal principles and temporary programs.

For example, the principle of capital punishment was taught early in human history and was repeated in later dispensations (compare Genesis 9:6 with Romans 13:4). It is, therefore, a continuing principle. On the other hand, animal sacrifices were intended to be temporary.

The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming  not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. If it could, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins.   Hebrews 10:1 2

[Thus an idea or principle from one dispensation, like capital punishment (Gen 9:6) or the need for civil government, carries forward into the next dispensations. This is why the OT is valuable today even tho much of it does not apply directly to us. Other principles, like the dietary laws, were temporary and for a certain group of people.]

  1. The various dispensations

Dispensationalists generally see seven distinct dispensations in the Bible based upon significant new revelation from God that changes or adds to man’s responsibility. Since the revelation in each dispensation builds upon previous revelation, the relationship between the dispensations can be visualized as follows:


III. The Present Age of History

Paul referred to the present age as the age of “ grace ” (Ephesians 3:2). It is also known as the “ church age.”

[The church is God’s program for today. All ministry should be centered around the church. The life of the believer is closely linked to the church. Church should be a very important part of your life. Also, the fact that this is the age of grace does not imply that no grace was available previous to this. But c.f. John 1:17.]

A. The meaning of “church”

1. Generally speaking, the word “church” referred to a “ called out body ” or an “ assembly .”

2. Technically speaking, the New Testament applied the word to believers in this age.

a. It can refer to all believers (the universal church).

[You may hear of it called the “catholic” (with a little “c”) church. This is not the Roman Catholic Church. The word “catholic” simply means “universal.” This is how it’s used in some of the creeds and confessions. The universal church is also called the body of Christ or the invisible church.]

For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body  whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free  and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.   1 Corinthians 12:13

We will study the universal church in Lesson Twenty Three.

b. It can refer to a local assembly of believers (the local church).

To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ  their Lord and ours.   1 Corinthians 1:2

We will study the local church in Lesson Twenty Four.

[It’s interesting to note that some people deny the existence of the universal church. They say that all references to the church in the NT refer either to a specific local church or to the local church generically or as an institution (e.g., “the American home”). This view is known as “local only.” One problem with this view is that there are a few references and/or implications of references that indicate that all believers are part of the “body of Christ” and thus of the universal church. Another problem is that if you are not a member of a local church, you are not a part of the Body of Christ.]

B. The time of the church

The concept of the church and the teachings regarding it are unique to this age.

1. The church was not revealed in the Old Testament.

Paul indicates that the church was a concept unknown to the Old Testament prophets, but later revealed and explained through the New Testament apostles. Because it was previously unknown, Paul called it a mystery .

In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets. This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.   Ephesians 3:4 6

[Note that a “mystery” in the NT is not something spooky or mystical. It is simply something not yet revealed. God did not reveal the idea that Jews and Gentiles would be part of the same organization (the church) in the OT.]

It is important to note that the church is distinct from Israel . It is a new entity created to proclaim a new message, the gospel.

[Those who see little or no distinction between OT Israel and the NT church endorse what is called “covenant” theology. We endorse “dispensational” theology.]

2. The church began on the Day of Pentecost .

“But in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” – Acts 1:5

According to 1 Corinthians 12:13, one becomes a member of the church by being baptized by the Holy Spirit. The initial instance of Holy Spirit baptism took place on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4).

The fact that the church began at this time underscores the truth that the church is not Israel. Christ initiated the church; it is unique to this age; it has unique objectives as outlined in Matthew 28:19 20 and Acts 1:8.

C. The purpose of the church

We have already learned that the purpose of history is to glorify God. The purpose of the church is the same.

To Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.   Ephesians 3:21

How does the church glorify God?

1. The church glorifies God as the guardian of truth .

If I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.   1 Timothy 3:15

The church guards the truth through careful exposition of God’s Word and consistent exposure of falsehood.

[An elder] must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.   Titus 1:9

2. The church glorifies God by fulfilling its mission to pass on the truth to future generations .

And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others.   2 Timothy 2:2

Observe the progression of thought in this verse:


The fulfillment of this mission demands that doctrine be the focal point of all church ministry.

Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage  with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine.   2 Timothy 4:2 3

Recap & Review

In this lesson, we have learned:

1. History has a definite plan, an ultimate goal (Christ’s kingdom), and a singular purpose (God’s glory).

2. God has accomplished His plan through various dispensations. A dispensation is a stewardship arrangement in which God reveals His will to men who are then responsible to obey that revelation.

3. The present dispensation is known as the church age. The church has both a universal and local aspect. It began on the Day of Pentecost. Its purpose is to glorify God through the ministry of His Word.

Learning to Live It

1. A popular seminar teacher [Bill Gothard, among others] often takes Old Testament teachings and directly applies them to the New Testament church. He promotes the observance of Old Testament dietary laws and teaches that obedience to God guarantees good health based upon the promises God made to Moses. To whom were these Old Testament laws and promises written?

Old Testament Israel

What light do passages such as Acts 10:9 15 and 2 Corinthians 12:7 10 shed on the above issues?

Acts 10:9-15–Old Testament dietary laws are no longer in effect.

2 Corinthians 12:7-10–Paul must have been a disobedient believer if OT promises of health and prosperity were still in force.

How does dispensationalism help one correctly interpret Old Testament passages?

1. It helps one understand that certain things God required of some people at some time He may not require of other people at other times. 2. It helps us separate out principles from the OT that apply to us today. 3. By recognizing the differences between the testaments and allowing one to more readily distinguish between eternal principles and temporary programs

2. A speaker at camp preaches a sermon from Psalm 126:5 6 entitled: “The Mission of the Church.” What fundamental error has he made in his interpretation of this passage?

The church was not revealed until the New Testament. The OT has nothing to say about the church directly.

3. A church in your community plans an evangelistic crusade. In order to draw crowds, the guests include a rock band and a magician. In addition, a new car is to be awarded to the person who brings the most visitors. When questioned as to the appropriateness of the above methods, the pastor replies, “Our purpose is to get the gospel to as many people as possible. These methods are good because they pack the pews!” What does this pastor’s statement indicate concerning his view of the church?

He believes that the purpose of the church is to win souls (a “soteriological” purpose). The purpose of the church, however, is to glorify God (a “doxological” purpose). Winning souls is an objective of the church (i.e., one of the ways by which the church fulfills its purpose of bringing glory to God). But evangelism must be limited by thinking about what does and does not honor or glorify God. Thus, we do evangelism only in a way that is God-centered and God-honoring.

How do the methods used in this crusade fail to reflect the true purpose of the church?

1. They do not glorify God (Remember, the means, as well as the end, must be consistent with God’s character in order for something to be glorifying to Him.). Instead, the question should be, “Is what we are doing pleasing and acceptable to God?” 2. The main objective is not to pack the pews. The main objective is to obey and honor God.

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