Something old, something new
Acts 2 shows us the inauguration of the new covenant. Jesus has died, was resurrected, and ascended as the victorious anointed king. He pours out his spirit on his people more fully, in a visible way that calls our attention to earlier covenants where God’s fire came upon the altar. He begins to establish his church, and in one sense we can call this the very beginning of the church.
But not in every sense. There is something old here as well as something new.
Acts 2 is not the first time the word for church has appeared. The Greek word ekklesia appears in Matthew 16 and 18. These are not proleptic references to something the disciples could not have anticipated. Rather, they reflect a kind of continuity between the assembly or congregation of the Old Testament and the church. In fact, the Septuagint uses ekklesia throughout to refer to the assembly of God’s people. The first time it appears is in Leviticus 8:3, for the gathering of God’s people at the establishment of a new (Mosaic) covenant. We say that, typologically, the church is Israel. It is, but we can say more: Israel was the church.
The idea of God’s forming a bride out of his people is not new, either. The imagery in Exodus suggests that God was espousing himself to his people, and this is later taken up by the prophets. We know that marriage itself was designed to reflect the deeper and more enduring reality of Jesus and his church (Eph. 5), so this is an inescapable subtext in the Song of Solomon, whatever you may think about the primary meaning of the book. Interestingly, the Hebrew word for food offering is related to the word for woman, wife, bride. This goes both ways — woman is the glorious fire to man’s dust, but there is also bridal imagery to the offerings consumed by God.
To reconcile these somethings old and new, we can recall that there was something “not good” about the church and covenant, so that it had to be remade, restructured, put to death and raised back to life. In this way the church is something old and it is made something new. This is true of all of God’s new covenants — sin and death require God’s people and the old creation to pass through a kind of death and resurrection into a new creation, a new heavens and earth. This is particularly clear in God’s dealings with Noah, but also in the Exodus, where there are literary and typological features that point to God’s making a new creation. This reaches its complete fulfillment in Jesus in the new covenant. He passes through death to resurrection, and so must the old creation in order to enjoy life. Just as Adam had to pass through a kind of death for Eve to be born from his side, so Jesus had to pass through death itself in order for a more glorified church to be reborn through the blood and water from his side. The least of those in this new creation is greater than the old creation’s greatest prophet (Matt. 11:11).
In a way, the assembly needed a kind of baptism. It had to die and be reborn to become the church. Specifically, it had to die the death of repentance. There was no more possibility of life with the status quo: synagogues had to give their allegiance to Jesus if they were to remain in the tree. We see some synagogues undergoing this repentance and resurrection in Acts, so that it is even possible that Romans 11:26 was fulfilled by the fifth century.
The church has always been Jesus’s body and bride, given a portion of the spirit, given gifts of life and fellowship, and called to sacrifice for life of the world. What is new in Acts 2 is this: Jesus has come in the flesh; everything that was only anticipated in the old covenants has been accomplished; Satan has been cast out of heaven and a man sits enthroned there; Jesus has given the keys to his kingdom from cherubim to his church; he has poured out his spirit more potently, widely and enduringly than ever before; and Jesus has not only drawn his people nearer to him, but now invites all nations to enjoy the privileges and responsibilities of this special nearness.
Something new from something dead,
Something plundered, something red.