“This Moses whom they refused, saying, Who made thee a ruler and a judge? the same did God send to be a ruler and a deliverer by the hand of the angel which appeared to him in the bush.
“He brought them out, after that he had shewed wonders and signs in the land of Egypt, and in the Red sea, and in the wilderness forty years.
“This is that Moses, which said unto the children of Israel, A prophet shall the Lord your God raise up unto you of your brethren, like unto me; him shall ye hear.
“This is he, that was in THE CHURCH IN THE WILDERNESS with the angel which spake to him in the mount Sina, and with our fathers: who received the lively oracles to give unto us” (Acts 7:35-38).
Much confusion exists today about the biblical use of the word church. Without understanding the term in light of Scripture, many people conclude this word refers to a building that is used for worship.
The Bible teaches that the church is not a building, but that believers themselves are the church. Others assume that any time they find the word church in Scripture, it refers to them or truth about them; this is not true either, this assumption can lead to many practical and doctrinal errors.
First, we must establish the definition of the word church in the Bible. The word church, does not always mean the same thing, every time we find it, and it doesn’t always refer to the same group of people. As it is with many biblical words, it is critical to look at the context in which they are used to understand their meaning.
The Bible refers to several different churches. First, in Acts 7, we find a reference to a church, but it is not the Church, the Body of Christ. It is a different church. Acts 7 refers to “the church in the wilderness,” referring back to the days of the books of Exodus and Numbers in your Bible. We see here that God had a “church” long before Christ said, “upon this rock I will build My church” in Matthew 16:16-18. Who is this church in Acts 7?
Stephen, in his discourse before the religious leaders in Israel explained how the people of Israel initially “refused” the leadership of Moses (Acts 7:35) but later accepted him and followed him out of Egypt “after that he shewed wonders and signs” (v. 36). Then, God gave the “lively oracles” to Moses on Mount Sinai “to give unto us” (v. 38). The “us” is Israel.
Here the word church is referring to the people of Israel in the wilderness after their deliverance from Egypt. Thus, we learn that there was a “church” in the past. This church in the wilderness had laws, requirements, and instructions specifically for them. They had a place to worship at the tabernacle. They had Moses as their leader. This church was Israel.
When we read about this church in the Old Testament, it does not refer to us. It is not the church of this dispensation of grace. It was a different church, a different group of people who lived under the law.
The word church is translating the Greek word ekklesia, and it simply means a called-out group or a called-out assembly. It is a general term and can be used to describe any group of people, from an angry mob (Acts 19:32,41) to a group of saints gathered for worship….
The context will always make clear which church is in view. Israel was a church, a called-out group. They were called out of Egypt and out of the world to be a special people unto God. Today, we are a called-out, special group of people. We are called out, not as a chosen nation as Israel was but, instead, we’re called out to be members of the Church, the Body of Christ.
We, too, are a church, but we are not Israel. Israel was a church, but they were not the Body of Christ. These must be kept separate. In doing this, it clarifies many misunderstandings about God’s instructions for Israel under the law as well as God’s instructions for the Body of Christ under grace. When we rightly divide between these two, we understand the Bible much more clearly.
To the Reader:
Some of our Two Minutes articles were written many years ago by Pastor C. R. Stam for publication in newspapers. When many of these articles were later compiled in book form, Pastor Stam wrote this word of explanation in the Preface:
"It should be borne in mind that the newspaper column, Two Minutes With the Bible, has now been published for many years, so that local, national and international events are discussed as if they occurred only recently. Rather than rewrite or date such articles, we have left them just as they were when first published. This, we felt, would add to the interest, especially since our readers understand that they first appeared as newspaper articles."
To this we would add that the same is true for the articles written by others that we continue to add, on a regular basis, to the Two Minutes library. We hope that you'll agree that while some of the references in these articles are dated, the spiritual truths taught therein are timeless.