Steps leading to Upper Room.

Happy Birthday to the Church that Jesus Builds

HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO THE CHURCH THAT JESUS BUILDS[1]

By Tim Smith

I have been involved in churches since I was born 54 years ago, but I have NEVER heard of or seen a birthday celebration for the church. There are great reasons to celebrate the church’s birthday.

I was in Israel in 2012 on Pentecost Sunday. I was studying at Jerusalem University College, which is very near the purported site of the Upper Room, at the top of the Western Hill, also known as Mt. Zion, on the southwest side of the Old City of Jerusalem. I got up early to read through Acts 2 with a friend on the steps of the Upper Room building. It was my way of trying to celebrate the birthday of the church on Pentecost.

Steps leading to Upper Room.
Steps leading to Upper Room. Photo taken from Courtyard.

However, when we arrived at the area of the Upper Room, it was packed full of Orthodox Jews. It turned out that they had spent the night in the area of the Upper Room studying the Torah. I learned that according to the oral traditions of the Jews, contained in the Talmud, they believe that the Law was given to Moses on Pentecost, the 50th day after their Passover escape from Egypt. They celebrate the giving of the Law by studying it for 48 hours without sleep.

The building identified as the Upper Room is over a small synagogue that is identified by Orthodox Jews as the Tomb of King David. Although it is not David’s actual tomb, it is the place where David’s memory is revered. Orthodox Jews also believe that Pentecost is the birthday of David. So, Pentecost is a day when they remember the promise of a Messiah in the lineage of David.

 

Tomb of David memorial in the basement of the Upper Room building.
Tomb of David memorial in the basement of the Upper Room building.

 

Thus, on the birthday of the church of Jesus Christ in 2012, we did not find any Christians in the area of the Upper Room to celebrate the church’s birthday, only Jews celebrating the birthday of King David and the giving of the Law to Moses. My friend and I squeezed past the Jews who were sitting on the steps leading to the Upper Room, studying the Torah, and we made our way to the landing outside the door to the Upper Room. There, we somewhat quietly read through Acts 2 and praised God for what He has done through His church. We also asked Him to continue to complete what Jesus started in the work of the church, until the Messiah returns.

As we read through Acts 2, verse 29 jumped out at me. In 2:29, after Peter quoted David in the Psalms, describing burial and rapid resurrection of the Holy One (2:27), Peter notes that the Psalm is not about David, because “I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day.” “… he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption” (2:31).[2]

In other words, as we are on the steps of the “Upper Room,” with the tomb of David below us, as Peter may have been, he can confidently say, “his tomb is with us to this day.” Suddenly, being on site gave us insight into the Word.

I had initially learned that the “Upper Room” is too new (by about 1000 years) to be the actual Upper Room, but it was in the area. With further study, however, I learned that the foundation of the present Upper Room is probably the foundation for the original Upper Room, which later became the Church of the Apostles.[3]

In fact, the Upper Room was likely part of the walled Essene retreat in Jerusalem. Even though the House of Caiaphas was close by, the wall and the insular nature of the Essene section made the Upper Room a safe place for the disciples and Jesus to escape.[4] At the same time, because it was an elevated area and close to the Essene gateway to Jerusalem, it was close to crowds of people coming to the city for Pentecost. When about 3,000 souls repented and placed their faith in Jesus Christ as Messiah, there were many Mikvehs (Jewish ritual baths) around the area for baptizing the new Christ followers. (See fn. 4.)

Map of the Essene Quarter, taken from Bargil PIxner’s article on the subject. See fn. 4.
Map of the Essene Quarter, taken from Bargil PIxner’s article on the subject. See fn. 4.

Thus, we now know there is an “Upper Room” in the same location as the original Upper Room, with a synagogue honoring David’s memory and (alleged) tomb of David in the basement of the building. The Upper Room is surrounded by a Jewish seminary where the Law is studied and revered on Pentecost.

This brings us to the main question: what should we make of three crucial aspects of Scripture being celebrated in the same location on the same day – (1) the birthday of the giving of the Law; (2) the birthday of the greatest OT king of the Jews and the ancestor of the Messiah under the Davidic Covenant; and (3) the birthday of the Church of Jesus Christ? Is this all an amazing coincidence or is there more that God wants to teach us?

The Corollary To The Birthday Of The Law

We know that the giving of the Law was part of the Mosaic Covenant – a covenant that was not kept and could not be kept by the Israelites. When we use the term, Old Testament, to refer to the Hebrew Scriptures, in contrast to the New Testament, we are saying that the new covenant in Jesus’ blood completed and replaced the old covenant in the Law (Luke 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25). The new covenant opened the door of the church to all those who embrace the atonement of Jesus on their behalf. Thus, in a real sense, the birthdays of the Old Covenant and the seal of the New Covenant assembly of saints are on the same day and are celebrated in the same place.

Pentecost is also known as a day of firstfruits of the land (Ex. 34:22; Num. 28:26).[5] The firstfruits of the land represent the initial harvest of the bounty to come. Thus, when the Holy Spirit is described as a down payment on the inheritance of the saints (Eph. 1:13-14), that down payment is a firstfruit of the saints’ inheritance that is to come. This is exactly how Paul describes the Holy Spirit in Romans 8:23 – in awaiting the redemption of our bodies, we take comfort in the presence of the Holy Spirit – “we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit.” Not only is the Holy Spirit the firstfruits, but Jesus is also described as our firstfruits of promises made to us in 1 Cor. 15:20, 23. As we in the church are united with Christ through the Holy Spirit, we are also described as firstfruits of the promised kingdom: 2 Thes. 2:13; James 1:18; Rev. 14:4. Thus, Pentecost is a unique day for celebrating the Holy Spirit given to us as the firstfruits of the New Covenant promises made through the atonement of Jesus in place of the Old Covenant in the Law.

Jeremiah 31:31 promises a “new covenant,” where Yahweh says, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.” Similarly, in Ezekiel 36:26-27, Yahweh says, “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” Thus, there was to be a new giving of the law, but in the hearts, not on tablets made of stone. It is no coincidence that the day celebrated for the giving of the first law is the same day on which the indwelling of the law in the heart was given through the coming of the Holy Spirit.

The Corollary To The Birthday Of The Great King

The Jewish celebration of Shavuot (Feast of Weeks/Pentecost) includes the reading of the book of Ruth, because Ruth is the ancestor of David and David is believed to have been born and died on Shavuot.[6] The Davidic covenant of 2 Samuel 7 includes the promise of a Son of David who will rule a forever kingdom. That Davidic son’s back will be marked with the “stripes of the sons of men” (7:14). His throne, however, shall be established forever. David, as the great psalmist of the Jews, prophesied often of this great coming Son. Some would say that most of the Psalms are ultimately Messianic in nature. Psalm 110:1 is often used to establish that the future Son of David – the future Messiah – preceded David and is greater than David (e.g., Matt. 22:44; Mark 12:36; Luke 20:42-43; Acts 2:34-35; etc.). Matthew and Luke establish Jesus’ Davidic genealogy. Even the blind beggar, Bartimaeus (Mark 10:47-48), referred to Jesus as the Son of David.

Thus, a birthday celebration for King David is always a reminder of the Davidic Messiah. This Davidic Messiah will “build my church,” so that “the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” (Matt. 16:18.) On the birth date of the church, Peter, to whom those words were directly spoken, preached the first sermon of the church as an evangelical message of repentance to those living in darkness. The response on Pentecost was extraordinary, in keeping with the extraordinary courage and power given to them by the Holy Spirit. The church was off and running on May 24, 33 AD.[7] The church has Jesus’ authority to represent Him and the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 16:19) until He returns. On Jesus’ return to reign in His Messianic kingdom, King David shall rise to be a prince who will shepherd his people (Ezek. 34:23-24).[8] Thus, the birthday of the great Jewish King is a reminder that Jesus is the promised Messiah who will be returning to reign forever as King of kings and Lord of lords.

Good Reason to Celebrate the Birthday of the Church

My family recently celebrated the 24th birthday of my daughter. In the celebration, we consider what God has done up to this point in her life and we anticipate God’s continued work in her life. The same is true of most birthdays: in celebrating the present, we consider both the past and the future. A celebration of the birthday of the church should also look back at what God has done and look forward to what God has promised to do.

We have a Redeemer who is greater than Moses and greater than the Law given to Moses. (Heb. 3:1-6). We have a King who is the Son of David and is greater than Solomon (otherwise considered the great son of David, Matt. 12:42). David called the Messiah his Lord/Master (Ps. 110:1). If the birthday of the inferior things is celebrated on Pentecost, then shouldn’t the birthday of the church that Jesus builds be celebrated on Pentecost?

If the church is the bride of Christ that will be presented to Him for all of eternity (see Rev. 19:7-8), shouldn’t we celebrate the progress of the church in being prepared for the marriage supper of the Lamb? Shouldn’t we celebrate what God has done in the last 1982 years of the church, taking a small, frightened group of people from a remote corner of the world and, against all odds, transforming them into what is an assembly of saints that may be more than 2 billion strong? Shouldn’t we reflect on what is left for the church to do in order to hasten the return of Jesus as true King (Matt. 24:14; 2 Pet. 3:9, 11-15a)?

On Pentecost the body of Christ was sealed with the Holy Spirit as a down-payment on its inheritance until possession of the inheritance is fully secured (Eph. 1:13-14 – note the collective pronouns). The church is to reflect “the riches of His glorious inheritance in the saints” and “the immeasurable greatness of His power toward us who believe” (Eph. 1:18-20). The church is the bodily manifestation on earth of the King of kings until Jesus comes again (Eph. 1:22-23). The church is the vessel through which “the manifold wisdom of God” is being “made known to the rulers and authorizes in the heavenly places” (Eph. 3:8-10). The church is the vessel through which Jesus works in power to bring Himself glory for all generations (Eph. 3:20-21). Jesus is working to present the church to Himself “in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such things, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:27).

Therefore, Pentecost is the day to celebrate the church, the day to reflect on what Jesus has done in and through His church and on what He will continue to do as He builds His church. There will come a day when the building of the church is complete and Jesus comes again as King of kings and Lord of lords to rule with His church. On that day, the angels will be arrayed in festal garments and the saints will be made fully perfect (Heb. 12:22). Let us be joyfully prepared as we work together for that day.

 

[1] In Matt. 16:18, Jesus announced that, “I will build my church,” and in Acts 1:1, Luke notes that his Gospel presented “all that Jesus began to do and teach.” The implication is that Acts is a continuation of what Jesus began as He builds His church.

[2] All Scripture quotes are from the ESV.

[3] See the excellent article on the subject by Bargil Pixner that originally appeared in Biblical Archeological Review: http://www.centuryone.org/apostles.html

[4] Bargil Pixner also has an excellent article establishing the Essene character of the area around the Upper Room during the time of Jesus. http://www.centuryone.org/essene.html

[5] Lev. 23:9-14 describes a Feast of Firstfruits on the day after Passover, but that feast seems to anticipate the offering firstfruits from the wheat harvest at the Feast of Weeks/Pentecost. See Lev. 23:14-21.

[6] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shavuot.

[7] This is using an April 3, 33 AD date of crucifixion, which is the most likely of the two possible dates. 2015 is unique in that the calendar dates match those of 33 AD. Thus, April 3, 2015 was exactly 1982 years since the crucifixion, April 5 was the anniversary of the resurrection and May 24, 2015 will be the anniversary of Pentecost, the birthday of the church.

[8] Many theologians believe the reference to David is a metaphor for Jesus as Messiah. Yet, David will certainly be part of the resurrected saints who will reign with Jesus. (2 Tim. 2:12; Rev. 20:6.)

 

 

Tim Smith is an attorney in Laguna Niguel, CA. He completed his MA in Biblical and Theological Studies from Western Seminary in 2012.

1 thought on “Happy Birthday to the Church that Jesus Builds

  1. WOW. I can’t wait until I can go and experience what you experience in Israel. It had to be an awesome memory. I agree with you concerning celebrating the birth of the church and I agree with you that it should be celebrated on the day of Pentecost. I can only imagine how the scriptures would jump out at an individual being in Israel. I am a Christian and my family we do celebrate Pentecost and passover. It’s nice to see other Christians doing the same. I enjoyed this read and can’t wait to show it to my mom she would be happy to see this as she has drilled this concept in me since birth. Thanks for sharing. Can’t wait to read more from this blog!

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