Category Archives: Church/Ecclesiology

Ekklesia in the Gospel of Matthew

 

In our last post on the doctrine of the church, we began our Scriptural examination with an overview of the Old Testament, particularly the Greek translation (Septuagint), use of ekklesia, the Greek word translated as church in the English New Testament.   Here we want to turn our attention to the first use of ekklesia in the New Testament, which as we have seen is not a new concept, rather a clarification and reapplication of an existing concept.

The word ekklesia is used only used three times in the Gospels, all occurring in Matthew and all used by our Lord.  We will begin with an overview of these passages, some brief observations/questions, and follow up with more in-depth exposition in subsequent posts. The first passage is Matthew 16:18 within the context of Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ and Son of God

13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.” Matthew 16:13-20

Historically, this passage has been the source of two significant controversies concerning the understanding of church.  First, is the identification of the rock upon which Christ will build His church.  This interpretive controversy has led to no shortage of division, most notably between Protestants and Catholics.

The second controversy concerns the notion of a doctrine of the universal church.  What is it? Does it or Does it not exist?  This has had massive implications such as who belongs to the church and may find its origin in the 3rd and 4th centuries, most notably with Augustine and the Donatist Controversy.  Here is where a nuanced understanding of church vs. ekklesia will help navigate the waters of this controversy, which we will traverse in a future post.

Additionally, as we dive into this passage in subsequent posts, we must distinguish between this concept of ekklesia (church) and the kingdom of heaven, a matter of confusion that also has its source around the time of Augustine.  Also, we’ll need to look at to whom the “keys of the kingdom” have been given.  Relatedly, what is the “binding and loosing” that is here mentioned?  Answering these questions biblically, while avoiding the tangles of tradition, will aid greatly in identifying the form of Christ’s ekklesia.

The next two uses of ekklesia (church) in Matthew are both found in Matthew 18:17.  Here the context of is the confrontation of a sinning brother or sister for the purpose of bringing them to repentance.

15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” Matthew 18:15-20

Here, it is often asserted that the use of ekklesia is substantially different than in the previous use, perhaps suggestive of a more specific application, which some have determined to be a reference to the local church.  For obvious reasons, if a universal church existed, it would be impossible to “tell it to the church” universally, so by necessary reasoning the scope of ekklesia here is often seen to be different and narrower.  However, we will need a closer examination and not merely assume that there is an implied difference between ekklesia found in Matthew 16 and here in Matthew 18, as so many have done before.

Next, we find an additional mention of binding and loosing, which would seem to be a clarification and indeed an application of the previous mention in Matthew 16.  Additionally, some have used this passage to promote a concept known as “church discipline”.  As we unpack these uses of ekklesia by our Lord in the Gospel of Matthew, this will be one of the issues we will need take up.  What situations warrant discipline?  Who is qualified to issue this discipline?

With these passages from Matthew introduced, we will turn our focus to the first controversial issue from Matthew 16, namely upon whom is the rock which Christ will build His ekklesia?

 

 

 

 

 

The Old Testament Use of Ekklesia

 

If you’ve been following along through the ongoing series on the doctrine of church, you’ve hopefully seen how carefully defining ones use and meaning of terms is important.  After laying the foundation for some of the historical facts regarding the nature of church, ekklesia, and synagogue, we turn now to the scriptural use of ekklesia.  For obvious reasons, the New Testament should be our primary guide for formulating our doctrine of church.

However, before we jump into an examination of the New Testament use of ekklesia, translated into English as church, we must at least provide an overview of the Old Testament use, particularly as it occurs in the Greek translation of the Old Testament.  This translation is commonly called the Septuagint and is often abbreviated as LXX (70).  What we know as the Old Testament today was originally written in Hebrew and some Aramaic.  However, in the 3rd Century B.C. a group of 72 Jewish scholars were commissioned to translate the Old Testament into Greek, a more common and modern language at the time.  This translation is largely that which would have been in use and circulation during time of Christ and His disciples, which gives it bearing on the use and meaning of particular words, in this case, ekklesia.

Remember that we’ve already discussed the Greek translation, ekklesia, of the Hebrew word qahal.  However, it should be pointed out that of the 162 occurrences of qahal in the Hebrew Old Testament, approximately 96 times it is translated ekklesia in the Greek Old Testament (LXX), while approximately 45 times it is translated sunagoge (synagogue).  So once again we are able to see the overlap in range between ekklesia and synagogue.

One additional reminder is that, as we have seen, ekklesia and church are not exactly synonyms.  Ekklesia generally means an assembly, gathering, or congregation, while in a strict sense church most often refers to the people of God or a building where these people meet.  Conflating the two terms and their meanings has led to no shortage of difficulty.  There will be more to say on this, but for now we turn our attention to Scripture.

It won’t be practical to examine every single use of ekklesia in the Septuagint, however there are a few key, thematic uses as well as a couple of individual uses that will help provide understanding for how the New Testament uses the word, particularly as it is first used by our Lord in Matthew 16:18.  If we understand that Christ was not inventing a new concept with the statement, “I will build my ekklesia (church)” rather that He was utilizing an already familiar concept which He was now elucidating and re-framing, it will aid in our understanding of the church.

In his essay on the “Nature of the Church” in volume two of his works, Professor John Murray (1898-1975) provides some key thematic uses of ekklesia found in the Greek Old Testament that are most helpful in understanding the New Testament use.  He points out that the first use in the Septuagint occurs in Deuteronomy 4:10, “how on the day that you stood before the Lord your God at Horeb, the Lord said to me, ‘Gather the people to me, that I may let them hear my words, so that they may learn to fear me all the days that they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children so.”

In this passage we may observe that the assembly is called by God, i.e. He is the one calling for the assembling (gather).  Additionally we see that this is in reference to an actual gathering.  It was not a spiritual gathering of all who identified as Israel, nor did it include those who were scattered abroad in other countries.  It was an actual gathering of those physically present.  While in this assembly, the people were to hear the word of God and learn to fear Him all their life, particularly for the purpose of teaching their children.  In context, Moses is reminding the people of the Day of the Assembly, which occurred as the people assembled before God at Mount Sinai.  This brings us to our second significant use of ekklesia pointed out by Professor Murray.

Murray draws attention to the “day of the assembly (ekklesia)” and locates this occasion in Deuteronomy 9:10; 10:4; 18:16.  This Day of the Church is again a reference to the ekklesia gathered at Sinai.  This singular reference has an interesting trajectory that leaves one wondering whether it points forward eschatologically to a future, singular ekklesia or gathering, see especially Hebrews 12:18-29.  But more on that later.

Furthermore, Stephen references this exact occasion during his speech just prior to his murder and draws attention to the “congregation (ekklesia) in the wilderness” (Acts 7:38).  So we are able to see how the New Testament corroborates our understanding of ekklesia in the Old Testament thus far.

Next, Murray points out that ekklesia in the Old Testament is a covenant gathering.  Here he cites numerous passages including: Exodus 19:5-25; 1 Kings 8:14, 22, 55, 65; 1 Chronicles 13:2, 4; 28:8, 29:1, 10, 20; 2 Chronicles 6:3, 12, 13; 7:8 (I would add 2 Chronicles 23:3).

The first passage of note, from Exodus 19, is the historical account of the Mt. Sinai gathering.  This has already been mentioned, but we’ll add that it was here where God established His covenant, commonly called the Mosiac Covenant, with the Nation of Israel.  The entire book of Hebrews is interested in the comparison and contrast between the Old (Mosaic) Covenant and New Covenant, ratified through the death of Christ.

The second passage, 1 Kings 8, deals with the blessing and dedication of the temple by Solomon.  The background of the prior covenantal events at Sinai are given in 1 Kings 8:9-11 and the setting places this dedication firmly within the promises given in the Davidic Covenant (2 Samuel 7).

The third passage, 1 Chronicles 13:2,4 supports our conclusion earlier that the assembly of Israel was an actual gathering and did not include those who were absent or separated for one reason or another.  Here, David speaks to the assembly of Israel concerning the brothers abroad “who remain in all the lands of Israel” that they might be gathered together with them.

The remaining passages from 1 Chronicles have Davidic Covenant implications as well while the passages from 2 Chronicles are the Chroniclers viewpoint of the temple dedication discussed earlier.

Finally, from Murray we may note the Septuagint uses that most likely frame our Lord’s use of ekklesia in Matthew 16:18 and Matthew 18:17.  He points out the following: Psalm 22:22, 25; Psalm 40:9,10.  We will examine these next time when we open up the words of Christ concerning His ekklesia  in the Gospel of Matthew.

In addition to these thematic uses, some additional passages should be noted which will aid in rounding out our understanding of ekklesia in the New Testament.  First is that the Old Testament ekklesia had entrance requirements.  This may be seen in Deut. 23:1-3 preventing entrance of emasculated males, those of illegitimate birth, and Amonites and Moabites.  Second, the Old Testament ekklesia was a war church.  This is asserted in these passages: Judges 20:2; 21:5; 21:8; and 1 Samuel 17:47.  Finally, there is an indication of a heavenly ekklesia as seen in Psalm 89:5.

The use of ekklesia in the Septuagint is broad and sometimes does not maintain its technical use or meaning, for that reason, some slight caution is warranted when attempting to derive meaning for the New Testament use.  Additionally, we need to understand the national flavor of the Old Testament ekklesia as it relates to Israel, as well as it’s inception and operation under the Old Covenant.

However, as pointed out here there are some noteworthy and informative backgrounds that can be gleaned from the Old Testament use and meaning.  With these passages, and there are others we could examine, we are better equipped to turn to the New Testament scriptures and understand what meaning the word ekklesia is trying to convey. Allowing it to speak and define on its own terms, in its own context, will ultimately provide us with a clearer picture of how Christ is building His ekklesia, both the form and the function.