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.