The New Testament Use of Ekklesia – Part 1

Several years ago, we looked at a number of posts focusing on the meaning of church and more specifically, ekklesia, the little Greek word most often translated as church. In asking What is an Ekklesia, we saw that it is a noun used in the New Testament approximately 118 times in 115 verses, depending on the manuscript referenced (in this case Textus Receptus). We also saw in the Old Testament Use of Ekklesia that the most used equivalent in Hebrew was qahal, often occurring in a non-technical sense with reference to Israel, specifically the assembly of Israel at Sinai. Finally, we began the New Testament look at ekklesia by noting the three occurrences in Matthew used exclusively by our Lord. In these passages we noted that Christ is indeed the foundation of His ekklesia. Additionally, we were introduced to the local aspect of ekklesia, along with a general use of ekklesia that will need some additional focus. Here, in this post, we want to build upon the foundation that our Lord laid down by surveying where and how ekklesia is used in the New Testament.

The majority usage of ekklesia occurs in just three books, Acts (24x), 1 Corinthians (21x), and Revelation (19x) comprising over half of the overall occurrences. While the remaining uses throughout the New Testament are no less important, our initial focus will be on the majority report. If the foundation of ekklesia in the New Testament was laid by our Lord in Matthew’s gospel, then the Book of Acts builds directly upon this foundation by picking up immediately with His disciples after His ascension. Therefore, by turning to Acts we get an expanded picture of the ekklesia that our Lord was building. While many commentators note that the New Testament ekklesia was first built at Pentecost (Acts 2), we must not neglect the fact of our Lord’s little ekklesia that He built with His disciples. It is noteworthy that this “first” ekklesia was comprised of 12 Jewish disciples, indicating a regathering of Israel (Twelve tribes). This point aside, the first official use of ekklesia in Acts occurs in Acts 2:47 KJV (Note: this is a textual variant and this usage does not occur in all English translations),
46 And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, 47 Praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.

Acts 2:46-47 KJV
For context, we ought again to note that Christ’s ekklesia, which began with that little band of disciples, had itself grown after His death and ascension to number around 120 (Acts 1:15). This passage supports our assertion earlier that Christ had indeed built a foundational ekklesia with His disciples and then through the miraculous saving act of the Spirit at Pentecost 3000 souls were added, along with those whom the Lord added daily. Technically speaking, the church, i.e. ekklesia, did not begin at Pentecost, but rather with our Lord. Here, however, we have clearly in view the ekklesia of Jerusalem, local and geographically confined. Many have wrestled over the large number and then questioned how so many could gather together in one place, often using it for justification as the first example of a mega-church. However, this line of questioning misses the point of the establishment Christ’s ekklesia in Jerusalem from where the Gospel would spread as He had prophesied (Acts 1:8). The reference to the Jerusalem ekklesia naturally comprises a significant amount of the occurrences in Acts as it is from here that the gospel spreads from to Judea, Samaria, and to the end of the earth (5:11; 8:1; 8:3; 11:22; 12:1; 12:5; 15:4; 15:22).

In summarizing the other uses of ekklesia in the Book of Acts, we note first Acts 7:38 occurring within the speech of Stephen with a specific reference to the church in the wilderness, i.e. Israel. This supports our earlier evidence that ekklesia is not a new term or concept used to describe a gathering or assembly. Instead, ekklesia is now in Christ as it is His ekklesia. We ought also to remember the clear difference taking place as noted in the passage from Acts 2:42ff.

Additionally, in Acts we find several instances of ekklesia used in the plural (9:31; 14:23; 15:41; 16:5; 19:37) indicating that there is not a single church (ekklesia) present and active on the earth at one time, rather there are multiple churches and they occur in a specific geographic location. Furthermore, these other churches mentioned were not in an ecclesiastical hierarchy with the aforementioned church of Jerusalem. Instead, they were each local and independent.
Then had the churches rest throughout all Judaea and Galilee and Samaria, and were edified; and walking in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Ghost, were multiplied. Acts 9:31 KJV
Next we have references to individual, local ekklesiae in Antioch (11:26; 13:1; 14:27; 15:3), Caesarea (18:22), and Ephesus (20:17; 28). Finally, we have three uses of ekklesia that have no religious nor Christ-connection at all, instead they simply refer to a public or civic assembly in Ephesus around the occasion of near riot after the Apostles had preached the gospel (Acts 19:32; 39; 41). The use of ekklesia in this way should alert us to the fact that when ekklesia is used in conjunction with Christ, or in the name of Christ (Matthew 18:20) something different is occurring. Likewise, this should cause us to rethink the relationship between the ekklesia that occurred in the Old Testament (see Acts 7:38 above) and what is happening here throughout the Book of Acts. Summarizing this usage in Acts we’ve found specific references to the ekklesia of Jerusalem, a reference to the assembly of Israel at Sinai, plural as well as local, individual, and independent references including those in other locations as the gospel spread, and finally uses that simply refer to public assemblies apart from meeting together in the name of Christ. Local, independent, and plural are the key uses as we move forward.

Turning to our second major source in the New Testament for occurrences of ekklesia, 1 Corinthians, the first use is a rather obvious reference to the recipients of Paul’s letter. As we read through the remaining twenty uses in the letter, we find correspondence with the patterns seen in Acts, namely that the uses are both local (Corinth) and plural (all the churches; churches of God; etc.). In Corinthians, perhaps unlike any other book in the New Testament that has references to ekklesia, we find it used in the plural but held up as a pattern for “all the churches.” Note the occurrences below:
But as God hath distributed to every man, as the Lord hath called every one, so let him walk. And so ordain I in all churches. 1 Cor. 7:17
But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God.

1 Cor. 11:16
For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints.

1 Cor. 14:33
By using ekklesia in this way, Paul establishes the pattern and uniformity of certain functions and elements that are to be the same across all churches. Furthermore, it underscores the prevailing idea that it is not from one universal church that these mandates flow down from, rather it is directly from the Lord down to multiple churches, ekklesiae, that the patterns are to be replicated. Each directly under the Lordship of Christ.

Finally, turning to Revelation, the last of our three major sources for the use of ekklesia, we find much of the same. The first occurrences are plural uses in reference to the seven churches, i.e. ekklesiae of Asia (Rev. 1:4, 11, 20; 2:7, 11, 17, 23, 29; 3:6, 13, 22; 22:16). Again, we ought to note how they are referenced independenly, not in a hierarchical organizational sense. The next set of uses are in reference to each individual ekklesia from the seven (2:1, 8, 12, 18; 3:1, 7, 14).

In the next part of our overview of the New Testament use of ekklesia, we’ll examine two parallel uses that inform how we understand Christ’s ekklesia eschatologically.

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