The New Testament Use of Ekklesia – Part 3

In the previous post from our survey on the New Testament use of ekklesia, the Greek word most often translated as church in English Bibles, we introduced a usage that is often ignored or miscategorized. In beginning our discovery of this usage, we observed the language of an eschatological ekklesia, which seems most developed in the letter to Ephesus from passages such as Ephesians 1:22; 3:10; 3:21; 5:22-33. The first of these eschatological uses, as we noted, refers to the ekklesia as the body of Christ. This association, or unity, with Christ by necessity of the relationship must be thought of in terms of purity, sanctification, and holiness. As Christ is holy, so too is His body, the church or better the ekklesia to be holy.

In this post, we want to draw out the relationship of this eschatological ekklesia with the local ekklesia through the concept of already/not yet. As we saw last time, Ephesians uses the already and not yet in terms of our salvation and sanctification. As a reminder, the already/not yet paradigm states in the present (not yet) what is guaranteed in the future (already). This is especially seen in Ephesians 5, where we read of the relationship between Christ and His body
22 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.
25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. 28 In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” 32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. 33 However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.

Ephesians 5:22-33 ESV
In the passage above the primary point is to establish the analogy between the relationship of a husband and wife to Christ and His church. First, we read the comparison of headship between a husband to his wife with Christ to His church, noting specifically that Christ is head of the church; it is His body; He is its (her) Savior.

By looking at the descriptions being used here regarding the relationship between Christ and His church (ekklesia), we find definitive salvific language, meaning that Christ’s death on the cross is said here to be applied through His role as Savior. In other words, for whom did Christ die or for whom does Christ serve as Savior from beginning to end? The answer is obviously the ekklesia mentioned in this verse as referenced to His body, which is eschatological. By referring to an eschatological ekklesia, the language means the gathering of all the elect into the heavenly presence of Christ, a gathering which is being added to daily and will culminate in the marriage supper of the Lamb with His bride when the final number is brought in. We may observe this in Revelation 21:1-2 where God’s people, the ekklesia of Christ, is specifically referred to as a holy city – the New Jerusalem, and as a bride prepared for her husband. In Revelation 19:9 we read of the culmination of this bridal arrangement of Christ with His ekklesia in the marriage supper of the Lamb. When this future language is applied in the present, it is describing an already condition of the ekklesia.

Turning back to Ephesians 5, Paul is simply expounding this concept of the church as Bride and Christ as Bridegroom, but he is applying it in the present. Having seen the already in the form of Christ’s Bride, the eschatological ekklesia, next we see the comparison of husband and wife to Christ and His ekklesia continuing, though now with the language of submission, “the church submits to Christ.” The word submit here can be used as 1) militarily, “to arrange [troop divisions] in a military fashion under the command of a leader,” or 2) non-militarily as, “a voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility, and carrying a burden.” Both are certainly true of the relationship between Christ and His church, however when held in the contextual relationship of comparing husband and wife, the latter seems more reasonable.

Now, we must ask is this continuing the eschatological use of ekklesia as we have already seen or is Paul now shifting usage? Would this voluntary attitude and cooperation be descriptive of the eschatological ekklesia? It would definitely be true, but it would be unnecessary to say that the eschatological ekklesia is presently submitting to Christ, particularly as it is heavenly and being finalized. Again, it’s true, but it doesn’t need to be said, it’s obvious. Instead, it would be better said of the Ephesian ekklesia and by relation all other local ekklisaea. They are presently submitting to Christ.

How then do these two uses of ekkleisa relate to one another, the eschatological to the local, i.e. the already with the not yet? As we have alluded to and now see in short, they relate typologically in so far as the earthly (not yet) is to mirror or reflect the heavenly or eschatological (already). The earthly is imperfect and is being sanctified. This is a primary reason why a congregation or assembly, i.e. ekklesia should be comprised of believers only and those who are inconsistent with their profession in Christ should be disciplined and removed as a little leaven, leavens the whole lump (1 Cor. 5:6-8).

Continuing in the passage, in verses 25-27 we have one continuous thought with multiple references to an ekklesia. Still building on the comparison between husband/wife and Christ/church, we find it now expressed in terms of love, and more specifically sacrificial love. On the one hand, it is certainly possible in the context to view the church or ekklesia as being that of Ephesus. That would be a valid interpretation insofar as it is holy. However, this interpretation may be incomplete and verse 27 above is the key. Here, we see the context of the bride again, the eschatological ekklesia, presented before Christ in, “splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing” much like we might picture a virgin bride before her husband. Then we find the language of holiness and purity applied to the ekklesia.

Does this language appropriately describe a single body, universal church that occurs in this age? Can it be said of the Church of England, or the Evangelical Church in America? Does it sound like a description that would include the possibility of unbelievers in any way? Or would it be more appropriately referring to an eschatological ekklesia gathered in the presence of the Lord? The answer seems obvious that it must be the latter.

So far, in this brief series we have seen several ways in which ekklesia is being used, locally, as with Ephesus, collectively (though not explicitly plural), and now eschatologically – or that gathering which is ultimate and complete before the Lord. The language of Christ as head, church as body, Christ as Savior. Christ as Bridegroom and Church as Bride can only be applied to the Ephesian church (or any other local church) in so far as it mirrors the eschatological reality. In other words, in so far as it is a pure representation of genuine believers i.e., the elect. Any departure from this would result in discipline from Christ (see Revelation 1-3) and any impurity through the presence of unbelievers must result in discipline from within the ekklesia (Matt. 18:15-20; 1 Cor. 5:4-5). Again, the eschatological language, that of definitive salvation and purity, can only be spoken of the local church – in this case Ephesus, as it reflects this reality.

In the final post from this series, we will consider one final eschatological use before wrapping up our study of the New Testament use of ekklesia.

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