The New Testament Use of Ekklesia – Part 4

In our survey of the New Testament use of ekklesia, which is the Greek word most often translated as church, we have looked at the majority usage in three primary books – Acts, 1 Corinthians, and Revelation, as well as observed the general pattern of usage namely local, individual, as well as plural for those in a geographical region, and more recently the eschatological use of ekklesia. In examining this final use, we noticed that it is most often described as a universal church or generic use of church. While we will save that extended discussion for another time, we concluded that an eschatological description was more accurate because it better characterizes the reality of Christ culminating His ekklesia with the marriage supper of the Lamb at the inauguration of the New Heavens and Earth. When viewed this way, we note that Christ’s ekklesia is simply the gathering of all the elect into His heavenly presence. However, this in-gathering takes on an already/not yet character as it takes shape over space and time as our Lord calls His elect into earthly fellowship with other believers. While the future reality is a certainty (already), it has not yet fully come to fruition. Because of this, the not yet – the earthly gatherings of believers, should reflect the already of the eschatological ekklesia. This was made evident in our latest post looking at the uses of ekklesia in Ephesians. There we saw that Paul uses ekklesia in eschatological terms, as well as in reference to the local gathering of believers. Then chapter 5 indicates briefly how these relate, not as two separate ekklisaea, rather as the earthly expression is to mirror the reality of the heavenly.

In drawing this particular series to a close, we turn now to one additional passage using ekklesia that perhaps supports more clearly the already/not yet pattern of ekklesia that what we have observed so far. The passage comes by way of summarizing the epistle to the Hebrews in chapter 12 of that letter:
18 For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest 19 and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. 20 For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” 21 Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” 22 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23 and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

Hebrews 12:18-24
In the second of two uses of ekklesia found in Hebrews (cf. Heb. 2:12), we read of a culminating exhortation from the author to those who would be tempted to fall back into Judaism because of the physical religious experiences that could be seen, heard, and touched. The contrast above is between Sinai and Zion; between earthly Jerusalem and the heavenly Jerusalem; between the assembly in the wilderness (Acts 7:38) and the heavenly assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven. This again is an eschatological ekklesia, however again we see the relationship of the already to the not yet.

First we ought to note the description (from Guthrie) given of the earthly Sinai.
  1. [the mountain] that can[not] be touched
  2. burning with fire
  3. darkness
  4. gloom
  5. storm
  6. a trumpet blast
  7. a voice speaking words
The imagery of Sinai being developed here is drawn from the historical event of God’s inauguration of the Old Covenant with Israel through the mediation of Moses (and angels; Acts 7:53; Hebrews 2:2; Galatians 3:19). This scene is recorded for us in Exodus 19:1-25; as well as Deuteronomy 4, 5, and 9 the latter of which draws significance to God being in “the midst of the fire”. In these Old Testament passages we find God’s call for the people to obey the covenant, their willing response to do so, the command for Moses to consecrate the people, and for them to be ready on the third day. Then in Exodus 19:12 we begin to see some of the language cited above most notably the limits that were set around the mountain and the consequences of death for breaking through these limits by either man or beast. This prohibition most definitely restricts access to God, which as we know was limited to the Levitical priesthood. The people could only get to God through a priestly mediator; direct access – pictured here at the foot of the mountain, was not allowed.

On the third day, when the time to approach the mountain had come, the Lord announced it with a trumpet blast which would’ve have elicited immeasurable fear, particularly as followed with lightning, thunder, and a thick cloud of smoke like from the fire of a kiln. The response from the people was not a half-hearted compliance, instead they were riddled with fear and trembling and reached an overwhelming point when they told Moses they had had enough (Exodus 20:19). God followed this terrifying scene with the giving of His law to Moses.

Conversely, our passage from Hebrews describes the scene of the New Covenant in starkly different terms (again from Guthrie):
  1. The heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God
  2. thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly
  3. the church (ekklesia) of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven
  4. God, the judge of all people
  5. the spirits of the righteous made perfect
  6. Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant
  7. the sprinkled blood that speaks better than the blood of Abel
While the contrast of the New Covenant experience with the Old Covenant is not meant to be a point by point comparison, nevertheless the differences could not be more profound. While the first is marked with an atmosphere of fear and trembling due to the physical sights and sounds of thunder, lighting, fire, trumpet blasts, and a thunderous voice, the second is marked with joyful assembly, and that in the city of the living God – the heavenly Jerusalem. The contrast of the experiences is seen most clearly in the terms fear vs. joy.

Notably, for the purpose of our discussion on ekklesia, is the statement that New Covenant members have come to participate in a number of spiritual realities among which is the ekklesia of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. By firstborn, it is meant that believers, those who have been united to Christ by faith, have come to share in the family of God being now co-heirs of an inheritance with His Son. In terms of our already/not-yet pattern that we are considering this is already true of all believers (Ephesians 1:11-14), yet has not yet come to consummation. The names of all of these are written in the membership roll book, as it were, in heaven.

Think of it this way. The names listed in this book were written down before the foundation of the world. As each name is (effectually) called out in time, that person is given a new heart to repent and trust in Christ essentially responding to the rollcall with a yes. However, we note that in the context believers now also come to the spirits of the righteous made perfect. This creates an apparent dilemma as how can those who still war with the flesh, still sin, and are still subject to the infirmities of the body have also come to the spirits of the righteous made perfect? The answer is that what we have exemplified once again for us is the eschatological ekklesia expressed in terms of the already/not yet. Christians in the audience of this letter had already come to the assembly of the first born, already been guaranteed enrollment in the heavenly gathering, but had not yet fully experienced this through the perfecting of righteousness within them that comes only through death and entrance into glory. Their local gatherings (ekklisaea) were to be expressions, indeed reflections of the spiritual reality that they had come to these New Covenant blessings.

The banner of the eschatological ekklesia extends from election by God before the foundation of the world to the culmination of all things in Christ, glorified in the New Heavens and New Earth. The intrusion of this eschatological ekklesia occurs in time and space through the calling of the individual into fellowship with God and the community of the brethren physically in local assemblies through faith in His Jesus . The overarching picture of these assemblies of fellowship has consistently been expressed in familial language as we see here with the ekklesia of the firstborn.

Local, plural, and eschatological with an already/not-yet expression. These are the uses of ekklesia in the New Testament. Perhaps some lingering questions remain such as catholicity (universality), visible vs. invisible, or the form and function of the ekklesia. These and other questions we will have to broach at another time.

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