Leo Smits (July 2021)
To what degree was the New Testament church actually new in the time of Jesus? It is claimed that with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit the church or congregation was born, but is this really true? For several years now, a couple of questions regarding the New Testament church have kept me busy. Especially since I have discovered that both Jesus and Paul never had the intention of founding a new group/movement. Let alone a new religion, which we now call Christianity. Jesus was and is the expected Messiah of the people of Israel, right? Why then would Jesus want to start another or a new group/movement? Why should Jesus want to distance Himself from His own people? Yes, Jesus Himself indeed used the term ekklēsia (congregation/assembly). Even though He Himself used this term only three times. And all three times it is used only in Matthew’s gospel, namely in Matthew 16:18 and twice in Matthew 18:17.
Is Israel no longer participating (for a while)?
A good reason given why Jesus should separate from his own people and begin his own group is, that the people of Israel themselves rejected Jesus as their Messiah. But even then, the questions remains with me. The people of Israel may have rejected Jesus as their Messiah, but that does not mean that Jesus turned his back on them. If this were the case and this is the actual reason, then we may strongly question whether Jesus was and is THE expected Messiah of the people of Israel. Also when it comes to the argument, that with the rejection of Jesus, as Messiah, by the people of Israel, that they are hereby temporarily set aside and God will at a later time go further in His plan with them.
There are Bible texts that seem to suggest this. Consider, for example, Acts 1:6-7, where the disciples ask Jesus, just before His ascension, when He will restore the Kingdom to Israel. His answer to this is: ‘It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority.’.
In other words, the restoration of the Kingdom of Israel will not take place now, but in the future. Israel, Jesus seems to be saying, will be set aside for a time and not participate for a period of time. This seems to be supported by another Bible text, namely Romans 11:25, where Paul says that hardening has come upon Israel in part until the fullness of the Gentiles is complete. Or is this a fallacy, a lie? After all, what are Jesus and Paul actually saying with this? That the congregation as a separate group/movement has temporarily taken the place of the people of Israel? Or is this our own interpretation?
Meaning of ekklēsia
What if the term ekklēsia does not have the meaning of a totally separated group/movement in it at all, let alone the meaning of church? Yes, it is true that the Greek word ekklēsia has the meaning of congregation/assembly in it (but of the church by no means). But in the time of Jesus, was this a new term, or were the Jews familiar with the term? And what connotation did this have for them? Did it have the same meaning, as we have given it to ekklēsia? As a separate group/movement? Or did it refer to an existing group or the history of the people of Israel themselves?
Ekklēsia a progression or regression?
What if the term ekklēsia was not a progression to something better, but rather a regression again? That the term ekklesia was used to indicate that, when they had accepted Jesus, as the Messiah of Israel, Jesus had immediately restored the Kingdom of Israel, but they now, because of their unbelief, had to wander around as an ekklēsia again in ‘the wilderness’.
I have mentioned Acts 1:6 before, notice what the question is from the disciples. They ask, ‘Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?’ The disciples are not asking Jesus, when will the Kingdom come for Israel, but be RESTORED! It seems very clear that the disciples realize that they have lost or are about to lose something.
There is apparently a regression and not a progression for the first disciples/apostles, who are under the ekklēsia! It is also remarkable that further on in verse 8 Jesus says, but you will receive power from the Holy Spirit. In the context of what Jesus said in the previous verse, that it was not for the disciples to know the times or seasons when the King of Israel will be restored, this answer may have been quite a daunting one for the disciples. An answer they did not expect. In this context, it is not so strange that Jesus then says, but you will receive the power of the Holy Spirit. As it were, Jesus says, with this power of the Holy Spirit, you can endure as ekklēsia until the time comes when you (read Israel) may and can enter the Kingdom (of Israel) again.
Etymology of ekklēsia
We must realize that the term ekklēsia did not arise out of a vacuum. Unfortunately, this is often thought, that Jesus or Paul introduced new terms just like the terms baptism, Lord’s supper, and the like.
Before we can define ekklēsia in its context, it is good to define it from its etymology. The Greek word ekklēsia is composed of two words, namelyἐκ (ek) and καλεω (kaleo), which means out (ek) and calling (kaleo). Freely translated it means: to call out or to call away. The word ekklēsia does not refer to the act of calling out or being called out, but to the group of those who are called out. It is a community/assembly or congregation of people together who have answered that call.
Ekklēsia equivalent to qahal
The Greek word ekklēsia in the New Testament is equivalent to the Hebrew word qahal in the Old Testament. In the Septuagint (LXX) the Hebrew word qahal is largely translated with ekklēsia and a lesser extent with synagōgē.
In Acts 7:38 Stephen indirectly quotes an Old Testament text in his speech to the Supreme Council (the Sanhedrin), using the Greek word ekklēsia for the Hebrew word qahal. We read in Acts 7:38:
‘This is the one who was in the congregation (qahal/ekklēsia) in the wilderness with the angel who spoke to him at Mount Sinai, and with our fathers. He received living oracles to give to us.’
The Greek word that Stephen (or was it Luke who wrote the Bible Book Acts?) uses here for the congregation is ekklēsia and goes back to Deuteronomy 9:10 and 18:16.
In Deuteronomy 9:10 Moses looks back on the event of receiving from the hands of JHWH Himself two tablets of stone, described by the finger of God. It was these words (on the stone tablets) that JHWH had spoken to the people of Israel on the mountain, from the midst of the fire. On the day the people of Israel gathered there (in the wilderness).
Further on in Deuteronomy 18:16, Moses thinks back on this event, but now with the anticipation that in the future YHWH will raise up a Prophet, like Moses, from among them, to whom they must listen (v.15). The people of Israel must not only listen to him, in accordance with all that YHWH their God asked of them at Horeb, on the day that you gathered there (in the wilderness)!
Here in Deuteronomy 18:16, Moses says that the people must listen to the ‘coming Prophet of YHWH’, just as when they gathered as a congregation/assembly (in the wilderness at Mount Horeb, to hear (through Moses) of YHWH, their God.
In the Old Testament, the qahal is a community who gathered to hear (Moses speak) of (the Kingdom of) God. In the New Testament, the ekklēsia is a community who gathered to hear (Jesus speak) of (the Kingdom of) God.
Not only does both the assembly (qahal/ekklēsia) in the O.T. and N.T. place themselves under the hearing of Moses and Jesus respectively, but also under the rule/kingdom of YHWH and Jesus, as Messiah (the King of the Jews). And although the qahal/ekklēsia is not the Kingdom of God, it is closely related to it. The qahal/ekklēsia demonstrates and manifests the Kingdom of God now in this world, but the Kingdom of God will actually institute itself in the world to come, with Jerusalem as the city of government.
Back into ‘the wilderness’
The qahal in the O.T. as the ekklēsia in the N.T. are both seen as, a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people that God made His own. In both cases, this is said at the time that the qahal/ekklēsia are ‘in the wilderness’. In the O.T., the Israelites have just been delivered from the land of Egypt and have arrived at Mount Sinai in the wilderness. And in the N.T. Peter writes these words in his first letter to the strangers in the diaspora. Peter calls his readers foreigners because they no longer have a ‘home’ of their own and are scattered as ‘exiles’ among the other nations. They are, as it were, ‘wandering in the wilderness’.
Why do I link the New Testament term ekklēsia to the return into ‘the wilderness’? For this we must go back to Acts 7 where Stephen made his speech to the Sanhedrin, the leaders of the people of Israel.
What was the essence of the speech of Stephen. What was the point he wanted to make? James Dunn expresses this very clearly in his book ‘Beginning from Jerusalem. He says:
The bulk of the speech focuses on the period prior to the entry into the promised land and the building of the Temple (7:2–46). In the course of the retelling, the emphasis is made repeatedly that God was with them, outside the promised land. He appeared to Abraham in Mesopotamia (7:2). Abraham himself had no inheritance in the land (7:5). God was with Joseph in Egypt (7:9). God appeared to Moses at Mount Sinai, on holy land far from the promised land (7:30–33), and gave the congregation (ekklēsia, ‘church’) in the wilderness ‘living oracles’ (7:38).James D. G. Dunn, Beginning from Jerusalem, vol. 2, Christianity in the Making (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 269.
The conclusion James Dunn draws from this is that Stephen held this speech to show that the promised land or holy place would not be necessary to ensure the presence of God with his people. I disagree with James Dunn here. Ofcouse, it is true that God’s presence is not limited by a building or a geographic location. After all, He is the Creator of heaven and earth and therefore omnipresent. Nevertheless, eventually God’s glory will indeed descend on a specific place, namely in/on Jerusalem.1 And from there, all nations will come to Israel/Jerusalem to worship Him.2 YHWH is not only the Creator of heaven and earth, but also the God of Israel. The God, who has established His Name (forever) in Jerusalem. So God does ultimately have a preference for a ‘permanent’ (or geographic) holy place.
One more change
In my opinion, Stephen held this speech to give the ‘leaders’ of the Jews one more chance to accept Jesus as their Messiah, which would keep them from losing their land and temple, and thus the presence of YHWH. If they would, however, acknowledge Jesus, as their King, then He would return to earth to rule from Jerusalem. This is why Stephen, after his speech, full of the Holy Spirit, saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.3 Indeed, after this event we read afterwards in the New Testament that Jesus is sitting on the throne, at the right hand of God.4 With the stoning of Stephen and the expression of their unbelief, the ‘leaders’ made a terrible mistake and the decision became final to send the people back as ekklēsia ‘into the wilderness’ (which can also be seen as exile).
As mentioned above, Jesus uses the word ekklēsia only in Matthew’s gospel and not in the other three gospels. We do not encounter the word ekklēsia, then, again until Acts, the Bible book recorded by Luke, along with Luke’s gospel. The Bible book of Acts is a continuation of Luke’s gospel, as Luke himself expresses it in Acts 1:1-3. An important question to ask, then, is why did Luke not use the word ekklēsia in his gospel, but did so frequently in his second ‘testimony’ Acts? Did Luke want to make something clear with this? And why do we only find the word ekklēsia frequently after Stephen’s speech?
Pentecost is not the birth of the ‘church’
If Jesus had intended to create a separate group/movement at Pentecost, then would have been Acts 2, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, an ideal event to do it. And many movements also see Acts 2 as ‘the birth of the church’ (ekklēsia). But the remarkable thing is that Luke does not mention this at all. The first time Luke uses the word ekklēsia is in Acts 5:11, where great fear came over all the ‘church’ (ekklēsia), after the event of Ananias and Sapphira. And it is not until Stephen’s speech that it occurs the second time, after which the word ekklēsia appears frequently after Stephen’s stoning, with Paul’s approval. To be exact, some 21 times from Acts 8:1 through 20:28.
In Acts 8:1, after the stoning to death of Stephen, a great persecution arose against the assembly in Jerusalem. From that time on, the assembly ‘spread’ throughout the world. And while this ‘spread’ had something positive, because now the gospel would be proclaimed throughout the world, it also had something negative. With the approval of Stephen’s death, this was also the sign that the ‘leaders of Israel’, continued to reject Jesus, the Messiah. And acted, as it were, in unbelief. With this act, all of Israel would eventually be scattered throughout the world, as in 70 AD the temple and also Jerusalem were really completely destroyed and many Jews fled to surrounding countries. And in 135 AD with the Bar Kochba rebellion, all the Jews were completely forbidden to set foot in the land of Israel, which meant that the entire people went back into exile, or also call it the wilderness. For when one stays in the wilderness, one does not have an actual permanent residence or one’s own home.
Unbelief leads to ‘fall’
We must keep in mind that it was the ‘leaders’ of Israel who did not believe in Jesus, as their Messiah. But with their unbelief they took whole the people of Israel with them in their ‘fall’. The whole people (all the congregation/assembly, ekklēsia) were therefore referred back to ‘the wilderness’ (the scattering of the Jews in 70 and 135 AD). And Yes, even those who did acknowledge Jesus as their Messiah, had to go back ‘into the wilderness’ with them. Does not this sound familiar to us? Does not this remind us of the history of the twelve spies, of whom ten spies did not believe in YHWH, that they could take the land of Canaan?
These twelve spies were not just randomly selected men, but they were each a leader of a tribe! And ten of the twelve spies took all the people with them in the consequences of their unbelief. All of this ekklēsia (congregation/assembly) had to wander in the wilderness for another 38 years before they were actually allowed to take the promised land. Were the other two spies (Caleb and Joshua), who did have faith in YHWH, exempt from this? Were they the only ones allowed to enter the promised land? I don’t think I have to answer this question.
In other words, just as the ekklēsia in the time of Moses, right before taking the promised land, was referred back to the wilderness by the unbelief of ‘the leaders’, so also the ekklēsia in the time of Jesus (in Acts) was referred back to ‘the wilderness’ by the unbelief of ‘the leaders’. And just as Caleb and Joshua, were not excepted, so also in Acts the believers in the Messiah, were not excepted from this.
Meaning of qahal and edah
Another Hebrew word we encounter in the Torah is the word edah. This word also has the meaning of congregation/assembly in it. Edah is derived from the Hebrew word ed and means witness or testimony. The word edah is often used separately, but also in combination with qahal. For example, in Exodus 12:6 we read:
and you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month, when the whole assembly (qahal) of the congregation (edah) of Israel shall kill their lambs at twilight.
It seems like the same thing is being said twice, because an assembly is the same as a congregation and visa versa, right? However within Jewish thought there is a difference between an edah and a qahal congregation.
Jonathan Sacks says about this in his book ‘Exodus: The book of Redemption.’:
The people who constitute an edah have a strong sense of collective identity. They have witnessed the same things. They are bent on the same purpose…An edah is a community of the like-minded. The word emphasises strong identity. It is a group whose members have much in common…A kehilla [qahal] is different from the other two kinds of community.5 Its members are different from one another… But they are orchestrated together for a collective undertaking – one that is involved in making a distinctive contribution.Sacks, Jonathan. Exodus: The Book of Redemption (Covenant & Conversation 2) (p. 284-285). Kindle Edition.
In other words; an edah is a congregation/assembly of people with the same testimony or confession. They have a strong collective identity. A qahal is a congregation/assembly of people different from each other, but they are brought together or called together because of a common purpose.
Being a witness (edah) within the ekklēsia
You would think that the meaning of edah would be more in accordance with the New Testament assembly than qahal. So why did the New Testament assembly choose to use the Greek word ekklēsia, which has its roots in the Hebrew word qahal?
In my opinion, it did that in order to continue to emphasize that the New Testament assembly is not a new, separated community outside of the people of Israel. As we have seen, the members of a qahal and therefore of an ekklēsia, can be different from each other. This is as I believe God intended it to be. Within the ekklēsia (assembly) of the people of Israel, there is an edah that testifies of Jesus/Yeshua as the Messiah of the people of Israel.6 Over the other part there has come a hardening,7 but they still remain under the ekklēsia of God. For eventually this part too will accept Jesus, as their Messiah, when He returns on the clouds, so that together they will be one witness (edah) again. This, I believe, is God’s plan of salvation. In the meantime, the assembly/congregation (edah) of Jesus Christ is a witness both to the ‘hardened’ part of Israel to make them jealous,8 and to the Gentiles (goijm) to win them for the ekklēsia of God c.q. the Kingdom of God.
- Isaiah 62; Revelation 21:2-3, 9
- Isaiah 66:18-20
- Acts 7:55-56
- Ephesians 1:20-22; Colossians 3:1; Hebrews 1:3; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2; Revelation 3:21
- Jonathan Sacks here compares a third Hebrew word with the same meaning of qahal and edah, namely tzibbur. However, this Hebrew word appears only in the Misnah and not in the Hebrew Bible.
- Several times in the N.T. it is said that the congregation will be a witness. See Luke 24:48; Acts 1:8, 22; 2:32; 3:15; 5:32; 10:40-43; 31:31; 22:15; Hebrews 12:1; 1 Peter 5:1; Revelation 2:13
- Romans 11:25
- Romans 11:13