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Bible verses about Ekklesia
(From Forerunner Commentary)

How does God define the church? What comprises it according to the Bible? Must there be only one organization at a time?

Perhaps the best place to begin answering these questions is by tracing the etymology of the word "church" itself, and then looking at the way it is used in context. Many have assumed that it derives from the Greek ekklesia, but this is not true. The English word "church" descends from an Old English word cirice, akin to an Old High German word, kirihha. Both words derive from a Late Greek word, kuriakon, which comes from the Greek kuriakos, the possessive form of the word kurios, the term for "lord." Kuriakos thus simply means "lord's," showing possession, or "belonging to the lord" (Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, 1985, p. 240). It can denote anything that belongs to the Lord.

The apostles, when they wrote the books of the New Testament, could have used kuriakos, but it appears only twice in the Bible: in I Corinthians 11:20 (Lord's supper) and Revelation 1:10 (Lord's day). Neither usage contains any reference to "church." Instead, the apostles used the word ekklesia 112 times. Ekklesia does not mean "belonging to the lord," though that may be implied. The apostles used ekklesia because they had a more specific meaning in mind.

The word "church" to an English-speaking person is a dominating, inclusive term with definite spiritual connotations. A particular quality is always inherent in the use of the word "church" because it means "the lord's." The church is the Lord's. Yet ekklesia is different.

In comparison with other terms, ekklesia was relatively neutral and colorless, conveying by itself little theological meaning. It was open to use without basic shift in meaning, by unbelievers as well as by believers. (Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 1, p. 607)

Bible dictionaries, lexicons, and commentaries agree that ekklesia means "called out," and generally implies an assembly of people. It lacks qualitative implication to anything either carnal or spiritual. The context in which it appears must always supply the specific reason one is called out or assembled.

Again from the Interpreter's Dictionary: "Ekklesia was used primarily to designate a particular communal reality, not to describe its qualitative aspects" (ibid.). Ekklesia describes anything that might be happening within a community that requires an assembly. This assembly could be social, governmental, or religious. It could be legal or illegal.

John W. Ritenbaugh
Guard the Truth!


 

The roots of the word ekklesia go all the way back to the city of Athens in its classical period, which stretched from roughly 550 to 350 BC. Within the city-state ekklesia consisted of all the citizens who had retained their civil rights. The ekklesia's powers were almost unlimited. It elected and dismissed magistrates and directed the policy of the city. It declared war, and it made peace. It negotiated and approved treaties and arranged alliances. It chose generals, assigned troops to different campaigns, raised the necessary money, and dispatched those troops from city to city. It was an assembly in which all members had equal right and duty. As the Roman Empire rose and supplanted the Greeks, the Romans adopted the term into Latin.

The concept that distinguishes biblical usage from classical Greek usage is the emphasis that it is God's assembly. Ekklesia, therefore, means God's people, called together by God to listen to or act for God. The emphasis is on the action of God, which has the force of a summons (as from a judge). The biblical ekklesia, the church, is a body of people, not so much assembling because they chose to come together, but assembling because God called them to Himself—not assembling to share their own thoughts and opinions, but to listen to the voice of God.

Paul says to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:28: "Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood." Here the ekklesia is identified as the possession of the One who called it. This establishes the nature of ekklesia as a society or community. It belongs to Him because He called it into being, dwells in it, rules over it, and accomplishes His purpose within it and through it.

John W. Ritenbaugh
Guard the Truth!


 

The time element encompassed by ekklesia is essential. Paul mentions its past in Ephesians 3:9-11. He says God chose him

to make all people see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the ages has been hidden in God who created all things through Jesus Christ; to the intent that now the manifold wisdom of God might be made known by the church to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places, according to the eternal purpose which He accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.

The ekklesia, called here "the fellowship of the mystery," and in other translations "the dispensation of the mystery," existed in the beginning of the ages, but was hidden in the mind of God. From the Creation at the latest, He purposed that there would be a group of called-out ones to do His will.

Now notice Ephesians 1:3-5:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will . . . .

In the past the church has explained this passage to mean that God planned to call a body of people to bring them to spiritual completion and to do His Work. More than that, the church existed collectively in His mind and plan from the beginning.

Revelation 1:20 shows ekklesia since the church's founding in AD 31. "The mystery of the seven stars which you saw in My right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches [ekklesia] and the seven lampstands which you saw are the seven churches." These seven churches span the time from Christ and the first-century church until His return.

Hebrews 12:22-23 describes ekklesia's future: "But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church [ekklesia] of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect." Notice the locations that he names: Mt. Zion, the city of the living God, and heavenly Jerusalem. Then the author names the church of the firstborn. The revealing of these places and groups is still to happen! The firstborn, the called-out ones, have yet to put on incorruption. True Christians have not been "made perfect." Their change has not yet occurred (I Corinthians 15:49-54), but they are already part of the assembly of the firstbornthat is, in God's mind.

These three scriptures together show that ekklesia transcends the boundaries, not only of space (reaching out even to the heavenly city, far beyond the confines of earth), but also of time! It covers all of time from the earliest plan of God to the resurrection!

It does not consist only of those who are alive now, but also includes all that have ever been part of the ekklesia, beginning with the time of God's thought before the foundation of the world. Then from righteous Abel, ekklesia includes any who were converted, having His Spirit, up to the resurrection when the firstborn will inherit the Kingdom of God.

Put simply, ekklesia includes all who will be in the first resurrection. It includes all the people of God whom He gathered from among the nations to do the redeeming work of Christ and to participate in the Kingdom of God that He inaugurates. Members of the ekklesia are the recipients and channels of God's glory and the heirs of the promises.

John W. Ritenbaugh
Guard the Truth!


 

The true church of God, the true ekklesia, will have certain identifying signs. It will have the correct name (John 17:11; Acts 20:28; Galatians 1:13; etc.). It will have the testimony of Jesus Christ and will be keeping the commandments of God (Revelation 12:17), including the Sabbath (Exodus 31:12-18; Isaiah 56:6-7; Mark 2:28; Acts 18:4-11).

A clear understanding of the principle of what ekklesia is, the mystical body of Christ, will prevent it from being unscripturally extended to include the worldly churches as well. The "Christian" churches of this world do not have the correct testimony of Jesus Christ, which begins with the understanding of what the true gospel is and makes the right application of the life, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The testimony of Jesus Christ encompasses all that He said and did, including the keeping of the commandments of God. Worldly Christianity has set aside the commandments of God that they might keep their tradition, though they claim Jesus Christ to be Savior.

Thus the principle of ekklesia being the mystical body cannot be stretched to include anyone and everyone who might call themselves Christian. Ekklesia has to be defined by the limits that God's Word imposes on it.

John W. Ritenbaugh
Guard the Truth!


 

Malachi 3:13-16  (Go to this verse :: Verse pop-up)

Malachi wrote in Judea between the return from Babylon and Christ's birth. During that period God's people had grown lackadaisical in their worship, yet a faithful few remained.

"'Your words have been harsh against Me,' says the LORD." God accuses them of calling Him into account for what was happening within the nation. They were experiencing difficult times, just as the people of God have frequently endured difficult times. These are times when we cry out to God, "Why, God? Why are you allowing this to happen? When are you going to intervene?" but He does not seem to be listening.

"Yet you say, 'What have we spoken against You?'" They did not feel that their accusations were against God, but He gives them an example (verses 14-15).

The faithful can see that these others are not very godly. Maybe they see that "the proud" are sinning openly, breaking the commandments of God. Maybe the proud do not have a submissive, quiet, and gentle spirit. Maybe they are aggressive and assertive, and they maneuvered themselves to the head of the group. And they seemed to be getting away with it!

Notice what these faithful people did in response to the difficult times they were enduring as part of the ekklesia (verse 16). All of God's faithful people should do these things:

1). They feared God. They respected and revered Him. They stood in awe of Him. Some may have even felt an appropriate measure of terror.

2). They thought on His name. They meditated on it. It can suggest that they esteemed His name. They spoke highly of it. They honored Him. They looked to Him, though they were complaining for leadership and guidance. His name, of course, stands for everything that He is. He does not have just one name, He has many names. They show, or advertise, what He is, what He will do, and what He requires.

3). They fellowshipped with one another. No doubt they spoke of their trials and their blessings, about the things that were going on in the ekklesia of that day, of their studies into God's Word, of their plans, of their expectations of the Kingdom of God. God heard! God watched and responded, maybe not when they would have liked Him to respond, but God did respond in His time, when it was right for His purposes.

So will He respond to us!

Then God makes a wonderful promise to those who fear Him: "'They shall be Mine,' says the LORD of hosts, 'on that day that I make them My jewels [special treasure—margin]. And I will spare them as a man spares his own son who serves him'" (verse 17). In Isaiah 49:15-16, God says, "Yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands...." He is watching! He is aware of what is going on, and He will act!

John W. Ritenbaugh
Guard the Truth!


 

Malachi 3:18  (Go to this verse :: Verse pop-up)

After He spares the God-fearing, it will be clear who is really part of His ekklesia. God will intervene on behalf of His people!

Will Christ intervene directly to correct His church? Most members hope that He will. Most agree that problems exist. They agree that they dislike what is going on. But their justification for remaining with it is that they expect that Christ will intervene.

If Christ is going to intervene, then why did He not intervene during the Ephesian era? If He would have intervened then, the Catholic and Protestant churches would never have begun. But He did not intervene. Instead the Ephesian church broke into small groups of those who wanted to hold fast to the doctrines that the apostles had given them. The main body went on and eventually blended back into the world.

So how will God make the distinction between the righteous and the wicked (Malachi 3:18)? What form will His intervention take?

The context of Malachi 3 indicates it, but a clearer prophecy of this time can be found in the book of Revelation.

But the woman was given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness to her place, where she is nourished for a time and times and half a time, from the presence of the serpent . . . . And the dragon was enraged with the woman, and he went to make war with the rest of her offspring, who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ. (Revelation 12:14, 17)

This is how He will intervene! This is how He will fulfill what He said in Malachi 3.

He will cause a separation!

Those who are to be spared will depart from the main body and be protected from the great time of trouble just ahead. The other group must prove their dedication to God by bearing the full force of Satan's wrath. There must be two separate bodies of people, or they would share a common fate!

The exact time the separation is to occur is not given. Revelation 12 only shows that it will occur. When it occurs, it will be abundantly clear who was faithful and righteous and who was not. Compare these scriptures with Revelation 3:10-11, 16-19.

John W. Ritenbaugh
Guard the Truth!


 

Matthew 16:18  (Go to this verse :: Verse pop-up)

These very words of Christ clearly show He had a corporate body of human beings in mind, not just a spiritual organism. He used ekklesia, meaning an assembly of people, a group, and He confirmed this by using Hades, a pit into which dead bodies are cast. He thus shows His church to exist continuously as flesh-and-blood human beings.

It is clearly His will that all those having the Spirit of God be fellowshipping and serving together on a regular basis (Hebrews 10:25). A person may delude himself into thinking he can better serve Christ and prepare for the Kingdom of God free from all the pressures of a congregation, but the Word of God shows otherwise. He could even be condemning himself to the flames of the Lake of Fire by showing God that he is not pleased to associate with God's own sons and daughters, His holy people. The "independent Christian" must repent of his independence if he wants to glorify God, truly serve His people, and become spiritually mature.

John W. Ritenbaugh
In the Grip of Distrust


 

Matthew 16:18  (Go to this verse :: Verse pop-up)

Multitudes of organizations in the Protestant world have no idea of what the church actually consists. This illustrates that even on the simplest of levels, the Bible is a "coded" book. Many refer to a physical building or a legal corporate structure as the church. Few seem to understand the church consists of the members themselves. The word "church" is translated from the Greek ekklesia, meaning "called-out" or "assembly." The "church in the wilderness" consisted of those called out of physical Egypt; the New Testament church are those called out of the spiritual Egypt of false belief and practice dominating this world. Without this knowledge, it is extremely difficult to identify the church Christ built.

Staff
Biblical Symbolism: Symbols of the Church


 

Matthew 16:18  (Go to this verse :: Verse pop-up)

When Jesus said, "I will build My church" (Matthew 16:18), He was not describing a church in its normal English usage, as an organization with buildings, offices, services, and activities. He was implying a fellowship of believers. God's ekklesia is not a church in the denominational sense, but a fellowship of all believers in Jesus Christ, not identifying it with any particular group men might establish, but embracing all who fit the Bible's qualifications. So, when the biblical writers use ekklesia in a context involving God and His people, they are drawing attention to the transcendent purpose for which God calls them out.

In a majority of scriptures, the ekklesia is the whole of God's people, of which a congregation, a denomination, or a corporate entity form but a part. Remember the classical Greek usage: Ekklesia included all the citizens of Athens. An army parallel may help illustrate the point. A division is part of an army. The army has several divisions. So then a division is an element of a greater army, and the army in turn is part of something even greater, the nation. Ekklesia, in this analogy, is the nation. In the Bible it is most often used in this sense.

John W. Ritenbaugh
Guard the Truth!


 

Matthew 16:18  (Go to this verse :: Verse pop-up)

In Matthew 16:18, the word Jesus used for "church" is ekklesia (Strong's #1577), and it is so translated in the King James Version 115 times. This Greek word means "an assembly" or "a group of people called together for a purpose." It contains no implication at all of sacredness or holiness.

In practical usage, it commonly identified people called by a magistrate for a public service of some sort. This is how it is used in Acts 19:32, 39, and 41:

Some therefore cried one thing and some another, for the assembly was confused, and most of them did not know why they had come together. . . . But if you have any other inquiry to make, it shall be determined in the lawful assembly. . . . And when he had said these things, he dismissed the assembly. (Emphasis ours.)

Each time, ekklesia is translated as "assembly" and names what could easily be described as a mob of excited and confused people. However, the writers of the New Testament clearly agreed this was the word that best fit the groups of Christians called of God for service to Him. How did it come to be translated as "church" when the word "assembly" fits more accurately?

This change apparently has its beginning in another, far different Greek word, kuriakos (Strong's #2960). Kurios, the Greek word for "Lord," is easily recognizable as the root of kuriakos, which means "belonging to the Lord." Curiously, according to Joseph T. Shipley, author of The Origins of English Words, pp. 183-184, the root of kurios and kuriakos literally means "to bend or curve."

In the course of time, kuriakos was picked up by the Scots as kirk. Shipley shows that kirk and kuriakos share the same root. In the Scottish language, kirk indicates a place or a location, as in a building belonging to the Lord. The kirk became the place where the assembly bent before God in reverence, as in prayer, appealing to Him; or bent looking upward in praise of God; or where God bent in extending mercy.

As more time passed, the English pronunciation of kirk changed to "church." Thus "church," which indicates a building, a place where God is worshipped, gradually evolved to include, not just the place, but also the people who worshipped there and the worship services too. The modern English Reader's Digest Great Encyclopedic Dictionary reflects this in its definitions for church: "1. A building for Christian worship. 2. Regular religious services. 3. A local congregation of Christians." We regularly use all three in our everyday speech and writing, allowing the context to indicate which is intended.

However, in the Bible the word "church" never refers to a building or to worship services held within the building. It always refers to the assembly, group, or congregation of called-out ones who belong to the Lord, worship Him, and fellowship with others of the same mind.

John W. Ritenbaugh
Is There a True Church?


 

Acts 19:32-40  (Go to this verse :: Verse pop-up)

They knew they had been called to assemble, but they did not understand the reason for their calling.

"And when the city clerk had quieted the crowd, he said: . . . 'if you have any other inquiry to make, it shall be determined in the lawful assembly [ekklesia]'" (verses 35, 39). He reminded the people that a legal assembly could be arranged. "For we are in danger of being called in question for today's uproar, there being no reason which we may give to account for this disorderly gathering" (verse 40). To this point the assembly, the ekklesia, was a confused mob of people, aroused in anger against the apostle Paul. "And when he had said these things, he dismissed the assembly [ekklesia]."

These verses show very clearly that ekklesia by itself requires qualitative modifiers. It can refer to a gathering that is either carnal or spiritual. The context has to define its usage.

Ekklesia, then, is more flexible than the English word "church," transcending its narrow boundaries. Ekklesia is not bound, as will be seen, by race; language; city, state, or national boundaries; corporate laws; space; or time. God may have inspired the writers to use it solely to connote the transcendence of His calling out. Tracing it back to its beginning and bringing it forward to the present will show this fact clearly.

John W. Ritenbaugh
Guard the Truth!


 

Ephesians 1:22-23  (Go to this verse :: Verse pop-up)

Is not the church Christ's Body? Can the church be in different organizations?

The answer is found in Ephesians 1:22-23. "And He put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church [ekklesia], which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all."

In his discussion of these verses in Word Studies From the Greek New Testament, Kenneth S. Wuest writes, "The Church [ekklesia] is described as that 'which is His body.' The word 'which' is hetis 'which is of such a nature as,' and has a qualitative nature to it." The nature of ekklesia in this context comes from the association with its head, Jesus Christ.

Of the word "body," soma, Expositor's says:

The word soma, which passes readily from its literal meaning [the human body] into the figurative sense of a society, a number of men constituting a social or ethical union, . . . is frequently applied in the N.T. epistles to the Church, . . . as the mystical body of Christ, the fellowship of believers regarded as an organic [living] spiritual unity in a living relation to Christ, subject to Him, animated by Him, and having His power operating in it. The relation between Christ and the Church, therefore, is not an external relation. . . . (vol. 11, "Ephesians and Colossians," p. 56, emphasis ours)

In other words, it is not bound by human convention. It is not bound by corporate laws that men establish, for Christ is in the ekklesia wherever its members may be.

Continuing from Wuest's:

The relation between Christ and the Church, therefore, is not an external relation, or one simply of Superior and inferior, Sovereign and subject, but one of life and incorporation [within Him]. The Church is not merely an institution ruled by Him as President, a Kingdom in which He is the Supreme Authority, or a vast company of men in moral sympathy with Him, but a Society which is in vital connection with Him, having the source of its life in Him, sustained and directed by His power, the instrument also by which He works. (ibid., pp. 56-57)

This is the usage of ekklesia in the New Testament. It is a mystical body with no external relations. It is something that is internal; it is something mental; it is something of the spirit. It is not bound by race, by language, by city or state or nationality. It is not restricted to the earth or to time.

The word mystical means "having a spiritual meaning or reality that is neither apparent to the senses [an external relation, sensed by the eyes, ears, nose, mouth, touch] nor obvious to the intelligence; involving or having the nature of an individual's direct subjective communion with God" (Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, 1985, p. 785). The church, the ekklesia, consists of those who have been called out by God, summoned by Him, to receive His Spirit and have direct communion with Him.

Paul makes a similar statement to Ephesians 1:22-23 in I Corinthians 12:12-13.

For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one bodywhether Jews or Greeks [transcends national boundaries], whether slaves or free [transcends cultural or social status]and have all been made to drink into one Spirit.

The ekklesia is not a humanly defined corporation, but the mystical body of Christ, having the Spirit of God.

John W. Ritenbaugh
Guard the Truth!


 

 




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