Interestingly enough, the word church shows up before Acts, in 2 places in the gospels: Matt 16:13-20 and Matt 18:15-20. Those passages have been highly debated, especially amongst Roman Catholics and Protestants. I actually side with the Roman Catholics on a point – mainly that Peter is the rock in Matt 16, not “Peter’s confession.” Protestants work too hard to connect “rock” with that statement in Matt 16:16, or work too hard to disconnect it from the person, Peter.
Now, having said that, I don’t think Peter as the rock of the church means that we have to fully develop the Roman idea of the magisterium and pope. But, alas, I’m off track a bit.
But my whole point in laying out this article is to note that the “church” began way back then, in what we call the Old Testament. The problem is that we don’t realize this and I think it’s because we don’t recognize the language difference between the Old and New Testaments.
First, let’s get out on the table that the English word we use, “church,” is ekklesia in the Greek. It was actually used in normal society. The word generally meant “gathering” or “assembly.” There’s a little example in Scripture in Acts 19. What’s going on is that we have a riot in the city of Ephesus, all because the impact of Paul’s gospel proclamation was interfering with the capital gains business of those making t-shirts, I mean idols, of the goddess, Artemis. Her temple was one of the 7 ancient wonders of the world. This is interfering with normal religious life, and business, in Ephesus.
And when the riot breaks out, we read that an assembly (or ekklesia) gathered together to voice their great anger about the situation. This is noted in 3 places – Acts 19:32, 39 and 41.
Ekklesia was a general word used in that society to describe a group of people meeting together, with a purpose in mind.
And the leaders of the people of God in that time also used that word to describe what they were doing.
Now, even more interesting is how Stephen’s speech in Acts 7:38 uses the word ekklesia to describe the Hebrew people of Old Testament Israel. The word is translated assembly or congregation in our English versions.
So…what about this language thing?
In general, Jews spoke Hebrew. But that wasn’t so much the case in the first century. A few hundred years before, the then-known world had been conquered by the Greek commander, Alexander the Great, thus leading to the Greek language become a kind of lingua franca, a global language of sorts.
Because many Jews, who had also been dispersed around the world, did not speak Hebrew, the Scriptures were converted into Greek (we call it the Septuagint).
Now there was one particular Hebrew word used for assembly or congregation – qahal. When these scribal scholars (many think there were 70 of them) translated qahal into Greek, guess what work they used?
And we translate ekklesia into the English word church. (As a side note: our word church relates to the German kirche, which refers to the building dedicated to the Lord in which God’s people assemble.)
I hope you’re seeing where this leads language study leads.
Hebrew qahal = Greek ekklesia = English church
We’re really talking about the same word and group of people. One isn’t just an “Old Testament people” (Israel) and the other a “New Testament people” (church). It’s one story with one people.
Now, I’m happy to note that the Old Testament people were mainly identifiable as the Hebrews, the nation of Israel. But it wasn’t supposed to stay that way. What happens in our “New” testament was supposed to take place in the “Old” testament. It’s just that Messiah, the Christ, Jesus helped get this ultimate intention of God going as it was meant from the beginning.
Whether you refer to God’s gathered people as ekklesia (Greek), qahal (Hebrew), church (English), kerk (Dutch), iglesia (Spanish), église (French) or in another language, it is all referring to the gathering of God’s people. It’s one group of people, God’s people.
But what does this mean for us practically?
Well, a couple of weeks back, I shared with my Missiology class how this affects mission, God’s mission. If the church (or ekklesia, or qahal) has existed since the Old Testament times, then maybe the Old Testament has something important to tell us about our mission, God’s intention from the beginning.
And that’s why we launched in to Genesis 1 the very next class session to talk about mission.
God’s gathering and assembly has always been his intention from the beginning. And I propose that we can better flesh out aspects of mission from that perspective. But we’ve got to start right there – that God’s church began in the beginning, at least our human beginning. And that story has been continuing for thousands of years since, with the most special and greatest installment coming in Christ, the one true son.
The church began well before the New Testament.