What is this ekklesia or "church" that Jesus was going to build? Ekklesia is a compound Greek term, derived from the verb ekkaleo. The prepositional prefix ek means "out" and kales means "to call", thus the compound word means "called out." The noun would then be a "called-out group" or "an assembly." To learn more about the term Jesus used, let us look at its use in secular Greek, in the Greek Old Testament, and in the New Testament.
In secular Greek ekklesia was an assembly of called-out people. It did not necessarily refer to a religious assembly but to any group of people from the population at large. The term referred to the assembly itself and not the people. It is used in this sense in Acts 19. At Ephesus Paul met much opposition, and some of the city's people gathered together in a theater to confront him. Luke wrote that "the assembly was in confusion" (v. 32), that the matter "shall be settled in the regular assembly" (v. 39), and that the town clerk then "dismissed the assembly" (v. 41). All these references to an assembly or a "called-out people" are to an assembly of rowdies, vastly different from the assemblies of God's people.
Many New Testament terms are derived from the Old Testament. Although this Greek term would not be found in the Hebrew Old Testament, ekklesia is used in the Greek Septuagint to translate the Hebrew term qahal. As H. S. Bender wrote, "In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, which Paul and most of the early Christians used as their Bible and from which are taken more than half the quotations from the Old Testament found in the New Testament it [ekkesia] appears some eighty times, always with a religious meaning. In all but three cases it is the translation of the Hebrew term for the whole community of Israel as the people of God, the word qahal." Bender clarified this statement in a footnote, stating, "Since for Israel religious, ethnic, and political aspects of the people of God were merged into one, ekklesia did carry more than a religious import. It could refer to any part of the people assembled for any purpose, in peace or war or worship or civil assembly."
Although qahal is used to refer to nonworship assemblies of the people of Israel, what we are interested in is the term's use for religious assemblies of the people of God. Moses used it in this sense when he spoke about receiving the two stone tables: "all the words which the Lord had spoken with you on the mountain out of the midst of the fire on the day of the assembly" (Deuteronomy 9:10). In the following passage the Septuagint uses the term ekklesia for the word translated assembly:
Moses spoke the words . . . in the ears of all the assembly of Israel. Deuteronomy 31:30
David the king said to all the assembly. I Chronicles 29:1; cf. v. 10, 20
"There was not a word off that Moses commanded which Joshua did not read before all the assembly of Israel" (Joshua 8:35).
Then all the people of Israel came out . . . and the congregation assembled as one man to the Lord . . . the assembly of the people of God.. Judges 20:1, 2; cf. 21:8 (The author of Judges wrote about the gathering of the children of Israel before the Lord at Mizpah)And Jehoshaphat stood in the assembly of Judah and Jerusalem, in the house of the Lord. II Chronicles 20:5; cf. 18:16; 31:21 All the assembly said "Amen" and praised the Lord. Nehemiah 5:13 in the assembly of the Lord.. Micah 2:5 they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron. Numbers 16:3 Ekklesia is used also in the Psalms for the worship assembly (22:22, 25; 26:12; 40:10; 107:32).
Thus the term qahal is frequently used in the Old Testament for an assembly of the people of God. This was where the rule of God was to exist, and where teaching and discipline were carried out. As Lehman wrote, Three fundamental concepts come into close and vital relationship. They are bound up in the words "covenant" (Berith), "theocracy" (God's rule), and "congregation" (qahal). Their interrelation becomes evident when we observe that through the covenant God established His rule, and the people of God who were obedient to this rule composed the congregation. This relationship prepares us to understand the new order of things when Christ through the new covenant established the Christocracy under which His people are the church. This profound relationship among covenant, kingdom, congregation (church) unfolds a basic truth underlying both the Old and New Testaments. It was with this background that the apostles understood qahal. We see this understanding reflected in two Old Testament Scriptures quoted in the New Testament. Stephen spoke about Moses being given living oracles at Mount Sinai to form "the congregation in the wilderness" (Acts 7:37, 38). In Hebrews, Psalm 22:22 is quoted: "I will proclaim thy name to my brethren, in the midst of the congregation I will praise thee" (Hebrew 2:12). In both passages qahal was interpreted as the congregation. Thus we see that the apostles carried over into the New Testament an Old Testament concept to represent the assembly of Jesus' disciples. Bender noted that "all Jewish Christians understood that ekklesia meant the people of God. It must have been equally clear to the Gentile believers, to whom Paul certainly conveyed this meaning." Because the early Christians understood qahal as referring to the people of God, they thought of it as the synagogue. Synagogues apparently developed during the Babylonian captivity, when it was not possible to worship in the temple. Synagogues were different from the temple in that they were located in each community and had no priesthood or sacrificial system. The synagogue was widely accepted among God's people as a center of religious instruction and worship. Luke wrote, "From early generations Moses has had in every city those who preach him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogue" (Acts 15:21). The synagogue was also acknowledged by Jesus, as evidenced by His "teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom" (Matthew 4:23) and by His going to "the synagogue, as his custom was, on the Sabbath" (Luke 4:16). His acceptance of the synagogue worship indicates that God was at work in leading the early church to model its organization and services after the synagogue. It also meant that no formal definition of ekklesia was required. The disciples understood Jesus' use of the term because they knew the Greek Septuagint referred to the assembly of God's people as the ekklesia and understood this to be the familiar local "congregation of Israel," the synagogue.
The church was a new assembly under the new covenant and was separate from the old covenant qahal, but nevertheless the church was modeled after this old covenant institution. This resulted in a continuation of the basic congregational unit between the Old and New Testaments. The term ekklesia is used at least 114 times in the New Testament and examining its usage can give us a better understanding of the church. Only five of these do not refer to the church. Three of them refer to secular assemblies at Ephesus (Acts 19:32, 39, 41). The other two refer to assemblies of Israel (Acts 7:38; Hebrews 2:12). The other 109 occurrences, by far the predominant usage, refer to the church.
In summary, although no formal definition of the term church is given in the Bible, the usage of this term in the Bible enables us to understand its meaning. The common Greek term ekklesia was used in the Greek Septuagint to translate the Hebrew term qahal, which was understood as the congregation/assembly called out from the world and came to be identified with the place where the people of God met. The early Christians were acquainted with this term from the Old Testament and its use in Greek as the called-out assembly, so no formal definition was required. Although the term was used by the Greeks mainly for non-religious assemblies, this does not mean the early disciples did not readily understand its full significance for them and the kingdom of God. The church came into being soon after Jesus' ascension (40 days after Easter) on Pentecost (the seventh Sunday after Easter), when 3,000 Jewish people repented and were baptized (Acts 2). The church became the predominant body in the New Testament, as is evident by the 109 usages of the word ekklesia (translated "church"). Let us now examine the New Testament usages of the term ekklesia to learn more about the church.
-By Sujit Mani