Better than the Passover

Better than Passover

You can listen to this sermon here.

This evening, we will compare and contrast the Lord’s Supper with the Passover given to national Israel. So many things given to the Old Covenant people point to partial or final fulfillment in what has been given to New Covenant people – they are there to teach about and point us to Christ. They are intended to give us a richer understanding of how the Bible fits all things together and has a deeper meaning than a superficial read can provide.

The Lord’s Supper is given to God’s people in the New Covenant as the sign of that covenant (Luke 22:19-20), just as the weekly Sabbath was given to God’s people in the Mosaic Covenant as the sign of that covenant (Exod. 31:12-18; Ezek. 20:11-20). In Ex 31, national Israel was commanded to keep the weekly Sabbath for it was a sign between Him and them. In 1 Cor 11 we are told that the Lord’s Supper is a declaration of His victorious death, whereby He conquered sin on our behalf. While the sign of the Old Covenant could be seen and practiced by anyone, the sign of the New Covenant cannot be understood or practiced by anyone unless they have been born again by God.

The Lord’s Supper is connected to the last Passover (Matt 26:17-30), observed in conjunction with weekly fellowship meal (Acts 2:42; 20:7) Just as the Passover meal signified the passing-over of the angel of death, so the Lord’s Supper signifies the passing through death of our Savior.

The first Passover anticipated the redemption of ethnic Israel from the bondage of Egypt (Deut 16:1). The first Lord’s Supper anticipated the redemption of spiritual Israel from the bondage of sin (1 Cor 11:23-26). The annual Passover reminded ethnic Israel of the freedom from Egypt their God had given them. The regular observance of the Lord’s Supper reminds spiritual Israel of the freedom from sin their Savior has given them.

The Passover was the covenant meal of the Old Covenant (Ex 12:17). The Lord’s Supper is the covenant meal of the New Covenant. The Passover was a mostly bitter meal, reminding the Jews of their time of want and the faithful provision of their God. The Lord’s Supper was usually observed after a fellowship meal, reminding the children of God of His provision of food for the body and the soul and the faithfulness of the One Who said He would return.

The Passover was observed with family or close friends within the covenant community (Exod 12:43-49). The Lord’s Supper is observed with all who are in Christ, within the local fellowship of saints.

The Old Covenant required observance of certain religious rites for membership: make circumcision, weekly rest from work, the Passover, occasional monthly and annual feast days. Faith in God, belief in the promised seed was not required for membership – only observance of a few religious rites. Those who fail to observe these rites were cut off from the covenant community. This is termed “formalism” and it is a sign of dead religion and must be guarded against within the local fellowship of saints.

The New Covenant requires the application of one truth: you must be born again by the Spirit of God; you must be circumcised of the heart, done without human hands (Col 2:11). Faith in the promised seed is required for membership – no one can enter the wedding feast of the Lamb without the required clothes (Matt 22:12) – the righteousness of Christ! Failure to participate in the fellowship of the saints and the observation of the Lord’s Supper neglect the care of their own souls and could be cut off from the New Covenant community until such time repentance might be granted.

Jewish parents used the Passover to teach their children about YHWH and their physical redemption. Christian parents should use the Lord’s Supper to teach their children about the redemptive death of Jesus and the need to believe on Him to be delivered from sin. Belief in God and the promised seed was not a requirement to eat the Passover. Belief on the promised Seed is a requirement to partake of the Lord’s Supper. Great teaching opportunity.

If people did not prepare for the initial Passover as directed, they would die (Ex 12:12-13). If Christians take the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner, they may die (1 Cor 11:27-30). This is the most graphic reminder that only believers are permitted to take this ordinance seriously. As the people in the Old Covenant taught their children about the need for YHWH’s redemption from Egypt and His faithful provision thereof, so parents in the New Covenant should teach their children about their need for redemption from sin and Jesus’ faithful provision to save. Both ordinances given the New Covenant community are great teaching opportunities for those who have not been brought near by the blood of Christ; and they are great teaching opportunities for all who have been redeemed, as we each need to be reminded of what He has done on our behalf, lest we drift into thinking little of sin and of His payment for it.

See Luke 24:35 – He opened their eyes when He broke the bread. He vanished from their presence after opening their eyes of faith. This served the same purpose for these two as His ascension does for all the saints – He departed from this world to send the Spirit as we learn to walk by faith and not by sight. Pagan religions require a god they can see and handle, because they walk by sight and not faith.

Paul tells us that Jesus was our Passover (1 Corinthians 5:7), showing us the Passover is not a continuing observance, but a ceremonial shadow or type that pointed God’s people to the promised seed who would save His people from their sin. The Lord’s Supper has connections to the Passover but is itself the sign of a better covenant (Luke 22:20 & Hebrews 8:6).

Jesus is our (believers’) Passover (1 Cor 5:7): Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast permeates the whole batch of dough? Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch. You are indeed unleavened, for Christ our Passover has been sacrificed. Therefore, let us observe the feast, not with old yeast or with the yeast of malice and evil but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. The call is to remember our need of salvation, the spiritual application of the temporal redemption given national Israel on their first Passover. No room for boasting within the New Covenant except for the cross of Christ. We are called to not tolerate the mixing of Old Covenant bondage or unbelievers (those infected with malice and evil) within the body of Christ; but welcome only those who are possessed by sincerity and truth.

This ordinance belongs exclusively to the gospel age, being typified in several Old Testament passages, such as when Melchizedek brought wine and bread to refresh Abram and his warriors who had just defeated several pagan kings (Genesis 14:17-20). Even so, we who are born again by the will of God are immediately at war with our flesh, the system of the world and its present ruler. Christ gives us spiritual nourishment with this simple symbol, the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper, of His victory over sin and death and hell and Satan. ‘Tis a far, far better respite than what Melchizedek gave Abram. We see another reference to this church ordinance in Proverbs 9:1-6, as lady wisdom bids God’s people come to the table she has set, bread and wine, for refreshment and refuge from lure of the culture which wars against our souls.

And read the prophet Isaiah on this topic: On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken. It will be said on that day, “Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. This is the LORD; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.” (Isaiah 25:6-9)

This is the message of the Lord’s Table: “Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. This is the LORD; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”

This is just one aspect of how the OT points to spiritual things. Think about how rich the entire OT is in its revelation of Christ; that was the Scripture from which Jesus and the apostles preached the gospel to the first century world.

While the Bible does not explicitly command us on the frequency, we do see a narrative showing it was an important part of their weekly gatherings, some 30 to 40 years after Pentacost. Now on the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul, ready to depart the next day, spoke to them and continued his message until midnight (Acts 20:7). One author (Terrance O’Hare) observed: “Most commentators agree that this was a Sunday evening meeting, at a recurring gathering of Christians on the first day of the week following their normal activities and work. [Note: this was before Christianity was legal and before Sunday was a regular day off for workers.] They came together in order to break bread. This does not mean that preaching was secondary, but when they came together, they purposed to commune in the symbolism of the covenant meal as the Lord had commended and as the apostles has established by tradition.” We should no more neglect the Lord’s Supper than the Israelites did their Passover.

While Scripture does not tell us how frequently to observe this ordinance, it does command us to take it, revealing that it is nourishing to our souls, enhances our fellowship. This puts a new light on this question about frequency; perhaps the question for some should be, why don’t we take this ordinance more frequently? The commonly discussed down-side to observing this ordinance regularly is that it can (they often mean will) become routine, dull, meaningless. That was my first thought when I served in a church that took the Lord’s Table weekly. My time at that church showed me that, properly handled, the weekly observance of this ordinance is not routine, dull, or meaningless. If Christ be rightly presented, if we are put in our place of coming to Him with gratitude, in humility, aware of our not-yet status of being conformed to Him, then this simple ordinance is what God intended it to be, bringing glory to the Father through the Son and building up His people spiritually.

The beloved Baptist preacher, Charles Spurgeon, declared, “Shame on the Christian Church that she should put it off to once a month, and mar the first day of the week by depriving it of its glory in the meeting together for fellowship and breaking of bread, and showing forth the death of Christ til He comes.” Throughout the history of the church, weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper has been the traditional practice, ably supported by the Word of God.

The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? (1 Corinthians 10:16)

When we take the cup of the Lord’s Supper, we should remember the cup of wrath He took on our behalf. The cup we hold is a symbol of the glorious benefit of being redeemed by His sacrifice, so we thank our God for His grace while we also soberly remember the price that was paid. No small price; He drank the cup of wrath and shed His blood to secure our redemption. As we drink the cup of His peace, the New Covenant, we do drink vicariously the cup of wrath. When we eat the bread or cracker, which is broken in remembrance of His atoning death, we participate vicariously in the death He died. This is why Paul said Galatians 2:19-20: For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. This is what is real – our spiritual life. It is what is eternal.

Whenever we take this ordinance, let us seek out those within this fellowship whom we have sinned against or who has sinned against us and seek true reconciliation as the Lord’s Supper represents unity that can only exist by those indwelt by the Holy Spirit.

No Compromise!

As Jesus went through the countryside, preaching and healing people, His fame spread and crowds often followed Him – including religious leaders who saw Him as a threat, rather than the possible Messiah.

When the men lowered their crippled friend on a matt through the roof, so he might get close to Jesus and perhaps healed, the Scribes and Pharisees were watching very closely, to see if they could catch Jesus violating their law.

When Jesus healed the cripple, these religious leaders began to formulate a plan.

But they didn’t see Jesus rightly; He knew their thoughts and, rather than seek to sooth their suspicions, He looked them in the eyes and said, “Why do you question in your hearts? Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the man who was paralyzed—“I say to you, rise, pick up your bed and go home.” And immediately he rose up before them and picked up what he had been lying on and went home, glorifying God.

So it is with us. When people of the world suspect you are in Christ, they will want to influence you to “not make waves.” This is why we are told not to talk about politics or religion in family gatherings or at work.

Know this: No one will be saved by Christians “playing nice” and avoiding the plain speech of the gospel. Men are by nature children of wrath and wrath they will face unless Christ save them. He – alone – is the Savior of sinners. Preach and declare Him, don’t get intimidated to play nice.

Better Than Moses

Better than Moses, Matt 5:17ff

You can listen to this sermon here. 

The Sermon on the Mount covers chapters 5 – 7 in Matthew’s gospel. The context is shortly after His temptation and the very beginning of His public ministry. Large crowds had begun to follow Him. Matthew 5:1-2 When He saw the crowds, He went up on the mountain, and after He sat down, His disciples came to Him. Then He began to teach them. “Disciples” in this setting refers to the large crowds that followed Jesus from time to time; these people were not His 12 that we read of later.

After telling them about the characteristics of the people in His kingdom (the beatitudes, salt and light, city on a hill), Jesus abruptly shifts gears. He begins to transition into His main point: He is not just a prophet, He is greater than the greatest prophet YHWH had ever raised up. Here’s how He is compared in Hebrews 3:5-6 Moses was faithful as a servant in all God’s household, as a testimony to what would be said in the future. But Christ was faithful as a Son over His household. And we are that household if we hold on to the courage and the confidence of our hope. To be that household mean we are sons. Paul tells us we are no longer servants but sons of God; and since we are sons, we are heirs (Gal 4:7). What a contrast! Moses is described as faithful servant; Jesus is termed the faithful Son over the household of God. And we are sons of God through faith in Christ. This is the hinge-point of the Sermon on the Mount: Jesus unveiling Himself to pious Jews who desired to see the Messiah.

Matthew 5:17-20 (HCSB) “Don’t assume that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For I assure you: Until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or one stroke of a letter will pass from the law until all things are accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches people to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Is the gospel an offer?

Is the gospel an offer?

 

First, what is an offer? From Webster’s 1828 Dictionary:

OF’FER, verb transitive [Latin offero; ob and fero, to bring.]

  1. Literally, to bring to or before; hence, to present for acceptance or rejection; to exhibit something that may be taken or received or not. He offered me a sum of money. He offered me his umbrella to defend me from the rain.

 

Does that sound like what the Bible describes as the gospel, something He offers up to be accepted or rejected?

 

After condemning the Pharisees with the parable of the tenants, Jesus tells them, (Matthew 21:43) Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing its fruit. The kingdom of God will be TAKEN from national Israel and GIVEN to spiritual Israel; God takes from one and gives to another.

Many people who claim the gospel is an offer turn to any of several places where God calls people to come to Him. In the first place, the English word, come, is an imperative – a command. When a mother tells her toddler “come here,” she is not inviting him, she’s not offering him the option; she’s commanding him. When the queen of England bids an entertainer to sing for her, everybody calls it a “command performance” because the queen issued the “invitation.” So many who call God sovereign posit Him as someone who offers and invites His creatures to come into His kingdom – as if He were less than the queen of England, less than a mother of small children.

How much more greater and grander and beyond our ability to comprehend is the Creator and Judge of all flesh? When the Lord of glory tells His chosen ones, “Come!” it is, as everyone who embraces the doctrines of grace knows, an irresistible call.  When you and I preach the gospel, we try to persuade men – the general call we give (not knowing who the elect are) can be resisted or accepted. Yet our words, our persuasive speech is not what saves anyone. The Spirit of God moves as does the wind – no man controls nor is able to know for sure where He goes. And He gives life to that which was dead, and those called by God to come are no more able to say no than Lazarus was, being 4 days dead in the tomb. Jesus did not invite Lazarus to come forth, didn’t offer him another few years in the flesh. He commanded Lazarus to come forth; and Lazarus did so.

Preach the gospel to every creature, we are told. Nothing about offering the kingdom to anyone. Nothing about inviting them – compel them to come, the master of the wedding feast said. How do we compel people to come to Christ? By being faithful with our proclamation of His gospel. It is the power of God unto salvation for those who are being saved. He compels His chosen ones to come to the wedding feast.

Throughout Acts, we read of the kingdom being preached and proclaimed, not one instance of the kingdom being offered. We read in Revelation that God has made us a kingdom of priest unto Him.  Of 158 occurrences of “kingdom” in the HCSB new testament, not one of them can be portrayed as being offered to anyone.

A similar survey of “gospel” shows us the same results. Of 78 occurrences, we see much about proclaiming and preaching and announcing the gospel. People hear the gospel; the gospel is confessed and presented and it is preserved. The gospel is veiled to those who are perishing (2 Cor 4:3). The gospel is established and advanced. People are called by God through the gospel. No occurrence of the gospel being offered.

Why does this matter?

If the gospel and the kingdom are offered to sinners, God is put in the position of “the anxious seller,” hoping people will accept Him. The Bible does not give any hint of God in this light. He commands the clouds where to go and drop rain, He gives life to that which was dead, He calls into existence things that do not exist.

While none of us is able to describe God comprehensively, each of us who name Christ as Lord should seek to never reduce Him in any of His attributes. God speaks and His sheep hear His voice. He needs not offer His kingdom to anyone – He gives it to whom He pleases.

Uniquely Holy

Before the Throne

A review by Stuart Brogden

The subtitle of this book is Reflections on God’s Holiness. Allen Nelson takes us a quick-paced tour of different aspects of God’s holiness, grounded in two passages from God’s Word: Isaiah 6:1-7 and Revelation 4:5-11. One recurring theme is the remedy for what ails the saints and their local fellowships is found in the proper view of the Lord Jesus, not in “new methods” that fleshly ears and eyes always demand. The bottom line is that satisfaction for the soul of man can only be had on the person of Christ Jesus, not in entertainment with a wrapping of pious words from a speaker who presents Creator and Judge of all flesh as familiar spirit that only wants to make people feel good.

God is holy – He does not merely behave holy. His holiness – being set apart from creation, being complete and perfect in His being – defines Him. Twelve chapters explore God’s undoubtable, unspeakable, untamable, unchanging, unapproachable  – and more! – holiness. Our author labors to help us see God as He is: glorious, pure, complete, just, joyful, compassionate, and AWESOME.

Reader – if you are a believer bored or disaffected with your Savior, you are a self-contradiction! Nobody who even partially comprehends Who saves sinners and what sin is cannot be bored or disaffected with the One Who took the cup of wrath due us. Nelson’s book is a ready remedy for dull eyes, weary ears, sullen souls; our author bids us to see Christ more clearly, to behold His glory and be joyfully satisfied in Him.

In the opening chapter, Allen impresses upon us the importance of knowing God rightly, telling us, “When we fail to take seriously the holiness of God it affects everything in our lives. God is holy. Theology matters.” (page 21) Building on the words of Peter, who tells us in 2 Peter 3:18 to be growing in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus, Nelson reminds us “We are still growing in our knowledge of who He is and we will do so for eternity.” He goes on to say, “I want you to hunger to know God better than you do now.” And, “We can’t understand God in an absolute way (He is infinite and we are finite). However, we can (and must) learn what He tells us about Himself in His Holy Bible.” (page 26). This idea is critical for everyone who names the name of Christ – satisfied with being in Him, never satisfied with our maturity as saints.

How should the holiness of God affect us? Our author has this: “The overwhelming concept of God’s holiness ought to lay a heavy weight on our souls. If you can meditate upon the unfathomable holiness of God without any occasions of fear and trembling in your core being, perhaps you’ve not understood it sufficiently.” (page 42). Recall the message from 2 Peter 3:18, and what he said in 2 Peter 1:12, that he intended to always remind us of what it means to be in Christ. Allen is a good friend, reminding us of something critical to our maturing in the Lord, pressing God’s truth upon us so that the reader will not easily be able to be self-satisfied. Contemplating on the response of Isaiah to seeing a vision of God’s holiness in chapter 6 of that gospel, Nelson observes, “The gospel changes “woe is me” to “worthy are You” because the penalty for transgressing God’s Holy Law has been atoned for in Christ. … Reflecting on God’s untamable holiness should ultimately drive us to Christ.” (pages 60 & 61) In a footnote on page 61 he says, “We can either distance ourselves from God through Moses, or draw near to God through Christ.” Works of the law take many forms, most of which are not directly connected to Moses or the law given through him to national Israel. The only way for a sinner to be reconciled to holy God is, as Allen quoted, to “draw near [to God through Christ] with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” (Hebrews 10:22)

In chapter 5, Nelson explores how this characteristic of God ought to inform and shape our corporate worship. This is one of my favorite parts of this excellent work. While we should be thankful for skilled musicians and singers (being careful, in my opinion, that they do not overwhelm the congregation), Nelson implores us “to listen to an important truth from the passages we’ve seen above [in this section] about facilitating worship: get out of the way.” He bids us to be intentional “in singing hymns that glorify Him instead of focusing on our own experience. We must gear all facets of our singing – words, style, arrangement and content – toward magnifying the unmatchable holiness of God. Holy, holy, holy.” (page 89) Elders should oversee the musical portion of worship as well as the preaching – the people will benefit when the songs are theologically aligned with the sermon.

As for the preaching, Nelson says, “Show me the Holy, and He will suffice. Show me His worthiness in His Word. Show me how His holiness permeates the universe and is glorious enough to exact unceasing praise from all creation. You are not a match for the holiness of God. It’s wicked and foolish to attempt to be. Step out of the way by pointing us to a Holy God and the work of Christ.”(page 92) Application of a passage has its place – and it’s important. But application without the glorious weight of the holiness of God in Christ being held up is a way to legalism. “The greatness and the glory of God are relevant. It does not matter if the surveys turn up a list of perceived needs that does not include the supreme greatness of the sovereign God of grace. That is the deepest need. Our people are starving for God.” (page 94, quoting John Piper)

Beholding the Lord in spirit and truth (only spiritual being can see Him as He is) transforms us. “We become like what we behold. Let us then behold the Lord and not you.” (page 95, speaking to the preacher). “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18)

This is the drumbeat of this book: study to know Him; be bold in proclaiming Him; trust Him; exalt Him; hide behind Him. For YHWH alone is holy, all powerful, self-existent, and worthy of all praise, honor, and dominion. Whether in your personal walk, evangelism, or ministry in the local fellowship – Jesus is sufficient and nothing else will do.

Pick up this book and read. It will do your soul much good.

One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism

One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism

There are some brothers in Christ who are so focused on the local assembly of saints that they deny there is any congregation of a universal manner; that is, comprised of all the redeemed from every generation. This focus includes an emphasis on water baptism, to the exclusion of what John foretold – that One was coming who would baptism with fire and the Holy Spirit (Matt 3:11).

One passage that is said to be only about water baptism and the local fellowship is Ephesians 4, where we find this: Ephesians 4:4-5 (ESV) There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism,

The context of this short passage should shed light on whether it is all and only about the local assembly and water baptism or if it’s about something greater.

We know that Paul’s letter to the saints at Ephesus was meant to be read to many local assemblies; it’s a universal letter to the body of Christ. In the first three verses of chapter 3, Paul stresses identity in Christ and the unity of believers – dealing with one another in humility, gentleness, patience, and so on.

And then we find this: Ephesians 4:4-7 (ESV) There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift.

This letter reveals Paul’s passion for all the saints to understand the unity we have because of our union with Christ Jesus, proclaiming there is one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all. By this union with Christ we each have been given grace according to His gift.

Is there ANYTHING in this passage that hints Paul was addressing only the local assembly or numerous assemblies of saints? Is he not making much of the fact that ALL the saints share in these things, without regard to any temporal circumstances? One body, not numerous local bodies. One Spirit, not a separate Spirit for each locale. One hope, one Lord, one faith, one God and Father of ALL. This speaks to all saints in all locations and all generations. And one baptism.

Water baptism makes no one a child of God. The lack of water baptism keeps no one out of the kingdom of God.

But that baptism John mentioned, the baptism of the Holy Spirit and of fire, corresponds to the circumcision made without hands (Col 2:10-11).  This baptism is what brings enemies of God into His kingdom as His friends and children; without this baptism, no one can enter into His domain.

As much as these brothers resist and insist, there is no argument that can be made from Ephesians 4 that restricts Paul’s message of union and unity to the local assembly only. They can only make assertions in support of their view. Paul’s concern as an apostle was for the whole body of Christ, redeemed saints from every nation, tribe, and tongue. To deny this universal intent is to constrain the love of God for His people to clumps here and there, denying the communion we have through the Holy Spirit to all the saints.

It’s too small a view of God’s work and of His body.

The Nature of the Church

The Nature of the Church

 Stuart L. Brogden

 Greek Word: ἐκκλησία

Strong’s 1577

Transliteration: ekklēsia

from a compound of <G1537> (ek) and a derivative of <G2564> (kaleo); a calling out, i.e. (concretely) a popular meeting, especially a religious congregation (Jewish synagogue, or Christian community of members on earth or saints in heaven or both), assembly, church.

What is “the church”?

The Greek word ekklesia is most often presented in English Bibles as “church.” The word “church” is not a translation of the Greek word, ekklesia; it’s not even a transliterated version of that word. Strong’s concordance shows ekklesia being used in the KJV as either “assembly” or “church.” But the Greek word means “the called ones” and actually shows up in Scripture being applied to an assembly of town-folk (3 times in Acts 19:32-41). As with most words in the Word, the bare definition of the word does not reveal the meaning in every usage.

As for the use of “church” in the Bible, there does not appear to be a clear record of why it was chosen, nor of the meaning of this word. At least twice in the New Testament of the KJV, “church” applies to God’s covenant people in the Old Testament:

Acts 7:37-38 This is that Moses, which said unto the children of Israel, A prophet shall the Lord your God raise up unto you of your brethren, like unto me; him shall ye hear. This is he, that was in the church in the wilderness with the angel which spake to him in the mount Sina, and [with] our fathers: who received the lively oracles to give unto us.

Heb 2:11-12 For both he that sanctifieth and they who are sanctified [are] all of one: for which cause he is not ashamed to call them brethren, Saying, I will declare thy name unto my brethren, in the midst of the church will I sing praise unto thee.

It is not possible for anyone to make a categorical statement that every occurrence of “church” means the local assembly of the saints, as some do.

The first known use of this word in English Bibles is found in Wycliffe’s Bible, spelled “chirche.” His work was translated from the Latin Vulgate and we have no clear reason for his use of this word.

In Smith’s Bible Dictionary from 1884, page 452, we read:

the derivation of the word ‘church’ is uncertain. It is found in the Teutonic and Slavonic languages and answers to the derivatives of ekklesia, which are naturally found in the romance languages and by foreign importation elsewhere. The word is generally said to be derived from the Greek kyriakos, meaning the lord’s house. But the derivation has been too hastily assumed. It is probably associated with the Scottish kirk, the Latin circus/circulous, the Greek klukos, because the congregations were gathered in circles.

Ebenezer Cobham Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable of 1898 agrees:

The etymology of this word is generally assumed to be from the Greek, Kuriou oikos (house of God); but this is most improbable, as the word existed in all the Celtic dialects long before the introduction of Greek. No doubt the word means “a circle.” The places of worship among the German and Celtic nations were always circular. (Welsh, cyrch, French, cirque; Scotch, kirk; Greek, kirk-os, etc.) Compare Anglo-Saxon circe, a church, with circol, a circle.

The first definition in Daniel Webster’s 1828 dictionary defines “church” as “A house consecrated to the worship of God, among Christians; the Lords house. This seems to be the original meaning of the word.”

There two things to bear in mind regarding the apparent definition of the word “church.” The ekklesia of God in the New Testament refers to the redeemed saints, not a location or a building. Secondly, one of the messages Jesus taught the woman at the well (John 4) is that, in the Christian faith, there are no sacred or consecrated places where we must meet God.

Since the etymology of “church” is based on location rather than on people, it is a poor choice for ekklesia. In practice, so many Christians think of the building as the church, which many refer to as “the house of God,” it is a constant battle to keep the true meaning of ekklesia in front of people. In contrast, the Scriptures use myriad examples of buildings to refer to God’s redeemed people (1 Cor 3:15-17; 6:19; Eph 2:19-22; 1 Pet 2:5; Gal 4:26; Rev 21:2), and never refers to a temporal location within the New Covenant context. Why do we carry on with this word that people consistently understand to mean a temporal location rather than the people of God?

After Wycliffe’s Bible (1382), the early English Bibles took a different view. Tyndale’s Bible (1526), the Coverdale Bible (1535), Matthew Bible (1537), The Great Bible (1539), and the Bishop’s Bible (1568) all translated ekklesia as “congregation,” a term that conveys the idea of people called to be together. The Geneva Bible (1560) followed Wycliffe and used “church” in place of ekklesia, as did the KJV.

When work on the King James Bible began, the king provided 15 rules that the translators had to follow. Rules 1 & 3 are of particular interest to the topic of this paper:

  1. The ordinary Bible, read in the church, commonly called the Bishop’s Bible, to be followed, and as little altered as the original will permit.
  2. (not used here)
  3. The old ecclesiastical words to be kept; as the word church, not to be translated congregation, &c.

Rule 1 shows that the king wanted his Bible to be in the common tongue, accessible to the people, who were used to having the Great Bible and the Bishop’s Bible used in the state-churches. It is not true, as some KJV defenders claim, that the KJV was a unique Bible; it was based on the Bishop’s Bible. Rule 3 came into play in two prominent words that were not translated, but merely used in place of (as with “church”) or transliterated (as with “baptism”). Translating these two words would have provided us a clearer picture of what God was communicating. Ekklesia rendered as “congregation” or “assembly” shows we are talking about people, not places. Baptizo rendered as “dipping” or “dunking” shows we are talking about being identified with Christ in His death and resurrection by going down into the waters as if unto death and rising up from them as if unto new life. Advocates of the state-church have a history of building geo-political empires with ostentatious buildings for their gatherings and sprinkling infants rather than baptizing disciples.

There are at least eight passages where ekklesia refers to what is called “the universal church,” all the redeemed in Christ, called according to His name.

Matthew 16:18 (KJV) And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

1 Corinthians 15:9 (KJV) For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.

Ephesians 1:22-23 (KJV) And hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church, Which is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all.

Ephesians 3:9-11 (KJV) And to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ: To the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God, According to the eternal purpose which he purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Ephesians 3:21 (KJV) Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen.

Ephesians 5:23-32 (KJV) For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish. So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church: For we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh. This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church.

Philippians 3:6 (KJV) Concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.

Colossians 1:18 (KJV) And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence.

Colossians 1:24 (KJV) Who now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the church.

Hebrews 12:23 (KJV) To the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect,

In each of these passages, the bolded phrases make consistent sense when seen as references to the total number of God’s redeemed; not as references to any given local ekklesia. In his 1858 book, Manual of Church Order, John Leadly Dagg spent chapter 3 discussing the universal church, beginning with this: “The Church Universal is the whole company of those who are saved by Christ.”

In his book, Concise Theology, chapter “The Church,” J. I. Packer, describes the universal church:

The New Testament defines the church in terms of the fulfillment of Old Testament hopes and patterns through a relationship to all three Persons of the Godhead, brought about by the mediatorial ministry of Jesus Christ. The church is seen as the family and flock of God (Eph. 2:18; 3:15; 4:6; John 10:16; 1 Pet. 5:2-4), his Israel (Gal. 6:16); the body and bride of Christ (Eph. 1:22-23; 5:25-28; Rev. 19:7; 21:2, 9-27); and the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 3:16; cf. Eph. 2:19-22). Those in the church are called the “elect” (chosen), the “saints” (consecrated ones, set apart for God), and the “brothers” (adopted children of God).

The truest, purest expression of ekklesia is the vision of heavenly Jerusalem, coming down from heaven with the Lord Jesus upon His second advent (Rev 21:2). Therefore, those New Testament passages which appear to speak of the universal assembly of God’s redeemed should be embraced rather than cast in the shadow, so the references to the local gathering of saints would be established as THE “church.” The primary focus on the “local church” by some brothers is so prominent in their doctrine that one can easily lose sight of the fact that the ekklesia of Christ is a heavenly body. Our citizenship is in heaven, we are pilgrims and sojourners in this age.

It is true that the overwhelming occurrences of ekklesia in the New Testament refers to local assemblies; there is no reason to pretend otherwise. The point is that the local assembly is not the only ekklesia of God’s people mentioned in Scripture. It’s easier to see this when we use a term that clearly portrays the people of God and not merely a place on the ground. The local ekklesia is important for the saints – this is where critical spiritual growth takes place, this is where the Spirit of God gathers and gifts us as it pleased Him. But in each local assembly of saints, there is likely to be false brothers in the pale. In this way, the local ekklesia is a type of the true ekklesia, the universal church, because in that gathering, there are only true sons and daughters of our Holy God; no pretenders.

The congregation is the people of God. Christ gave Himself for His sheep – all and each of them, whether they belong to a local congregation or are awaiting the resurrection of their bodies. After all, the Bible is all about the Lord Jesus and we ought to be, also. Let us not get so earthly focused that we take our eyes off Him.