Gaining a proper understanding of the Greek word ekklēsia, most often translated “church” in the New Testament,(1) is the key in answering the charge that non-dispensationalists teach that the church replaces Israel. The church is not a new thing. The Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament defines the Greek word ekklēsia, most often translated as “church,” in the following way:
Though some persons have tried to see in the term ἐκκλησία a more or less literal meaning of “called-out ones” [ek + kaleō] this type of etymologizing is not warranted either by the meaning of ἐκκλησία in NT times or even by its earlier usage. The term ἐκκλησία was in common usage for several hundred years before the Christian era and was used to refer to an assembly of persons constituted by well-defined membership. For the NT . . . it is important to understand the meaning of ἐκκλησia as “an assembly of God’s people.”(2)
Take note that the authors of this lexicon say the word was in use “several hundred years before the Christian era.” No standard lexicon knows anything about the meaning of ekklēsia that would square with how dispensationalists understand the word.
There is no Church-Israel distinction in the Bible because the Greek word ekklēsia is not an invention of the New Testament writers. Ekklēsia is a common word that is used to describe an assembly or congregation. It is used this way in the Greek translation of the Old Testament — the Septuagint (LXX) — and the Greek New Testament. This common word is use by Jesus in Matthew’s gospel (the most Jewish of the gospels):
- “I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church [ekklēsia]; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it” (Matt. 16:18).(3)
- “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church [ekklēsia]; and if he refuses to listen even to the church [ekklēsia], let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matt. 18:17).
No one asks Jesus, “What’s an ekklēsia?” They knew what an ekklēsia was since they were intimately familiar with the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. “[T]his Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures was the Bible of the early church. . . . Thus, when the writers of the New Testament, whose Bible was the Septuagint, used ekklēsia, they were not inventing a new term.(4) They found the term in common use and simply employed what was at hand.”(5)
Ekklēsia was used many times in the Septuagint for the Hebrew word qāhāl that means “congregation” or “assembly.” (Even modern-day Hebrew translations of the Greek New Testament translate ekklēsia as qāhāl.(6) Like ekklēsia, the Hebrew qāhāl is a general term that can refer to “the assembly of Israel” (Deut. 31:30; Joshua 8:35) or to “the assembly of evil doers” (Ps. 26:5). Ekklēsia is used in a similar way in the New Testament. It can refer to local assemblies of Christians (Rev. 2:1, 8, 12, 18; 3:1, 7, 14) or pagan assemblies of non-Christians (Acts 19:32, 39, 41). Of course, it also has the meaning of a redemptive body of believers made up collectively of Israelites and non-Israelites.
Paul’s use of ekklēsia in some of his epistles indicates “that ekklesia itself still carried a general meaning of ‘assembly’; the particular kind of assembly had to be indicated by qualifiers similar to the Septuagint use.”(7) There is no specialized definition given to the word “church” in Revelation where it refers to local assemblies of believers, a book that was written a few years before the destruction of Jerusalem which took place in A.D. 70.
The term ekklēsia describes an actual assembly, a gathering of people together. The same is true of the Old Testament term qāhāl that is translated by ekklēsia in the Septuagint version of the Old Testament. The words themselves do not have the restricted meaning of the word, ‘church’. Yet, when Jesus said, ‘I will build my church’. . . , he was not simply saying, ‘I will bring together a gathering of people’. Rather, he was using a well-known term that described the people of God. The ‘assembly in the desert’ (Acts 7:38) was the definitive assembly for Israel, the covenant-making assembly when God claimed his redeemed people as his own’ (Dt. 4:10 LXX; 9:10; 10:4; 18:16).(8)
So then, ekklēsia can refer to a general gathering of people of no particular religious affiliation, or it can refer to a particular gathering of people who are identified as God’s people whether Israelites or non-Israelites. This is true for the way it is used in the Old Testament and the New Testament. Therefore it should not surprise us that the New Testament writers would use ekklēsia, both before (Matt. 16:18; 18:17) and after Pentecost (Acts 5:11; 8:1), to identify the assembly or congregation of God’s people.
The believing post-Pentecost Israelites who believed were called “the whole ekklēsia” (Acts 5:11; cp. Rom. 16:23). There is no indication that the use of ekklēsia was considered to be a new redemptive entity distinct from Israel since the “members” of the ekklēsia were “Jews from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5). To claim, as dispensationalist Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum does, that “the church [ekklēsia] was born at Pentecost, whereas Israel had existed for many centuries” and that “[t]here is no biblical evidence that the church existed in the Old Testament”(9) is untrue. Since the Hebrew qāhāl (“assembly”) is translated as the Greek ekklēsia (“assembly”), this is prima facie evidence that as long as Israel existed, the ekklēsia existed.(10)
Any Jew able to read the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament would have recognized the word and understood what it meant. In speaking to his Jewish countrymen, Stephen describes the believing community in the era of the OT as “the congregation [ekklēsia] in the wilderness” (Acts 7:38). In Acts 8:1 and 3 the “ekklēsia in Jerusalem” was made up exclusively of Jews — all Israelites! If ekklēsia means “congregation” in Acts 7:38,(11) then it certainly carries the same meaning just a few verses later in Acts 8:1: “Saul was in hearty agreement with putting [Stephen] to death. And on that day a great persecution began against the ekklēsia [church] in Jerusalem,(12) and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.” In Acts 8:3 we read that “Saul began ravaging the ekklēsia, entering house after house, and dragging off men and women” to “put them in prison.” The ekklēsia that Saul ravaged was made up of believing Israelites who were a living testimony to the fulfillment of God’s promises made to Israel through the fathers and prophets. These Israelites didn’t believe that they were some “mystery” parenthesis as dispensationalists contend. At Pentecost Peter told the “men of Israel” (Acts 2:22) who were in Jerusalem “from every nation under heaven” (2:5–11) that what was happening was the fulfillment of what Joel and other prophets had prophesied (2:14–47).
“Men of Judea and all you who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you and give heed to my words. For these men are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only the third hour of the day; but this is what was spoken of through the prophet Joel” (Acts 2:14b–16).
These Jewish believers were the Church, not a replacement of Israel but the continuation of the remnant of Israel to which non-Israelites would be grafted in (Rom. 11).
This original Jewish assembly of believers post-Pentecost is the “ekklēsia of God,” the congregation and assembly of God’s people (Acts 8:1; Gal. 1:13; Acts 20:28; 1 Cor. 1:2; 10:32; 15:9; 2 Cor. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:5), a continuation of the believing community found throughout the Old Testament. Later in Acts we learn that Gentiles were grafted into an already growing post-Pentecost Israelite ekklēsia (Acts 10).(13) There is no discussion among the circumcised about a postponed Israel covenant. They were “amazed because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also” (10:45). Note the use of “also”: “To the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom. 1:16; 2:9–10). The Israelite promises were extended to the Gentiles.
Peter addressed the crowd at Pentecost as the “men of Israel” (Acts 2:22) and “all the house of Israel” (2:36). The “brethren” — Israelite brethren — want to know what they, as Israelites, must do to be saved. Peter tells them, “For the promise is for you and your children. . .” (2:39). There is nothing in this chapter that indicates that the promises first made to Israel were not being fulfilled right then and there. Peter continues to preach to his countrymen by informing them that “Jesus the Christ” was “appointed for you” (3:20). The “restoration of all things” (3:21) is the pre-ordained redemptive work of Jesus to fulfill what all the prophets had written. Peter tells them that the prophets “announced these days” (3:24). “It is you who are the sons of the prophets, and of the covenant which God made with your fathers, saying to Abraham, ‘And in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed’” (3:25).
We read further about the fulfillment of the promise made to Israel, “sons of Abraham’s family.” The promises are fulfilled, not postponed.
“From the descendants of this man, according to promise, God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, after John had proclaimed before His coming a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel. And while John was completing his course, he kept saying, ‘What do you suppose that I am? I am not He. But behold, one is coming after me the sandals of whose feet I am not worthy to untie.’ Brethren, sons of Abraham’s family, and those among you who fear God, to us the message of this salvation has been sent. For those who live in Jerusalem, and their rulers, recognizing neither Him nor the utterances of the prophets which are read every Sabbath, fulfilled these by condemning Him” (Acts 13:23; cf. 13:32–33; 26:6).
Notice how Paul in Romans argues “that the promise will be guaranteed to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all” (Rom. 4:16; cf. 9:8; Gal. 3:29; 4:28). Non-Israelite believers, the “uncircumcision” (Eph. 2:11) who are “in Christ,” are made a part of the commonwealth of Israel and are extended the promises originally given to Israel:
“[R]emember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall (2:12–14)
As a result, believing non-Israelites in Jesus as the Messiah share in the (1) “commonwealth of Israel,” as they are (2) no longer “strangers to the covenants of promise” (2:12) “but (3) “fellow citizens with the saints, and (4) are of God’s household, having been (5) built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into (6) a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit” (2:20–22). You can’t get much more Israelite than these designations. They drip of Old Testament descriptions for Israel. It’s through Jesus that “we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father” (2:18).
Promises made to Old Testament Israel are said to be fulfilled in the so-called church age, something a dispensationalist would never acknowledge: “For we are the temple of the living God; just as God said, ‘I will dwell in them and walk among them; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. . . . And I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to Me,’ says the Lord Almighty” (2 Cor. 6:16, 18). How can this be when Paul is citing a verse that originally applied to Israel? How can the church be the temple? The temple is strictly Jewish. Second Corinthians 6:18 is a direct citation of Exodus 29:45: “And I will dwell among the sons of Israel and will be their God.” Then there is the statement to the Corinthian ekklēsia to “come out from their midst and be separate.” This, too, is an Old Testament reference to Israel, as is the reference not to touch “what is unclean” (2 Cor. 6:17b; Isa. 52:11). Finally, Paul tells the Corinthians that God will be a Father to them, and they will be “sons and daughters” to Him (2 Cor. 6:18). Once again, Paul draws on passages that were first applied to Israel (Isa. 43:6; Hosea 1:10).
Notice how 2 Corinthians 7 begins: “Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (v. 1). “These promises” were made to Israel, and yet Paul applies them to the church at Corinth (1:1).
There is no mention of a postponement of the promises, “an intercalary period of history,”(14) first made to Abraham. These Jewish believers, the recipients of the promises spoken by the prophets (Acts 3:24), made up “the church” (5:11). So then, when Gentiles were grafted into the existing all-Israelite ekklēsia, they took part in the same Israelite promises. Dispensationalists have to maintain that this was never God’s plan. Citing Isaiah 57:19, Paul assures Israelites and non-Israelites who are in Christ, “and He came and preached peace to you who were far away, and peace to those who were near” (Eph. 2:17). The New Testament ekklēsia was always God’s plan!
Dispensationalists will still maintain that there are unfulfilled promises for Israel. Where in the New Testament does it say this? We have to ask the dispensationalist when these unfulfilled promises are going to be fulfilled. It can’t be during the so-called church age since, as dispensationalist Thomas Ice states, “We dispensationalists believe that the church has superseded Israel during the current church age, but God has a future time in which He will restore national Israel ‘as the institution for the administration of divine blessings to the world.’”(15)
It’s not going to take place during the dispensationalist’s version of the Great Tribulation since, according to dispensationalists, there will be a mass slaughter of Jews and even greater destruction to the world. Will it be during the “millennium”? Revelation 20 certainly doesn’t have anything to say about the promises being finally fulfilled during the thousand years.
Dispensationalists vehemently maintain that the ekklēsia (church) was unknown to the Old Testament writers. The so-called church age is said to be a “mystery,” a parenthesis, a gap in prophetic time, until the pre-tribulational “rapture” when the church will be removed from the earth and God will deal with Israel again. Then why does the writer to the Hebrews quote Psalm 22:22 and use the Greek word ekklēsia, translated accurately in most modern translations as “congregation,” as it should be translated elsewhere (see below)?:
“I will proclaim Your name to my brethren,
In the midst of the congregation [ekklēsia] I will sing Your praise” (Heb. 2:12).
Philip E. Hughes writes, “The proclamation of the Good News and the praise of God which accompanies it take place, moreover, in the midst of the congregation, or more literally (as in the KJV) ‘in the midst of the church’ [‘ekklēsia here is the LXX rendering of the Hebrew ekklēsia’], which in the perspective of the New Testament is God’s new temple being built up of those ‘living stones’ who are brethren with and in Christ (1 Pet. 2:5; Eph. 2:19–22).”(16)
If the dispensationalists are correct, then the New Testament writers who were under God’s direction like their Old Testament counterparts to write what they wrote (2 Tim. 3:16–17), then they were awfully confused. Of course, we know they weren’t. If they had wanted to make such a distinction between Israel and the “church” they certainly would have used a word that was not as common as ekklēsia to both the Greek Old Testament and the Greek New Testament to do it.Endnotes:
- The Greek word ekklēsia is used 115 times in the New Testament, and in most translations it is translated as “church.” Exceptions are often found in Acts 7:38, 19:32, 39, 41, and Hebrews 2:12.(↩)
- J. P. Louw and E. A. Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament : Based on Semantic Domains, electronic ed. of the 2nd ed. (New York: United Bible Societies,  1996).(↩)
- Fruchtenbaum writes that “when the Church is mentioned for the first time in Matthew 16:18, it is still future, as the use of the future tense clearly shows. Jesus did not say, ‘I am building,’ which would have been the case if the Church was already in existence. The only possible conclusion is that the Church was formed at Pentecost.” (Fruchtenbaum, Israelology, 466). What Fruchtenbaum does not tell his readers is that while ekklēsia is used for the first time in Matthew’s gospel, it’s not the first time Jesus’ disciples had heard the term. They were very familiar with it. Jesus describes how He will build His assembly of believers on the confession that He is “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16) which is foundational to the entire Old Testament (Luke 24:27). Its newness is similar to the way the covenant is new (Heb. 8:8); it’s the same covenant but only expanded to include non-Israelites and made sure through Jesus’ shed blood (Matt. 26:28). Notice the number of passages in Hebrews 8 that are taken from the Old Testament (8:5, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12) and applied to the ekklēsia of the New Testament.(↩)
- Following the LXX, the sacred assembly of Israel was the “ekklēsia of the LORD” (Deut. 23:1). “The people of God” are “in the ekklēsia” (Judges 20:2). Solomon took “all the ekklēsia” to Gibeon where the ark was (2 Chron. 1:3). There the ekklēsia inquired of the Lord (2 Chron. 1:5). When the temple was completed, Solomon blessed “all the ekklēsia of Israel” (1 Kings 8:14; cp. 8:22, 55; 2 Chron. 6:3). If this verse were in the NT, it would read “all the church of Israel.” When Solomon stands before the altar and prays, he is “before all the ekklēsia of Israel” (2 Chron. 6:12). The “ekklēsia of the LORD” was the covenantal assembly of Israel (Deut. 4:10).(↩)
- Earl D. Radmacher, What the Church is All About: A Biblical and Historical Study (Chicago: Moody Press,  1978), 121, 132. Radmacher argues that “although the etymological associations of ekklesia have their unquestionable bearing upon the significance of the term, the deciding evidence must be drawn from the exhaustive investigation of its actual use in the New Testament. While it is true that historical continuity seems to demand that the early appearance of the word ekklesia in any new literature should simply suggest ‘assembly,’ it is also true that the Holy Spirit frequently lifts words from their current usages to a higher plane of meaning and packs into them such vast new content as their etymologies will scarcely account for. Whitney states: ‘Philologists agree that the final authority of any word does not lie in its etymological or historical connotation but in its actual use’” (132). That is the question. What is its actual use and meaning in the New Testament?(↩)
- The Hebrew Bible (Old Testament and New Testament) (Jerusalem, Israel: The Bible Society in Israel, 1970).(↩)
- Robert L. Saucy, The Church in God’s Program (Chicago: Moody Press, 1972), 16.(↩)
- Edmund P. Clowney, “The Biblical Theology of the Church,” The Church in the Bible and the World: An International Study, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1987), 17.(↩)
- Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, “Israel and the Church” in Issues In Dispensationalism, gen. eds. Wesley R. Willis and John R. Master (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), 116.(↩)
- Some dispensationalists have understood the problem of claiming the church began at Pentecost, so Acts 13 dispensationalism, or Mid-Acts dispensationalism, was born. This hybrid dispensational view argues that the church, as the body of Christ, began in Acts 13 when Paul turned from the Jews to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. J. C. O’Hair, C. R. Stam of the Berean Bible Church and author of Things That Differ, and Charles F. Baker, author of A Dispensational Theology, are proponents of this view. Then there is Acts 28 dispensationalism which states that the church began at the end of Acts (see Acts 28:17–29) when the Jewish leaders completely rejected Paul’s teaching. “Acts 28 dispensationalism is sometimes called ‘Bullingerism’ after its leading proponent, Ethelbert William Bullinger (1837–1913).” (G. R. Lewis, “Ultradispensationalism,” Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1996], 773).(↩)
- “It should be noted that [the translation of ekklēsia as ‘church’ in Acts 7:38] is found in the King James Version. Most other translations have more correctly translated this verse to read, the congregation in the wilderness, or the assembly in the wilderness. The Greek term ekklēsia is not only used in the technical sense of the New Testament Church, but it is also used in the Septuagint as the translation of the Hebrew kahal, meaning ‘congregation.’ That was the obvious intent of Acts 7:38. Furthermore, in the Book of Acts itself, ekklēsia is used in the non-technical sense of ‘assembly,’ for it is used to describe an assembly of townspeople who were neither Jews nor Christians but Gentile pagans [Acts 19:32–33, 41]” (Fruchtenbaum, Israelology, 30–31). Of course, the Hebrew qāhāl is also used in a non-technical sense of assembly as well as an assembly of believers.(↩)
- Is Luke comparing the Jerusalem of his day to the wilderness? (“the ekklēsia in the wilderness” and “the ekklēsia in Jerusalem”). Jesus predicted that Jerusalem would be destroyed (Matt. 22:1–14) and the temple would be left to that generation “desolate” (23:38).(↩)
- As Marten H. Woudstra observes, “The question whether it is more proper to speak of a replacement of the Jews by the Christian church or of an extension (continuation) of the OT people of God into that of the NT church is variously answered.” (Marten H. Woudstra, “Israel and the Church,” in Continuity and Discontinuity: Perspectives on the Relationship Between the Testaments, ed. John S. Feinberg (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1987], 237.) Clarence Bass takes a similar position: “It is not that exegetes prior to his time did not see a covenant between God and Israel, or a future relation of Israel to the millennial reign, but they always viewed the church as a continuation of God’s single program of redemption begun in Israel. It is dispensationalism’s rigid insistence on a distinct cleavage between Israel and the church, and its belief in a later unconditional fulfilment of the Abrahamic covenant, that sets it off from the historic faith of the church. (Clarence Bass, Backgrounds to Dispensationalism [Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1960], 27).(↩)
- E. Schuyler English, A Companion to the New Scofield Reference Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972), 135.(↩)
- Thomas Ice, “The Israel of God,” The Thomas Ice Collection: www.raptureready.com/featured/TheIsraelOfGod.html#_edn3(↩)
- Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, 108.(↩)