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The Church is All Over the Old Testament

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Dispensationalists continue to spread the false claim that the Church is something new in the New Testament. As a result, dispensationalists make a distinction between Israel and this supposed new entity called the “church.” The argument goes something like this: When Israel rejected Jesus as the Messiah, God stopped dealing with Israel and started with something that was unknown in the Old Testament—the church.

First, Israel did not reject Jesus as the promised Messiah. Some Jews did and some Jews didn’t. It’s the remnant principle (Rom. 9:27–29). The gospel was first preached to Jews in Jerusalem “from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5). The first converts were Jews. Peter’s message was directed at “the men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem” (2:14) and the “men of Israel” (2:22). When the people heard Peter’s message “they were pierced to the heart” and asked what they should do (2:37). They were told to “repent and be baptized” (an Old Covenant symbol) in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (2:38).

Peter tells them that what was happening was a promise to Israel, those Israelites living in Jerusalem and Judea and those living in the diaspora (the dispersion, James 1:1; 2 Pet. 1:1). The result was that “there were added that day about three thousand souls” (2:41). Not long after, “those who had heard the message believed; and the number of the men came to be about five thousand” (4:4).

These believing Jews, part of the remnant, were the ekklēsia—the “church”—the assembly of God's people (5:11, 13).

A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature notes that "the term ἐκκλεσία apparently became popular among Christians in Greek-speaking areas for chiefly two reasons: to affirm continuity with Israel through use of a term found in Gk. translations of the Hebrew Scriptures, and to allay any suspicion, esp. in political circles, that Christians were a disorderly group."

Why did Paul persecute the “the church [ekklēsia] in Jerusalem” (8:1)? Because the Jews identified themselves as the fulfillment of all the Old Testament promises about their future redemption. Paul understood what was going on. No Jew ever asked, “What’s the church?”

This short analysis should be enough to convince anyone that the church isn’t anything new, but, alas, it doesn't seem to be enough for some people. So, we continue.

10 Popular Prophecy Myths Exposed and Answered

There is a seismic shift taking place in the study of Bible prophecy. For decades, popular prophecy writers have emphatically insisted that our generation is the terminal generation, the last generation before the rapture of the church. Here are some of those myths: (1) The Myth of the Israel-Church Distinction; (2) The Myth that the Modern State of Israel is a Sign that the Rapture is Near; (3)  The Myth that Only Dispensationalists Have a Future for Israel; (4) The Myth of the Postponed Abrahamic Covenant; (5) The Myth of Replacement Theology

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The ekklēsia is all over the Old Testament. When the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek, the Hebrew qahal was in most cases translated as ekklēsia.

It is . . . probable that the rendering ἐκκλεσία was used purely for its general surface meaning of “assembly” and corresponded simply to an understanding of qahal as “assembly”; and that the derivation from καλέω “call” or any associations with ἔκκλητος “called out” or κλῆσις “calling” (in the theological sense) had no importance. [1]

The Hebrew translation of the Greek NT translates qahal  as ekklēsia. Ekklēsia is not a new word or idea in the NT.

It's unfortunate that King James insisted that ekklēsia be translated as "church" rather than "congregation" or "assembly" as William Tyndale did in his translation of the New Testament. His insistence cost him his life.

Here is how Tyndale’s translation handled the first two appearances of ekklēsia in the New Testament (spelling modernized):

  • “And upon this rock I will build my congregation: and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (Matt. 16:18). [2]
  • “If he hear not them, tell it unto the congregation: if he hear not the congregation, take him as an heathen man, and as a publican” (Matt. 18:17). [3]

Catholic Church officials protested Tyndale’s use of “congregation” as the proper translation of ekklēsia since at that time “church” signified an “organized body of the clergy” and a place to worship [4] and resulted in a clear distinction between the clergy and laity.

In 1529, Sir Thomas More (1478–1535) published Dialogue Concerning Heresies, a frontal assault on Tyndale’s New Testament translation. “At bottom, More asserts that Tyndale’s offence has been to give the people Paul in English, and to translate key words in their Greek meanings as ‘senior’ [presbuteros], [5] ‘congregation’ [ekklēsia], ‘love’ [agape] and ‘repent’ [metanoia], instead of the Church’s ‘priest’, ‘church’, ‘charity’, and ‘do penance.’” [6]

More wanted to ensure that the hierarchy of the church was protected and the division of the clergy and laity maintained. It’s no wonder that More attacked Tyndale on the translation of specific words that would have called into question the hierarchical division. The common reader could have seen, in addition to how ekklēsia was translated, that the English word “priest” [7] referred either to Jewish or pagan priests and not elders in the Church. “As a result, many New Testament references that could have been taken as endorsing the institution of the Church were now to be understood as referring to local congregations of believers.” [8] More believed that Tyndale’s translation undermined “the authority of Tradition,” [9] that is, the ecclesiastical traditions of the Roman Catholic Church.

Like Wycliffe, Luther, and others, Tyndale believed that the invisible Church of the faithful was the only true Church, and that, as C.S. Lewis observed, “the mighty theocracy with its cardinals, abbeys, pardons, inquisition, and treasury of grace” connoted by the word “Church” was “in its very essence not only distinct from. But antagonistic to, the thing that St. Paul had in mind whenever he used the Greek word ekklesia. More, on the other hand, believed with equal sincerity that the ‘Church’ of his own day was in essence the very same mystical body which St. Paul addressed.” [10]

For his efforts, Tyndale was strangled and burned at the stake in 1536 for defying church authority, opposing the Church by promoting doctrines such as sola Scriptura, justification by faith alone, the denial of purgatory, questioning the number of sacraments, and translating particular words that could lead the laity to believe that the Church’s authority was limited. Tyndale’s most pernicious “attack” on the Church was his insistence that ekklesia should be translated “congregation” rather than “church”:

In his major defense of his translation, An Answer to Sir Thomas More’s Dialogue, Tyndale begins with ekklesia in its relation to the English word church. He announces that “This word church hath divers [many] significations” (PS 3.11). [11] He then sets out . . . three senses of the English word: first, a building; second, the clergy; and third, “a congregation; a multitude or a company gathered together in one, of all degrees of people” (PS 3.12). [12] He rejects church as a translation of ekklesia, because the first two senses do not appear in the New Testament, and the last is “little known among the common people” (PS 3.12). [13] They would thus be misled into thinking that “church” referred to the bishops, monks, and priests, rather than to themselves as a collectivity. He therefore prefers congregation, which carries the third sense clearly, and the first and second not at all. [14]

As William Stafford writes, it was understood by the laity and church officials that “it was the clergy who were the ecclesia, the church.” [15] But as Tyndale saw it, “the church was not the clergy, nor was it the hierarchical, legal, and ceremonial edifice sustaining the clergy, but rather the congregation of all who responded to the word of God.” [16] This hierarchical understanding of ekklēsia did not stop with protests against Tyndale’s more accurate translation of the word. One of the Rules to be Observed in the Translation of the [King James] Bible required the following: “The old Ecclesiastical Words to be kept, viz. the Word Church not to be translated Congregation &c.” [17] It seems that church officials, this time “the Anglican establishment,” [18] wanted to impose on ekklēsia a contemporary “ecclesiastical” understanding of the word rather than its biblically contextual definition. Because of Rule 3, the hands of the translators were tied since they were in the employ of the king.

[Bishop Richard] Bancroft was determined to ensure that the translation process was judiciously guided, and limit the freedom of the translators. The translators were instructed to follow strict “rules of translation,” drawn up by Bancroft and approved by [King] James, designed to minimize the risk of producing a Bible that might give added credibility to Puritanism, Presbyterianism, or Roman Catholicism. [19]

Whether translated “church” or “congregation,” neither Tyndale nor the ecclesiastical powers of his day had any notion of the modern-day dispensational understanding of ‘church.’ Even so, it’s unfortunate that some of these early English translations—the Geneva Bible (1560) and the King James Version (1611)—translated ekklēsia as “church” since the word obscured its biblical definition of “assembly.” In a similar way, because dispensationalists did not make a formal study of the translation issue, they developed a foreign understanding of ekklēsia that had more to do with the state of the church in the 18th century then with the actual meaning of the word.

That's why Stephen could mention the "ekklēsia in the wilderness" and the writer to the Hebrews could quote Psalm 22:22: "I will proclaim Thy name to My brethren, in the midst of the ekklēsia" (Heb. 2:12). The ekklēsia doesn't replace Israel. The nations were grafted into the ekklēsia that was made up almost exclusively of Jews.

  1. James Barr, The Semantics of Biblical Language (Oxford: Oxford University, 1961), 121.[]
  2. “And I saye also vnto the yt thou arte Peter: and apon this rocke I wyll bylde my congregacion. And the gates of hell shall not prevayle ageynst it.”[]
  3. “If he heare not them tell it vnto the congregacion. If he heare not ye congregacion take him as an hethen man and as a publican.”[]
  4. Benson Bobrick, Wide as the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It Inspired (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), 114.[]
  5. In a later edition, Tyndale translated presbuteros as the more accurate “elder.”[]
  6. David Daniell, The Bible in English: It’s History and Influence (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 149.[]
  7. The Greek word hiereus, not presbuteros, is translated accurately as “priest.”[]
  8. Alister McGrath, In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How it Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture (New York: Doubleday, 2001), 75.[]
  9. Bobrick, Wide as the Waters, 115.[]
  10. Bobrick, Wide as the Waters, 115–116.[]
  11. William Tyndale, An Answer to Sir Thomas More’s Dialogue (Cambridge: The University Press, [1536] 1850), 11.[]
  12. Tyndale, An Answer to Sir Thomas More’s Dialogue, 12.[]
  13. Tyndale, An Answer to Sir Thomas More’s Dialogue, 12.[]
  14. Matthew Decoursey, “The Semiotics of Narrative in The Obedience of a Christian Man,” Word, Church, and State: Tyndale Quincentenary Essays, eds. John T. Day, Eric Lund, and Anne M. O’Donnell  (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of American Press, 1998), 77.[]
  15. William S. Stafford, “Tyndale’s Voice to the Laity” in Word, Church, and State: Tyndale Quincentenary Essays, 105.[]
  16. Stafford, “Tyndale’s Voice to the Laity,” 106.[]
  17. Quoted in Daniell, The Bible in English, 439.[]
  18. McGrath, The Story of the King James Bible, 172.[]
  19. McGrath, The Story of the King James Bible, 173.[]
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