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 used 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).
· “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. They found the term in common use and simply employed what was at hand.”
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The Greek word 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.)
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 similarly 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.” Robert Saucy references 1 and 2 Thessalonians as examples where ekklēsia has a “general meaning.”
Second Thessalonians was written around A.D. 50. This means that no dispensational specialized meaning was given to ekklēsia for more than 20 years after Pentecost when dispensationalists claim the church was founded. 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 AD 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).
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. 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 that was initially Jewish in composition.
The believing post-Pentecost Israelites who believed Jesus was the promised Messiah were called “the whole ekklēsia” (Acts 5:11; cp. Rom. 16:23). Nothing indicates that the use of ekklēsia was considered to be a new redemptive body 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” is astonishingly 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.
Any Jew able to read the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament would have recognized the word and 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, 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, 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 [church], entering house after house, and dragging off men and women” to “put them in prison.”
The ekklēsia 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. 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).
Peter quotes an Old Testament passage and applies it to the events of Pentecost, as the prophecy’s fulfillment. Dispensationalists teach that the Old Testament did not know anything about a New Testament ekklēsia (church). If this is the case, then how could a prophecy from the prophet Joel apply to the beginning of the New Testament ekklēsia (church) and include “all flesh” (Acts 2:17) and not just Israel? It couldn’t. This is why dispensationalist Thomas Ice has to add the word “like” to a Bible verse so that the passage will say what he needs it to say to maintain the Israel-Church dualism: “But this is [like] that which was spoken by the prophet Joel.” He tries to explain adding “like” by claiming, “The unique statement of Peter (‘this is that’) is in the language of comparison and similarity, not fulfillment.”
There is no indication that it’s “like” what Joel prophesied; it is what Joel prophesied. It’s odd that someone who claims to interpret the Bible literally would add a word to a passage, not for grammatical clarity as many translations do with other passages, but to make a point of theology. The Jehovah’s Witnesses do this with Colossians 1:16–17 to avoid the obvious implication that Jesus is a non-created being. Their New World Translation inserts the word “other” in brackets before “things”: “[B]ecause by means of him all [other] things were created in the heavens and upon the earth, the things visible and the things invisible, no matter whether they are thrones or lordships or governments or authorities. All [other] things have been created through him and for him. Also, he is before all [other] things and by means of him all [other] things were made to exist” (NWT).” In both cases, theology is driving what the text should say in order to justify an interpretive system.
Dispensational author Stanley D. Toussaint contradicts Ice on inserting the word “like” between “this” and “that”: “This clause does not mean, ‘This is like that’; it means Pentecost fulfilled what Joel had described.” After saying this, he goes on to argue, contradicting what he just wrote: “However, the prophecies of Joel quoted in Acts 2:19–20 were not fulfilled.” So which is it? He says the fulfillment will come “if Israel would repent.” But the elect remnant of Israel did repent: “Now having heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brethren, what shall we do?’ And Peter said to them, ‘Repent…’” (Acts 2:37–38). There is no salvation without repentance. The result? “So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and there were added that day about three thousand souls” (2:41). While Toussaint dismisses the argument put forth by Ice that Peter was saying “this is like that,” his claim that “the prophecies of Joel quoted in Acts 2:19–20 were not fulfilled” has Peter saying “this is not that,” a clear contradiction and worse than what Ice does with the verse.
Zane C. Hodges agrees that the insertion of “like” “is unlikely on linguistic grounds.” He comments further:
Some dispensational thinkers have urged that the phrase “this is that” is not intended to announce the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy on this occasion. Rather, it signifies something analogous to the phenomenon described by Joel. According to this view, the phrase “this is that” means something similar to “this is like that,” or “this is that sort of thing.”
Such an interpretation is unlikely on linguistic grounds.
Hodges equivocates but doesn’t go as far as Ice and Toussaint. He does imply that Peter’s use of “this is that” is not as literal as it seems as a first reading would imply. “We may conclude that Peter meant to say that the outpouring of the Spirit fulfilled Joel’s prophecy. But this in no way clashes with fundamental dispensational convictions…. The hidden reality of the church remains hidden reality even when Joel’s prophecy is seen to be fulfilled at Pentecost.” What Peter “meant to say”? What does this mean? The text tells us what Peter did say. If, as dispensationalists argue, the church had its beginning at Pentecost, and “Joel’s prophecy is seen to be fulfilled at Pentecost,” it seems reasonable to conclude that Joel’s prophecy applies to the “church,” therefore it is not a “hidden reality.”
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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 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.
Gordon D. Fee, The First and Second Letters to the Thessalonians (NICNT) (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), 237–241.
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).
Thomas Ice, “Acts,” in Tim LaHaye, ed. Prophecy Study Bible (Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 2000), 1187.
Stanley D. Toussaint, “Acts,” The Bible Knowledge Commentary: New Testament, John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1983), 358.
Zane C. Hodges, “A Dispensational Understanding of Acts 2,” Issues In Dispensationalism, 168.
Hodges, “A Dispensational Understanding of Acts 2,” 168–169.