The word Jesus uses to describe what He is building to displace the strategically positioned authorities of Hades has been pressed into a scrapbook collection of possible meanings, and we are left to sort through the scrapbook in order to hear this word with the meaning He gives it when He speaks it.
Matthew 16 contains this discussion between Jesus and His disciples, a discussion that occurs naturally in the course of conversation about His identity. Recall this premise: the meaning of ekklesia comes from a dramatic discussion of Christ’s identity. Heading away from this context, the meaning of the word travels far, far afield of its origins and meaning.
What Ecclesia is Not
Perhaps we should eliminate the ornamental shrubbery from the landscape a bit so we can see more clearly the forest of trees that have grown around the original term.
- It is not defined by denominational distinctives so that ekklesia fits into a doctrinal system in a way that proves the superiority or singularity of that denomination. Once we step back from this morass of muddled misnomers, we can rest our sights upon a much-reduced set of possible meaning for the term Jesus used. It is certain, beyond all doubt, that Jesus did not use the term, ekklesia, with a particular denomination in mind.
- It is not defined by a particular entitled class of leaders designated by men to design the ekklesia so they can become the source of its control, management, and expansion. While the Ecclesia most certainly has Divine representative leadership, that leadership does not define ekklesia; rather, ekklesia defines the function of the kingdom leaders Jesus, the Head of Ecclesia, sends to represent Him.
- It is not defined by the often misused and misapplied quotation of Matthew 18 in which Jesus discusses how to resolve internal personal conflicts with the ekklesia in a way that maintains the purpose and performance of the ekklesia. Ecclesia is not defined by “two or three gathered together in My Name.” The “two or three” Jesus mentions in this passage are clearly the “two or three witnesses” summoned alongside the person seeking reconciliation with someone who has done them wrong. It is an aspect of Ecclesia operating because the actions and activities described here are Ecclesia issues resolved by Ecclesia principles and protocols, but the “two or three” are clearly not the Ecclesia.
- It is not different in meaning when referring to “all believers everywhere as a kingdom assembly of the heavenly kingdom” or “all believers called together into assembly in any localized, regional or specific circumscription.” That is, the discussion of “church universal” or “church local” does not alter the meaning of the word, ekklesia.
We are left with only a few remaining discussion points by which to understand the meaning of ekklesia in the mouth of Jesus after removing these considerations from the list of common usage.
Modern American Meaning
For American minds, the term “church” requires a near total rehab and overhaul to hear hints of the meaning of Jesus’ words. While we might not say that modern American meaning of “church” is the worst in history, we most certainly would find it use odd and even strange when compared with what Jesus says when He uses this word.
Again, we can begin with what it is not more easily than what it is:
- Ecclesia is not a building, facility, or temple. No physical temple exists for the Ecclesia. The Ecclesia gathered together is His temple of dwelling; each individual believer’s physical body is His temple of dwelling. However, no physical headquarters, universal location, or “Mother church” can represent anything other than a place for function, a facility for distinct operations, or a known location for gathering.
- Ecclesia is not the “called out of the world” believers. Jesus does not refer to the ekklesia in this way else He would use the common word for this phrase, a word different from ekklesia, which never means, “called out of.” The most common meaning for “church” used today carries an underlying sense of “separation from the world” as a definition of “church” when “separation from the world” is an issue of kingdom, not Ecclesia.
So, phrasing comes into vogue that reinforces the assumptions: namely, “go to, attend, join, be part of” a “church” with a full sense of personal choice, taste, comfort, appeal, relationships, and take it or leave it presuppositions attached. Most modern believers consider “church” a matter of personal choice when Jesus considers “ekklesia” an extension of kingdom assignment, alignment, and authority.
From the bastardization of the word, modern believers view their place in the Ecclesia nearly opposite of what Jesus says when He uses the word!
Why would I say that? Because the word, ekklesia, in the mouth of Jesus has to do with the King calling together from within His kingdom, creating or building an assembly of His citizens so the “gates of hell” are displaced by what He builds.
And, what an individual believer likes, prefers, choses, or finds comfortable has nearly nothing to do with his or her assembling. The King assigns, aligns, and authorizes individual believers under the kingdom leaders He bestows upon the Ecclesia to prepare and position believers in the systems of the Ecclesia as a spiritual Body, the living stones of the Ecclesia as a spiritual Building, or the properly attired and purely approved spiritual Bride.
What Ecclesia Is
The three times the word, ekklesia, comes from the mouth of Jesus in the Gospels gives us our best and only glimpses of the King’s understanding of His Ecclesia and its function. Without doubt, these become the source of many disputes and distinctives among the various divisions within the kingdom, perhaps the basis for the deepest rifts in unity that have occurred in church history. Since the definitions of “church” often carry within them the reins of control and the reigns of assumed leadership that fit differing models, few other issues divide the believers more clearly and completely.
I will take the viewpoint that the inclusion of Jesus’ words is completely inspired by Holy Spirit, the words within the context in which they are used has come to us in this form because of His preservation of Scripture, and all discussions of their validity or authenticity are blasphemous on that basis. Jesus spoke these words and used this term or referred to this term in His everyday speech in ways that assume the word, ekklesia, represents what He means by the Ecclesia.
So, in that context of Jesus’ life and the use of the common Greek word in His generation, we should assume no special or technical theological sense except to carry from the Old Testament use of this word to describe “the congregation of Israel” what Jesus carries into the new kingdom context, what Jesus establishes in His life, ministry, and Messianic kingship: kingdom assembly or assemblies that represent His Kingly rule.
We must see Ecclesia in kingdom terms if we are understand what Jesus says about Ecclesia in His preparation of and for the arrival of the kingdom of God. Separating Ecclesia from kingdom becomes the first step in emptying that word of the meaning it has in the mouth of Jesus. Without kingdom, there is no “church,” for Ecclesia comes about because kingdom arrives through the King’s representatives.
The Ecclesia assemblies those called from within the kingdom, the citizens of the kingdom, to attend to kingdom business and establish kingdom purposes for the King. The Ecclesia worship the King who is ever present when the Ecclesia assemblies in representation of His rule, and the kingdom citizens establish on earth what the King has already established in heaven.
The Ecclesia is more a legal and legislative assembly, summoned by a herald, assigned a kingdom purpose, empowered by the King with kingdom authority to carry out that purpose, while maintaining the culture of the kingdom from which it is called together so that the Ecclesia, when called and assigned, functions in the fullness of the King’s authority, power, and Glory.
John the Baptist Heralds a Preparatory Ecclesia
“Kingdom come” is the reason John heralds. The voice heralding in the wilderness calls out from the kingdom those who can be prepared and positioned to receive the King upon His arrival. John is not the King, but sent by the King to prepare the King a people ready to respond to the King upon His arrival.
John is not the King but he is the herald that announces the King’s arrival, so the Ecclesia to which he calls people is one of preparation for a heavenly visitation. This visitation is one of inspection and accountability, and his generation is unprepared for it. John calls them to radical life change so that an Ecclesia will be available to assemble in response to the purpose of the arriving King.
Because his generation did not prepare for the visitation, they did not recognize it.
“They will level you to the ground and your children with you, leaving not one stone in place, because you did to recognize the season of your visitation.” [Luke 19:44]
Seasons of visitation accompany season change.