Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Be the Church

One of the most basic characteristics of God’s people is that they gather.

Not a revolutionary or new statement, but it continually needs to be said. This isn’t me writing as a paid representative of the Institution.[1] I’m putting proverbial pen to digital paper because of something I noticed this last week studying Esther.

In Esther 8:11, the new second-in-command of the Persian Empire (Mordecai the Jew) writes a law with the king’s authority granting, among other things, the right to assemble (the Hebrew verb קהל is used). The assembly of the Jews is an important repeated theme at the turnaround of their fortunes in this curious little tale.[2]

“Assembly” (קהל) is “Church” (εκκλησια).
This word (קהל), both its verb and noun forms, is important for a theological reason. What would happen to this word when the world started speaking Greek and the Old Testament was translated into that language? I thought I knew the answer, but wanted to check. I opened my Hebrew/Aramaic Index to the Septuagint (a riveting action story!) and confirmed my suspicions.[3] The word קהל, when it was translated into Greek, becomes εκκλησια, which is the word for “Church” in the New Testament.

Still with me?

Jesus is the first Person to use the word “Church” in the New Testament. In a short space of text, He gives us both the foundational definitions of the Gathering means:
·         In Matthew 16:13-20, it is the universal body of all those who share God the Father’s heaven-given (not earth-invented) confession of the Son. Jesus identifies Himself as continual Builder of this assembly, and says that hell cannot stop it.
·         In Matthew 18:15-20, it is a local body, as well, of individuals who are part of what’s described in 16:13-20, but also have a definite membership with standards of ethics and the ability to discipline.[4]

Jesus will, through the Holy Spirit’s inspiration of His apostles, fill both of these foundational statements in throughout the writings of the rest of the New Testament.[5]

Even though Jesus is the first Person to use the word “Church/church” in the New Testament, His statements in Matthew 16 and 18 are not new. When He says εκκλησια, He is drawing upon an idea with a lot of precedent in the Old Testament word קהל. Folks will usually start with the Greek word εκκλησια, read its definition in a lexicon (it literally means “called-out ones”), and sadly build a theology that minimizes or eliminates the vital importance of the Gathering. No! Εκκλησια, the Greek word used in the New Testament for the idea called “Church,” is built upon קהל, the Hebrew word used in the Old Testament for “assembly,” or “gathering.” The Lord of the Church didn’t innovate the idea that day in “the district of Caesarea Philippi” almost 2,000 years ago. He was laying claim to His authority over a reality that had been happening since the days of the founding of the old covenant through Moses at Mount Sinai after the Exodus! This is why Stephen, with the last words he is allowed to say on this earth, has no problem dropping the εκκλησια word (the one used for “Church/church” in the rest of the N.T.) to describe the old covenant group that has Moses as its leader: “This Moses…is the one whom God sent to be both a ruler and a deliverer with the help of the angel who appeared to him in the thorn bush. This man led them out, performing wonders and signs in the land of Egypt and in the Red Sea and in the wilderness for forty years. This is the Moses who said to the sons of Israel, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brethren.’  This is the one who was in the congregation [here it is: εκκλησια] in the wilderness together with the angel who was speaking to him on Mount Sinai, and who was with our fathers; and he received living oracles to pass on to you” (Acts 7:35-38).

Jesus isn’t creating in Matthew 16 and 18. He’s claiming something that’s already there is His to rule, and it’s His to define.

None of this is new teaching at all. My point is not to share new information that no one’s shared before. The reason for this post is to get us away from that lexicon theology that looks up εκκλησια, sees its basic definition as “called-out ones,” and builds a theology (‘cause we all have theology, my friends, even if you don’t like it!) that says, “‘church’ means ‘called-out ones,’ so I don’t have to attend the get-togethers of the ‘institutional’ church to be a part of the true church.”

Εκκλησια is not a key to missions-at-the-expense-of-gathering, but is built upon קהל, a previously-existing idea that means “gathering.”

The Church gathers. It’s what it means to be the Church. You gather. Yes, we go. Yes, we are missional everywhere we are. But most foundationally we gather as Christ-confessing people in identifiable local bodies to teach each other to obey Christ’s commandments (and there’s a lot to that). The Church gathers, and always has.

Let’s look at a few uses of the verb קהל in the Law of Moses:
·         “…Moses assembled [קהל] all the congregation of the sons of Israel, and said to them, ‘These are the things that the Lord has commanded you to do…’” (Exodus 35:1).
·         “…the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘…assemble [קהל] all the congregation at the doorway of the tent of meeting.’ So Moses did just as the Lord commanded him. When the congregation was assembled at the doorway of the tent of meeting, Moses said to the congregation, ‘this is the thing which the Lord has commanded to do.’” (Leviticus 8:1-3).
·         “So Moses and Aaron took these men who had been designated by name, and they assembled [קהל] all the congregation together on the first of the second month. Then they registered by ancestry in their families, by their fathers’ households, according to the number of names, from twenty years old and upward, head by head, just as the Lord had commanded Moses. So he numbered them in the wilderness of Sinai” (Numbers 1:17-19).
·         “Remember the day you stood before the Lord your God at Horeb, when the Lord said to me, ‘Assemble [קהל] the people to Me, that I may let them hear My words so they may learn to fear Me all the days they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children’” (Deuteronomy 4:10).
·         Assemble [קהל] the people, the men and the women and children and the alien who is in your town, so that they may hear and learn and fear the Lord your God, and be careful to observe all the words of this law. Their children, who have not known, will hear and learn to fear the Lord your God…” (Deuteronomy 31:12,13).

Did you hear the “teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” part of the Jesus’ “Great Commission” to His disciples (Matthew 28:20) in those passages? Oh, beloved, this is what it means to “be the Church”! We gather. We hear and learn together, and hold each other accountable in doing this, and we go out to live what we have heard. The going out and obeying is not “being the Church,” but the assembly to hear what to obey is “being the Church”! This is a theology built not on a lexicon definition, but the whole Bible!

Gather. It’s what the Church does.

[1] “Institution” is the new bad word to describe organized, structured gatherings of the local Church. The descriptor doesn’t bother me. The Church was instituted by Jesus, and is therefore “a thing instituted,” what would be called an “institution.” One of the things He did when He instituted it by His apostles was give it organizational structure (including leadership and membership), limitations, rules/commandments, and purposes/commission. Fits the “institution” definition to me. Negative labels are tools of people with agendas. What’s the agenda here, I wonder?
[2] In fact, other than Numbers, Esther contains the highest number of uses of the verb קהל, “gather.” See 8:11; 9:2,15,16,18.
[3] Takamitsu Muraoka (Baker Academic, 1998).
[4] I say “definite membership,” because when Jesus says, “tell it to the church,” it doesn’t seem likely He has the global phenomenon in mind. Whoever this local, definite group is, it has regulatory authority over individual members’ access to participating in the assembly. Matthew 16 does not describe an amorphous, universal church idea (but doesn’t contradict it, either).
[5] Most of the New Testament addresses the local congregation, or assembly. Their truths can be universally applied, but the books of the N.T. are written to specific local congregations, and are meant to be applied by all other specific local congregations. Statements about the “universal church” are present in the N.T., but are definitely in the minority.

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