Ekklesia - the lost word of the New Testament

Matthew 16 is the culmination of much of the New Testament – someone once described it as the epicentre of the gospels – the divine definition and calling for his people. Here’s the passage I’m referring to: 

Matthew 16:13-20 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” 

They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 

“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” 

Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church (Greek: Ekklesia), and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. 

Ekklesia or Church?

Right at the outset, we need some definition so that we can arrive at a right understanding of what Jesus is saying. In Tyndale’s translation of the Bible, he used the word “congregation”, but when the King James Bible translators came to this verse they used theEnglish word “church” - all future translations followed suit. Now, here’s the beginning of the problem because the word “Church” literally means “House of the Lord” – a modern word from which the Scots get the word “Kirk” – place where the people of God meet. 

The question is, does it matter? My response is “Yes it does!” And here’s why.

What did Jesus say?

The central focus of this passage is where Jesus says, “Upon this rock (this revelation) I will build my church (Ekklesia)” The Greek word “Ekklesia” is derived from two words: ek (out of) klesis (calling). It’s the word from which we get the word “Ecclesiastical” - something to do with “Church”. Some years ago we had a house insurance policy with the Ecclesiastical Insurance Group - they are the ones who insure the Church of England against acts of God!

This word is used 115 times in the New Testament and in our English Bibles it’s translated “Church” in all but 3 verses.

The word Ekklesia had been in use for 500 years by the time Jesus said it and it had a specific meaning – it referred to a ruling body which was the principle assembly of the government in Athens open to all male citizens over the age of 18 – up to 6000 citizens. They were responsible for declaring war, determining military strategy, electing military generals and other officials; they voted on decrees, treaties and law proposals.

The Ekklesia was a participatory, interactive assembly - they were ‘called out’ (summoned, convened) to conduct the business of the city. They met about 40 times a year to discuss issues and make policy decisions. Everyone was considered equal and anyone could participate and share ideas, opinions and concerns. 

In his letter to Corinth (a former Greek city state then under Roman rule) Paul described Christian Ekklesia like this:

1 Corinthians 14:26 “What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.”

These words couldn’t help but cause the Christians in Corinth to remember the history of their city’s Ekklesia and how they, as believers, should also meet in an open, equal and participatory style.

It seems to be how the early Christians met - 

Acts 13:1-3 “Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. 2 While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 3 So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.

New Testament Times

In Jesus’ day everyone understood what Ekklesia was (the called out ones of a city-state); so he was saying, “I am going to build my ruling body in the earth that will crush the gates of hell.”

In Joel chapter 2 the Israelites are told to call a solemn assembly (same word in Hebrew); they were to gather a people that could shift a nation – a solemn assembly by divine decree.

If we put together these different aspects of Ekklesia it means that when Jesus said, “I will build my Ekklesia” he was really saying, “I am going to build my governmental assembly – my ruling body in the earth on the revelation that I am the supreme ruler over the universe”.

Ekklesia in History

In the 1600’s the early Quakers applied this format to their meetings (based on the practises of a group of dissenters called the ‘Westmoreland Seekers’). This started a spiritual awakening in England which spread all over the world. They met in silence and waited on the Lord - only speaking when prompted by the Holy Spirit. This carried on until the late 1900’s when they adopted a more traditional church format.

Then in the 18th Century the early Methodists practiced an Ekklesia-style in their Class Meetings. John Wesley said:

“We will meet together once a week to ‘confess our faults to one another, that we may be healed’ . . . so that everyone, in order, speak as freely, plainly and concisely as he can, the real state of his heart, with his several temptations and deliverances, since the last time of meeting.”

He also said:

“What advantages have been reaped from this? Many happily experienced that Christian fellowship of which they had not so much as an idea before. They began to ‘bear one another’s burdens,’ and naturally to ‘care for each other.”

Jesus commended Peter for the fact that he had received ‘revelation’ (from the Father in heaven). Throughout Church history people have come to different conclusions about what he meant - was he referring to Peter, or the confession that Jesus is the Messiah? Or maybe he was saying that the ‘rock’ upon which Jesus plans to build his Ekklesia is actually people hearing directly from the living Jesus and then saying and/or doing whatever he tells them.

If this is what he meant, then the functioning of true “Ekklesia” is dependent on the Holy Spirit - the actual presence of the living Jesus that he promised when two or three meet together (Matthew 18). So Ekklesia isn’t planned and orchestrated by a human leader, but rather is directly assembled, led and orchestrated by the living Jesus himself.

Then we get to do what Paul spoke about in Colossians 3:16 -

“Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.”

The Reformation of the 16th Century brought into focus, among other things, the “Priesthood of all believers”. For Ekklesia to be rebirthed in the 21st Century, maybe we need another reformation? 

How does Ekklesia work?

An Ekklesia is a meeting where two or more everyday people are invited to come together to listen to the living, resurrected Jesus and then to speak and/or do what Jesus tells them to. It results in a divinely orchestrated time in the presence of Jesus. Hidden deep in the New Testament is this lost Ekklesia format that is radically different from the way almost everyone conducts church. 

In fact 1 Corinthians 14:26 and Colossians 3:16 are two particular verses we find in the Bible that tell us specifically how to conduct ourselves in Ekklesia (church)! It demands Spirit-led, active participation by those attending rather than passive listening (like an audience). It requires us to spend time in the presence of Jesus where we allow the Holy Spirit to lead us. When Eli cottoned on to the fact that the Lord was speaking to Samuel (1 Samuel 3), his advice was to say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” That’s all it requires - listening and letting the Holy Spirit speak to you - it may be a prophetic word, a scripture or a picture; something the Lord wants to tell you or ask you to do.

Can it work today?

Last Saturday evening we hosted a “Joining the Dots” gathering in our home in Bolton. After we had introduced the concept of “Ekklesia” we decided to put it into practice. We had a time of quiet - encouraging everyone to pray, “Speak, Lord” and after a few minutes, one-by-one, people began to share what they heard the Lord saying. It was a combination of encouragement to persevere, helpful pictures that meant something specific to the person sharing or others in the group and Scriptures (sometimes with an explanation or definition - like a mini-sermon).

Afterwards, we went into a time of worship - during which the Holy Spirit began to move powerfully in people’s lives. We asked a few people what the Holy Spirit was doing and people shared powerful testimony to what they saw and heard. One person shared an encouraging word from Psalm 23; replacing the word “my” with “the United Kingdom” - very sobering in light of that week’s referendum result!

In Matthew 18, Jesus implies that the minimum for his Ekklesia is “two or three”. My suggestion to you is that you pray about inviting (calling together) a small group of people in your home and giving the Holy Spirit the opportunity to bring the living presence of Jesus to your Ekklesia - believe me, it will be life-changing!