The Greek word for “church” or “congregation” has fascinating roots in the Old Testament — roots that are rarely taught in my tribe. Consider —
(Deu 4:9-10 ESV) 9 “Only take care, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. Make them known to your children and your children’s children — 10 how on the day that you stood before the LORD your God at Horeb, the LORD said to me, ‘Gather the people to me, that I may let them hear my words, so that they may learn to fear me all the days that they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children so.'”
(The Septuagint says “the day of the assembly” where the Hebrew has “gather.”)
(Deu 9:10 ESV) And the LORD gave me the two tablets of stone written with the finger of God, and on them were all the words that the LORD had spoken with you on the mountain out of the midst of the fire on the day of the assembly.
(Deu 18:15-16 ESV) 15 “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers–it is to him you shall listen — 16 just as you desired of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the LORD my God or see this great fire any more, lest I die.’
(Deu 31:28-30 ESV) 28 Assemble to me all the elders of your tribes and your officers, that I may speak these words in their ears and call heaven and earth to witness against them. 29 For I know that after my death you will surely act corruptly and turn aside from the way that I have commanded you. And in the days to come evil will befall you, because you will do what is evil in the sight of the LORD, provoking him to anger through the work of your hands.” 30 Then Moses spoke the words of this song until they were finished, in the ears of all the assembly of Israel:
The last passage is followed by the Song of Moses, found in chapter 32.
We see that in Deuteronomy, ekklesia is used of a gathering of all Israel to hear the words of God or the exhortation of God’s chosen leader. But these were not worship services in the conventional sense. Rather, these were times of entering into covenant.
Let’s go back to the story of the “day of assembly” first mentioned in Deuteronomy. The story begins with God revealing his glory to Moses —
(Exo 33:21-22 ESV) 21 And the LORD said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, 22 and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by.”
God next called Moses to make two tablets of stone and then to climb Mt. Sinai to speak with him. God said,
(Exo 34:10 ESV) 10 And he said, “Behold, I am making a covenant. Before all your people I will do marvels, such as have not been created in all the earth or in any nation. And all the people among whom you are shall see the work of the LORD, for it is an awesome thing that I will do with you.”
God then issued a series of commands, culminating in the Ten Commandments.
(Exo 34:31-33 ESV) 31 But Moses called to them, and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses talked with them. 32 Afterward all the people of Israel came near, and he commanded them all that the LORD had spoken with him in Mount Sinai. 33 And when Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil over his face.
Now, this story has a number of New Testament implications. One is that the apostles’ choice of ekklesia to refer to God’s people carries Torah implications. It’s the ekklesia with whom God entered into covenant!
But the apostles also refer to Christian assemblies as ekklesia, surely carrying echoes of the Torah, too. You see, in the Torah, the ekklesia is where the people heard God’s will and entered into covenant with God.
And so, it’s hardly surprising that Paul says to Timothy —
(1Ti 4:13 ESV) 13 Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.
For some reason, the public reading of scripture never made the “five acts” list, but it’s plainly important to Paul — not only because the early church didn’t have personal copies of the Old Testament, but because the reading of scripture rehearses the ekklesia of the Torah, the hearing of God’s word in order to commit to God’s covenant.
We next need to visit —
(2Co 3:5-8 ESV) 5 Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, 6 who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. 7 Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, 8 will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory?
Paul refers to the Ten Commandments (“carved in letters on stone”) and the glory of God that shone in Moses’ face when he announced God’s commands and covenant to the people.
(2Co 3:12-16 ESV) 12 Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, 13 not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end. 14 But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. 15 Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. 16 But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.
The Jews did not understand the covenant, because the covenant points to Jesus — and most Jews rejected Jesus. It’s only when one turns to Jesus that the old covenant can be rightly discerned. The Torah must be read through the lens of the gospel to be understood. The gospel lifts the veil.
(2Co 3:17-18 ESV) 17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
The result of reading the Old Testament aright — through the gospel — is to open yourself to the transforming work of the Spirit, which shows the “glory of the Lord.” By the power of the Spirit, the veil is lifted, and as we read the old covenant as well — as the new — we are blessed as was Moses. We get to enter God’s presence, see his glory, learn his will, and renew our covenant with him.
And I think this happens in many ways, but it happens especially in the assembly — and that’s one reason God inspired the apostles to use ekklesia to refer to the gathered church.