Historically, scholarship has paid very little attention to the use of ekklēsia in the Greek translation of the OT used by First Century Jews, the Septuagint (the LXX). Scholars have assumed that the NT church chose this term with little regard for its OT history. And yet the early church was entirely Jewish, and there were other Greek words that might have been used for “church.” Why this term?
Increasingly, it’s now being recognized that the NT church chose ekklēsia as the preferred term for a congregation or the church-universal because of its OT roots. In fact, its Jewish roots are of critical importance to understanding the early church’s self-understanding.
The “gathered church,” ekklēsia in Greek, is equivalent to the Old Testament Hebrew word qahal, which is translated as “assembly,” “community,” or “congregation.” God’s goal was to have a community of people gathered around Him in relationship to Him, sharing and worshiping Him. The congregation “assembled” at Mount Sinai was God’s people “gathered” to hear His words (Deut. 5:19; 9:10). When Israel was gathered as an organized community, the nation was the Lord’s assembly (Num. 20:4), gathered to worship Him. On the Day of Atonement, the High Priest atoned for the sins of the Lord’s gathered community (Lev. 16:17; Deut. 31:30). Passover was the festival and celebration that most brought the Israelite community together and made them one. On the night of the exodus from Egypt, the qahal of the Lord slew the Passover lamb, witnessing together the great deliverance that the Lord was providing for them (Exod. 12:6). They would forever trace their origin as a nation to this event.
Qahal also describes the Israelites gathered before King Solomon at the dedication of the Temple (1 Kgs. 8:14; 2 Chr. 6:3). The Lord was granting His divine presence before the people, for He was coming to fill the Temple and let His Glory abide there. The qahal yisraʾel, the “assembly of Israel,” gathered in the plains of Moab to hear Moses recite his song about the future destiny of the nation (Deut. 31:30). The most honorable and highest purpose of the “assembly” was to gather for worship. The psalmist raised his own voice to praise the name of Yahweh, along with the voice of the people (Pss. 22:22, 25; 35:18).
In the New Testament, the Greek word ekklēsia, “church,” probably best continues the tradition of the qahal from the Old Testament. Jesus asserted that He would build or assemble His church (Matt. 16:18). God watches over His “assembly” today, just as He did in Old Testament times. In the New Testament, Jesus, Paul, Peter, James and all the other servants of God give themselves to the preservation and creation of God’s true worshiping community (see Acts 15:22; Rom. 16:1; 1 Cor. 16:19; Gal. 1:13). The church is now the “assembly” of the Living God, a pillar and support of the Truth (1 Tim. 3:5, 15) made visible through Jesus Christ.
Eugene E. Carpenter and Philip W. Comfort, Holman Treasury of Key Bible Words: 200 Greek and 200 Hebrew Words Defined and Explained, 2000, 13–14 (emphasis mine; paragraphing modified for easier reading in blog format).
In the Torah, when the people of Israel are gathered to make covenant with God, they are called the ekklēsia — and when the people gather to worship, as at Passover or the Day of Atonement or the dedication of Solomon’s Temple.
(Deut. 4:9-14 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 [LXX: “On the day of the assembly“], 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.’ 11 And you came near and stood at the foot of the mountain, while the mountain burned with fire to the heart of heaven, wrapped in darkness, cloud, and gloom. 12 Then the LORD spoke to you out of the midst of the fire. You heard the sound of words, but saw no form; there was only a voice. 13 And he declared to you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform, that is, the Ten Commandments, and he wrote them on two tablets of stone. 14 And the LORD commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and rules, that you might do them in the land that you are going over to possess.”
(Compare Deut 9:10; 18:16.)
But in Judges, the ekklēsia of Israel is the gathered army of the 12 tribes.
(Jdg. 20:1-2 ESV) Then all the people of Israel came out, from Dan to Beersheba, including the land of Gilead, and the congregation assembled as one man to the LORD at Mizpah. 2 And the chiefs of all the people, of all the tribes of Israel, presented themselves in the assembly of the people of God, 400,000 men on foot that drew the sword.
In Ezra and Nehemiah, the people gathered into assembly (ekklēsia) to hear the Torah.
(Neh. 8:2-3 ESV) 2 So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month. 3 And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law.
And to repent —
(Neh. 5:13 ESV) 13 I also shook out the fold of my garment and said, “So may God shake out every man from his house and from his labor who does not keep this promise. So may he be shaken out and emptied.” And all the assembly said “Amen” and praised the LORD. And the people did as they had promised.
And so we see that ekklēsia refers to the nation of Israel gathered to hear God’s word, to repent, to worship God, to covenant with God, and to prepare for battle.
But always it’s the nation of Israel. It’s Israel, the nation, gathered to deal with God as a people. If they are gathered for battle, it’s God’s ekklēsia fighting at his direction and for his cause. Thus, the ekklēsia is Israel in relationship with God. In the ekklēsia , something is happening. There’s always a dynamic between the people and God. It’s not just a nation, but a nation responding to God.