(Matt. 16:17-18 ESV) 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
Imagine a Jew overhearing this conversation before the crucifixion. To his ears, “I will build my church” would sound very much like “I will build my nation” or “my Israel.” No student of the Torah would have heard “my religion” or “my spirituality” or even “my denomination.” Jesus chose language referring to a nation in relationship with God.
Jesus sounded like he was planning on replacing Israel with a new nation that would be elect and in covenant with God. “Build my ekklēsia” plainly means something in contrast to the existing ekklēsia, to the existing Israel as God’s elect.
Now, we later learn from Acts and Rom 11 that God did not replace Israel so much as invite faithful Gentiles into Israel while excluding from Israel those without faith in Jesus. The ekklēsia of Jesus is Israel with its boundaries redefined in terms of faith in Jesus. Hence, it’s truly “my church” — Jesus’s nation, assembly, gathering, and church — defined by its relationship with Jesus.
And so imagine how shocking Jesus’ words would have been to his disciples.
Ekklēsia was a common Greek term for an “assembly” of people (political and social as well as religious), but in a Jewish context it would be particularly heard as echoing its frequent LXX use for the “assembly” of the people of God, which thus denotes the national community of Israel. But now Jesus speaks with extraordinary boldness of “my ekklesia”—the unusual Greek word-order draws particular attention to the “my.”
The phrase encapsulates that paradoxical combination of continuity and discontinuity which runs through the NT’s understanding of Jesus and his church in relation to Israel. The word is an OT word, one proudly owned by the people of Israel as defining their identity as God’s people. But the coming of Israel’s Messiah will cause that “assembly” to be reconstituted, and the focus of its identity will not be the nation of Israel, but the Messiah himself: it is his assembly. How much of this theology of fulfillment the disciples could have been expected to grasp there at Caesarea Philippi is debatable, but for Matthew and his readers, as members of the Messiah’s ekklēsia, the phrase would aptly sum up their corporate identity as the new, international people of God.
R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publication Co., 2007), 623–624.
We next come to —
(Matt. 18:17 ESV) 17 “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
Here, Jesus introduces an entirely new meaning of ekklēsia, that is, ekklēsia as local congregation. I mean, he could have hardly have intended that this sin should be dealt with by the church universal.
In the Torah and in Joshua, ekklēsia is always speaking of the entire nation in some sense. In Ezra and Nehemiah it refers to all the Jews who’d returned to Jerusalem, not all Jews but only those Jews in that city.
In Matt 18, Jesus looks forward to the day when his church will exist in many different cities and places across the world. Each congregation will be his ekklēsia because in each city, the entire church that is present there will consist of but one ekklēsia. (We’ll consider this thought further in the next post.)
Further added to the mix is the notion of the ekklēsia as a body sitting in judgment on one of its members. In Ezra and Nehemiah we read of the leaders calling the people into assembly, reading the Law, charging many present with sin, the assembly concurring in the judgment, and the people repenting.
(Neh. 8:14-18 ESV) 14 And they found it written in the Law that the LORD had commanded by Moses that the people of Israel should dwell in booths during the feast of the seventh month, 15 and that they should proclaim it and publish it in all their towns and in Jerusalem, “Go out to the hills and bring branches of olive, wild olive, myrtle, palm, and other leafy trees to make booths, as it is written.” 16 So the people went out and brought them and made booths for themselves, each on his roof, and in their courts and in the courts of the house of God, and in the square at the Water Gate and in the square at the Gate of Ephraim. 17 And all the assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and lived in the booths, for from the days of Jeshua the son of Nun to that day the people of Israel had not done so. And there was very great rejoicing. 18 And day by day, from the first day to the last day, he read from the Book of the Law of God. They kept the feast seven days, and on the eighth day there was a solemn assembly, according to the rule.
(Neh. 13:1-3 ESV) On that day they read from the Book of Moses in the hearing of the people. And in it was found written that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever enter the assembly of God, 2 for they did not meet the people of Israel with bread and water, but hired Balaam against them to curse them– yet our God turned the curse into a blessing. 3 As soon as the people heard the law, they separated from Israel all those of foreign descent.
(Ezr. 10:9-12 ESV) 9 Then all the men of Judah and Benjamin assembled at Jerusalem within the three days. It was the ninth month, on the twentieth day of the month. And all the people sat in the open square before the house of God, trembling because of this matter and because of the heavy rain. 10 And Ezra the priest stood up and said to them, “You have broken faith and married foreign women, and so increased the guilt of Israel. 11 Now then make confession to the LORD, the God of your fathers and do his will. Separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives.” 12 Then all the assembly answered with a loud voice, “It is so; we must do as you have said.”
And it seems likely that the synagogues of Jesus’ day had a process for excluding Jews who lived in rebellion against God. We know from John 9:22, 12:42, and 16:2 that Jews could be put out of the synagogue for believing Jesus to be the Messiah, likely considered blasphemy by the Pharisees.
ἀποσυνάγωγος γένηται [aposunagogos genetai] is found in the Greek Bible only here [John 9:22] and at 12:42 and 16:2 (cf. Luke 6:22). The exact significance of the term is uncertain, as are the nature and procedure for excommunication among the Jews of that day. At a later time there were two forms of excommunication: the נִדּלּי, a temporary exclusion lasting 30 days, and the חֵרֶם, which was a permanent ban. Both were at the discretion of the elders of the congregation. Excommunication cut a person off from all normal dealings with the Jewish community, but apparently not from worship (Mishnah, Midd. 2:2).
But whether this applied in New Testament times is far from certain. The Mishnah speaks of excommunication but without giving details, and assumes the possibility of readmission (MK 3:1, 2; see also Taʿan. 3:8; Ned. 1:1; ʿEduy. 5:6; Midd. 2:2). The practice of excommunication is undoubtedly old (Ezra 10:8). Indeed, there are references to being cut off from the people in a number of places in the Law; specifically “Observe the Sabbath … whoever does any work on that day must be cut off from his people” (Exod. 31:14). We have no information about how this kind of discipline was practiced in New Testament times, but that does not mean that the rule was not enforced. Taʿan. 3:8 contains a saying threatening excommunication, which was said to have been uttered by Simeon b. Shetah c. 80 B.C.
Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995).
Excommunication could take two forms: temporary for remedial purposes (Heb. niddâ) and permanent (Heb. ḥērem), although it is not clear whether this distinction existed among the Jews in NT times. That some form of excommunication was practised is evident, not only from the three texts in the Fourth Gospel, but also from the beatitude in Luke 6:22 (‘Blessed are you when men hate you, / when they exclude you and insult you / and reject your name as evil, / because of the Son of Man’). Paul called for remedial excommunication for the incestuous person in 1 Corinthians 5:4–5, 6–7, 13, and permanent expulsion may be implied by references to cursing or anathematizing people, found in Mark 14:71; Acts 23:12, 14, 21; Romans 9:3; 1 Corinthians 12:3; 16:22 and Galatians 1:8–9.
Colin G. Kruse, John: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale NTC 4; IVP/Accordance electronic ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 223-224.