Church 2.0: Part 10.4: Ekklēsia in the NT, Part 1 (Matt 16:18)

Church2In the Gospels, ekklēsia is only used twice, both in Matthew. Both are familiar
passages —

(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.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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8 Responses to Church 2.0: Part 10.4: Ekklēsia in the NT, Part 1 (Matt 16:18)

  1. Interesting that you should post this today, when David Smith yesterday posted ( part of a sermon by Jacob Creath, Jr., on 1 Tim. 3:14-16. Creath’s sermon (based on the phrase: “…you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God…”) is a collection of rules for proper behavior “in church.” I commented there that it seemed to me that he had taken things out of context.

  2. Dwight says:

    If we replace church (as a thing) with congregation ( the people) we will see that I Tim.3 :14-16 isn’t about what we do within a building, but what we do in relation to other saints and God of which I Tim.1 and 2 form the things of conduct.

  3. Dwight says:

    Jay, when I read (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.” and replace church with congregation I get the sense that this is the local people who are handling a local issue. I know we often hear lessons on autonomy, but this has to do less with autonomy and more to do with handling the issues in front of us. The argument is never if one comes giving out false information let the congregation that they are a part of handle him, but rather handle him who comes in “among” you. In fact the concept of “among” is seen in regards to the false teachers and also the elders. They who are among you.
    When Jesus told them to, as a last resort, tell the church of a persons wrong doing, it was the people that were in the vicinity who had to deal with him. It had to do with locality and not with autonomy.

  4. John F says:

    We seldom consider the “tax collector and Gentile” portion of this passage. We are usually too interested in “kicking them out” so “we the pure” will be undisturbed. Israel was to be a “light to the nations” that would lead the Gentile (tax collectors come later with Roman rule) to salvation. Just so, those “who are spiritual among you” seek through discipline to “restore in a spirit of gentleness” find their own sins/shortcomings covered. Why? Becasue mercy is shown to those who show mercy.

    BTW: ACU press is offering a full Ketcherside collection free (S&H not included) while they last — courtesy of the Carl’s family. 325-674-2720

  5. Dwight says:

    John F, good point. Organizations don’t show mercy, people show mercy. We restore in gentleness. I don’t think there is ever the concept of kicking them out of the church in the Bible.
    If they walk in the light, they will be considered fellow saints. What we are supposed to do is as we affect them on a personal basis in accepting them we affect them on a personal basis in purging them from our lives. But we are also to show mercy, because it has been shown to us, when they come back to God.

  6. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:


    I take your point.

    (1 Tim. 3:14-15 ESV) 14 I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, 15 if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth.

    I’ve had many a person argue to me that this means 1 Tim 2-3 are about how to act in the assembly, as this is the “household of God,” which is obviously more than a bit of a stretch. “Household” means family. “Church” means the people. This is how we behave as members of God’s family, the ekklesia, not how we behave “at church.”

    Hence, Paul’s instructions on modesty aren’t specific to the assembly; neither are his instruction on prayer. Or on women, elders, or deacons. And, of course, this means that if we impose the traditional view of 1 Tim 2:11-15, then women cannot have authority over or teach men in church, out of church, or anywhere else — which is how the passage was interpreted until around the end of WWII. Hence, those of us who enjoy our wives’ salaries for supervising or teaching men had better find another way to read that passage.

  7. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Dwight wrote,

    It had to do with locality and not with autonomy.

    I readily agree that it’s not about autonomy. But the church in a given locality was, in the First Century, the “church.” There was one church per community. So it’s kind of the same, isn’t it? Then again …

    I would agree that most of the time, these issues are best dealt with by the people closest to the person being disfellowshipped. In a modern church, you’d want his family group or Bible class involved in the process — assuming that the elders choose to pastor through groups or classes (which is a good idea). In a large church, only a relative handful would know this person, and most people should acquiesce to the wisdom of the church leadership and the members closest to the person to be disciplined. I mean, if the elders and the small group she’s part of think she should be disfellowshipped, I don’t see questioning their judgment, as a practical matter.

  8. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    John F wrote,

    We seldom consider the “tax collector and Gentile” portion of this passage.

    Interesting …

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