Worship: The Assembly (the ekklēsia)

prostrationThe scriptures often speak in term of “types” — antitypes, prototypes, that sort of thing. The idea is that certain NT concepts are often patterned (for want of a better term) on an OT practice or event. There are countless examples.

Of what is the Christian assembly a type?

Well, plainly not the tabernacle or Temple worship. Those have been replaced by the atoning sacrifice of Jesus, Jesus himself as Temple, the church as temple with Jesus, and our becoming “living sacrifices” as our spiritual worship (Rom 12:1).

What about the synagogue? Well, the synagogue is not an OT institution. It’s a manmade addition to the OT. A follower of CENI (command, example, necessary inference) hermeneutics would consider the synagogue unauthorized and hence prohibited.

There’s no evidence that the First Century synagogue engaged in congregational singing. They did read and study the OT scriptures, and they did pray to God. And it may be true that cantillating the scriptures — chanting the text — goes back to apostolic times, but if so, it was cantillation by the person reading the text, not the entire congregation.

There was nothing remotely similar to the Lord’s Supper in the synagogue.

No, to find the typology for the assembly, we have to go to a surprising time and place: Israel encamped around Mt. Sinai.

Ekklēsia, translated “church” in the NT, is used 8 times in Deuteronomy in the Septuagint. Six times it refers to Israel gathered to hear the word of God spoken.

(Deu 4:9-14 ESV) “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 [of assembly] 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.’  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.”

(The text in brackets is not in the Masoretic text but is in the LXX.)

The other two uses of ekklēsia in Deuteronomy is bit harder to follow.

(Deu 23:2-3 ESV)  “No one born of a forbidden union may enter the assembly of the LORD. Even to the tenth generation, none of his descendants may enter the assembly of the LORD.
3 “No Ammonite or Moabite may enter the assembly of the LORD. Even to the tenth generation, none of them may enter the assembly of the LORD forever … “

What is the “assembly” that only the physically perfect Israelite may participate in?

“Assembly of the LORD,” like the more common “assembly of Israel,” is a technical term for all those adult males who are enfranchised to make decisions, participate in cultic activities and serve in the military of Israel (Mic 2:5). Because they were a chosen people, who were required to maintain their ritual purity as part of the covenant (Ex 19:6), the unclean and the stranger were excluded from the activities of the assembly.

John H. Walton, Victor H. Matthews, and Mark W. Chavalas, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament (Accordance electronic ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 196.

In the Psalms, ekklēsia refers to the people of Israel gathered at the tabernacle or Temple to worship or for a festival — in either case, gathered to honor God.

(Psa 22:22 CEB) I will declare your name to my brothers and sisters; I will praise you in the very center of the congregation!

So the ekklēsia is the body of franchised Israelites. Now, the fact that in the NT church women are clearly part of the ekklēsia demonstrates a dramatic change in thought. Women may now “make decisions, participate in cultic activities and serve in the military.” They are part of the ekklēsia and so they are fully enfranchised.

Okay, I’ll admit that the NT church has no literal military, but the NT frequently uses military metaphors for the church and for Christians.

(Eph 6:13 NET)  13 For this reason, take up the full armor of God so that you may be able to stand your ground on the evil day, and having done everything, to stand.

See also Rom 13:12, 1Th 5:8, 2Co 6:7, 10:4. And the Lord’s army, unlike Israel, includes women.

Regarding the enfranchisement of those in the church, we have to consider —

(Gal 4:4-5 NET)  4 But when the appropriate time had come, God sent out his Son, born of a woman, born under the law,  5 to redeem those who were under the law, so that we may be adopted as sons with full rights. 

Most translations miss the “full rights,” but the NET translation notes explain,

The Greek term υἱοθεσία (huiothesia) was originally a legal technical term for adoption as a son with full rights of inheritance. BDAG 1024 s.v. notes, “a legal t.t. of ‘adoption’ of children, in our lit., i.e. in Paul, only in a transferred sense of a transcendent filial relationship between God and humans (with the legal aspect, not gender specificity, as major semantic component).” Although some modern translations remove the filial sense completely and render the term merely “adoption” (cf. NAB), the retention of this component of meaning was accomplished in the present translation by the phrase “as sons.”

The New International Commentary is to the same effect:

The term rendered “adoption as sons” (huiothesia, cf. Rom. 8:15) corresponds to Latin adoptio and connotes the status and “the full rights of sons” (NIV).

Ronald Y. K. Fung, The Epistle to the Galatians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1988), 183.

And in the ancient world, it was only the male children — sons — who received full rights. Therefore, Paul includes “male and female” (Gal 3:26-28) specifically in the category of those adopted as “sons.” After all, Galatians is all about circumcision, which was a privilege (as the Jews thought of it) solely for males. Paul thus points out that God’s adoption of both male and female provides all who are in Jesus with full rights.

But I digress (just a little).

So when the NT borrows ekklēsia from Deuteronomy, it’s borrowing a term that refers (a) to the people of God gathered in one place to hear God’s word and to enter into covenant relationship and (b) to the fully franchised people of God gathered to honor God. That’s the “church.”

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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2 Responses to Worship: The Assembly (the ekklēsia)

  1. Larry Cheek says:

    Then when we are not gathered together we must loose the identity of being the church? Of course not, we are the church even while we are totally separate from another Christian, we cannot loose our identity as the church as long as we have not rejected Jesus and returned to the world. Does God only add converts to the assembled church?

  2. R.J. says:

    I think a better word to use for Ekklesia is community or communion. More so than church, gathering, or assembly. Originally the term meant “called-out” or “summoned’ for court or some political assembly. However, words do lose their etymological significance. The term eventually came to mean any type of gathering of organisms(human or not) whether formal or informal. Or a communion of like-minded individuals. I believe the Jews used ekklesia in this sense(how else can you explain the congregation of Israel) as well as what Jay has said(a gathering to hear the voice of God via the vehicle of teaching).

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