Those who identify the Church as Israel sometimes claim that the Church did not begin in the New Testament era but instead has its roots in the Old Testament. As Wayne Grudem, a theologian states, "The church is the community of all true believers for all times." For him, the Church encompasses "both believers in the New Testament age and believers in the Old Testament age as well." This argument is often supported by linking the New Testament concept of "ekklesia", which is often translated "church", with the Old Testament term "qahal", which sometimes referred to the gathering of Israel.
Allegedly, because the Septuagint uses "ekklesia" to translate "qahal", this must mean the Church existed in some form in the Old Testament. I argue that this argument is incorrect and that the Bible teaches that the Church is a New Testament entity. I will do so by looking at the term "ekklesia" and how it is understood in the Bible.
Lothar Coenen, a German theologian, and world-class scholar has written over sixty academic works in over 200 publications, so his credibility is spotless in the linguistics field. He explains that the term "ekklesia" is derived from "ek-kaleo", which was used for a summons to an army to assemble. In classical Greek, the term "ekklesia: is found in the writings of Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Plato, and Euripides (5th century BC onwards). In these writings, the word referred to an assembly of the citizens of a Greek city. In the secular sense, "ekklesia" most often refers simply to a gathering or assembly of persons. This general sense of "ekklesia" as an assembly is found in Acts 19:32, 39, 41 in reference to a riotous mob. In only three cases in classical Greek, is "ekklesia" used as a religious fellowship. The secular use provides little for an appreciation of the rich meaning of the New Testament term outside of the formal analogy of an assembly of people meeting for a particular purpose.
In the Old Testament, the term "qahal" refers to a summons to an assembly and the act of assembling. As Erickson in his 'Christian Theology' points out, "It is not so much a specification of the members of the assembly as a designation of the occurrence of assembling". A religious significance is sometimes attached to the word, as an example is found in (Deuteronomy 9:10; 10:4; 23:1-3). Also, the term can refer to a general assembly of the people -(1st Kings 12:3), women -(Jeremiah 44:15), children -(Ezra 10:1; Nehemiah 8:2), or nations other than Israel such as Ezekiel 17:17 used of Egypt; Tyre in 27:27; Assyria in 32:22. The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament used the term "ekklesia" precisely 77X to translate "qahal".
A survey of the uses of 'qahal' indicates that no technical meaning was attached to this term in the Old Testament or to the Septuagint Greek translation of 'ekklesia'. But in the attempt to show continuity between the Church and Israel, some supersessionists ("Replacement Theology" folk) claim that 'qahal' was a technical term for Israel as the people of God in the New Testament concept of 'ekklesia'. It is claimed, then, that the apostles viewed the Church as the new Israel and the continuation of Old Testament Israel. The logic alone is faulty.
There is no evidence, however, that such is the case. Qahal' and its Greek translation simply meant an assembly. The New Testament gives a religious technical meaning to "ekklesia" with the Old Testament "qahal" where it is not warranted. In fact, it is close to the logical fallacy of semantic anachronism in which the late use of a word is read back into earlier literature.
"Ekklesia" occurs 114X times in the New Testament. Five of these references have no reference to the New Testament Church, leaving 109X references with such a relationship. While "ekklesia" is a common term in the New Testament, it is unevenly distributed throughout the New Testament. There are only two references to 'ekklesia' in the Gospels: Matthew 16:18 and Matthew 18:17. The majority of references to "ekklesia" appear in Paul's letters. Paul uses the term 46X times, including nine usages in Ephesians and four in Colossians. In Revelation, John uses "ekklesia" 20X.
The sparse references to the "Church" in Acts, the Epistles, and Revelation support the idea that that the Church began after the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ. Lothar Coehen makes this contrast between Luke's Gospel and Acts: "The fact that Luke, on the other hand, uses the word 23X times in Acts suggests the conclusion that he, at least, consciously avoided using it for a group that belonged to the period of Jesus' earthly activity".
The New Testament develops "ekklesia" from the non-technical meaning of "assembly" or "gathering" to be the new technical term/meaning of the Christian people of God. The word often refers to a group of believers in a specific city as "the church of God in Corinth" -(1st Cor. 1:2; 2nd Cor.1:1) or "the churches in Galatia" -(Galatians 1:2). The book of Revelation was written to "seven" specific churches (Revelation 1:2). "Ekklesia" is used of Christians who lived and met in various areas in the book of Acts -(Acts 5:11; 8:1; 13:1). The term is used for meetings in individual homes -(Romans 16:5; Colossians 4:5) or to believers in a larger geographical area such as Judea, Galilee, and Samaria -(Acts 9:31) and the province of Asia -(1st Corinthians 16:19). Most references to "ekklesia" are to a local assembly of those committed to Christ -(1st Thessalonians 1:1; 1st Corinthians 4:17). The term also is used to refer to a universal body of believers -(Matthew 16:18; 1st Corinthians 10:32; Ephesians 1:22; 5:23-32; Colossians 1:18, 24).
In sum, before the New Testament "ekklesia" often had a general non-religious understanding. With the New Testament, the term took on a more technical religious meaning for those who were followers of Jesus Christ, although a few references still maintained a non-religious meaning. It is incorrect, therefore, to conclude that the relationship of "ekklesia" to "qahal"means that the Church existed in the Old Testament. The error of this logic is selfexplanitory.
Also, there are good Biblical reasons to view the Church as beginning in the New Testament era and not in the Old Testament. In Matthew 16:18, Jesus declared, "I will also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My Church, and the forces of Hades will not overpower it". This verse, which is the first of two references to "ekklesia" in the Gospels, is strong evidence for a New Testament origin for the Church for two reasons. First, Jesus' words are an explicit statement that the Church from the standpoint in history was future. The verb "oikodomeso", "I will build", is future tense. Second, the Church was to be built on "this rock". The Greek grammar makes it clear, Jesus was referring to Himself, and that Peter's confession that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God -(Matthew 16:18). The point is the Church would be built on something related to the New Testament and not the Old Testament.
Closely related to Matthew 16:18 is Ephesians 2:19-20, which states that "God's household" -(Ephesians 2:19), the Church, is "built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the cornerstone." -(2:20). This passage reveals that the foundation of the Church is built on New Testament persons - the apostles, prophets, and Christ Jesus Himself. If the foundation of the Church is built on New Testament persons, the Church itself must be a New Testament entity.
Another line of evidence for the New Testament origin of the Church is linked with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The Church is inherently tied to the New Testament baptizing ministry of the Holy Spirit. 1st Corinthians 12:13 states, "For we were baptized by one Spirit into one body - whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free - and we were all made to drink of one Spirit". Those who are members of the body of Christ have all experienced Spirit baptism. But Spirit baptism is a New Testament experience that started with the events of Acts 2 when the Spirit was first given to Christians. While the Holy Spirit is omnipresent and was at work in the Old Testament era, His role took on a unique function with the events of the day of Pentecost. Shortly before His ascension, Jesus declared that the disciples would be baptized with the Holy Spirit in a matter of days -(Acts 1:5). Then in Acts 2, the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the believers in Jerusalem -(Acts 2:3, 4). Since the Church is linked with Spirit baptism and Spirit baptism occurred with the events of Acts 2, we can conclude confidently that the Church began with the events of Acts 2 and is a New Testament entity.
Another piece of evidence for the New Testament origin of the Church is found in Ephesians 2:14-15. In discussing the relationship of believing Jews and Gentiles in the Church, Paul says, "For He is our peace, who made both groups one and tore down the dividing wall of hostility. In His flesh, He made of no effect the law consisting of commands and expressed in regulations, so that He might create in Himself one new man from the two, resulting in peace." Paul describes the Church as "one new man". The Church is "new", not old, from this perspective. Also, this "one new man" is tied to the doing away of "the law consisting of commands," which occurred "through the cross" -(Ephesians 2:16). The Church is the "one new man" from the death of Jesus Christ and the end of the law of commands. The reasonable conclusion to draw is that the Church began in the New Testament in connection with Jesus Christ's ministry.
The theological factors in favor of a New Testament origin of the Church are impressive and are more decisive than the claim that semantic considerations equate the technical meaning of "ekklesia" ("Church") in the New Testament with "qahal" of the Old Testament.
Those advocating "Replacement" Theology are ignoring very powerful statements by the Lord Himself when it comes to defining a difference between Israel and the Church. The "Church" is not the "Israel" of the Old Testament despite what Supersessionists or those advocating "Replacement" Theology of our day.
Blessings from our Lord Christ Jesus, Founder of His Church,