The Greek word ekklesia is usually translated "church" in English translations of the New Testament. When people hear the word "church" in English, it can mean a number of different things to different people. It might mean a building ("We're going to clean the church on Saturday"), or a meeting ("We have church tonight"), or an organization ("He's starting a new church"), or a denomination ("He belongs to the Baptist church or the Methodist church").
Most informed Christians know that the Biblical meaning of church is none of these things, even if they sometimes use the word "church" in these ways. When the New Testament speaks of the "church," it is referring to the people, the individual disciples who collectively make up the ekklesia, the Body of Messiah.
Ekklesia was not a new word that the Apostles invented to refer to the fledgling Messianic community. Ekklesia was a word and a concept that existed long before the Apostles were born. About 300 years before Yeshua, the Jews who translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek used the word ekklesia around 76 times in the Septuagint. In this Greek translation, the congregation of God's people in Moses' day is collectively called the ekklesia. This explains why Stephen referred to the Hebrews of Moses' day as "the church [ekklesia] in the wilderness" (Acts 7:38 KJV). The day when the Hebrews were assembled at Sinai to receive the Torah is called "the day of the ekklesia" three times (Deut. 4:10, 9:10, & 18:16). (Those who think that "the birth of the church" took place on the Day of Pentecost in Acts chapter 2 might want to reconsider their view. It sounds to me like the real "birthday of the church" took place on the very first Pentecost, at Mount Sinai.)
The word ekklesia consists of the prefix ek- and a form of the verb kaleo. The verb kaleo means "to call; to invite or summon." The ek- prefix means "out of." A brief definition of ekklesia would be "a called-out people." Here's a more detailed definition from the DBV (Daniel Botkin Version) Amplified translation: "a body of people who have been called [invited or summoned] to come out [make an exit] and assemble together."
The above information about ekklesia raises a few questions. If we are called to come "out of," what exactly is it that we are supposed to come out of? If we are called to assemble together, what is the purpose of our assembling? If kaleo can mean either "invite" or "summon," is our calling an invitation or a summons? An invitation is optional; a summons is mandatory.
Let me answer the last question first. The Strong's Strongest concordance explains how to tell from the context whether kaleo means "invite" or "summon": "the authority of the speaker dictates the nature of the calling (friends invite; kings summon)." I tell people in our congregation that their call to ekklesia is not an invitation from their friend Daniel to come out and assemble together. It is a summons from the King of kings to come out and assemble together. The word summons is very strong. If you receive a summons to appear in court, you had better be there, or else have a legitimate explanation for your absence. If you ignore a summons to appear in court, this is called contempt of court, and there are penalties. How much worse do you suppose the penalties will be if you show contempt for Yahweh's authority by ignoring His summons to come out and assemble together as part of the ekklesia?
From what are we summoned to come "out of"? In a word, from the world. "Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? Whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God" (James 4:4). We are summoned by the King to be a holy, separated people who live as lights among unbelievers, yet live a life apart. "Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?...Wherefore come out from (ek) among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord" (2 Cor. 6:14-17). Unless you come out of the world, and quit living like a worldling, you are not living as part of the ekklesia. You cannot have ekklesia without the ek-. Without the ek-, you have only -klessia, an unanswered summons from the King of kings.
What is the purpose of our assembling together? Some might think we are summoned to assemble just for the mo'adim ("appointed times"), i.e., Sabbath and Holy Days. While we are certainly summoned by the King to assemble for worship on the mo'adim, there is much more to ekklesia than weekly and annual meetings. If you are satisfied with nothing more than regularly-scheduled meetings, you can get that at a civic club or a lodge. When we assemble together as ekklesia, the Lord intends that we function collectively as the Body of Messiah, for He is the Head of "the church (ekklesia), which is His body, the fullness of Him that filleth all in all" (Eph. 1:22f).
If the individual members of the Body come out of the world (i.e., quit living like worldlings) and assemble together, then the possibility exists to function collectively as the Body of Messiah--that is, to do the things Yeshua would do if He were here. When that happens, then the ekklesia truly becomes "the fullness of Him." The ekklesia, when attached to the Head, is the "fullness of Him" in the same sense that your body, when attached to your head, is (along with your head) the fullness of you. The Messiah without the ekklesia is a Head without a body, because it is "the ekklesia which is His body" (Eph. 1:22f). The ekklesia is also "the fullness of Him" in the sense that it "fills out" Yeshua; it substantiates Yeshua by being the visible, flesh-and-blood substance that proves the reality of the invisible Head. "For we are members of His body, of His flesh, and of His bones" (Eph. 5:30). The only way the world will know about the Head is by seeing the Body, which is the ekklesia.
The world has seen the "church," and the world has not been very impressed. What the world needs to see is the ekklesia—a body of people who have come out of the world and assembled together, a body that is attached to the Head, submitted to the Head, in tune with the Head, and doing the will of the Head.
There is a vast difference between today's so-called "church" and "the ekklesia, which is His body (Gk. soma)" (Eph. 1:22f). We desperately need to discern the difference. Here's why: The Apostle Paul wrote that some of the disciples in Corinth were guilty of "not discerning the Lord's body (soma, the same word for 'body' in Eph. 1:22f)" (1 Cor. 11:29). Then Paul's very next statement is this: "For this cause [i.e., for their failure to discern the Lord's body] many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep [i.e., die]." In this particular instance, Paul was referring to the Corinthians' failure to discern the Lord's body in this context brought weakness, sickness, and death, how much more weakness, sickness, and death will result from our failure to discern the Lord's Body which is the ekklesia? We cannot say that every weakness and every sickness and every premature death is a direct result of the victim's failure to discern the Lord's Body. But we can certainly say that failure to discern the Lord's Body may result in weakness, sickness, or death, because this was the cause of some of the weakness, sickness, and death among the Corinthians.
To conclude on a more positive note, let us consider this: If failure to discern the Lord's Body may result in weakness, sickness, or death, then the converse is surely true. If we do discern the Lord's Body, then we will experience life, health, and strength instead of weakness, sickness, and death. May the Holy Spirit enable us to discern the ekklesia, which is His Body, and to come out of the world and live as the ekklesia which is His Body.
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Image (top): This is My Body by Daniel Botkin from his Miscellaneous Gallery. See more of Dan's original art pieces on his website: DanielBotkin.com