What is church?

pcc-gordonmackley-smlPosted on Monday, 14th March, 2016 by Gordon Mackley


1 Kings 8: 22-32 & 27-43 and Hebrews 10: 8-25

What is a church? Is the church a building? Clearly in our modern usage we should have to agree that this is one meaning but what about the word ‘church’ in our Bibles, what does that mean? To establish that we need to look at the meaning in the Greek used originally in the New Testament.

The word used is ‘ekklesia’ and it was a common word meaning a gathering of people for one purpose: political, sport, social or whatever but what made it ‘ekklesia’ was the common purpose. The word appears 115 times in 112 verses in the New Testament

What about the Old Testament? Surely there are no churches in the Old Testament? However the word ‘ekklesia’ appears in the Greek version of the Old Testament (The Septuagint) in 12 of the books including even Deuteronomy, one of the books of Torah Law.

‘Sunagoge’ another Greek word with a similar meaning (from which we get the English word, synagogue) appears in another twelve so that is 24 out of 39. The Hebrew word being translated is ‘qahal’ which appears 123 times in 116 verses. We can see that this concept of a gathering of people with a common purpose (by whatever name) is an important Biblical concept going back to our Jewish roots in the Old Testament.

1 Kings 8:22-32 and 38-43 is about the dedication of the first Temple in Jerusalem by Solomon.

Then Solomon stood before the altar of the Lord in front of the whole assembly (ekklesia) of Israel, spread out his hands towards heaven and said:

‘Lord, the God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth below – you who keep your covenant of love with your servants who continue wholeheartedly in your way. You have kept your promise to your servant David my father; with your mouth you have promised and with your hand you have fulfilled it – as it is today.

‘Now Lord, the God of Israel, keep for your servant David my father the promises you made to him when you said,

Of special interest is the section which follows:

“You shall never fail to have a successor to sit before me on the throne of Israel, if only your descendants are careful in all they do to walk before me faithfully as you have done.”

And now, God of Israel, let your word that you promised your servant David my father come true.

The Jews failed to live up to this standard and so the line of earthly Davidic kings was broken (until the advent of Jesus).

The next section shows that although Solomon has built a magnificent Temple for God, he is wise enough to know that God is not constrained within an earthly building. Sometimes this simple truth can be overlooked even by Christians today who can believe that God can only be found in special places such as churches or that he is remote in some special heavenly place. Solomon is aware that the Temple points people towards God. It is a focus for the worship of Yahweh but it does not contain Him within it.

‘But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built! Yet give attention to your servant’s prayer and his plea for mercy, Lord my God. Hear the cry and the prayer that your servant is praying in your presence this day. May your eyes be open towards this temple night and day, this place of which you said, “My Name shall be there,” so that you will hear the prayer your servant prays towards this place. Hear the supplication of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray towards this place. Hear from heaven, your dwelling place, and when you hear, forgive.

The following sections contain something very similar to what in Christian terms are ‘Confession’ ‘Intercession’ and ‘Absolution’.

‘When anyone wrongs their neighbour and is required to take an oath and they come and swear the oath before your altar in this temple, then hear from heaven and act. Judge between your servants, condemning the guilty by bringing down on their heads what they have done, and vindicating the innocent by treating them in accordance with their innocence.

…and when a prayer or plea is made by anyone among your people Israel – being aware of the afflictions of their own hearts, and spreading out their hands towards this temple – then hear from heaven, your dwelling-place. Forgive and act; deal with everyone according to all they do, since you know their hearts (for you alone know every human heart), so that they will fear you all the time they live in the land you gave our ancestors.

The final part states that even ‘foreigners’ (Gentiles, non-believers) may be involved in prayer to Yahweh.

‘As for the foreigner who does not belong to your people Israel but has come from a distant land because of your name – for they will hear of your great name and your mighty hand and your outstretched arm – when they come and pray towards this temple, then hear from heaven, your dwelling-place. Do whatever the foreigner asks of you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your own people Israel, and may know that this house I have built bears your Name.

Although there is this heritage from the Old Testament, the main concept of ‘church’ is in the New Testament

Hebrews 10: 8 -25 speaks of the inadequacy of Temple sacrifices and their replacement by the once for all sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.

First he said, ‘Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them’– though they were offered in accordance with the law. Then he said, ‘Here I am, I have come to do your will.’ He sets aside the first to establish the second. And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool. For by one sacrifice he has made perfect for ever those who are being made holy.

It is worth noting here that those who (we) are ‘being made holy’. We do not become perfect when we become Christians and put on a sparkling halo. We are all ‘works in progress’.

The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. First he says:

‘This is the covenant I will make with them after that time, says the Lord.
I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds.’
Then he adds: ‘Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.’
And where these have been forgiven, sacrifice for sin is no longer necessary.

This is the New Covenant. Unlike the Temple, we are no longer involved in animal sacrifices but we take Communion (usually in church) to commemorate Christ’s death and resurrection once for all to forgive our sins. Not unlike the Temple the focus is on confession, absolution, forgiveness and God’s grace.

Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.

The ‘Most Holy Place’ (the ‘Holy of Holies’ in the Temple) was only accessible to the Chief Priest but at the crucifixion, the curtain which kept this separate was (literally and symbolically) split apart and therefore we can draw near ourselves and be cleansed from our own guilty conscience and renew our standing with God without need of a Chief Priest.

Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

Whilst we can hold beliefs personally on our own, verse 24 makes it quite clear that we do need to meet together. Communion can be done on a one to one basis (if necessary) but this is not ideal. Somehow the mystical connection that is Communion functions better in a group setting (such as in a ‘fellowship’, ‘ekklesia’, ‘church’). We certainly cannot ‘spur one another on’ on our own. This is not only a theoretical mutual love but has the goal that we do good deeds for God as a group which means meeting as a ‘fellowship’, ‘ekklesia’, ‘church’).

The passage ends with a reminder that time is short. This could be until Jesus returns or on a personal basis as we ourselves die. The Greek ‘hemera’ (the day) could mean either. In either event the time to act is now rather than prevaricating.

The Biblical background to meeting as a fellowship or church is clear. Historically the disciples met together as instructed after Jesus’ death and thus met him again after his resurrection. They were together (with others) at Pentecost and throughout Acts we see people meeting together. The Bible contains ‘Letters’ to a number of these ‘churches’ or fellowships. From then on through history Christians have met in fellowship (church).

Within our modern culture of individualism it is popular to consider that religion is personal and can be practised individually. Secular groups are groups because it would not make sense to have a political party of one person or a trade union of one. These need to be groups in order to function correctly.

There is much more involved in Christian worship in that there is also group interaction with God as well as interaction within the human group. Whilst within Christianity there is certainly room for many different interpretations and views as well as different forms of worship, I believe Christianity requires people to come together and worship as a group or fellowship or ‘church’ unless that is not actually possible.

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