Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Jesus original intention for his followers.

What did Jesus mean when he said, "Upon this rock I will build my Ekklesia?" This came up in Matthew 16 verse 18 when Jesus was speaking to Peter, after Peter is the first of the disciples to openly declare Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.

Do we automatically know what Jesus meant, or is it worth revisiting this again? The first mistake would be to simply assume we know what he meant based upon modern translations of the Bible. Modern translations all seem to translate the work Ekklesia as Church. Older translations into English such as Tyndale and others of the 16th century did not do so.

But what does the word Ekklesia actually mean? When Jesus uttered the word in this context it was radical. In fact, so many of the things that Jesus said were completely radical the first time he said them. That is why he had so many enemies and was crucified. Remember, he completely upset the religious sensibilities of established institutional Judaism.

Here are a few places that I have looked at to seek a definition:

1) A straight definition of the Greek word the way it had been used up until Jesus' time can be found in Wikipedia. Ecclesia (from ancient Athens).
In Ancient Athens, the Ekklesia was a political assembly in any one city that made decisions for that particular city. All citizens were welcome to be a part of the Ekklesia. When Jesus uttered the word Ekklesia, this is the definition that his disciples would have heard. Another definition did not exist at the time.
Could Jesus have had a political definition in mind when he uttered this word? Well good exegesis demands we consider Jesus' views on politics from elsewhere in the gospels. Jesus says in John 18:36 that "His kingdom is not of this world" and that his followers would fight to defend it, if it were. Pilate rightly goes on to say "so you are a king then?" to which Jesus agrees.
I would argue that Jesus did have a political definition in mind when he said the word Ekklesia. The distinction that needs to be made though is that he was not saying his Kingdom was of this world, so neither should his Ekklesia be.

How could the word Ekklesia be translated as it had been understood by Greeks and Romans before the first century AD? If it is to have some political meaning, then this needs to be considered. It carries the idea of a council, a body of representatives, a legislature, a parliament, senate or congress. This "council" is to be the representative of God's Kingdom here in this earth. This does not mean making earthly political decisions as such. It does mean however, making decisions to transform this world through acts of love into God's Kingdom.

Consider the place that early believers had in the Roman Empire. They were expected to worship the Emperor as all people were. The Emperor set himself up as a god and demanded worship. Early Christian believers refused to worship the Emperor, and said "we have a different King". What is more they also had a different Ekklesia, the assembly of believers that endeavoured to see Jesus' Kingdom established on earth. It is no wonder that Rome was threatened by this concept and executed early Christians. I count myself among these believers. I know that in today's world if the Ekklesia of Jesus was truly impacting society in a big way, that it would be a threat to the established political system of the day, a threat that would undoubtedly result in persecution and execution of Christians once again.

In my mind, this is something of what Jesus meant when he said would establish his Council Assembly, starting with his first follower Peter.

2) It is worth taking a look directly at the Greek scriptures. This is not hard to do these days. The NET bible on Bible.org makes the Greek text available.  (A note here for dissenters- the Greek text has been deduced from the over 25,000 original manuscripts available. The fact that there is some variation in these texts is not alarming, as a process of Triangulation can be used to come up with the original words.)
Read the Greek text. To actually read the Greek you will have to click on the Grk/Heb tab at the top of the right hand column. You can click on the word ἐκκλησίαν and come up with a definition.
The definition speaks of "a gathering of citizens" or "an assembly of people gathered". The definition then goes on to speak of what the word means "in a Christian sense". That is, the word Ekklesia did add meaning from it's original Athenian political sense. But this is added meaning that came over the next couple of centuries.

So, I will readily admit that Ekklesia also means "a gathering or assembly of Christians".  But that is the definition of the word as it appears in Acts or in Paul's letters, but not as it appears when Jesus first says it in Matthew 16:18.

3)  A well researched article entitled "The translation of the Greek word 'Ekklesia' as 'church' in the English Bible and its ramifications", further discusses the definition of the word.
The article makes the point that there is no sense in scripture of a universal hierarchical church. Indeed the word Ekklesia is always used in a local context. Even in Revelation, Jesus addresses seven separate Ekklesia groups, but not one mass Ekklesia. This article argues that it is a mistake to translate the word Ekklesia as church, and that assembly or congregation are better suited.

Conclusion: Jesus was interested in establishing his Kingdom on earth, a new order. To do this he wanted to see Local Council Assemblies of believers be his representatives through out the earth. He always intended to remain the King in charge of all of these assemblies, never to have an intermediate person in charge. These Local Assemblies are of course places of worship, but if they never consider how to transform the world around them, then they are not fulfilling their purpose. Therefore the Council part of the definition needs to be worked out in practical Christian love.

I have argued strongly against the word church before. Again, I am not even suggesting a replacement. It is equally possible for us to behave as the representatives of King Jesus in local gatherings without having to put a label on anything. Often when we start to use labels, we begin to shape them into our own human religion and depart from Jesus' original intention. Let's be about doing Jesus' Kingdom.

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