What did Jesus mean by “Church”?

In Matthew 16:18 Jesus said he would build his Church, and there’s a clue in what he meant by that in the Greek word for “Church” in that verse. It’s Ekklēsia (ek-lay-see-ah), a familiar word back then to both Greeks and Romans as a form of government

Ekklēsia, for instance, was the word used by the Greek city-state of Athens to describe its sovereign governing body, which it called “The Athenian Assembly.” The Assembly was the cornerstone of Athenian democracy, because it was open to all adult male citizens of Athens, regardless of their wealth, occupation or social standing. Any one of them could address the Assembly directly, speak his mind openly, hear what others had to say, and together they would vote in laws for the governance of their city. 

The Ekklēsia, therefore, was the ruling council of Athens, but not a hierarchy. It was made up of ordinary citizens being called to assemble together to come up with laws and decrees that met the needs of the state. It was totally secular, and not a religious body at all.   

It seems odd, then, that Jesus didn’t use any religious term to describe his Church, nor did he say, “I will build my temple.” Instead, he used a form of secular government initiated in Greece and adopted in part by the Romans of his day too. The Roman Ekklēsia, for instance, was also a ruling council of citizens, acting as an arm of the Roman government to make sure the policies and decrees of Rome – passed down to them by the local Roman governor (like Pontius Pilate) – were put into action.  

And this was all very familiar to the Jews of Jesus’ day; they knew who the Ekklēsia were and what their job was. So when Jesus mentioned that he was establishing his own Ekklēsia, imagine the impact that word would have had. It meant that he too was setting up a ruling council, a called out assembly of citizens, whose job as his Ekklēsia would be to act as an arm of the kingdom of God to ensure that the policies and decrees of Heaven were established on the Earth.  

It was a secular government model, therefore, that Jesus was patterning his church on, to describe what the Church’s purpose was. It gets the point across that his Church exists to re-establish God’s government on the Earth – exactly as God intended in Genesis, that through his ruling council of Adam and Eve and their descendants the kingdom of God would be planted all over the Earth to transform the world into the likeness of Heaven. 

Well, now it’s the turn of his Ekklēsia in this day and age to do that, so that wherever us ordinary folk are the kingdom of Heaven is being established. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s