1. The Church in the Old Testament

Early edition of the King James Bible

People often refer to Pentecost (Whitsun) as the birthday of the church. But the church existed long before, back in Old Testament times. Confusion over language has hidden this from view, combined with a deliberate attempt by King James I and his bishops to make sure no-one could use his authorised translation of the Bible to support anabaptist democratic ideas.

It all hinges on the Greek word ekklesia (translated as “church” in the New Testament). William Tyndale translated this as “congregation” which implied that power lay with the people rather than the institution. King James’ translators were forbidden to translate it in this way and used the word “church” instead.

Ekklesia was a political word. Cities like Athens, Sparta and Ephesus had an assembly of citizens, called an ekklesia, as the foundation of their system of government.

Christians adopted this word for the meetings of their communities. This may have had political overtones, implying that the church was an alternative to the secular local government. However, they would also have been influenced by the official Jewish translation of the Old Testament into Greek which most of them used. This translation (The “Septuagint”) used the word ekklesia for occasions when the whole Jewish community met together to discuss and decide things of mutual concern. It was used to translate two Hebrew words. ‘edah and qahal which seem to have been used interchangeably for occasions of worship such as the pilgrim festivals and also for occasions when  the tribal leaders of the nation met in council.

There is a good example of this in Judges 20 verses I and 2:

"Then all the Israelites from Dan to Beersheba and from the land of Gilead came out and assembled as one man before the Lord in Mizpah. The leaders of all the people of the tribes of Israel took their places in the assembly of the people of God…”

Here the word 'edah is used in verse two for “assembly” and the verb form of qahal is used in verse one for “assembled”. The Greek translation used the word ekklesia which in the New Testament is translated as “church”.

So the word ekklesia is a political word which refers to God’s people meeting in council.

The difference Pentecost made was not to create the church but to open it to the gentile subjects of God’s anointed King.

It is common both among both Jews and Christians to make a distinction between Israel and the Church. Some Christians see the Church as the true Israel, replacing the old. But there are two reasons why this is wrong. The first is that, as we have seen, the church starts as part of the political structure of the government of Israel. The second is that it doesn’t fit what Paul said about gentiles being “grafted into the olive tree” (see Romans 11 verses 17–24), where the olive tree represents Israel.  

The Old Testament church was a political and worshipful gathering of God’s people meeting in God’s presence. The difference that took place on the day of Pentecost following Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection and ascension is that, from then onwards, God’s gentile people have been welcomed by God into that gathering, without the need to first be circumcised and submit to the law of Moses. This is the message that was proclaimed by the Holy Spirit through the first Christians in many languages and the message Jesus commissioned them to take into all the world.

This has two implications for us today:

First, “church” is meant to be a meeting where people discuss things and make decisions.

Second, the distinction between Israel and the church is a false one. From God’s viewpoint, the church is like a tree with its roots in Israel and its branches reaching into every nation, Israel and the gentile nations both included.

Photo of King James Bible © copyright Casey Picker, accessed from www. Flickr.com and used under a Creative Commons License.