Wednesday, 30 December 2009

2. words have histories

Frequently when I am preaching I say, "Bible words seldom have definitions, they have histories". This touches on the very purpose of the Biblical revelation and the way we are expected to use it. Over centuries God was laying down not just a historical archive but a trail by which he would educate his people. These stories became embedded in the psyche of the nation and were thus available for God to use to build truth; line upon line, precept upon precept.

So where will we find the first elements of 'ekklesia', the covenant community? We find them in the story of the Exodus and that old King James Version does us an unexpected service here which is lost in all modern translations. I refer to two occasions in particular when the word 'ekklesia' is not not used in reference to the New Covenant community but rather the Old Covenant community. This is the KJV version of Stephen's defence in Acts 7:38 "This is he, that was in the church in the wilderness with the angel which spake to him in the mount Sina, and [with] our fathers: who received the lively oracles to give unto us:" So far as I know no English translation since the KJV has ever used the word 'church' here. Every version, realising that this is a reference to the Old Covenant community of Israel, has chosen to avoid the word 'church' lest the reader should confuse the 'Old Covenant Community' with the 'New Covenant Community'. The other instance is Heb 2:12 where again only the KJV uses the word 'church'. I am not saying that modern versions are wrong to use the word 'congregation' in these two place, only that by not using the word 'church' we have lost the clue that 'church' is not a New Testament concept; it is Old Testament!

If we want to understand the nature of the concept of 'church' we shall need to go back almost to the beginnings. That Hebrews reference is very valuable as it provides a vital connection to an old Hebrew word. It works like this... Heb 2:12, in the Greek, has the word 'ekklesia' but the verse is a quotation from that wonderful Psalm 22:22 where the Hebrew word is 'qahal'. 'Qahal' is the word used in Exodus 12:6 where most modern versions will translate it as 'assembly'. It is used often of the nation of Israel and was often translated by the word 'ekklesia' in the Greek version of the Bible called the Septuagint. When the New Testament writers used the word 'ekklesia' it already had a history!

Where is all this taking us? We are discovering that the nation of Israel, and the disciples, already had a concept of what we have now come to speak of as 'church'. As far as they were concerned, being part of the Covenant Community of Israel, they were already 'in the church'. Imagine their shock then at hearing that Christ had an intention to build his own church and speaks of it in the future tense; "I will build my church..." Matt 16:18. One 'church' was already in existence but Christ had plans for another! We shall learn much of the purpose of the 'church' as the New Covenant Community if we spend a little time considering what 'church' meant for the Old Testament Community.

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