In Defining Church (part 2) I connected the story of the Israelites encountering God on Mount Sinai to the modern church and concluded, “When defining church we must begin with God’s people and God’s presence” (if you haven’t read part 2, please do so before proceeding). One of the most telling aspects of their encounter with God at Mount Sinai is the name that the Israelites would later give that day. Jim Samra, whose book and preaching is foundational for this blog series, said it this way:
“Typically on a day of such great importance, we give it a title so that we can easily remember and refer to it. We do this with special days like our birthday or wedding day, or with days of national remembrance like Independence Day, or Black Tuesday, or 9/11. Because the day of God’s appearance at Mount Sinai was so significant to Israel’s history, it, too, was given a name—a title to commemorate the experience. They didn’t call it “The Day of the Appearance” or “Ten Commandments Day” (though either of those would have been accurate). Instead, it was called “the day of the assembly” (see Deut. 9:10; 10:4; 18:16; cf. 4:10). The reason for this specific title was because God wanted to remind Israel that they had experienced his presence in the midst of their assembly.” 1[bra_blockquote align=”]God wanted to remind Israel that they had experienced his presence in the midst of their assembly.[/bra_blockquote]
The Israelite community understood that the unique and awesome presence of God that they experienced in Exodus 19 was, in some way, directly connected to their assembling as a people. Samra continues, “The Day of the Assembly forever became a part of the history of God’s people, because on that day God not only forged a relationship with Israel, he also established a pattern—they would experience him most fully, not simply as individuals or through mediators, but by gathering together in assembly.” 1
The continuation of this pattern is established even before the Israelites leave Mount Sinai. God gave strict instructions on how they were to build him a mobile dwelling place called the tabernacle. At the end of the book of Exodus, after the tabernacle was complete, we read, “Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting (another name for the tabernacle), and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses could not enter the tent of meeting because the cloud had settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. In all the travels of the Israelites, whenever the cloud lifted from above the tabernacle, they would set out; but if the cloud did not lift, they did not set out—until the day it lifted. So the cloud of the Lord was over the tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night, in the sight of all the Israelites during all their travels.” 2
While wandering in the wilderness, the Israelites would setup the tabernacle in the middle of their camp (Numbers 2:2). In some ways, while wandering in the wilderness, the people were always assembled and God’s presence was always manifest in a unique way. However, in Leviticus 9 we read a story that takes place at the tabernacle which further emphasizes the connection between the intentional assembling of the Israelites and God’s unique presence. God commands Moses and Aaron (Moses’ brother) to present sacrifices because “today the Lord will appear to you.” Beginning in verse 5 we read, “…the entire assembly came near and stood before the Lord. Then Moses said, “This is what the Lord has commanded you to do, so that the glory of the Lord may appear to you.” After the sacrifices are prepared in the midst the assembled Israelites, we read, “Moses and Aaron then went into the tent of meeting. When they came out, they blessed the people; and the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people. 24 Fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat portions on the altar. And when all the people saw it, they shouted for joy and fell facedown.” The people were in assembly and God’s presence was manifested in a unique way.
The pattern continues after the Israelites end their wanderings in the wilderness and become established in their permanent land. Shortly before King David’s death and just prior to him annointing his son Solomon as the next king, we read in 1 Chronicles 29:20, “Then David said to the whole assembly, “Praise the LORD your God.” So they all praised the LORD, the God of their fathers; they bowed down, prostrating themselves before the LORD and the king.” Of course one can prostrate themselves before God anywhere, but these people seem to be responding to a powerful experience with God. Just as they were prostrating themselves before David because David was there, they so too seem to have been prostrating themselves before God because God was there. The people were in assembly and God’s presence was manifested in a unique way.
After there was no longer a need for a mobile dwelling place, God commanded the people to build him a permanent home. This house was known as the temple. Just after it was finished being built, the people assembled for its dedication (1 Kings 8:5). In 1 Kings 8:10-11, we read, “the cloud filled the temple of the LORD. And the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the LORD filled his temple.” The people were in assembly and God’s presence was manifested in a unique way.
God continued to manifest himself powerfully in the temple when the people assembled. In 2 Chronicles 20 we see one example of this. The Ammonites and Meunites come to wage war against the Israelites. The King of Israel, Jehosaphat, wanted to inquire of the Lord, so he declared a fast for the people of Israel. Then in verses 4 and 5, we read, “The people of Judah came together to seek help from the Lord; indeed, they came from every town in Judah to seek him. Then Jehoshaphat stood up in the assembly of Judah and Jerusalem at the temple of the Lord in the front of the new courtyard…” He then prayed and in verse 14 we read, “Then the Spirit of the Lord came…” The people were in assembly and God’s presence was manifested in a unique way.
Why does this matter for defining church? The Hebrew word used for “assembly” in Deuteronomy 9:10; 10:4; and 18:16 (“the day of the assembly”) and in other Old Testament Scriptures, is qahal (קָהָל). This Hebrew word, at the time of the New Testament, was regularly translated by the Greek word ekklessia (ἐκκλησία). In fact, the Septuagint, regularly translates qahal as ekklessia. Thus, when a first century Jewish person heard the word ekklessia they would have understood it to refer, in part, to God’s people assembled in God’s presence. Why does this matter for defining church? Ekklessia is the Greek word that is translated “church” in the New Testament. Thus, in Matthew 16:18, when Jesus says to Peter, “on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it,” Peter would have understood Jesus as, at least in part, meaning God’s people assembled in God’s unique and powerful presence. When defining church we must start with God’s people in God’s presence and we must recognize that the first century Jewish person would have recognized that this happens most clearly and powerfully when God’s people are assembled.[bra_blockquote align=’right’]When defining church we must start with God’s people in God’s presence and we must recognize that the first century Jewish person would have recognized that this happens most clearly and powerfully when God’s people are assembled. [/bra_blockquote]
Should a first century Jewish understanding of “church” really drive our current understanding of church today? Does the New Testament support the notion of God’s presence being unique and powerful in the midst of God’s people in assembly? If so, what are the implications for the modern church? Isn’t a church still a church when they aren’t assembled together? My next post(s) will seek to answer these questions.
1. Samra, Jim (2010-12-07). The Gift of Church: How God Designed the Local Church to Meet Our Needs as Christians (pp. 25-26). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
2. All Scripture is quoted from the NIV