In the New Testament we find two important words that have, over the course of time, evolved into conceptual ideas that are often far afield from their Biblical and historic meaning. These two words are Church and Kingdom. Often, in the modern evangelical mind, both of these words evoke connotations much different than their original Greek meanings. The Greek word for “church” is ekklesia, whereas, the Greek word translated as “kingdom” is basileia. Neither of these words have their roots in a religious context. Both of these words were in common usage, long before the time of Christ and the writing of the New Testament. Both words were political terms in the ancient Greek world. It is important that we understand how these words fit into Greek political theory. The New Testament was not written in a vacuum. Jesus came in “the fullness of time” (Gal.4: 4), when a Greek-based political culture had spread across the Mediterranean world and the Near East. The language of that culture serves a “back drop” to understanding the New Testament. In this study it is our intent to examine these words and their relationship to each other.
The word ekklesia was used by Jesus to ascribe the status of His followers (Matt. 16:19, 18:17). This word was used to denote those “called-out” (Greek ek-kaleo) of the citizenry of the polis. It was an elected assembly with the purpose of ruling. It was the ekklesia who made fundamental political and judicial decisions. When the disciples heard Jesus use this word for what He was building, they undoubtedly were aware of its implications relating to public authority.
Jesus could have used the word “synagogue” (Greek sunagoge), which was a rather nondescript term for “gathering.” It says nothing about the significance of the gathering. In fact, this word has as one possible translation meaning “herd,” as in a herd of cattle; obviously no political implications are attributable to such a gathering. Instead Jesus chose a word rich in political connotations.
Basileia was a word meaning “a supreme sovereign’s rule and reign.” It was a term denoting monarchical rule, which is translated into English as “kingdom.” The significance of this word and Jesus’ choice of the word ekklesia becomes quite interesting, in light of Greek political theory.
In this regard Aristotle’s usage of these words is very informative. Interestingly, the two terms are essentially, mutually exclusive. Basileia meant exclusion from political decision-making; it was viewed as a form of government undesirable for a free people, who made their own decisions. It was considered a desirable government for slaves, who were unable to make responsible decisions, and must be ruled over. The form of government for a free people, Aristotle termed a politeia. Central to a politeia was an ekklesia. The ekklesia was thus symbolic of the status of a free people, a people set free from the yoke of the basileia.
What about Israel under the Old Covenant? What was its form of government? In Ephesians 2:12, Paul states that it was a politeia, a “free government.” That seems in conflict with some views held concerning Israel, but examine the nation’s history. They started out as a confederation of tribes unified by the worship of God, the Ark of the Covenant and the tabernacle. Periodically, judges arose to deal with enemies and internal conflicts. That period came to an end with the establishment of a king, fulfilled in the throne of David. Was this a move away from a politeia? Consider this: Davidic kingship was paired with an increasing focus on a particular city, Jerusalem, which came to embody the prophetic hope of the nation. In addition, we see a further element to this progression: rule over the nations. In Isaiah, we are shown the Davidic king ruling over Jerusalem, the royal city, and exercising dominion over the nations (Isa. 60:1-5, 62:1-12). In Daniel, the image becomes clearer: the citizens of the royal city share in the imperial rule of the king (Dan. 7:27).
This is prophetic of the New Testament period, as we see in the comparison made by the New Testament writers concerning the heavenly rule of the saints and their Old Testament counterparts. With only a few exceptions (Abraham, Moses, David, and the Prophets), the Old Testament saints were of the status of slaves. They were left out of the counsel of God and were fearful of Him. Note the status Paul attributes to Old Testament Israel in Galatians 4:22-5:1. The book of Hebrews makes the same point (12:18-24). Mount Sinai evoked fear in the hearts of the Israelites; but the New Testament believer, by contrast, is brought to Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, the ekklesia of the firstborn.
All of this is political language, describing the New Testament saint’s relationship to the King. The King’s relationship with the ekklesia is one of trust based upon true reconciliation, an intimate relationship, one in which the subject is not a slave but a citizen, a fellow decision–maker. This is made evident by the words of Jesus at the Last Supper (John 15:13-16). He calls His disciples friends, not slaves. “No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what the master does.” A slave is the object of decisions by the master, over which the slave has no control. On the other hand, a friend participates in the counsels of the master. Jesus said, “But I have called you friends, for all things I have heard from My Father I have made known to you.” Jesus’ friends are granted the privilege of participation in the heavenly counsels of the Father and the Son, through the Holy Spirit. (I might add that this distinction between friend vs. slave is found in the writings of Aristotle.)
In Ephesians 2:6 we are told that as believers, “we are seated in heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” We are invited to sit down in the place where heavenly decisions are made. Through Christ, the Gentile saints are now “fellow polites” (Ephes. 2:19), participants in the life of the politeia of God, along with the Jewish saints. They are citizens of the New Jerusalem, the heavenly city which reigns over the kings of the earth, the seat of royal messianic dominion.
Jesus Christ is now King of kings and Lord of lords, the ruler of the kings of the earth (Rev.1:5). His ekklesia reigns with Him: “To Him who loves us, and released us from our sins by His blood, and He has made us to be a kingdom, priests to His God and Father (Rev.1:6).
This King does not rule apart from His ekklesia. This is the reconciliation of Aristotle’s basileia and ekklesia. Jesus Christ rules as King (Greek basileus), but shares authority with His ekklesia, in fact rules through it. When the ekklesia assembles it is a gathering of His elected rulers. When the ekklesia worships it is the assembly making way for the King, to come and meet with it, to seek advice and counsel, to deliberate, to hold court.
This King first deals with His ministers, the ekklesia, holding court to hear disputes, to admonish, to encourage, to instruct, to forgive. He declares His will and His ekklesia submits, declaring their eternal devotion. Attention is then turned to public affairs, how to deal with the kosmos, the realm over which the ekklesia rules. Upon dismissal, the ekklesia, by His grace, empowered by the King, partners with Him, go out and bring His dominion to the earth.
Dare I say that this is much different than the average evangelical view of the “church?”
This brief study should make one thing clear: the New Testament’s adoption of the political language of its day, to describe the nature and ministry of the Church, demonstrates that His purpose for the Church is greater than just “preparing people to go to heaven.”