The Meaning of ᾿Εκκλησία in Matthew 16:18 and 18:17 -- By: Benjamin L. Merkle

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 167:667 (Jul 2010)
Article: The Meaning of ᾿Εκκλησία in Matthew 16:18 and 18:17
Author: Benjamin L. Merkle

The Meaning of ᾿Εκκλησία in Matthew 16:18 and 18:17

Benjamin L. Merkle

Benjamin L. Merkle is Associate Professor of New Testament and Greek, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Wake Forest, North Carolina.

Readers of the New Testament sometimes find it difficult not to impose their own perspective onto the meaning of the text. One immediately thinks of what certain terms mean in a modern-day context. For example most contemporary English Bible versions translate ἐπίσκοπος as “overseer,” not “bishop.” This is because the word “bishop” conveys a meaning that was not present in the early church. Over the centuries the office of bishop (according to some ecclesiastical traditions) has developed into a position with far more authority than was envisioned by the biblical authors.

This same caution should be applied when reading the Gospels. To discern the correct meaning of a passage one needs to see it from a first-century Jewish perspective. In Matthew 16:18 and 18:17 Matthew used the term ἐκκλησία (“church, assembly, congregation”) as coming from the lips of Jesus. “I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church [μου τὴν ἐκκλησίαν]; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it” (16:18). “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church [τῇ ἐκκλησίᾳ]; and if he refuses to listen even to the church [τῆς ἐκκλησίας], let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (18:17).

The question is whether Jesus would have used the term ἐκκλησία (or, more likely, the Hebrew or Aramaic equivalent) during His ministry. Since the “church,” as the body of Christ, did not begin until Pentecost, was Jesus speaking prophetically (“I will build My church”) of a future time after His resurrection when the church would be formed and His followers would gather together as a New Covenant community? Is it sufficient to view His words as only future-oriented? Some insist that Jesus was not speaking prophetically; they claim that Matthew (writing decades after

Jesus’ ministry) placed the term ἐκκλησία on the lips of Jesus in order to justify and encourage the church during that later time.

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