(Please click the active links to read the NKJV passages.)
For millennia, a lot of confusion with regard to the Gospel of Jesus Christ has been sown and continues to prevail, resulting in quarrels and divisions among people who claim to be His followers. We are talking of millions upon millions since the Lord bequeathed His work to the apostles. We hope to clarify some of the vital issues involved and, hopefully, resolve them in order to remove or diminish the confusion. The main issue involves the meaning and use of the words: church or ekklesia, assembly and kingdom. What do they really mean? Are they similar or different? Let us find out.
The ekklesia is a temporary phase
The name ekklesia (from the Greek word meaning called-out, translated as iglesia in Spanish), suggests a temporary phase as the title itself connotes. One who is “called out” is directed to move or transfer from one place to another. Like Abram who was called out of Haran in Mesopotamia to live in Canaan, the ekklesia was called out of the darkness to dwell in the light of the kingdom (Col. 1:13). What did God call Abram after he left Haran? Abraham. What do you call the called-out when they enter the kingdom of God? Ekklesia still? No, the family of God or the holy nation of God.
The word church (from the German kirche, meaning house of God), which literally means the house or building of God, has become synonymous to ekklesia or called-out, although church more specifically refers to an organized group or denomination, such as the Roman Catholic Church or the Baptist Church. It is the word used to translate the ekklesia in Christ’s letters to the seven churches in Asia in Revelation and can be more accurately translated as assembly or aggrupation of believers who reside in those cities. For why did not just Christ refer to them as one church of Asia instead of many churches in various cities? That is because a person can be called a “called-out” or a unit of ekklesia – one who is called-out, just as the whole assembly has been called-out as a group. And in the continent of Asia, there were many assemblies or ekklesiais. We will show later, however,that the whole ekklesia or body of called-out, as one, is composed of not just the living but also those who have gone ahead to be with the Lord.
Hence, Jesus (through John) was referring to people who were collectively called-out but not necessarily separated or divided with respect to doctrines or leadership among themselves. Nor were they assembled as one organization, meeting in one place within a city but merely an organic body of believers who met in their homes on a regular basis or even daily. They could have had different bishops or overseers within a city who led them and taught them accordingly. Hence, the letters presented judgment calls upon those assemblies according to how each behaved according to their growth as a local assembly or ekklesia.
Assemblies (that is, becoming or being part of one) do not perfect the body; the deeds of the individual parts as they live out the gospel do
The various assemblies, referring to those customary gatherings of believers around the world celebrating God’s grace through fellowshipping, praying, growing in knowledge of the word and love-feasting (Acts 2:42), do not express the entire life of the family of God but merely the explosion or jubilation resulting from the work Christ did for His body on Earth in its initial stages of growth. Today, it has been transformed into a routine or programmed set of activities that try to achieve the plan of God in a corporate or structured manner. The assembly’s collective action must not be equated with the “acceptable worship” or “pleasing life sacrifice” (Rom. 12:1) required of believers on a moment-by-moment individual basis. This has been the misconception that many believers, preachers and even outsiders have practiced and understood about the body of Christ. They have compressed the entire idea of worship, sanctification, glorification and service mainly within the assembly or the church setting, whether we are talking of the ceremony or the other “activities” performed in the context of one’s chosen religion or denomination (praise & worship hours, dawn watches, feasts, holy days, sacraments, etc.). Hence, those who have no idea what happens inside the “assemblies” do not see the real significance of the simple gospel Jesus taught to ordinary folk who are suffering and undergoing trials.
Only genuine living-faith-based service under the power of the Holy Spirit can address the actual and ongoing problems of the lost and the struggling believers. Organizations and their leaders may provide guidance; but in the end, it is the individual who must carry the burden of keeping the faith alive and active through living the gospel real-time. Nevertheless, as Jesus said to the all the assemblies in Asia, “He/she who has an ear, let him/her hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” The believer has the responsibility to listen to the real source of truth and salvation.
On the other hand, listening to others, for instance, the false teachers among the churches, could result in falling away from grace. That is why Jesus warned those in Asia, who practiced idolatry and followed heresies, of His coming judgment and commanded them to repent. And this is exactly what is happening in many assemblies today. True, many find solace inside the church buildings or sanctuaries built to represent the invisible structure of the kingdom; however, because of so much corruption, false teachings and hypocrisy inside these multi-faceted organizations, which do not truly represent a single, united and undefiled body of Christ on the planet, the simplicity of the message has been lost and diminished. The result?
We have been diverted from the truth. What we think is the essential is actually the non-essential. What we think is real worship is a recycling of old or ancient methods which turned the temple sacrifices into another form of offering that has no power to transform people into what they were meant to become according to the original plan. And with a new priesthood which has replaced the old, we have produced a new system that is merely a copy of ancient religious forms taken away through Christ’s ministry.
Remember, the organization is not the called-out; neither is the leadership nor the membership. The real assembly is the whole body of Christ as it thrives and lives every moment under the rulership of Christ Who reigns in Heaven. Any person (or human association or group, if it were at all possible) must submit to that rule, not to what he claims or what he does based on those claims but according to the word of God and the final judgment of the ruler Himself when the time comes. A person is, ultimately, bound to God and not to any human organization and its invented rules, no matter how large or powerful it is.
The assemblies, in general or collectively, are preliminary and imperfect manifestations of God’s work in the lives of believers characterized by conflict and divisions, as it is manifested until today
Still, the assemblies served a vital purpose in the entire plan of God, albeit temporary. Read the letters of the apostles and we see a picture of how the assemblies grew into what it was intended to be as a body and as individual members. Today, we see a repeat of basically what happened centuries ago and will continue to be so for years. That is, until we realize what God intended to do with the assemblies. And what the kingdom of God truly means. Perhaps, understanding this concept will help us consider how we do things today.
The kingdom is the perfection of God’s work through the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers who are reaching a level of maturity that does not require or impose upon them the preliminary and artificial steps used and still used in the assemblies until now
The kingdom, as envisioned by Christ, was to be the picture of perfection which God laid down from the foundation of the world when He created humans — to be the repository of all goodness, beauty, unity, majesty and glory of His Divine Nature that He bestowed upon His creation, especially upon humans. Are the assemblies, as one organization today, worthy to signify that perfection. Hardly!
The Holy Spirit began the work through the teaching of the word through the apostles. Planting of the seed began on Pentecost Day when the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the first believers, plus miraculous powers manifested to all people, believers and unbelievers. That was just the beginning. For many years it was that way before the perfect plan – the new and living way – came to be established. Where? Where else but in the kingdom? Maturity could not be accomplished through human efforts, that is, human organizations and programs. Only through the Holy Spirit Who works through powers and mysteries of divine wisdom, not corrupt and selfish human ideas and schemes.
The confusion created by the divisions among churches and denominations for centuries does not give glory to the name of Christ. If we think He is happy with that, then we have a serious problem indeed. The people of God have compromised with the world and have become hostage to the conflicts and confusion that have marred church history. As a result, the name of God has been stained and made obnoxious in the minds of many.
Hence, churches today are archaic representations of the perfect kingdom whose qualities have already been laid out in Scriptures through the latter writings of John
Did God succeed in making a perfect representation of His kingdom on Earth? What transpired such that all we see in the written record appears nowhere close to what we would easily recognize as truly divine and perfect in reality?
Are we saying the churches today completely fail in the calling of Christ? Not really. We are saying it is far from the perfection God desires from His written plan. How so, we will explain in the following discussion.
How did God specifically replace the ekklesia with the kingdom? Is this process prophesied or contained in the teachings of the prophets and the apostles? Answering this crucial question will resolve our issue under study.
First and foremost, Christ began His ministry by announcing that the kingdom was near. Did He establish that kingdom? Of course, He did. And the reason many still do not appreciate the essence and the presence of the kingdom is because of the belief to the contrary. Without a standing kingdom, no change in the status quo, which they so lovingly preserve since the first century, ever occurred. The ekklesia, therefore, is the ekklesia still. The church is still preparing for the coming of the King, or even the coronation of the King. (Others claim it exists as an earthly kingdom and must, therefore, be ruled just like one by human leaders. Many cults – those beholden to a single self-crowned, charismatic leader — believe and practice this idea.)
Second, Christ promised that He will send the Holy Spirit to reveal the fundamentals of His teachings and the truth regarding the kingdom to come. When He did so, it marked the beginning of the kingdom. He was sitting on a throne in Heaven beside the Father (why should He do so and not be called King?) when Peter proclaimed the start of the salvation of the Jewish “called-out” on Pentecost Day (Heb. 12:2; Acts 2). Remember, this occurred during a convocation (a general calling-out required by law) of Jews to a feast which Moses had commanded a long time ago. Pentecost Feast was a special day which turned out to be the most special day ever – not Christmas, not Easter, not even Passover. On that day, the Kingdom became a reality – and as prophesied, it came with power and manifestations of gifts. And yet, we do not celebrate that event like we do His birth, His death and His resurrection. All these three were necessary; but the fourth – His reign — determines the success of His work upon humans for which He came after all. The reason not many celebrate it (not that we should but that we should understand its historical and prophetic significance) is because of division and ignorance of the divine plan.
Third, having established His kingdom in Jerusalem, Jesus spread the word throughout all the corners of the Earth through the apostles. The completion of that task heralded the end of a period of teaching the nations about the will of God. Paul claimed that he had preached the word to all regions of the Earth. Today, hardly a place remains where the gospel has not been presented. Those exceptions remain few and what remains to be done requires the completion of the perfection which was accomplished on the day of Pentecost. On that day rests the key toward understanding what the kingdom is all about and what awaits that kingdom while it remains on Earth.
Fourth, a period of transition was required to bring about the perfection of the kingdom established on Pentecost. Hebrews 9:10 refers to this transition as a period when the Lord will set up a new order that would replace the former temple worship with a “new and living way”. Where in the New Testament do we see the believers still endorsing the temple-worship mode? Agreed, many of them, including the apostles, continued to go to the temple to pray and offer sacrifices; however, with the apostles’ death all those were taken over by what John would introduce in his final letters which Jeremiah prophesied beforehand.
Jeremiah mentioned of a time when believers will no longer teach one another and that every person will know the Lord through his or her own built-in system of spiritual communication (a new foundation of faith) which John would explain in more detail when it was finally fulfilled. What did John say? Exactly what Jeremiah prophesied: We have received the Anointing (the Holy Spirit, given on Pentecost Day) and that we need no other teacher. Which basically means, we have no further need of prophets, teachers, apostles and judges (for any believer can prophesy, teach, encourage or discern as the Spirit enables him or her). And just as Paul prophesied, when the perfect comes, that which is incomplete will be removed. (I Cor, 13:10)
The period of transformation occurred in the ekklesia age (Pentecost Day to around AD 100 or at around John’s death) characterized by believers learning the teachings of Christ, initially, (1) through the apostles’ direct teachings and in the absence of the written gospel, and, secondly, (2) through the apostles’ letters or written gospels preached or carried by evangelists, and, finally, (3) through the Holy Spirit working perfectly within the believer’s heart which has matured in the foundational teachings of the Lord as passed on and expounded upon by the apostles. This kind of faith is essentially described and defined by John in his simple and unassuming letters. Read it and see what he really teaches in the context of what we are saying here.
John addresses his letter to believers who know the truth because they had received the Holy Spirit. (I John 2:20) They were anointed by the Holy Spirit and by the truth — making it appear that both are almost similar in function with respect to the life of a believer. This, in fact, is the common idea repeated over and over again by John: (I John 2:3-6) Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. He who says, ‘I know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoever keeps His word, truly the love of God is perfected in him. By this we know that we are in Him. He who says he abides in Him ought himself also to walk just as He walked.”
How did Jesus walk? How did He live? Do you need to watch a Hollywood movie to find out? Do we have ears we can hook unto a smartphone to listen to the story? Do we have eyes to use on a PC or a tablet to read digital Bibles? Does that really require a teacher? No, it only requires that you hear the Holy Spirit Who will guide you to the truth for the rest of your life. In its simplest form, John defines the gospel or good news of Jesus Christ in just one word: Love or Agape. Who needs a building or an organization to do that?
John, finally, speaks of perfect love which casts out all fear, which has to do with punishment (the kind religions impose upon those who follow enslaving doctrines). (I John 4:18) With perfect love, we can approach God with confidence. No on else has to tell us what to do or how to do it. The Holy Spirit alone can lead us individually how to behave in the Kingdom of God.
We see then that Jeremiah and John enclosed and sealed the plan of God within the framework formed by the Hebrews waiting for a promise and the Christians receiving the promise. Without this complete circle, we have nothing but an unfinished divine work that has not resolved the human problem of existence, sin and death.
Auspiciously, the letter to the Hebrews lays down this process in a much clearer perspective for us as the writer explains the difference between what Moses Law meant and achieved for Israel and what faith means and achieves for the individual believer.
Heb. 12:22-24 states: “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel.”
Here, the writer states that unlike Mt. Sinai which made Moses tremble in great fear and prohibited any human or animal to approach it, believers “have come to” or “have become” or “have belonged to” the “general assembly and church of the first born who are registered in heaven”. This does not refer to the collective body of believers on Earth at any one time but the entire “family” and “called-out” of God including the departed ones.
If Mt. Sinai could not be touched without dying because of God’s wrath, the heavenly Jerusalem could only be touched or entered into by those who have received the promise of eternal life by God’s love and mercy. The vision of this eternal city is our earthly proof that we do belong to that city as citizens of Heaven and that God is our King. Without faith, this truth means nothing at all.
Finally, in Heb. 12:28, the writer states that believers (at the time this was written) were “receiving a kingdom”. So it seems, from the assembly and called-out, believers then and even today become part of the kingdom that is unshakeable or unchanging, unlike the old Israelite kingdom which could be shaken or replaced. This kingdom we belong to is eternal, not temporary.
Textual proof of this conclusion is seen in the fact that after Rev. 3, where John shows Jesus addressing the seven churches in Asia, the word “church” or ekklesia is no longer used till the end of the book. In fact, in Hebrews, it is only used once, as stated above, and, as we said, the book ends with the joyous declaration that we are “receiving a kingdom”. Yet today, we see the title “church” or “iglesia” on many street-corners. And even if we see some using the title “kingdom”, that does not still prove that God does reign over it.
How can we be so presumptuous as to say that God can be found in any non-living place or structure on Earth. The living God dwells in living temples. Wherever we are, if we truly follow God’s word, there He lives and there His kingdom exists. For the kingdom of God is within you! Christ Himself prophesied this; and yet, we do not teach or practice it as one, in essence and in reality. We qualify His statement by our denominational colors and doctrinal or theological biases, thus, causing and maintaining the divisions among believers for many centuries now.
If then, we, or people, in general, are in the process of entering the kingdom, we cease to be the “called-out”. That is, like the Hebrews who were encamped around Mt. Sinai before they were allowed to receive the Promised Land years after, the called-out are transported into “Mt. Zion” or the “heavenly Jerusalem” as the promised kingdom of God. Although we do not walk yet its streets of gold, we do belong to that city as citizens of God’s kingdom while residing on Earth, for our names are “registered in Heaven” – not in any human organization or government agency or institution.
How the kingdom grows
A seed is planted one at a time and bears fruit so many at a time, realizing the multiplication designed by God. In like manner, the gospel is planted one at a time and each person multiplies his seed or life through living a productive godly life as an example to others. That is how the kingdom grows, like the yeast composed of so many cells that reproduce individually to provide leavening to flour in the making of bread. Matt. 13:33 is a perfect picture of the growth of the kingdom as being made up of individuals but is seen as one lump of dough growing. It is not the dough as a whole that creates the growth but the separate yeast cells (which is the gospel) energizing the flour which provide the growth. The emphasis on the “dough” as the organization or structure that motivates the growth has been the greatest misconception in God’s administration of His word. That is, in spending much time, effort and money on the dough (church or assembly), the individual has been neglected and left dependent on the organizational structure to do the work or the task of God.
And yet, it all started with the work of one person and messenger: Jesus Christ. He said He will draw all people unto Himself. He could because He was the Son of God. His death and resurrection accomplished everything needed to make that possible. The work of the Holy Spirit in fulfilling the completion of Christ’s work coincides with the prophecy of Jeremiah to allow every person to drive home the message to where it must finally rest – a person’s heart. It is every individual’s responsibility and accountability from the start and up to the end until the judgment comes. John, as we discussed, showed its process of perfection in his teachings.
Do we still need teachers when we have the Holy Spirit? Do we need temples when He lives in our hearts? Do we still need sophisticated organizations when we have become part of the heaven kingdom upon which Christ reigns from Heaven? Do we still need fancy programs and plans to save the world when the gospel is freely available and accessible to anyone who wants to share it or anyone who wants to hear it?
Yes, we still need to teach the gospel to those who have not heard it. And we still need to explain how the message must be understood and applied. However, much of the work done in many assemblies today is redundant application of teachings which can be easily gained through the reading of scriptures. Not much is given to explaining the work of the Holy Spirit in leading a person to the knowledge of the truth and growing into maturity. In many cases, we get in the way of the Spirit, just as the Pharisees did in Jesus’ time, hindering or preventing people from benefitting from the grace of God.
The divisions among churches have done this disservice to humanity. Our not following the simple plan of God has led to the dismemberment of the family of God. There is one kingdom and it is not a divided kingdom. We have divided churches or denominations today; but there is only one united kingdom of God composed of perfected spirits – departed or living. John spoke of this unity and perfection in his gospel and letters. He laid down the means toward achieving unity and perfection and making possible the growth of the kingdom.
The growth of assemblies or churches has nothing to do with the growth of the heavenly kingdom. God writes down the names of those who are “registered in Heaven” – not in the attendance books of these assemblies, many of which are anti-Christ. Yes, we are talking of an invisible kingdom. What can be seen is deceptive, if not intentionally meant to delude people. It is the world claiming the credit for what it presumes to be the work of God. Watch out for wolves in sheep’s clothing! And whitewashed tombs full of dead men’s bones!
This is not to say we cannot know for sure if we have assurance of salvation through the gospel. We do. However, in many cases, we have missed the intent of God’s message. Our compromise with the world’s ways and means of doing things has stunted the kingdom’s march. There is a remnant of Gods people keeping true to the simple pattern of Gods kingdom. It is not too late to go back to it before the return of Christ.
A final warning: “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear. For our God is a consuming fire.” (Heb. 12:28-29)
What is acceptable service? Not through Moses’ Law. Not through divisive worldly means. It is by the grace of God. If it is grace, then it is a gift. It is from God, not from humans. And how do we receive grace? Through the Holy Spirit alone – Who was manifested through tongues of fire. Just as Jeremiah and John had said, the Holy Spirit is all that we need to know the truth. Either way, He consumes us: by purifying us to live and become like Him through our faith or by judging us with vengeful wrath for our unbelief.
Only by understanding and applying this “new and living way” can we address all the problems we undergo as a global community. For had the generations of believers been true to their calling from the beginning till now, we would not be suffering all the divisions and conflicts that have beset history. In truth, we are paying the price for having neglected the Lord’s teachings and exhortations. Just like ancient Israel which went the way of idolatry during the time of King Solomon and became divided, we have remained beholden to idolatrous and meaningless ways and, therefore, have reaped the divisions we have today.
Christ does not reign over a divided kingdom. He reigns over His kingdom, those who remain faithful to His word and truth. But the world is divided and confused even on that fact. The time comes for separating the flock, some on the left and the rest on the right, to determine where we stand during the judgment. When we continue to be divided or separated from the truth, God has no other alternative except to welcome those who have remained faithful to His cause and separate those who have not, including those who think they have been faithful to Him even though they have not. The more reason for us to check where we truly stand today in the sight of the coming Great Judge.
(Painting above of Pentecost Day: Taken from this link)