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The Place Of The Ecclesia in God's Purpose
Part 1 - What is the ecclesia?

by John H. Essex


 
 

"Now to Him Who is able to do superexcessively above all that we are requesting or apprehending, according to the power that is operating in us, to Him be glory in the ecclesia and in Christ Jesus for all the generations of the eon of the eons! Amen.!" (Eph.3:20,21).

That the ecclesia has been assigned a very important role in the purpose of God is evident from the above scripture, for obviously that which is to give glory to God "for all the generations of the eon of the eons" cannot be brushed aside as insignificant, especially when its mention is placed before that of Christ Jesus. Clearly it should be a profitable line of inquiry for us to examine in detail what this role is—to ask ourselves, in fact, what is the place of the ecclesia in God's purpose? This will be our aim in this series of studies.

But first we must be clear in our minds as to what ecclesia we are referring, for more than one ecclesia is mentioned in the Scriptures.

VARIOUS ECCLESIAS

The word "ecclesia" occurs some 115 times in the Greek Scriptures. Strikingly, only three of these occur in the four accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and these are all in Matthew, two of them being in one verse (see Matt.16: 18 and 18:17). Sometimes the word has a local application, as in eighteen occurrences in the book of Revelation. There the word is used of individual gatherings in various localities—the ecclesia in Ephesus, Smyrna, etc. The same is true of some usages of the term in the book of Acts, and also in the Pauline writings, many of which are addressed to individual ecclesias; for example, "the ecclesia of the Thessalonians," "the ecclesia of God in Corinth" and "the ecclesias of Galatia." But clearly in our study we are not concerned with individual ecclesias as such, but only insofar as they are part of "the ecclesia" in its widest sense.

In Acts 7:38, we have a reference to "the ecclesia in the wilderness," but the context shows that this clearly refers to the out-called ones from Egypt, the nation of Israel under Moses, condemned to a period of wandering in the wilderness because of their lack of faith in God. Leaving this application of the term to one side, we find that the Greek Scriptures use the term "ecclesia" in connection with two distinct companies of people. First, there is the company of circumcision saints who followed the Lord, and were ministered to by the twelve apostles of the Lamb. This ministry received a great impetus with the witness beginning at Pentecost, when the circle of twelve was reestablished after the defection of Judas, and the holy Spirit came upon them with power. Such was the activity of the apostles at this time that about three thousand souls were added to the ecclesia in one day (Acts 2:41). The ministry had as its basic theme, "Repent and be baptized each of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the pardon of your sins, and you shall be obtaining the gratuity of the holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38). It continued until the circle of twelve was again broken by the killing of James by Herod (Acts 12:2), though the Jews had already signified their rejection of the message of the Kingdom through their stoning of Stephen. The ministry will be resumed when the circle is restored by the resurrection of the Twelve at the coming of the Lord to establish His Kingdom; until then, the promises concerning this ecclesia are in abeyance.

But there is still an ecclesia to which Paul and his companion apostles ministered, described by him as "the ecclesia," "the ecclesia of God" and "the ecclesia which is Christ's body" (1 Cor.12:27,28; 1 Tim.3:5; Eph.1:23). It is this ecclesia which we wish to discuss in these studies. The message proclaimed by Paul is not "repent and be baptized" in order to be saved, but "Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved" (Acts 16:31). In his evangel, the obedience of faith takes the place of repentance, and justification takes the place of pardon. Works are set aside, for salvation is by faith apart from works (Rom.3:28). Human endeavor is shown to be vanity, and salvation is seen to be dependent upon God alone, for the evangel is declared to be His power for salvation (Rom.1:16). Its basis is "the word of the cross" which again is declared to be "the power of God" (1 Cor.1:18). Its standing is in the terms of a new creation, in which the former creation is regarded as "primitive" and "passed by," and all has "come new" (2 Cor.5:17), and not in the terms of a new birth, as suggested by Jesus to Nicodemus (John 3:7), for in such the new is born of the old; witness Peter's application in 1 Peter 2:9 of the promise made to Israel before Sinai (Ex.19:5,6).

But before we proceed further, let us obtain a definition of the word "ecclesia."

DEFINITION OF "ECCLESIA"

The Greek word ekklesia consists of two components; the prefix ek, meaning "out," and the root part of the word klesia, meaning "called." It thus means "a called-out company."

In many versions, it is generally translated by the word "church," but this word has, in the minds of most people, lost its true significance for three reasons, namely:

1. It is most frequently applied to a building rather than to the occupants of a building. The same is true of the word "school;" the correct terms for the buildings should be "church-house" and "schoolhouse" respectively, but the former seldom, if ever, appears as a dictionary word.

2. The word "church" has been appropriated by almost every sect and denomination to denote its own particular form of worship; thus we have the "Roman Catholic Church," the "Anglican Church," the "Baptist Church," the "Methodist Church" and many others. The Word of God knows no such distinctions.

3. The word "church" does not indicate, in itself, the two components that are inherent in the word "ecclesia," therefore the full import of its meaning is lost, and it comes to be regarded as simply a company of worshipers, rather than a body of "called-out" ones.

It is essential that we keep in mind the two components of the word "ecclesia," for the fact that a "calling-out" is involved shows that there must have been a choice. That choice must have been of God, for it is He Who does the calling, that His purpose may remain as a choice, not out of acts, but of Him Who is calling. Though this statement is applied in Romans 9:11 to the case of Esau and Jacob, it underlines a principle which remains true until God's purpose is consummated. God is operating all in accord with the counsel of His will (Eph.1:11), and His purpose is ever in line with this fact.

GOD'S RIGHT TO CHOOSE

As soon as we perceive that a calling-out is involved, it becomes apparent that there must be some who are not included in this choice. To many this may seem an injustice, but to think in such a way would be in accord with the spirit of humanity, which often talks of "fairness" and "unfairness," and thinks that all should have equal chance. If God's purpose depended, even to a slight degree, upon chance, there might be some justification for thinking in this way.

But as we have just pointed out, we are thinking in terms of One Who is operating all according to the counsel of His will, and Who consequently is "telling from the beginning, the hereafter, and from aforetime what has not yet been done" (Isa.46:10). We are also thinking of One Who has the right to choose, and the right to prefer one over another, and the right to allot to each whatsoever He wills. Therefore, if we are speaking of those whom God has chosen, it must always be in full acknowledgment of His right to make such a choice.

We should never question either the right or the wisdom of God in any of His choices. We can be satisfied with His decisions, even though we may feel that we are specially favored by being among His chosen ones, because we know that the precedent blessing of such is a means to an end, the end being God's glory, to be achieved by the eventual reconciliation of all to Himself. In other words, we acknowledge the preferential steps of God's purpose as being a necessary prerequisite of the ultimate in which all, without exception, will share. For the final goal of God's purpose is that He may be All in all (1 Cor.15:28).

It is for this reason that the called ones of any ecclesia should not consider themselves as intrinsically better than their fellows, but should always remember that the reason for their choice is that they may be used by God for the blessing of those who are not thus chosen. The reason for their preferential treatment does not lie within themselves, but in God Who prefers them. This is why those in the ecclesia of today are entreated by Paul to be "working for the good of all, yet specially for the family of faith" (Gal.6:10).

Paul, in Romans 9:21, shows how God is able, of the same kneading, to make one vessel to honor and one to dishonor. The clay is the same in both cases; the difference between the resultant vessels lies in the action of the Potter, Who alone is able to decide the form and the purpose of the vessel He is making. The illustration is an excellent one. Apart from the nimble fingers of the Potter, we would be undeveloped clay, unable to fashion ourselves into anything of use to anybody. But in God's hands we are made what we are, and if so be we are chosen by Him to be of His ecclesia, let us rejoice in this with all humility and thankfulness. If we are to boast at all, let it never be in ourselves, but always in the Lord.

HOW GOD EXERCISES HIS RIGHT OF CHOICE

Through His prophet Isaiah, God told His people, Israel, that their devices and ways were not as His, but rather His were more lofty than theirs, even as the heavens were more lofty than the earth (Isa.55:8,9). This is clearly evidenced in His choice of Israel themselves, for He did not choose them because they were the most numerous of peoples, for they were the fewest of all people, but because He loved them and would keep the oath which He had sworn to their fathers (Deut.7:6-8).

Deuteronomy is the first book of the Scriptures which speaks directly of the love of God. Its first reference is in chapter 4, verse 17, where God, through Moses, speaks of the love which He had for the fathers. Out of this love was born the nation of Israel. Who but God would have called an idolater (Abram) or a circumventer (Jacob) to be the forbears of the people of His choice? Yet this is what He did, and He turned the idolater into "the father of all who believe" and He changed the circumventer into the one who was Upright-with-God (Israel).

Abraham, though promised a seed by God, could not of himself provide the one in whom that seed should be called. Ishmael, the son of the maid, was begotten according to flesh, and flesh is in bondage to sin; the child of bondage could never be the child of promise. It was not until Abraham recognized his own incompetence and acknowledged the all-sufficiency of God, that Isaac was born. Thus was the impotence of the flesh made evident, and this was confirmed in the sign of circumcision, which involved a cutting off of the flesh.

This impotence of the flesh is likewise evident when we come to examine the criteria by which the chosen ones of this present time are measured, for we find that they are not in accord with human values, but just the reverse. We find these criteria set forth in 1 Corinthians 1, verses 26 to 29, which we quote:

"For you are observing your calling, brethren, that there are not many wise according to the flesh; not many powerful, not many noble, but the stupidity of the world God chooses, that He may be disgracing the wise, and the weakness of the world God chooses, that He may be disgracing the strong, and the ignoble and the contemptible things of the world God chooses, and that which is not, that He should be discarding that which is, so that no flesh at all should be boasting in God's sight."

This method of choosing is in accord with the word of the cross, which is "stupidity indeed to those who are perishing, yet to us who are being saved it is the power of God." It is a method designed to insure that no flesh at all shall be boasting in God's sight. The flesh fulfilled its main function when it became the means by which the Firstborn of every creature was crucified. In this, the flesh accomplished the purpose for which God had created it, but how could God take pleasure in that which willfully murdered the Son of His love? From the very beginning the flesh has followed the way of Cain, which sought and encompassed the murder of righteous Abel, and Abel, though dying, continues, by his very name which means "Vanity," to testify to the worthlessness of all fleshly endeavor.

Inherently, the flesh possesses features which provoke enmity. Even the flesh of the Lord Jesus, without sin though it was, had such an effect, for it constituted a barrier between Israel and the nations, the Circumcision and the Uncircumcision (Eph.2:11-18). The word of the cross removes this barrier and destroys the enmity, for on the cross the flesh is seen as crucified. Thus peace is effected. If we regard ourselves as "being crucified together with Christ" (Rom.6:6; Gal.2:20), then we shall no longer be knowing Him "according to flesh" (2 Cor.5: 16), but according to spirit where fleshly distinctions cannot obtain (Gal. 3:28).

The eighth chapter of Romans presents the present position quite clearly, and puts the flesh in its proper place. It is "sin's flesh" (v.3), and "God sending His own Son in the likeness of sin's flesh and concerning sin, condemns sin in the flesh, that the just requirement of the law may be fulfilled in us, who are not walking in accord with flesh, but in accord with spirit."

The apostle then goes on to explain the difference between flesh and spirit, showing that the former, having a disposition which is at enmity to God, produces only death, while the latter produces life and peace. Those who are in the flesh are not able to please God, but those who are being led by God's Spirit, these are sons of God, and enjoyers of an allotment from God, and joint enjoyers of Christ's allotment.

Though God's method of choosing those who are to be of His ecclesia may seem stupid to worldly minds, we should have no fears or doubts about His wisdom. One of the hymns we sometimes sing begins, " I know not why God's wondrous grace to me He has made known." The answer lies in the wisdom of God, which decrees that no flesh should be able to boast in His sight, and in the provision which He has made to make up our deficiencies. For we of God "are in Christ Jesus, Who became to us wisdom from God, besides righteousness and holiness and deliverance, that according as it is written, He who is boasting, in the Lord let him be boasting" (1 Cor.1:30-31).

The point should now be quite clear in our minds that the ecclesia of which we are writing is not of the flesh, although it may be chosen from those who were at one time in the flesh (Eph. 2:1-3). In Christ all fleshly designations vanish, for in Him "there is no Jew nor yet Greek, there is no slave nor yet free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal.3:28).

THE ECCLESIA IN EPHESIANS

Thus the way is prepared for the Ephesian revelation of the ecclesia as the body of Christ, with its further definition as "the complement of the One completing the all in all." For in this epistle, the ecclesia is chosen in Christ before the disruption of the world, that is, before ever the flesh came into being at all, and before sin existed. Therefore it cannot in any way be a product of "sin's flesh," since it is quite distinct from both components of this phrase—sin and flesh. On the contrary, its characteristics are righteousness and spirit. It is holy and flawless in God's sight.

The ecclesia, in Ephesians, is seen to be an essential factor in the outworking of God's purpose, being designated beforehand "for the laud of His glory." It is initiated into "the secret of His will," namely, "to have an administration of the complement of the eras, to head up all in the Christ—both that in the heavens and that in the earth." It is made aware of the fact that its lot was cast in Christ; that is to say, that wherever Christ is, the ecclesia will be found to be associated with Him. This was hinted at in Paul's earliest letters, those to the Thessalonians: "Thus shall we always be together with the Lord" (1 Thess.4:17). It was enlarged upon in the middle letters: "Now if we died together with Christ, we believe that we shall be living together with Him also" (Rom.6:8). But only in the prison letters does the thought blossom into full fruitage: "In Him in Whom our lot was cast also, being designated beforehand according to the purpose of the One Who is operating all in accord with the counsel of His will, that we should be for the laud of His glory, who are pre-expectant in the Christ" (Eph.1:11,12).

The allotment of the ecclesia in Christ is clearly of a celestial nature. That is why we are blessed "with every spiritual blessing among the celestials, in Christ" (Eph.1:3). "Our realm is inherent in the heavens" (Phil.3:20). It belongs there. Hence we should "be disposed to that which is above, not to that on the earth" (Col.3:2). Our future work will be among the celestials, for it is among them that we shall be displaying God's grace in the oncoming eons (Eph.2:6,7). Even now we are in the process of being used to make known "to the sovereignties and the authorities among the celestials...the multifarious wisdom of God," and this, be it noted, is "in accord with the purpose of the eons" (Eph.3:10,11).

Thus we see that God's "purpose of the eons" is definitely linked with the ecclesia, for this is the only occurrence in Scripture of this phrase. What part, then, does the ecclesia have in the purpose of God? We hope to pursue this theme in later studies, and to show that the role of the ecclesia in this purpose of the eons is secondary only to that of Christ Himself, to which it is complementary.

In the meantime, let us remember that it is the purpose of One Who is operating all according to the counsel of His will. Seven times in Ephesians is the ecclesia linked with the glory of God, Who Himself has an allotment among the saints (Eph.1:18). The outworking of His purpose will most certainly assure Him of lasting glory in the ecclesia and in Christ Jesus. Amen.


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