The latter half of Acts 19 relates the extraordinary story of a riot at Ephesus. A certain silversmith named Demetrius incited the people against Paul and the other believers. The true worship of God was hurting his business. The call went out to all the men of the city and they gathered for the ekklesia, usually translated church. A surprising but fair translation of Acts 19:32 might be, “So then, some were shouting one thing and some another, for the church (ekklesia) was in confusion, and the majority did not know for what cause they had come together.” To most readers, the word church seems out of place because this gathering had nothing to do with Christ. But ekklesia, translated assembly here (and in verses 39-41), is everywhere else translated as church.
Just as the word mosque identifies Islam and synagogue Judaism, the word church identifies Christianity. It is used throughout the New Testament and is often said to mean called out ones. This was, in a distinctly unspiritual context, its common usage in the Greek world. Ekklesia was used in the Greek city-states for a political gathering — the assembly of citizens who were called out from their homes to vote on legislation and transact other public business. This is clearly the meaning in Acts 19.
In itself then, the word ekklesia has no spiritual meaning. It would be like calling Christian gatherings today town meetings or public hearings. There was no word in the Greek language for a spiritual body and a spiritual gathering, so the closest term that could be found was settled on. Is church the closest we can come to it today? Ekklesia is certainly not the word the Son of God used, for He did not speak Greek. He spoke Hebrew to Paul in Acts 26:15,1 the only direct reference to the language He used.
Since He spoke Hebrew, the Master did not use the word ekklesia or church when speaking to His disciples in Matthew 16:18, but rather the word both the Law and the Prophets used to describe Israel — the edah (meaning community). It is used in many places in the Old Testament and its true sense is seen in Jeremiah 30:20, “Their children will be as in days of old, and their community will be established before Me; I will punish all who oppress them.” (NIV)
The word edah is also translated as family, assembly, congregation, people, and swarm (as a swarm of bees intent on one purpose). It is also the testimony, the witness. What was the community of Israel to give continual witness to but the faithfulness and goodness of their God in redeeming and restoring them? So the New Testament church must likewise be the living witness, the flesh and blood reality of Christ’s Body on earth. This is the spiritual meaning of the word church used in the New Covenant, of which ekklesia itself is devoid. The community, the people, and the witness of Israel (the edah) is what is being spoken of in such verses as Ephesians 2:12 (the commonwealth of Israel), and Galatians 6:16 (the Israel of God), and Acts 26:7 and James 1:1 (the twelve tribes of Israel).
The Body Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 12 has nothing to do with a political gathering (ekklesia), but everything to do with community. Just as Moses was faithful over God’s house (the twelve tribes of physical Israel), so also is Christ over His house, whose house and bride we are (the twelve tribes of spiritual Israel).2 The word community describes what the church really is, the togetherness, the common unity and the common care that all who are in Christ possess,3 in each place (city or locality) where they are gathered.4
This Community is on the rock the Master spoke of in Matthew 16:18 and Matthew 7:24-25 — the revelation of the Son of God that comes from the Holy Spirit and causes obedience to His words. As long as it remains on this foundation, He will continue to build the witness of His kingdom that must be seen before the end can come,5 and they will keep the testimony of their Savior until the end.6