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A word study on 'church'
The word 'church'
The Greek word typically rendered 'church' is 'ekklesia'. It was used commonly in the first century to refer to "any duly summoned assembly".1 It was used in scripture for the 'congregation' or gathering of worshipers of Diana of the Ephesians in Acts 19:32. It was also used to refer to Israel in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the OT that Jesus and the NT writers used. It is essentially equivalent to the word 'synagogue' as well, though by the first century 'synagogue' had come to also mean the place where the assembly was held.
So the word is not used exclusively for Christians and can in fact refer to Israel. Now whenever this word appears in the Gospels, we need to verify from context whether it refers to Israel or some future and yet-unknown entity. We must keep in mind that context includes whether the words were spoken before or after the cross, especially after Pentecost.
Mat. 16:18 is the first mention of the 'church'. Jesus was not making up a new word or giving it a new meaning, since the Jews were already familiar with it as applicable not only to themselves but to any assembly for a purpose. Yet he specified that a new, future such assembly was to be built, meaning something that did not already exist.
The 'church' must also not be confused with the 'kingdom'. The kingdom of heaven encompasses all its citizens regardless of where they may 'assemble', and in fact may contain many 'assemblies' or 'churches' if you will. This is the most likely cause of confusion over various groups, ages, or congregations; they are simply various entities within the one kingdom.
Now Jesus said hell itself would never prevail over this future 'church', yet in Rev. 13:7 the beast wages war against the 'saints' and conquers them. Clearly these two verses are in contradiction unless they refer to two separate groups of Jesus' followers.
The birth of the church
In Acts 2 Peter addresses the Jews at Pentecost, telling them to "save yourselves from this corrupt generation" by repenting of having crucified their Messiah, and that those who did this would "receive the Holy Spirit". If the Jews were the same entity as the new church, then why did Peter say this to the Jews at all? Were they not already saved; since they worshiped the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? Clearly not.
Jesus had even told Nicodemus much earlier that he, a Jew before the cross, needed to be "born again", so we can't say that these Jews were only confronted by Peter due to the crucifixion; they too needed to be born again. This is a clear indication that the new church had begun, a group or entity separate from the 'church' of Israel. And never before had the Holy Spirit been promised to all members of any group. Any OT examples were individuals, and as the case with Saul, this was not guaranteed to be permanent.
So we have seen in these passages that the new, future church Jesus promised was born on Pentecost as a separate entity from Israel. Now we will see whether they remain separate in the Letters.
The identity of the church
In 1 Cor. 2 Paul mentions a "secret" he made known to the church there, one which had been "hidden" since the world began but was now being revealed. Certainly this excludes Israel by definition; in fact, Paul states explicitly that it had to be kept hidden or else the "rulers of this age" would not have crucified Jesus. He explains it for us in Rom. 11: that Israel has been "hardened until the full number of Gentiles has come in". Again, this is something never known about or seen before, something new, and something hidden from the Jews. Paul says it even more clearly in ch. 16 starting with v. 24.
There is another secret as well. In 1 Cor. 15:50-58 Paul reveals that at some future time, "We will not all die but we will all be transformed— in an instant, at the last trumpet." As a newly-revealed secret like the church itself, this is something never revealed before, something different and unforeseen by anyone, and thus not known to the Jews. It marks the end of the church age because of its finality, with death itself being ended at that moment.
This other secret has tremendous impact on the question of "the Rapture". If in fact there is no more death after this, and if it applies to all believers of all ages, then no one can account for the deaths spoken of even during and after the Millennium. The only Rapture view that would escape this is one that occurs at the end of the Millennium, which is an extreme minority view that creates more problems than it solves. So it seems most reasonable that Paul's statement about death is only made with reference to the church. And it logically follows from there that those who come to faith afterwards are not part of the church.
But Paul explains the implication of this 'secret' church in Gal. 3:26-29: in Christ there are no more distinctions, not even between Jew and Gentile. So to be in Christ is to be neither, yet still "heirs of the promise" to Abraham. And it is only after this that Paul goes back to lament the Galatians' return to Judaism— a very strange thing to say if instead we are all absorbed into Israel. In ch. 4 he elaborates on things the people had overlooked concerning the two lines of descendants from Abraham. Then in 5:18 he states in unmistakable terms that to be lead by the Spirit is to be not under law; they are mutually exclusive. This point is given in different terms in 6:15 as well.
In Eph. 2:11-18 Paul says that through Jesus the two groups— Jew and Gentile— were made one when Jesus tore down the wall between them. Yet this no more makes Gentiles into Jews than it does Jews into Gentiles. And again Paul speaks of the 'secret' in ch. 3, one which was never revealed before: that Gentiles would be joint heirs of the Promise. He continues on to emphasize the unity of the two, yet it is only in Christ, not in Abraham.
And yet again in ch. 5, Paul says that the relationship between Christ and the church is the 'secret' revealed to him, showing once more that there is something unique about this unified Jew/Gentile entity that is not what either of them were before. As he put it in 2 Cor. 5:17, we are "a new creation".
In Colossians we see where the church is also called Jesus' "body".2 This is another unique term not applied to Israel. So also Jesus is the "head" of this "body", whereas the head or source of Israel is clearly Abraham. In ch. 2 Paul pointedly states that we are not to be bullied by those who try to enforce our compliance with "sabbaths" and festivals, which are integral parts of the practice of Judaism.
In 1 Thessalonians Paul reiterates what he told the Corinthians about our future transformation. Ch. 4 vs. 13-18 is in the context of encouragement about deliverance, not steeling themselves for suffering, as would be the case if Paul were teaching that the church must suffer through what Jesus had called "a time of trouble never seen before and never to be seen again". He continues into ch. 5 with more detail about "the Day of the Master" coming suddenly, but that the church is not to be caught off-guard. Paul states explicitly that we, the church, are not to endure that time of God's wrath. This once again distinguishes the church from Israel; Daniel's 'seventy weeks' prophecy states that one of the purposes of the judgment is to purify the nation of Israel. It is impossible for a single entity to be both appointed and not appointed to suffer the wrath of God. Paul gives more detail about this time of wrath in 2 Thes.
In 2nd Timothy 4:8 Paul talks about a "crown of righteousness… to all who have longed for His appearing." Since the church of Paul's day could hope for this crown, and since Paul himself was absolutely sure that he had earned it, and since the Tribulation clearly was not in progress even though Christians were suffering persecution, then the only logical conclusion to draw is that they were hoping for the Departure (a direct translation from the Greek, while Rapture is from the Latin) even then. Nobody is told to look for the Antichrist or Beast or "son of perdition". Nobody is promised a crown for looking for the impostor. Why else would Paul "long for His return", unless he believed it could happen in his lifetime? When he wrote to Timothy he was well along in years and expected to be "poured out" soon, one way or another. Yet death is not Jesus' 'appearing' in any sense of the word.
Paul's letter to the Romans is where he elaborates on many technical issues, and in ch. 7 the topic is our relationship to the law. Since Gentiles were never under it, this applies only to Jews who become Christians. Yet they "died to the law… that they might belong to another", which relates to what was discussed earlier about the difference between the Law and the Promise. A dead person is no longer under any law, such that those who are in Christ are released from its obligations completely and permanently. No one can have half-died to the law; it's an all-or-nothing situation. Dead is dead, and Jews in Christ are dead to the law but alive to God.
The letter to the Hebrews cannot be read at all without seeing from start to finish how much was radically changed with the death and resurrection of Jesus. Chapter after chapter explains the finality and completeness of what Jesus accomplished. Above all, it shows that there is no more need for the earthly temple, no more need for sacrifices, and no more need for the Levitical priesthood. Chapter 7 in particular explains that "with a change of priesthood comes a change of law". So since Jesus is not in the old order of Levi or Aaron but Melchizedek, no part of the old law can apply to him or his church. Just as there is no such thing as being "sort of" dead, there is also no such thing as practicing "sort of" Judaism.
Beyond the church
As noted earlier, death itself is ended for the church at the moment of our transformation and "snatching up" to heaven, yet continues in the extreme for those who come to faith after this. The book of Revelation guarantees severe persecution for every Gentile believer, and death for most. Covering it in detail is beyond the scope of this writing, but for our purposes here we must note the fact that these are called 'saints', just as believers before the church were called 'saints'.
But the mere use of this word, much like 'church', does not in itself prove that the church of Spirit-indwelled believers is still on the earth during that time. In fact, not once after the 7 letters is the church mentioned at all. There are no instances of 'ekklesia' between 3:22 and 22:16, and no contextual equivalents to identify any group of believers as such. We see the nation of Israel, the 144 thousand, the nations all hating and abusing Israel, the physical Temple violated, and the Jews who see "the abomination" running to safety in the mountains to ride out the last 3-1/2 years of judgments. It's all Jews and Gentiles but no church.
Speaking of those letters to seven churches, one of them is told they would be "kept out of the time of testing coming upon the whole world". If the major criticism of the pre-tribulation Rapture view is the idea of escape or protection from the wrath of God, Jesus Himself must be all the things Rapture-believers are called, such as fearful, unprepared, and gullible. This is told by Jesus to the second-to-last church of the seven, with the final one being the "lukewarm", complacent, blind church. Perhaps this will be the one for all those who take pride in the thought of seeing the Antichrist and suffering terribly— the church that is not watching and says "My master is away for a long time". Perhaps Jesus will let them stay, if they insist.
After the Tribulation, the world will be repopulated. We are told in Isaiah 65:17-25 that people will live very long lives, such that one who dies at a hundred will be thought a mere child. Since no one believes the church will not have received their new, immortal bodies by then, who are these that are still physical and mortal? They cannot be the church by any stretch of the imagination, yet they are "a people blessed by the Lord". So even if all other scripture and evidence is discarded, we have this indisputable proof of 'saints' outside of the church.
The 'church' as commonly used is a word describing a unique entity composed of people who were born Jews or Gentiles but are now "a new creation", with a new High Priest of a new order and thus a new law. Looking over the entirety of scripture on this topic, it seems clear that though there is much unity spoken of between the groups, there is also much distinction and differentiation. All are part of the one kingdom of God, yet that kingdom has various 'communities'. All the righteous are 'saints', but not all are "adopted children of God" as John put it. There is the Bride, but also the "friends" and the "servants"; there have been the righteous before the cross and the righteous after, and then the righteous by perseverance during the judgments, as well as the survivors and their descendants.
Of course God will make it all clear when the time comes, but the point I hope to have made in this document is that words such as 'church' or 'saints' need to be seen in context. If we aren't careful we can come to erroneous conclusions; if the foundation is not right, nothing we build on it will be right. Perhaps I'm wrong too— but perhaps not. In the meantime, let us all be eager to see our Savior and willing to suffer persecution until that glorious Day. Let us throw off the "burden" of the law and instead cling to "that blessed hope", that glorious moment when the Groom arrives to "meet us in the air".