The “Who” of the Church
Who makes up the church, or assembly, of the Messiah? Who is the leader of this assembly?
The word “church,” at its core, simply means “assembly,” “community,” “gathering,” or “congregation.” 1 However, in both the Old and New Testaments the term does at times take on added layers of meaning in certain contexts, and, in many cases, the promises of the covenants are assumed in the background.
As part of his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, God made a number of specific promises related to these men and their “offspring” (see, e.g., Gen. 22:18). Some of these promises pertain to the nation of Israel, some pertain to the nations, and some pertain to Israel’s role as God’s instrument of blessing to the nations (cf. Jn. 4:22—“salvation is from the Jews”). God promised that from these men he would bring forth both “a great nation” (Gen. 12:2) and an “assemblage” (Gen. 35:11, LEB), “company” (ESV), or “community” (NIV) of nations, and that through Abraham and his seed/offspring all the nations of the earth would be blessed (see, e.g., Gen. 12:3, 22:18). As a result, Abraham would be both the father of Israel (see, e.g., Is. 51:2) and “the father of many nations” (Gen. 17:5, CSB). Accordingly, those whom God considers to be his faithful followers among the Jews make up the righteous Jewish “remnant” (see, e.g., Is. 10:22; Rm. 11:5) who will inherit the “great nation” promise. Those whom God considers to be his faithful followers among the nations are those who will inherit the “community of nations” promise. Together they make up one grand, intergenerational “assembly of the righteous” (Ps. 1:5) in God’s eyes. It is they whose names are registered in God’s “book,” that is, the “book of life” (see, e.g., Ex. 32:32; Ps. 69:28; Ph. 4:3; Rev. 3:5), and whom God, therefore, will spare eternal punishment, acknowledge as his own, and include in his everlasting kingdom (see, e.g., Mal. 3:17; Rev. 20:11-15). They are the ones who will be allowed to congregate in God’s presence in his kingdom when Jesus returns (see, e.g., Re. 7). Because the Creator had loyal followers both before and after the first coming of Jesus, there is a sense in which the “assembly” refers to God’s faithful, accepted followers from all time (see, e.g., Heb.12:23). They are God’s “assembly” in the big-picture, all-times and all-places sense.
At the same time, Jesus also uses the word “church” or “assembly” to refer to something that he himself would “build” in the days following his first coming (Mt. 16:18). The specific assemblies or congregations that make up Jesus’ assembly, moreover, are specifically called “churches in Christ Jesus” (1 Th. 2:14), a designation obviously impossible prior to Jesus’ arrival in the first century. These assemblies are open to both Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus, who together form “one new humanity” (Eph. 2:15; ISV, NRSV), and who have all been given the same Holy Spirit and same right of access to the Father on the basis of the same Messianic sacrifice (see Eph. 2-4). The term “church” is typically used today to denote this post-First Coming reality, in context to which Jesus, through the Spirit he has poured out, is preparing the Jewish and Gentile members of his assembly for their respective destinies as outlined in the covenants (i.e., although both Jewish and Gentile believers share in the glorious privileges and benefits of the new covenant, the new covenant does not undo their respective destinies and callings as delineated in the previous covenants [see Rom. 11:28-29], but rather qualifies and enables them to inherit and walk in them). Jesus is the leader and head of his assembly, which is his “body” and his “bride” (see, e.g., Eph. 4:12, 5:22-32; Rev. 22:17).
1 See, e.g., William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 303.