Did the Church really begin at Pentecost? If so, who is the church in the wilderness that was at Mt. Sinai? This is another foundational teaching and concept that, if the church could see it, has the potential to begin the full restoration of the people of God. We cannot emphasize enough how important it is for the believer to read and grasp this truth:
The church did NOT begin in the new testament at Pentecost, it began at Mt. Sinai with the giving of the Torah in the old testament.
And it is clearly stated in the Bible once we remove the filter and the bias of most English Bible translations, and get back to the original Hebrew and Greek languages in which the Bible was written.
We get our title Who is the Church in the Wilderness? from Acts 7:38:
This is he, that was in the church in the wilderness with the angel which spake to him in the mount Sinai, and with our fathers: who received the lively oracles to give unto us. Acts 7:38 KJV
The word church used in Acts comes from the same underlying Greek word as we find in other New Testament passages, like Matthew 18:15-17:
Now if your brother sins against you, go correct him between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take with you in addition one or two others, so that by the testimony of two or three witnesses every matter may be established. And if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses to listen to the church also, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
First note that Jesus (Yeshua in Hebrew) commands His disciples to follow the law of the Old Testament! When He says to take additional witnesses, He is quoting from the Torah in passages like Deuteronomy 17:6 and 19:15, and Numbers 35:30.
Second, note that if the brother still refuses to listen, the church is to treat him as a Gentile. But most think that Jesus came to start a new religion, to abandon the Jews, and to go after the Gentiles instead, right? Click to read Did Jesus abolish the law? and One law for Jews & another for Gentiles? if you have not already read these teachings and believe that Jesus came to form a new religion.
In total, depending on which English version you use, the word church appears around 110 times in 105 verses in the new testament. It is translated from the Greek work ekklesia (pronounced ek-lay-see-ah). Ekklesia appears in the Greek new testament 114 times in 111 verses.
You may not have known this, but the Bible was not written in English, it was originally written in Hebrew and Greek, with a few passages in Aramaic.
So we need to look at both words—church and ekklesia–in order to understand what we are reading about in our English translations of the Bible.
Let’s start with church. Here’s what Wikipedia says as referenced from Online Etymology Dictionary:
The English language word “church” is from the Old English word cirice, derived from West Germanic *kirika, which in turn comes from the Greek κυριακή kuriakē, meaning “of the Lord” (possessive form of κύριος kurios “ruler” or “lord”). Kuriakē in the sense of “church” is most likely a shortening of κυριακὴ οἰκία kuriakē oikia (“house of the Lord“) or ἐκκλησία κυριακή ekklēsia kuriakē (“congregation of the Lord“). Christian churches were sometimes called κυριακόν kuriakon (adjective meaning “of the Lord”) in Greek starting in the 4th century, but ekklēsia and βασιλική basilikē were more common.
Don’t worry about not being able to read the foreign languages; the important points are in bold. Church is not a word found in the original languages of the Bible, it is an Old English word derived from West Germanic that comes from a Greek word that means ‘of the Lord’ or ‘Master.’ And the word that would eventually become church wasn’t used to describe believers until ‘starting in the 4th century’ [AD/CE]. And even then it was a less commonly used term than ekklesia and basilike.
So when we use the term church to translate the original Greek word ekklesia in the new testament, we’re really engaging in circular reasoning or eisegesis (the process of interpreting a text or portion of text in such a way that the process introduces one’s own presuppositions, agendas, or biases into and onto the text).
That is a lot of big words to say that when the translators of the early English versions of our Bible went to translate the original Greek into English, they were Christians who had been steeped in the traditions of the Catholic Church for at least 600 years. And so instead of simply translating what ekklesia means—an assembly or congregation—they interpreted the word for us by inserting the concept of the church.
Now please do not misunderstand us or jump to conclusions, our problem is not with the translators understanding that most (but not all) new testament occurrences of ekklesia as referring to the body of believers—that is indeed what the context of those verses indicates.
Our problem is that they did so by using a different word than the words already used 100 times in the old testament, thereby creating an artificial distinction between the assembly of God’s people in the old testament from the assembly of God’s people in the new testament. The implications of this decision are enormous as we will see.
The Septuagint (pronounced sep-two-uh-jint and often abbreviated as LXX) is the Greek translation of the Old Testament. It was translated sometime around the third to second centuries BCE and it’s often what the new testament writers are quoting from when they quote the old testament.
Ekklesia is used in the Septuagint 100 times in 96 verses. It is translated into English almost exclusively as assembly or congregation.
It is never translated with the English word church. Never. Not a single time.
This is important. Did you catch that? The Greek word ekklesia is used 100 times in the old testament in the Greek translation called the Septuagint. The same exact Greek word–ekklesia–is used 114 times in the new testament. Yet, when it came time for translators to translate these same words into English translations of the old and new testaments, they translated it as the English word church in all but a few verses out of 105+ verses in the new testament, but translated it as church zero times in the old testament!
Why? It’s the same word.
The answer is that the translators decided for us that the people of God in the old testament who were saved by Yahweh’s grace through faith are different than the people of God in the new testament who were saved by Yahweh’s grace through faith. Read that again and think about it.
The Greek manuscripts of both the old and new testaments use the same word, but the English translators many centuries later decided for the rest of us that there is a difference between Yahweh’s people whom He chooses. In fact, the terms old and new testaments are man-made terms as well.
Again, to be clear, we would be fine with them using a single word–either assembly or church–consistently in both testaments. Our problem is that the use of the two different words creates the distinct impression that these are two different groups of people.
And yet as we discuss in other teachings, the people of God in the old testament were made up of both native-born Israelites and a ‘mixed-multitude’ of resident foreigners who were faithful to Yahweh the God of Israel; and the people of God in the new testament were made up of native-born Israelites (mostly of the house of Judah i.e. Jews) and a ‘mixed-multitude’ of foreigners (Greeks i.e. Gentiles) who were faithful to Yahweh the God of Israel.
There is no spiritual distinction made in either testament between the native-born and the foreigner who chooses to be faithful to Yahweh.
Let’s continue with our look at ekklesia and see if it’s true that the church started in the old testament. The first time it is used is in Deuteronomy 4:10:
Remember the day that you stood before Yahweh your God at Horeb when Yahweh said to me, ‘Summon for me the people so that I can tell them my words, that they may learn to fear me all of the days they are alive on the earth and so that they may teach their children.’ And so you came near, and you stood under the mountain, and the mountain was burning with fire up to the heart of the heaven, dark with a very thick cloud. And Yahweh spoke to you from the midst of the fire; you heard a sound of words, but you did not see a form—only a voice. And he declared to you his covenant, the Ten Commandments, which he charged you to observe, and he wrote them on the two tablets of stone. And Yahweh charged me at that time to teach you rules and regulations for your observation of them in the land that you are about to cross into to take possession of it. Deuteronomy 4:10–14
Here is the scene: Moses has assembled the people of Israel as they are preparing to cross over the Jordan River to enter the Promised Land of Israel. He is recounting the 40-year history of their travels in the wilderness as part of the exodus from Egypt. The first generation has died off in the wilderness and Moses is restating the covenant to the second generation so that they can enter into it as their parents had done at Mt. Sinai. He is retelling the story of Yahweh giving the 10 Commandments to them as part of the covenant.
Summon is the verb form of the Hebrew word qhal (pronounced k-haul, rhymes with the mall) and the Greek word ekklesia.
This is verse 10 in the Lexham English Septuagint, an English translation of the Greek Septuagint:
the day when you stood before the Lord our God at Horeb, the day of the assembly, when the Lord said to me, ‘Gather the people to me and let them hear my words that they may learn to fear me all the days that they live on the land, and you shall teach their sons.’
Here we have both the noun and the verb form of ekklesia. The noun form is translated as assembly and the verb form as gather.
The Greek word ekklesia—translated 100+ times in the new testament as church—is translated 100 times in the old testament as assembly or congregation to refer to the Israelites, God’s chosen people whom He redeemed and made the promises to and covenants with.
So Deuteronomy 4:10 could be translated as:
the day when you stood before the Lord our God at Horeb, the day of the church, when the Lord said to me, ‘Gather the people to me and let them hear my words that they may learn to fear me all the days that they live on the land, and you shall teach their sons.’
What does any of this matter to you? It matters because words are powerful, they shape the way we think about things.
What would be the impact on us if we read 100 times in the old testament that the church was redeemed out of Egypt and the church was gathered together before Yahweh to receive His holy instructions and the church was given the promised land of Israel and the church was to ‘remember the Sabbath to keep it holy’ and the church was to make a distinction between clean and unclean animals and the church was not to learn the way that the nations worshiped their gods but were to separate the holy from the profane and ‘be holy as Yahweh is holy’?
And then we turned the next page into the gospel of Matthew and read that the Messiah that was promised to the church of the old testament had finally come!
Israel is called the church in the wilderness in Acts 7:38; if your English translation translates ekklesia as church in this passage. But most do not because they either do not make the connection that Israel has always been the redeemed people of God, or they are intentionally making the connection obscure because of their bias against Israel and in favor of what they consider to be a Gentile ‘church.’
The Church in the Old Testament
Let’s take a more in depth look at our Mt. Sinai event to see what we can learn about the church in the old testament. Moses is recalling what took place in Exodus 19. It is ‘the third month after the Israelites went out from the land of Egypt.’ Recall from our teaching One law for Jews & another for Gentiles? who was included as part of Israel:
The Egyptians urged the people, to send them out of the land in haste, for they said, “We will all be dead”…Now the sons of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, aside from children. A mixed multitude also went up with them, along with flocks and herds, a very large number of livestock. Exodus (Shemot) 12:33ff
For the congregation (ekklesia in Greek) there shall be one rule for you (the Israelite) and for the resident foreigner (Gentile) who is living among you; it is an eternal rule throughout your generations. There will be one law and one rule for you (the Israelite) and the resident foreigner (Gentile) who is living among you. Numbers (Bamidbar) 15:13-16
So all Israel—the church in the wilderness per Acts 7:38—is camped at the foot of Mt. Sinai. Then we see this:
And Moses went up to God, and Yahweh called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus you will say to the house of Jacob and you will tell the Israelites, ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and I brought you to me. And now if you will carefully listen to my voice and keep my covenant, you will be a treasured possession for me out of all the peoples, for all the earth is mine, but you, you will belong to me as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you will speak to the Israelites.” Exodus (Shemot) 19:3-6
Who is Yahweh’s treasured possession, kingdom of priests, and holy nation? Israel.
And who is included in Israel? Those who listen to His voice and keep His covenant—whether native-born or resident foreigner.
Isn’t that exactly what we read in the new testament?
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s possession, so that you may proclaim the virtues of the one who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light, who once were not a people, but now are the people of God, the ones who were not shown mercy, but now are shown mercy.
Dear friends, I urge you as foreigners and temporary residents to abstain from fleshly desires which wage war against your soul, maintaining your good conduct among the Gentiles, so that in the things in which they slander you as evildoers, by seeing your good deeds they may glorify God on the day of visitation. 1 Peter 2:9–12
As we often say, there is not two covenants–one for the Israelite and one for the Gentile. There is one. There are only two people groups in the world–God’s people, whom He calls Israel; and not God’s people, whom He calls Gentiles (goyim in Hebrew, i.e. the nations).
These foreigners and temporary residents Peter is addressing have chosen to be faithful to Yahweh the God of Israel and His Messiah, and so they are no longer Gentiles, they are Israel.
Paul says it this way:
Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, the so-called uncircumcision by the so-called circumcision in the flesh, made by hands, that you were at that time apart from Christ, alienated from the citizenship of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, not having hope, and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you, the ones who once were far away, have become near by the blood of Christ. Ephesians 2:11–13
You are either Gentiles and thus strangers to the covenants of promise, or you are a part of the citizenship of Israel.
Let’s continue in Exodus 19:
And Yahweh said to Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow. They must wash their clothes, and they must be prepared for the third day, because on the third day, Yahweh will go down on Mount Sinai before the eyes of all the people. Exodus (Shemot) 19:10-11
And on the third day, when it was morning, there was thunder and lightning, and a heavy cloud over the mountain and a very loud ram’s horn sound, and all the people who were in the camp trembled. And Moses brought the people out from the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. And Mount Sinai was all wrapped in smoke because Yahweh went down on it in the fire, and its smoke went up like the smoke of a smelting furnace, and the whole mountain trembled greatly. And the sound of the ram’s horn became louder and louder, and Moses would speak, and God would answer him with a voice. Exodus (Shemot) 19:16-19
And so now the scene is set for the giving of the 10 Commandments whereby Yahweh enters into covenant with His people—His treasured possession, kingdom of priests, and holy nation–Israel.
And God spoke all these words, saying, “I am Yahweh, your God, who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of slaves.
“There shall be for you no other gods before me.
“You shall not make for yourself a divine image with any form that is in the heavens above or that is in the earth below or that is in the water below the earth. You will not bow down to them, and you will not serve them, because I am Yahweh your God, a jealous God, punishing the guilt of the parents on the children on the third and on the fourth generations of those hating me, and showing loyal love to thousands of generations of those loving me and keeping my commandments.
“You shall not misuse the name of Yahweh your God, because Yahweh will not leave unpunished anyone who misuses his name.
“Remember the day of the Sabbath, to keep it holy. Six days you will work, and you will do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath for Yahweh your God; you will not do any work—you or your son or your daughter, your male slave or your female slave, or your animal, or the resident foreigner who is in your gates—because in six days Yahweh made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and on the seventh day he rested. Therefore Yahweh blessed the seventh day and consecrated it.
“Honor your father and your mother, so that your days can be long on the land that Yahweh your God is giving you.
“You shall not murder.
“You shall not commit adultery.
“You shall not steal.
“You shall not testify against your neighbor with a false witness.
“You shall not covet the house of your neighbor; you will not covet the wife of your neighbor or his male servant or his female servant or his ox or his donkey or anything that is your neighbor’s.”
And all the people were seeing the thunder and the lightning and the sound of the ram’s horn and the mountain smoking, and the people saw, and they trembled, and they stood at a distance. And they said to Moses, “You speak with us, and we will listen, but let not God speak with us, lest we die.” And Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you so that his fear will be before you so that you do not sin.” And the people stood at a distance, and Moses approached the very thick cloud where God was. Exodus (Shemot) 20:1-21
It is this assembly that is called the church in the wilderness in Acts 7:38. It is the ekklesia of God.
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