As I mentioned several weeks ago, the word “church” rarely occurs in the Gospels. The English word shows up five times, all in Matthew’s Gospel. Twice (18:15 and 18:21) is is used to expand the gendered Greek word for brother to “member of the church.” The other three occurrences (16:18 and twice in 18:17) are direct translations of the Greek word ekklesia, which generically meant an assembly or a gathering of people. When I read this word in Matthew’s Gospel, my very faint Biblical criticism streak begins to show, and I wonder, if only for a moment, if these are really authentic words from Jesus or Matthew’s later attempt to wrap the teaching of Jesus around the institution that followed his resurrection and ascension.
My first stop down the rabbit hole of ekklesia in Matthew was Metzger’s A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament 2nd ed., which showed no textual controversy on the word in 16:18. Next, I went to Ye Olde Anchor Bible Commentary on Matthew co-authored by W.F. Albright and C.S. Mann. Albright was a polymath who was well versed in archaeology and German Biblical criticism, and began the project that has become the Anchor Bible Series, now 120 volumes strong. Over his many years, his archaeological research led him to believe more and more of the scriptural story and rely less and less on historical critical reading of the Biblical narrative. Knowing that, it makes sense that his volume on Matthew would argue, “It is hard to know what kind of thinking, other than confessional presupposition, justifies the tendency of some commentators to dismiss this verse as not authentic. A Messiah without a Messianic Community would have been unthinkable to any Jew” (1971 ed., p. 195). In the end, Albright and Mann suggest that ekklesia may be the Greek translation of “kenishta, which in the Syriac versions is used for both ekklesia and synagogue” (p. 196).
I warned you this was a rabbit hole.
What does all this tell us? Well, first of all, it is a reminder that Biblical study is worth it. There are words we find in the English translations of scripture that leave us scratching our heads, wondering how and why they say what they do. It is worth the preachers time to do some digging, in order to come to better understand the meaning behind these words. It is also a warning to be wary of bringing a desired outcome to one’s study. I’d have bet a whole dollar that Matthew wedged the concept of church into his Gospel, but it seems that in the time of Jesus, the idea of an ongoing community of disciples wasn’t beyond reasonable thought. Finally, it tells us that Peter’s confession and subsequent commissioning means something. If Jesus really did think this thing would be perpetuated by a community, which it seems he did, then he needed to make plans for the future, and it was upon Peter’s declaration of Jesus as the Messiah that the institution would be built.
For those of us who continue to be a part of that ekklesia, this is the most important bit. It isn’t about keeping buildings built or salaries paid or denominational shields protected, but all of this exists for one reason only, the same reason Matthew had in mind when he translated Jesus’ words into Greek, to empower a community of faithful disciples to go and proclaim that “Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”