Then God said, “Let the waters below the heavens be gathered into one place, and let the dry land appear”; and it was so. Genesis 1:9 NASB
Place – In Hebrew, the word translated “place” is maqom. From a root meaning “to stand,” it is fairly straightforward as far as translations go. It means some space, a particular spot, a location. There’s nothing too significant about this Hebrew word. But when it comes to the LXX translation, then things get quite interesting. In the LXX, the Greek word used to translate maqom is synagoge. Yes, that’s right. A place to stand in Greek is a synagogue. It’s a particular spot, a gathering, an assembly. The first use of the Greek word synagoge in Scripture is not about a religious gathering. It is about God’s fashioning the oceans, collecting the waters into particular spots. The first “synagogue” in Scripture didn’t have a single human being in it. It was nothing more than the vast ocean all in its proper place.
While this tidbit of linguistic information may seem cute and clever, it has further implications. It implies that the term synagoge used in the New Testament is not restricted to a religious gathering. The term simply means assembly. It doesn’t matter if the assembly is for worship or for swimming fish. This explains why the New Testament authors do not use the word synagoge when they describe the gathering of Messianic believers. The word is too loose. It could mean a synagogue, a religious gathering, but it doesn’t specifically mean this kind of gathering, as the Genesis text demonstrates. In other words, the meaning of synagoge is determined by the context, not by its inherent distinctions.
But ekklesia has a similar problem. It never means “a religious assembly” in classical Greek. However, it does mean a gathering called for a specific purpose and that is the key to its use in the New Testament. The Hebrew comparable word is qehelah, a word used in the Tanakh for the assembly of human beings for a specific purpose. The New Testament authors shy away from the loose synagoge and adopt ekklesia, but they change the meaning of ekklesia from any called-out assembly to an assembly called for the purpose of worship. They avoid synagogue by creating a new, specialized meaning for the old term ekklesia. What they have in mind is not maqom but rather qehelah.
This tells us something important. First, it tells us that ekklesia has been given a new meaning, distinct from its classical Greek sense and distinguished from the possible substitute synagogue. Second, it tells us that the use of this term must have been deliberate since these distinctions are not inherent in the language itself. Whatever the New Testament authors had in mind, they specifically avoided prior understandings of the two Greek words synagoge and ekklesia. Finally, it tells us that wherever we find ekklesia in the New Testament Greek, we must translate it according to the distinctions these authors intended. The word is unique to New Testament usage. It has one and only one meaning. Therefore, there is absolutely no warrant for translating ekklesia as “church” in some places and as “congregation” in others. Stephen’s speech is not about the “congregation” in the wilderness. It is about the ekklesia, the called-out gathering, exactly the same called-out gathering in Ephesus or Corinth or Rome. The gathering of God’s people isn’t different in the Tanakh when compared to the Brit Hadasha. God’s “church” began at Sinai and continues today. If that’s true, don’t you suppose His instructions to His people are the same now as they were then?
Topical Index: synagogue, gathering place, maqom, ekklesia, synagoge, Genesis 1:9