“Church” and Semantic Range
Our topic assumes the church exists and is referred to in God’s Word—the Bible. In fact, from the pages of the New Testament we can identify that which is known as the church, as well as how and when it came into being in the first century (Mat. 16:18; Acts 2:47; 5:11; 8:1-3; 1 Tim. 3:15; etc.). Nonetheless, there is much misunderstanding when it comes to the concept of church as the nursery rhyme, “Here’s the church, and here’s the steeple, Open the door and see all the people,” well demonstrates. Throughout the years church has been referred to as an “organism,” an “organization,” an “assembly,” and an “institution.” The fact is, all these terms can refer to the concept of church.
After all, an organism is the whole made up of related parts; an organization is a group of people organized for a purpose; an assembly is the coming together of individuals to form a whole, having a purpose; an institution is an organization or group gathered together for public, social, or religious purposes. We can readily see that one word, such as church, may allude to several different concepts (rarely at the same time). Concepts are ideas represented by words, and words are vehicles of thought. Words often change meaning over time, while spiritual concepts remain static. God revealed certain ideas through the use of words, but these concepts are eternal, being in the mind of the eternal God (Eph. 3:10-11). Words are subject to change, but these concepts, which they describe, are static and/or eternal.
It is clear, then, that defining the word church is a bit more complex than merely relying on its lexical, etymological, and contextual perspectives because words comprise the social nature of human language. While these aspects are important to know, so is the word’s “semantic range,” which means knowing how people have used a particular word elsewhere. For instance, in the 1980s, knowing the lexical, etymological, and contextual components of bad could not assist my understanding, being unaware of how it was being used. Bad evolved, being used to mean “good,” “hip,” “cool,” or “awesome.” The lexical, etymological, and contextual aspects, were of no real value to me because this was unclear to me. A football player might be referred to as bad because he was actually a great player, or a song was said to be bad, but it was actually popular and well liked. Therefore, the semantic range of bad was greater than the lexical, etymological, and contextual meaning, because bad was used differently than how I understood it.
Gay well illustrates a word having more than one concept due to word usage. Moreover, some tell us that while knowing a word’s lexical definition and etymology is important, context is what really matters in defining a particular word. While context is king in determining a word’s meaning, it is not everything. A word is not a blank canvas for one to apply his or her preconceived colors and shades of meaning. Regarding semantic range and context, E.D. Hirsch states:
It is sometimes said that “meaning is determined by context,” but this is a very loose way of speaking. It is true that the surrounding text or the situation in which a problematical word sequence is found tends to narrow the meaning probabilities for that particular word sequence; otherwise, interpretation would be hopeless. And it is a measure of stylistic excellence in an author that he should have managed to formulate a decisive context for any particular word sequence within his text. But this is certainly not to say that context determines verbal meaning. At best a context determines the guess of an interpreter (though his construction of the context may be wrong, and his guess correspondingly so). To speak of context as a determinant is to confuse an exigency of interpretation with an author’s determining acts. An author’s verbal meaning is limited by linguistic possibilities but is determined by his actualizing and specifying some of those possibilities (47-48).
In other words, there are times when the context may not be able to assist our understanding of a text, especially if a particular word is not being used in the socially approved or conventional manner. Therefore, while context is generally king in determining word meaning, what really drives the meaning is the way the author uses the word within a particular framework of thought. Consider the context as King Louis XVI and the semantic range (word usage) as the people storming the Bastille. “King Context,” followed by his lexical and etymological entourage, have the rule and authority over a word, until the people speak, capturing it and using it for their own purposes. How people use a word at a given time can have the final say in the matter. Scholar Daniel Wallace says it this way:
Often linguists say that the word being examined should have the meaning of “X” with “X” being only what one can determine from the context. But this is an unreasonable demand on any word. If every word in a given utterance had the meaning “X” then we simply could not figure out what any utterance ever meant.
Without getting deep into its history, church reaches back to the Greek word kuriakos, meaning “of the Lord” or “pertaining to the Lord” (Perschbacher 251). This concept was applied to ekklesia by various peoples over time. However, the ekklesia means “called out,” and in the Greco-Roman world, according to Josephus, typically referred to a gathering of individuals or an assembly (Arndt, Danker 303). Once again, this demonstrates how one word may have multiple concepts or ideas, not just one. Some contend ekklesia means assembly only, but that is simply a fallacy based on etymologizing. As noted previously, etymology may be helpful, but only if the writer or speaker is aware of it. Otherwise, we must rely upon the writer’s use of the word. When we consider the multiple concepts associated with ekklesia and church, we can simply, correctly, and assuredly say that they mean any group of people, having something in common—a community of Christians, submitting to Christ and His Word, regularly coming together in one place on Sundays to worship God (1 Cor.11:20; 14:23).
The church is eternal. This is the concept taught in Scripture. This concept was in the mind of our eternal God. He devised a plan to save mankind, of which the church is part:
To the intent that now the manifold wisdom of God might be made known by the church to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places, according to the eternal purpose which He accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord (Eph. 3:10-11).
As noted previously, the church refers to Christians. In describing these people, Peter writes: “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9).
Here we see the overlap of church and ekklesia. These people belong to the Lord (Rom. 14:8; 1 Cor. 3:23), having been called by God through His Gospel (2 The. 2:14). The called out (ekklesia) are of Christ (kuriakos) since He purchased them with His blood (Acts 20:28), having died for them (Eph. 5:23-25, 32).
The church of the New Testament is often described by various metaphors or figures of speech. For instance, in Ephesians, alone, an epistle exalting the church, Paul refers to it as a body (1:22-23); one new man (2:15); fellow citizens, household or family (2:19); building and temple (2:21); habitation of God (2:22); saints (4:12); kingdom (5:5) and as a bride (5:25-27, 32). The New Testament is replete with such metaphors describing the church. However, one metaphor has tremendous significance, relating directly to the rule of God, and that is kingdom. In his debate with Ben Bogard in 1938, dealing with the establishment of the church, N. B. Hardeman stated:
The kingdom, friends, has always existed, and let’s get some things about it that will help us to understand it. It existed in Purpose, in the mind of God; it existed next in Promise, as delivered unto the patriarchs, and it existed in Prophecy; and then it existed in Preparation; and last of all, when the New Testament went into effect, it existed in Perfection (178).
A kingdom is associated with authority and dominion, ruled by its sovereign king. There is no such thing as a kingdom without a king and vice versa. Ferguson makes the following observation:
In Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, the primary meaning of “kingdom” is “kingship,” that is, royal power of kingly rule. The words more often refer to the “reign” than to the “realm” in which the rule is exercised, to the dominion rather than the domain (19).
We read in Daniel how God took Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom away from him, but what He actually took was his kingship—his authority and rule (Dan. 4:30-31). While the concept of kingdom necessarily involves physical, geographical aspects, it is the concept of kingship and exercise of authority that is under consideration. Jesus affirms this concept, saying, “the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:20-21).
As Daniel, Jesus addresses the abstract characteristic of the kingdom, its spiritual nature. The kingdom of God is within a person, where God rules the heart by means of His Word. This same idea is described by the Hebrews writer: “I will put My laws in their mind and write them on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people” (Heb. 8:10; 10:16; cf. Jer. 31:33).
This figure of speech contemplates God’s rule over the heart or mind (the intellect)—the inward man—quite simply, God’s influence through His Word. God is said to put His law in minds, writing it on hearts, the very same way He draws people to Christ:
No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day. It is written in the prophets, “And they shall all be taught by God.” Therefore everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to Me (John 6:44-45).
This drawing, putting, and writing does not occur supernaturally and directly, but through the process of teaching, hearing, and learning. Through this process the kingdom is said to be within an individual, influencing and ruling the inward man. The Parable of the Sower is fundamental in understanding that only two are involved in this process: (1) God’s Word (seed) and (2) Good Soil or “good heart” (Luke 8:11-15). God provides the seed, designed to appeal and influence the mind but the individual, having a good heart, must provide the proper response. Of this kind of individual, Jesus says: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, For they shall be filled” (Mat. 5:6). The apostle Paul explains the entire process this way:
How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, Who bring glad tidings of good things!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed our report?” So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God (Rom. 10:14-17).
God does not work directly and supernaturally writing His law on the heart as Calvinism teaches. God’s power to save has always been by the Gospel, which one must hear, believe, and obey (Rom. 10:14-17; 1:16-17; cf. Acts 2:41; Jam. 1:21). Moreover, concerning the Jews, Paul writes: “being ignorant of God’s righteousness,” they sought to “establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God” (Rom. 10:3). Christ replaced Moses; i.e., the Gospel replaced the Law of Moses (7:1-6), but the Jews continued teaching circumcision was necessary for justification binding it upon the Gentiles. This teaching, of course, was not part of the Gospel, not even being mentioned (Acts 15:24). In fact, Christ was the “completion of the law for righteousness to everyone [Jew and Gentile] who believes” (Rom. 10:4; 1:16; cf. Gal. 3:19-28).
The Law terminated at the death of Christ (Rom. 10:5; Eph. 2:15; Col. 2:14). The Law, serving as a guide in bringing the Jews to Christ, was until Christ (Gal. 3:19-24). When the faith (Gospel) came, they were no longer under that guide—the Law (3:25). The faith (New Testament) came after the death of Christ, the testator (Heb. 9:15-17), removing the Law and the necessity of circumcision. Concerning Deuteronomy 30:11-14, Paul continues showing how the inspired instruction of Moses was not difficult to understand and obey. His message was explained at its revealing, and the Jews did not need to go elsewhere for further explanation or wait for Divine illumination (Rom. 10:6-7). Paul writes: “‘The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart’ (that is, the word of [the] faith which we preach)” (10:8). Paul provides a New Testament application here, demonstrating that we also have the ability to understand the faith without some imagined need for a direct operation of the Holy Spirit on our minds (Divine Illumination). Unaided and without Divine manipulation of our minds, we are able to understand that which is written (Eph. 3:4), and our understanding allows the message to influence our hearts in obedience (2:5-16; cf. Psa. 119:11). As has always been the case, therefore, the King rules His kingdom (citizens) through His Word, the seed of His kingdom, which is His body—the church (Eph. 1:22-23; 4:4).
While church and kingdom do not carry the same lexical meaning, when it comes to semantic range (word usage) within the New Testament, they are synonymous—different expressions for the same institution. For instance, Jesus told His apostles He would build His church, then one verse later said, “And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Mat. 16:18-19). Here we see the synonymous relationship between church and kingdom.
The kingdom is the prominent theme of the Gospel accounts. John the Baptizer came, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (3:2). Jesus began His ministry saying “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (4:17), and did so for the remainder of His ministry, even when instituting the Lord’s Supper on the night before His crucifixion: “Assuredly, I say to you, I will no longer drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God” (Mark 14:25).
One of the criminals, hanging on a cross next to Jesus, pointed to a time yet future of Christ’s kingdom saying, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). Coincidently, the kingdom or church was never established during the earthly life of Christ, but we also note that at His Final Coming He will deliver the kingdom back to the Father (1 Cor. 15:24). Therefore, the establishment of the kingdom or church, must be at a time after Christ’s Resurrection and before His final return. However, we know the bread and “fruit of the vine” (Lord’s Supper) were shared among the first century Christians (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 11:23-27); so we are getting closer to identifying when the kingdom or church was established.
Now we focus our attention on some Old Testament passages to see what they teach concerning the kingdom. The first passage we note is the predictive promise God gave to David: “I will set up your seed after you, who will come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom.… Your throne shall be established forever” (2 Sam. 7:12-16).
One from David’s lineage would be a King, ruling over His own kingdom forever, but He would not rule over David’s kingdom, physical Israel. Of course, we know Jesus is of the lineage of David (Rom. 1:3), and it was known before His birth He would be given the throne of David (Psa. 16:8-11; Acts 2:30; cf. Luke 1:32).
Related to the spiritual nature of the kingdom (Luke 17:20-21; John 18:36), is the concept of a “spiritual Israel,” which, of course, is the “Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16). This Israel was comprised of those who were not to regard “circumcision” as anything (6:15-16). They were the “Jerusalem from above” (4:26), also called the “children of promise” who were “born of the Spirit” (4:28). They were the “sons of God through [the] faith of Christ Jesus” upon being “baptized into Christ” (3:26-27). They were a people no longer under the authority of the Law of Moses, but they are under the authority of Christ and the faith or Gospel (3:25). They are referred to as “the churches of Galatia” (1:2). This was the spiritual Israel, which was during the first century.
The prophet Daniel interpreted king Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, which envisioned four world empires: the head of gold represented Babylon, the breast and arms of silver represented Medo-Persia, the belly and thighs of bronze represented Greece, and legs and feet of iron and clay represented Rome. Daniel provides an unmistakable starting point since he identifies Babylon, represented by the head of gold, as the first of the four world empires revealed. Daniel then speaks of an indestructible kingdom that would stand forever:
And in the days of these kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed; and the kingdom shall not be left to other people; it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand forever (Dan. 2:44).
It is here indicated as to when this kingdom would be set up: “in the days of these kings,” which was the fourth empire, Rome. Moreover, in Daniel 7, we are informed of the specific time when the “Son of man” would receive “dominion and glory and a kingdom”: when “Coming with the clouds of heaven! He came to the Ancient of Days” (7:13-14). When read carefully, we see the “Son of Man” ascending “with the clouds of heaven” to the Father (the “Ancient of Days”). David declared that the “King of glory” who is the “Lord of hosts” would enter through the “everlasting doors” as King of His kingdom (Psa. 24:7-10).
Regarding the Christ, the prophet Zechariah tells us He would rule from His throne and would do so as a priest (Zec. 6:12-13). While He was a priest (Heb. 3:1), He could not serve as priest on earth (8:4). After His resurrection when He was given Rule, He would become a priest—“High priest over the house of God” (10:19-21). Jesus could not serve as King and priest until after His resurrection (See Jer. 22:28-30 and Mat. 1:11-13). Regarding the house of God, we know it is the church (1 Tim. 3:15) and according to Isaiah this house would be established in Jerusalem, where the law, the Word of God, would be proclaimed (Isa. 2:2-4). Related to this, Jesus said some would not die till they witnessed the kingdom come with power (Mark 9:1). Moreover, Jesus told His apostles to wait in Jerusalem until they were endued with power from on High (Luke 24:49). The apostles were in Jerusalem where they were baptized in the Holy Spirit, receiving miraculous power from the Spirit, which made them His apostles (Acts 1:4-5, 8; 2:1-4). It was at this time, the apostles preached the first New Testament message of Christ, offering salvation through the name or authority of Jesus (2:38). It was on Pentecost that Peter proclaimed Christ’s kingship and rule (2:22-36).
There is no mistaking the fact that the kingdom came with power on Pentecost, and from Jerusalem the law of the Lord went forth. It was also on Pentecost the church was established (2:47; 5:11). At the time of his letter to the Colossians, Paul tells us that church was in existence (Col. 1:18) but that the brethren had been “delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love” (1:13). Finally, John writes, saying that he was in the kingdom with those to whom he was writing (Rev. 1:9). When we put all of this information together (Psa. 119:160), we easily see the church and the kingdom are synonymous, having both begun on Pentecost.
All Scripture quotations are from the New King James Version unless otherwise indicated.
Arndt, William F., Frederick William Danker, and Walter Bauer. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.
Ferguson, Everett. The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996.
Hardeman, Nicholas Brodie, Ben M. Bogard, and L. O. Sanderson. Hardeman-Bogard Debate, Held at Little Rock, Arkansas, April 19-22, 1938, between N.B. Hardeman … and Ben M. Bogard. Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate, 1938.
Hirsch, E. D., Jr. Validity in Interpretation. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1967. 47-48.
Perschbacher, Wesley J. The New Analytical Greek Lexicon. 11th ed. April, 2010. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1990.
Wallace, Daniel B. Lexical Fallacies by Linguistics. 16 Apr. 2018.