• Grace A. Johnson

The Early Christians (What is Church? Part 2)

Updated: May 15



Last week I focused on the word “church,” its origins, meaning, and original usage. This week, I want to give you some insight into what we now call “church” was in the 1st and 2nd centuries, and why/how that changed over the years. Basically, we’re going to look at the context of Hebrews 10:25.


“Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.”

Modern-day English translation—“Not forgetting to gather together at church, as a lot of church members and Christians do; but encouraging each other, and even more as Jesus’s return comes closer.”

To look at the verse in the way that it was written, you have to understand the world the early Christians, particularly the Hebrew ones, lived in. Judea was conquered by the Roman Empire (then the Roman Republic) in 1st century BC, so for one hundred years before the birth of Jesus and 476 years after, the Jewish people and the Christians all lived under Roman rule. It wasn’t until 313 AD that Rome finally accepted Christianity, so imagine, for a moment, roughly 400 years of continual, unsurpressed persecution, often wrought about in the forms of hanging, being fed alive to lions, beheading, or torture—usually for nonsensical reasons that had nothing to do with disruption or lawlessness but a mere expression of faith. From the moment of its conception—or, literally, His conception—the Christian faith was heresy, blasphemy, and treachery.

Because of this, Jewish Christians (or Messianic Jews, as they’re called today) were persecuted firstly within their own families and homes, secondly within their community, thirdly within their nation, and lastly within the empire as a whole by the Romans who tracked down every Christian they could and murdered them. The brunt of this persecution came from their Hebrew brothers.

So what did Paul mean by forsaking the assembly?

Well, we already know that he didn’t mean “church.” At this time, “church,” an Old English word, didn’t exist. Its “mother,” Circe, did. Circe was the Ancient Greek goddess of pharmakeia, sorcery and witchcraft with drugs. So...if he didn’t mean “church,” and if all the times (like in the first couple chapters of Revelation, for example) our English Bibles say “church,” that word didn’t exist, let alone mean what we think it does...what did he mean, and what word would he have used to convey it?

First things first, Hebrews was written in Hebrew, so none of the Greek, Latin, or English words used in later translations would entirely correspond, and because of this I can’t nitpick over the use of the word church since it wasn’t used at all in this particular verse. I can tell you, which I assure you I will, what “the assembling together” would have meant at this time, and which Greek word was actually used.

A 1915 edition of Gospel Advocate says:

“The word ‘Church’ is really not a translation of any word that was used by either Christ or His Apostles, but is the Anglican form of a different word which Roman Catholicism substituted in place of the word used by Christ and His Apostles… It is in our English scriptures by order of King James, who instructed his translators of 1611 not to translate the word ‘Ecclesia’ by either ‘Congregation’ or ‘Assembly’ but to use the word ‘Church’ instead of a translation.”

This pretty much sums it up, doesn’t it? Every time our Bibles say “church,” the writer in fact means “assembly,” “congregation,” or a simple gathering together of people—“Ecclesia” or “Ekklesia.” Does Ecclesia sound familiar? Well, it’s the root word of Ecclesiastes, which would mean “one who addresses the assembly.” Of course, we translate it now to mean “preacher,” but even that is an erroneous translation, as our definition of “preacher” does not align with any Greek word.

So, the Bible actually says “the congregation” or “the assembly,” which is attested to by Paul’s usage of “the assembling of ourselves together.”

But what did this look like? Is this assembly anything like our modern-day church?

Nope.

Not even a little bit.

Now, don’t start frowning. Turn those ears back on. I have plenty to back this up with, and it’s all there in the Bible. It’s the context.

In language, you have three different “texts”—text, context, and subtext. The text is exactly what you read, each individual word and the sentences as a whole. The context is the background, the setting, the surroundings—and if not physical, then figuratively, the meaning. And the subtext is the underlying message, the words “in between the lines,” if you will.

The text of this verse is exactly what you read—that Christians should stay together, fellowship together, gather together.

The context is everything around it—the other verses, the previous and succeeding chapters, the message of the New Testament, the entire Bible. Or, in this case, the whole chapter:

10:1 For the law having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers thereunto perfect.

2 For then would they not have ceased to be offered? because that the worshippers once purged should have had no more conscience of sins.

3 But in those sacrifices there is a remembrance again made of sins every year.

4 For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins.

5 Wherefore when he cometh into the world, he saith, Sacrifice and offering thou wouldest not, but a body hast thou prepared me:

6 In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin thou hast had no pleasure.

7 Then said I, Lo, I come (in the volume of the book it is written of me,) to do thy will, O God.

8 Above when he said, Sacrifice and offering and burnt offerings and offering for sin thou wouldest not, neither hadst pleasure therein; which are offered by the law;

9 Then said he, Lo, I come to do thy will, O God. He taketh away the first, that he may establish the second.

10 By the which will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

11 And every priest standeth daily ministering and offering oftentimes the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins:

12 But this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God;

13 From henceforth expecting till his enemies be made his footstool.

14 For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified.

15 Whereof the Holy Ghost also is a witness to us: for after that he had said before,

16 This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, saith the Lord, I will put my laws into their hearts, and in their minds will I write them;

17 And their sins and iniquities will I remember no more.

18 Now where remission of these is, there is no more offering for sin.

19 Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus,

20 By a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh;

21 And having an high priest over the house of God;

22 Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water.

23 Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering; (for he is faithful that promised;)

24 And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works:

25 Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.

26 For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins,

27 But a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries.

28 He that despised Moses' law died without mercy under two or three witnesses:

29 Of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace?

30 For we know him that hath said, Vengeance belongeth unto me, I will recompense, saith the Lord. And again, The Lord shall judge his people.

31 It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

32 But call to remembrance the former days, in which, after ye were illuminated, ye endured a great fight of afflictions;

33 Partly, whilst ye were made a gazingstock both by reproaches and afflictions; and partly, whilst ye became companions of them that were so used.

34 For ye had compassion of me in my bonds, and took joyfully the spoiling of your goods, knowing in yourselves that ye have in heaven a better and an enduring substance.

35 Cast not away therefore your confidence, which hath great recompence of reward.

36 For ye have need of patience, that, after ye have done the will of God, ye might receive the promise.

37 For yet a little while, and he that shall come will come, and will not tarry.

38 Now the just shall live by faith: but if any man draw back, my soul shall have no pleasure in him.

39 But we are not of them who draw back unto perdition; but of them that believe to the saving of the soul

Just dwell on this for a second, will you? “He taketh away the first, that he may establish the second.”

The second is this:

“Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, By a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh; And having an high priest over the house of God; Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering; (for he is faithful that promised;) And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.”

When Jesus died, the veil in the temple was torn. The Holy of Holies was no longer separate from everything—and everyone—else. The Spirit of God entered into the world, flooded the earth, and, on the day of Pentecost, made His home within our hearts. We are the temple. We are literally, in every sense, the “church,” the temple of the Holy Spirit, God’s dwelling place, the House of the Lord. We are Kurious Oikos, God’s house.

We need no priest. Jesus is our high priest. We need no preacher—that didn’t even exist until Luther reformed the Roman Catholic Church. (If you don’t believe me, research it. There’s a link below to an article about the true origins of preaching and preachers.) We need no building, because WE ARE THE BUILDING.

The building is the first, the old way, the old covenant. In Jesus Christ, we have a new covenant. If we no longer need to sacrifice at the temple, then we need no longer confine our faith and our discipleship to a mere four walls and a roof.

So, then, what or who was Paul writing to, and why did some of them not gather together?

Back up we go, to the context, to the place and the people.

We’re in Hebrews, in Judea with the Jewish Christians, who are persecuted on every side—by friends, family, husbands, wives, children, teachers, neighbors, the Pharisees and Sadducees, by people just like Paul used to be, when he was Saul once upon a time. That’s the kind of atmosphere they had, that they lived in. At any given moment, they could be stoned in the streets by their family for living out a different faith, for making it know, for blasphemy. And if that didn’t happen, then what about the Romans, who made their beds right next door and patrolled the streets, who controlled everything, including the Pharisees?

At this time, the new Christians believed that Jesus would return within their lifetimes, within the next few years, more specifically, within the reign of Rome. He would return to destroy the Roman Empire. He would become the new king—and I don’t just mean of Israel. Of the world, which the emperor would want control over.

So just like Herod, the Romans were out to squash any and all rumors of rebellion. And if that came from the Christians—in Judea, in Rome, in Ephesus, in Corinth, in Galatia, in Philippithen they would be eliminated. And though the cause of death varied by region and specific person, the most favored one of all was the arena.

Ever heard the story of Perpetua? She was a 22-year-old nursing mother who was martyred, along with others, for professing the Christian faith—by being thrown into an arena full of wild beasts. (This is where you imagine the arena scene in Attack of the Clones, if you will.) To amuse the Roman subjects, these Christians were placed, defenseless, in the middle of an arena with multiple beasts, the literal walking dead as they waited for the animals to pounce. And then (historical tidbit here), if there happened to be a physician in the house, those still drawing breath would be taken out for an “autopsy,” where Roman doctors would cut the living (but mortally) wounded body open to study.

Would you want to proclaim your faith to the masses? Would you walk around wearing a cross or Jesus fish around your neck or singing “Jesus Loves Me” when, at any given moment, a soldier or a Jew would round the corner and either drag you away or stone you? Would you align yourself with hunted prey like St. Paul or St. Peter, when the places at which they gathered were monitored by Romans? Would you go to a Christian man’s house, when you knew that the Romans could raid it and take you away from your children?

Fear is a powerful thing, folks, and that’s what Paul was talking about when he said some people didn’t gather together. Some people were too afraid for their lives, and understandably so.

Their gathering together, though, could not have possibly been at a big, nice church house with stained glass windows and cushioned pews. Not when they were criminals. Not when they were hated. Theirs was the faith no one wanted to possess. Theirs was the fate no one wanted to endure. They weren’t free like we are now.

They gathered together at homes, usually, quietly, underground. Like Chinese Christians today. They came together to pray, to lay hands on each other and proclaim healing. To read letters from Paul or Matthew, to tell stories of their Savior. To prophesy, to speak in tongues, to welcome new believers, to baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. To sing psalms of worship and thanksgiving.

They wouldn’t have had a set time or place, not with the Romans about. Not with their every move being watched. And can you imagine how things got worse the more Christians there were? Surely the Romans cracked down hard on the Christians when they realized that there were enough, and in high places, within their own ranks, to start an uprising.

For over three hundred years after the resurrection of Christ, there was absolutely no such thing as what we call “church.” For more than a thousand, our ancestors—be they English, Asian, Native American, Celtic, Germanic, or African—knew nothing of what was later established as the Roman Catholic Church.

So...if “church” was a Greek goddess in mythology and the early Christians’ gathering together looked nothing like ours...what are we?

Works Cited

“Jewish Christians in Ancient Israel,” Brewminate, 16 Feb 2020, https://brewminate.com/jewish-christians-in-ancient-israel/

“Preach,” NT Words, http://ntwords.com/preach0.htm

Richmond, Rob. “Etymology of the word ‘Church’,” Calendar of Scripture, 24 Dec 2016,

https://calendarofscripture.com/2016/12/24/etymology-of-the-word-church/

The Holy Bible: King James Version. Peabody, Ma: Hendrickson Marketing, 2009

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