The House of God
Have you ever wondered where our English word “church” came from? The word evolved from the Old English cirice, which had its origins in the Germanic kirika, which was adapted from an ancient Greek term, kyriakon, meaning “the Lord’s [house].” You can detect a similar history of the word for “church” in many modern languages, from Swedish (kyrka) to Czech (cirkev) to Afrikaans (kerk). Even in Scottish dialect, a church is called a kirk.
Think on that for a moment: “church” derives from a word denoting the Lord’s house. What is the Lord’s house, Biblically speaking? In the Old Testament, “the house of God” is a common description of the tabernacle/temple (cf. Judges 18:31; 1 Kings 9:1). The New Testament, however, identifies God’s temple—His house—as His people. Paul wrote:
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit. (Ephesians 2:19-22)
Notice two pictures in this passage. Christians are described as God’s temple, a spiritual house in which He dwells (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:16; 1 Peter 4:4-5). And we are also described as God’s household, members of His family (cf. 1 John 3:1; 1 Timothy 3:15; Hebrews 10:21).
It shouldn’t surprise us, then, to find that the word “church” in the New Testament denotes, not a building or a location, but a group of people. In our English Bibles it translates the Greek word ekklēsia, meaning an assembly or congregation. The word is never used of a place of worship. It does sometimes mean a worship assembly, as in 1 Corinthians 14:34,35 (so it’s not technically wrong to speak of “going to church” in that sense). But most often the New Testament applies this term to the people of God, either generally (all those who are saved in Christ) or locally (a community of believers in a particular place—a congregation).
By the way, that ancient word ekklēsia is also echoed in the word for “church” in several modern languages, including Spanish (iglesia), French (église), and Irish (eaglais).
But look again at Ephesians 2 and notice yet another picture: Christians are described as citizens in God’s kingdom (verse 19). In its universal, comprehensive sense, the church is sometimes referred to as God’s kingdom—those who have submitted themselves to the rule of God in their lives (cf. Colossians 1:13; Revelation 1:6). The New Testament Greek word translated “kingdom” is basileia; and here, too, traces of the word survive in some modern languages: “church” in Latvian is baznīca; in Romanian it is biserică.
In just about any language today, the most common usage of the word for “church” is to describe a physical place of some sort. But the New Testament concept of the church is something far greater. What a privilege to be part of God’s family…to be a living stone in His temple…to be a citizen in His kingdom…to be a member of the “assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven” (Hebrews 12:23). That’s what it means to be in God’s church. Are you?