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The Greek words synagoge (or synagogue) and ekklesia (often translated as congregation) have very similar meanings. Synagogue means a gathering (syn = together, and ago = bring, or, bring together), while ekklesia (ek = out of, klesia = call) means a calling out of.
So, ekklesia doesn’t just mean called together, gathering, or church; it also implies a calling out… as from ‘the world,’ and always translating it as congregation (gathering) or church (the gathered or the building of worship) can be very misleading.
It is interesting that in the Greek Septuagint translation of the Bible, you find the words synagogue and ekklesia interspersed when describing the people of IsraEl. The choice of the words was probably up to the person who translated that portion of the Bible from Hebrew into Greek. So the words, although different, must have originally been synonymous in the minds of the translators.
You might wonder why IsraEl was so frequently referred to as a synagogue or congregation rather than as a nation. However, it helps to understand that the Greek word for nation, ethne (from which we get the word ethnic), is usually applied to mean those that are not Hebrews, and it is often translated as gentiles.
Also, it helps to understand that along with the true IsraElites that left Egypt with Moses came a vast group of mixed-race peoples that also became known as IsraEl by accepting IsraEl’s God (Jehovah) as their God and by following His Sacred Agreement and His Laws.
So, those that were called IsraElites weren’t necessarily all the descendants of Jacob or IsraEl.
And thereafter, ethnics continued to join with IsraEl and become known as IsraElites down to the time of Jesus. In fact, Jesus was himself a descendant of two noted ethnics (gentiles), the Caananite prostitute RaHab and the Moabite woman, Ruth.
So IsraEl wasn’t necessarily a race, but rather, they were a gathering or congregation of worshipers of Jehovah that were called IsraEl.
Nevertheless, over time, the word synagogue came to mean about the same thing that we think of today when we hear it used… a place or building of Jewish worship. For notice how the word synagogue was applied in Matthew 4:23: ‘Then [Jesus] traveled throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the Kingdom and curing all the diseases and infirmities that the people had.’
So by the First Century, synagogue had come to mean the building (not just to the people), much in the same way as church (ekklesia) is now usually thought of as a building.
However, recognize that when synagogues are spoken of as buildings in the Christian-Era Scriptures, it may not necessarily mean just a meeting place of Jewish worship. For even the places where Christians met in the First Century could have been called synagogues, especially around Judea.
Notice, for example, how Jesus’ half-brother James used this term at James 2:2-4:
‘For if a man that is wearing a gold ring and fine clothes enters your synagogue, then someone whose clothes are filthy also enters, you favor the one that's wearing the fine clothes and say, Here's a good place to sit. Then you say to the poor one, Stand [over there], or, Sit here under my footstool!
So, aren't you showing favoritism among yourselves and judging from evil thoughts?’
Yes, the Greek word that James used there is synagogen, although it usually isn’t translated that way in other Bibles.
This would have been the word that he used whether he was speaking of the group or of the building, because James likely spoke in his native tongue of Hebrew or Aramaic. Therefore, he wouldn’t have used the Greek word, ekklesia.
And the word synagogue in this instance probably denotes that James was speaking of the building in which the congregation met.
However, there is quite a bit of evidence from the context that James’ letter wasn't written to Christian congregations, but to Jews in the diaspora. And if so, then all references to synagogues in the NT appear to be speaking of buildings where Jews worshipped.
For notice that in his opening words, he addressed his letter to ‘the twelve tribes that are scattered about,’ or, the diaspora, which is a term that referred to all Jews living outside of their homeland.
There is one more important reference to the NT use of the word synagogue; it’s where Paul used the term at Hebrews 10:25, when he wrote:
‘And don't stop meeting together (as some have made it their custom), but [continue to] encourage each other… and [do this] even more so as you see the Day getting closer.’
The Greek word that Paul used here (which we have translated as meeting together) was epi/synagogen, and he was clearly urging Christians to meet together in a place, although some had apparently stopped doing that.
So he was saying that Christian association is necessary for the purpose of encouragement, and (as he wrote in the previous verse),
‘To help each other to grow in love and good deeds.’
Ekklesia… Congregation or Called Ones?
Yet, although the word ekklesia is usually thought of as being a group of believers that associate and meet together for worship, it really means ‘a calling out.’ So it could also refer to their having been called to a hope, as opposed to being an earthly religious organization or gathering.
Take for example, Paul’s use of the word ekklesia in his concluding greetings at Romans 16:5 (note that Paul likely spoke Aramaic, so he might have actually written synagogue). There we have translated him as saying,
‘And [greet] the called ones in their home.’
For the Greek words found there are,
‘kai ten kat oikon auton ekklesian,’
which literally translate as,
‘and the house of/them called/ones.’
Other Bibles translate these words as reading,
‘and the church (or congregation) that meets in their home.’
However, as you can see, the words ‘that meets’ are not in the original text.
So the greeting may have been to the called ones that lived in their home (their family and servants).
Therefore, we must be careful whenever we come upon the word congregation in the Bible, because the specific reference may imply either those that gather in a place, or those that are called by God. For notice the following group of scriptures to see what such a calling implies:
Matthew 22:14: ‘For many are the called, but few are the chosen.’
Romans 1:6: ‘from which you’ve also become called ones who belong to Jesus the Anointed’
Romans 1:7: ‘God’s loved ones who were called to be holy.’
Romans 8:28: ‘Now, we know that God makes everything work together for the good of those that love Him (those that have been called to do His Will).’
Romans 8:30: ‘He calls all those whom He selects, then He makes all those whom He calls righteous, and He glorifies all those whom He makes righteous.’
1 Corinthians 1:2: ‘To you that have been made holy in the Anointed One Jesus, who are called to be Holy Ones.’
1 Corinthians 1:9: ‘God who called you to have a share with His Son (our Lord Jesus the Anointed One) is faithful.’
2 Corinthians 5:20: ‘So, God is calling [people] through us. We are begging on behalf of the Anointed One, Come back to a relationship with God.’
Galatians 5:13: ‘You were called to be free, brothers.’
Ephesians 1:18: ‘so you can know the glorious richness of the hope that He has called you for and which He holds as an inheritance for the Holy Ones.’
Philippians 3:14: ‘I’m running toward the goal, the prize of the upward calling from God.’
Colossians 3:15, ‘Let the peace of the Anointed One serve as the referee in your hearts, because it called [all of] you into one body.
1 Thessalonians 2:12: ‘[We did this] so that you would keep on walking in a way that’s worthy of The God who’s calling you to His Kingdom and glory.’
1 Thessalonians 4:7: ‘For God didn’t call us to uncleanness, but to holiness.’
2 Thessalonians 2:14: ‘This is why He called you through the good news we brought: So you would receive the glory of our Lord Jesus, the Anointed.’
1 Timothy 6:12: ‘Put on the age-long life to which you were called, and about which you offered such a fine confession in front of so many witnesses.’
2 Timothy 1:9: ‘He saved us and called us to holiness, not because of anything we’ve done, but because of His Will and the loving care that He felt for us (through Jesus the Anointed One) in the times before the ages.’
Hebrews 3:1: ‘Therefore, holy brothers that share in the heavenly calling; let’s think about this Apostle and High Priest whom we confess, Jesus.’
1 Peter 1:15, 16: ‘But like the Holy One that called you, become holy in all your ways. For it’s written; You must be holy, because I am holy.’
1 Peter 2:9: ‘However, you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people that were specially selected to announce the virtues of the one that called you out of darkness and into his wonderful light.’
2 Peter 1:10: ‘Brothers, this is why it’s so urgent for you to make your calling and choosing firm.’
Revelation 17:14: ‘But, because he's the Lord of lords and King of kings, the Lamb and those that are with him (the called, elected, and faithful) will conquer them.’
It is God who calls people to Him (Romans 8:30, 11:26, 1 Corinthians 1:9, 2 Corinthians 5:20, Ephesians 1:18, 1 Thessalonians 2:12, 2 Thessalonians 2:14, 1 Peter 1:15)
Not everyone that is called is chosen (Matthew 22:14, 2 Peter 1:10, Revelation 17:14)
The called ones belong to Jesus (Romans 1:6)
They are called to be holy (Romans 1:7, 1 Thessalonians 4:7, 2 Timothy 1:9, 1 Peter 1:15, 16)
They are called to do God’s will (Romans 8:28)
They are called out of darkness into the light of God (1 Peter 2:9)
They are glorified and considered righteous (Romans 8:30)
The calling means freedom (Galatians 5:13)
The calling means ‘age-long life’ (1 Timothy 6:12)
The called are given an inheritance with God’s son (1 Corinthians 1:9)
The called become part of the body of the Anointed One (Colossians 3:15)
They are called to God’s Kingdom (1 Thessalonians 2:12)
The called will be glorified like Jesus (2 Thessalonians 2:14)
There is an upward calling (Philippians 3:14)
The called become a chosen race, a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation (1 Peter 2:9).
Note that although many are apparently called, not all that are called are chosen. For more information, see the linked document, ‘The New Covenant.’