In his book Making a Meal of It, Ben Witherington makes an interesting observation about God’s initiation of the Passover. He says:
Notice, first of all, that Exodus 12:1-3 suggests from the outset that this is not something celebrated in a cultic context but rather in a family and home context… In verse 3 we have the crucial term edah. It refers to the “gathering” or congregation of God’s people. We do not find the more usual term qahal here, which some have seen as the origin of the New Testament term ekklesia since both terms refer to a special assembly of some sort. The term gathering or congregation does not refer to an abstraction here but rather to an actual physical meeting or coming together of God’s people for a religious purpose. This celebration was not optional but was to involve the whole people of God. It took place house by house, and the head of the house was responsible for supplying the sacrificial animal. (pg 5-6)
Here is the passage to which Witherington refers:
The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, “This month shall be for you the beginning of months. It shall be the first month of the year for you. Tell all the congregation of Israel that on the tenth day of this month every man shall take a lamb according to their fathers’ houses, a lamb for a household. And if the household is too small for a lamb, then he and his nearest neighbor shall take according to the number of persons; according to what each can eat you shall make your count for the lamb. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male a year old. You may take it from the sheep or from the goats, and you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month, when the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill their lambs at twilight. Then they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. They shall eat the flesh that night, roasted on the fire; with unleavened bread and bitter herbs they shall eat it. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted, its head with its legs and its inner parts. And you shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. In this manner you shall eat it: with your belt fastened, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. And you shall eat it in haste. It is the LORD’s Passover. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD. (Exodus 12:1-12 ESV)
This is a very interesting passage for me, and it may help me understand how the church can be both large (3000 believers in Jerusalem) and small (meeting house to house).
Apparently, when God initiated the Passover, the instructions were given to the entire people of God – the edah, or congregation. This was one people – one congregation. However, the instructions were not carried out together, nor were the instructions carried out by one person on behalf of the entire congregation. Instead, each family was responsible for carrying out God’s instruction. Thus, the instructions were given to the large group but carried out by the family. In fact, the congregation as a whole did not do anything as a group. The large group was obedient only through the obedience of each family.
This sounds very similar to what we read about in Acts 2:
And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts… (Acts 2:46 ESV)
Apparently there were times when large groups of believers met together. In this passage we see them meeting in the temple. Similarly, there were times when believers met together in their homes in smaller groups, sharing meals and fellowship with one another. Which one represents the church? Both. Which one represents the church in Jerusalem? Both.
Just as the Passover instructions to the whole congregation of Israel were carried out family by family, the new people of God assembled as the church house by house.
Similarly, when Paul spoke to the elders from Ephesus, he reminded them of his practices:
I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house… (Acts 20:20 ESV)
It seems that, for Paul, the church in Ephesus existed as a whole and as individual units. These units were not parts of the church or subsections of the church, but they were the church living out the fellowship they had in the Spirit.
Thus, the God’s people assemble in large groups when they can, and they assemble in smaller groups when they can. Each group is a valid representation of the church and can allow the believers to encourage, teach, care for, love, admonish, shepherd, etc. one another. When the believers gather in one location, they are the church. When believers gather in small groups in different locations from house to house, they are the church.
There are problems with either of two extremes: 1) only viewing the larger group as the church or 2) only viewing the smaller group of people as the church. Primarily, the thinking of most Christians today falls between these two extremes. They do not see the larger groups – think city-wide – as the church, nor do they view the smaller groups – think cell-groups, small groups, etc. – as the church. Instead, they see the “local church” as the only valid representation of the church.
If my view of the church is correct, then how can we help ourselves and others to recognize all believers in an area as the church, and the smallest meeting of believers as the church? What are the major questions and concerns that this view raises for you or others?