Since the early-to-mid 19th century, Western Christianity has been influenced by Premillennialism. Without opening the lid to that eschatological Pandora’s Box, I do want to discuss one facet of that theology and hermeneutic. It is axiomatic for Premillennialism’s doctrine about the book of Revelation that “the church” is raptured at a time soon following the end of the Letters to the 7 Congregations. Next, the subsequent chapters of Revelation deal with the unsaved who are “left behind” during the Tribulation (4-18) until the Second Coming (19), then the Millennium (20) and followed by the New Heaven and the New Earth (21-22).
To advance their theology, scholars of Premillennial theology point out that 19 of the 20 occurrences of the term “ekklēsia” (=church) are found in Revelation chapters 1-3. This leaves the final occurrence located in Rev. 22:16, “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star.” This means to them that beginning with Rev. 4 John ceases to deal with the church and the world of those early Christians, at least until the prophecies surrounding the End in Revelation 20.
While this concordance data might ostensibly prove their argument, a few other features of the occurrence of this term New Testament “ekklēsia” should be looked at. No one questions the role and significance of church in Acts, yet the first occurrence of ekklēsia is not until chapter 5:11, significantly after the Day of Pentecost. In the combined reports of the 2nd and 3rd missionary journeys of Acts in chapters 13-14 and 16-19 the term “ekklēsia” has almost no voice. To be specific, I am referring to the creation of communities of faith in Philippi (Acts 16), Thessalonica (Acts 17), Berea (Acts 17), Athens (Acts 17), Corinth (Acts 18), and Ephesus (Acts 19). Furthermore, following Paul’s address at Miletus in Acts 20, the term “ekklēsia” completely vanishes in the remainder of Acts. A thoughtful reader of Acts would need to be attentive to the synonyms for the term “church” used by Luke.
None would doubt a significant ecclesiology exists in Romans (Rom. 12; 14:1-15:13), but, nevertheless, the term “ekklēsia” is missing in every chapter until it finally appears in the last chapter of Romans (16) in the multiple greetings there. Then there is the case of 1 Peter. This apostolic letter discusses the ecclesial rite of baptism (3:19-21), ecclesial church officials and polity associated with the episcopacy (5:1-4), ecclesial “one another” admonitions (1:22; 4:9), ecclesial behaviors like the kiss of love (5:14), and divine gifts to be shared with one another other in the community (4:8-11). And yet, 1 Peter does not have a single occurrence of the term “ekklēsia.”
My observation about ekklēsia is that this term should not become a litmus test whether an author has Christians in mind. Moreover, this cursory look has revealed that this particular term “ekklēsia” will not always be used consistently and representatively in the same work.
Another weakness of Premillennialism’s view of Revelation on this point is the fact that the Biblical record is replete with examples of authors using synonyms for the term “ekklēsia“. The term “church” is not the only word used to describe “church people” or Christians. There is a rich diversity used in the New Testament to describe God’s people who in fact are only rarely called Christians. For example, the use of tribal imagery, harkening back to the Twelve Tribes of the Old Testament, is an obvious example of a synonym for the term “church” or “ekklēsia.” Thus when writing his letters to followers of Christ, James writes “To the 12 tribes in the Dispersion” (1:1). This is an illusion to the Twelve Tribes when they were dispersed in the their captivities. A similar tribal allusion for the “church” would be found in 1 Pet. 1:1 in these words, “To the exiles of the Dispersion.” Then there is Paul’s use of the term “Jews” to describe both Gentile and Jewish believers in Christ (Rom. 2:28-29). In other Pauline words, at baptism both Jewish and Gentile believers become Abraham’s offspring (Gal. 3:27-29), leading clearly to the designation that those who belong to Christ are the “Israel of God” (6:15-16).
To be sure it is important to note the distribution and clustering of the term “ekklēsia” in Revelation (and in any other part of Scripture), but the book of Revelation along with the rest of the New Testament is too rich and variegated in imagery and vocabulary to tether the people of God on earth to any one word or metaphor.