the assembly

Jim Samra, pastor of Calvary Church and author of The Gift of Church, spoke to my class this week on the church. His main point was that the Greek term for church, ekklesia, which means “assembly” rather than “called out ones,” is deeply rooted in the Old Testament.

God cut his covenant with Israel on Mount Sinai “in the day of the assembly” (Deut. 4:10; cf. 9:10; 18:16), and subsequent generations of Israelites reenacted that day when they gathered around the tabernacle in “the assembly of the Lord” (Deut. 23:1-3; cf. 1 Chr. 29:10, 20). So when Jesus told Peter that “on this rock I will build my assembly” (Matt. 16:18), he was saying that his gathering of believers was the fulfillment of Israel’s assembly.

The tabernacle was a portable Mount Sinai, and when Israel gathered there for worship they were pulling that historical, nation-defining event into the future. In the same way, when the church assembles for worship we are pulling our future, heavenly assembly into the present (Heb. 12:18-24). Just as God was uniquely present at Sinai and in the tabernacle, so the Lord Jesus is present in a unique way whenever the church assembles (1 Cor. 5:4; Matt. 18:20).

Jim’s talk, and his book, are a powerful explanation and exhortation for the importance of church. It is difficult to hear Jim’s passion and biblical exegesis and not think that few of us truly appreciate what it means to assemble as God’s people.

Here are a few of Jim’s applications, in no certain order.

1. If the heavenly assembly will include people from every tribe and tongue, then the church which anticipates this assembly should be as diverse as possible. Some regions, such as the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, may be fairly monolithic, but the most diverse group in any community must be the church. We lose this diversity when we divide into separate services for worship styles or when we exclude others who are not in our racial or socio-economic class. A church will have a common language and geographic location, but any other commonality hinders our ability to foreshadow our future, heavenly assembly.

2. Since the heavenly assembly contains members from every nation, the church should remove patriotism from its worship services. Will there be an American flag in our future assembly? Then why is it here now?

3. Our worship services should facilitate the experience of God’s presence. We must not interrupt our worship to give announcements, but should get them out of the way at the beginning or end of the service. And rather than rattle off the names of those who are ill, why not mention them in the pastoral prayer? In this way we include them as part of worship rather than as an item of information.

4. And here is one which Jim alluded to and which I want to take a step further. If corporate worship is where we access the power of God (Matt. 16:19; Eph. 3:20-21; Jam. 5:14-15) and experience the presence of Jesus in a unique way; and if Jesus is most powerfully present in the preaching of the Word and Sacrament; then what are the implications for multi-site venues? What might be lost when the preacher cannot even see his congregation, but is delivering his sermon from another part of town?






15 responses to “the assembly”

  1. Wow! Now I have another book to put on my “need to read” list. Thank you…

  2. Jack Horton


    When you are finished can I borrow it?


    Regarding application number 1, it appears Samra doesn’t buy into the concept of the homogeneous unit “principle”. 🙂

  3. mikewittmer

    Jack: Said the white guy to the other white guy. By the way, have you picked a winner for Tuesday’s primary? I’m thinking about writing you in.

  4. Dan Jesse (@djesse50)

    Amen and Amen to insight number 2. I am not sure why the church allows patriotism in to the sanctuary. It seems like it is saying, “There is no Jew or Greek, no slave or master, male or female, but there are Americans!”

  5. Thanks for blogging this…I had to miss the second half of class!

  6. Jack Horton


    I’ll send you an email. Just as with Santorum anything you say, whether in an obscure pulpit or on someone’s blog, can and will be used out of context by your political opposition. Even recovering politicians are careful with what they share for all to read.

  7. Jack, Please CC me on that email..

    Mike, Please expand sometime on how we are to understand Christ’s presence in Sacrament, I’ve been wrestling with that over the past year or so… I’m not sure Zwingli’s view of it is adequate. Thank you…

  8. But, isn’t the New Testament “Church” different from Old Testament “Israel” – at the core? The Church is an assembly of those who have come to faith in Christ, not those who were born into a particular racial group.

    So…have all the theologians of church history wrong by identifying “Church” as “called out ones?” Just thinking….

  9. Joey

    I disagree on the patriotism point. Rex Rogers opined on this
    I don’t see how being patriotic is inherently bad in the church. Perhaps during the Third Reich one could make the case.

  10. mikewittmer

    Phil: “all the theologians” is far too sweeping. “Called out ones” simply breaks apart the compound word, “ek” and “klesia.” But this isn’t the best way to determine what a word means (see “butterfly”).

    The church is different from Israel, but there is also continuity. “Israel” was not merely a racial category, for “not all Israel is true Israel.”

    Joey: No one is saying Christians shouldn’t be patriotic. The issue is whether national allegiance and cheering belongs in a service devoted to the worship of the God of the nations. The article you cite does not address this question.

  11. Jim Samra and I were classmates at DTS. Great guy! Maybe the smartest guy I knew while at DTS, at least it seemed a lot easier for him than for the rest of us.

    And did you get him to dance? The brother can groove!


  12. mikewittmer


    That knowledge may be quite useful. And it should have occurred to me that you had overlapped. I think I told you that my dorm of single guys seemed like the island of misfit toys. Everyone had an interesting and quite unique story, from a washed up NFL running back to a fellow who was running across America to an Obama-like single black man to a loveable Jewish guy with a fierce inferiority complex (that sounds like a stereotype but it’s true). Great times.

  13. Phil –

    In addition to what Mike has said, about Israel not merely being a racial category, for “not all Israel is true Israel,” I would add the fact that not all the church is the Church. You state, “The Church is an assembly of those who have come to faith in Christ.” Without even getting into the issue of whether children of believers are part of the church (no small discussion), I would point to the fact that there are in most (all?) churches people who are outwardly a part of the assembly to whom Jesus will one day say, “I never knew you: depart from me…” (Matthew 7:23).

    In 1 Peter 2:9-10, Peter uses language applied to Israel in Exodus 19:6 and Hosea 1:6-8, and appropriates it for the church. In light of such passages, it becomes pretty clear (to me at least) that OT Israel and the NT Church are, at their core, the same thing.

  14. Pastor Samra is a champ. His message to CU’s chapel was a highlight of last year. I have great sympathy for his concerns, and greater admiration for his ministry.

    I am, however, hesitant to describe “corporate worship” as the place “where we access the power of God.” Do those Scripture passages (Matt. 16:19; Eph. 3:20-21; Jam. 5:14-15) specifically address the church gathering? MIght some of that language hint toward an ‘ex opere operato’ way of thinking? The NT seems rather silent on church gathering specifics (esp. compared to the OT), perhaps to allow the church the missional flexibility to adapt to different societies.

    Calvin: “Because [the Master] has taught nothing specifically, and because these things are not necessary to salvation, and for the upbuilding of the church ought to be variously accommodated to the customs of each nation and age, it will be fitting (as the advantage of the church will require) to change and abrogate traditional practices and to establish new ones. Indeed, I admit that we ought not to charge into innovation rashly, suddenly, for insufficient cause” (4.10.30).

    Bottom line for me, there are reasons for a church to thoughtfully say ‘no’ to multi-site ministry. But I don’t think the Scriptural implications makes a clear enough case to consider that decision necessary from the teaching of the Bible.

    And for a different account of church announcements, see

  15. […] Michael Wittmer discusses some highlights from Jim Samra’s book The Gift of Church: How God Designed the Local Church to Meet Our Needs as Christians. […]

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