First Century Congregational Structure-Part 1

As we look around in todays religious world, there is a glaring thing that stands out, and that glaring thing is how many congregations are structured and how they function. Anyone who has a basic knowledge of how the congregations were set up and functioned in the first century, especially by the Talmidim (disciples), is struck by how different these congregations are. They are not patterned after the model found in the first century and endorsed by the Messiah himself, so this is what we are going to cover in this teaching.

We are going to look at the Jews and the non-Jews and their roles. We are going to talk about the history of the synagogues and their development. We are also going to look at how they were structured and the government, the officials and duties of those involved. We will also look at the prayers, songs, activities, services and functions of these congregation. The Hebrew word for “congregation” is “kahal” and we will be using that word quite often so you can get the idea we are talking about a Jewish model when it comes to congregational ideals.

The Spirit without structure, or structure without being led of the Spirit is a disaster. In other words, if Paul came to a town today, we need to know how he would set up a congregation, and how not to do it, so we need to understand the model. The prophet Hosea is one of the prophets known as the “minor prophets” and in the Christian world, little is known of them because they are not studied. These prophets are divided into three parts. The 8th century prophets dealt with the Assyrians, the 7th century prophets dealt with the Babylonians and the prophets of the return dealt with the Persians.

Hosea is an 8th century prophet and he said in Hosea 4.1-6, “Listen to the word of the Lord, O sons of Israel, for the Lord has a case against the inhabitants of the land, because there is no faithfulness or kindness or knowledge of God in the land. There is swearing, deception, murder, stealing, and adultery. They employ violence, so that bloodshed follows bloodshed. Therefore the land mourns, and every one who lives in it languishes (through grief) along with the beasts of the field and the birds of the sky; and also the fish of the sea disappear. Yet let no one find fault, and let none offer reproof (all were guilty); for your people are like those who contend with the priest (didn’t listen). So you will stumble by day and the prophet will also stumble with you by night; and I will destroy your mother (Israel). My people are destroyed for the lack of the knowledge (Hebrew “ha da’at” meaning “the knowledge” is used here meaing a specific kind of knowledge. In Gen 4.1, the word for know is “yada” and it is an intimate knowledge, like between a man and his wife. In Hos 2.20 the word for know is “ya’da’at” which is a combination of “yada” and “da’at” the word for “knowledge” used in 4.6. When Yeshua says “I never knew you” it is in connection with these words), because you have rejected the knowledge (again “ha da’at”) I will also reject you from being my priest (Exo 19), since you have forgotten the law (Torah) of your God, I will forget your children.”

This verse is telling us that the Torah is what everything is built upon. In Malachi 2.1-9 it says that the priests and Levites were to teach the people the Torah when they returned from Babylon. Going as far back as Hosea, the priests failed and the people were taken into captivity for a lack of “the” knowledge”, which was the Torah. The Temple was destroyed and certain ceremonies, prayers and teachings could not be done anymore.

The prophet Ezra is seen by the Jewish people as a second Moses because he restores the Torah, leads the people back to the land and teaches. The Knesset (Hebrew for “assembly”), or synagogue (Greek), was developed because the priests and Levites lost their platform (the Temple) and failed to teach the people anyway. To deal with this problem, the assemblies were developed. The age of the “rabbi” (teacher) and “maggid” (preacher) begins.

These teachers and preachers were also called “chachamim” meaning wise men or sages. The Greek term is “magi” and you can see right away that the magi in the birth of Yeshua were probably Jewish scholars from Babylon. The “assembly” goes as far back as Moses, but until Ezra it had no prominence because the Mishkan and the Temple did. Errors of the past would be repeated, so the Men of the Great Assembly, which consisted of 120 men covering the last 200 years before Yeshua, gave direction to the people and worked hand in hand with the rebuilt Temple.

Some of the people who were involved in the Men of the Great Assembly included Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, Daniel, Hananiah, Azariah, Mishael, Mordechai and Zerubbabel. The Knesset rose in status also and it emphasized study, which was seen as the highest form of worship. This was seen as very important as far as children were concerned because they needed to learn the Scriptures and the ways of the people.

There were two places that had a great revival in the Scriptures and Hebrew thought, Babylon and Jerusalem. Great academies were developed in both places. Alexandria, Egypt, was also a major center of Jewish thought. Then Alexander the Great comes along and conquers Persia, he comes into Israel and then Egypt, bringing Hellenism with him. Greek culture and religion attracted many of the young people away from the Torah and the God of their fathers. After all, the Greeks were smart, powerful, nice people with nice ways weren’t they? They had good messages and the people felt good and they made things “make sense.” This attracted many and when laws were passed prohibiting Torah observance, this caused a chasm between those who wanted to follow the Torah regardless of persecution and those who assimilated into Hellenism.

Then around 167 BC, some of the Jewish people had enough of this. A revolt against the Greeks was led by a group of priests called the Maccabees (meaning “hammer”) and a group called the “Chasdim” meaning “pious ones”, arose. They were very devout towards the things of God and the Scriptures. The Greeks were defeated and out of the Chasdim came two groups called the Pharisees (meaning “separate ones”) and the Sadducees (meaning “righteous ones”).

The Pharisees were very eschatological, believed in the coming of the Messiah and believed all the Tanak was Scripture. The Sadducees were the opposite. They were non-eschatological and didn’t believe in a Messianic character and only believed that the Torah was Scripture.

There was another group called the “Am ha Eretz” which means “the people of the land.” Before Yeshua, however, it meant “unlearned” because they didn’t know the Scriptures. The Pharisees tried to counter this ignorance by going to the marketplace to teach the people each Tuesday (third day of the week) and Thursday (fifth day of the week) as seen in Matt 6.5. The concept of a “kehilat” and a “synagogoue” can be seen in Heb 10.25 where it says “not forsaking our own assembling together” where the word “episynagogue” is used. In addition, in Jam 2.2 says “if a man comes into your assembly” the word used there is “synagogue”. Why did these two verses use “assembly” rather than “synagogoue?” It was because the translators wanted to give the impression that believers did not meet in synagogues. The same words are used elsewhere and translated “synagogue” especially if it was used giving a bad connotation.

This is part of the inherent replacement theology of many translators. In Matt 16.13-18, Yeshua says he will build “my church” asit is translated in English, but the Hebrew word he would have used is “Kahal” meaning congregation, company and community, and the Greek word is “ecclesia.” Kahal also means assembly (see Gen 28.3, 35.11, 48.4; Josh 8.35; Ezra 2.64-65; Neh 8.2 and Joel 2.16. Knesset, kahal, synagogoue and ecclesia are all synonymous terms.

The first “assembly” was called “Yom Kahal” or “day of the assembly” in Deut 18.16 when the people gathered at Mt Sinai for the giving of the Torah on Shavuot, 50 days after leaving Egypt. Shavuot is called “Yom Kahal.” This is connected to Yeshua, who was going to build a new “kahal” beginning on Shavuot, 50 days after his resurrection, on Yom Kahal (Acts 2).

You see, Israel expected the Kahal to be connected with the coming of Yeshua. When Yeshua said he was going to build “my church” it was “my kahal” and that was something they expected the Messiah to do. Mistranslating it to be “church” gives a totally opposite impression by people today. Yeshua is not building what is known as “the church” as it is understood within Christianity, that is why we are presenting this teaching. Yeshua was everything they expected in a Messiah.

The Messiah was going to restore what was lost, empower the people with the Kivod (glory, radiance of God), the Ruach Ha Kodesh (Holy Spirit or “power”-which is feminine in Hebrew), restore the Shekinah (presence of God), the Chachmah (wisdom of God, which is called “she” in Prov 3.13-18), the Menachem (the comfort of God). It was understood that when Messiah comes, these would be manifested among the Kahal.

The purpose of the Kahal, Synagogue or Ecclesia was to teach the people. The term “church” will not be used in this teaching because the “church” today is different in goals, purposes and teaching than the kahal, synagogue and ecclesia.

In Part 2 we will pick up here and begin to discuss the two types of churches and let you see what they are about, and then move on to further develop the concept of the structure and functions of a first century congregation and see how this should and can be done even today.

Posted in All Teachings, Articles, Idioms, Phrases and Concepts, Questions, The Tanach, Understanding the New Testament

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