the weblog of Alan Knox

The ekklesia as a heavenly reality

Posted by on Oct 11, 2012 in books, definition, scripture | 5 comments

In my previous post (“The ekklesia that actually gathers in a location“), I explained that I’ve been re-reading one of my favorite academic books on the church: Paul’s Idea of Community by Robert Banks (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2004). Banks says that in Paul’s earlier letters (1-2 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1-2 Corinthians, and Romans), he only uses the term ekklesia to refer to groups of believers that actually gather together at some point.

However, when he turns to the letters to the Colossians and Ephesians, Banks finds an extension to Paul’s use of the term ekklesia. While he continues to use the term to refer to believers who actually gather together, he also uses the term to refer to “a heavenly reality.”

Banks says this concept is not new and that it can in fact be found in the earlier letters. However, it is not until the letters to the Colossians and Ephesians that Paul uses the term ekklesia to refer to this “heavenly reality.” But, Banks says it would be incorrect to equate this “heavenly reality” with the concepts of a “universal church” or an “invisible church.”

So in Colossians we are introduced to the idea of a nonlocal church of whom Christ is the head (Col 1:18,24). This notion is generally misinterpreted as a reference to the “universal church” that is scattered throughout the world. It is not an earthly phenomenon that is being talked about here, but a supernatural one. The whole passage in which the expression [ekklesia] occurs focuses on the victorious Christ and his kingdom of light that believers have now entered (1:9-2:7)…

If any hesitation remains about the possibility of understanding ekklesia as a heavenly assembly in Colossians, it is dispelled by the language used in Ephesians. There it is explicitly said that God “made us alive together with Christ… and raised us up with him, and made us sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph 2:5-6 RSV)… Here again we see church taking place in heaven and Christians participating in it, even as they go about the ordinary tasks of life. Metaphorically speaking they are gathered around Christ, that is, they are enjoying fellowship with him. (pp 40-41)

So, according to Banks, Paul now has used the term ekklesia to refer to two different gatherings: 1) actual physical gatherings at certain times and certain places on earth and 2) heavenly gatherings in which all of God’s children are already raised and seated with God in Christ. The physical ekklesia, then, is a representation of the heavenly reality. And the fact that all believers were already gathered as a heavenly reality (not any kind of organization or structure) is the basis of expanding fellowship and relationships on earth:

These scattered Christian groups [churches] expressed their unity not by fashioning a corporate organization through which they could be federated with one another, but rather in a range of organized personal contacts between people who regarded themselves as members of the same Christian family.

So, Paul’s use of ekklesia as a “heavenly reality” should not be misunderstood as some type of umbrella organization. It is similar to the understanding that we are all part of the real family of God in Christ even though we may never meet each other in this physical reality on earth.

So, what do you think of Banks’ description of Paul’s reference to the ekklesia as a “heavenly reality.”?


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 10-11-2012

    Christ “in” us is the hope of glory, and we are encouraged to “no longer regard “one another” in the natural way, but with spiritual “eyesight”.

    This topic of being seated with Christ came up at a “Searching Together” conference earlier this year. While somewhat of a concept to factor, Paul explains as the author eluded to in his letter to Ephesus who we are, and how to regard “one another” “in” Christ.

    “And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others.

    But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made US SIT TOGETHER IN THE HEAVENLY PLACES ‘IN” CHRIST JESUS, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; q it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.

    For we are His workmanship, created “in” Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.”
    Paul of Tarsus

  2. 10-11-2012


    Thanks for this post. I agree with Robert Banks, and believe it is the heavenly reality of the Church that is the preeminent reality and the starting place for our understanding what God desires on earth for His habitation as well.

    All the way through the Scriptures we see that the “pattern” for the House of God is given by revelation from heaven and that it is not given to man to design. Progressively from Bethel, to the tabernacle, to the temple, to Ezekiel’s vision of a future temple, to the Lord Jesus, to the Church, to the New Jerusalem the principle is always “on earth as it is in heaven”.

    I believe that until we have a heavenly revelation of the Church, we will not know what God actually desires on earth. Ultimately, Christ Himself is the Heavenly Pattern and all things are to be conformed to Him. The epistles of Ephesians and Colossians give us the clearest view of Christ and the Church in their eternal and heavenly reality and so they are paramount to our understanding of the ekklesia.

    Thanks again for this post!

  3. 10-12-2012

    Jim and David,

    Thanks for the comments. I agree that understanding our heavenly reality as being raised together and seated together with God in Jesus Christ is very important. Why do you think Paul focuses primarily on the earthly, physical gatherings in most of his letters?


  4. 10-15-2012

    Alan, I think the short answer to your question is that the heavenly reality of the Church simply is not a mess. It is the earthly that needs the attention and the work. Most of Paul’s epistles were addressing “real world” problems and issues in the churches and were instructive/corrective in nature along those lines. So that is where we see the bulk of his writings directed.

    I believe that his dealings with the earthly dimensions of the ekklesia, however, were always with the heavenly reality in view, and as the supreme reality of the Church. It is because of the heavenly reality that he urges, exhorts, teaches, corrects, rebukes, instructs and compels the churches on towards un-earthly standards of unity, purity, holiness, spiritual fullness and fruitfulness.

    I believe, conversely, that the Church over the ages descended into the divided, religiously-bound, man-dominated, defiled, earthly state it is presently in because it lost a clear vision of its heavenly nature, calling, position, resources, Pattern and hope. If those realities were once again regained, much of the Church’s present earthly issues and problems would be more easily resolved, or just dissolve.

    True apostolic and prophetic ministry in this day, I believe, will have the heavenly reality as a preeminent focus, as well as having the wisdom, skill, grace and love to deal with the practical issues at hand in order to bring the churches into the attainment of their heavenly calling and reality in Christ.

    Apart from the heavenly calling, we are merely left with pragmatic reasonings and theories on how we can do church better to obtain a set of man-centered, earthly objectives. And that certainly misses the mark.

    Those are a few of my thoughts on the matter. Thanks for prompting further discussion with your question.:-)


  5. 10-15-2012


    Thank you for answering my question. I think you’re right that our understanding of our relationship with God and one another in Jesus Christ in a heavenly, eternal sense will affect the way that we treat one another in an earthly sense. Also, unfortunately, I think that the way that we treat one another in an earthly sense demonstrates what we truly think about our relationships with God and one another in Jesus Christ in a heavenly, eternal sense.