It is fairly common within Christian circles to come across the view that the church is an organization that only came into existence at the time of the New Testament. People believe that the church was established by Jesus, and that before the time of Jesus there was no such thing as the church. This view is understandable, particularly given the use of the word church in our English translations of the Bible. In the ESV translation, for example, the word church occurs 109 times, and all of those uses occur in the New Testament.
The problem at this point is the choice of words that translators have used when translating the Bible into English. Traditionally translators have chosen to translate the Greek word ekklesia (ἐκκλησία) in the New Testament as church. The equivalent of the Greek word ekklesia in the Hebrew Old Testament is the word qahal (קָהָל), but the translators have generally chosen to translate qahal as assembly or congregation rather than use the word church. This is rather strange given that ekklesia and qahal are virtual equivalents in terms of meaning. If the translators had chosen to translate qahal as church, then it would have been obvious to English readers that the Old Testament people of Israel were also a church.
Even though the traditional English translations do not help the reader to understand that old covenant Israel was a church, the first Christians did not encounter such linguistic confusion. The Hebrew word qahal was usually rendered in the LXX (except in the Pentateuch) as ekklesia. We also have the example of Acts 7:38 where Stephen in his final sermon spoke about the ekklesia of Israel in the wilderness. Stephen spoke Greek, and influenced by the language of the LXX, he naturally used the word ekklesia of the people of Israel. It is interesting at this point, however, that, even though ekklesia is normally translated in the New Testament by the word church, the translators of the Bible into English have usually translated it in Acts 7:38 using the word assembly or congregation. The translators may have used a different word than church, but in Stephen’s mind the people of Israel constituted a church in the wilderness. In the mind of the first Christians, ekklesia and qahal were effectively interchangeable.
The church is simply God’s people viewed either as being gathered together or as forming a sacred community together. The people of Israel at the time of the Old Testament were the people of God. As such, they constituted a church, the old covenant church. It is a misreading of the Bible, therefore, to think that the church did not exist prior to Jesus coming into the world. Indeed, it is because Old Testament Israel was a church that the Christian church today can learn lessons from the experience of Old Testament Israel. The Apostle Paul says in 1 Cor 10:11: “these things happened to them [i.e., to Israel] as an example, but they were written down for our warning, on whom the end of the ages has come.” The historical record of God’s dealings with the old covenant church of Israel in times gone by is meant in God’s plan to teach the new covenant church of Christ today many important lessons about God and the proper manner of relating to him.