Ecclesia – The Church
B. H. Carroll
It was not the original purpose to extend the discussion of the question, What is the Church, into a second lecture. It was supposed that you would be able of yourselves to classify all New Testament uses of ecclesia under the several heads of abstract, generic, particular and prospective, by applying the principles of the first lecture.
But the nature and variety of your new questions constrain me to enlarge the discussion somewhat and to supply you with a wider usage of the word than the New Testament affords. Of the great number of instances from the classics, read to you, at my request, by Mr. Ragland, our Professor of Greek, your attention is recalled to a few, specially pertinent.
(1) Those which so clearly show the distinction between ecclesia as an organized business body and all unofficial gatherings, e.g., "Pericles seeing them angry at the present state of things—did not call them to the ecclesia or any other meeting." —Thucydides.
Again, "When after this the ecclesia adjourned, they came together and planned—for the future still being uncertain, meetings and speeches of all sorts took place in the market. They were afraid the ecclesia would be summoned suddenly." —Demosthenes. Compare this distinction with the town-clerk’s statement in Acts 19:39, 40.
(2) Those concerning the ecclesias of the several petty but independent Greek states, Sparta, Athens and others, bringing out clearly the business character of these assemblies, their free and democratic deliberations, their final decisions by vote, and reminding us so forcibly of the proceedings of independent Baptist churches of our day.
(3) Those showing the discriminating character of the Greek mind in the use of panyegyros, as distinguished from ecclesia. Ecclesia was the particular and independent business assembly of any Greek state, however small. Panegyros was the general assembly of the people of all the Greek states. It was a festive assembly looking to rest, joy, peace, glory, and not to business and war. Let not the Lacedaemonians come up armed to this assembly.
It was a happy Greek conceit that all the Heavenly beings were present at these Olympian meetings. How felicitously does the inspired author of the letter to the Hebrews adapt himself to this discrimination, when in contrast with the particular ecclesia on earth, he writes of the general assembly and church of the first born in glory—panegyros kai ecclesia. There, not Zeus, but God the judge. There not a pantheon or inferior deities and demigods, but myriads of angels, and the spirits of just men made perfect. There war and toil have ceased, and peace and rest reign forever. There are bestowed not fading laurels, but everlasting crowns of life, righteousness, joy and glory. (See 1 Cor. 9:25; 2 Tim. 4:8; Jas. 1:12; 1 Pet. 5:4; Rev. 2:10; 9:7).
That general assembly is not bound by the limitations of the one Greek nation but infinitely transcends the Olympian gatherings in a countless multitude out of every nation, tribe, tongue and kindred. Jew, Greek, Roman, Scythian, barbarian, bond and free mingle in one tide of brotherhood (Rev. 7:9).
Some of your questions induced me to supply you with the entire Septuagint usage. You have before you now all the instances of this use of ecclesia, including the readings of the several texts, in both the canonical books and Apocrypha. To these have been added the additional instances from other Greek versions of the Old Testament, Aquila (A.D. 130), Theodotion (A.D. 160), Symmachus (A.D. 193), et al; i.e., so far as they are cited in the concordance of Abraham Trommius (A.D. 1718) and the new mammoth concordance of Hatch & Redpath, Oxford (1893). These instances, about 114 in all, nearly equal the New Testament number, giving us a total of about 230 uses of the word not counting the classics. This is every way sufficient for inductive study. Of course the post-apostolic versions of Aquila, Theodotion and Symmachus had no influence in determining the earlier New Testament usage, but as the work of Jews in the second century they confirm that usage.
It was to the classic and Septuagint usage the first lecture referred in saying that the New Testament writers neither coined the word nor employed it in an unusual sense.
They wrote in Greek, to readers and speakers of Greek, using Greek words in their common acceptation in order to be understood. With this usage before us let us seek an answer to your new questions:
I. As in the Septuagint ecclesia translates the Hebrew word qahal, does it not mean, "All Israel, whether assembled or unassembled?"
My reply is, I see not how this question could have risen in my mind from a personal, inductive study of all the Septuagint passages, since in every instance of the 114 cited the word means a gathering together—an assembly.
You can see that for yourselves by the context of your English version. The Septuagint usage is as solidly one thing as the Macedonia phalanx. Unfortunately in our broad theological reading our minds become so preoccupied with the loose generalizations of the great Pedobaptist scholars, Harnack, Hatch, Hort, Cremer and others, that we unconsciously neglect to investigate and think for ourselves. Let not admiration for distinguished scholarship blot out your individuality. Accept nothing blindly on mere human authority.
In determining this question, have nothing to do with the meaning of qahal in its other connections. Rigidly adhere to the passages where ecclesia translates it. Because a word sometimes serves for another, do not foist on it all the meanings of the other word.
It is well enough to illustrate by synonyms, but do not define by them. Definition by supposed synonyms was the curse of the Baptismal controversy. Because a question about purifying arose between a Jew and John’s disciples, Edward Beecher must write an illogical book to show that Baptizo means only to purify, and, of course, by any method. Study Carson on Baptism and you will learn much about the principles of accurate definition.
II. "But," another question asks, "do not some of these Septuagint passages justify the meaning of unassembled?" While I accepted Pedobaptist ideas, I thought so, but never since I looked into the matter for myself. I do not know of even one such passage. I never heard of a definite claim being set up to more than four out of 114. Turn now to these four in your Revised English Bibles. They are 1 Kings 8:65; 1 Chronicles 28:8; Ezra 10:8; Ezekiel 32:3.
The first two settle themselves by a mere reading. In Ezra "the assembly of the captivity" might be supposed to refer, in a loose way, to the people while captives in Babylon. But in fact it has no such reference as the context shows. It simply means the 42,360 who returned from captivity as a definite Jerusalem assembly, repeatedly called together. In Ezekiel 32:3, an unreliable reading has ecclesia for the English word company. But even then the idea is the same. "Many peoples" in that sentence signify nothing against the usual meaning of the word. They do not constitute an ecclesia until gathered into a company. Xerxes, Timour, Napoleon, the White Tzar, and many others have formed a great company out of the contingents of many people.
Heretofore the advocates of the present existence of "an universal, invisible, spiritual, unassembled church" have boldly rested their case on the Septuagint usage. The premise of their argument was, that the New Testament writers must have used the word in the sense that a Jew accustomed to the Greek Old Testament would understand. A fine premise, by the way. But to save the theory from total collapse some new line of defense must be invented. And that is intimated in your next question:
III. "As Christ was establishing a new institution, widely different from the Greek state ecclesia, was not ecclesia in the New Testament used in a new, special and sacred sense? Does not the word in the New Testament commonly mean the same as the Kletoi, or the called, without reference to either organization, or assembly?"
On many accounts I am delighted with the opportunity to reply to this question. The reply is couched in several distinct observations:
(1) This question demonstrates hopeful progress in the controversy and prophesies a speedy and final settlement. It not only necessarily implies a clean-cut surrender of the old line of defense, but also narrows a hitherto broad controversy into a single new issue, susceptible of easy settlement. If this new position proves untenable there is no other to which the defense can be shifted. This is the last ditch. And the fact that it is new indicates the extremity of its advocates.
(2) Like the former contention, this, too, is borrowed from the Pedobaptists. They tried hard and long to make it serve in the Baptismal controversy. Their contention then was that though Baptizo meant to dip or immerse in classic Greek, yet in the Bible it was used in a new and sacred sense. The scholarship of the world rebuked them. Words are signs or ideas. To mean anything they must be understood according to the common acceptation in the minds of those addressed. I know of no more dangerous method of interpretation than the assumption that a word must be taken to mean something different from its real meaning. Revelation in that case ceases to be revelation. We are at sea without helm, or compass, or guiding star.
(3) There is nothing in the difference between Christ’s ecclesia on the one hand, and the classic or Septuagint ecclesia on the other hand, to justify a new sense in the word. The difference lies not in the meaning of the word, but in the object, terms of membership and other things.
(4) This proposed new sense destroys the two essential ideas of the old word, organization and assembly, and thereby leaves Christ without an institution or official, business body in the world. From the days of Abel the Kletoi, or called, have been in the world. If therefore, the New Testament ecclesia means only the "called," then what did Christ establish in His time?
(5) If by ecclesia, only the called in their scattered capacity are meant, why use both ecclesia and Kletoi? How can there be a body of Kletoi if the essential ideas of ecclesia are left out? If there be no organization, no assembly, how can there be a body? Miscellaneous, scattered, unattached units do not make a body.
(6) Finally there is not the slightest evidence that ecclesia has any such arbitrary meaning. But this will more clearly appear if you examine the usage passage by passage.
IV. "But when Paul says, I persecuted the church, surely that can only mean that he persecuted the disciples?"
But it does mean much more. It means exactly what it says. The mere individuals as such counted nothing with Paul. It was the organization to which they belonged, and what that organization stood for. As proof of this our Lord arrested him with the question: "Why persecutest thou me? I am Jesus whom thou persecutest." Jesus was not persecuted in person by Saul.
So when "Herod the King put forth his hand to afflict certain of the church" he aimed at the organization, in what it stood for, though directly his wrath fell only on James and Peter.
V. "But if the church means assembly does not that require it to be always in session?" No ecclesia, classic, Jewish or Christian, known to history, held perpetual session. They all adjourned and came together again according to the requirements of the case. The organization, the institution, was not dissolved by temporary adjournment.
VI. "But if the earthly ecclesia exists now, though many of its members forsake the assembling of themselves together, and if it continually receives new members, why may we not say the general assembly exists now, though all be not actually assembled, nor all its members yet born?" This is the most plausible objection yet offered, and one that greatly perplexes some minds. Your rigid attention, therefore, is called to the reply. It is admitted that the particular assembly on earth is not always in session either as a worshiping or business body. The word ecclesia never did require perpetual session. Nor does it now. There has been no change of requirement in that respect from the days of Pericles till now. Nor does the word require that all its Kletoi or members shall be present at every session. Nor does the word itself forbid the accession of new members.
Moreover, a particular ecclesia might continue as an historic institution so long that there might be an entire change in the personnel of its members many times. There are particular Baptist churches now existing in which these changes have actually occurred. Seldom does the roll of members remain the same even one year. Some die, some are excluded, some move away into other communities, new members are received. The attendance upon the sessions for worship and business continually varies. Some are sick, some travel, some backslide. Conditions of weather, politics or war affect the attendance. Yea, more, storms, plagues, or persecution may for the time being scatter the members of a particular church over a wide area of territory. None of these things in the slightest degree affect the meaning of the word.
Ecclesia remains throughout an organized assembly whose members are properly called out from their private homes or business to attend to public affairs.
The difference between the earthly and heavenly ecclesia in regard to the foregoing mutations does not arise at all from the word but from the nature of the case.
By its very nature the earthly ecclesia is imperfect. It is a time institution. By the conditions of its earthly existence there are fluctuations in attendance and membership. By its location in a world of lost people and by its commission to save them, there is constant accession of members.
The changed nature of the case and of the conditions make these things different with the general assembly. It can not increase in members because there is no salvable material from which to gain accessions. Character has crystallized and probation ended. The lost then, are forever lost, and Hell admits of no evangelism. The word would not forbid evangelism but the nature of the case does.
Not only the word, but the nature of the case renders present existence of the general assembly impossible. Into the earthly house material enters according to credible evidence of regeneration as men judge. There is no absolute guaranty against self-deception or hypocrisy. Moreover, this material even when the profession of faith is well founded, is never in a perfect state, but must be continually made better by progressive sanctification of soul. The earthly ecclesia is a workshop in which material is being prepared for the Heavenly house. Death is the last lesson of discipline for the soul. The resurrection and glorification of the body, its last lesson. No rough ashlar goes into the Heavenly House—no unhewn, unpolished, unadorned cedar timber. No half-stone or broken column would be received. If a soul, even one of the spirits of the just made perfect, were now put into that wall, the building would have to be reconstructed and readjusted to admit the body-part of that same living stone after the resurrection. There is no sound of hammer, axe, or chisel when that building goes up. All preparatory work of every stone in that building, and of every timber, must be completed before that building goes up.
It was this heavenly ecclesia, which as a coming event, cast its shadow before David and Solomon and constituted their inexorable plan for the typical temple. Because the plan given them was a shadow of better things to come they were not allowed to vary a hair’s-breath from the pattern of the Divine Architect.
There is nothing in the word ecclesia itself to forbid its application to "the Spirits of the just made perfect" now in heaven and continually receiving accessions. They are an assembly in fact. And Thayer seems to so understand Hebrews 12:23. I do not agree with him in making "general assembly and church of the first born" synonymous with "the spirits of the just made perfect." To my mind, they represent two very distinct ideas. But he is certainly right in supposing that the assembled spirits of the righteous dead may be called an ecclesia. But when one defines the general assembly to be the aggregate of all the elect, and then affirms its present existence, he does violence to philology, common sense and revelation. The earthly ecclesia is an organization now, an assembly now, though not always in session. The general assembly is not an organization now, is not an assembly now, and therefore exists only as a prospect.
VII. You ask for a particular explanation of several Scriptures which seem difficult to harmonize with the contentions of the first lecture, all of which in turn will now receive attention:
(1) Acts 9:31—"So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace, being edified; and walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, was multiplied" (R.V.) To my mind, this is the only use of ecclesia in all Biblical or classic literature that is difficult of explanation. The difficulty is frankly confessed. Nor am I sure that such explanation as I have to offer will be satisfactory to you. In any event, nothing is ever gained for truth by lack of candor. Judging from the uniform use of the word elsewhere one would naturally expect here a plural noun with plural verbs as we have in the King James Version. And this expectation would be entirely apart from a desire to serve a theory. The difficulty here does not help the theory of "the now-existing universal, invisible, spiritual church."
It is quite easy to explain it so far as any comfort would accrue to that theory. The difficulty lies in another direction entirely, and seems to oppose a Baptist contention on another point, in whose maintenance my Baptist opponents in the present controversy are fully as much concerned as myself. On its face the passage seems to justify the provincial or state-wide—or national use of the word church on earth which all Baptist deny. That is the only difficulty I see in the passage. All the context shows that the reference is to the earthly church and not to the heavenly. The limits of this lecture forbid a discussion of the text question. The texts vary. Some manuscripts and versions have the very plural noun with its plural verbs that one would naturally expect from the uniform usage elsewhere. The King James Version follows these. The oldest and best manuscripts, however, have the singular noun with corresponding verbs. The Revised Version follows them.
Now for the explanation:
(1) The reading, "Churches," followed by the common version may be the right one, leaving nothing to explain. In all other cases, whether in Old or New Testament, where the sense calls for the plural, we have it in the text. Not to have it here is an isolated, jarring exception. See Acts 15:41; 16:5; Rom. 16:4, 6; 1 Cor. 7:17: 11:26; 14:33, 34; 16:1, 19; 2 Cor. 8:1, 18, 23; 11:8, 28; 12:23; Gal. 1:2, 22; 1 Thess. 2:14; 2 Thess. 1:4; Rev. 1:4, 11, 20; 2:7, 11, 17, 20, 23; 3:6, 13, 22; 22:16; Psa. 26:12; 68:26; Ecclesiasticus 24:2. It is well to note that Murdock’s translation of the Peshito Syriac cites a Greek plural in the margin.
(2) But accepting the singular, according to the Revised Version, then, says Broadus, "the word probably denotes the original church at Jerusalem, whose members were by persecution widely scattered throughout Judea and Galilee and Samaria, and held meetings wherever they were, but still belonged to the one original organization. When Paul wrote to the Galatians nearly twenty years later, these separate meetings had been organized into distinct churches; and so he speaks (Gal. 1:22), in reference to that same period, of the churches of Judea which were in Christ." —Com. on Matt., p. 359. This was the church which Saul persecuted and of which he made havoc. Concerning the effect of this persecution the record says "they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria" —Acts 8:1. "Now they which were scattered abroad upon the persecution that arose about Stephen traveled as far as Phenice, and Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word" —Acts 11:19. So, when in the paragraph just preceding our Scripture, there is an account of Saul, as a convert, worshiping and preaching with the church he had formerly persecuted, we may not be surprised at the statement "So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace." Meyer says the "So draws an inference from the whole history in vv. 3:30: in consequence of the conversion of the former chief enemy and his transformation into the zealous apostle."
But you may say, when they are thus scattered does not that break up the assembly idea in the word? This question has been previously answered in this lecture. It has been said that a storm, like that which swept Galveston, or a plague, like the yellow fever in Memphis, or war, as during the colossal strife between the states, or persecution, as in this case, might scatter far and wide, for the time being, the members of a particular church, but that would not change the meaning of the word church. When Tarleton made a dash at the Virginia legislature the members fled in every direction. When Howe moved on Philadelphia the Continental Congress dispersed and sought rest in safer places, but who would infer from these cases a change of meaning in legislature or congress? Under the advice of Themistocles the entire Athenian ecclesia abandoned their sacred city and sought safety from Persian invasion on their ships, but ecclesia retained its meaning.
(3) There is a third explanation possible. You may like it better than I do. It is not in harmony with one statement of my first lecture. It certainly, however, excludes comfort from the theory of the invisible general church.
Meyer understands ecclesia in Acts 9:31 in a collective sense, not of Christians collectively, but of churches collectively. His language is: "Observe, moreover, with the correct reading ecclesia (singular number) the aspect of unity under which Luke, surveying the whole domain of Christendom comprehends the churches which has been already formed, and were in process of formation."
Note that he says that the word church "comprehends the churches," not Christians. Some Baptists follow Meyer. Hovey, in Hackett on Acts, seems to quote Meyer approvingly. This explanation necessarily implies the existence, at this time, of many organized assemblies in Judea, Samaria and Galilee of which we have no definite historic knowledge. True, Philip had evangelized the city of Samaria and there was time enough, in the three years since Paul’s conversion for forming some churches, if only the record would say as much. If Meyer be right, of course, I was wrong in saying that ecclesia could not be used in the collective sense of comprehending many particular churches.
My own explanation is given in (1) and (2). Now, if a theory harmonizes all of 231 uses of a word but one, and gives a possible explanation of that one, the theory is demonstrated.
VIII. The next class of Scriptures which you wish explained is represented by Ephesians 1:22, 23; Colossians 1:18; 1 Peter 2:5; Hebrews 3:6; John 10:16.
My first remark is that the epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians were circular letters, meant to be read to other churches with equal application. Hence the use of the term church in a more general way than in other letters. The general use, however, does not forbid, but even requires, specific application to any one particular church, as Ephesians 2:21, 22, R.V., shows. In like manner Peter’s first letter was written to Jewish saints of the dispersion in Asia Minor, but not specifically to any particular church. Hence, when he says, "Ye, also, as living stones are built up a spiritual house," he does not mean that all the Jewish saints in Asia Minor constitute one church. To say the least of it, that is certainly an unbaptistic idea. It also contradicts the record in Acts showing the planting of many particular churches in this section, made up of Jews and Gentiles, and also ignores the seven churches of Revelation, all in the same section. But Peter means, using the word "house" in a generic sense, that whenever and wherever enough of you come together to form a particular church, that will be a spiritual house in which to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. Just as in Ephesians 2:21, 22 R.V., the apostle in the same breath converts the general or abstract idea of church into particular churches. Murdock’s translation of the Syriac Peshito reads: "And ye also, as living stones, are builded and become spiritual temples" in 1 Peter 2:5.
It is characteristic of circular letters to use terms in general form that must find concrete expression in particular forms. A man writing a circular to Texas Baptists at large, or to all Baptist churches of Texas would find it difficult to refrain from using some general expressions which must be left to the common sense of each particular church for making specific application. It is a matter of congratulation that since the circular, called the letter to the Ephesians, employs more of these general terms than any other letter, we have been so thoroughly safeguarded from misconstruction of its generalities by three distinct instances of specific application, in Acts 20:28, 29; Ephesians 2:21, 22; 1 Timothy 3:14, 15, to this Ephesus church.
The epistle to the Hebrews is even more general in its address than the two just considered, and we have only to apply the same principles of interpretation heretofore set forth to understand Hebrews 3:6— "Whose house are we." The writer certainly never intended to convey the impression that all Hebrew Christians constituted one church. That also, to say the least of it, is an unbaptistic idea. We know it to be an unscriptural one, because it contradicts Paul in Galatians 1:22. It is utterly illogical to claim either Hebrews 3:6 or 1 Peter 2:5 for examples of the so-called "universal church" idea. If the advocates of this idea insist on denying the particular church in these cases because one letter was addressed to all the Hellenist converts of Asia Minor, and the other was addressed to all the converted Palestinean Hebrews, then I demand that they also stick to the text, and claim for either case Jews and Jews only. This not only shuts them off from the general assembly in which Jew and Gentile form one new man, but forces them to the absurdity of having on earth one Jewish church big as Asia Minor—that big—no more—and the other big as Judea, that big, no more, and that leaves still running at large all the rest of the converted Jews of the dispersion, and puts them in conflict with Scripture history which shows many particular churches in these sections. To show you the difference between the general use of the term "church" in a circular of miscellaneous address and its direct and particular use in a document addressed to specific churches, compare the use of church in Revelation with the use of church in the letter to the Ephesians. In the twenty times of Revelation we have more than one-sixth of the New Testament usage.
A few words will dispose of John 10:16—"other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and they shall become one flock, one shepherd." This passage is strong confirmation of my first lecture. Considering the church abstractly, that is, in the sense of an institution, Christ purposed to make of twain, Jew and Gentile, one new man. In each particular church where Jew and Gentile blend, Christ’s purpose is partially fulfilled. But in the general assembly in glory it is completely fulfilled.
When in some of the foregoing Scriptures, Christ is represented as head over all things to the church—His body, you easily meet all the requirements of the language by saying:
(1) He is head over all things to His earth church as an institution.
(2) He is head over all things to any particular earth church.
(3) He is head over all things to His general assembly in glory.
There remain for consideration only two other Scriptures and then all your questions are answered, Ephesians 5:25-27; Hebrews 12:18-24. And these will receive particular attention because they were cited in the first lecture as referring to the general assembly. On Hebrews 12:23, you inquire, Does not the tense of the verb "Ye are come... to the general assembly, etc.," prove the present existence of the general assembly? How else can it be said, ye are come to it?
To which I reply:
In Galatians 4, Paul says that Hagar and Sarah, under an allegory, represent the two covenants. Hagar, or Mt. Sinai, in Arabia, answering to the Jerusalem that now is, is the law-covenant gendering to bondage. Sarah, or Mt. Zion, answering to the Jerusalem above, is the grace-covenant gendering to freedom.
So, when in Hebrews 12 it says, "Ye are not come unto the mount that might be touched" (i.e., Mt. Sinai), it simply means ye are not under the law-covenant, with its threats and horrible outlook. And when it adds:
"Ye are come to Mt. Zion, etc.," (perfect tense), it simply means that we are under the grace-covenant with its promises and glorious outlook. In other words, what we have actually reached is a covenant, a regime, a standard of life, and are under its requirements and incited by its glorious prospects.
But an exegesis, based on the tense of that verb, which claims that Christians have already attained unto all the alluring elements of the outlook of the grace-covenant, enumerated in that passage, is as mad as a March hare.
That Jerusalem is above, and because not yet, is contrasted with the Jerusalem that now is. It is the city and country set forth in the preceding chapter, toward which the faith and hope of the patriarchs looked. It was a possession to them only in the sense that they were the heirs of a promised inheritance reserved in Heaven. Abraham, with the other heirs of that promise, patiently dwelt in tents, "for he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God." And all the patriarchs "died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them and greeted them afar off, yea, promises, but having seen them and greeted them afar off, yea, "and these all, having had witness borne to them through their faith, received not the promise, God having provided some better things for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect" (Heb. 11). And so we also (Heb. 12:1) run the race set before us, not yet having attained the goal or received the prize (Compare 1 Cor. 9:25-27; Phil. 3:7-14; 2 Tim. 4:6-8).
Our Lord Himself held out the promise, "The pure in heart shall see God." But not yet have we actually come "to God, the judge." But John, in his apocalypse of the Heavenly City, with its general assembly, tells the time of attainment: "And they shall see his face" —Revelation 22:4.
The imagery of Hebrews 12, is that of the Olympic races. A goal marked the terminus of the race. There sat the judge, who, when the races were over, awarded the prize to the victor. In the Christian race the goal is the resurrection and then only comes the prize (See Phil. 3:7-14 and 1 Tim. 4:6-8). It is then we come to God the judge who awards the prize.
The example of our Lord is cited, Hebrews 12:2, "The joy set before him" was prospective and reached when he sees the travail of his soul and is satisfied.
The angels of that category, make unseen visits to us now in our earthly home, but then we shall in fact go to the myriads of shining ones in their celestial home.
Now, on earth, with the blood of Christ, our consciences, are cleansed from dead works to serve the living God. But there, we enter the true Holy of Holies, and behold where Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant, did place the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things for us than the blood of Abel, on the true Mercy-seat to make atonement for sin. As our forerunner, the Lord, Himself, has passed through the veil. But to us, this safe passage, is as yet only a glorious hope set before us; which we have as an anchor of the soul, a hope both sure and steadfast" —Hebrews 6:17-19.
We, yet in our bodies, have not joined "the spirits of the just made perfect" nor entered "the general assembly and church of the first born, who are written in heaven." When we read Revelation 21 and 22, we sing: "O when, thou city of my God, shall thy courts ascend!"
Your question on Ephesians 5:25-27 is similar. "Verse 29 declares that Christ nourishes and cherishes the church, as a husband does his wife. Does not this demand the present existence of the general assembly?"
To which I reply:
(1) The nourishing and cherishing of verse 29 refer to after marriage conduct, as the context shows, and Christ’s marriage with the bride is far away in the future (See Rev. 19:7-9; 21:2, 9, 10).
But let it be misapplied to the prenuptial state—it matters not. The force of any argument in the question is all in the tense of the verbs "nourisheth and cherisheth." Let us turn that argument loose and see what it proves. In the whole passage, Christ and the church come before us under the figures of bridegroom and bride. The church is conceived of as a unit, a person, and all the verbs employed, namely, "loved—gave himself for—might cleanse— might present-nourishment and cherisheth" follow the requirements of the figure. But when we come to historical facts we find:
(1) That the love, in eternity, preceded the existence of any part of the church.
(2) The giving Himself preceded the existence of the greater part of the church.
(3) The cleansing (and the nourishing and cherishing if misapplied) applies to the process of preparing the members, as each in turn comes upon the stage of being throughout the gospel dispensation from Adam to the second advent.
(4) The presentation of the completed and perfected church follows the second advent.
(5) The nourishing and cherishing (rightly applied) of the perfected church follows the presentation.
Now if the present tense of the nourishing proves present existence of the general assembly, does not the past tense of "loved" prove past existence of the general assembly before man was created? Why should the tense of one of the verbs have more proof force in it than another in the same connection? To grant this, however, proves too much and so the argument based on tense is worthless in this case.