Exploring Worship: Part Six, Worship in the New Testament and the Early Church

The previous article in this series examined worship in the Old Testament. In this article, we turn to worship in the New Testament. As we approach this topic, we need to look at it from the perspective of the example of Christ and the Apostolic church, specific teaching about worship, and the transformation of worship introduced by Jesus and the Early Church.

The Example of Jesus and the Apostles

When we look at Jesus’ worship practices, the Gospels tell us explicitly that Jesus attended worship in the synagogues and that He celebrated the Jewish Feasts; it is also reasonable to assume that He prayed the Amidah three times per day since not doing so was considered a sin, and even His most serious opponents never faulted Him on His prayer life. He also gave alms and sang hymns such as the Psalms that were sung at the end of the Passover.

In short, Jesus followed the worship traditions and practices of observant Jews of his day.

Although we have some evidence about worship in the century following the New Testament, we have relatively little information about the apostolic era. It is likely that worship was based on synagogue models. Given that the majority of the first generation of Christians were from a Jewish background, they would naturally follow the patterns of worship that they were used to, though infused with new meaning. This is likely true in many of the churches founded by Paul, considering that he started his evangelism whenever possible with the Jewish community.

The Church in Jerusalem

We can see this in the description of the church of Jerusalem under the apostles (Acts 2:42, 46-47): “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers…. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people….” (ESV).

Note that the Christians attended worship in the Temple daily: they did not separate themselves from the Jewish community and, like Jesus, continued following Jewish worship traditions. As we have seen in a previous article, the phrase “the prayers” suggests that the disciples used liturgical prayers like those recited in the synagogue. Along with worshiping in the Temple, the early Christians continued to participate in synagogue worship as well, at least until the Amidah prayers were modified to include a condemnation of Christians. Further, for the first few centuries Christians seem to have continued to celebrate the Jewish feasts, seeing in them divine promises that were fulfilled in Christ.

The Jerusalem Church also regularly celebrated the Lord’s Supper. While the phrase “breaking of bread” can refer to a meal (e.g. in vs. 46), in vs. 42 the context clearly indicates something more than eating together: the church devoted themselves to the breaking of bread, which is parallel to the apostles’ teaching, the fellowship, and the prayers. Given what we know about the early church, it must refer to the Lord’s Supper.

The church also saw teaching and close, intimate relations with each other as essential elements of worship.

The Lord’s Day

Along with the sabbath worship at the synagogue, early Christians met to worship on the first day of the week. There were several reasons for this: Jesus was raised from the dead on the first day of the week; the Holy Spirit was poured out on the church on the first day of the week; as the “Eighth Day” it also represented the beginning of the New Creation.” We also know from 1 Cor. 16:2 that the Gentile churches gathered on the first day of the week. The Lord’s Supper was celebrated at this service since it would be impossible to do so on the Sabbath with the general Jewish community.

Less Structured Worship

The early church thus followed worship models based on the synagogue liturgies with some specifically Christian additions. At the same time, we know that prophets were active in the churches, including in the regions around Jerusalem. 1 Cor. 12-14 suggests that a far more spontaneous, charismatically-driven approach to worship was in place in at least some churches, most likely in predominantly Gentile regions. (Traditional interpretations of these passages dispute this: they argue that the people who prophesy and speak at public worship were limited by implication to the elders. However, this view seems incoherent: the sources that argue this reject women as elders, yet there are instructions for women who prophesy in public worship, so either women were elders, or the instructions are not limited to elders.)

There thus seems to be a diversity of approaches to worship, including worship in the Temple, synagogue-based liturgies, spontaneous, charismatic worship, and probably blends of these. This in turn suggests that we should expect and allow for a diversity in liturgical practices in different regions and from different cultural backgrounds today.

Principles of Worship: Pagans and Jews

Along with these worship activities, the New Testament introduced a number of important changes to the way both Jews and Gentiles approached worship.

For Gentiles, worship for the most part involved sacrifices and formal prayers to acknowledge the god’s authority over her or his sphere of influence, but little in the way of actual devotion: the gods were feared, not loved. Holiness was conceived in terms of ritual purity; it did not involve behavior or ethical or moral considerations.

Jews shared some elements of this concept of worship, but with some significant differences. Like Gentiles, sacrifice was an important component of worship. There were morning and evening sacrifices, sacrifices at the New Moon, regular festivals, etc., all of which recognized God’s authority in all areas of life. And, of course, there were also sin offerings. But all of these sacrifices could only be performed in one place: the Temple in Jerusalem. Even though most Jews did not live in Jerusalem and thus worshiped primarily in synagogues, the Temple was the center of Jewish worship as the one place where God had chosen to be especially present.

In addition to restricting the location of sacrifices, there were also restrictions on who could participate in worship: only priests, who were in principle descendants of Aaron, could perform sacrifices; only descendants of Levi could join the priests in leading worship; only Jews were admitted into the Temple, and only men past a certain point; etc.

The Jews had a more expansive notion of holiness than the Gentiles. Although the Jews emphasized ritual purity via dietary restrictions, ceremonial washings, the sacrifices, etc., they also recognized that God’s holiness included moral perfection, and thus holiness for his people went beyond ritual purity to proper behavior, including particularly avoiding violations of God’s laws.

Jesus upended all of this.

New Testament Transformations of Worship

In John 4, Jesus tells the woman at the well that the time will come when the location of worship won’t matter. Jerusalem and its Temple were being replaced as the center of worship, and instead people would worship in Spirit and in truth. Since after Pentecost, the Holy Spirit dwells within believers, God’s presence is in us. We are individually Temples of the Holy Spirit, and when the church meets, it is God’s Temple as well.

Who could participate in public worship also changed dramatically. In the Gospel, the door is open for all people to come to salvation and to become part of God’s covenant people. And once we enter into the New Covenant, 1 Peter 2:5 and 9 tell us that we are all priests—we have direct access to God through Christ, and we are thus fit to participate fully in the worship of God, whatever our ancestry, gender, or social status.

Sacrifice, so central to both Jewish and Gentile worship, was brought to its completion in Christ’s perfect sacrifice on the cross. All that the sacrifices point to find their fulfillment in his crucifixion. As had been hinted at In the Old Testament, worshipers in Spirit and truth offer spiritual sacrifices, including such things as praise and thanks, doing good, and sharing with those in need (Heb. 13:15-16).

Holiness has also been redefined. It is no longer about ritual or ceremonial purity at all. Instead, holiness is grounded in our inner life and expressed in outward action. What we do matters, of course, but our habitual actions flow from within us, and thus our hearts need to be clean if we are to live a holy life (Matt. 23:26). The hope of a clean heart, a heart given over to obedience to God and to love of God and neighbor, was the great hope of the prophet Ezekiel (Ezek. 36:25-27) and is the heart of Jeremiah’s prophecy of the New Covenant (Jer. 31:31-34).

As we look at the New Testament, we can glean elements of worship practice from the example and teaching of Jesus and the apostles; more significantly, we also see a refocusing of the principles underlying worship toward the total person, a unification of the inner life with our outer life, incorporating all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength. We have one more place to look for guidance on biblical worship: the worship occurring in heaven as revealed to us in the Apocalypse. We turn to this in our next article.


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