While believers profit from a study of the doctrine of worship in the Old Testament, obviously guidance on the subject from the New is even more relevant. Its pages reveal what one would expect, that the worship of the early Church was influenced by what happened at the Temple. After all, the earliest disciples came out of Judaism. That is also the reason why worship practices in local synagogues influenced them further. With the coming of Christ into the world and the outpouring of the Spirit as recorded early in the Book of Acts, however, Christian worship of the first century had its own unique features. All of these influences, then, resulted in a distinctive worship in local Christian assemblies of the period. Every major division of the New Testament provides insight as to what early Christian worship was like: the Gospels, Acts, the Epistles, and Revelation.
The Bible remains the sole and sufficient guide for practice in the worship of true believers. In their interpretation of Scripture, Protestants have generally used the grammatical-historical approach. That is, they focus first on the grammar, what the texts of the Sacred Writings actually say. Then they seek to discover the historical context of the passage. This often fills in the blanks for them in their understanding of the Bible. This is as true for understanding the biblical doctrine of worship as it is for any other doctrine.
Since most of the early converts to Christianity came from a life of worship in the Temple, it is not surprising that at least some of what they learned there remained with them as they began worship in a local church.
Indeed, Jesus taught His disciples to respect the Temple though it was a much decayed institution and about to be replaced. He worshiped there Himself during the appointed feast days. He cleansed it of visible corruption twice. He supported it financially through the temple tax. He never participated in its sacrificial rituals, however, though His parents offered the prescribed sacrifices for themselves at His dedication there. He had no need ever to do so.
Further, the early Jewish Christians continued to go there for prayer and used some of its areas for teaching; they made no immediate, clear break with the Temple at conversion as some might think. As Ralph Martin notes, in their worship they continued to use temple terminology. They still spoke of the Temple, though now the Church, as well as the physical bodies of believers, became the temple of the Lord. They yet referred to the High Priest, except for them Jesus now filled that office. Priests continued to function, though the priesthood now consisted of all believers. Christian terminology included mention of the altar. Now, however, it no longer focused on the physical altar of burnt offerings or the altar of incense in the Holy Place of the Temple. Those furnishings of the Temple were now spiritualized.
Early Christians still talked about offering sacrifices to God. They ceased, however, to have in mind presenting literal animals on the altar of burnt offerings at the Temple. They now offered their bodies as living sacrifices (Rom. 12:1). Nor does the term sacrifice as they used it have the meaning it does in many worship circles today. In using it they spoke not of presenting to God something that was painful to give. Their "sacrifice of praise" was not one lifted to Him when the believer did not feel emotionally like doing so. Larry Hurtado draws attention to the difference between the meaning of the word sacrifice then and its meaning now. He says that "it is necessary to stress that in the ancient world to sacrifice was to make an offering, a gift to the gods, and had a very positive, even joyous, meaning."
The writer of the Book of Hebrews uses that expression to describe what is now an acceptable "offering" to the Lord. He wrote, "Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise--the fruit of lips that confess his name" (Heb. 13:15). Thus he draws a contrast between the literal grain sacrifice (the fruit of one's field) in the Temple and the offering of praise, the fruit of the lips. He then reminds believers that other kinds of sacrifices (offerings) are also pleasing to God. He says, "And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased" (v. 16).
It stands to reason that the institution of the synagogue influenced early Christian worship even more than did the Temple. Alexander MacDonald concludes, "It was quite natural for Jewish Christians to regard their Christian worship-gathering as a synagogue." After all, Judaism had only one Temple while at the same time it had many synagogues. Indeed, where at least ten Jewish men dwelt in an area, the custom was that they should erect a synagogue. Andrew Blackwood concludes that "the early Christian Church took over the synagogue form of worship to a large measure."
That influence appears in the fact that the organizational structure of the local church of the first century was similar to that of the synagogue out of which believers first came. The officers in the synagogue included its Ruler or President. He was a layman. No synagogue had its own resident Rabbi, Priest, or Levite. In fact, the synagogues were not organically related to the Temple. In addition to the Ruler, the synagogue also had a Board of Elders, a group of Almoners, a Scroll Officer, a Messenger or prayer and song reader and leader, and a Herald of Shemah. In following much of this same organization, New Testament churches were not unstructured gatherings centered merely on fellowship and love.
Further, the order of service in the local first century church was similar to that in the synagogue. That order began with the pronouncement of the Shemah: "Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one" (Deut. 6:4). It continued with the singing of psalms and then the offering of prayers. After that came the reading of Scripture. Luke draws attention to that part of the meeting in the synagogue as he records the ministry of Jesus there on one occasion (Luke 4:16-21). If a qualified person was present, especially a guest Rabbi, he would be invited by the President to make comments on the passage that had been read. In other words, the privilege of giving the sermon of the day would be his. Finally, the service closed with a benediction. This historical evidence strongly suggests that New Testament worship was not formless and disorganized. In fact most non-liturgical churches still follow much the same pattern of worship to this day. MacDonald notes that the order of service in the synagogue "is represented today by the ordinary Protestant Service"
The discussion of the influence of the Temple and the synagogue on early Christian worship does not mean that believers came to sprinkle a bit of each plus a hefty serving of the beatitudes into a bowl, mix them thoroughly, and declare, "Ah ha! Christian worship!" Worship in the early Christian Church had its own unique features.
These included a distinct difference in leadership. While the synagogue had as its Ruler only a volunteer non-clerical lay leader serving part-time, the local Christian church had a resident, fulltime Pastor who was supported financially by the congregation. Differences between synagogue and church appear also as to participants in worship services. Judaism denied that privilege to women. In church services, however, women both prayed and prophesied publicly (1 Cor. 11:5). As to the exercise of spiritual gifts, Hurtado notes that "there is no indication that social status or gender makes any difference" in early Christian worship.
The assembly of Christian believers also offered something distinct in the Scriptures it read in its worship services. Christians, of course, continued to use the Scriptures of the Old Testament, as in the synagogue. Its ministers also, however, read apostolic writings, affording them equal authority with Old Testament passages. (Col. 4:16; 1 Thess. 5:27). Unique ordinances in the church included both the communion service and the water baptismal ritual. Christian worship was certainly distinct in the freedom it offered for the moving of the Holy Spirit in His various manifestations. Concerning the church at this time, MacDonald writes, "But while her creative impulses did not express themselves in the fashioning of new forms and ceremonies of worship, they were directed with a quite unique vigour, upon the fresh spiritual content that was poured into the old forms."
Justin Martyr has left behind a description of a church worship service of the second century. He writes:
On the day of Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the Apostles and the writings of the Prophets are read as long as time permits. Then when the reader has ceased, the Ruler instructs and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then all stand together and offer prayers. At length, as we have already described, prayer being ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the President offers prayers and thanksgivings to the best of his ability, and the people assent by saying "Amen"; and the distribution and partaking of the eucharistized elements is to each, and to those who are not present it is sent by the ministry of the deacons.
The above discussion has considered historical information on first century Christian worship by looking at what believers continued to do in practicing what they had done in the Temple and synagogue. The inferences there find support in the actual texts of the New Testament. It provides believers with their best possible source for the basic features of early Christian worship.
An earlier article in this series draws attention to a core principle in the biblical doctrine of worship. It concerns an anti-ritualism theme which began in the historical books. That theme continued through the poetical and prophetical books. It appears yet again in the Gospels. Jesus restates the theme in the context of a discussion on ritualistic worship with the Samaritan woman at the Well of Jacob in Sychar (John 4:20-24).
In an indirect way the Teacher confronted the woman with the fact of sin in her life. She sought to defend herself by turning the conversation into a religious argument. One under conviction for sins often tries to change the subject to a religious argument. The first issue she raised had to do with the question of where one should worship. Samaritans said that place was Mt. Gerizim while the Jewish people centered their worship in Jerusalem.
Moses had declared Mt. Gerizim as a place of blessing (Deut. 27:4). The Samaritans came to identify it as the location where Abraham offered Isaac. In time they built a temple there. They maintained it as the center of their worship until it was destroyed in 129 B.C. Dr. Stanley M. Horton, a noted scholar and a former parishioner of mine, related to me in word and picture how the Samaritans still offer animal sacrifices in worship there to this day. Jesus responded to the woman's diversionary tactic by declaring, "Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem" (John 4:21). In other words, the physical place of worship matters little to the Lord.
The Master changed the subject to focus on the question of how to worship. He explained to the woman that "a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks" (John 4:23). Thus, worship must be based on truth. None can worship acceptably in ignorance. All must worship the God they find revealed in Scripture. They must also worship God in the Spirit, for, as Jesus explained, God is Spirit (the indefinite article a does not appear in the Greek).
This one lesson from Jesus on worship should settle things for all times. The Father does not accept a worship that is merely ritualistic in nature.
The Book of Acts indicates further what worship among Christians was like in the first century. First, it provides a general picture of the life of the community of believers in Jerusalem (Acts 2:42-47). Regular worship was prominent. They gathered daily in an area of the Temple that was available to them (v. 46). In their assembly they engaged in "praising God" (v. 47). Their worship included the "breaking of bread," or the communion service (v. 42). There were also public prayers, offered in "one accord in the temple" (vv. 42, 46).
Fellowship with one another was basic in New Testament worship (v. 42). That included the very meaningful sharing of goods (vv. 44-45). They also met in private homes, having fellowship over food. Luke records, "They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts" (v. 46). In all of this, Christian education or discipleship had a prominent part as "they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching" (v. 42).
It is little wonder, then, that the end result of such activities was evangelism. The church reached out to the world through miracles (v. 43). Their godly lifestyle attracted the attention of their neighbors with whom they found favor (v. 47). Consequently, they experienced daily conversions of sinners (v. 47).
The Book of Acts also makes clear that prayer was a regular feature in the worship of the early Church (1:14; 4:42, etc.). It further indicates that preaching was central to worship, beginning with Peter's sermon at Pentecost in chapter 2. It shows there were frequent outpourings of the Spirit (2:1-4; 13:52; etc.).
The Epistles provide further insights into early Christian worship. All members of the congregation participated in it. Each sought God's help to be a blessing to others through gifts of the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:31). Each prayed, sang, and worshiped under the unction of the Spirit (1 Cor. 14:15). Each was active during periods of the special moving of the Spirit for worship.
Early believers sang truly Christian songs (Eph. 5:18-20). These included Psalms, those of the Old Testament, which means those of the song book of the Bible. Randy Peterson says that to this day, "Some denominations will sing only texts from the psalms." Paul, however, says they also employed hymns, Christian songs of praise. The Jewish songs from the book of worship expressed praise for the creation, the Exodus, and other national and personal deliverances. Christian songs worship also for the death and resurrection of Jesus, the coming of the Spirit, and the hope of the Second Coming, as well as the other great doctrines of the Church. As to singing in the early church, Lyman Coleman says, "It consisted in part of the psalms of David, and in part hymns composed for the purpose, and expressive of love and praise to God and Christ." Further, their worship included spiritual songs, either singing in the Spirit in tongues (1 Cor. 14:15) or sacred, as opposed to secular, songs (Col. 3:16).
Christians of the first century employed songs that edified the body of believers. Through these songs the believers built one another up in the faith (Col. 3:16). What are likely lines from an ancient hymn in 1 Tim. 3:16 provide a glimpse of that. They sang songs whose theme was Jesus and whose message was some portion of Christian theology, including the Incarnation, the Resurrection, the Virgin Birth, Evangelism, Salvation, and the Exaltation of Jesus.
These facts should guide gifted song writers and musicians today. The melody or tune must complement the message, not counteract or overshadow it. The tempo and beat must not betray or drown out the message nor appeal to the flesh. Neither must the manner of presentation detract from the message. The Church of today may have been invaded more by the entertainment culture that its members generally realize. The practice of giving applause and ovations to singers and musicians, for one example, is acceptable in worldly audiences, but it likely detracts from the true worship of God.
Indeed, the message of New Testament songs brought instruction, edification, and encouragement, but they also focused on God. They addressed God in their worship (Eph. 5:19b-20). They did so in the words they used, singing to the Lord and not to men. They did so in the music they played, strumming on the strings of their hearts to Jesus. They did so in the attitude they maintained. Since all blessings come through the Christ, all praise should go to the Father through Him.
Finally, the epistles indicate the early believers presented tithes and offerings as an act of worship (1 Cor. 16:2). Paul's second letter to the Corinthians devotes all of chapters 8 and 9 to a full discussion with guidelines for the activities of the congregation in giving offerings for needy brethren in another part of the world.
Yet, all this was done in an orderly manner. Paul encouraged the Corinthians to avoid the excesses which had predominated in some of their meetings. For example, concerning spiritual manifestation of the gifts of tongues and interpretation, he counseled, "If anyone speaks in a tongue, two--or at the most three--should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret" (1 Cor. 14:27). He gave similar advice about the gift of prophecy, saying, "Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said" (v. 29). This guidance on worship indicates what the apostle had in mind when he instructed, "But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way" (v. 40).
When summing up his teachings on worship to the Corinthians, Paul presents an overview of the kinds of things that should transpire in their meetings (1 Cor. 14:26). It is the nearest thing to an order of service one finds in the New Testament. He indicates that they should engage in singing, teaching, and preaching. They should also experience the ministry of spiritual gifts such as tongues, interpretation, and the declaration of spontaneous revelation. From references elsewhere in Scripture, prayer was certainly a part of each assembly. Then in another place nearby, Paul discusses offerings that were received in every meeting (1 Cor. 16:1-3).
Observe that both the "routine" and the supernaturally spontaneous transpired in the worship services of the Corinthians. Singing, prayer, preaching, and offerings are basic elements of all worship services as far as the routine is concerned. There are only so many things that can be done in a Christian meeting, even if some of them can be offered in a variety of ways. Whether an item appears first, in the middle, or last on the program matters little, except that people have to know what to expect in order for them to experience "liberty" in worship. These items indicate that God chooses to insert the supernatural from a foundation of the routine. Yet, after a special move of the Spirit, congregations are wise to drop back to the routine, or they may get lost in a formless emotional wilderness.
The Book of Revelation provides insight into not only the type of songs used in the early church, but also the kind of songs the redeemed will sing in heaven! Spurgeon declares, "It seems to me that public worship on earth is a rehearsal for the service of heaven." Randy Peterson joins him in saying that the songs of Revelation "remind us that what we do on Sunday morning is no blip on the radar screen of human history, no exception to the rule, no passing fancy, it is what we will be doing forever. So we had better get used to it." In his approach to the Book of Revelation, Donald Guthrie declares, "It will be our contention in this study that the main focus in the book is on worship rather than judgment." With a similar emphasis David Peterson writes, "More than any other New Testament book, the Revelation to John stresses the importance of praise and acclamation as a means of honouring God and encouraging his people to trust him and obey him." A total of twelve such passages in the book contain information about that. They include 4:8, 11; 5:9-10, 12-13; and 15:3-4.
In the first pages of Revelation, John also offers the final indication of the Bible as to the change from seventh to first-day worship in early Christianity. The Old Testament shows some feasts took place on the "day after the Sabbath." Since the Sabbath was the seventh, the day after would obviously be the first day of the week. The Feast of First Fruits began on that day also (Lev. 23:11). So did the Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost (v. 16).
Then John 20:19, 26 shows the beginning of the change from the seventh-day worship that believers had been accustomed to in Judaism to first-day worship as Christians. Understandably, the Twelve met together the day of the resurrection of Jesus (v. 19), though Thomas was absent. One week later (expressed by John as "after eight days"), they naturally gathered together to remember the notable event of one week before (v. 26). Likely two weeks later, then three, then four later they did the same, until their weekly day of assembly had become the first day of the week. This custom was apparently established by the time of Acts 20:7. It continued in 1 Cor. 16:2. Finally, by Rev. 1:10, the first day of the week had become known as the Lord's Day, the day He arose from the dead. Graham Stanton writes, "By the early second century Sunday worship seems to have been the norm for most Christians." Peterson sees this as symbolic of the fact that believers come to present their "first fruits" offering to the Lord on the first day of the week.
In conclusion, while believers may profit from a study of the doctrine of worship in the Old Testament, obviously guidance on the subject from the New is even more relevant. Its pages reveal what one would expect, specifically that the worship of the early Church was influenced by what happened at the Temple, since the earliest disciples came out of Judaism. That is also the reason why worship practices in local synagogues further influenced them. Because of the coming of Christ into the world, however, and the outpouring of the Spirit early in the Book of Acts, Christian worship of the first century had its own features unique from Judaism. These, then, resulted in a distinctive worship in infant local assemblies of the period. Every major division of the New Testament provides insight as to what early Christian worship was like, including the Gospels, Acts, the Epistles, and Revelation.
What happens in worship is crucial to one's salvation. It is through worship that one gets to know God in the experiential realm. The believer cannot feed the fleshly and the spiritual at the same time. True worship must be biblical rather than faddish. It is the only thing practiced in this earthly life that a Christian will continue to do in heaven.
Blackwood, Andrew W. The Fine Art of Public Worship. Nashville: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1939.
Coleman, Lyman. The Apostolic and Primitive Church. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincot, 1869.
Guthrie, Donald. "Aspects of Worship in the Book of Revelation." In Worship, Theology and Ministry in the Early Church, ed. Michael J. Wilkins and Terence Paige. Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1992.
Hurtado, Larry W. At the Origins of Christian Worship. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999.
MacDonald, Alexander B. Christian Worship in the Primitive Church. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1934.
Martin, Ralph P. Worship in the Early Church. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1964.
Martyr, Justin. "The First Apology." In Ancient Christian Writers, trans. Leslie W. Bernard, ed. Walter J. Burghardt, John J. Dillon, and Dennis D. McManus. New York: The Paulist Press, 1999.
Morris, Leon. "The Saints and the Synagogue." In Worship, Theology and Ministry in the Early Church, ed. Michael J. Wilkins and Terence Paige. Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1992.
Peterson, David. Engaging with God: A Biblical Theology of Worship. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1992.
Peterson, Randy. Giving to the Giver: Worship That Pleases God. Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers, 1990.
Spurgeon, Charles H. "The Blessing of Public Worship." In Classic Sermons on Worship, ed. Warren W. Wiersbe. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1988.
Stanton, Graham N. "Aspects of Early Christian and Jewish Worship: Pliny and the Kerygma Petrou." In Worship, Theology and Ministry in the Early Church, ed. Michael J. Wilkins and Terence Paige. Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1992.