CHAPTER ONE: SHARING THE LIVING WORD return to home page
What was it like to worship with the first Christians? St. Paul describes the situation in Corinth in the first century: “When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation.” (I Corinthians 14:26)
And yet, a century later, when we begin to get additional records of early Christian worship, we discover that a different pattern is in common use. The spontaneous worship of Corinth did not become the norm for the church at large. Why not?
First of all, Corinth may not have been a norm to begin with. Actually, we have no way to know whether other first century churches resembled Corinth in worship style. The situation in Jerusalem during the early weeks of the church doesn’t suggest the exuberance of Corinth: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer.” (Acts 2:42).
Secondly, we know that in the early centuries, there was a definite trend to promote authority in the church, especially because there were so many false teachings. It is easy to see how the concern for apostolic teaching would have led to a preference for a more ordered church service. Some would criticize the development of a prescribed service form as a “quenching of the Spirit”. On the other hand, it is also not illogical to suppose that the Spirit prompted the adoption of a worship method that would ensure that the Spirit’s own priorities were promoted, by guarding against individuals who could bring in false doctrines by claiming that the Spirit had led them.
Thirdly, it is not surprising that the church at large had a common worship pattern already in the early centuries, when one considers that a pattern for worship was already available and ready to adopt. The pattern that emerges in the early centuries was not arbitrary, and it was not new. It was the natural choice of those who had grown up in the Jewish tradition. The common worship pattern of the early church came from the Jewish synagogue worship.
WORSHIP IN THE SYNAGOGUE
What was that worship like? We get a glimpse in the book of Acts, when Paul and his companions were traveling in the country we now call Turkey:
On the Sabbath they entered the synagogue and sat down. After the reading from the Law and the Prophets, the synagogue rulers sent word to them, saying, “Brothers, if you have a message of encouragement for the people, please speak. (Acts 13:14-15)
The synagogue service, then, included readings from the Bible. The word Law in this verse means the first five books of the Bible, the books of Moses, which continually reminded the Jews of their origin and purpose. The readings were followed by a message: that’s the origin of the sermon. At this time, the Jews were scattered in many different countries, and they did not all understand the original Hebrew language of the Bible. It was the custom to have the Bible read in Hebrew, and then to have someone explain its meaning in the language actually in use in a given place. In addition, when fellow Jews came to visit, it was common to ask them to speak, as Paul was asked to do. And the example of Jesus shows that this message time could be used for teaching as well:
“He taught in their synagogues, and everyone praised him. He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him… (Jesus then read from the scroll) . . .Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing’.” (Luke 4:15-21)
God’s Word was at the very core of the synagogue service. God’s Word was read, and God’s Word was explained. These emphases were carried over into the early church.
The synagogue service also included other elements that were continued in the church. There was a confession of faith. For the Jews it was Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, 0 Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one.” The Christians used other key verses, and later wrote the creeds, in order to confess their faith.
The synagogue service included prayers: prayers of thanks and praise and prayers for the confession or sins. There was also a benediction, using the words that Moses’ brother Aaron used to bless the Israelites in the wilderness:
“The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make His face
shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD turn
his face toward you and give you peace.” (Numbers
And there was music. The Jews used the inspired song book found in the Bible, the book of Psalms. The Psalms also became basic to Christian worship. Another song was taken straight from the vision of heaven which Isaiah saw. He heard the actual words. which the angels use to worship God: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” (Isaiah 6:3) These words were sung in the synagogue service, and later taken into the traditional Christian service.
The following chart shows that the Christian service used the same elements as the synagogue service, with the addition of Holy Communion, which is the subject of the next chapter. (footnote 1)
|First century Synagogue service||Traditional Christian Sunday service|
Law and Prophets
Old Testament, Gospels, Paul’s letters
|Confession of Faith
|Confession of faith
|Holy, Holy, Holy (Isaiah 6:3)
It was one of the prayers
|Holy, Holy, Holy
Used during the communion part of the service
It was the Word of God which was at the core, though, and there was a reason for that. This reason has to do with the purpose of the synagogue itself.
THE PURPOSE OF THE SYNAGOGUE
You won’t find anything about the synagogue written in the Old Testament. The kind of worship described in the Old Testament is temple worship, and that is not the same. Temple worship centered around sacrificing animals, and this animal sacrifice was an absolutely essential command of God: “It is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life” (Leviticus 17:11); “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Hebrew: 9:22).
This sacrifice was to take place only in the temple in Jerusalem; other places wore not acceptable. As the Jews began to live in many different countries, they began to gather in order to keep the awareness of their identity alive. They could not make sacrifices, but they could read the sacred records of their people. The temple sacrifices were carried on by priests, but the gatherings in other places had no need for priests. Instead, a class of teachers developed who were not necessarily related to the priestly tribe. The word “rabbi” refers to these teachers.
After the Babylonians destroyed the temple in 586 B.C., these gatherings were the only available Jewish public worship method. Wherever Jews lived, it became a custom that 12 Jewish men could come together and constitute such a gathering. This is the gathering referred to above as a synagogue. The word synagogue is from the Greek language, and simply means “gathering”. (The Greek word for church, ecclesia, has a similar meaning. ) The synagogue worship continued even after the temple was rebuilt, and then after the Romans destroyed that temple in AD 70, continues to the present. The central feature of the gathering was to read God’s Word. Why was God’s Word so important?
THE IMPORTANCE OF GOD’S WORD
The answer has something to do with the concept of the “special presence of God”. Jews, like Christians, believe that God is everywhere. But there was a sense that God was present in a special way in the temple, as well as in the tabernacle (tent) that preceded the building of the temple. In fact, in Old Testament poetry, referring to the temple, or to Zion (Jerusalem), was a figure of speech for the special presence of God. This presence was visible as a cloud at certain important moments. When the tabernacle was dedicated:
Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud had settled upon it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. (Exodus 40:34-35)
And when the temple was dedicated:
Then the temple of the LORD was filled with a cloud,
and the priests could not perform their service because
of the cloud, for the glory of the LORD filled the
temple of God. (2nd Chronicles 5:13-14)
The incense burned in the temple resembled the cloud, and it was a reminder of the importance of the special presence of God.
But how could the Jews have a sense of the special presence of God when they did not live near the temple? And what happened to the special presence of god when the temple was destroyed?
The Jews gradually developed the theory that the special presence of God was also to be found in His written Word and particularly in the five books of Moses, called the Torah, Jewish literature uses the word “Shekhinah” to refer to this special presence, as in the following quote, “If two sit together and the words between them are of Torah, then the Shekhinah is in their midst.” (footnote 2)
After the Romans destroyed the second temple in 70 AD, this idea continued to develop, and the presence of God in His word is an important part of Jewish tradition.
GOD’S SPECIAL PRESENCE IN CHRISTIAN WORSHIP
Which of these two ideas were adopted by Christians: the presence of God in a place (the temple) or in the written Word (the Bible)? Despite Christians’ reverence for God’s Word, and despite the fact that the Christians followed the synagogue practice of reading God’s Word, the answer has to be: neither one. For Christians, the special presence of God is to be found somewhere else:
The Word became flesh, and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)
For Christians, the special presence of God is to be found in Jesus. In the passage above, the expression “made his dwelling” has an interesting meaning. The Greek word used there could be translated “tented”, and the expression is meant to bring the Old Testament tabernacle to mind. Just as the special presence of God lived in the tabernacle (and, later, the temple), so that same special presence of God is now to be found in Jesus. (footnote 3 compares Jewish and Christian quotes about “being in our midst.”)
Jesus referred to his body as the “temple”: “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days”. ..”But the temple he had spoken of was His body”. (John 2:19 & 21)
Jesus carried out the function of the Jewish temple, the function of blood sacrifice:
He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves, but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption.” (Hebrews 9:12)
…and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.” (I John 1:7)
Those who belong to Jesus are called his “body”, and the word “temple” by extension can also be applied to them: “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple, and that God’s Spirit lives in you?” (I Corinthians 3:16)
The once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus, by which he performed the perfect act of temple-type worship, is paralleled in the “sacrifice” of the Christian’s life style, not just on Sunday mornings, but all the time: “…offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God-—this is your spiritual act of worship” (Romans 12:1)
What then of God’s written Word? Jesus makes it very clear that God’s Word is mis-used if it does not point to Himself:
Jesus said: “You diligently study the scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life. (John 5:39-40)
Life is found in Jesus, in person. This fact has enormous consequences for the Christian worship service. as I share God’s Word, am I sharing only the laws, only the principles, or am I sharing the one who brings the presence of God: Jesus himself? Am I leading people to believe that they must do something to bring about God’s presence, or to feel God’s presence, rather than simply portraying Jesus, in whom “…all the fullness of Deity lives in bodily form, and you have been given fulness in Christ” (Colossians 2:9-10)
PRACTICAL CONCLUSIONS FOR THE SUNDAY WORSHIP SERVICE
When I talk about God’s Word, I ask myself this question: what have I said that goes beyond what a teacher in another world religion would have said? Have I said that we should all try to do good? A Buddhist teacher would say the same. Have I said that God’s will is best? A good Ayatollah would say the same. Have I talked about God’s love, and our love for God? These concepts are found in the Old Testament, and a good rabbi would teach about them. Have I talked about the one thing that not only makes the Christian message distinctive, but that is also the only way to talk with power? Have I talked about Jesus? Have I talked not only about his perfect example, but about his blood sacrifice, the good news without which there is no forgiveness of sins? Have I brought people to the living Word himself? Have I enabled people to:
fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our
faith, who for the joy set before him endured the
cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right
hand of the throne of God”. (Hebrews 12:2)
It is talking about Jesus’ sacrificial death that brings God’s power into play: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). That’s the power we want to encounter when we go to worship services.
God’s Word is at the core of Sunday worship, developed from the pattern of synagogue worship. God’s written Word leads us to the living Word, Jesus, through whom we have contact with the living God.
Note the contrast between Christian worship and the way worship is conceived of in other world religions. For example, in Chinese folk-religion, an offering of food is set before the spirit’s idol, with he expectation that since the worshipper has taken the initiative, the spirit ought to be responsive and provide the petitioner with good fortune, good grades, or a lucky lottery number. But in Christian worship, God takes the initiative, and the believer responds with acceptance, thanksgiving, and praise. Knowing this distinction challenges us to be sure we never lead a worship service in a way that misleads the participant to suppose that he is taking an initiative and therefore has every right to expect a response from God.
As another example, Buddhism as practiced in China points the devotee to find strength in himself as he contemplates the example of previous spiritual masters; the aim is self-mastery. But Christians look outside themselves to Jesus, who is more than just example; He is the one who lives within, providing and strengthening “new life” that is different from any thing we could produce ourselves.
Can our worship focus be that described by Peter:
Let us give thanks to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! Because of his great mercy he gave us new life by raising Jesus Christ from death. This fills us with a living hope. I Peter 1:3
1. Synagogue and Christian services are compared on page 16 of the article “The Jewish Roots of Christian Liturgy” by Sofia Cavaletti, in the book The Jewish Roots of Christian Liturgy, Eugnene J. Fisher, ed., Paulist Press, New York/Mahweh, 1990.
2. This saying is attributed to Rabbi Hananiah ben Teradyon, and is
recorded in the Jewish collection of traditional sayings called the
Mishnah. This saying is quoted in the article “Shekhinah and Matthew
18,-20″ by Joseph Sievers in The Jewish Roots of Christian Liturgy (op.
cit.), page 50.
2a. Sofia Cavaletti (op. cit. page 20) informs us that this Psalm quote was used in one of the Jewish Passover ceremonies.
3. Joseph Sievers (op. cit. page 53) compares the quote from the Mishnah to the words of Jesus in Matthew 18;20 as follows;
If two where two or three
sit together are gathered
and the words
between them in my name
are of Torah
then the Shekhinah there am I
is in their midst in their midst