If Christianity is the transformation of rebels into worshipers of God, then it is imperative for the Christian to know and understand what constitutes biblical worship. One may always consult Webster's Dictionary for the precise meaning of worship (adore, idolize, esteem worthy, reverence, homage, etc.). Yet truly defining worship proves more difficult because it is both an attitude and an act.
Worship Ancient and Modern. Both the Old and New Testaments admit the possibility of false worship, usually associated with idolatrous cults and gross misconduct ( Deut 7:3-6 ). For example, the Canaanites practiced ritual prostitution and infant sacrifice under the guise of worship to gods like Molech and Baal ( Lev 18:6-30 ; 20:1-5 ), while Paul found little had changed in the practice of idolatrous worship in Greek Corinth of the first century a.d. ( 1 Cor 6:12-20 ; 10:14-22 ). The psalmist recognized the folly of such false worship, noting that those who make idols will be like them ( Psalm 115:2-8 ). The prophets, too, warned against idolatry, a fatal attraction for the people of God ( Eze 14:3-7 ). Sadly, the biting sarcasm of these divine messengers, who decried images with plastered eyes that had to be nailed to shelves to prevent them from toppling over, fell on deaf ears as deaf as those of the idols they had fashioned ( Isa 41:5-7 ). In the end, of course, these "stumbling blocks" of wood, stone, and precious metal overlay could not save Israel ( Isa 44:17 ).
The antidote Jesus commended in his discourse with the Samaritan woman remains the best preventive against false worship ( John 4:23-24 ). All true worshipers must worship God in "spirit and in truth." That is, true worship takes place on the inside, in the heart or spirit of the worshiper (cf. Psalm 45:1 ; 103:1-2 ). Worship pleasing to God must be unfeigned and transparent, offered with a humble and pure heart ( Psalm 24:3-4 ; Isa 66:2 ).
But this is not enough. Worship "in truth" connects the heart or spirit of worship with the truth about God and his work of redemption as revealed in the person of Jesus Christ and the Scriptures. David understood the importance of worshiping in truth and the necessary linkage between "truth" and the Word of God when he wrote, "Teach me your way, O Lord, and I will walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart, that I may fear [i.e., worship] your name" ( Psalm 86:11 ; cf. Psalm 145:18 ). Here both the Old and New Covenants agree! The true worship of God is essentially internal, a matter of the heart and spirit rooted in the knowledge of and obedience to the revealed Word of God.
The Bible also warns of more insidious forms of false worship, namely, religious syncretism and religious hypocrisy. Religious syncretism is a process of assimilation that incorporates elements of one religion into another. As a result, the basic tenets and character of both religions are fundamentally altered. For the Hebrews during Old Testament times this religious syncretism usually involved the union of Mosiac Yahwism and Canaanite Baalism. The prophet Elijah chided the people for attempting to "waver between two opinions" ( 1 Kings 18:21 ), and the subsequent contest on Mount Carmel between the prophet of God and the prophets of Baal demonstrated the superiority of Yahweh's religion. In the New Testament Jesus took issue with those who mixed faith and materialism when he declared, "you cannot serve both God and Money" ( Matt 6:24 ); Paul continually battled those who preached a different gospel, one that perverted justification by faith in Christ by blending the teachings of Judaism and Christianity ( Gal 3:1-14 ).
Hypocrisy is a pseudo-pietism that pays "lip-service" to covenant keeping and social justice ( Jer 12:2 ), and exhibits all the external trappings of true worship of God. However, this worship is "godless, " based as it is on rules formulated by human teachers ( Isa 29:13 ). Additionally, this false piety is also lawlessness, in that it multiplies sacrifices while it tramples the poor ( Amos 5:11 Amos 5:21-24 ). The impious and insincere nature of this worship is further characterized by a consistent pattern of infidelity to Yahweh's covenant ( Jer 12:10 ). Much later, Jesus described religious hypocrisy as both "play-acting" ( Matthew 6:2 Matthew 6:5 Matthew 6:16 ) and godlessness (worshipers who were outwardly pious but inwardly profane, Matt 23:13-29 ). Nonetheless, their end is the same in either covenant: the pseudo-pious or hypocritical worshiper is rejected and judged severely by almighty God ( Jer 14:11-12 ; Matt 23:35 ).
Worship in the Old Testament. The study of the Old Testament worship is important for at least two reasons. First, the Old Testament Scriptures are part of the Christian canon, which means these documents are valuable for the Christian church as divinely inspired revelation of God and authoritative for the life of the church at least in theological principle, if not in literal teaching. Second, the life of the Israelite nation depicted in the accounts of the Old Testament provides the pattern for public worship found in both Judaism and Christianity.
The God of Israel. The object of veneration in the Old Testament was the God of creation ( Gen 1:1-2 ), the God of covenant revelation ( Gen 12:1-3 ), and the God of redemptive Acts in history ( Exod 20:2-3 ). This God, Yahweh, merited the worship and devotion of the Hebrew people both for who he is and for what he does.
The God of the Old Testament is utterly holy and thus transcendent, inaccessible, mysterious, and inscrutable ( Psalm 99:3-9 ). But if this alone were true about God, why worship such a terrible and awesome deity? Happily, this same God is also the "Holy One among you" ( Hosea 11:9 ), a God who at once dwells "in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit" ( Isa 57:15 ). God merits worship because in his imminent presence he is able to answer those who call upon him and forgive their wrongdoings ( Psalm 99:8 ). It was this intimate presence of a holy God that prompted heartfelt praise and worship ( Psalm 99:3 ) and the keen desire for holy living among the people of Israel ( Lev 19:2 ).
And yet, this were not enough if God was not sovereign in all of his creation. The sovereignty of God indicates his absolute authority and power over all creation for the purpose of accomplishing his divine will. The God of Israel alone rules forever ( Exod 15:18 ) and accomplishes his sovereign plan among the nations ( Isa 14:24-27 ). Otherwise the Hebrews would have been little better off than the rest of the nations the Rabshakeh of Assyria chided, "Has the god of any nation ever delivered his land from the hand of the king of Assyria?" ( Isa 36:18 ). All this, the holiness of God, the holy imminence of God, and the sovereignty of God, make him a unique divine being. For the prophet Isaiah, the uniqueness of God constituted a call to worship the Lord as King and Redeemer of Israel ( 44:6-8 ; 45:20-23 ).
Despite the majesty and perfection of God's person and character, Hebrew worship would have been misplaced if this God were impotent to act, to intervene in the experiences of life on behalf of his worshipers. Hence, the activity of God in human history served as both a basis for Hebrew worship and justification of the worship of the particular God, Yahweh. Among all the deeds of God recorded in the Old Testament two are foundational to the idea of Hebrew worship. First is the activity of God in creating new relationships with Israel (and others) by yoking himself through covenant promise ("I will be your God") and covenant stipulation ("you will be my people") to establish a worshiping community in holiness. The second was the event of the Hebrew exodus from Egypt, God's redemption of Israel ( Psalms 77:13 Psalms 77:15 ) designed to prompt worship on the part of those who witnessed or later heard about Yahweh's dealings with the Egyptians ( Exod 18:10-12 ).
Hebrew Anthropology. While Hebrew anthropology affirms the individual is comprised of distinguishable physical and spiritual elements, there is no systematic distinction between the material and the immaterial, the physical and the spiritual in the Old Testament. According to the pattern of ancient Hebrew thought, a human being is an indivisible totality or unity. Thus, it is the whole person, not just the immaterial essence of an individual, which blesses the holy name of the Lord in worship ( Psalm 103:1 ).
This understanding of the synthetic nature and constitution of humanity by the ancient Hebrews is remarkably relevant for contemporary Christianity. The holistic emphasis of Hebrew anthropology affirms persons created in the image of God as indivisible unities, thus serving as a potent antidote for the far-reaching (and lethal) effects of Platonic dualism within Western thought. Acknowledging the interrelatedness of the physical and the spiritual dimensions in human beings also helps prevent establishing false dichotomies between the "sacred" and "secular, " meaning work, play, and worship are all sacred activities under the rule of a sovereign God. Recognition of the integrative unity of humanness permits a "whole person" response to God in worship, instilling the freedom to worship God with intellect, emotions, personality, senses, and body. Finally, Hebrew anthropology fosters the notion of corporate identity or the sense of belonging to the organic unity of humanity. This means the privatized worship of the individual finds its completion in the public worship of the larger worshiping community (cf. Heb 10:25 ).
The Practice of Worship. Worship during the patriarchal period was either an expression of praise and thanksgiving prompted by a theophany (the visible or auditory manifestation of God to human beings) or the act of obedience to some divine directive (e.g., Abram "obeying" the command of God to sojourn in Canaan, Gen 12:4 ). Often this expression of worship took the form of altar building ( Gen 33:20 ) and sometimes combined prayer ( Gen 26:25 ) or animal sacrifice ( Gen 31:54 ; 46:1 ). Other expressions of patriarchal worship included the erection of stone pillars and the pouring of drink offerings (drink offering, Genesis 28:18 Genesis 28:22 ), taking of vows in response to divine revelation ( Gen 28:20 ; 31:13 ), ritual purification ( Gen 35:2 ), the rite of circumcision as a sign of covenant obedience ( Gen 17:9-14 ), and prayers of praise and thanksgiving ( Gen 12:8 ; 13:4 ), petition ( Gen 24:12 ; 25:21 ), and intercession ( Gen 18:22-33 ; 20:7 ).
The Book of Job confirms much of this assessment of pre-Mosaic religion among the Hebrews. The date of the literature of Job notwithstanding, the cultural and historical background of Job's testing certainly reflect the patriarchal age. Like the Hebrew patriarchs, Job is cast in the role of priest for his clan as head of the family and offers sacrifices on their behalf ( 1:5 ). Confession and repentance ( 42:6 ), and petition and intercessory prayer ( 6:8-9 ; 42:8-9 ) were routine practices for Job as a blameless and upright man. Even the internal attitude of worship represented by the "fear of God" ( 2:3 ) and the lifestyle response of obedience as seen in Job's oath of clearance (chap. 31) parallel the patriarchal worship experience.
The Mosaic period (ca. 1400-1100 b.c.) is widely recognized as the formative era of Israelite history and worship. Hebrew religious consciousness and worship practice was largely shaped by the dramatic events of the exodus from Egypt. Likewise, the covenant ceremony at Mount Sinai was the vehicle by which God established Israel as his "treasured possession" ( Exod 19:5 ). The divine law attached to the Sinai treaty became the instrument that both molded and preserved Israel's identity as the people of God and chartered Israel as a theocratic kingdom of priests ( Exod 19:6 ). Whereas the events of the exodus from Egypt bonded Israel together as a worshiping community, the covenant ceremony at Mount Sinai resulted in a "constitution" that created the nation of Israel (cf. Deut 4:32-40 ).
This covenant legislation enacted at Mount Sinai prohibited the Hebrews from attempting to represent Yahweh's likeness with an image ( Exod 20:3-4 ). The question of the existence of other gods was not an issue. The Hebrews acknowledged the existence of foreign deities. The sole task of the Hebrews was to worship their God, Yahweh, and serve him alone.
The Old Testament celebrates the Passover and exodus as both the supreme act of divine judgment and divine deliverance in Hebrew history ( Exod 6:6 ; 15:13 ; Deut 7:8 ). As such it furnished the seedbed for the growth and development of the Israelite theological language of redemption. Specifically, the purpose of the Passover animal sacrifice was didactic in that the enactment of the ritual of atonement was designed to instruct the Israelites in the principles of God's holiness and his unique role as Redeemer, human sinfulness, substitutionary death to cover human transgression, and the need for repentance leading to cleansing and renewed fellowship within the community and with Yahweh. The Passover ceremony and the exodus event exalted the covenant God, Yahweh, who redeemed Israel from the foe ( Psalm 78:12 ). They also stood as a perpetual reminder to the successive generations of Hebrews that redemption leads inevitably to the worship of Yahweh ( Exod 15:18 ).
The legal code forming the stipulations of the Sinai covenant also formally organized Hebrew worship. Mosaic Law legitimized and standardized the media or form and the institutions of Israelite worship of Yahweh. Worship as recitation for the ancient Hebrews included liturgical responses like "Amen!" ( 1 Chron 16:36 ) or "Hallelujah!", singing ( Psalm 92:1 ), prayer ( Psalm 5:3 ), vows and oath taking ( Psalm 66:13-19 ), and the reading and teaching of God's Law ( Deut 31:9-13 ). Worship as ritual drama for the ancient Hebrews included sacrificial worship (Lev. 1-7), the Sabbath ( Exod 20:8-11 ), the seasonal festivals (Lev. 23), the pilgrimage festivals ( Exod 23:14-17 ), incense offerings and libations ( Exod 30:7-9 ), penitential rites ( Lev 16:29 ), purification rites ( Lev 12:1-8 ), the tithe ( Lev 27:30-32 ), and artistic responses (e.g., music 2 Chron 5:11-14 ; dance, Psalm 30:11 ; and sign and symbol, Exod 28:6-30 ).
The exodus event and the covenant pact ratified at Mount Sinai also reshaped Hebrew understanding of time and reordered Hebrew life according to a new religious calendar. The Decalogue command to observe one day in seven as holy to the Lord established the connection between the Sabbath and original creation ( Exod 20:11 ). The "rest" in God's presence on the Sabbath day typified the goal of redemption in Old Testament revelation: rest in Yahweh's presence in the land of covenant promise.
The divinely ordained covenant prescriptions for holiness in Hebrew life extended beyond the Sabbath to the entire calendar. Six annual festivals and holy days were inaugurated as part of Mosaic legislation, including the Passover (and the Feast of Unleavened Bread), the Fest of Firstfruits, the Feast of Pentecost, the Feast of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and the Feast of Tabernacles ( Lev 23 ). These great religious festivals and holy days corresponded to the major seasons of the agricultural cycle of the land of Palestine so that the Israelites might acknowledge Yahweh as their Provider and Sustainer. Three of the festivals required pilgrimages of all Israelite males to appear before the Lord at the central sanctuary (Passover/Unleavened Bread, Pentecost, and Tabernacles Exod 23:17 ). This assembling of the Hebrews for worship both reinforced the ideals of covenant community and personal piety, as well as reminded the Israelites that their physical and spiritual well-being was solely dependent upon the covenant love of Yahweh ( Deut 30:15-20 ).
Much of the worship associated with Solomon's temple was simply the transference of the worship practices associated with the tabernacle rituals established by the Mosaic covenant at Mount Sinai. However, biblical scholars have discerned a temple liturgy in Psalm 95 consisting of the entrance (implying preparation, confession, forgiveness, and cleansing), enthusiastic praise, worship proper (getting low before God), and the response of obedience. In addition, this first temple period witnessed the development of the Psalter as the songbook of Israel's private and public worship. According to later rabbinic tradition the psalms were used daily in the temple service accompanying the morning and evening sacrifices. These "proper" psalms included Psalm 24 (day 1), Psalm 48 (day 2), Psalm 82 (day 3), Psalm 94 (day four), Psalm 81 (day 5), Psalm 93 (day 6), and Psalm 92 for the Sabbath. The Hallelujah Psalms (113-118) were used in conjunction with the New Moon, Passover, Pentecost, Tabernacles, and Dedication feasts; while Psalm 7 was included in the Purim liturgy, Psalm 47 was part of the New Year's Celebration, and the Songs of Ascents were associated with the three great pilgrimage festivals (Pss. 120-134). The prominent place of music in temple worship accorded the priestly musical guilds status equivalent to the priests responsible for the sacrificial liturgy.
The Institutions of Worship. The tabernacle was a portable tent-sanctuary ordained by God and constructed by the Israelites under the supervision of Moses. The instructions for the design and fabrication of the structure, as well as the directives for implementing the worship of Yahweh there, were part of the covenant legislation revealed by God to Moses at Mount Sinai (Exod. 25-40). According to Exodus 40:1, 16, the tabernacle was completed in the second year after the exodus from Egypt, a little less than a year after the revelation had been given to Moses at Sinai. The cloud of the glory of the Lord that filled the tent sanctuary then guided the Israelites in the stages of their desert trek to Canaan, the land of covenant promise ( Exod 40:34-38 ). The three clans of levitical priests the Kohathites, Gershonites, and Merarites were responsible for transporting, dismantling, and erecting this "tent of meeting" (Num. 3-4).
The tabernacle was a rectangular wooden-frame structure some 10 cubits wide and 30 cubits wide according to the biblical dimensions (about 15' x 45'). The tent itself was divided into two rooms or compartments by a veil. The other room or Holy Place measured 10 cubits by 20 cubits (about 15' x 30') and contained the lampstand, the table of presence, and the altar of incense. The inner room or Most Holy Place was 10 cubits by 10 cubits (about 15' x 15') and housed the sacred ark of the covenant. The tent shrine was centered in a fenced courtyard some 50 cubits wide and 100 cubits long (about 75' x 150'). Entrance to the sanctuary was from the east court; the bronze laver or basin and the altar of burnt offering were set in the courtyard between the court entrance and the tabernacle proper.
The direct purpose of the tabernacle was to showcase the imminence of God, a habitat where God might live among his people ( Exod 25:8 ). The indirect purpose of the tabernacle was to afford the Israelites the means by which they might honor Yahweh through carefully prescribed worship rituals orchestrated by the newly established levitical priesthood. The very design and construction of the tabernacle, as well as the prescriptions for the worship liturgy performed there, all reinforced key theological emphases of the Mount Sinai theophany (e.g., the tension between divine immanence and transcendence and the principle of mediation to enter the presence of God). Likewise, the artistry and craftsmanship employed in the design and construction of the tabernacle and its furnishings introduced the use of sign and symbol for inspiring worship and conveying theological education to God's people (especially Yahweh's majesty and holiness).
No organized Hebrew priesthood functioned during the pre-Mosaic period of Israelite history. Rather, the patriarch or elder of the Hebrew family or clan officiated as the priest for that group ( Gen 35:2-5 ; Job 1:5 ). The sole exception was Abram's encounter with the priest-king of Salem, Melchizedek ( Gen 14:18-20 ). The New Testament identifies this enigmatic Old Testament figure as the prototype of the later levitical priesthood and ultimately the prototype of the messianic priesthood fulfilled in Jesus Christ ( Heb 7:1-27 ; cf. Psalm 110:4 ).
The Mosaic covenant enacted at Mount Sinai legislated the establishment of a formal Hebrew priesthood to serve God in worship. This priesthood represented the entire Israelite community before the Lord, since they were constituted a kingdom of priests and a holy nation ( Exod 19:5-6 ). The Hebrew priests were employed in the service of Yahweh full-time and were supported in their ministry by the tithes, offerings, and portions of the sacrificial offerings of the Israelite community ( Lev 7:28-36 ; Deut 14:22-29 ). The period of service for the priesthood was twenty years, from age thirty to age fifty ( Num 4:47 ). It appears the priests were trained for their duties during a five-year apprenticeship, from age twenty-five to age thirty ( Num 8:24-26 ). Unlike the other Hebrew tribes, the levitical priesthood received no inheritance of land in Palestine. Instead, the priests and Levites were allotted forty-eight cities in which to live ( Num 35:1-5 ). The Aaronic priests and Levites were denied territorial rights since the Lord God and service to Israel in his name was their inheritance ( Num 18:20 ; Deut 10:9-10 ).
Only males from the tribe of Levi were permitted to hold priestly office ( Num 3:1-39 ). Following the prescription of Mosaic Law the Israelite priesthood consisted of two orders or divisions, the priests and the Levites. While the term "Levite" may refer to the entire Hebrew priesthood, technically the priests were descendants of Aaron ( Exod 29:1-37 ; Lev 8:1-36 ). One from among the Aaronic lineage was chosen and ordained high priest for life ( Lev 21:10 ). Specifically, the Levites were non-Aaronic descendants of Levi who functioned in the service of the sanctuary in subordinate roles. Three clans or subdivisions of Levites are recognized in the Old Testament, taking their names from the three sons of Levi: Gershon, Kohath, and Merari (Num. 3-4).
Duties charged to the Aaronic priesthood basically fell into two categories: superintending sanctuary worship and instructing the people of God in the Law of Moses ( Exod 28:30 ; Lev 8:8 ; Deut 33:8-10 ). The high priest supervised sacrificial worship in the sanctuary ( Lev 4:3-21 ), officiated over the Day of Atonement ceremony ( Lev 16:1-9 ), and handled the Urim and Thummin, peculiar objects carried in a pouch on the breastplate of the priestly vestments and used for determining the will of God in certain instances ( Num 27:21 ; Deut 33:8 ). The Aaronic priests officiated over sacrificial worship in the sanctuary under the direction of the high priest (Lev. 4-5), led the congregation of Israel in corporate and festival worship ( Lev 23:15-22 ), transported the ark of the covenant ( Deut 10:8 ; 31:9 ), served as religious educators ( Deut 27:14-26 ) and advisers to civic leaders ( Deut 20:2 ; Judges 18:18-19 ), and were models of covenant obedience and holiness ( Lev 21:1-24 ).
Originally, the non-Aaronic priests or Levites were designated as assistants to the Aaronic priesthood and porters of the tabernacle, God's portable tent-sanctuary. This levitical assistance included doing the service at the tabernacle, having charge of the sanctuary and its furnishings, and attending to the duties of the Israelites ( Num 3:5-8 ). Later the levitical duties were reorganized since they were no longer required as porters given the construction of the Jerusalem temple. According to the Chronicler, David was responsible for reassigning the levitical priests to new duties that included assisting the Aaronic priesthood in temple worship, cleaning and maintenance, procuring and storing supplies, and serving as temple musicians ( 1 Chron 9:28-32 ; 23:26-32 ).
Despite the divine prohibition against his actually building a temple for God, David did make arrangements for its construction, including gathering the necessary materials and supplies to ensure his son Solomon's success in erecting a house for the name of Yahweh ( 1 Chron 22:2-19 ). Solomon began construction of the elaborate edifice in the fourth year of his reign (ca. 966 b.c.) and it was completed seven years later ( 1 Kings 6:37-38 ). The magnificent structure was patterned after the tabernacle and replaced that tent-sanctuary as the religious center of Israel, with the levitical priesthood continuing to officiate over the sacrificial and festival worship of Yahweh. Solomon's temple witnessed both the blessing of God's divine presence in the form of the cloud of glory ( 1 Kings 8:11 ), and the abasement of divine abandonment as God's glory departed the temple due to Israel's sin of idolatry ( Eze 10:18 ). Not long after Ezekiel's vision, Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian hordes plundered the treasures of Solomon's temple and reduced Jerusalem and Yahweh's "house" to ashes and rubble in 587 b.c. ( 2 Kings 25:1-21 ). All that remained of the splendor of Solomon's temple was the memory.
The sanctuary of the Lord as a symbol of God's presence in the midst of his people was retained in the shift from desert tabernacle to urban temple ( 1 Kings 8:57 ). However, new theological emphases surface in Solomon's prayer of dedication, including the temple as the embodiment of the fulfillment of divine promises regarding the Davidic covenant and perpetual dynastic kingship (vv. 14-21), the idea of Yahweh's temple as a house of prayer (vv. 27-54), the temple as both a witness to God's sovereignty over all creation and as a token of Israelite covenant obedience (vv. 41-43, 56-61), and the temple as a tangible reminder of God's transcendence a God who does not dwell in a house made by human hands (vv. 27-30).
Unfortunately, by the time of Jeremiah the prophet (ca. 627-580 b.c.), this lofty "temple theology" had been forgotten or so corrupted by religious syncretism with surrounding paganism as to be unrecognizable. The temple was no longer a symbol of God's divine presence and a monument to his sovereignty, but was now equated with God's actual presence and considered the ultimate spiritual reality by the Hebrews. The mere association of Yahweh's temple with Jerusalem insured divine protection, security, and covenant blessing in the minds of the people of God. Jeremiah indignantly condemned this misplaced trust in the temple as a talisman or fetish and predicted its eventual destruction (chaps. 7-10).
A second temple dedicated to the worship of Yahweh was erected in Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile at the prompting of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah ( Ezra 5:1-2 ; Hag 2:9 ). The rebuilding project commenced in 520 b.c. and was completed sometime in 516 or 515 b.c. The second temple was but a shadow of its predecessor, to such a degree that those who remembered Solomon's temple lamented the inferiority of the new edifice ( Ezra 3:12-13 ). This temple complex was expanded and refurbished in grandiose style by King Herod the Great (begun in 20 b.c. but not completed until a.d. 64, well after Herod's death). It was in this temple that the infant Jesus was dedicated by Joseph and Mary and recognized as Israel's messiah by Simeon and Anna ( Luke 2:22-38 ). In keeping with the emphasis of Solomon's dedication of the first temple, Jesus cleansed the second temple so it might truly be a house of prayer ( Mark 11:15-19 ). Ironically, Jesus' teaching in the temple during his Passion week (including his forecast of the destruction of the temple) incited his rejection as Israel's messiah and sealed his fate for crucifixion as a religious imposter ( Mark 14:53-65 ) and enemy of the state ( Mark 15:1-15 ). Fulfilling Jesus' prophecy ( Mark 13:1-8 ) to the letter, the second temple was completely destroyed in a.d. 70 by the Roman general Titus during the First Jewish War.
The New Testament records indicate that the sacrificial system associated with temple worship remained at the core of the Jewish religious experience, with throngs of Jews from Palestine and beyond overrunning the city during the great pilgrimage festivals. However, the dispersion of Jews across the Mediterranean world under Greek and Roman rule prompted the rise of a competing religious institution, the synagogue. Increasingly the temple became identified with the Hellenized Jewish aristocracy of Jerusalem, sparking the growth of the synagogue among the grassroots population outside the environs of Jerusalem who were attracted to the emphasis on simple personal piety and the spiritual sacrifices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
Theological Implications. The Old Testament anticipates Christian worship in theological principle, in that Hebrew worship: (1) required conscious preparation on the part of the worshiper; (2) encouraged private and family worship as a complement to corporate public worship; (3) demanded the response of the whole person to God as Creator and Redeemer; (4) encouraged congregational worship that was active and participatory; (5) focused on the redemptive Acts of God in human history (i.e., the Passover/exodus event); (6) employed symbolism to enhance worship aesthetically and improve worship didactically; (7) observed a liturgical calendar that heightened the worshiper's anticipation of and participation in ritual reenactment; and (8) assumed that a lifestyle of obedience in service to God completed the integrity of worship.
Worship in the New Testament. The Jewish Roots of Christianity. The Jewish character of early Christianity may be traced to three primary points of origin, including ethnicity, the Old Testament Scriptures, and the institution of the synagogue.
First, and most obvious, early Christianity was essentially Jewish because the early Christians were Jews. Jesus Christ was a Jew from Nazareth in Galilee ( Matt 1:1 ), the twelve apostles and the pillars of Christ's church were all Jewish ( Mark 3:13-19 ), the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost was largely a Jewish event ( Acts 1:15 ; 2:1-5 ), and the initial missionary thrust of the church focused on the Jew first ( Acts 6:7 ; 13:5 ).
Second, the continuity between early Christianity and Judaism may be linked to the Holy Scriptures of Judaism the Old Testament. The Old Testament was the Bible for the early church. Jesus Christ, by word and deed, demonstrated himself as the fulfillment of the old covenant promises concerning the Messiah made to God's people Israel. Hence, the Old Testament was the source book for early New Testament preaching and the apologetic of early Christianity was essentially one of evincing Jesus as the Christ by appeal to this fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. The Jewish-Christian authors of the New Testament appealed to the Hebrew Old Testament for instruction, exhortation ( Rom 15:4-6 ; 1 Cor 10:1-13 ), and illustrative examples of faith in God (Heb. 11). In addition, they understood the church of Jesus Christ to be the new Israel ( Rom 4:16-24 ; 9:11-27 ; Gal 3:19-29 ). Thus, while the Holy Bible contains two covenants, the Old and the New, it is a continuous and single record of divine redemption in human history.
Finally, the antecedents of the form and practice of worship of early Christian worship may be found in the liturgy of the Jewish temple and synagogue.
The Apostolic Church. The Book of Acts indicates that the first church gathered daily for worship in the Jerusalem temple and in the homes of believers, devoting themselves to instruction in the apostles' doctrine, fellowship, prayer, and the Eucharist or Lord's Table ( 2:42-47 ). Given their Jewish heritage and the example of Jesus, who worshiped in the synagogues and temple ( Luke 4:16 ; John 10:22-23 ), it is only natural that the apostolic church retained temple worship and Sabbath keeping along with the development of Christian worship patterns for Sunday, the day of Christ's resurrection ( Luke 24:1 ).
By the time Paul had evangelized Asia Minor and Greece, the church (now decidedly Gentile in composition) met for corporate worship (the breaking of bread or Lord's Table) on the first day of the week or Sunday ( Acts 20:7 ; 1 Cor 16:2 ). In addition to the weekly observance of the Lord's Table, the New Testament records indicate worship in the apostolic church also included the singing of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs ( Col 3:16 ), prayer ( 1 Tim 2:1-2 ), almsgiving ( 1 Cor 16:1-4 ), the reading and teaching of the Old Testament and apostolic doctrine ( 1 Tim 4:11-13 ), and the manifestation of a variety of spiritual gifts ( 1 Cor 12:1-11 ). In fact, when Paul instructed the church at Corinth on the subject of spiritual gifts and orderly worship he specifically mentioned the hymn, a lesson from Scripture, a word of revelation, and a tongue and its interpretation as a few of the elements comprising Christian worship ( 1 Cor 14:26 ).
Of course, the transition from Judaism to Christianity posed real problems for many Jewish believers in Christ, as did the inclusion of Gentiles in the predominantly Jewish early church ( Acts 15:1-29 ; Gal 1:11-14 ). The tensions between form and freedom in worship were also pressing, evidenced by Paul's treatise on spiritual gifts and lay participation in the worship service ( 1 Cor 14:26-40 ). The letters of Paul establish helpful guidelines for resolving these problems associated with the practice of Christian worship; primary among them are the principle of edification or common good of the congregation gathered for worship ( 1 Cor 12:7 ; Eph 4:12-13 ), the principle of order and peace governing the form of worship ( 1 Corinthians 14:33 1 Corinthians 14:40 ), and the principle of a clear conscience and individual accountability before the Lord in certain matters related to personal freedoms and preferences in worship ( Rom 14:1-12 ).
Basic to the formation, identity, and worship of the apostolic church were the ritual symbols of baptism and the breaking of bread or Lord's Table. The ceremony of baptism symbolized the cleansing from sin effected by Christ's redemption and served as the rite of initiation into the church as the body of Christ ( Rom 6:1-4 ). As such, Christian baptism holds great significance for worship because it places the believer formally in a worshiping community the church of Jesus Christ; and it signifies newness of life in Christ and the things of the Holy Spirit who activates Christian worship ( Rom 8:5-6 ; 1 Cor 12:11 ). Much like the Passover meal of the Old Covenant symbolized Israel's redemption in the exodus event, so the Eucharist or Lord's Table depicts Christian redemption because "Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed" ( 1 Cor 5:7 ). As a living symbol of the Christ-event, the Lord's Table comprises the central element of Christian worship because it represents the fulfillment of Old Testament promises ( Luke 2:28-32 ). As an act of remembrance, it recalls the redemptive work of Jesus Christ ( 1 Cor 11:23-26 ); it symbolizes Christian unity and fellowship ( 1 Cor 12:12-31 ); and it constitutes the church's eschatological hope in the return of Christ and the consummation of his kingdom ( Matt 22:16-18 ; Acts 1:11 ; 1 Cor 11:26 ). This sense of bonding or unity in covenant community was rehearsed in the apostolic church by means of the fellowship meal or agape feast that accompanied the observance of the Lord's Table ( 1 Cor 11:17-22 ).
Worship in the apostolic church is not without implications for worship and worship renewal in the contemporary Christian church. For instance, if worship recapitulates the Christ-event, then significant attention must be given to the eucharistic aspect of worship and to the value of sign and symbol in instruction and worship ( 1 Cor 11:23-26 ). Likewise, if worship actualizes the church, then the corporate worship experience must balance form and freedom in the structure of worship and provide time for Holy Spirit-prompted lay participation and opportunity for the worship response of meaningful service ( 1 Cor 12:4-7 ). Finally, if worship anticipates the kingdom, then worship has a prophetic function in that it testifies of Christ's triumph over sin and death and engenders hope for the realization of the heavenly worship at the heart of John's apocalyptic vision the Lamb of God enthroned in the New Jerusalem ( Rev 21:1-5 ).
The Synagogue and Early Christian Worship. The origins of the Jewish institution known as the synagogue are obscure. It is likely the synagogue evolved from some kind of informal gathering or association of Hebrews during the Babylonian exile. Development continued and perhaps was even spurred by the Torah-based reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah during the mid-fifth century b.c. The oldest testimony of a diaspora synagogue is an inscription dated to the reign of Ptolemy III Euergetes (247-221 b.c.), found at Schedia in Egypt.
Wherever Jews settled in the diaspora, a synagogue was established. In fact, according to the Jewish historian Josephus, it was difficult to find a place without a synagogue (Ant14.115). More than 150 known ruins of ancient synagogues dot the Mediterranean world from Galilee and Syria, to Asia Minor and Greece, to Italy, Gaul, Spain, North Africa, and Egypt.
The New Testament cites the synagogue as a place of prayer, reading and teaching and preaching of the Old Testament Scriptures, almsgiving, exhortation, and fellowship. New Testament era synagogues were local Jewish congregations scattered throughout Palestine and beyond, and apparently under the jurisdiction of Jerusalem as the religious power center of Judaism ( Acts 9:1-2 ). The synagogue was also the site for judgment and punishment in matters of Jewish law ( Mark 13:9 ; Acts 22:19 ). Jesus taught, healed, and preached in the synagogues of Palestine, often attacking the abuses associated with the institution not the institution itself ( Mark 1:21 ; 3:1 ; Luke 4:16-24 ).
The Book of Acts indicates the synagogue later became the primary target of early Christian missionary outreach. It seems Jewish Christians constituted themselves within local synagogue congregations for the first several decades of church history, until the Jew-Gentile issue split the two groups ( Acts 18:26 ; 19:8 ; 22:19 ; cf. Acts 15:1-35 ). During New Testament times the synagogue stood alongside the temple as an equivalent religious institution in Judaism. After the destruction of the second temple by the Romans in a.d. 70, the synagogue was considered a full substitute for the temple as the religious institution of Judaism.
Influence on Early Christian Worship. First-century Jewish Christianity rooted in the synagogue tradition had a considerable impact on the development of the early Christian church, specifically in the areas of church architecture, organization, and liturgy.
The influence of synagogue architecture and furnishings on the early Christian church may be seen in the use of the bema or raised platform, including an altar or table (replacing the ark of the Torah in the synagogue) and a pulpit or podium (much like the synagogue lectern used for the Scripture readings and sermon). In addition, seating the worship participants on the platform and arranging the congregation in rows of benches facing the platform are Christian adaptations of synagogue design and practice.
Similarities may also be identified in the functions of the ancient synagogue officers and the officers of the early Christian church. For example, the Christian office of bishop or overseer combined some of the duties of the head of the synagogue (who presided over the worship service), the minister (who often functioned as the synagogue tutor), and the interpreter (who both translated and explained the Scripture lessons and sermon). The concept of spiritual patriarchs or elders in the synagogue congregation carried over into the early church as well. The first deacons of the Christian church were charged with the same commission of the almoners of the ancient Jewish synagogue, gathering and distributing charitable gifts to the needy in the congregation (cf. Acts 6:1-7 ).
By way of general principle, the influence of the Jewish synagogue on the worship of the early church may be seen in the church's commitment to prayer and instruction in the Scriptures (by means of reading and exposition, cf. Acts 2:42 ). This development was only natural, given the fact that the early church was essentially Jewish. In addition, the prominent place given to the reading, chanting, and singing of the psalms in early Christian liturgy was borrowed directly from synagogue practice. Thus, much like the Jewish synagogue, the worship of the early Christian church was founded upon praise, prayer, and the exposition of the Scriptures.
Of course, Christian worship continued to develop in distinct worshiping communities through the centuries of church history. Quite naturally the form and practice of Christian liturgy changed over time. Christian worship gradually drifted away from its close ties to Jewish worship, especially as the church became an increasingly "Gentile enterprise." The official schism between the two groups (Judaism and Christianity) occurred in the second century a.d. The intention here is simply to recognize the importance of synagogue worship for the form of worship in the early church and to garner an appreciation for the Jewish roots of the Christian tradition.
Theological Implications. By way of theological principle, the Jewish roots of early Christianity grounded the church of Jesus Christ solidly in the belief of the divine and supernatural origins of the Scriptures, and ordained an apostolic authority in the divine authority of the Old Testament.
By way of worship in the early church, the Jewish Christianity of the first century a.d. facilitated the shift from the theocentric worship characteristic of Judaism to the Christocentric (and even Trinitarian) worship that is the hallmark of Christianity. Second, the church inherited the concept of the centrality of the Scriptures in worship (reading and exposition) from the Jewish synagogue. Third, and significantly given the explosion of spiritual gifts in some segments of the Christian church today, like the Jewish synagogue the early church was primarily a lay institution encouraging extensive lay participation in worship.
However, this shift from Judaism to Jewish Christianity was not without difficulty. Two key issues dominated theological discussion in the early decades of Christianity. In modern terms, the first issue was really one of ethnic and cultural diversity, as the early church debated the implications of the gospel of Jesus Christ for Jew and Gentile ( Acts 15:1-35 ). The compromise solution achieved at the Jerusalem Council later proved ineffective, and to this day the church continues to debate the relationship of "law" and "grace" in the life of the Christian. The second concerned the relationship of Jesus Christ to the primary institutions of Judaism, the priesthood, the temple, and sacrificial worship. Here the author of the Book of Hebrews, by means of typological interpretation, demonstrated Jesus Christ as the greater high priest (chaps. 5, 7), the more perfect temple (chap. 9), and the ultimate sacrifice for sin (chap. 10) to the Jewish Christian recipients of the letter.
Unfortunately, many Jews were unable to accept the harsh teaching that Jesus necessarily abolished the first order (the Old Covenant and its form and practice of worship) to establish a new order of form and practice in worship ( Heb 10:9 )the worship of continual praise and the worship of doing good ( Heb 13:15-16 ). Likewise, the ever-expanding Gentile church failed to appreciate and nurture the Jewish roots of Christianity and proclaimed itself the "new Israel, " further compounding the division between Jew and Gentile. Today in many quarters of the Christian church there is renewed effort to implement Paul's missionary vision" first for the Jew, then for the Gentile" ( Rom 1:16 ).
Andrew E. Hill
Bibliography. ABD6:973-79; M. J. Dawn, Keeping the Sabbath Wholly: Ceasing, Resting, Embracing, Feasting; W. Dyrness, Themes in Old Testament Theology; M. Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane; C. D. Erickson, Participating in Worship: History, Theory, and Practice; A. J. Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man; A. E. Hill, Enter His Courts with Praise!; C. Jones, G. Wainwright, and E. Yarnold, The Study of Liturgy; R. P. Martin, Worship in the Early Church; A. Millgram, Jewish Worship; W. O. E. Oesterley, The Jewish Background of Christian Liturgy; D. Peterson, Engaging with God: A Biblical Theology of Worship; R. N. Schaper, In His Presence; M. H. Shepherd, The Psalms for Christian Worship: A Practical Guide; A. W. Tozer, The Best of A. W. Tozer; R. deVaux, Ancient Israel: Religious Institutions; R. E. Webber, Worship Old and New; idem, Worship is a Verb; W. H. Willimon, Word, Water, Wine and Bread; J. F. White, Introduction to Christian Worship.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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[N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave's Topical Bible
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Worship'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".