Visiting a 1st Century Worship Service Wonder and Awe 5
I heard I shocked some of you a couple of weeks ago when I said that we have “no clear view” of a NT worship period, at least not in the NT itself. Now, Bible passages do clearly show early Christians gathering together and worshipping, acting in unity and fellowship by eating together, kissing with the “holy kiss” (symbol of welcome, forgiveness, and sharing the HS with each other), singing, praying, prophesying, (preaching/ teaching), testifying, using various other “spiritual gifts” imparted by the HS, celebrating the Lord’s Supper, and giving. Our information is only in Acts and Paul’s letters to a few Gentile churches. But we only get glimpses of how they worshipped, no full picture.
1. “Where?” At the very beginning of the church, the same places they had been worshipping: temple courts and their houses: “breaking bread” (Acts 2:42, 46). Nothing says this forthrightly, but we have evidence they continued their lifelong Jewish worship customs… i.e., in the Temple daily devo-ting themselves “to the prayers” (ASV), going to synagogue on Sabbath, and observing Jewish religious feasts. They did not at first choose between Judaism and Jesus; Judaism plus Jesus was fine for the moment (I’ll come back to this).
We know Christians met then and later on in people’s houses.
When Peter was thrown into prison, part of the Jerusalem church met at Mark’s mother’s house: “When Peter understood what had happened (angel had released him), he went to Mary’s house. Mary was the mother of John Mark. Many people had gathered in her home… praying there” (Acts 12:12).
In Troas, as Paul ends his 3rd missionary journey, we read, “there were many lamps in the large upstairs room where we were meeting…” (Acts 20:8).
Paul mentions churches meeting in the homes of Priscilla and Aquila (Romans 16:3-5; 1 Corinthians 16:19), one Nympha (Colossians 4:15), and Philemon (v 2).
When Paul and Silas were released from prison in Philippi, they went to Lydia’s house “where they met with the brothers and encouraged them” (Acts 16:40).
The only other place we might think there was formal worship would be at “the river.” Acts 16 recounts events of Paul’s 2nd missionary journey when in the city of Philippi. It was there they met and converted Lydia as they “went outside the city gate to the river, [expecting] to find a place of prayer” (Acts 16:13; cf. v 16).
2. “How in Synagogue?” Well, there’s Jewish-Christian worship and Gentile-Christian worship. First, let me give you an order of worship in synagogues: (1) a Greeting (from Torah, by the “ruler,” a rabbi, or priest), (2) a Congregational Response (from Torah), (3) various Readings mixed with Psalms and hymns (a cappella… chanting or singing antiphonally), (4) a Message (usually Scripture expanded and explained), (5) Prayers, and (6) a Benediction, and (7) then Dismissal (sometimes called the “Amen”).
The word “synagogue,” like our word “church” stands for both a building and an institution. It served a multi-purpose function for its community as a place for Sabbath meetings, town meetings, daily prayers, school, benevolent center, banking center, inn, and hospital. That sounds like present-day church!
It was inevitable that Jewish-Christians continuing to worship in the Temple and synagogue would begin to sense strong tensions. Neither place/event practiced the two main rites of Christianity – baptism and Lord’s Supper. Nor would one ever hear the gospel of Jesus preached there, or anyone call Him Lord. So, in time, they added another day besides Sabbath to worship Jesus, viz., the “first day of the week” – chosen for it being both the day Jesus was resurrected and the day God began creation (thus a day of creation and “new creation”).
Sometime soon after, persecution of Christians came. Of course, those who remained faithful stopped attending synagogue. As persecution escalated, it even drove them out of Jerusalem and Palestine. But they faithfully used this dispersion to carry the message of Jesus to the entire world (Acts 1:8-10; 8:1-4).
As Gentile Christians became more numerous than Jewish Christians we see new tensions come. Several times in the NT text we see Jewish Christians who thought it necessary to make Jewish proselytes out of Gentile converts. Their dogmatic tactics caused the early church considerable trouble before their agenda was repudiated by Paul and others.
Of course, Gentile converts coming into the church meant their worship “bag-gage” came along. They brought Roman-style worship customs, mainly their habit of worshipping local and household gods. Their worship very likely also started as whatever-they-had-been-doing plus Jesus.
3. “How in the Christian church?” We get some glimpses of church gatherings and Christian worship from Paul as he wrote to solve various problems in the church in Corinth – one was disorder in their worship (see 1 Corinthians 11-14). But that’s about it! In other places, we find many guidelines for a Christian’s (thus the church’s) extra-worship behavior. But we are fortunate to have uninspired writings by men called “church fathers” giving us details of what churches did in worship. We have also testimony from one enemy of the church as, in a letter to a superior, he described the oddities and “crimes” of Christians (some of whom he was executing for faith).
Roman-world Christians seemed always to have difficulty meeting publicly. They were viewed by non-Christians as secretive and a subversive sect, considered at best bizarre and at worst criminal. They were labeled as incestuous, cannibalistic, treasonous, and atheistic. Church leaders, if identified, were often arrested and executed. It’s easy to see why they met quietly in homes. We’ve found homes with large rooms that appear to have been dedicated solely to worship.
From 1 Corinthians and the Church Fathers we see early gatherings were mostly unstructured. When gathered together, Christians spontaneously prayed and sang praises and gave thanks to God, shared newfound insights, shared their struggle to live faithful to Jesus in a hostile world, and testified to the victories they had won through the HS. God’s Word (OT and available NT books) was central, and the Lord’s Supper was central. Both Word and Supper connected them to God the Father and Jesus, the Source of their strength. Fellowship was prized; they were a new family, God’s new family. The Lord’s Supper excluded anyone unbaptized; only family members celebrated.
Other non-Biblical writings show the early church “formalizing” and “patternizing” worship. Mid-2nd century worship times had two primary emphases (1) Service /Celebration of the Word, and (2) Service/Celebration of the Table/Thanksgiving. The flow would have reminded one of the synagogue service: (1) a Greeting (from Scripture by presider), (1) a Congregational Response (from Scripture), (3) an offering (distributed on the spot by priority: needy Christians, works of other churches, care for those who ministered the Word, the needy in the community, (4) a Dismissal of anyone not “family”, (5) the Lord’s Supper (once part of an “Agape Feast” (“Love Feast,” a “church family” meal, (6) a Benediction, (7) a Dismissal (the “Amen”).
Later, between the Celebration of Word and Celebration of Supper, “The Peace” was inserted as time to greet one another (with “holy kiss”), to forgive each other (not coming to the altar with something wrong between a brother or sister [Matthew 5:23-24]), and to impart (breathe) the Spirit into each other, especially new Christians. Anyone baptized was always immediately greeted with the “kiss.”
Conclusion: God has given us great freedom to praise and thank Him in any ways are appropriate to our time, place, and purpose so long as we love Him with all our hearts, souls, strengths, and minds and our neighbors as ourselves. Paul tells the Corinth church that there must be order, and deference to each other, and concern for outsiders being convinced of the great reality of the God we serve and the path of faith we have taken.
So we can have lots of songs and prayers, or none. It seems all we must do is come with clean hearts to God’s altar, wherever it is, and celebrate in orderly, deliberate ways His love for us, His revelation to us, His providence and protecttion for us (first and foremost by Jesus our Savior and His spiritual provision to us of abundant life now and eternal life soon.
We all worship… Our concern must be to worship the One who alone is worthy: “...at the name of Jesus every knee will bow and every tongue confess that [He] is Lord…”