Liturgy in the New Testament

As I was learning what the Bible had to say about church attendance, I soon recognized that I had to actually know what’s supposed to go on in a church service. To do that I had to look in the scriptures and see what happened in church back then. It dawned on me that for all the time I have spent studying the scriptures I had never asked that question, especially one as obvious as that.

I along with countless others simply stick to our church traditions. How we conduct church services or liturgy is sometimes a matter of style that has been cultivated over several generations. Instead of seeing liturgy in the first century we rather project our understanding of it on to the text. We find points of intersection, places where things match up and that is good enough for us. Of course the question of whether something is biblical or not is often far more complex than proof texting. However, if we are going to be truly scriptural we need to let the Spirit through the text guide us, placing it above our beloved traditions.

That being said I have seen a lot of church services across different denominations and traditions. Generally speaking I do not think most Christians are far off. A lot of what we do is rooted in the Bible even though it might have changed over the centuries and off course our own culture and society influences how things are done. In the first century contemporary culture also influenced the church. This does not mean we should let the times dictate who we are and what we do as believers. What then is the importance of knowing and understanding what they did?

As I have mentioned elsewhere praxis is fundamental to a worldview. What people do and invest with meaning expresses on an intrinsic level what they think about the world and their role in it. Of course praxis is never far away from symbol. Knowing what they did, and figuring out what it meant to them, helps us understand what it means to be a Christian. That was how they lived and worked out their theology in the most natural way, at a pre-theoretical level.

Now these are some general features of Christian liturgy in the first century I have identified in the scriptures. In this piece I wish to quickly outline these early Christian traditions and God willing in the future I will delve deeper into their meaning.

We must keep in mind that the early Christians were an emerging sect in Second Temple Judaism (Acts 24:14-15.) Their practices were modelled on the temple, the synagogue and generally speaking Jewish culture and customs as a whole. However, there were differences which helped them come into their own. Particularly, the inclusion of Gentiles was a point of tension which greatly influenced their practices. They saw themselves as the new people of God and developed traditions that reflected this.

  1. Baptism – By baptism I mean water baptism. Most theologically relevant occurrences of the word refer to the use of water. Even when it is used metaphorically, as in baptism in the Spirit, it relies on the imagery of water immersion (Mark 1:8.) Baptism is referenced several times in the New Testament and the baptism of Jesus by John is mentioned in all four Gospels as well as Acts. Baptism was a purification rite for those converting to Judaism. When the prophet John came on the scene he preached a message of repentance and national renewal to Israel with baptism as a powerful sign (Matthew 3.) Through baptism they were showing they had recommitted to being faithful to the covenant God. According to John this baptism was a pointer to the Messiah. Jesus himself instructed his disciples to continue the practice with it being reworked around his person (Matthew 28:18-20.) The act’s symbolism draws upon the Deluge (Genesis 6-9; 1 Peter 3:18-22), purification rites in the Torah (Leviticus 16:24, 22:6) and also the prophet Ezekiel’s messages about a pure heart (Ezekiel 36:24-25; Hebrews 10:19-22.) Baptism even though it was not a practice that did not occur during a Church meeting per se it was a fundamental requirement for being identified with the new people of God.
  1. The first day – Early Christians met at different times but their principal day of meeting was the first day, Sunday. Important activities went on during that day in the Church (Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:2.) All the Evangelists testify that the Lord rose from the dead on the first day of the week. The resurrection is the crux of the Christian Faith and so worship on the first day, the Lord’s Day, was of great symbolic value. Sunday did not become a new Sabbath as many Jewish Christian’s including Paul continued to observe the Sabbath attending the Synagogue at that time. Sunday had the added advantage that all believers, both Jew and Gentile, could participate. (A more detailed treatment of Sunday worship can be found here.)
  1. The Lord’s Supper – This is another practice the Lord explicitly instructed. Like many early Christian practices it was a modified Passover meal centred on Jesus the Messiah (1 Corinthians 11:23-26.) He is described as our paschal Lamb by Paul (1 Corinthians 5:7) and the Gospel of John clearly emphasises this imagery. The Jesus’ interprets his impending crucifixion as the sacrifice for a new covenant. What would have been seen as the absolute defeat of any messianic claims was rather going to be the pivotal moment of fulfilment of covenant promises and the sign of victory (see The Right Side of the Cross.) This practice is unique to early Christians. It does not follow all the conventions of Seder meals and it is open to Jews and Gentiles. It functions as something representative of the communion of all saints, sharing in the Faith (1 Corinthians 10:16-17.)
  1. The Spirit – Water baptism, as it is understood in the Gospels and Acts, prefigured the immersion of the people of God in his spirit (Acts 1:4-5.) The importance of the Spirit cannot be overemphasized. The experience of and participation in the Spirit in the Church was a crucial hallmark of Christian identity (1 Corinthians 12:12-13.) The inspiration and manifestation of the Spirit therefore served as a testimony of identity and membership in the new community (Acts 10:44-48.) The tangible activity of the Spirit indicated his presence among God’s people particularly in the temple, that is, the Shekinah described in the Old Testament. Worship was therefore seen as under the direction of the Spirit to the glory of God (Ephesians 5:18-19; 1 Peter 4:10-11.)
  1. Prayer – The house of God is the house of prayer (Isaiah 56:7; Ephesians 6:18;  1 Thessalonians 5:17.) The Church as the fulfilment of the word of God took this vocation very seriously. The New Testament, particularly the Epistles, are littered with prayers and benedictions that resemble synagogue practices of the time. These prayers were rooted in the scriptural narrative capturing the aspirations of the people of God and not personal sentiment alone. Since the Christians did not have physical temples among other things like the Jews, or even the pagans, their prayer practices would have some distinctive features. (Mind you they would not resemble our modern ideas about prayer.) Communal prayer for instance was strongly emphasized. However, their prayer practices were modelled on Jewish practices at that time.
  1. Hymns – Like the prayers and benedictions I mentioned above, the hymns and confessions of the Church were steeped in the scriptural narrative and communal aspirations. The Psalms served as their de facto hymn and prayer book, the Church’s devotional if you will. It seemed the early Christians through these songs as well as other poetic and pithy constructions taught, transmitted and preserved the Church’s doctrine (Colossians 3:16.) They served as early creed-like formulae. Teaching theology through poetry I find pretty ingenious and potent. Song and prayer, benedictions and confessions, formed an important part of liturgy (1 Corinthians 14:26.) Without the temple and the sacrificial system, these hymns and petitions, took the place of cultic offerings (Hebrews 13:15.) This was anticipated in the Old Testament particularly with the introduction of music into the temple through David (1 Chronicles 25; Psalm 50:12-15; Hosea 14:2.)
  1. Doctrine – The reading and the teaching of the scriptures, like the synagogues, was the central activity of Church meetings (1 Timothy 4:13; Revelation 1:3.) It was likely that entire services could mainly consist of reading Paul’s letters (Colossians 4:16; 1 Thessalonians 5:27.) This practice was particularly important because they were disciples. The name Christian, even though it was derogatory, reflects the idea of discipleship like the Herodians or the Epicureans (Acts 11:25-26.) This ardent commitment to discipleship meant early Church services acted as quasi-schools as well. This was not merely to accrue knowledge but to address how they could live as faithful covenant people. This tradition stretches back all the way to Moses. Jesus who was the “Prophet like Moses” continued this tradition with the notable exception of being superior to Moses (John 6:45-46.)
  1. Charity – Acts of kindness and generosity were embedded in the character of the Church from early on. No doubt the Old Testament impetus to show kindness to the weak as God had mercy on Israel was strong on them. The Christians had the novel example of agape embodied in the sacrifice of the Messiah on the cross as the driving theology behind their charity. The impact of Christian charity on modern social welfare is immense. From early on Church meetings were the focal points of at which various donations were made so they could be then distributed to those in need (Acts 4:32-5-11; 1 Corinthians 16:2.)

I believe these are the eight basic features of a Christian gathering in the first century. I have arranged them roughly according to the order in which they would appear in a meeting. Baptism and charity perfectly bracket these activities. Baptism was how you “entered” the Church from the world whilst charity is how the Church “entered” the world. It is through acts of love that the Church brought the transforming power of the cross to shine light in a dark world.

These practices by the time the New Testament was being written had largely taken shape. So many of these practices are not recorded in explicit detail. This is of course something we should expect if that was their tradition, that is, the way they simply did things. There would be no point in writing detailed commentaries about things everyone knew and did.

Lastly, Jesus is at the centre of all these things. He is the focal point of their communion with God. Worshipping him was worshipping God because it was through him they knew God, or rather God knew them. Whatever they adapted or modified it was built on him. This Jesus culture was non-negotiable, it was absolutely central to the identity.

And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. – Colossians 3:17 ESV


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