enowned New Testament scholar Dr. Lee McDonald offers us a brief rundown of what worship looked like in the early church, so we can learn from our first-century brothers and sisters.
1. Worship Involves Sacrifice
In New Testament times, worship consisted initially of sacrifice (of animals). However, the focus of worship for Christians is on self-sacrifice in honor and adoration of Christ (Mark 8:34-36). Worship appears to be the total response of grateful persons to the grace of God that comes to us in the work of Jesus Christ (see Romans 12:1-2). It is no longer related to the temple notion of animal sacrifice, but rather, in Christ the whole Church has become a temple and a priesthood inhabited by the Holy Spirit, or presence of God (see 1 Cor 6:19; Eph 2:19-22; and 1 Pet 2:9).
2. Worship Is Spiritual
Even though worship does involve rituals, our worship, from a New Testament perspective, is essentially spiritual (see 1 Pet 2:5; Rom 12:2). It was an internal attitude rather than a practice of external rituals. This understanding is also found in Isaiah 1:11-20 and Psalm 51:15-17.
3. However Worship Did Include Specific Practices
Some of the rituals in the New Testament include baptism (Matt 28:19); communion (1 Cor 11:23-34); laying on of hands (Acts 6:6; Acts 8:17; 13:1-3); foot washing (John 13:5-17); lifting up hands in prayer and worship (Luke 24:50; 1 Tim 2:8; see Psalm 134:1-2 and Ps 143:6); the reading of Scriptures (1 Timothy 4:13); and contributions for ministry to those in need (1 Corinthians 16:2). Because we are not given explicit instruction on how to practice these rituals, many variations of their practices emerged in the early churches. Of course, the early Church patterned much of its worship service after that of the Jewish synagogue service. Worship services at first were on the Sabbath (Saturday), but by the middle of the first century, many Christians were gathering regularly on the first day of the week (see 1 Cor 16:2; Acts 20:7; Rev 1:10) out of respect for the time of Christ’s resurrection. At first, however, followers of Jesus in Jerusalem gathered daily in the Temple for prayers (Acts 3:46).
4. Worship Was Filled With Charismatic Praise
The offering of enthusiastic praise and prayer under the influence of the Holy Spirit was characteristic of the early Church’s worship. This was demonstrated through speech (1 Cor 14:19) and tongues, or ecstatic speech (1 Cor 14:2, 6 ff.). Each person was given a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good (I Cor. 12:7) and to build up the body of Christ (Eph 4:11-15).
5. Worship Was Didactic
The early Christians were a teaching community giving instruction in their time of worship (see 1 Cor 12:8; 14:26; Eph 4:11; 1 Tim 3:2; 4:13; 5:17).
6. Worship Was Eucharistic
The early Christians were a community that was conscious of the need to give thanks to God (Eph 5:19-20; Col 3:17).
7. Worship Involved Koinonia
The Greek work, koinonia, means “sharing” or “participation” and is seen as the kind of giving in the fellowship that builds up the family of Christ (Acts 2:42-47). This is the focus of 1 Corinthians 12:1-7—each person was expected to come and share in the event of worship rather than simply listen to one person.
8. Worship Was Corporate
There was also a corporateness in worship in every sense (1 Cor 12:12-26). The church was consciously a body or a fellowship of persons who saw themselves as inextricably bound together as brothers and sisters in Christ.
9. Worship Included Music
The early Christians lifted their voices in praise to God. The New Testament frequently mentions the corporate singing which took place in their midst and also indicates some of their hymns and spiritual songs (e.g., Phil 2:6-11; Eph 5:19-20; Rev 4:8-11; 5:9-13).
10. Worship Included Singing and Songwriting
There are a number of hymns or spiritual songs in the New Testament literature. Among many others, here are examples of Christian spiritual songs: Eph 5:14 (three lines, first two rhyme in Greek, and the last is a promise), 1 Tim 3:16, Phil 2:6-11, Col 1:15-20, Heb 1:3. There are also the Nativity hymns in Luke: the Magnificat (1:46-55), the Benedictus (1:68-79), and Nunc Dimittis (2:29-32). Besides these, there are a number of well-known Christian hymns that date from roughly the early second century AD currently known as the Odes of Solomon, a collection of some 42 spiritual songs. One can see in all of these songs both praise and testimony to the greatness of God’s activity in His son in Jesus the Christ.
All of the above hymns relate to the person and work of Jesus the Christ. They sometimes mention His pre-existence, or how He became a man and accomplished redemption (salvation) for the world through His suffering and death. The dominant motif in most New Testament hymns is that Christ is victorious over all of our enemies and is rightly worshiped as the image of God Who is over all.
The Good News
The above examples show us how the early Church lived out its life in worship of God. Worship, of course, was not a simple act done occasionally, but rather a way of life that involved one’s complete dedication to honor Christ and give our complete lives to serve Him. Worship cannot be reduced to a few songs, a Scripture reading, a sermon, and a closing prayer. It is a whole life of submission to the call of God that comes to us in the proclamation of good news. Christian worship is good-news oriented, even when reflective music is sung. We serve a God who does not abandon His children when this world’s challenges are overwhelming, but comes to us in all circumstances of life.
Lee Martin McDonald is the President Emeritus and professor of New Testament at Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia, Canada, and the President of the Institute for Biblical Research. He and his wife are now living in Mesa, Arizona.