Biblical origins of worship
If we were entirely ignorant of the Patristics and the modern American church, we’d struggle to know how to worship based just on the New Testament. We’d see in the Old Testament where true worship only took place in Jerusalem, and we’d see where Jesus said that worship will be changed to be “in Spirit and in truth” — defined by God’s Holy Spirit and the gospel of Jesus Christ.
We’d see in the synoptic Gospels and 1 Corinthians where Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper as part of a meal.
We’d see in 1 Cor 14 where the early church assembled for mutual edification, strengthening, encouragement, and comfort — and we’d see that the New Testament is filled with encouragement to deal well with persecution. No wonder they met for encouragement!
We’d see in Heb 10:24-25 an exhortation to assemble to encourage each other to love and good works. And we’d see that the doing of good works is a theme that is found throughout the New Testament.
But we’d not see any requirement to meet weekly on Sundays to engage in specified acts. Rather, we’d be more likely to notice that the church in Jerusalem met daily in homes, ate together, prayed together, and was instructed by the church leadership. We might even notice that Acts 2 seems like an explanation for Luke’s readers as to just what the Christian gatherings were like — as there’s not much else in the book to change the impression that Acts 2 was typical.
In fact, the impression we’d get is that the rules for worship went from the highly regulated, structured worship of the Old Testament, to a new unstructured worship that is by the Spirit (Phil 3:3) and might vary considerably from place to place (daily assemblies in Jerusalem as described in Acts 2 and weekly assemblies in Troas as described in Acts 20).
We might also notice that Hebrews contrasts Christianity with Judaism by noting the insufficiency of the Temple worship as based on a pattern, whereas true worship for Christians occurs where the true Temple is — in heaven — and where the perfect sacrifice of Jesus is.
(Heb 8:5-6) They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. This is why Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: “See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.” 6 But the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, and it is founded on better promises.
(Heb 9:1) Now the first covenant had regulations for worship and also an earthly sanctuary.
(Heb 9:10) They are only a matter of food and drink and various ceremonial washings–external regulations applying until the time of the new order.
And according to the same passage, the old law is replaced not with a new and better law but with a new and better way of relating to God — that is, through the Spirit —
(Heb 8:9-10) It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they did not remain faithful to my covenant, and I turned away from them, declares the Lord. 10 This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.
Again, we see that regulations, rules, and rituals are replaced with the Spirit.
And we’d have to notice that the “temple” language in the New Testament is all about the Christian’s body and the church — especially the church (not the building, right?!) And if God is building each congregation into a temple of the Spirit — God’s special presence on earth — then surely we’d see that worship is to take place inside ourselves and inside our congregations.
Of course, the way the worshipers worshipped in the Old Testament was mainly through sacrifice. There were choirs that sang and orchestras that played at the temple, but the people themselves brought sacrifices to God. That’s how they worshipped.
Col 2 shows that Paul uses “worship” to refer to much more than the assembly. He actually speaks of obedience to food laws, Sabbath observance (speaking of not working), and asceticism as “worship” because these are things people were being urged to do to honor God. After all, if these were what God wants (it isn’t), it’d involve some serious sacrifice. But it’s the wrong kind of sacrifice.
(Col 2:16-23 ESV) Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. 17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. 18Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, 19and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.
20If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” 22( referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? 23These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.
In Romans, Paul describes how Christians are to sacrifice —
(Rom 12:1 ESV) I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
We are to sacrifice our bodies! We are both temples and sacrifices.
(Phil 4:18 ESV) I have received full payment, and more. I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.
And so are contributions to the support of a missionary, which makes sense, because we read in Hebrews —
(Heb 13:14-16 ESV) For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. 15 Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. 16Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.
Acknowledging God’s name (see Hos 14:2, promising praise rather than bullocks; it’s esp. clear in the Septuagint) and helping those in need are sacrifices. And to sacrifice is to worship. To argue otherwise is to ignore the entirety of the Old Testament and many New Testament verses that use the same vocabulary regarding the Temple worship.
Now, it’s easy enough to argue that the “sacrifice of praise” is singing in the assembly, but I’m confident the early church praised God not only in the assembly — that is, not only in private. The church acknowledged God before Roman executioners, too.
Unless we start with the assumption that worship is particularly what takes place in the assembly, we’d never, ever get there from the New Testament. Indeed, the idea seems to be that the church’s participation in God’s redemptive mission — through service to those in need, through missions, through love for one another, and even through the spiritual formation that takes place in the assembly — is worship.
Further, as we read our New Testaments looking for a theology of worship, we’d find very little else about the assembly, but quite a lot about loving one another and doing good works for those both inside and outside the church. I mean, Matthew’s Gospel is centered on the Sermon on the Mount and the Crucifixion and Resurrection, not lessons on how to act for an hour on Sunday morning. Just so, Romans concludes with lengthy instructions on living under the Spirit’s guidance and love for each other — and nothing about the assembly or church organization. And 1 John is written to tell us that those with faith in Jesus are saved, and it gives practical advice on Christian living, but says nothing of the assembly.