Of course, the early church assembled, but not in any sense to replicate the old Temple worship. Wrong analogy.
Rather, the early church assembled to anticipate the end of time. The agape — the love feast — anticipates the banquet that we’ll enjoy with Jesus at the end of time.
The Lord’s Supper transports us back to the death and resurrection of Jesus but also carries us forward to our resurrection bodies — when our flesh and blood will take on the character of Jesus’ new flesh and blood. We proclaim the death of Jesus because the resurrection of Jesus promises us eternity with Jesus in eternal bodies given us by Jesus. The Lord’s supper is about flesh and blood because the resurrection is about flesh and blood.
We sing in anticipation of the singing we’ll savor together around the throne of God in heaven.
Through the eyes of faith, we see the God and Jesus are present among us, just as they’ll be at the end of time.
Consider, for example, Acts 2. Notice how the early assemblies are described. Acts 2:47 says the church was “praising God,” a phrase that echoes —
(Luk 2:13 ESV) 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
(the Greek is the same). The early church’s praise of God reflects angelic praise of God in heaven.
The early church’s common meals anticipate the banquet that the Prophets promised in new age, to take place atop Mt. Zion —
(Isa 25:6-8 ESV) 6 On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. … 8 He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken.
The same feast is described in Revelation —
(Rev 19:9 ESV) 9 And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are the true words of God.”
When the early church ate together, at Jerusalem, they surely saw the hand of God moving toward the great banquet at the end of time — and this practice continued among Christians for centuries. The agape thus anticipates heaven, because heaven is described as a great meal with God.
Another element of the early assembly was the reading of the scriptures (1 Tim 4:13) (I really don’t know why this isn’t included with the “Five Acts.” It’s better attested as an assembly practice than some of the others.)
Anyway, when the Israelites encamped at Mt. Sinai, they were terrified to hear the voice of God.
(Exo 20:18-19 ESV) 18 Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off 19 and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.”
In Revelation 21:4, however, God’s voice comforts those who mourn and weep. When the Scriptures are read to the church, the church hears the very words of God — the voice of God, as it were — and is comforted and strengthened by it because, unlike the Israelites, they have nothing to fear, having been redeemed by the blood of Jesus.
Thus, the assembly points toward the fullness of the Kingdom. We are already in the presence of God’s Spirit, who lives within us. We are already enabled to eat holy food with the Creator of the Universe. We are already privileged to hear the voice of God as a comfort, without terror. We are already allowed to sing praises to God along with the angels.
The assembly, therefore, looks ahead to the end of time, to the very presence of God. It’s an encouragement for those present, a source of edification to build us up and prepare us for the difficulties when we must be apart.
After all, the assembly is like heaven in that we get to be together with each other, in the presence of God. But it can never last long enough. We have to leave one another’s presence and serve God in a dark and dirty world.
The assembly, therefore, is the ice cream of worship. The heart of worship — the worship that matters the most — is daily living for Jesus, because this brings about the redemption of the damned. It redeems the poor and hurting and sick. It changes the world.
The assembly, however, reminds us of what redemption will one day look like. It’s but a taste — a tablespoon of ice cream rather than a table covered in vanilla and chocolate and strawberry. It’s just a hint of better times — and so it’s a reminder of why we worship Jesus as we do the rest of the week.
We think of the assembly as “worship” because it’s purer, better, and closer to God in our minds. We carve out an hour away from the world, together with those with whom we’ll spend eternity in bliss. It’s a moment of pleasure in a tough, hard world.
But it’s not uniquely “worship.” Worship is all about sacrifice and submission. The Jews often worshiped prostrate, laying face down on the ground in humble submission to God. Worship was about burning the firstfruits of your crop in honor of God, praying the rest of the crop would ripen before the locusts and drought got to them. Worship was a real act of faith.
Therefore, worship is not supposed to be easy. It’s supposed to be a delight and pleasure, but only because our faith tells us that God is pleased with our offerings and our humility before him.
Yes, there’s an element of obedience, but we forget that many of the sacrifices described in Leviticus were entirely voluntary — thanks offerings (or peace- or fellowship-offerings), giving in gratitude for the blessings of God. Not to get something, but because God took the first step and blessed his child. Sacrifice, therefore, was often not at all a condition to forgiveness or pleasing God. Rather, it was a response in faith — to giving God credit for the blessings of life — a good harvest, a healthy baby, and happy marriage for a child.
And so our lives offered to God as living sacrifices are thanks offerings, surrendering our free time, our energies, our passions, and even our possessions in gratitude — because we know by faith that God loves us intensely and has blessed us in uncountable, unimaginable ways, and we want to give something back just to say “thank you.”
This realization helps transform our lives and our assemblies away from rote and ritual and fear that maybe we broke a rule to spontaneous, deeply felt acts of gratitude to a One whom we deeply love.
It changes everything.