It occurred to me the other day that our view of worship is largely defined by the Protestant Reformation, which reinvented the assembly in reaction to earlier Catholic practices. The Reformation theory was to return to a biblical understanding of worship, but their understanding was filtered through 1,500 years of Christian church history.
The Restoration Movement attempted the very same thing, but pushed for a purer understanding of First Century practice — but filtered through 1,800 years of church history.
You see, to go back to the First Century, you really have to go back to Abraham. That’s right. We and our Reformation forebears ignored over 2,000 years of worship history, assuming the Old Testament to be irrelevant. It isn’t.
God’s covenant with the church begins with Abraham. This is a doctrine we routinely ignore, because we’ve added this “dispensation” theory to the Bible, which requires us to believe that the Abahamic covenant was repealed on Mt. Sinai. But the New Testament disagrees —
(Gal 3:7-9, 14) Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham. 8 The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” 9 So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. … He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.
How did Abraham worship? Well, he built altars (Gen 12:7). He gave a tenth of the spoils of war to Mechizedek, priest of the God most High, and ate bread and wine with him (Gen 14).
Abraham participated in a blood-oath covenant ceremony with God (Gen 15). He offered his only son as a sacrifice (Gen 17). He called upon the name of the Lord (Gen 21:33). And he walked with and spoke to God.
There’s no indication that Abraham engaged in any sort of weekly or periodic or routine worship. The sacrifices he offered, so far as is recorded, were many years apart.
However, nearly everything he did is found in the Lord’s Supper — the sacrifice of an only son, the taking of bread and wine, the making of sacrifice for atonement, the enjoyment of God’s blessings — all are found in the eucharist.
Of course, God also required that Abraham and his descendants be circumcised as a sign of God’s covenant with Abraham (Gen 17:10-11). “Sign” could equally well be rendered “mark” — and the mark of the Christian is the Spirit —
Paul treats the work of the Spirit as the Christian equivalent of circumcision —
(Col 2:11-12) In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.
(Rom 2:29) No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God.
(Eph 1:13-14) And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession–to the praise of his glory.
The stories of Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph all reflect similar practices — no regularly scheduled times of worship, but a genuine, deep devotion expressed through sacrifice and prayer and circumcision — and building of a community of believers, which form both a nation and a family. There was no temple, no church, and no weekly observance.
In marked contrast, the Law of Moses was radically different. There were, as the Jews counted, 613 commands, including especially the establishment of the Tabernacle where sacrifices were offered to God for forgiveness of sins.
And God established the Sabbath —
(Exo 20:8-11) “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. 11 For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
(Exo 35:2-3) For six days, work is to be done, but the seventh day shall be your holy day, a Sabbath of rest to the LORD. Whoever does any work on it must be put to death. 3 Do not light a fire in any of your dwellings on the Sabbath day.”
The Sabbath was instituted as a day of rest, not worship. The only command was to stop working. Of course, for Christians, Sunday is often the most tiring of all days — because we do so much work. In no biblical sense is Sunday the Christian Sabbath. We work on Sundays. Maybe not to make money, but we work.
However, we do read that the Sabbath —
(Lev 23:3) “‘There are six days when you may work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of rest, a day of sacred assembly. You are not to do any work; wherever you live, it is a Sabbath to the LORD.”
But there were no instructions for this assembly, other than parallels throughout the Law suggesting this was a day of animal sacrifice. Nonetheless, the practice for many years was the Sabbath to be simply a day of rest — except for the several sacred feasts commanded by God, many of which involved special observances on the Sabbath.
One aspect of Jewish worship that we overlook is the practice of celebrating special feasts — and seven were commanded in the Law. These created a calendar of events reminding the people of the Exodus and God’s care. Passover is the celebration we are most familiar with, and it concluded a weeklong feast.
Once the Israelites settled in the Promised Land, they did not gather for a weekly worship. After all, it was quite impossible for them to travel weekly to Shiloh to offer sacrifices at the Tabernacle, and sacrifices could only be offered at the Tabernacle.
Rather, the worship of the early Jewish nation was centered on the annual festivals and the occasional trip to Shiloh to offer sacrifices at the Tabernacle. The Sabbath was dedicated to God, but as a day of rest, not to attend an assembly to worship.
Indeed, throughout this period, when “worship” is used of acceptable worship to God, it’s used almost exclusively of Tabernacle or, later, Temple worship.