Yes, I know that the Churches of Christ teach “five acts of worship.” But few of us actually speak of an assembly as having been a “great worship service” if the singing was bad. We’ll put up with mediocrity in the communion service, the prayers, the offering, and even the sermon so long as the song service moves us. Then again, many a church has grown thanks to extraordinary preaching despite mediocrity in all other aspects of the service.
If you look at what causes a church to grow, well, few churches outgrow the quality of their preaching and their song service — which is why these are the two elements of the assembly that we professionalize. We’ll pay whatever it takes to get a great song (or “worship”) leader or preacher. And doesn’t the fact that we so want to label the music director as “worship leader” give away our definition of “worship”?
So that’s what sells as worship. It’s what works. To us pragmatic Americans, the music and sermon are “worship” because they are what draw the crowds and build the contribution base. We are above all else utilitarians. We don’t even want to discuss ideas that don’t work.
And this brief discussion also shows what we consider the tests of excellent “worship.” We measure success in church just as we measure success in TV ratings or retail sales. Butts and bucks. Attendance and contribution. And so these are the numbers that appear on our signboards opposite our list of hymns.
These things matter and they’re important. But do they measure great worship? And if these aren’t the tests of great worship, what are?
Well, for this, we have to return to our Old Testaments. You see, the NT vocabulary is built on the OT. Skip past Genesis through Malachi to get to Matthew and you miss essential background reading.
So let’s start with some vocabulary words. First, are latreia (noun) and latreuō (verb).
[PS — NT Greek has two letters for “o” — ο or omicron (short o) and ω or omega (long o) — which is why you sometimes see me insert ō. Those who’ve studied NT Greek sometimes use “w” for omega, to avoid the challenge of finding the long-o symbol for the software being used.]
These words are often translated as “service” or “serve” — and can refer to the work of a servant. However, the noun latreia refers specifically to worship at the Temple, as in —
(Rom 9:4 ESV) They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises.
(Heb 9:1 ESV) Now even the first covenant had regulations for worship and an earthly place of holiness.
(Heb 9:6 ESV) These preparations having thus been made, the priests go regularly into the first section, performing their ritual duties,
This observation gives new significance to —
(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.
“Spiritual worship” is spiritual latreia and therefore means “spiritual worship in the nature of what you used to do in the Temple.” Which is what exactly? Well, as suggested by this same passage, it’s sacrifice.
There was no congregational singing in the Temple. There were no sermons. Not that we have any record of. When a Jew went to the Temple to “worship,” he was going to pray and to sacrifice — especially to sacrifice. He could pray anywhere — although the Temple was considered the best place to pray. But he could only sacrifice at the Temple. He has only “worshipped” when he’d given an animal or harvest product to the priest to burn on the altar before God.
Rather than putting on suits and dresses to head to the Temple to see and be seen and to sing and listen to a preacher, a Jew took a sheep, a goat, or the firstfruits from his farm through the streets of Jerusalem, up the stairs to the top of Mt. Zion, and laid his offering on the altar to be burned. Sacrifice was, well, a sacrifice.
And except for the rare wealthy Jew, the sacrifice was costly. Few families could afford enough meat to eat mutton or goat every day. Bread was the staple of life. Meat was for special occasions — which is why “to kill the fatted calf” was a rare, special feast for the most highly honored. Meat was expensive. [Nearly unimaginable in a nation where McDonald’s hamburgers are synonymous with cheap food.]
And yet the Jews were required to offer meat on the altar to God — from the best of the flock — lambs without spot or blemish. Or the firstfruits — the first barley or wheat to ripen. After nearly a year without fresh grain, when the fields first ripened, the very first of the grains were given to God — a sign of faith that the rest of the field would ripen and be harvested — despite the risk of locusts and storm and disease. Imagine farming a small family plot and waiting months for the harvest, only to have to take the first fruits to Jerusalem to give to God! “Sacrifice” means costly — and intentionally so.
On the other hand, some of the offerings weren’t burned up or given to the priests. Rather, they were eaten by the worshiper in the presence of God. The Passover lamb was eaten by the worshiping family before God. The lamb was sacrificed to God, but not given over to the priests. The lamb was eaten as a meal.
The thanks (or peace) offering was also shared with God. The offering was eaten by the worshiper and his family in God’s presence at the Temple as a celebration of God’s generosity.
Both the Passover and the thanks offering are prototypes of the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper was instituted as part of a Passover meal — a lamb selected for sacrifice to be eaten at home with the family as a ritual meal before God recalling the beginning of the Exodus — the narrative that defines Israel and their relationship with God.
The Greeks and Romans also sometimes held banquets at a pagan temple, where meat sacrificed to an idol was eaten in honor of the god — as though that god were joining the family for a meal. The idea of sharing a meal with a god was common in the ancient world — and was seen as a way of expressing thanks to that god, just as I might thank you for a favor by inviting you into my home or to a restaurant for a shared meal.
Hence, the Lord’s Supper is spoken of as the Eucharist —
(1Co 10:30 ESV) If I partake with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of that for which I give thanks [eucharisto] ?
Thus, latreia, translated either “worship” or “service,” really means either ritual sacrifice or thanksgiving. And in Rom 12:1, Paul could not say more clearly that the Temple sacrifice has been replaced with self-offering as a sacrifice.
No longer is it enough to offer the best of our herds or the first of our harvest. Now we offer our own lives.
This is the gospel. Jesus died for us, and so we give our lives to Jesus. And this is “worship.” No longer do we drag a sheep or goat through Jerusalem streets, up a mountain, to the Temple, to be burned. We take ourselves to Jesus — the Temple — where he is the altar on which we offer ourselves.
(Heb 13:10-12 ESV) 10 We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat. 11 For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy places by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. 12 So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood.