Terms Referring to the Practice of Christian Worship in the New Testament

The New Testament also contains a vocabulary of terms that reflect the worship of the new covenant community, a worship that was anticipated before the formation of the Christian church by the awed and worshipful response of many to the person of Jesus himself and by Jesus’ own worship of the Father.

General Terms for Worship

There is no New Testament term that exactly corresponds to our English word worship. The biblical expressions are concrete, whereas the word worship, etymologically, conveys the more abstract idea of “ascribing worth.” A common term in the New Testament (though seldom found in the Epistles) is the verb proskuneō, which means literally to “fall to the knee before,” to bow down or prostrate oneself; the Septuagint uses this term often as a translation of the equivalent Hebrew term hishtaḥ‡vah. The term latreuō, “serve,” is employed in the Greek Old Testament to translate the Hebrew ‘avad, as applied to the cultic service of priests. In the New Testament, this word sometimes refers to serving the Lord through the devout and upright life (Rom. 1:9; 2 Tim. 1:3; noun latreia, Rom. 12:1), but can also refer, more specifically, to worshiping. Paul declares that the church is the true circumcision, the faithful covenant people, “who worship [latreuō] by the Spirit of God, who glory [kauchaomai, ‘boast’] in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:3). The author of Hebrews also places the term in a context of worship when he urges his readers to exhibit thanksgiving (charis) “and so worship [latreuō] God acceptably with reverence and awe” (Heb. 12:28). In the New Testament, the word leitourgia (verb leitourgeō), the root of the English word liturgy, refers to the service or ministry of priests (Luke 1:23; Heb. 8:6; 9:21) and to the church’s corporate ministry to the Lord (Acts 13:2), but also to Christian service in general (Rom. 15:27; 2 Cor. 9:12; Phil. 2:7), as an act of sacrificial devotion both to God and to fellow believers.

Worship at the Birth of Christ

Acts of worship accompanied the incarnation of the Son of God, as the gospel accounts of the birth of Christ in both Matthew and Luke demonstrate. Luke’s narrative is especially rich in worship materials; he incorporates several early Christian hymns, which later came to be known by their opening words in Latin: the Magnificat of Mary (Luke 1:46–55), the Benedictus of Zacharias (Luke 1:68–79), the Gloria in Excelsis of the heavenly host (Luke 2:14), and the Nunc Dimittis of Simeon (Luke 2:29–32). Without denying that these hymnic utterances could have come forth from those to whom Luke’s account originally ascribes them, one cannot help but observe that his gospel narrative has much the character of a modern nativity pageant with traditional Christmas carols interspersed at appropriate points. These hymns owe much to their Old Testament antecedents in the Psalms, and in the case of Mary’s hymn, to the song of thanksgiving uttered by Hannah at the birth of Samuel (1 Sam. 2:1–10). All these hymns have a common theme: the ascription of glory (doxa) to God for his new and gracious act in the deliverance of his people, an act that not only fulfills the promise made to the patriarchs and prophets of Israel, but also extends the covenant blessing of peace and salvation to the Gentiles and to all “on whom his favor rests” (anthrōpois eudokias, Luke 2:14). (The hymn of the heavenly host finds an echo later in the third gospel, in the acclamation of the disciples at Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” [Luke 19:38].) Other acts of praise in the Lucan infancy narrative include the rejoicing of the shepherds, who returned from Bethlehem “glorifying and praising God” (doxazontes kai ainountes ton theon, Luke 2:20) and of the prophetess Anna, who on seeing the infant Jesus, “gave thanks to God” (anthomologeito tō theō, Luke 2:38 rsv).

As for Matthew’s account of the Nativity (Matt. 2:1–12), his narrative stresses the homage paid to the child Jesus by the Magi, who “bowed down and worshiped him” (Matt. 2:11) as they offered their gifts. This passage uses the term worship (proskuneō) three times (Matt. 2:2, 8, 11). As with Luke, who stressed the salvation to come to the Gentiles through the appearance of the Christ, so with Matthew the worshipful Magi are not Jews but Gentiles, in fact Persian astrologers.

Homage to Christ During His Ministry

During the years of his earthly ministry, Jesus Christ frequently received the worship of those whose lives he touched. In some instances, people bowed down to him as a gesture of entreaty, asking to be cleansed from leprosy (Matt. 8:2) or for the healing of a family member (Matt. 9:18; 15:25). At other times, people worshiped Jesus because they recognized in him the presence of God. Those in the boat acclaimed him as the Son of God when he came to them upon the water (Matt. 14:33); even the demons in the man from the Gerasene tombs were constrained to worship Jesus as “Son of the Most High God” (Mark 5:7). (In all these instances the verb is proskuneō.) At his entry into Jerusalem, Jesus received the praise of those going in procession with him, who were acclaiming him as Son of David with shouts of “Hosanna!” (hōsanna, from a Hebrew phrase meaning “Save, Lord!”) and “Blessed [eulogēmenos] is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Matt. 21:9), a quotation from Psalm 118:26. But the disciples’ worship of Jesus reached a climax of awestruck amazement at his resurrection, as they fell to their knees before him (Matt. 28:9, 17), rejoiced (chairō) to behold him (John 20:20), or like Thomas, exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).

Jesus’ Worship of the Father

Jesus set the example for his disciples as a worshiper of the Father. He instructed them to approach the Lord of the covenant with praise and adoration:

Hallowed be your name,
Your kingdom come,
Your will be done
On earth as it is in heaven. (Matt. 6:9–10)

Yet Jesus’ worship was not a dignified formality but a joyous abandon before his Father (Luke 10:21). Upon the return of the seventy from their mission of proclaiming the kingdom of God, Jesus danced in the Holy Spirit (the basic meaning of the verb agalliaō, often translated “exult, greatly rejoice”) and praised the Lord of heaven and earth (exōmologeō, to praise in the sense of acknowledging the mighty deeds of God).

In praying to the Father, Jesus frequently gave thanks (eucharisteō), as in distributing the loaves and fish (John 6:11, 23) or in preparing to raise Lazarus (John 11:41), but most memorably at the Last Supper with his disciples when he blessed (eulogeō) the bread and gave thanks (eucharisteō) over the cup, the meal solemnizing the new covenant of the kingdom of God (Mark 14:22–25; 1 Cor. 11:23–25). In the church’s later celebration of the Lord’s Supper, this act of thanksgiving was of such importance that it supplied one of the terms, Eucharist, traditionally designating this basic act of Christian worship.

Thanksgiving and Rejoicing

Moreover, the attitude of constant thanksgiving became the hallmark of the life of the worshiping Christian. In Paul’s view, to fail to give thanks is to refuse to acknowledge God (Rom. 1:21). Expressions of gratitude abound in his epistles, whether giving thanks for the faithful church (Eph. 1:16) or uttering thanks (charis) to God for the victory of the Resurrection (1 Cor. 15:57); repeatedly he commends thanksgiving (verb eucharisteō, noun eucharistia) to his readers: “Give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thess. 5:18); be filled with the Spirit, continuously giving thanks (Eph. 5:18, 20); walk in Christ, overflowing with thanksgiving (Col. 2:7); include thanksgiving in making your requests to God (Phil. 4:6). For Paul, the primary purpose of the use of tongues in worship is for thanksgiving, hence his directive in 1 Corinthians 14:13–17 to the effect that utterances in a tongue need to be interpreted for the “ungifted” so that they may “say ‘Amen’ to your thanksgiving [eucharistia].” The author of Hebrews likewise commends thanksgiving (charis) for the eternal kingdom as the reverential service of God (Heb. 12:28). He urges the church to offer up a continual “sacrifice of praise” (thusian aineseōs), confessing (hōmologeō) the name of God (Heb. 13:15); that he has thanksgiving primarily in mind is evident from the fact that his words echo those of Psalm 50, which invites the worshiper to “sacrifice thanksgiving” (zavaḥ todah) to the Lord (Ps. 50:14, 23 NASB).

Hand in hand with thanksgiving goes continual rejoicing; Paul’s oft-quoted dictum comes to mind: “Rejoice [chairō] in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Phil. 4:4; cf. 1 Thess. 5:16). This rejoicing is a response to the new life of the kingdom of God, but also an anticipation of redemption to come despite adverse conditions in the present. As Paul said, “we rejoice [kauchaomai, literally ‘boast’] in the hope of the glory of God,” and even “rejoice in our sufferings” (Rom. 5:2–3), words reminiscent of those of Jesus to his disciples (Luke 6:22–23) when he commanded them to rejoice (chairō) in the day of persecution and “leap for joy” (skirtaō). “Do not rejoice [chairō] that the spirits submit to you,” he told them, “but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20).

Christian Worship As Corporate

But New Testament worship was not simply a matter of inward attitude or individual expression. It was a corporate experience of the gathered church celebrating its existence as a covenant people before the Lord, who had called it into being. Whereas in Israelite religion the priesthood was the special vocation of the few, the church collectively is “a royal priesthood [basileion hierateuma], a holy nation, a people belonging to God,” called forth to proclaim the excellencies of a redeeming God (1 Pet. 2:9). The church is created for worship, “being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices [pneumatikas thusias] acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 2:5). The church is ekklēsia, a people “called out” from the unfaithful and from the world, set apart for the Lord as “the saints” or “holy ones” (hoi hagioi, never used in the New Testament to refer to an individual Christian but applied only to the church as a whole). To be a Christian is to be a part of the body of Christ (sōma christou, 1 Cor. 12:27; cf. Eph. 4:12), a favorite metaphor of the apostle Paul for the corporate gathering of the new covenant. Worship takes place in the assembling together (episunagōgē, Heb. 10:25) of the community of faith; describing the spontaneous worship of the Corinthian church, Paul indicates that it occurs when the people “come together” (sunerchomai, 1 Cor. 11:18; 14:23, 26).

Spiritual Gifts in Worship

In his directives to the Corinthians for the conduct of corporate worship (1 Cor. 12–14), Paul includes prophesying (noun prophēteia, 1 Cor. 12:10; verb prophēteuō, 1 Cor. 14:1, 39, and others), speaking with tongues (noun glōssai, 1 Cor. 12:10; verb lalein glōssais, 1 Cor. 14:39), interpretation of tongues (hermēneia, 1 Cor. 12:10; verb diermēneuō, 1 Cor. 14:27), as well as (1 Cor. 12:8) the “word of wisdom” (logos sophias) and the “word of knowledge” (logos gnōseōs). In the Bible, the prophet is the spokesman for the Lord, uttering the inspired word; Paul, however, specifically describes the function of the prophet in the assembly as speaking to men “for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort” (1 Cor. 14:3). The function of tongues appears to be addressing God to bless him and give thanks (1 Cor. 14:3, 16). Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 14:18 should probably be translated, “I thank God, speaking in tongues, more than you all”; the usual translation ascribes to him a spiritual arrogance worthy of the Pharisee in the temple (Luke 18:11). Other worshipers may enter into this act of praise, adding their “Amen!” only if someone interprets the thanksgiving (1 Cor. 14:16). Understanding tongues as praise and thanksgiving is consistent with what is said about them in the account of the day of Pentecost, when visitors to Jerusalem from other parts of the ancient world understood the apostles to be “declaring the wonders of God” in their own languages (Acts 2:11). (The modern practice in some churches of following an utterance in tongues with an interpretation in the form of a message from the Lord is unknown in the New Testament.) These “vocal gifts” are enumerated among the pneumatika or “spiritual things,” such as gifts of healing or the effecting of miracles.

Music in Christian Worship

Music played an important role in early Christian worship. Paul lists “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord” as the outflow of the filling of the Holy Spirit and the word of God whereby believers express their thanksgiving to God (Eph. 5:18–20; Col. 3:16). “When you assemble,” he says, “each one has a psalm” (1 Cor. 14:26 NASB); even in prison in Philippi, Paul and Silas were “praying and singing hymns [humneō] to God” (Acts 16:25). By psalm (psalmos), we should probably understand the biblical Psalms as used in Israelite and Jewish worship. The meaning of hymn (humnos) is less certain, and might include not only the biblical Psalms but also other hymnic material, such as prophetic songs in the Scriptures, the Christian hymns of Luke 1–2 and the Revelation to John, and several other New Testament passages of a hymnlike character (John 1:1–18; Phil. 2:5–11; and the acclamation of 1 Tim. 3:16). No doubt there was much early Christian hymnody that has not been preserved. As to “spiritual songs” (ōdai pneumatikai), perhaps this term refers to spontaneous, free-flowing song, including singing in tongues.

Prayer and Instruction

The worship of the New Testament church also included times of prayer and instruction. Prayer, as an act of worship, was both personal and corporate. Encouraging the church in spiritual warfare, Paul admonishes the Ephesians, “Pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests” (proseuchēs kai deēsōs, Eph. 6:18). He urges the Thessalonians to “pray continually” (1 Thess. 5:17); he seems to have corporate prayer in mind, since he sets it within a context of rejoicing (1 Thess. 4:16) and thanksgiving (1 Thess. 5:18) and associates it with prophetic utterance (1 Thess. 5:20). Writing to Timothy, a pastoral leader, Paul urges the church to offer “requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving” (deēseis, proseuchas, enteuxeis, eucharistias) in behalf of all people (1 Tim. 2:1). The ministry of prayer was one function in which women could lead the assembly in worship; in his discussion of headship (1 Cor. 11:3–16) Paul assumes that a woman may pray or prophesy in the assembly, the only issue being whether her head should be covered, as a reflection of the headship of Christ.

Instruction also took place in the assembly. Acts 2:42 records that the early Christians of Jerusalem “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching [didachē],” and the Epistles, especially the Pastorals, contain abundant references to the need for accurate instruction in the church. Paul indicates that in the gathering of the church some came with “a word of instruction” (1 Cor. 14:26). The role of the pastor or “shepherd” (poimēn) was primarily that of teacher (didaskalos) of the assembly. Paul seems to equate the two offices in his list of the ministry gifts of the ascended Christ (Eph. 4:11) and indicates to Titus that the special task of the superintendent, or “overseer” (episkopos), is “to exhort in sound doctrine” (Titus 1:9).

The New Testament is not explicit about the order of service that combined prayer with instruction in the Scriptures (although some have found the suggestion of a sequence of events in 1 Cor. 14:26). It is widely held that early Christian worship was derived in part from the form of worship developing in the synagogue during the New Testament period, which combined prayers or blessings with the reading of the Scripture. But the biblical prayers of the Psalms and the various Old Testament accounts of the reading of the covenant laws supply the underlying scriptural model for this form of worship in both synagogue and church.

The Lord’s Supper

In any event, the most distinctive act of Christian worship in the New Testament church, as in the contemporary church, was the Lord’s Supper. The term Lord’s Supper, or perhaps more accurately, “imperial banquet” (kuriakon deipnon) occurs in Paul’s discussion of the ceremony in 1 Corinthians 11:20–34. In 1 Corinthians 10:16, he calls the cup “a participation [koinōnia] in the blood of Christ,” while the bread or loaf is called “a participation in the body of Christ.” This concept of koinōnia is difficult to translate; it embraces a deep and intense participation, sharing, fellowship, and mutual identification as one body in and with Christ (1 Cor. 10:17), and so underlies the theme of communion associated with this act of worship, although the modern term Holy Communion is not applied to it in the New Testament. Another New Testament expression that may refer to the Lord’s Supper is “the breaking of the bread” or loaf (klasis tou artou), especially since in Acts 2:42 it is associated with the koinōnia of the apostles as one of the distinctive features of the Jerusalem church in the days immediately after Pentecost. If John’s account of Jesus’ feeding of the multitude is understood as his method of interpreting the Lord’s Supper (since, when he comes to the account of the final meal with the disciples in Chapter 13, he omits the institution of the Lord’s Supper), then perhaps John 6:11 and 6:23 are a reference to the term Eucharist, or giving of thanks, as applied to this act.

During the New Testament period, the Lord’s Supper appears to have been not a liturgy in the modern sense, but an actual meal, or a portion of one, shared by members of the Christian community. As such, it was the covenant meal, the ceremonial enactment of the bond created between God and his new people through Jesus Christ, a parallel to the covenant meal shared by Moses and the elders of Israel as they ate and drank before the Lord on Mount Sinai (Exod. 24:11). In his institution of the ordinance, Jesus had given the loaf and the cup as the representations of his body and blood, declaring the cup to be “my blood of the covenant” (Matt. 26:28; Mark 14:24) or “the new covenant [hē kainē diathēkē] in my blood” (Luke 22:20). As the Passover, which Jesus and the disciples were observing, was a representation of Yahweh’s deliverance of Israel in the Exodus and his creation of a covenanted people, so the Lord’s Supper was also an anticipation of Jesus’ impending death on the cross, under the figure of his body broken and his blood poured out, and also of the victory of the enactment of the judgments and kingdom of God through his death and resurrection—events that were to bring into being the renewed people of the covenant. Thus, offering the cup to his disciples, Jesus told them he would “drink it anew with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matt. 26:29), just as Paul later stated that in sharing the bread and the cup “you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26). It seems clear that the “imperial banquet” was not the somber and introspective rite practiced in many churches of today, but a solemn yet festive and triumphant celebration.

Worship As Active and Visible

Although Jesus had spoken of genuine worship of the Father as worship “in spirit and truth” (en pneumati kai alētheia, John 4:23), this did not mean that Christian worship was so spiritual that it was invisible. The Lord’s Supper itself is an outward action—consuming a sacred meal—which conforms to an inward reality—the creation of the people of the new covenant. In other words, it has a “sacramental” character as a visible expression of the invisible. The great celebrations of Israelite worship, with their pilgrimages, public festivity, processions, dancing, shouting, and tumultuous praise, were not possible for the New Testament church, which had to maintain a low profile in a hostile environment. Nevertheless, within the assembly of believers, acts of worship were visible acts. The word translated “worship,” as noted above, means to kneel, bow, or prostrate oneself, and such actions must have accompanied the vocal expressions of praise or supplication. Paul, for one, expressly states in prayer “I kneel before the Father” (Eph. 3:14); to Timothy he expresses his desire “I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer” (1 Tim. 2:8). The author of Hebrews describes the church using the word panēguris, “festal gathering” (Heb. 12:22); the elements of the Greek word (related to the English panegyric) originally pictured a group of people celebrating with festive circle dancing.

Sacred Exclamations and Outbursts of Praise

New Testament worship was also marked by the use of certain terms that might be described as “sacred exclamations.” One such is the word Hallelujah! (hallēlouia, Rev. 19:1, 3–4, 6), taken directly from the Psalms of Israelite and Jewish worship, many of which begin and end with hallelu-Yah, “praise Yah,” a shortened form of the name Yahweh (Pss. 112–117; 146–150). Another exclamation is “Amen!” (Rom. 1:25; 1 Cor. 14:16; Rev. 5:14; 19:4; 22:20–21), also taken from the benedictions that close the first four books of the Psalms (Pss. 41:13; 72:19; 89:52; 106:48). “Amen” does not literally mean “so be it,” but is derived from the Hebrew root signifying truth, in the sense of dependability or reliability, and its use as a sacred exclamation has something of the character of the contemporary English colloquialisms “Right on!” and “You said it!” In the gospel of John, Jesus uses the term amen to introduce an especially pointed utterance, as in “Amēn, amēn, I say to you … ” (John 1:51, and others); the word is used in twenty-four places and, as usually in the Psalms, is always doubled. “Amen” also concludes the doxology of the prayer Jesus gave as a model for his disciples (Matt. 6:13 NASB), although the doxology does not appear in the earliest manuscripts. Another sacred exclamation is “Maranatha” (1 Cor. 16:22 NASB), an Aramaic phrase meaning either “Come, our Lord!” or “Our Lord has come!” In favor of the latter interpretation is the use of maranatha to conclude the thanksgiving after the Lord’s Supper in the second century order described in the Didachē, or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles. The expression “Hosanna!”, described above, also occurs in the same context (Didachē, 10). The fact that such sacred exclamations were left untranslated from the Hebrew or Aramaic, even in a Greek-speaking church, shows that they conveyed their meaning not through their rational content, but through their spiritual quality as bearers of a sense of awe and mystery in the presence of the holy Lord, in much the same manner as thanksgiving in tongues.

It is possible that some of the doxological outbursts in the Epistles (Rom. 11:33–36; Gal. 1:4–5; 1 Tim. 6:15–16; Jude 25) had their origin in spontaneous exclamations within the corporate worship of the church. Another type of outburst is the blessing, similar to the blessing or bƒrakhah of Hebraic worship. Such expressions as Paul’s great blessing of Ephesians 1:3–23, which begins, “Blessed be [eulogētos] the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” the blessing at the beginning of his second letter to the church in Corinth (2 Cor. 1:3 NASB), or the interjection in Romans 1:25 when he speaks of “the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen” (NASB) belong to this category.

Later Development of Calendar and Liturgy

The New Testament does not directly stipulate the times of worship, though it seems clear that the church customarily assembled on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2), which may be equated with “the Lord’s Day” (hē kuriakē hēmera, Rev. 1:10), on which John received from Christ the revelation of “what must soon take place” (Rev. 1:1). Second-century sources provide more details; the Didachē (14) directs the church to “assemble and break bread and give thanks” on the Lord’s Day, and Justin Martyr (Apology, I, 67) explains that Sunday was chosen because the first day was both the day of the Creation and the day of the resurrection of Christ. Neither does the New Testament provide any calendar of distinctively Christian festivals; there is no mention, for example, of special annual celebrations of the birth or the resurrection of Christ.

Second-century Christian sources indicate that Christian worship had become differentiated into the “service [leitourgia, liturgy] of the word,” a time of prayer and instruction similar to the synagogue service, and the “service of the Lord’s table” or the observance of the Lord’s Supper. Worshipers who were not fully instructed, such as new converts, were dismissed before the Lord’s Supper. The New Testament, however, does not give any details about this differentiation. It appears that unbelievers might come into the assembly (1 Cor. 14:24), but there are no instructions to exclude them from the covenant meal and no rubrics that provide clues to an order of service.

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