As we examine the scriptures, we discover that the churches of the first century came together for at least six different kinds of meetings. Due to the prevailing social conditions, they may not have been able to conduct services on separate days and therefore it is possible that many of these meetings followed on from each other at one session. What we do know is that those early believers met for prayer, and in Acts there are several references to the prayer life of the church at Jerusalem.
Unique among God’s creation, man alone displays the inclination, desire or perhaps even the need, to worship. Sadly, this is misdirected, as Paul explains in Romans chapter 1 verses 18 to 25, and we foolishly end up worshipping vain idols, heavenly objects or even ourselves and our desires. When tempted by the wicked one, the Lord Jesus quotes Deuteronomy chapter 6, which is an exposition of the first commandment. The Lord makes it clear that God alone should be worshipped. But what is worship, who can carry it out and what does it involve? Many perhaps equate praise with worship and reduce it to an expression of our emotions, but worship is much more than this. Praise is indeed one form of worship, as we shall see, but worship is really a way of life and has correctly been described as man’s chief aim. While worship is often expressed in scripture as a collective activity, for example at the Old Testament feasts and New Testament gatherings, it is clearly seen to be dependent on specific conditions and genuine heart obedience.1
In the list of activities carried out by the early Church in Acts chapter 2 verse 42, worship is not mentioned. Though mentioned on four other occasions in Acts, none of them are in a local church context and neither are any of the mentions, of which there are only three, in all the Epistles! Yet, when scripture is considered overall, the importance of worship is clear. While less than fifty verses are dedicated to the creation of the universe, some 243 are used in Exodus alone to describe the building of the tabernacle. This portable tent is, then, the centre of Old Testament worship and huge amounts of ceremonial instruction follow in the rest of the Pentateuch and historical detail relating to it beyond that. When the details of its successor, the Temple, in its various iterations, are added, then it becomes clear how vital this subject is. Though these physical centres for worship are all superseded in the New Testament, the typology built on them in, for example, John’s Gospel, Hebrews and 1 Peter clearly show the importance of worship.
To consider its inspiration and instruction, let’s refer to the first mentions of worship in both Testaments. It would be helpful for the reader to have Genesis chapter 18 verses 1 to 6 and Matthew chapter 2 verses 1 to 12 in front of them. Genesis chapter 22 verse 5 is sometimes quoted as the first mention of worship but this is only true in our English translation. The Old Testament was, of course, primarily written in Hebrew, and the first occurrence of the Hebrew word translated ‘worship’ in Genesis chapter 22 verse 5, is, in fact, the expression ‘bowed himself’ in Genesis chapter 18 verse 2. Now to whom did Abraham direct this worship? A careful study of Genesis chapters 18 and 19 will make it clear that it was Jehovah Himself who Abraham addressed with the divine title ‘Lord’. Yet, verse 2 says he saw ‘three men’. At the close of the chapter ‘the Lord went His way’, and the next chapter opens with ‘two angels’ coming to Sodom, although it is clear they appeared as men. This leads us to conclude that the other ‘man’ was God Himself, in other words, a theophany. Perhaps, more correctly a Christophany, a pre-incarnation appearing of the Lord Jesus, as He is the only one who can physically manifest God, John 1. 18; 14. 9. In Matthew chapter 2, we see a parallel; the wise men come ‘to worship’; again the question is, ‘whom’? The answer is clear in verse 11, when they worship the young child and Him alone because He is the incarnate God. These two initial examples of worship both demonstrate that the Lord Jesus is the inspiration for true worship; whether in Christophany or in incarnation, His appearance is responded to by even the greatest of men bowing down in worship. A further look at these two incidents will also give us instruction for worship.
First, worship requires salvation, which needs a work of God. In both these cases, God intervenes to instruct Abraham and the wise men. In Abraham’s case, He spoke directly and Abraham responded.2 The wise men saw the star and were spoken to in a dream; they also responded to God’s call. They exercised faith without which they could not ‘please’ God or worship Him, Heb. 11. 6; it is clear unregenerate people cannot worship God. This salvation also involved separation. Abraham moved from Ur to Canaan, and, in a similar way, the wise men came ‘from the east’, moving from man’s place to God’s. The approach to God in the tabernacle was from the altar to the holiest where the ark was; from east to west, a picture repeated in these two instances of worship. These were saved and separated worshippers whose sin had been removed ‘as far as the east is from the west’, Ps. 103. 12. We also, once saved, need to exercise separation from man’s place to God’s for true worship, and where better is this seen than in a local assembly of God’s people? There, separated from the world, their ideas and standards, we can worship God in spirit and in truth, John 4. 23. Not only did it involve separation but also submission; Abraham bowed down and the wise men fell down. They humbled themselves; God hates pride and true worship will not display man’s ideas, talents or accomplishments of the flesh, but God’s. Next, notice their worship involved service; it required effort. The wise men travelled on a very long journey, overcoming the obstacles of the wicked King Herod. Abraham fetched, hastened and ran. He got Sarah to join Him and to get ready quickly, knead and make. Often, we try to distinguish between worship and service but, as we will see in more detail later, our service can, and should, be worship. This brings us to see that their worship was sacrificial, and so should ours be. The Holy Spirit emphasizes that though Abraham humbly describes what he presents as a little water and a morsel, in fact, he brought fine meal, a calf tender and good, and a young man dressed it with butter and milk. Abraham gave God the best of everything he had, a model for us to follow. Likewise, the wise men brought gifts, and the best of gifts at that, gold, frankincense and myrrh. These were precious and costly things. Space does not permit us to look at them in more detail, but a study of scripture would show they all speak of Christ. What a lesson this is for us; true worship speaks of Him and, indeed, presents Him to His Father. This should be both in our appreciation of Him and our likeness to Him, which is God’s ultimate purpose for us, ‘to be conformed to the image of his Son’, Rom. 8. 29. This will require sacrifice on our part.
As already observed, the physical of the Old Testament is replaced by the spiritual in the New. We no longer bring beasts, incense, wood or crops, but we are still required ‘to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ’, 1 Pet. 2. 5, and we still have a spiritual altar, Heb. 13. 10. Some of these sacrifices are outlined in the New Testament. The first is found in Romans chapter 12 verse 1, where, after a three-chapter parenthesis, Paul continues from his exposition of Christ’s sacrifice for us in Romans chapters 1 to 8 by instructing us to ‘present your bodies a living sacrifice … which is your reasonable service’. In the light of the truth that Christ has died for us, the least we can do is live for Him. This surrender of our life is the basis for the other sacrifices. Paul himself fulfilled his own requirement as he tells the Philippians he is ready to ‘be offered upon the sacrifice and service of your faith’, Phil. 2. 17. Showing the humility already referred to, he uses the imagery of him being poured out as a secondary drink offering upon their primary burnt offering. This, again, confirms the need to offer our person. He also views these Gentile converts as an offering to God from his preaching, Rom. 15. 16. Further, he thanks them for their provision for him, referring to the giving of their possessions as an offering and ‘a sweet smell, a sacrifice acceptable, well-pleasing to God’, Phil. 4. 18. Another sacrifice we are to offer is ‘the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips giving thanks to his name’, Heb. 13. 15. Notice, this is a continual thing, not just emotional outpourings on specific occasions, be those breaking of bread gatherings or specific times of singing or praise meetings. There is no doubt the New Testament churches did sing, but this has extremely limited mentions and there is no indication of any musical accompaniment. Sadly, we seem to live in a day where there is a huge emphasis on singing and music as the major manifestation of worship and little evidence of the other offerings outlined above. Even after endorsing praise as an offering, the very next verse immediately reinforces the need for the offering of our practices, ‘to do good and to communicate forget not: for with such sacrifices God is well pleased’, Heb. 13. 16. This reminds us that our lives must match our lips. The supreme example of this is our Saviour. Luke, the writer whose Gospel, perhaps more than the others, presents the Lord as a man, summarizes it in Acts chapter 1 verse 1 as, ‘all that Jesus began both to do and teach’. Please note that Luke places the doing before the teaching. While it is clear our primary duty to our fellow men is to preach and not merely to engage in a social gospel, it is also clear that the Lord’s preaching was adorned by His love, compassion and practical assistance to those He lived amongst. In this, as in all these offerings, He is our role model. He pleased the Father in every detail and facet of His life; true worship will require us to try and emulate this individually and only then will true worship arise from us collectively.