Did God provide a pattern of worship for Christians who seek to worship Him? Very little is said in the New Testament as to what things we are to do in a “worship service.” It may be that our template for a worship service is taken from the traditions of a Jewish synagogue service. Many of those who first became Christians were first Jews. We see in Paul’s letters that as a matter of familiarity, many Jews held onto their religious customs even after they had accepted Christianity. Jesus never set in place a pattern for church worship, rather he emphasized the individual characteristics a Christian should have, this being the weightier matter of Christianity. In his letters, we see that Paul molded and shaped the assemblies that everything should be done decently and in order and referenced examples of what went on in them, but it was never Paul’s mission to set up the format of a Sunday worship service. Paul was to be an apostle to the gentiles, “that I might preach him among the Gentiles.”1 Notice that he does not say that I might preach the manner in which we are to perform a Sunday worship service among the Gentiles. Paul’s mission was to preach about Jesus, the Messiah. So what do we use as our basis for the model of worship in our services? Where does it all come from?
The Origin of the Synagogue
While there is some debate as to the exact timing, the synagogue probably arose while the Jews were in Babylonian captivity, in order to keep themselves focused on God during a time of despair.2 By that time, the temple had been destroyed and the people were not able to offer sacrifices or attend the annual feasts. It was a necessary addition that helped remind them that they were God’s people and what his will for them was.
The synagogue became a place where the people could come and listen to the word of God read, receive instruction, and worship.3 Its main focus was was more upon instruction in the Law than upon “exuberant worship and praise through sacrifice and music (both vocal and instrumental)” that was present at the temple.4 After the captivity had ended and the temple rebuilt, the synagogues still continued to multiply across the landscape. By the time of Jesus, Matthew and Luke state that there was a synagogue in every city.5
Worship In The Synagogue
On the Sabbath, the people would gather to worship God in a man-made fashion. In other words, no where in the Bible was the idea of a synagogue ever sanctioned by God. Even still, we see that Jesus frequented the synagogue to read from the scriptures. The following is a summarized description of that worship given by Philip Schaff (History of the Christian Church):
- The building was a plain, rectangular hall of no peculiar style of architecture, and in its inner arrangement somewhat resembling the Tabernacle and the Temple.
- It had benches for the elders and richer members (the higher ones “the chief/uppermost seats” mentioned in Matthew 23:6 and also perhaps James 2:2-3), a reading-desk or pulpit, and a wooden ark or closet for the sacred rolls (called “Copheret” or Mercy Seat, also “Aaron”).
- A sacred light was kept burning as a symbol of the divine law, in imitation of the light in the Temple. Other lamps were brought in by devout worshipers at the beginning of the Sabbath (Friday evening).
- Alms-boxes were provided near the door, as in the Temple, one for the poor in Jerusalem, another for local charities.
- Every synagogue had a president or leader (Crispus in Acts 18:8, and Sosthenes in 18:17, and Jairus in Luke 8:41; John 12:42-43 says that many leaders believed but would not confess Jesus).
- There were elders (Zekenim) equal in rank.
- There was a reader and interpreter.
- There were one or more envoys or clerks, called “messengers” (Sheliach).
- There was a sexton or beadle (Chazzan) for the humbler mechanical services.
- There were also deacons (Gabae zedaka) for the collection of alms in money and produce.
- Ten or more wealthy men at leisure, called Batlanim, represented the congregation at every service.
- Each synagogue was independent, but kept regular correspondence with other synagogues.
- It was also a civil and religious court, and had power to excommunicate and to scourge offenders (as mentioned in Matthew 10:17; 23:34; Luke 12:11; 21:12; John 16:2; Acts 22:19; 26:11).
- It was simple, but rather long, and embraced three elements, devotional, didactic, and ritualistic.
- It included prayer, song, reading, teaching of Scripture, the rite of circumcision, and ceremonial washings.
- The prayers and songs were chiefly taken from the Psalter, which may be called the first liturgy and hymn book.
- The opening prayer was called the Shema or Keriath Shema, and consisted of two introductory benedictions, the reading of the Ten Commandments (afterward abandoned) and several sections of the Pentateuch, namely, Deut. 6:4-9; 11:13-21; Num. 15:37-41.
- Then followed the eighteen prayers and benedictions (Berachoth). These benedictions are traced in the Mishna to the one hundred and twenty elders of the Great Synagogue. They were no doubt of gradual growth, some dating from the Maccabean struggles, some from the Roman ascendancy. The prayers were offered by a reader, and the congregation responded “Amen.” (This custom also passed into the Christian church as seen in 1 Corinthians 14:16).
- As there was no proper priesthood outside of Jerusalem, any Jew of age might get up to read the lessons, offer prayer, and address the congregation. Jesus and the apostles availed themselves of this democratic privilege to preach the gospel, as the fulfillment of the law and the prophets.6
Do you see many of the similarities that we have in place today? Paul mentioned many of these ideas in his letters: benches, a pulpit, elders, deacons, prayer, song, reading, teaching, song book, etc. Paul used the existing format being practiced by the Jewish-Christians and brought it into practice within the Gentile congregations being established.
Examples of Jewish Christian Worship
We are given examples in the Bible of the Jewish Christians continuing to follow their Jewish traditions. It may have been that they continued to observe the Sabbath, feasts, and hours of daily prayer. To both groups, Jews and early Christians, even their scriptures were the same, the Tanakh (Old Testament).
- The early Christians were “day by day continuing with one mind in the temple…” (Acts 2:46)
- Peter and John were going to the temple because it was the hour of prayer. (Acts 3:1)
- Christians going to the temple on a regular basis. (Acts 5:21, 42)
- Paul continued to observe the traditions of Jewish worship. (Acts 21:26; 22:17; 24:11-12; 24:18)
- Paul preached on the Sabbath. (Acts 13:14, 42-44; 16:13; 17:2; 18:4)
- Christians may have continued to follow the Jewish practice of worship on the Sabbath. (Romans 14:5-6a, Colossians 2:16)
- Several passages refer to the early Christians gathering in the synagogues for the purpose of worship and teaching others. (Acts 9:2; 9:20; 13:5; 13:14ff; 13:42-44; 14:1; 17:1ff; 17:10; 17:17; 18:4ff; 18:26; 19:8; 22:19; 24:11-12; 26:11; James 2:2)
- Just as every synagogue had elders and instructors, so also the early church came to have elders/bishops in every church (Acts 14:23) whose primary responsibility was to lead the congregation and care for its spiritual needs. (Hebrews 13:17)
- The synagogues typically had men designated to gather and distribute alms to those in need, so also the early church came to have deacons who had similar responsibilities. (Acts 6:1-7)
The Lord’s Supper
Jesus had commanded that the Lord’s Supper was to be observed on the first day of the week, the day he rose from the dead, on Sunday. Many of the Christians was to partake at a seperate time and place than in the synagogues. They may have still gathered for Sabbath worship at the synagogue, but as the Sabbath ended at sundown and the next day began, it may have been that they continued together that evening to fulfill the Lord’s Supper on what we would consider to be Saturday night.
In addition to this after Sabbath partaking of the Lord’s Supper, the early church often celebrated it as part of or at the end of the agape (love) meal.7 Perhaps a mirror of Jesus’ establishing the memorial as part of the last supper, the meal was a time of unity shared by the Christians. It appears, however, that this practice was being misued by the Corinthian Christians. They were being selfish during the meal and perverting it, and were unable to partake of it with the proper attitude and love for one another. Paul denounced their selfish ways in 1 Corinthians 11:17-22 and suggested that they should eat it at home if they’re unable to do so properly while they are gathered together.
For reasons unknown, the practice of eating the Lord’s Supper along with the agape meal ended sometime around the beginning of the 2nd century.
The Separation of Judaism and Christianity
Believers of both Judaism and Christianity soon began to grow apart as the Christians grew in wisdom and their understanding of Christ and his fulfillment of the Law. The Jews who remained unconvinced, continued in the old practices and beliefs. Even still, the customs and traditions of the synagogue way of worship had been set in place in the Christian minds. It was the synagogue practices of the Jewish Christians that inspired the idea and practices of the “worship service” that we know and practice today.
1 Galatians 1:16
5 Matthew 4:23, Acts 15:21
6 Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church (Volume 1; Chapter 9: Worship in the Apostolic Age). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1910.