Here I Intend to begin the first of four posts on the nature of early Christian worship as it can be gleaned from the bits and pieces as referred to in the New Testament.While to greater or lesser extent the earliest Christians still participated in both the temple (until its destruction) and the synagogue (until it became impossible to continue), they also began distinctively Christian worship. While such Christian worship was not directly connected to either temple or synagogue, it drew from temple motifs and synagogue patterns.
Jesus left no formal order of worship, though he did leave two mandates for the sacramental practices of baptism and Eucharist. The earliest Christian worship services in Jerusalem seem to have been somewhat informal and convened on a daily basis:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. (Ac. 2:42)
Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. (Ac. 2:46-47a)
They [Sanhedrin] were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead. (Ac. 4:2) On their release, Peter and John went back to their own people and reported… When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer… After they had prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly (Ac. 4:23-24, 31)
All the believers used to meet together in Solomon’s Colonnade. …more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number. (Ac. 5:12, 14)
Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ. (Ac. 5:42)
At this early juncture, it is probably fair to say that Christian worship was not yet normalized, that is, that there were as yet no formal principles regulating the service of worship. This is no more than would be expected of a group that had no formal mandate for a worship order. The expression “they broke bread” probably refers to the observance of the Eucharistic meal (Ac. 2:42, 46), and of course, baptisms were conducted for converts (Ac. 2:41). The apostles taught and preached the message of Jesus (Ac. 2:42; 4:2), and communal prayer was offered (Ac. 2:42; 4:24). The fact that they met in the temple courts suggests that they retained the basic concept of sacred space set apart for the worship of God (cf. Ac. 2:46; 5:12, 19-21, 42a), but the fact that they also met in homes implies their confidence that the indwelling of the Spirit sanctified all places where they gathered (Ac. 2:46; 5:42). The fact that the early Christians followed the “teaching of the apostles” (Ac. 2:42) distinguishes Christian allegiance from the teaching of other groups (Pharisees, Essenes, etc.) and implies that Christians believed the Torah had been fulfilled in Jesus. Only after the Christian circle expanded beyond the environs of Jerusalem do we find the nucleus of an order of Christian worship.
Mostly what we find concerning early Christian worship services are bits and pieces. There exists in the New Testament no objective description of an early worship service. When Peter was arrested, “the church was earnestly praying to God for him” in the home of Mary, the mother of John Mark (Ac. 12:5, 12). In a gathering of Christians for worship at Antioch, Syria, Paul and Barnabas were commissioned as missionaries (Ac. 13:1-3). At Troas in western Asia Minor, Christians gathered on Sunday evening “to break bread”, which implies the Eucharistic meal (Ac. 20:7, 11). In this context, Paul taught at length in an upstairs room illuminated by oil lamps (Ac. 20:8-9). In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul could assume that his converts would gather for worship in the name of the Lord Jesus (1 Co. 5:4; 11:18). He also could assume that in their corporate worship they would observe the Eucharistic meal (1 Co. 10:16-17; 11:17-34). Their meetings typically would be on Sunday, the first day of the week (1 Co. 16:2). During their worship gatherings, considerable room was afforded for congregational participation in song, instruction, and the expression of spiritual gifts (1 Co. 14:26). Both women and men were allowed to pray and address the congregation, though there were expected patterns of decorum (1 Co. 11:4-5; 14:39-40).
Some corporate, liturgical elements are clearly indicated, such as, “the Thanksgiving” (1 Co. 14:16), “the Amen” (1 Co. 14:16; 2 Co. 1:20), and the closing “Maranatha” (= “Our Lord, come!” 1 Co. 16:22).
And so through him the ‘Amen’ is spoken by us to the glory of God. (2 Co. 1:20).
The references to “the thanksgiving” and “the amen” clearly have the definite article in the Greek text, which implies a formal element. Paul refers not merely to some incidental or spontaneous “thanksgiving” and “amen,” but rather to the amen and the thanksgiving. Unfortunately, some translations, such as the NIV, omit the definite articles, thus obscuring the liturgical framework. Maranatha is given in Aramaic. The fact that Paul would give a closing prayer in a language that ordinarily would hardly be understood by Corinthians in the Greek Peloponnesus almost certainly denotes a liturgical element, since otherwise it would have been incomprehensible unless it was a regular part of the service carried over from Palestine. What is true for Maranatha is equally true of Amen, which is a Hebrew word transliterated into Greek (and eventually, into English). Similarly, the word ‘Abba in addressing God, the Aramaic word for father, goes back to Jesus’ prayers and the Lord’s Prayer (cf. Mk. 14:36; Ro. 8:15; Ga. 4:6). The most natural context in which a Greco-Roman Christian in Italy or Asia Minor would employ the Aramaic word ‘Abba would be in reciting the Lord’s prayer.
The widespread use of doxologies in the New Testament—standardized formulae offering praise to God—may well have been taken from worship settings (Ro. 16:27; Ga. 1:5; 1 Ti. 1:17; 6:16; 1 Pe. 5:11; Jude 25; Rv. 1:6; 7:12; 19:1). Doxologies typically begin with “Blessed be…” and are directed toward God. Typically they end with “Amen” (Ro. 1:25; 9:5; 11:36; 16:27; Ga. 1:5; Ep. 3:21; Phi. 4:20; 1 Ti. 1:17; 6:16; 2 Ti. 4:18; He. 13:21; 1 Pe. 4:11; 5:11; 2 Pe. 3:18). Often, they consciously refer to the Father, the Son and the Spirit (Ep. 1:3; 3:21; Ro. 16:27; He. 13:21; Jude 25; Rv. 5:13). Most naturally, such doxologies would have come at the conclusion of prayer. Similarly, New Testament benedictions—parting words of blessing upon God’s people—may also have been drawn from early Christian worship settings (e.g., 2 Co. 13:14).
Other bits and pieces of evidence highlight music and singing. While we have no direct evidence about the use of musical instruments one way or another, it is possible if not likely that the early Christians did not use them, following synagogue practice, where they were banned. Still, vocal music clearly held a prominent place in Christian worship. Paul can assume that in Corinthian worship one of the expressions offered to the church would be “a hymn” (1 Co. 14:26). In Ephesus and Colossae, he can refer to “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” (Ep. 5:19; Col. 3:16). Psalms would have included antiphonal singing (cf. Ezra 3:11; Ne. 12:24, 31), drawn from temple and synagogue, and hymns may have been original compositions, at least if Paul’s reference to hymns is analogous to similar references by his contemporary Philo. James can urge joyful Christians to “sing songs of praise” (Ja. 5:13), and while they were not exactly in a worship service, Paul and Silas sang in the midnight darkness of the Philippian jail (Ac. 16:25). Many scholars have suggested that the poetic forms of various New Testament passages may themselves have been derived from early Christians hymns. Luke’s Gospel contains several: the Magnificat (Lk. 1:46-55), the Benedictus (Lk. 1:68-79), the Gloria in excelsis (Lk. 2:14) and the Nunc Dimittis (Lk. 2:29-32), to borrow their Latin titles. The Book of Revelation contains several more (Rv. 4:8, 11; 5:9-10, 12, 13; 7:10, 12; 11:15, 17-18; 15:3-4; 22:17). All these parallel very closely the ancient psalms, and most scholars agree that they follow to a large measure the style of the Eighteen Benedictions of the temple and synagogue service. Later, these same compositions would be taken up in the liturgical use of the post-apostolic church. Such references occur in the Apostolic Constitutions, a compilation of directives concerning early church teaching and worship and derived from various sources and periods. Some probably go back to the 2nd and 3rd centuries, some perhaps even earlier, others later.
In addition to the poetic compositions more generally recognized as early Christian hymns, one should also recognize various passages in the Pauline literature that well may be fragments of early Christian hymns (Ep. 5:14; Phil. 2:6-11; 1 Ti. 1:17; 3:16; 6:15-16; 2 Ti. 2:11-13). In particular, Paul’s citation in Ephesians 5:14 is prefaced with the words, “Wherefore he [or “it] says…”
Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.
We might suppose that Paul is here quoting from the Old Testament, but in fact, he is not. Most scholars agree with the ancient opinion of Origen (AD 185-254) and Theodoret (5th century) that this is a fragment of a Christian hymn, possibly sung in the context of Christian baptism.
In general, it is fair to say that these fragments, if indeed they are from the hymnody of the apostolic church, focus upon the central issues of the gospel itself—deeply held truths like the incarnation, the cross, the resurrection, the messiahship and lordship of Jesus, the worthiness of God to be glorified, the Christian hope and so forth. None of them seem to give substantial attention to the psychological self of the worshipper. The center, just as with the ancient worshippers of the Old Testament, is the worth-ship of God, especially as mediated through his Son, Christ Jesus the Lord.