Patternists, those who seek a New Testament pattern for the church, have for years attempted to see a biblical pattern for worship. Alexander Campbell dealt with this in the Millennial Harbinger, disavowing Acts 2:42 as the blueprint the early church followed for worship. Last summer, Lee Mason, the current editor of The Restoration Herald hinted at the same idea. I know I might be wrong, but after considerable thought I’ve decided there is no biblical model for corporate worship in the New Testament.
Let’s think about that for a while!
In the Old Testament worship occurred at a place. Worship always involved an altar and sacrifice. In fact, I think I can safely say there was no worship without sacrifice. Once Moses led Israel from Egypt, God revealed to Moses an entire system of worship focused on the altar at the Tabernacle. The “Tent of Worship,” as it was sometimes called, was a moveable temporary structure. All Israel looked forward to the time when the focus of worship would be in a permanent location. Once David established Jerusalem as his capital, he yearned to erect a permanent Temple. Because he was a “man of war,” God permitted him to assemble the building materials but he was not allowed to build the Temple. That remained for Solomon to do. Once Solomon completed and dedicated the Temple, all worship took place there. In fact, no worship took place outside the Temple confines.
At this juncture, I have to say that there was no single “day of worship” set aside in Israel. Since worship involved sacrifice, Israelites could worship at the Temple every day. The priests sacrificed animals for a variety of reasons every day. They slaughtered so many animals that there were specially constructed drains to permit most of the blood to flow away from the Temple area. You see, worship involved sacrifice!
The Sabbath day was not set aside as a day of worship. It was, instead, a day of rest. The fourth commandment, as recorded in Exodus 20, reads as follows: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your manservant, nor your maidservant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore, the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it” (Exodus 20:10, 11). Deuteronomy 5 repeats this commandment focusing on the Sabbath as a day of rest. The Jews also observed other Sabbaths, or holidays when normal work did not occur. These days might take place during festivals or other special days, but they weren’t days of worship. Neither were the numerous festivals and feasts days of worship. Those were days of commemoration and remembrance designed to keep specific events in their minds and hearts. Worship happened during those special days as the priests offered sacrifices, but the festivals themselves weren’t truly worship. The Day of Atonement was an exception to the rule. On the Day of Atonement, the priests offered a special sacrifice for the people’s sins and the High Priest took blood from that animals and sprinkled it on the mercy seat. That day was a day of worship because the whole purpose was the atoning sacrifice offered to God to expiate the people’s sins.
In 586, Nebuchadnezzar created a crisis for the Jews when his armies destroyed the Temple, stopped the sacrifices, and deported many of the people. Until Ezra and Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem with Cyrus’ blessing, there was no worship. Without sacrifice there is no worship!
It is during those years of the Babylonian Captivity that we see the rise of the Synagogue. Wherever ten Jewish men wished to gather together they could establish a Synagogue. Gatherings at Synagogue were not worship assemblies. The Synagogue was a means of preserving the Jewish heritage and traditions. Because the Sabbath was a day of rest, the stoppage of work for a day served as a natural time for gathering together to hear the reading of the Book, to discuss the meaning of the passage read, and in general to recall their tremendous history as God’s special people. I’m sure they yearned for the day when they could return to the holy city and rebuild the Temple and restore the sacrifices so they could worship.
It was also during the time of the captivity that the “teachers of the law” and the Hasidim, who many think eventually became the Pharisees, began to emphasize obedience to the law. After all, Samuel once said, “To obey is better than to sacrifice” (1 Samuel 15:22). Since sacrifices could not be offered, these teachers taught that the people’s obedience was preferable to sacrifice. It was a moot point, however, because there was no place to sacrifice!
When Cyrus, king of Persia, permitted the people of Israel to return to Jerusalem, they rebuilt the Temple. Sadly, however, it had little of the glory and beauty possessed by Solomon’s Temple. It was, however, the place of sacrifice. Those who returned to the land could once again worship. Jews everywhere desired to travel to Jerusalem at least once in their lifetime so they could worship. The Synagogue continued its role as the place for teaching the Torah and where those scattered Jews could retain their traditions and heritage. Worship did not occur at Synagogue, worship required sacrifice.
Later Herod the Great began a tremendous reconstruction and beautification project on the Temple. If memory serves me correctly, that project had been underway some 40 years when Jesus began his ministry. It continued for even more years until it was completed in AD 66.
When Jesus lived and walked among us, he said something interesting to an adulterous woman at a well in Samaria. During that conversation, the woman, in an attempt to divert attention from herself, asked, “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain. But you Jews say that people must worship in Jerusalem” (John 4:20). Jesus replied, “Believe me. A time is coming when you Samaritans won’t be worshiping the Father on this mountain or in Jerusalem” (John 4:21). It is a good thing the disciples were gone on a quest for dinner because Jesus tells this woman that a time is coming when worship could take place anywhere because true worship is accomplished “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). To suggest that worship could take place somewhere other than in Jerusalem would have “raised their eyebrows” for sure! You see, worship required sacrifice.
For the Jews, the worst possible scenario unfolded in AD 70. The Roman armies under Titus assembled outside Jerusalem’s walls. This took place during the last days of an ill-advised rebellion against the world’s superpower of that day. After a six month siege, Titus breached the walls, slaughtered the inhabitants, and destroyed the Temple. They fulfilled Jesus words to the letter, “You see all these buildings (the temple buildings)? I can guarantee this truth: Not one of these stones will be left on top of another. Each one will be torn down” (Matthew 24:2). From that day to this, only the wailing wall, a portion of the temple court’s west wall, remains. It is a place of prayer; it is not a place of worship.
Why have I gone into all this? It is simple. In my view, what occurs on Sunday is not necessarily worship. There is no New Testament pattern for the gatherings that take place on that day.
You see, worship requires a Temple and sacrifice. Is there such a thing in these New Testament times? Absolutely!
You, individually and collectively, are God’s Temple. Your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19). Living stones comprise God’s contemporary Temple. These stones are laid upon the foundation of the Apostles and the Prophets with Jesus, the stone the builders rejected, who is the chief cornerstone. God’s Temple is not a place, it is a people. Those people exist in Myanmar, Thailand, Russia, China, the United States, and in almost every other nation in the world.
Since worship requires sacrifice, is there sacrifice. Yes, but it is not the blood of bulls and goats. Paul describes a different kind of sacrifice: “Brothers and sisters, because of God’s compassion toward us, I encourage you to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, dedicated to God and pleasing to him. This kind of worship is appropriate for you” (Romans 12:1).
Your acceptable sacrifice is the giving up of your life to become like Christ. It is a sacrifice you offer at work on Monday, with your family Tuesday evening, in your small group whenever it meets, in the weekend assembly, or giving up something you desire in the flesh for the growth of your spirit. Sacrifice is giving up what you cannot keep to gain what you cannot lose. Sacrifice is putting Christ and His Word first in your life. Sacrifice is taking self off the throne of your life and making Christ Lord! Sacrifice is giving up your preferences so others can come to know Jesus as King. Such sacrifice is rooted in a love for God and an intimate relationship with Jesus. Sacrifice is setting aside your will to obey God, for obedience is an exhibition of sacrifice.
Why do we gather together in assemblies we call church? Is it to worship. Worship can occur in such gatherings, but it isn’t neatly tied up in a package called “praise music.” You see, you can worship anywhere at any time. You don’t need music! You don’t need prayer. You don’t need an offering. The purpose of coming together is “to encourage each other even more as we see the day of the Lord coming” (Hebrews 10:25). In a sense, these assemblies fulfill the same role as the Synagogue -- they help us maintain our heritage, remember our traditions, teach sound doctrine, and provide biblical guidance for facing life situations. In our culture, these assemblies also become tools to reach others with the good news that Jesus changes lives. Whether these assemblies are thousands strong or six individuals gathered in someone’s front room is irrelevant. The real issue is, do they encourage, build up, and inspire personal sacrifice for Christ and the church?
We tend to get wrapped up and bent out of shape over how various congregations do things. Culture guides most of the things done in these gatherings. When I grew up in the Midwest, few considered dancing appropriate in church buildings let alone the assemblies. In Thailand, however, my experiences there lead to the conclusion that dance is an expression of love and praise for God. While we sing some of the old standard hymns in Myanmar, since our mission teams encouraged them to write music for their own culture we’re seeing more and more unfamiliar tunes in the gatherings there. Every assembly, however, memorializes the Lord’s death, teaches biblical truth, and challenges the believers to daily sacrifice for Jesus. Is that worship? I suppose you can call it that, but technically it is the believers’ daily sacrifice that constitutes worship. Does it really matter whether we offer an invitation, sing Gaither praise music, or make sure only men serve the Lord’s Supper? Does it matter if we gather on a night or day other than Sunday? We gather on Sunday because of the example of the early church, but they gathered together far more often than that.
Keep in mind that genuine worship requires sacrifice! How are you worshiping these days?