What is Christian worship?

Introduction

Well I am in the “rectory” again considering the New Year. I don’t really believe in New Year’s resolutions but one of the things that I am going to try to do over the next year is to blog a bit more. To make this more manageable I am going to start by adapting some of the work I have already done. So, for the next few posts we’ll think about church and liturgy. (I know half you have stopped reading, welcome those who remain). The material here was originally part of an essay I did for my honours and I adapted it for a handbook at church on how to lead a service. It might help those wondering why we do what we do at Church. (Well at Christ Church Hillbrow, I cannot speak for any other Church).

In the next few posts we’ll think about what a church service should look like but before we address the practicalities of leading a service we will look at some of theological basis behind the church meeting on Sunday and how this affects what we do.

What is Christian worship?

Worship in the Old Testament took place at the temple it involved, a special time, a special place and a special person. On the Sabbath (Saturday) people came to the temple to offer their sacrifices to God, to make atonement for their sin, the sacrifice would be offered by a priest who would act as a mediator between God and man bringing them together.

In the New Testament, the pattern of worship changes:

“Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”  Jesus declared, “Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.” (John 4:19-24)

In this passage, Jesus meets a Samaritan woman, Samaritans worshipped in a different place than the Jews (v. 20). In verse 22 we see that the Samaritans are wrong, they “worship what they do not know” and the Jews are right “we worship what we do know, for salvation comes from the Jews”. So, at that point in time the right place to worship Jesus says is in Jerusalem but before he says this he says something much more surprising: “Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.” That is although Jerusalem was the right place soon it would not be. Earlier in John’s gospel Jesus had got in trouble for talking about the destruction of the temple:

Then the Jews demanded of him, “What miraculous sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” The Jews replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” But the temple he had spoken of was his body. (John 2:18-21)

The temple, is Jesus, this is why in John 4 Jesus’ true worshipers will worship “through spirit and truth”. It was the temple which you would go to worship God but that temple is Jesus. It is in Jesus that we come to God. Therefore, there are no more special places or times, as such, we can worship God through Jesus anytime and anyplace. True worship consists not of coming to a particular place but “the true worshipper is the one who recognizes Jesus for who he is, then seeks to live accordingly.”[1]

Not only is Jesus the temple he is also the priest:

So also Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”; as he says also in another place, “You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.” (Hebrews 5:5-6)

This means just as there are not special places there are not special people like priests. This does not mean there are not offices in the church. But it does mean we don’t need special people to worship God. We might wonder what that might look like, Paul explains in Romans:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God–this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:1-3)

Before we think what, worship might look like, it is important to notice from this passage what worship in the New Testament is. Worship is offering our bodies, this is a common idea in worship, but the big difference between the New Testament’s view of worship and many others is it is not a bargain. The worshipper does not offer something to gain the reward, they offer something in response. That is “in view of God’s mercy”, because has been merciful we respond. But then look what we respond with, we respond with our bodies that is our whole lives offered out of gratitude to God’s mercy. Worship consists “of not conforming to the pattern of the world” and seeking to do what is good and pleasing to God. So, if we are to worship then we are to live godly lives, all the time. Worship is not restricted to one hour on the Sunday morning but incorporates the whole of life.

Does this mean we don’t go to Church to worship?

If we worship all the time does that mean that we don’t go to church to worship. The idea goes that, since we worship God all the time, the purpose of Church can’t be to worship. The trouble with this view is that it is a logically fallacy.

I don’t drive, when I used to live in London I used to walk everywhere, not so much in Johannesburg. You might I was always walking. Does this mean I could not go for a walk? Of course, not, I am always walking but I could do take time for the specific purpose of walking.

Similarly, while I am, let’s say walking, I should be worshipping God because I am always to be worshipping God, but there may be act that I do specifically worship. So to say that we go to church to worship does not seem to me to contradict that fact that the whole of life is worship. The important thing to note is that the Sunday service is an act of corporate worship. Throughout my life, I am often engaged in individual worship, but the specifically in as the church I am involved in corporate worship. That is when we gather together on a Sunday we worship God, not as individuals, but corporately, we worship God together. In my next post, I will explore what this means.

[1] Vaughan Roberts, True Worship (Carlisle: Authentic Media, 2002) (p. 8).

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