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Atonement describes what God has done for believers; worship entails what believers do for God. The word "worship" is an remarkably inclusive term. In the New Testament alone, several Greek words (plus their numerous variants) are occasionally rendered as "worship" in English translations. These terms variously refer to pagan worship (Acts 17:23), to Jewish rites performed by the priests (Hebrews 9:21), to Jewish worship by laymen (Acts 8:27; 12:20; Luke 2:37), and even to perversions such as the worship of angels (Colossians 2:18).

Religious ritual permeated life in ancient times. Overt atheists were few and far between, and religious shrines of every stripe dotted the landscape. People engaged in all sorts of ritual activities to show their piety. As part of their worship, they offered animal and plant sacrifices, went on pilgrimages, prayed, fasted, played music on instruments, chanted psalms of praise, observed religious festivals, read scripture, taught, and were taught. Pagans even engaged in prostitution with temple harlots as a form of worship. The who, what, where, how, and why of worship played no small role in their daily existence.

Into this world of worship came Jesus of Nazareth, a prophet in the tradition of Amos, Micah, and Isaiah--yet more than a prophet. Speaking as one having authority, he addressed many of the issues related to worship. The writer of Hebrews even compares the ministry of Jesus to high priestly work (Hebrews 8:1-6). Although Jesus participated in services at his local synagogue (Luke 4:16-22), it was clear he intended to emphasize internals over externals. When the woman at the well asked him questions about proper worship, he maintained it should be done “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:19-24), which probably meant that true worship in the future would be focused on the Messiah (Jesus himself) rather than on a particular place.

What constitutes true worship is a chief concern of both Old and New Testament writers. Just like Isaiah (Isaiah 1:12-17), James affirms that pure religion has more to do with doing right than performing rites (James 1:27). In order words, "worship" and "service" are not separate entities but part and parcel of each other. In a similar vein, Paul says in Romans 14:17-18 that the kingdom of God is not a matter of externals (eating and drinking) but of internals (righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit). The one who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to both God and man. Earlier in Romans, Paul takes the word that described the ritual duties performed by Levites in the tabernacle and changes its color to include all aspects of the Christian walk. Offering one’s body as a living sacrifice and transforming one’s mind to discern the will of God signified true worship for Paul (Romans 12:1-2; Philippians 3:2-11).

Although one occasionally reads in scripture about Christian assemblies and what went on there, the emphasis is never on the rituals. In fact, Paul pauses in his teaching about corporate worship to talk to the Corinthians about a better way of worship called love (1 Corinthians 13). No wonder, then, that the term "worship service" never appears in the New Testament, nor do any of the many Greek words translated as worship refer directly to the corporate assemblies of Christians. No writer offers a specific list of activities to include in Christian assemblies. What is known about early Christian worship comes indirectly from brief allusions or criticisms. That doesn't make the rituals of the assembly unimportant, it simply puts them into proper perspective.

Just as Jesus told the Pharisees they should value justice and mercy over tithing spices (Matthew 23:23-24), so New Testament writers tend to replace the literal meanings of words for ritual worship with figurative senses of "spiritual service" like godliness, benevolence, and evangelism (1 Timothy 4:7-8, 5:4; James 1:26-27; Romans 12:1-2). True worship takes place seven days a week.


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on July 29, 2007 2:31 PM.

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