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Did the Early Church Worship?

October 14, 2016

A dear brother recently wrote to me asking whether there is any evidence that the New Testament churches engaged in worship. His question grew out of his background: the fundamental Baptist churches in which he had been reared did not worship (as that term is now understood), and the worship that he saw in churches today looked more like amusement. Here is part of my reply:

The fundamental Baptist churches in which we were reared did not place much emphasis upon worshipping God. In fact, certain species of fundamental Baptists denied that we were even supposed to worship Him, whether individually or corporately. For them, the entire focus was upon service, especially evangelism. Soulwinning was the only worship that God desired!

I think that was a badly deficient vision of what the church is and what it is for.

Perhaps some brief definition is in order. By worship I certainly do not mean that kind of business that is promoted by contemporary P&W (Praise and Worship) teams. Watching somebody put on a show is not worship by any acceptable definition. No, by worship I have in mind what is implied by the old Anglo-Saxon term, weorðscipe, “to ascribe value.” In right weorðscipe, the value ascribed corresponds to the thing valued, because of its value. The true and living God is of infinite value, not simply because of His benefits, but because of who He is. Worship, then, is a reflection back to God of His infinite, intrinsic worth predicated upon who He reveals Himself to be. Synonyms for worship are praise, admiration, and adoration.

Did New Testament believers, or the New Testament Church corporately, ever engage in worship? And should we as well?

Let me give you the simplest answer that I can. I think we agree that in the New Testament church, the Scriptures were read aloud. In fact, that is the only way that most people gained an acquaintance with the Bible—by hearing it read in church. For the moment, let’s leave aside those passages in the Old Testament that are devoted entirely to the worship of God. Let’s focus on the New Testament. When we open its pages, we find such passages as these:

Rom. 11:33, 36 – Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.

Eph. 3:20-21 – Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

1 Tim. 1:17 – To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

1 Tim. 6:15b-16 – He who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.

Jude 24-25 – Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.

Rev. 1:5b-6 – To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.

Rev. 5:12, 13 – Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing! …To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!

Rev. 7:12 – Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.

This list could be extended, and it includes only direct attributions of praise and adoration. These are direct expressions of worship in the text of the New Testament itself. Now just what do you think the church was doing when these Scriptures were read? Can any believer listen to such words in a detached and coldhearted way? Can you? Or do you not long to enter into the expression of wonder and to exult in the greatness and majesty of the God who is being adored?

You’ll notice that so far, I haven’t said a word about music. Worship is not equivalent to church music. But that is not to say that we should not employ music in the worship of God. We are, after all, supposed to be singing and strumming to the Lord with our hearts (Eph. 5:19). Right musical expressions are an important aspect of worship in the New Testament, just as they were in the Old Testament.

I think there’s plenty more in the New Testament about the church’s worship. I just wanted to give you one example of how the New Testament does teach on this topic. We learn, not only by looking at what the Bible says, but also at what the Bible does.

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