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Worship

In teaching that “man's chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever,” the Westminster Catechism of 1647 faithfully captured the developed biblical vision. As creator and redeemer, God calls for worship on the part of humankind. Human salvation consists in communion with the beneficent God. The first commandment is to worship the Lord God alone (Exod. 20.1–6 = Deut. 5.6–10; Matt. 4.10 = Luke 4.8). The content of that worship, according to the Shema, is total devotion: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and might” (Deut. 6.5; Mark 12.30 par.). The idolatry of the golden calf epitomizes the perennial human tendency to turn from the creator and worship the creature (Ps. 96.5; Rom. 1.21–25). Nevertheless, God visits and redeems his people. The prophets picture the future time of salvation as a flocking of the nations to the Temple (Zech. 14.16–21; cf. Isa. 2.2–4), a banquet on God's holy mountain when death will have been destroyed (Isa. 25.6–9). According to the book of Revelation, salvation will be marked by worship in the heavenly city where there is no temple apart from the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb (Rev. 21.22; 19.6–10).

When the Lord called on Pharaoh to let his people go, it was so that they might “worship” or “serve” him (Exod. 3.13). The Lord who commissioned Moses to lead Israel out of Egypt was the God who had appeared to the ancestors as God Almighty and had been worshiped by them (Exod. 3.6, 15; 6.2–3; cf. Gen. 12.7; 13.18; 22.1–14; 28.10–22). Safely delivered through the Red Sea, Israel worshiped the Lord on Mount Sinai and there received the terms of the Lord's covenant with them, including their sole obligation to Yahweh, their “jealous” God (Exod. 19–31). The deliverance was to be commemorated each year in the Passover rite (Exod. 12–13; Lev. 23.5–8; Deut. 16.1–8), and the covenant would be renewed regularly as under Joshua at Shechem (if Gerhard von Rad is correct in his interpretation of Josh. 24; cf. Deut. 31.10–13). In the Promised Land, agricultural festivals would be related to the events of Israel's history, for example, the feast of weeks (Lev. 23.15–21; Deut. 16.9–12) to the whole ancestral story as far as the entry into the land flowing with milk and honey (cf. Deut. 26), and the feast of booths or tabernacles (sukkôt: Deut. 16.13–15; Neh. 8.13–18) to the dwelling in tents in the wilderness (Lev. 23.33–36, 39–43; see Feasts and Festivals). Nevertheless, the gods of the land remained a permanent temptation to Israel; the conflict between Elijah and the prophets of Baal is emblematic (1 Kings 18.20–42). The book of Deuteronomy records an attempt to reform, purify, and control Israel's worship by centering it in one place, presumably the Jerusalem Temple, which had been built under Solomon as a focus of the Lord's presence amid the nation (1 Kings 5–8). Prophets kept reminding the nation of the unacceptability of worship that was not matched by the performance of God's will in daily living (Amos 5.21–24; Hos. 6.6; Isa. 1.10–17; Jer. 7).

The Babylonian exile, itself seen as divine punishment for infidelity, affected the worship of Israel in various ways. The nation's experience led it to recognize Yahweh as the one, universal God (Isa. 45). The older sacrifices had been the whole burnt offering (ʿōlâ or kālîl), symbolizing total consecration, and the communion sacrifice (zebaḥšĕlāmîm), in which the meal was shared by God and the worshipers with the intention of either thanksgiving or a vow or a freewill offering. To these were added, in the rebuilt Temple, the sin offering (ḥaṭṭāʾt) and the guilt offering (ʾāšām). The Day of Atonement (Lev. 16) is also postexilic. The Psalter has been called “the hymnbook of the second Temple.” Doubtless much of its material is older, and the Psalms have continued in liturgical use among Jews and Christians: the praises, thanksgivings, confessions, complaints, and prayers are suited to recurrent events and situations in the life of a people and of individuals.

From its earliest days, Christianity interpreted the Psalms christologically, seeing in them messianic prophecies and prayers that could be addressed either to Christ or, with Christ, to the God he addressed as “Abba, Father.” The dispute between Jews and Christians as to whether Jesus was the Messiah is at heart a dispute about worship, since it concerns the identity of God. Christians believed that the God of Israel, the one true God, had acted decisively in Jesus, and indeed in such a personal way that Jesus was not only the mediator of salvation but did himself, as “the Word made flesh” (John 1.14), call forth worship (“My Lord and my God!” John 20.28). “Worship in spirit and in truth” (John 4.19–26) would no longer take place in the Temple in Jerusalem (itself destroyed in 70 CE), but the temple was now Christ's body (John 2.19–22), into which believers were incorporated and themselves became temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6.19–20). The letter to the Hebrews argues that Jesus' death fulfilled the sacrifices of the old covenant by achieving what its foreshadowings were not able to deliver (Heb. 7–10). After Jesus' self‐offering (Heb. 9.14), believers now approach “the throne of grace” through him as their great high priest in the heavens (Heb. 4.14–16; cf. Eph. 2.18). In several hymnic passages of the New Testament, Jesus is included in the worship rendered to God (Phil. 2.5–11; Rev. 1.5–6; 5.13; cf. 2 Pet. 3.18).

The earliest Christians in Jerusalem continued to worship in the Temple (Luke 24.53; Acts 2.46). Fairly soon, however, Christian worship took on a clearly independent character, marked particularly by the fact that Christians assembled “in the name of Jesus” (cf. Matt. 18.20). When Christians gathered together as a church, the most characteristic thing they did was to celebrate the Lord's Supper (1 Cor. 11.17–34), the rite that Paul and the synoptic Gospels (Mark 14.22–25 par.) describe Jesus as instituting at the Last Supper. It is debated whether or not the Last Supper was a Passover meal, but it seems clear from the narratives that the Christian meal was intended to commemorate the “exodus” and the new “covenant” inaugurated by the death of Jesus; the word “exodus” is used of Jesus' death at Luke 9.31, and the Gospels speak of his covenant blood poured out for the many. At their liturgical assemblies, the early Christians hailed the presence of the risen Jesus and called for his return: “Maranatha” (1 Cor. 16.22; cf. Rev. 22.20; 1 Cor. 11.26).

The earliest deliberate description we have of Christian worship dates from the second century. Justin Martyr in his First Apology (66.1–3) describes Christians as gathering from town and country on “the first day of the week,” the day of Christ's resurrection and so the beginning of a new creation. They would listen to “the writings of the prophets” and “the memoirs of the apostles.” The president of the assembly interpreted these scriptures (the sermon). Prayers were said for church and world. Bread and a cup of mixed wine were brought to the president, who gave thanks to God over them for creation and redemption. The bread and the wine, signs of the body and the blood of Christ, were distributed and consumed. Deacons took them to the absent. In light of this description, it may be possible to see already the reflections of such a “service of word and sacrament” in such passages as Luke 24.13–32, where the risen Jesus expounds the scriptures to the two travelers on the road to Emmaus and is made “known to them in the breaking of the bread,” and Acts 20.7–12, where the Christians of Troas gather on the first of the week and Paul preaches all night to them before they break bread.

In fact, little is known about the “service of the word” in New Testament times. Later evidence suggests influence from the synagogue, in the form of readings and prayers. Christians sang “hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5.18; Col. 3.16), and 1 Corinthians 14 includes some ecstatic elements among “prophecy,” “revelations,” “speaking in tongues,” “interpretations,” and “teaching.”

Since for Paul the greatest spiritual gift was love (1 Cor. 13), like the prophets he implied an ethical test for true worship. He used cultic language to exhort Christians to appropriate conduct: “I appeal to you … to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom. 12.1; cf. 1 Cor. 6.18–20; 2 Cor. 6.6–7.1). Paul also spoke of his apostolic labors in liturgical terms (Rom. 15.15–16; Phil. 2.17; cf. 2 Tim 4.6).

Twentieth‐century scholarship has rediscovered how much material in the Bible arose from and was shaped by the worship practiced by the Israelite, Jewish, and Christian communities. It is the continuing use of the Bible in worship that preserves it as a sacred and “living” book.

See also Lectionaries; Prayers; Priests and High Priest

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Geoffrey Wainwright

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