The New Testament texts indicate the early Christians were regularly συνερχομένων (coming together) ἐν ἐκκλησίᾳ (in church) on Sundays (1 Cor. 11:18, 20, 14:23; 16:1-2; Acts 20:7). These same texts followed with instructions for how they were to conduct themselves when gathered together. Called to salvation by the gospel (2 Thess. 2:14), the early Christians were God’s people, “in Christ” (1 Thess. 2:14). Their new relationship with God was the result of being “baptized into one body” (1 Cor. 12:13), the church (Eph. 1:22-23, 4:4), because “to be in the church is to be in Christ, and to be in Christ is to be in the church” (Welch, 165). Some take exception, demanding one is baptized into Christ, then added to the church, even in the face of the clear and unmistakable expression, “baptized into one body.” This is not an either/or proposition as some try make it. When one is baptized into Christ he is baptized into His body, and vice versa. What is ascribed to one (Christ) is ascribed to the other (body). Quite simply, Luke’s inspired, “added to the church” (Acts 2:47), is defined Paul’s inspired “baptized into one body” (1 Cor.12:13). Different expressions meaning the same thing. Moreover, the previous verse must be considered: “For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ” (1 Cor. 12:12). Paul is contrasting the physical body and the spiritual body. Just as the physical body has many members yet is “one body,” so also the spiritual body. Having many members with varying roles, the church is still “one body” but “so also is Christ.” Here is an example, among many in the New Testament, of metonymy. Within the context, the terms Christ and one body are synonymous.
Now, being one “in Christ” by virtue of their obedience to the gospel (1 Pet.4:17), first century Jews and Gentiles shared a new identity, “sons of God” (Gal. 3:26-28; cf. Eph. 2:13-16). Collectively, these early Christians expressed their salvation, serving as examples for how our salvation in Christ is to be properly expressed. That is, if we practice what they practiced, doing what they did, then we will be what they were (Christ’s church) and receive what they did (eternal life). Much like the Jews who assembled in synagogues on the Sabbath, the early Christians were coming together on the first day of the week. Interestingly, the term συνερχομένων (coming together) is related to the word συναγωγή (synagogue). While the early Christians came together on Sundays (in one place), expressing the salvation they enjoyed as one body, we now focus on the primary reason for their assembling together–worship.
A Preview of New Testament Worship
The book of Isaiah begins, drawing attention to a new era and the coming of the New Testament church (Isa.2:2-4), and then ends in similar fashion as Dub McClish notes:
Chapter 65 begins with the great prophecy of the calling of the Gentiles: ‘I am inquired of by them that asked not for me. I am found of them that sought me not: I said, Behold me, behold me, unto a nation that was not called by my name’ (Isa. 65:1). This is an undeniable reference to the beginning of the Christian age when the gospel was to be taken to all the nations, to all the world, and to the whole–manifestly to the Gentiles (Mat. 28:19; Mark 16:15) (Brown, 349).
Isaiah is contrasting physical Israel and spiritual Israel, or the “new Jerusalem” (65:18), which later Paul identifies as the Jerusalem from above (Gal. 4:26), the Israel of God (6:16), and church (1:2). Continuing his focus on the New Covenant and the establishment of the Messianic kingdom, the church of Christ, Isaiah writes:
For as the new heavens and the new earth, which I will make, shall remain before me, saith the LORD, so shall your seed and your name remain. And it shall come to pass, that from one new moon to another, and from one sabbath to another, shall all flesh come to worship before me, saith the LORD. (Isa. 66:22-23).
The “new heavens and the new earth”—an idiom for a new away or new system—will consist of “all flesh,” meaning Jew and Gentile (Acts 2:17, 39), coming together for worship in this new system. Isaiah is saying all mankind will be coming continually to worship God. Foreshadowing this new era of worship, Isaiah utilizes the terms New Moon and Sabbath, representing fixed times, which coincided with Jewish worship. These occasions, which were of a collective nature, prefigured the worship under the New Testament. The term from (mid-dê) is repeated, emphasizing a continual procession of worship. As the Jews gathered congregationally at fixed times, so would spiritual Israel—the church. This predictive arrangement not only flies in the face, but hits between the eyes, of those denying the collective or congregational aspect of worship. A fringe element has arisen insisting worship is of an individual nature only. Some are even demanding that, while worship is a “good thing,” it is optional. However, Isaiah was unaware of such things and his prediction was clear concerning a regular collective gathering for worship:
Concurrent with the fact that there will be a new church age, Isaiah predicts that worship then will be completely in agreement with God’s commands (cf. Isa.56:6). Isaiah clothed this new spiritual truth in the idiom of his day, but the new age will allow “all flesh” to worship in a patterned way (John 4:23-24) … Under the Old Testament system, worship was at prescribed ‘moons’ and ‘Sabbaths.’ So, in the ‘new heavens and new earth,’ worship will be prescribed, faithful, and regular. Those today who say there is no pattern for the New Testament church and her worship need to explain how Isaiah could prophesy an age of patterned worship? Did Isaiah miss it, or do the ‘new hermeneutic’ advocates of a no-pattern New Testament miss it? (Ibid., 334).
A few points must be considered before proceeding. The context, in which Isaiah 66:22-23 finds itself, is between qualities God desires and eternal punishment to transgressors. At the beginning of the chapter, God says: “even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at my word.” (66:2). Then at the end, He says: “for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched.” (66:24). To transgress means “to go beyond, go out of, go away, or step over.” When a football player catches the football but steps on the white boundary line, then he has stepped out of bounds. He has transgressed the boundary, leaving the field of play. When applied spiritually, it means leaving the boundaries of God’s Word, stepping out of its confines (Matt. 7: 13-14; 1 John 1:7; cf. Psa. 119:105), the cause of which is from carelessly handling God’s Word (2 Tim. 2:15). While a contrite heart has a healthy respect for God’s Word or “trembles” at it, the defiant are those who willingly step out of bounds, having little regard for the authority and boundaries of the faith (cf. Jude 3).
In the 1800s, in the formative period of the Restoration, our people were coming out of denominationalism, restoring the Ancient Order by preaching the primitive Gospel. But for the past forty years, our “progressive” brethren have been wanting to go back into denominationalism, acting and speaking like them. Many have already added instruments to the worship of God. Some—in what is termed the Egalitarian Movement—allow women to preach and teach, and even serve as elders. Others are making a mockery of the Lord’s Supper by making a common meal out of it. Other false teachers have even minimized the requirements of salvation, by minimizing the essential nature of baptism. Many argue that in order to retain the young, and keep them from leaving the church, they have to make an appeal to denominationalism. But, taking the route that appeals to heresy will never retain the souls of anyone. Being at odds with God is not the way to have a relationship with Him. Folks cannot be called out of the world if they go back into it, where denominationalism is.
Turmoil exists in churches of Christ today because of careless regard and disrespect for the authority of God’s Word. While claiming worship to be a significant aspect in the life of the church, “progressives” do not tremble at God’s Word, going beyond what is written (1 Cor. 4:6). By progressing out of the doctrine of Christ (2 John 9), they have actually minimized the worship they claim is significant. When confronting the Pharisees and their various false doctrines, Jesus said: “But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” (Matt. 15:9). False teaching, especially in adding innovations to the worship of the church, through perverting the Word of God, will nullify and make void one’s worship, regardless of how heartfelt it may be.
There are, indeed, eternal consequences for those who rebel against the Lord (66:24). Setting aside God’s Word, while claiming to worship Him, simply brings unintended consequences where “Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched,” an image used by Jesus, Himself, describing eternal punishment (Mark 9:42-48). Moreover, some of our brethren have become indifferent, seeking “balance,” while ignoring the boundaries of fellowship. Some, with a cavalier attitude toward Bible authority, have become enthralled with every new doctrine that comes down the pike. Notable brethren, with self-exalting craftiness and trickery, happily twist the Scriptures as they lead multitudes to destruction. Others, having banal obsessions, promoting their pet doctrines, are causing endless divisions. In describing all of these Paul says “they received not the love of the truth” (2 Thess. 2:10).
Worship Involves Truth, Truth Involves Pattern
The idea of loving the truth and trembling at His Word is, in part, found in John 4:23-24: “But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.” Jesus reveals that there is such a thing as true worshipers, implying there is such a thing as false worshipers. Worshiping God in “spirit and in truth” is what makes the difference. Jesus had already given this Samaritan woman bad news, and some may be shocked to learn that He told the woman that she and her people were ignorant, saying to her, “Ye worship ye know not what” (4:22). What had she and her people been doing all this time? Quite simply, they were not offering God true worship, implying they were not true worshipers. The Samaritans had not been worshiping God correctly for centuries, worshiping at Mount Gerizim rather than in Jerusalem. From their perspective, they drew near to God with their mouths, but, from God’s perspective, they only provided lip service (cf. Matt. 15:8). Again, worship and/or worship actions are fruitless when folks are disobedient in other areas. The Samaritan woman and her people were deficient, and it was not unkind or unloving for Jesus to say what He did to her. Worshiping is significant and, worshiping correctly does matter! While we must worship in spirit, in genuineness and sincerity, we must also worship God according to truth—His Word (John 17:17; cf. John 8:31-32).
Recognizing worship must be in accord with truth is as vital to the Lord’s church as is truth itself. While God’s Word is designed to regulate and control our behavior, we must submit to its authority. As finite beings, we have the proclivity to make wrong choices, often because of the desires of the heart (Prov. 14:12; Jer. 10:23; 17:9). This is certainly true when it comes to spiritual matters, including worship. The book of Colossians demonstrates this with a case study:
In his letter to the Colossians Christians, Paul addresses a heresy that was a threat to their faith. It consisted of a variety of elements, including Judaism, Gnosticism (a pagan system claiming supernatural insight), the worship of angels, etc. One component of this philosophy, strongly condemned, was called “will-worship” (2:23). Exactly what is will-worship? J.H. Thayer notes that will-worship is, “worship which one devises and prescribes for himself, contrary to the contents and nature of the faith which ought to be directed by Christ” (Greek Lexicon, p. 168). Or, as W.E. Vine observes, will-worship is “voluntarily adopted worship, whether unbidden or forbidden” (Expository Dictionary, IV, p. 236). This New Testament admonition is totally at variance with the modern notion that worship is unregulated” (Jackson, 112).
Like the problem mentioned in Colossians 2:23, there are some in churches of Christ, today, who are willing to leave the confines of the truth regulating our worship, and worship God according to their own whims and desires. The progressives among us are self-willed, imposing worship practices completely foreign to the New Testament of Jesus Christ. The fact is, in rejecting the Truth, they reject the pattern of the New Testament. As the church cannot be separated from Christ (and vice versa), neither can pattern from truth (and vice versa).
While truth is designed to regulate human behavior, it is also designed to be understood and followed. But, again, we must handle it correctly (2 Tim. 2:15). Concerning the church at Corinth, Paul said he “planted” and Apollos “watered”: “I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase…as a wise masterbuilder, I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon” (1 Cor. 3:6-11).
Jesus said He would build His church (Matt. 16:18). He laid the foundation, but the work continued, involving others who followed, including the apostles and prophets (Eph. 2:20-21: cf. 1 Cor. 12:28). The construction continues and Jesus continues building His church through the agency of His church (Eph. 3:10-11). The blueprint to follow has been provided, namely His Word (John 12:48; cf. 8:31-32). Following His blueprint, we can be sure we are building the way He desires. When the church began on Pentecost, the new disciples “continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42). They devoted themselves in acts of worship, vital to the church, and continually devoted themselves in the apostles’ doctrine (cf. 2 John 9), adhering to their inspired teaching. New Testament doctrine is the basis of the New Testament church, which is why Paul said “Preach the word!” (2 Tim. 4:2).
When it comes to preaching and teaching the Truth, we must not go to the left or to the right (Josh. 1:7), or go beyond what is written (1 Cor. 4:6). We must speak exactly as God speaks in His Word (1 Pet. 4:11), or more literally, speaking “just as the oracles of God.” Doing just as or exactly as the Father commanded, is what Jesus did: “But that the world may know that I love the Father; and as the Father gave me commandment, even so I do” (John 14:31). The word exactly derives from the Greek word kathōs, which is also found in 1 John 2:6: “He who says he abides in Him ought himself also to walk just as (kathōs, DP) He walked.” Since Jesus is our example in everything, we can do no less, in doing exactly as He did. Therefore, we must speak and do exactly what is taught in Scripture. The New Testament, or the faith, is the blueprint of the church for all we teach and practice.
The apostle Paul directs our minds to authority, saying: “And whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by him” (Col. 3:17). The phrase “in word or deed” refers to teaching and practice. The word deed is the same word for works, which some declare are not essential for salvation. However, Paul specifically says we must do only authorized work, contradicting those who say work(s) are not essential for salvation. To say, on one hand, that doing only authorized work is essential, then, on the other, say the work we must do is not essential is a blatant contradiction. Paul specifically says that “whatever” we do “in word or work” that we do only all those things that are authorized or “in the name of the Lord Jesus.” Doing what is authorized relates back to allowing “the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom” (Col. 3:16). When we allow God’s Word to rule our hearts in all spiritual matters, we will do only that which is legislated.
New Testament Worship
When it comes to understanding the Bible and interpretation, many folks quickly become anti-logic, anti-reason, and anti-implication, confusing rational thinking with “Rationalism”. God communicating His Will to mankind through direct (explicit) statements, examples, and implication, is antithetical to some since the use of reason is involved. Reason is “kryptonite” to all anti-logicians. Paul reminded Timothy to “Hold fast the form of sound words, which thou hast heard of me” (2 Tim. 1:13), and seven verses later he says: “And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men” (2 Tim.2:2). He taught Timothy the pattern and he intended for Timothy, and all faithful Christians, to commit the same pattern to others. This implies a perpetual pattern to be taught and followed. The pattern of sound words serve as our authority for all matters of faith and practice. The very fact Christ and the apostles are examples, inherently involve a pattern or blueprint: “Brethren, be followers together of me, and mark them which walk so as ye have us for an ensample” (Phil. 3:17).
We know there is such a thing as ignorant worship because Jesus told the Samaritan woman, “Ye worship ye know not what” (4:22). In that same encounter we learn there is wrong worship since the Samaritans were worshiping God in Gerizim rather than Jerusalem. Paul told the Athenians they were ignorant, worshiping a God they did not know, and such ignorance would not be overlooked (Acts 17:23, 30). Jesus said there is such a thing as “vain worship” (Matt. 15:9), and Paul said there is such a thing called “will-worship” (Col. 2:23). Of course, we also learn there is such a thing as true worship, as well as true worshipers. Worship is either acceptable or unacceptable, but what makes the difference? Worship must be done in sincerity and genuineness of mind (“in spirit”), with a willingness to do only that which accords with God’s Word (“in truth”).
We find a clear pattern in the New Testament in its teaching and example, “in word or deed.” We can clearly see what they did and did not do. What we find lacking, is the church assembling for the purposes of offering animal sacrifices, the burning incense, having priests mediate between man and God, and all other Old Covenant worship practices. But we do read about them coming together on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:1-2), finding them praying, singing, preaching and teaching, giving, and sharing the Lord’s Supper. In one passage, alone, we find three acts of worship: “And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers”” (Acts 2:42). Here we find teaching (doctrine), the Lord’s Supper (the breaking of bread), and prayer, being offered up as acts of worship. An act of worship is something done, collectively, upon being assembled together, with the intent of paying homage or honoring God. The most common Greek word for worship is proskuneō, which means “to kiss the hand toward,” to do obeisance,” “to prostrate oneself,” which is closely akin to the Hebrew word, shachah. These terms convey the idea of bowing or prostrating oneself before a superior or before Deity. It is a sign of respect, reverence, and honor.
Worship is often viewed in the imagery of sacrifice. Collectively, Christians are priests and a holy nation (1 Pet. 2:5, 9), and are referred to as spiritual Israel (Gal. 6:16)—the church of Christ. As priests and a holy nation, Christians offer up sacrifices, but these sacrifices may not be just any kind of sacrifice we wish to offer. On the contrary, we are to “offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God” (1 Pet. 2:5, emph. DP). Those who do not offer acceptable sacrifices are said to be “disobedient” (2:8, cf. 2:2). We get a glimpse of worship as a sacrifice from the life of Abraham. His offering up of Isaac as sacrifice was called worship. Here we see worship involves an act, or acts, dedicated to God. Worship, therefore, is something we do, which has a beginning point and an ending point. Some contend that all we do in life is worship, but here we see that there is an obvious distinction between what is termed worship in the sacrifice of Isaac, with what Abraham and Isaac were doing before reaching the place God told Abraham to go (Gen. 22:2-5).
The book of Hebrews offers much regarding the imagery of sacrifice. We learn “singing” is called the “sacrifice of praise to God continually that is, the fruit of our lips” (Heb. 13:15). The absence of mechanical instruments of music is obvious in the New Testament. Ephesians 5:19 literally says, “…singing (aeido) and plucking (psallo) the strings of your heart to the Lord.” However, a good rendering is “singing and playing your heart to the Lord.” The word aeido means “to sing” and psallo means “to pluck the strings,” and when used with aeido, it means to play. When used alone, psallo could mean sing or play, depending on the context and if aeido was present. However, Ephesians 5:19 specifically provides the instrument to be played—the heart— which excludes the use of any other instrument. The Hebrews writer also tells us that acts of benevolence (giving) are also sacrifices Christians offer up to God (Heb. 13:16; cf. 1 Cor. 16:1-2; 2 Cor. 8:1-7; 9:13; Phil. 4:18). When it comes to prayer, the Hebrews writer provides the imagery of the High priest offering up gifts and sacrifices for sins and, as such, we may approach the throne of grace with our needs and desires (Heb. 4:14-5:1). The Greek word for prayer is proseuchomai, which is a derivative of the Greek word proskuneo, the very word for worship. Therefore, when Christians either assembled or not, offger prayer to God, they are worshiping Him. Of course, the Lord’s Supper is all about sacrifice, and remembering by partaking of those emblems representing His body and blood.
This, again, is an act or something that is to be done. Moreover, like the priests of old, and in sacrificial form, we are to: “draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering; (for he is faithful that promised;)” (Heb. 10:22-23). Finally, we are told that the Word is living and powerful, able to influence the inward man (Heb. 4:12). Paul says we are to “Preach the word…” (2 Tim. 4:2). The Hebrews writer speaks of the Lord’s will, as found in the “second” Covenant, (New Covenant) is that will that sanctifies, along with the sacrifice of Christ, His blood of the New Testament (Heb. 10:9-10; Matt. 26:28). It is to this covenant thst we are to hold and proclaim (Heb. 2:1-4). Proclaiming the good news of the New Covenant or Testament, for which Christ died (Heb. 9:15-17) is the message that brings about salvation (Rom. 1:16-17; Jas. 1:21), designed to influence the conscience or inner man, in order to effect the appropriate spiritual sacrifice of self denial and taking up one’s cross to follow Christ (Matt. 16:24). And so, the church of Christ comes together to worship the Lord.
Brown, David P. Isaiah: Volume II, Chapters 40-66. Spring, TX: Bible Resources Publications, 1996.
Jackson, Wayne. Notes from the Margin of My Bible. Vol. II. New Testament. Stockton, CA: Courier Publications, 1993.
Claude Welch, The Reality of the Church (New York: Scribner’s, 1958)