What worship format is biblical?
In the Law of Moses in the books of Exodus and Leviticus the worship formats outlined by Moses, as commanded by God, were similar to the worship formats in Egypt and the land of Canaan, with some key differences. The Ten Commandments had three basic differences.
1. There was only one God in the Ten Commandments of the Israelites, as opposed to multiple Gods in the animistic cultures around them.
2. There were to be no physical idols to worship, whereas in Egypt and in Canaan there were multiple idols, and the idols were the main point of the worship.
3. For the crime of adultery, both the woman and the man were stoned to death. This was a difference from several surrounding cultures where only the woman was punished. (Later in Deuteronomy the man is required to give the woman a certificate of divorce if he sends her away, to protect her future opportunities to remarry.)
There were more differences between the Law of Moses and the cultures around them:
4. Even though the altars were similar (the Israelites were to use raw uncut stones, as opposed to the carved stones of pagan altars), and the animal sacrifices were similar (the Israelites used only clean animals–cloven hoof and cud-chewing), the Israelites were forbidden to sacrifice their children. To a small extent the Egyptians and to a greater degree the Canaanites, being agrarian societies, practiced child sacrifice to mollify the fertility gods and goddesses (in Canaan: Baal and Asherah), to make sure their crops grew every year. (The first time we read in the Hebrew Bible of God forbidding child sacrifice is when Abraham was stopped from sacrificing his son, Isaac.)
5. The Canaanites also practiced sexual rites in their worship to the fertility gods, rites which were forbidden for the Israelites.
6. The tabernacle and temple of the Israelites was very similar to temples of the surrounding cultures, however the throne of cherubim above the ark of the covenant had nothing sitting on it, whereas in the Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures there was always an idol sitting on top of the winged angel throne. The “nothing” was to show that God is a real god, a spirit, that literally sat upon the throne, instead of an inanimate idol.
7. The creation story was very similar to the creation stories in the surrounding cultures, except that God is a good God who cares about his creation.
8. The Garden of Eden story is similar to the first man, woman and serpent stories in the surrounding cultures, except that humanity has a choice to trust a good God.
So what is the point? It seems clear to many that the commands of the Law of Moses were culture specific. They were rules that everyone was familiar with from living in those lands and cultures. But there were key differences, that set the Israelites apart, and as we can see 3,000 years later, contributed to the Israelite religion surviving, and the other religions dying out.
So what happens when Jesus comes along? The gospel of John says that Jesus camped among us. The apostle Paul said Jesus emptied himself and took upon himself all aspects of humanity. Jesus landed in a Jewish land, and he announced he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel. So Jesus participated in all of the Jewish rituals and feast days. But he contradicted some of the laws of Moses, especially the law that forbade eating unclean foods, a radical departure from the Law of Moses. He also referred to God as the heavenly Father, also a new concept, found rarely in the Hebrew bible.
After Jesus’ ascension and the Day of Pentecost, Jesus’ followers were a Jewish group worshiping on the temple grounds every day in Solomon’s porch. Within 20 years the group became more Gentile. Paul said that circumcision had to be dropped as a requirement for Gentile converts, that Gentile believers should not be restricted to eating clean meats, and that Gentiles should not have to keep the feast days and the Sabbath day. These were radical and painful changes for the Jewish believers, and had to be ratified by the twelve apostles, and the original church eldership in Jerusalem, before they could agree with the apostle Paul.
So the most important rituals in the early church were:
1. The Lord’s Supper–which many believe was combined with a picnic (others reject the picnic idea because of Paul’s rebuke of the Corinthians’ selfishness). The Lord’s Supper originated at the Passover meal. A few believe the Lord’s Supper was celebrated once a year at the Passover: “As often as you eat this bread..” (the Passover bread.) Others believe it became separated from the Passover meal very quickly.
2. Baptism–Some believe that John’s baptism was taken from the Jewish cleansing baths, especially the baptism of Gentiles when they converted to Judaism. What was radical about John’s baptism was that he baptized Jews, almost as if he were saying the Jews needed to be converted anew to Judaism.
So now here we are 2,000 years later. What should our worship services look like? Honestly? If we were to imitate the Law of Moses and the early Christians, then we would adopt the cultural celebrations around us, and form a worship service that resembles these celebrations, but differs in key points that illustrate we worship one God who cares for us.
When the apostle Paul rebuked churches for worshiping incorrectly, the rebukes always centered around these key principles:
1. Is the practice encouraging to others?
2. Is the practice emblematic of Christ’s sacrifice for others?
So rather than filtering through the New Testament, a set of letters written to early churches in the Roman empire 2,000 years ago, and trying to replicate their worship service exactly, we should be figuring out how to camp among the people to whom God has sent us. How can we relate our worship service to our own culture in the present day? What kind of worship would be most meaningful to the people in your culture? What does your culture expect when they attend a celebration? How can we copy our culture’s celebrations and change key points that will illuminate a belief in one God who loves us?