Corporate Worship Throughout Bible Times
The Word of God in the read and spoken word is the epicenter of worship. From this lifegiving epicenter flows elements of worship of God with such things as thanksgiving, repentance, adoration, supplication and praise. Corporate worship, the gathering of worshippers to worship God as a unity, is something we should do every week. It takes many different forms throughout the long story of Scripture. This not meant to be a thorough look at all the intricacies of corporate worship in Scripture, but rather a broad look at its changing faces throughout.
The Birth of Worship
In the very beginning, Adam and Eve had full and personal communication with God, but this ended after they disobey God and broke off that close communion. The hearts of all humanity was separated from God by a deep gulf of sin. Yet via personal and corporate worship, we have long been able to maintain some semblance of communication with and focus on God. From this focus flowed such crucial aspects of worship as prayer, personal sacrifice, beauty, unity, divine adoration, and love.
With all corporate worship, God has also been clear that order is necessary. To this end, throughout Scripture, he has always ordained leaders to guide the people in worship. This individual or individuals was to lead worship entirely based on the word of God.
And then there is music. Music has so often been the vehicle of adoration, praise, thanksgiving, and supplication. We see its human development first mentioned in Gen. 4:20-21. In the centuries afterward to the present time, it has played a crucial role in corporate worship. God showed that He loved music, especially when its emotional power and beauty were used in the worship of Himself. He engrained worship music into the very fabric of His rules concerning the worship practices of His chosen people, the Israelites. It became part of who they were. Just a few of the many examples: Exodus 15:1 and 20-21 record how Moses and his sister Mariam led the newly freed Israelites in worship songs of praise and thanksgiving to God after they were freed from slavery in Egypt. When God would set up the order of the priesthood, he would dedicate a sizeable branch of them just to song and the playing of instruments. The entire book of Psalms is composed of worship songs.
The Continuing Need of Renewal Through Corporate Worship
Authentic worship of God has so often resulted in heart revival, both personally and corporately. In Genesis 35:1 Jacob and his sons experienced history’s first recorded revival after returning to Bethel where Jacob had earlier had a strong spiritual experience.
But the Bible made it clear early on that one revival does not necessarily mean there will never be a need for another one. Many years after Jacob and his sons had died, the freed Israelites, the direct descendants of Jacob, were discontent despite their newfound freedom and almost continually in need of renewal.
Shortly after being freed from slavery in Egypt, the Israelites came to Mt. Sinai where God gave His human leader, Moses, the Ten Commandments, which Moses in turn presented to God’s unruly people Israel.
Not coincidentally it was also at Mt. Sinai that God led the people into another revival. Moses spoke the Words of the Lord, and the people responded positively. This is important because by doing so, the Israelite nation was giving their agreement that these words and commands were authoritative and binding.
When we hear the Word preached, we also ought to respond positively, acknowledging that what we hear is the authoritative, binding Word of God. By hearing the Word and truly acknowledging our accordance and agreement with the beauty of God’s Words, the Holy Spirit helps instigate the worship that can result in heart revival. This is still needed, by the way. The revival at Mt. Sinai, nor many after it, did not fix everything for all of eternity. We are still afflicted by the curse of Sin and are in constant need of fixing our wayward hearts through worship of God.
The Transitions from Tabernacle Worship to Temple Worship to Synagogue Worship
Not long after they left Egypt, God instituted tabernacle worship for the wandering children of Israel. Even after they were settled in the Promised Land of Israel, this would remain the case for many years. It would not be until the time of King Solomon that a temple would be authorized by God to be a permanent place of worship.
In the years afterward, temple worship became a deeply ingrained part of Israel’s cultural identity. This ended after they were exiled in captivity. Beginning in the 6th century the dispersed Jews began the practice of synagogue worship in an attempt to regain and save some of their Israelite identity lost to them in the absence of the temple. From the very beginning, synagogue worship emphasized reading and discussing Scripture, praying, and singing. All three of these primary characteristics of Synagogue worship would be imitated in early Christian church worship.
The Transition to Jesus
The Jews were eventually able to return to their homeland, resuming temple worship but still keeping synagogue worship as well. And then Jesus stepped onto the scene and changed everything. Luke 1 and 2 tells us how God the father introduced His Son Jesus as a man-child into this world in part by way of song. His birth was lauded in this way by several sources: Angels, Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon.
Jesus grew to remold man into a new creature and to, therefore, remold worship into a new creature as well. He had come to die for the sins of all men on earth. On the night before His death, Jesus gave some last warnings and words of instructions to his fearful disciples. In John 16:7 he tells them that although He will soon be going back to heaven, He will be sending down a Comforter in His place to help the believers. This Advocate was the Holy Spirit who among many other things has always been instrumental in Christian worship.
The Transition to Church Worship
It was on the Pentecost of around A.D. 30 that the Holy Spirit first came upon the followers of Jesus in a definite and dramatic way. About 10 days prior to this annual Jewish celebration around 120 of Jesus’ most devoted followers united in fervent prayer. The Holy Spirit came upon the group so powerfully that His presence filled the whole house. The spirit was so full in these believers that day that the revival spilled out into the community with the results that 3,000 more people were added to the church.
While not all worship services have as vibrant a Holy Spirit revival as was seen on this particular Day of Pentecost, we should always pray that the Holy Spirit have a very real presence in our gathered assemblies. In addition, while it is excellent whenever such a dynamic revival does occur, we should never assume our worship service has failed and that the Holy Spirit has not worked in magnificent ways if there are no dramatic, visible movings and emotion.
It has been mentioned that the church worship borrowed several key features of synagogue worship. However, these were not the only things Christianity borrowed from Judaism. In fact, for a long time, most of the secular world at that time thought it was just one of its branches.
Many of Paul’s divinely inspired epistles lay out various regulations about how we are to conduct worship in church services. The books make it abundantly clear that church worship is always to be centered on God’s Word, Jesus Christ, unity with other Christians, and the joy in Christ through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.
Here through Paul God gives crucial commands concerning how to carry out worship in general:
“And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with
the Spirit; speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual
songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord; giving
thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of
our Lord Jesus Christ; submitting yourselves one to another in the
fear of Christ.” (Ephesians 5:18-21)
“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom;
teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and
spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” (Colossians 3:16)
What is interesting about both of these key worship passages is that in both of them Paul stresses the importance of music in worship.
The early church would live during some interesting times in its first century of existence. Israel’s second temple would be destroyed in A.D. 70. After Rome destroyed the temple the close connection between Christianity and Judaism was forever severed.
Perhaps the best non-canonical description comes to us via Justin Martyr. These were both written sometime around A.D. 100. While the Bible should clearly be taken much more seriously as the inspired Word of God, many non-inspired ancient Christian documents do present some good doctrinal points to consider and interesting historical insights. This is such an example.
In his “First Apology,” Justin wrote how most of the worship service was designed to show their unification and adoration of Jesus. But he describes how the early church worshippers not only practiced unity with Jesus but with one another:
“Now we always thereafter remind one another of these things
And those that have the means assist them that are in need;
And we visit one another continually.”
Justin relates that the early Christians worshipped on Sunday (instead of Saturday) for the following reason:
“We hold our common assembly on the day of the sun, because
It is the first day, on which God put to flight the darkness and
Chaos and made the world, and on the same day Jesus Christ
Our savior rose from the dead…”
Today, while Sunday remains the primary day most Christians continue to meet together for corporate worship, it is not the only day. Corporate worship, whenever it takes place during the week, is a holy and magnificent moment of worship ordained by God. It has had many faces in Scripture, but all of this has made it abundantly clear that God values prayer, personal sacrifice, song, heart revival, order, beauty, unity, divine adoration, and love in everything that goes on in such times. And it is also clear that all of this springs from a thorough focus on His Word and on Jesus Christ, God the Son. Indeed, the Lord God in all three persons, He who has created us all is more than worthy of all of this worship. Worthy is the Lamb!
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2 thoughts on “Corporate Worship Throughout Bible Times”
Ben, I appreciate so much your historical and Biblical approach to the subject. Also, your emphasis on music, the reading of Scripture, and the corporate nature of worship. Two of my favorite passages are Psalm 95 (one of many from the Psalms), and Nehemiah 8, the first several verses. Thank you.
Thanks, Bro. Lytle!