Synagogue worship as model?

Dr. Hughes Old wrote, “The worship of the earliest Christians followed the pattern of synagogue worship as it was celebrated on the Sabbath.” (Worship Leader online, October 2010)

As far as that statement goes, it makes sense to me.

But this trail leads one to consider worship as “services,” i.e., as series of events and activities. While worship as a bunch of events in sequence is one aspect of worship history, I submit that it does not appear to relate as directly to New Covenant worship as Dr. Old and countless other Christians think. Simply put, worship in John 4 (a NC hinge passage!) is not this kind of “worship.”

According to the text:

  • When Jesus resisted the Adversary by saying, “You will worship the Lord Your God,” he wasn’t talking about synagogue activities. (Matt 4, Lk 4)
  • The transfiguration account (e.g., in Lk 9) does not specifically use the word for worship; instead, it seems to point away from things associated with a “church service” toward the vertical honor due Jesus. “Listen to Him” is more like “worship Him” than “do a series of things in a liturgy.”
  • When the blind man was convinced of Jesus’ authority and moved to believe in Him, he worshipped Him–and he wasn’t even in the synagogue! (John 9)
  • The Ethiopian was on his way to worship, not to sit through a series of events. (Acts 8)
  • The visiting nonbeliever or newbie is not inspired to participate in liturgy; he is inspired to worship. (1 Cor 14)
  • In the timeless picture of the Kingdom of God, a servant was instructed to measure the dwelling of God, the altar, and those who worship, not those who participate in a so-called service.
  • And the magi (it’s a real word–a transliteration of the Greek) did not say they wanted to look at an icon of the Messiah, hear a sermon, and then go to synagogue; they said they had come to worship Him. (Matt 2)

Secular instances of the word-concept “worship” also occur fairly often in the NC writings. Check Matthew 18:26 and Acts 10:25, for example.

The point is that worship is, scripturally speaking, an act joined to an attitude of heart. The word proskuneo specifically means something along the lines of “kiss toward,” as in the obeisance done before a being greater than oneself. “Bowing down” is not an especially literally accurate translation, but I believe it to be a good dynamic equivalent. Worship is not a set of events one goes to, or sits through, or arranges activities to simulate, or otherwise is passively engaged in. First and foremost, New Covenant worship is–as many, including the recently deceased Robert Webber, have said but few seem to get–a verb.

I make these fairly bold assertions based on a relatively close acquaintance with the Greek word proskuneo and its cognates. In all the cases above, this is the word in the original text. What this says to me, considered on the whole, is that, although synagogue worship was important in Jewish community, and although in Jewish Christian communities some aspects of worship appear to have been modeled on synagogue services, worship is, in our epoch, to be considered as direct, adoring, reverent communication with God. Worship is bowing in spirit, and telling God He is worthy, more than it is being involved in a “service.”

Old’s later spotlight on preaching is apparently on target: the synagogue service was one context into which God-become-man inserted Himself, and preaching was an important function of itinerant rabbis and of Greek philosophers in the era in which the Church was begun. But Old claims that Jesus’ preaching “was worship because it glorified God for His faithfulness to His word,” and I think he pushes the point too far.

That preaching may lead to worship is not disputed, but neither preaching nor the liturgy of the synagogue is, in itself, the worship (proskuneo) emphasized in the NC scriptures.

Please share your thoughts. I read every comment.

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