In a previous article, I considered the question of why we gather together to worship as a church and concluded that worship is a form of covenant renewal. In this article, I’ll be building on this theme and considering the related question of how gathered worship should work, given this foundation. How should we worship together?
If gathered worship is about covenant renewal, then we need to go back to the old testament if we are to understand what worship should look like. The reason for this is simple – most of the key biblical examples of covenant renewal are found there, and not in the new testament. Of course, many things have changed since the coming of Christ. We no longer have a special priesthood. We no longer make animal sacrifices. We no longer have a physical temple. However, we can still draw analogies between our situation and that under the old covenant.
In the book “From Silence to Song”, Peter Leithart demonstrates the use of analogy using the example of musical instruments. Some have argued that since musical instruments are not mentioned alongside singing in the new testament, they should not be used in gathered worship. However, Leithart argues in the opposite direction: since sung worship was usually accompanied by musical instruments in the old testament, references to sung worship in the new testament can also be assumed to include musical instruments. In this way, old testament passages about worship can inform new covenant practice.
Let’s consider several important passages in the old testament and see what they might have to teach us in terms of the order and structure of covenant worship. The first passage we will consider is Exodus 19-24. In this passage, the Israelites arrive at Mount Sinai and God makes his covenant with them. Here’s how the passage is ordered:
- The people draw near (Exodus 19:1-9)
- The people consecrate themselves (Exodus 19:10-25)
- The people ‘ascend’ to hear God’s word spoken to them (Exodus 20:1 – 23:33)
- The people present gifts and offerings to God (Exodus 24:1-8)
- The people celebrate a meal with God (Exodus 24:9-18)
We see then that there is a kind of sequence, a progression of sorts in terms of how the people approach and make covenant with God. Now let’s consider another example, namely the different kinds of sacrifices in the book of Leviticus. Not all of the different types were always performed each time, but in key covenant-making ceremonies, a consistent order was always followed. We can see an example of this in the rite of ordination for the priests (Leviticus 8-9). Here’s the sequence:
- Purification offering
- Ascension offering
- Tribute (gift) offering
- Communion offering
The naming conventions for the different offerings above are taken from Jeff Meyers’ excellent work, “The Lord’s Service”. Note how the sequence of offerings matches up very closely with the order of events in the previous passage we considered. The only exception is the lack of a ‘drawing near’ at the beginning, but of course in order to make sacrifices, the people had to draw near to the sanctuary. Interestingly, each individual animal sacrifice followed a similar pattern:
- The animal is brought near to the altar
- The animal is killed, its blood applied to the altar for purification
- The animal’s head and fat are placed upon the altar and ‘ascend’ to God as smoke
- The animal’s legs and entrails are washed and presented as a ‘gift’ of sorts
- Portions of the meat are eaten in the presence of the altar
Finally, let’s consider an example from the new testament. In Matthew’s gospel, during the final week of Jesus’ life, he draws near to Jerusalem to establish a new covenant in his death (Matthew 21-26). Here’s how those events play out:
- Jesus comes into the city on a donkey (Matthew 21:1-11)
- Jesus clears out the temple and heals many (Matthew 21:12-17)
- Jesus teaches people the will of God (Matthew 21:18 – 25:46)
- Jesus is anointed with a gift of perfume (Matthew 26:6-13)
- Jesus celebrates the last supper with his disciples (Matthew 26:17-22)
New Covenant Application
Given all of this, what might covenant renewal worship look like in a new covenant context? I would suggest something like the following:
- Call to worship (people draw near to God)
- Confession of sin (people purify themselves)
- Preaching of the word (people ascend to hear God’s word)
- Tithes and offerings (people present gifts to God)
- Holy communion (people celebrate a meal with God)
There’s much more that could be said about this topic, particularly around topics such as creedal statements, corporate prayers and the public reading of scripture. For further reading, I recommend both of the books mentioned in this article:
“The Lord’s Service”, Jeffery J Meyers
“From Silence to Song”, Peter Leithart
Also, see “What is ‘Biblical’ worship?”, a journal article by Michael Farley which references both of the above works (link: https://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/51/51-3/JETS%2051-3%20591-613%20Farley.pdf)
In this instance, the people are afraid and Moses alone draws near on their behalf.
Only Moses, the priests and the elders were actually permitted to celebrate the feast. This kind of division is a standard feature of the old covenant, part of the ‘dividing wall’ which Christ abolished in his death.
The names are translations of the Hebrew terms for the sacrifices, instead of the conventional names found in most English bible translations.
This ‘gift’ portion worked differently for each offering. For ascension offerings it was placed upon the altar. For purification offerings it was burnt outside the camp to represent the worshipper’s separation from God. For communion offerings, the gift portion was eaten by the worshipper.
Ascension offerings were an exception to this, since the entire animal had to ascend to God as smoke.