The Worship Service and the New Testament Assembly

A contemporary worship service with green stage lighting, music performers on stage, and people raising their hands.
Is this what meetings of the New Testament assembly are supposed to look like? George Webster/Pexels

Ten to fifteen years ago, I exchanged a couple of letters with one of the elders of a small Baptist congregation in rural America. In one letter to him, I asked him some questions about a matter of their worship service. In his answer, he politely answered my question, but he prefaced his answer by saying, “In what you call a worship service….” He never explained it further, but his saying that was like a small poke that awoke something in me. I already had a question in the back of my mind about what I felt was the common overuse and abuse of the term “praise and worship service” to refer to the lengthy, contemporary Christian, music performances that were beginning to dominate so many churches. Now, I was stimulated to look into the worship service itself. How should it be conducted? What was its goal? What were its biblical origins? What I found startled me.


I found that in the Old Testament, the word translated as “worship” in English Bibles is shâchâh (Daniel uses an Aramaic word, cĕgid, of similar meaning). Shâchâh means to prostrate oneself or bow down. In fact, shâchâh is often translated “bowed.” Thus, it implies, through body language, a humbling of oneself and a submission to or reverencing or highly esteeming whatever or whoever one is bowing down before. The Bible uses it not just for worshipping God, but also for showing respect for rulers, or in venerating idols. And thus we see in over 170 places in English versions of the Old Testament that people bow or worship or reverence or do obeisance, all translated from the word shâchâh that refers to an act of body language that pictures the lowering of oneself and the magnifying of the other.

In the New Testament, more than one word is translated as “worship.” On the other hand, only one of these has major significance to understanding “worship,” another has minor importance, and the rest are really better translated as something else (and, in fact, they are not translated as “worship” in most translations).

Of major importance is proskuneō. We can find proskuneō about sixty times in the New Testament. It literally means “to kiss towards,” but New Testament writers used it to mean bowing down in submission, so that it is similar to shâchâh (the Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament even uses it as a Greek translation of shâchâh). By New Testament times, proskuneō came to be used of worship—as meaning submission to and reverence for—even when there wasn’t an actual, physical bowing down. Satan certainly meant it as a bowing down in Matthew 4:9: “He said to him, ‘I will give you all of these things, if you will fall down and worship me.'”

A word that is sometimes translated “worship” (five times in the King James Version) is sebomai. This word does not carry the idea of prostration or of complete submission. Rather, sebomai is used of revering or being in awe of, and is sometimes used to describe proselytes as people who worshipped God (Acts 16:14; 18:7).

From these meanings, then, we can see that to worship God is to lift Him up and revere Him while lowering and humbling ourselves. As Christians, certainly we see this as a good and right thing because it pictures our position as creatures compared to our Creator and as sinners in relation to the holy and righteous God. We might now question whether this meaning of worship agrees with or entirely contradicts contemporary worship services in which the congregation faces a stage of performers while standing, waving their hands, clapping, and virtually dancing. But there is an even bigger question. Where does the idea that the meetings of the Christian assembly are “services” come from?

Definition of Service

In the Old Testament, the word we need to see concerning “service” is ‛âbôdâh. This word simply means “work” or “labor.” In the Tabernacle and the Temple, the rites and the preparation and cleanup of those rites was the “work” or “service” of the Levites and the priests, who performed the “service.” Their work was so closely associated with worship that we can say that their life was a work of worship. When we see this idea of worship as a 24/7 way of life and remember that the Old Testament was a shadow of the reality we now have, we might wonder what a one-hour-per-week worship service is supposed to imply.

In the New Testament, latreia, although not a common word, is important to our study. It is derived from latris, which means “a hired servant.” Latreia is important because the New Testament uses it to refer to performing sacred rituals, specifically the divine service in the Temple in Jerusalem. Hebrews 9:1, for example, says, “Now indeed even the first covenant had ordinances of divine service, and an earthly sanctuary,” and verse 6 says, “Now these things having been thus prepared, the priests go in continually into the first tabernacle, accomplishing the services.” Very importantly, verse 10 says that these services were “fleshly ordinances, imposed until a time of reformation.” They were temporary, and they have ended.

Jesus used latreia in John 16:2 to indicate a false notion of service: “They will put you out of the synagogues. Yes, the time comes that whoever kills you will think that he offers service to God.”

Leitourgia means either work that someone does at his or her own expense, a public service, or the work of a priest. In 2 Corinthians 9:12, Paul uses it to mean the collection for the needy saints in Jerusalem. In Philippians 2:17, Paul uses leitourgia‘s meaning of priestly service as an analogy to the sacrifices he has made on behalf of the brethren: “Yes, and if I am poured out on the sacrifice and service of your faith, I rejoice, and rejoice with you all.”

Diakonia has the plain meaning of “service.” It is the work a servant does, as well as anyone who helps others, their community, or the assembly of God’s saints. The Bible sometimes describes elders in the assembly as having the function of servants (diakonos).

So, in both the Old and New Testaments, “service” refers to work someone does in worshipping or exalting God, often at one’s own expense. The Old Testament priesthood pictures worship service as a way of life, and the lives of the apostles seemed to follow this pattern.

Worship Service

What I found when I looked into the topic of the worship service for the first time, and what was so shocking, is that, under the New Covenant and in the New Covenant assembly—the ekklēsia, there is no such thing as a worship service. The term “worship service” never occurs. If you see “worship service” in a New Testament (such as in the Contemporary English Version), it is a gross mistranslation that has no corresponding words in the Greek.

Where a worship service is implied, it is a reference to the Old Testament service. A worship service is not so much as implied for the New Testament assembly.

Yes, there are assemblies or meetings; yes, there is worship; yes, there is service. But a worship service is completely absent in any description of the ekklēsia. And, in fact, were it not for our preconditioning in the institutional church, we would not expect to find it. The Temple Worship Service was, after all, a shadow of the reality we have in Christ. The Christian is not carnally minded, is not under the Old Covenant, and, having the reality of Jesus Christ, is not to hold onto Old Testament shadows.

As we’ve seen, under the Old Covenant, God instituted an elaborate ritual inseparable from, at first, the Tabernacle in the Wilderness and, later, the Temple. By bringing sacrifices and other needed materials, participating in the weekly and annual Sabbaths and feasts, following various rules for ritual uncleanness and so forth, and by performing these rites in the Temple, Israel served and worshipped God.

For the priests, especially, the worship service was their way of life. But it was only a physical acting out. Most of them were carnally minded. The entire Temple Service, or worship service, taken as a whole was as much a shadow as the details. This physical ritual only acted out in picture the realities that would come with Jesus Christ. Thus, when Jesus made atonement for our sins, the Old Covenant and the need for the Temple Worship Service ended; and He completely ended the Service (which had become a snare to many Jewish Christians who would not let go of their security blanket) when He used the Romans to destroy the Temple in AD 70.

The conclusion that I found inescapable was that believers today are God’s priests (Revelation 1:6; 5:10) with Jesus Christ as our High Priest (Hebrews 3:1, etc.). As pictured by the Old Testament priests, our entire lives are to be our worship service: “Therefore, brothers, I call on you through the compassions of God to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, pleasing to God, which is your reasonable [logikos] service [latreia]” (Romans 12:1; Literal Translation of the Holy Bible). This is our reasonable or rational or logical service because of all that God has done for us.

Church Worship Service

If the Christian’s worship service is his or her entire life, where do we get the idea of church worship services? The immediate progenitor of the worship services found in Protestant and Evangelical churches today is the Catholic Church. Faced with trying to make a meeting palatable to a congregation composed of the general populace who were both untaught and unregenerate, the Catholic Church turned back to pictures and shadows and rituals—the worship service.

The Protestant and Evangelical churches inherited the worship service and toned it down. But it was still there: the pastor stepping into the shoes of the priest, the Protestant liturgy merely a modification of Catholic liturgy (“liturgy” comes from leitourgia), the Lord’s Supper still being “served” by the pastor and other functionaries from the table (or even altar in some churches) in the “sanctuary” instead of in an actual meal of people sitting around a table, and the neat order of the service—the opening prayer, a music service, the announcements, the offering with perhaps more music, the sermon delivered by one person to a passive audience, a final hymn, and the benediction.

In many churches today, contemporary worship has modified things a bit. These churches usually have a much greater emphasis on music, often labeling just the music a praise and worship service. But whether the music is central or the sermon, the worship service is still descended from the Catholic Church. And, as the worship service in the Catholic Church began as a way to awe the masses, so the purpose of the contemporary service seems to be to entertain the carnally minded—or at least spiritually weak—people so they will come back each week.

When we search the Scriptures, we do not find the worship service in the New Testament assembly. It comes from the Catholic Church which got it by reaching back into the shadows. The worship service is as incongruous under the New Covenant as are animal sacrifices, dietary restrictions, feast days, new moon observations, and Sabbath days. Why?

The Christian is someone whom God has forgiven of all sin, someone who is not under the law but under grace, someone who has the imputed righteousness of God’s Son, someone who has the Holy Spirit living within, someone who lives the law of Christ, someone who is an adopted son of God, someone in whom God is working His good pleasure. The Christian “neither in this mountain, nor in Jerusalem” (John 4:21) worships the Father—that is, the believer doesn’t need a special place, nor a special time, to worship.

The Christian’s entire life is an act of worship 24/7! Plug in the definition of worship. The very fact that God has been able to take us from the state of unbelief and sin and death, and bring us to belief and righteousness and eternal life magnifies and glorifies God. Jesus Christ has purchased us with His blood, so, naturally, we live our lives in submission to Him. That’s worship. “But the hour comes, and now is, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such to be his worshippers. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:23-24). Our lives are a worship service. What, then, is the purpose of the New Testament assembly? This is what we’ll discuss in Part 2.>

Copyright © 2017 Peter Ditzel

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