One of the most frustrating things about the ‘occasional’ (rather than systematic) nature of the NT writings is that none of them give us precise details of what the first followers of Jesus did when they met together for ‘worship’. (I use inverted commas here, because the NT never actually uses the word ‘worship’ for what Christians did when they met.) If only Paul had attached to his letter to Corinth and order of service! We would have avoided centuries of debate between denominations, and saved ourselves hundreds of thousands of hours in liturgical revision—and even avoided the debate about whether we do in fact meet to ‘worship’!
The latest Grove Worship booklet is by Colin Buchanan, and asks the intriguing question: suppose we do have hints in the Letter to the Hebrews as to what happened when believers gathered? Colin is well equipped to ask this, being not only a life-long commentator and contributor to thinking about worship and liturgy in the Church of England, but also classically trained and an excellent exegete.
Colin begins by exploring the problem with our language. ‘Worship’ is the word many people use to describe what happens when we meet together, even though some use the word for Christian living, or for the feeling of coming close to God, or for one part of the service (usually the singing). In the NT, there are six Greek words translated ‘worship’, but five of them are never used with reference to a corporate gathering.
There then remains one verb, one with but one occurrence in what we would call a worship context. This is leitourge?, the word behind our ‘liturgy.’ Its origins also mean ‘to give service’—in fifth-century BC Athens to give service to the community—but it was picked up by the translators of the Old Testament into Greek to be used for priestly ‘service.’ In the New Testament, in this one use in Acts 13.2, it clearly characterizes a corporate churchly activity by the disciples at Antioch, and it is usually translated as the church ‘ministering to the Lord’ or even ‘worshipping the Lord’—and it sits comfortably with the other activities associated with it at that point—fasting, hearing the word of the Lord, praying, and laying hands on Barnabas and Saul to ‘separate’ them for their specific missionary ministry. This episode gives us the key to our quest. For in various ways the New Testament gives evidence of the disciples meeting together for their corporate purposes, including ministering the word to each other, teaching, prophesying, praying, singing, sharing the Lord’s Supper, commissioning officers, collecting alms, and even administering discipline—all with a view to praising God, recounting the Christian story, bringing their petitions to God and bonding and building each other up in their faith. But there is no one technical word, one common noun such as our ‘worship,’ which describes it—simply the disciples ‘were gathered together’ (Acts 4.31), ‘gathered together’ (Acts 20.7), ‘came together in church’ (1 Cor 11.18; 14.26), and were not to give up ‘the gathering together’ (10.25)…
We read the letter [to the Hebrews] to learn what the writer tells us about the character and functions of the Christian assembly… What actions characterize the church of God when it meets?
Colin then offers a brief introduction to Hebrews, and sets out its key theological themes, including the prominent theme of the priesthood of Christ. In passing, he offers an observation about the use of the term ‘priest’ for Christian ministers.
What should we make of common Anglican parlance by which ministers are called priests? The New Testament never uses the hiereus stem, which is translated as ‘priest’ in the English versions, to denote ordained ministers of the church. However, the English word ‘priest,’ which is used to translate hiereus in the Scriptures, is itself etymologically a corruption of the Greek presbuteros, which the Bible translates as elder. The distinction is clear in Greek—the elders are Christian leaders, and the ‘priest’ stem comes only with Old Testament priests, with Jesus as our high priest, and with the whole church as a ‘priesthood’ (as, for example, in 1 Pet 2.9), but not with Christian ministers or leaders. Ministers have many titles (elders, bishops, pastors, teachers and so on), but the one they do not have is ‘priests’ (hiereis). Ministers hardly appear in this letter, and, when they do, they have no distinctive connection as ministers to the priesthood of Christ. So it is impossible to derive a supposed ‘priesthood’ they hold from the well-defined (and inalienable) priesthood he alone holds. The Anglican Reformers served us ill in retaining ‘priests’ in the liturgy, and we are well served now by the step-by-step return of ‘presbyters,’ which Anglican believers ought to encourage. Finally the New Testament makes no connection whatsoever between priesthood and presiding at the eucharist.
The central chapter then looks at the language within Hebrews that might indicate what happened when they assembled. These comprise: meeting to seek access to God’s presence; encountering Jesus; hearing the word of Scripture, which includes reading it, knowing that Jesus fulfils all God’s promises, and receiving encouragement for faithful living; offering praise; interceding; recognising the whole company of saints, including the departed; practical sharing of resources; avoiding ceremonialism or legalism.
If this letter were our main guide for Christian assemblies, what would we thereby learn?
Vitally, the believers met with each other as believers, and met to encourage and support each other by both spiritual and material means, sharing the truth of Christ, and sharing food and other necessities. Two perspectives dominate, each with ‘looking to Jesus’ as central—the push to get away from the world’s evil ways (13.13), and the pull of ‘seeing the Day approaching’ (10.25). Meeting each others’ material needs was integral to the agenda. But the overarching feature of the agenda was the word. It was taught as exhortation by the leaders, with a great emphasis on the Old Testament’s fulfilment in Jesus. But it also provided mutual encouragement among the people: they shared their experiences of living as Christians in often hostile surrounds; they were ready with thanksgiving and praise to God; and intercession for believers elsewhere also was part of the pattern. Whether they sang we cannot tell, but praise elsewhere in the New Testament implied song, and the whole saturation in psalmody noted above also points to an agenda of song; whether and how often they held the Lord’s Supper is hidden from us. Whether there was a developed routine—a liturgy—for their meetings is unknown to us, but the existence of leaders who were to be followed (13.17) suggests that assemblies were ordered. There is no integrated picture available, but we put together this partial picture from the scattered bits of live evidence in the letter; in that picture we perceive first the absolute centrality of the person of Jesus, their great high priest, and then their own presence with their high priest in the world beyond the veil. It should fill our gaze and dazzle our imagination.
The booklet ends with three Appendices, exploring the role of baptism and Communion in Hebrews, the use of the letter in Anglican liturgy, and suggestions for new liturgy based on the text of the letter. It is a great read, and classic Buchanan in its combination of clarity, robustness and freshness of insight—both into Hebrews as a letter and into the task of corporate worship. You will find yourself thinking again and asking yourself questions about long-held assumptions and practices.
You can order the booklet for £3.95 post-free in the UK from the Grove website.
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