Liturgy in the New Testament Church

From the Orthodox Study Bible:

Virtually all students of the Bible realize there was liturgical worship in Israel. Immediately after the giving of the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:1-17), instructions for building the altar were set forth (Ex. 20:24-26). Then comes instruction concerning keeping the Sabbath (Ex. 23:10-13), the annual feasts (Ex. 23:14-19) and the various offerings and furnishings in the sanctuary (Ex. 25:1-40). Following this, chapters 26-30 deal with such matters as the design of the tabernacle, the altar, and the outer court, the priest’ vestments and their consecration, and instructions for daily offerings.

Most Bible scholars also find liturgical worship in heaven, which is to be expected, since God instructed Moses to make the earthly place of worship as a “copy and shadow of the heavenly things” (Heb. 8:5; see Ex. 25:40). Heavenly worship is revealed in such passages as Isaiah 6:1-8, where we see the prophet caught up to heaven for the liturgy, the Revelation 4, which records the Apostle John’s vision of heaven’s liturgy.

But these same scholars often fail to see that there is also liturgy in the New Testament Church.

The key to comprehending liturgy in the New Testament is to understand the work of the High Priest, our Lord Jesus Christ, who inaugurates the New Covenant. Christ is “a priest forever” (Heb. 7:17, 21). It is unthinkable that Christ would be a priest but not serve liturgically: “forever” suggests He serves continually, without ceasing, in the heavenly tabernacle. Further, He is called not only a priest but a liturgist: “a Minister (Gr. leitourgos, “liturgist”) of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle which the Lord erected” (Heb. 8:2). Christian worship on earth, to be fully Christian, must mirror the worship of Christ in heaven.

Moreover, Christ is “Mediator of a better covenant” (Heb. 8:6). What is that covenant? In the words of the Lord, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood” (1 Cor. 11:25). Just as the blood of bulls and goats in the Old Covenant prefigured Christ’s sacrifice to come, so the Eucharistic Feast brings to us the fullness of His New Covenant offering, completed at the Cross and fulfilled in His Resurrection. This once-for-all offering of Himself (Heb. 7:27) which He as High Priest presents at the heavenly altar, is an offering in which we participate through the Divine Liturgy in the Church. This is the worship of the New Testament Church!

Given this biblical background, a number of New Testament passages take on new meaning.

(1) Acts 13:2: “As they ministered the Lord [literally, “as they were in the liturgy of the Lord”] and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Now separate to Me Barnabas and Saul . . .’” We learn that (a) these two apostles were called by God during worship, and (b) the Holy Spirit speaks in a liturgical setting.

(2) Acts 20:7: “Now on the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul, ready to depart the next day, spoke to them.” Communion was held each Sunday.

(3) Rom. 16:16: “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” A kiss of greeting was common in this ancient culture. The “holy kiss,” however, was an element of the Christian liturgy which signified that the people of God were reconciled to one another, so that they might receive the Body and Blood of Christ in peace.

(4) Eph. 5:14: “Awake, you who sleep, arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.” Biblical scholars tell us this is an ancient baptismal hymn already in use by the time Ephesians was written. (Note other preexisting New Testament creeds and hymns such as 1 Tim. 3:16 and 2 Tim. 2:11-13).

(5) Heb. 13:10: “We have an altar” reveals the continuation of the altar in New Testament worship.

(6) Rev. 1:10: “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day.” Many scholars believe John saw his vision of Christ during the Sunday liturgy, as the Lord appeared to him “in the midst of the seven lampstands” (Rev. 1:13). Lampstands would be found in the Christian sanctuary just as they were in the Hebrew temple.