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Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary
The Scriptural obligation of public worship is partly founded upon example, and partly upon precept; so that no person who admits that authority, can question this great duty without manifest and criminal inconsistency. The institution of public worship under the law, and the practice of synagogue worship among the Jews, from at least the time of Ezra, cannot be questioned; both of which were sanctioned by the practice of our Lord and his Apostles. The preceptive authority for our regular attendance upon public worship, is either inferential or direct. The command to publish the Gospel includes the obligation of assembling to hear it; the name by which a Christian society is designated in Scripture is a church; which signifies an assembly for the transaction of business; and, in the case of a Christian assembly, that business must necessarily be spiritual, and include the sacred exercises of prayer, praise, and hearing the Scriptures. But we have more direct precepts, although the practice was obviously continued from Judaism, and was therefore consuetudinary.
Some of the epistles of St. Paul are commanded to be read in the churches. The singing of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs is enjoined as an act of solemn worship to the Lord; and St. Paul cautions the Hebrews that they "forsake not the assembling of themselves together." The practice of the primitive age is also manifest from the epistles of St. Paul. The Lord's Supper was celebrated by the body of believers collectively: and this Apostle prescribes to the Corinthians regulations for the exercises of prayer and prophesyings, "when they came together in the church,"—the assembly. The statedness and order of these holy offices in the primitive church, appear also from the apostolical epistle of St. Clement: "We ought also, looking into the depths of the divine knowledge, to do all things in order, whatsoever the Lord hath commanded to be done. We ought to make our oblations, and perform our holy offices, at their appointed seasons, for these he hath commanded to be done, not irregularly or by chance, but at determinate times and hours; as he hath likewise ordained by his supreme will, where, and by what persons, they shall be performed; that so all things being done according to his pleasure, may be acceptable in his sight." This passage is remarkable for urging a divine authority for the public services of the church, by which St. Clement, no doubt, means the authority of the inspired directions of the Apostles. The ends of the institution of public worship are of such obvious importance, that it must ever be considered as one of the most condescending and gracious dispensations of God to man. By this his church confesses his name before the world; by this the public teaching of his word is associated with acts calculated to affect the mind with that solemnity which is the best preparation for hearing it to edification. It is thus that the ignorant and the vicious are collected together, and instructed and warned; the invitations of mercy are published to the guilty, and the sorrowful and afflicted are comforted. In these assemblies God, by his Holy Spirit, diffuses his vital and sanctifying influence, and takes the devout into a fellowship with himself, from which they derive strength to do and to suffer his will in the various scenes of life, while he there affords them a foretaste of the deep and hallowed pleasures which are reserved for them at his right hand for evermore. Prayers and intercessions are offered for national and public interests; and while the benefit of these exercises descends upon a country, all are kept sensible of the dependence of every public and personal interest upon God. Praise calls forth the grateful emotions, and gives cheerfulness to piety; and that instruction in righteousness which is so perpetually repeated, diffuses the principles of morality and religion throughout society; enlightens and gives activity to conscience; raises the standard of morals; attaches shame to vice, and praise to virtue; and thus exerts a powerfully purifying influence upon mankind. Laws thus receive a force, which, in other circumstances, they could not acquire, even were they enacted in as great perfection; and the administration of justice is aided by the strongest possible obligation and sanction being given to legal oaths. The domestic relations are rendered more strong and interesting by the very habit of the attendance of families upon the sacred services of the sanctuary of the Lord; and the rich and the poor meeting together, and standing on the same common ground as sinners before God, equally dependent upon him, and equally suing for his mercy, has a powerful, though often an insensible, influence in humbling the pride which is nourished by superior rank, and in raising the lower classes above abjectness of spirit, without injuring their humility. Piety, benevolence, and patriotism are equally dependent for their purity and vigour upon the regular and devout worship of God in the simplicity of the Christian dispensation.
The following is an abridgment of Dr. Neander's account of the mode of conducting public worship among the primitive Christians, which, though questionable on some points, is upon the whole just and interesting:— Since the religion of the New Testament did not admit of any peculiar outward priesthood, similar to that of the Old, the same outward kind of worship, dependent on certain places, times, and outward actions and demeanours, would also have no place in its composition. The kingdom of God, the temple of the Lord, were to be present, not in this or that place, but in every place where Christ himself is active in the Spirit, and where through him the worship of God in spirit and in truth is established. Every Christian in particular, and every church in general, were to represent a spiritual temple of the Lord; the true worship of God was to be only in the inward heart, and the whole life proceeding from such inward disposition, sanctified by faith, was to be a continued spiritual service; this is the great fundamental idea of the Gospel, which prevails throughout the New Testament, by which the whole outward appearance of religion was to assume a different form, and all that once was carnal was to be converted into spiritual, and ennobled. This notion came forward most strongly in the original inward life of the first Christians, particularly when contrasted with Judaism, and still more so when contrasted with Heathenism; a contrast which taught the Christians to avoid all pomp that caught the eye, and all multiplication of means of devotion addressed to the senses, while it made them hold fast the simple, spiritual character of the Christian worship of God. It was this which always struck the Heathen so much in the Christian worship; namely, that nothing was found among them of the outward pomp of all other religions; no temples, no altars, no images. This reproach was made to the Christians by Celsus, and answered thus by Origen: "In the highest sense the temple and image of God are in the human nature of Christ; and hence, also, in all the faithful, who are animated by the Spirit of Christ,—living images! with which no statue of Jove by Phidias is fit to be compared." Christianity impelled men frequently to seek for the stillness of the inward sanctuary, and here to pour forth their heart to God, who dwells in such temples; but then the flames of love were also lighted in their hearts, which sought communion in order to strengthen each other mutually, and to unite themselves into one holy flame which pointed toward heaven. The communion of prayer and devotion was thought a source of sanctification, inasmuch as men knew that the Lord was present by his Spirit among those who were gathered together in his name; but then they were far from ascribing any peculiar sacredness and sanctity to the place of assembly. Such an idea would appear to partake of Heathenism; and men were at first in less danger of being seduced into such an idea, because the first general places of assembly of the Christians were only common rooms in private houses, just according as it happened that any member of the church had sufficient accommodation for the purpose. Thus Gaius of Corinth, Romans 16, is called the host of the church, because the church was in the habit of assembling in a room of his house. Origen says, "The place where believers come together to pray has something agreeable and useful about it;" but then he only says this in respect to that spiritual communion. Man, we must avow, is very easily led to fall away from the worship of God in spirit and in truth, and to connect the religion of the Spirit with outward and earthly things; as the Apostle says, "Having begun in the Spirit, to wish to end in the flesh."
Watchfulness on this point was constantly needed, lest the Jewish or the Heathen notions should here intrude themselves on those of the Gospel, which was likely enough to happen as soon as the Old and the New Testament notions of the priesthood had been confused. Even in the time of Clemens of Alexandria he found himself obliged to combat the notion, which allowed the essentials of a Christian life to be of one kind in, and of another out of, the church. "The disciples of Christ," he says, "must form the whole course of their life and conduct on the model which they assume in the churches, for the sake of propriety; they must be such, and not merely seem so; as mild, as pious, and as charitable. But now, I know not how it is, they change their habits and their manners with the change of place, as the polypus, they say, changes its colour, and becomes like the rock on which it hangs. They lay aside the spiritual habit which they had assumed in the church, as soon as they have left the church, and assimilate themselves to the multitude among whom they live. I should rather say, that they convict themselves of hypocrisy, and show what they really are in their inward nature, by laying aside the mask of piety which they had assumed; and while they honour the word of God, they leave it behind them in the place where they heard it."
The Christian places of assembly were, at first, in the rooms of private houses; it may perhaps be the case, that in large towns, where the number of Christians was soon considerable, and no member of the church had any room in his house sufficient to contain all his brethren, or in places where men did not fear any prejudicial consequences from large assemblies, the church divided itself into different sections, according to the habitations of its members, of which each section held its assemblies in one particular chamber of the house of some wealthy member of the church; or, perhaps, while it was usual to unite on Sundays in one general assembly, yet each individual part of the church met together daily in the rooms which lay the most convenient to it. Perhaps the passages in St. Paul's epistles, which speak of churches in the houses of particular persons, are thus to be understood. The answer of Justin Martyr to the question of the prefect, "Where do you assemble?" exactly corresponds to the genuine Christian spirit on this point. This answer was, "Where each one can and will. You believe, no doubt, that we all meet together in one place; but it is not so, for the God of the Christians is not shut up in a room, but, being invisible, he fills both heaven and earth, and is honoured every where by the faithful." Justin adds, that when he came to Rome, he was accustomed to dwell in one particular spot, and that those Christians who were instructed by him, and wished to hear his discourses, assembled at his house. He had not visited any other congregations of the church. The arrangements which the peculiarities of the Christian worship required, were gradually made in these places of assembly, such as an elevated seat for the purpose of reading the Scriptures and preaching, a table for the distribution of the sacrament, to which as early as the time of Tertullian the name of altar, ara or altare, was given, and perhaps not without some mixture of the unevangelical Old Testament notion of a sacrifice; or at least this idea might easily attach itself to this name. When the churches increased, and their circumstances improved, there were, during the course of the third century, already separate church buildings for the Christians, as the name θρησκευσιμοι τοποι , [religious places,] of the Christians occurs in the edict of Gallienus. In the time of the external prosperity of the church, during the reign of Diocletian, many handsome churches arose in the great towns. The use of images was originally quite foreign to the Christian worship and churches, and it remained so during this whole period. The intermixture of art and religion, and the use of images for the latter, appeared to the first Christians a Heathenish practice. As in Heathenism the divine becomes desecrated and tarnished by intermixture with the natural; and as men have often paid homage to the beauties of nature, with injury to the cause of holiness, the first warmth of Christian zeal, which opposed the idolatry of nature, so common to Heathenism, and sought to maintain the divine in all its purity and elevation, was inclined rather to set holiness in the strongest contrast with what is beautiful by nature, than to endeavour to grace it by lending it a beautiful form. Men were more inclined in general to carry into extremes the idea of the appearance of the Divinity in the form of a servant, which suited the oppressed condition of the church in these centuries, than to throw it into the back ground, and overwhelm it under the predominance of their aesthetic dispositions, and their love of art. This is peculiarly shown by the general belief of the early church, that Christ had clothed his inward divine glory in a mean outward form, which was in direct contradiction to it; a conclusion which was drawn from interpreting the prophecy of the Messiah in Isaiah 53:2 , too literally. Thus, Clemens of Alexandria warns the Christians, from the example of Christ, not to attribute too much value to outward beauty: "The Lord himself was mean in outward form; and who is better than the Lord? But he revealed himself not in the beauty of the body, perceptible to our senses, but in the true beauty of the soul as well as of the body; the beauty of the soul consisting in benevolence, and that of the body in immortality!"
Fathers of entirely opposite habits of mind, the adherents of two different systems of conceiving divine things, were nevertheless united on this point by their common opposition to the mixture of the natural and the divine in Heathenism, and by the endeavour to maintain the devotion to God, in spirit and in truth, pure and undefiled. Clemens of Alexandria is as little favourable as Tertullian to the use of images. Heathens, who, like Alexander Severus, saw something divine in Christ's personal form, and sects which mixed Heathenism and Christianity together, were the first who made use of images of Christ; as, for instance, the Gnostic sect of the followers of Carpocratian, who put his image beside those of Plato and Aristotle. The use of religious images among the Christians did not proceed from their ecclesiastical but from their domestic life. In the intercourse of daily life, the Christians saw themselves every where surrounded by objects of Heathen mythology, or by such as shocked their moral and Christian feelings. Similar objects adorned the walls of chambers, the drinking vessels, and the signet rings, (on which the Heathen had constantly idolatrous images,) to which, whenever they pleased, they could address their devotions; and the Christians naturally felt themselves obliged to replace these objects, which wounded their moral and religious feelings, with others more suited to those feelings. Therefore, they gladly put the likeness of a shepherd carrying a lamb upon his shoulders, on their cups, as a symbol of the Redeemer, who saves the sinners that return to him, according to the parable in the Gospel. And Clemens of Alexandria says, in reference to the signet rings of the Christians, "Let our signet rings consist of a dove," the emblem of the Holy Ghost, "or a fish, or a ship sailing toward heaven," the emblem of the Christian church, or of individual Christian souls, "or a lyre," the emblem of Christian joy, "or an anchor," the emblem of Christian hope; "and he who is a fisherman, let him remember the Apostle, and the children who were dragged out from the water; for those men ought not to engrave idolatrous forms, to whom the use of them is forbidden; those can engrave no sword and no bow, who seek for peace; the friends of temperance cannot engrave drinking cups." And yet, perhaps, religious images made their way from domestic life into the churches as early as the end of the third century, and the walls of the churches were painted in the same way. The council of Elvira set itself against this innovation as an abuse, for it made the following order: "Objects of reverence and worship shall not be painted on the walls." It is probable that the visible representation of the cross found its way very early into domestic and ecclesiastical life. This token was remarkably common among them; it was used to consecrate their rising and their going to bed, their going out and their coming in, and all the actions of daily life; it was the sign which Christians made involuntarily whenever any thing of a fearful nature surprised them. This was a mode of expressing, by means perceptible to the senses, the purely Christian idea, that all the actions of Christians, as well as the whole course of their life, must be sanctified by faith in the crucified Jesus, and by dependence upon him; and that this faith is the most powerful means of conquering all evil, and preserving oneself against it. But here also, again, men were too apt to confuse the idea and the token which represented it; and they attributed the effects of faith in the crucified Redeemer to the outward sign, to which they ascribed a supernatural, sanctifying, and preservative power; an error of which we find traces as early as the third century.
We now pass from the consideration of the places of public worship, to that of the seasons of worship, and the festivals of the early Christians. It is here shown again, that the Gospel, as it remodelled the former conceptions of the priesthood, of worship in general, and of holy places, also entirely changed the then views of sacred seasons. And here again, also, the character of the theocracy of the New Testament revealed itself, a theocracy spiritualized, ennobled, and freed from its outward garb of sense, and from the limits which bounded its generalization. The Jewish laws relating to their festivals were not merely abrogated by the Gospel, in such a manner as to transfer these festivals to different seasons; but they were entirely abolished, as far as fixing religious worship to particular times is concerned. St. Paul expressly declares all sanctifying of certain seasons, as far as men deduced this from the divine command, to be Jewish and unevangelical, and to be like returning to the slavery of the law, and to captivity to outward precepts. Such was the opinion of the early church. At first the churches assembled every day; as, for instance, the first church of Jerusalem, which assembled daily for prayer in common, and for the public consideration of the divine word, for the common celebration of the Lord's Supper and the agapae, as well as to maintain the connection between the common head of the spiritual body of the church and themselves, and between one another as members of this body. Traces of this are also found in later times in the daily assembling of the churches for the purpose of hearing the Scriptures read, and of celebrating the communion. Although, in order to meet the wants of human nature generally, consisting as it does of sense as well as soul, and those of a large body of Christians in particular, who were only in a state of education, and were to be brought up to the ripeness of Christian manhood, men soon selected definite times [beside the authorized Christian Sabbath, the first day of the week] for religious admonitions, and to consecrate them to a fuller occupation with religious things, as well as to public devotion, with the intention, that the influence of these definite times should animate and sanctify the rest of their lives, and that Christians who withdrew themselves from the distractions of business on these days, and collected their hearts before God in the stillness of solitude, as well as in public devotion, might make these seasons of service to the other parts of their life; yet this was in itself, and of itself, nothing unevangelical. It was only a dropping down from the purely spiritual point of view, on which even the Christian, as he still carries about two natures in himself, cannot always maintain himself, to the carnal; a dropping down which became constantly more necessary, the more the fire of the first animation and the warmth of the first love of the Christians died away. It was no more unevangelic than the gradual limitation of the exercise of many rights, belonging to the common priesthood of all Christians, to a certain class in the church, which circumstances rendered necessary. But just as the unevangelic made its appearance, men supposed certain days distinguished from others, and hallowed by divine right, when they introduced a distinction between holy and common days into the life of the Christian, and in this distinction forgot his calling to sanctify all days alike. When the Montanists wished to introduce and make imperative new fasts, which were fixed to certain days, the Epistle to the Galatians was very properly brought to oppose them; but Tertullian, who stood on the boundary between the original pure evangelic times and those when the intermixture of Jewish and Christian notions first took place, confuses here the views of the two religions, because he makes the evangelical to consist, not in a wholly different method of considering festivals altogether, but in the celebration of different particular festivals; and he makes the Judaizing, which the Apostle condemns, to consist only in the observation of the Jewish instead of the peculiarly Christian festivals. The weekly and the yearly festivals originally arose from the self-same fundamental idea, which was the centre point of the whole Christian life; the idea of imitating Christ, the crucified and the risen; to follow him in his death, by appropriating to ourselves, in penitence and faith, the effects of his death, by dying to ourselves and to the world; to follow him in his resurrection, by rising again with him, by faith in him and by his power, to a new and holy life, devoted to God, which, beginning here below in the seed, is matured in heaven. Hence the festival of joy was the festival of the resurrection; and the preparation for it, the remembrance of the sufferings of Christ, with mortification and crucifixion of the flesh, was the day of fasting and penitence. Thus in the week the Sunday was the joyful festival; and the preparation for it was a day of penitence and prayer, consecrated to remembrance of the sufferings of Christ and the preparations for them, and this was celebrated on the Friday; and thus also the yearly festivals were to celebrate the resurrection of Christ, and the operations of the Redeemer after he had risen again; the preparation for this day was in commemoration of the sufferings and fastings of our Saviour. Allusion is made to Sunday under the character of a festival, as a symbol of a new life, consecrated to the Lord in opposition to the old Sabbath, in the epistle of Ignatius to the Magnesians: "If they who were brought up under the Old Testament have attained to a new hope, and no longer keep [Jewish] Sabbaths holy, but have consecrated their life to the day of the Lord, on which also our life rose up in him, how shall we be able to live without him?" Sunday was distinguished as a day of joy by the circumstances, that men did not fast upon it, and that they prayed standing up and not kneeling, as Christ had raised up fallen man to heaven again through his resurrection. And farther: two other days in the week, Friday and Wednesday, particularly the former, were consecrated to the remembrance of the sufferings of Christ, and of the circumstances preparatory to them; congregations were held on them, and a fast till three o'clock in the afternoon, but nothing was positively appointed concerning them; in respect to joining in these solemnities every one consulted his own convenience or inclination. Such fasts, joined with prayer, were considered as the watches of the milites Christi [soldiers of Christ] on their post by the Christians, who compared their calling to a warfare, the militia Christi, and they were stationes, and the days on which they took place were called dies stationum, [day of their stations.] The churches, which were a graft of a Christian on a Jewish spirit, although they received the Sunday, retained also that of the Sabbath; and from them the custom spread abroad in the oriental church of distinguishing this day, as well as the Sunday, by not fasting and by praying in an erect posture; in the western churches, particularly the Roman, where opposition to Judaism was the prevailing tendency, this very opposition produced the custom of celebrating the Saturday in particular as a fast day. This difference in customs would of course be striking, where members of the oriental church spent their Sabbath day in the western church. It was only too soon that men lost sight of the principle of the apostolic church, which retained the unity of faith and spirit in the bond of love, but allowed all kinds of difference in external things; and then they began to require uniformity in these things. The first yearly festivals of the Christians proceeded from similar views; and at first the contrast which had in early times the most powerful influence on the developement as well of the churchly life, as of the doctrines of Christianity, is peculiarly prominent; I mean the contrast between the Jewish churches and those of the Gentile converts. The former retained all the Jewish festivals as well as the whole ceremonial law; although by degrees they introduced into them a Christian meaning which spontaneously offered itself. On the contrary, there was probably no yearly festival at all, from the beginning, among the Heathen converts; for no trace of any thing of the sort is found in the whole of the New Testament. The passover of the Old Testament was easily ennobled and converted to a passover which suited the New Testament, by merely substituting the idea of deliverance from spiritual bondage, that is, from the slavery of sin, for that of deliverance from earthly bondage. The paschal lamb was a type of Christ, by whom that deliverance was wrought. These representations went on the supposition, that Christ had partaken his last meal with his disciples, as a proper passover, at the very time that the Jews were celebrating theirs. This passover was, therefore, always celebrated on the night between the fourteenth and fifteenth of the Jewish month Nisan, as a remembrance at the same time of the last supper of Christ. This was the fundamental notion of the whole Jewish Christian passover, on which all the rest was built. The day following this passover was consecrated to the remembrance of the sufferings of Christ, and the third day from it to the remembrance of his resurrection. On the contrary, in the greater number of Heathen churches, as soon as men began to celebrate yearly festivals, (a time which cannot be determined very precisely,) they followed the method observed in the weekly festivals. They appointed one Sunday in the year for the festival of the resurrection, and one Friday as a day of penitence and fasting preparatory to this Sunday, in remembrance of the sufferings of Christ; and they gradually lengthened this time of penitence and fasting, as a preparation for that high and joyful festival. In these churches they were more inclined to take up a kind of antithetical turn against the Jewish festivals, than to graft Christian ones upon them. It was far from their notions to think of observing a yearly passover with the Jews. The following was the view which they took of the matter: "Every typical feast has lost its true meaning by the realization of that which is typified; in the sacrifice of Christ, the Lord's Supper, as the new covenant, has taken the place of that of the old covenant." This difference of outward customs between the Jewish Christian churches and the churches allied to them on the one hand, and the Heathen Christian churches founded by St. Paul on the other, existed at first without its being supposed that external things of this nature were of importance enough to lead to a controversy. A fast formed the introduction to the passover; and this was the only fast formally established by the church. The necessity of this fast was deduced from Matthew 9:15; but it was by a carnal interpretation of the passage, and an application of it quite contrary to its real sense. For it does not relate to the time of Christ's suffering, but to the time when he should be with his disciples no more. As long as they enjoyed his society they were to give themselves up to joy, and to be disturbed in it by no forced asceticism. But a time of sorrow was to follow this time of joy, although only for a season, after which a time of higher and imperishable joy, in invisible communion with him, was to follow, John 16:22 . The duration of this fast, however, was not determined; the imitation of the temptation of our Lord for forty days introduced the custom of fasting forty hours in some places, which afterward was extended to forty days; and thus the fast of forty days, the quadrigesimal fast, arose. The festival of pentecost, Whitsuntide, was closely connected with that of the resurrection; and this was dedicated to commemorating the first visible effects of the operations of the glorified Christ upon human nature, now also ennobled by him, the lively proofs of his resurrection and reception into glory; and therefore Origen joins the festivals of the resurrection and of pentecost together as one whole. The means of transition from an Old Testament festival to one befitting the New Testament, were here near at hand. The first fruits of harvest in the kingdom of nature; the first fruits of harvest in the kingdom of grace; the law of the letter from Mount Sinai—the law of the spirit from the heavenly Jerusalem. This festival originally embraced the whole season of fifty days from Easter, and was celebrated like a Sunday, that is to say, no fasts were kept during the whole of it, and men prayed standing, and not kneeling; and perhaps also in some places assemblies of the church were held, and the communion was celebrated every day. Afterward, two peculiar points of time, the ascension of Christ, and the effusion of the Holy Spirit, were selected from this whole interval. These were the only festivals generally celebrated at that time, as the passage cited from Origen proves. The fundamental notion of the whole Christian life, which referred every thing to the suffering, the resurrection, and the glorification of Christ, as well as the adherence, or, on the other hand, the opposition, to the Jewish celebration of festivals, were the cause that these were the only general festivals. The notion of a birth-day festival was far from the ideas of the Christians of this period in general; they looked upon the second birth as the true birth of men. The case must have been somewhat different with the birth of the Redeemer; human nature was to be sanctified by him from its first developement; but then this last notion could not at first come so prominently forward among the early Christians, because so many of them were first converted to Christianity when well advanced in years, after some decisive excitement of their life; but then it may have entered generally into domestic life, though at first gradually. Nevertheless, we find in this period apparently one trace of Christmas as a festival. Its history is intimately connected with the history of a kindred festival; the festival of the manifestation of Jesus in his character of Messiah, his consecration to the office of Messiah by the baptism of John, and the beginning of his public ministry as the Messiah, which was afterward called Epiphany, the ευπτη των επιφανιων , or της επιφανειας του Χριστου , [the festival of Epiphany, or of the appearance of Christ.] We find in later times that these festivals extended themselves in opposite directions, that of Christmas spreading from west to east, and the other from east to west. Clemens of Alexandria merely relates, that the Gnostic sect of the Basilidians celebrated the festival of the Epiphany at Alexandria in his time. We can hardly suppose that this sect invented the festival, although they may have had some dogmatical reason for celebrating it; for it is highly improbable that the catholic church should have afterward received a festival from the Gnostics; and these Gnostics most probably received it from the Jewish Christian churches in Palestine or Syria. For this time of our Saviour's life would appear the most important to the notions of the Jewish Christians; and the Gnostics would afterward explain it according to their own ideas.
The character of a spiritual worship of God distinguished the Christian worship from that of other religions, which consisted in symbolical pageantry and lifeless ceremonies. As a general elevation of spirit and sanctification of heart was the object of every thing in this religion, instruction and edification, through a common study of the divine word, and through prayer in common, were the leading features in the Christian worship. And in this respect it might in its form adhere to the arrangements made about the congregations in the Jewish synagogues, in which also the element of a spiritual religious worship was the prevailing ingredient. As the reading of portions of the Old Testament had formed the ground work of religious instruction in the Jewish synagogues, this custom also passed into the Christian congregations. First the Old Testament, and especially the prophetic parts of it, were read as things that pointed to the Messiah; then followed the Gospels, and after that the epistles of the Apostles. The reading of the Scriptures was of still greater consequence then, because it was desirable that every Christian should be acquainted with them; and yet, by reason of the rarity and clearness of manuscripts, and the poverty of a great proportion of the Christians, or perhaps also because all were not able to read, the Bible itself could not be put into the hands of all. Frequent hearing was therefore with many to supply the place of their own reading. The Scriptures were therefore read in the language which all could understand, and that was, in most parts of the Roman empire, the Greek or the Latin. In very early times different translations of the Bible into Latin were in existence; as every one who knew a little of Greek, found it needful to have his own Bible in his own mother tongue. In places where the Greek or the Latin language was understood only by a part of the church, that is to say, by the educated classes, while the rest understood only their native language, as was the case in many Egyptian and Syrian towns, church interpreters were appointed, as in the Jewish synagogues, and they immediately translated what had been read into the language of the country, so that it might be intelligible to all. After the reading of the Scripture there followed, as there had previously in the Jewish synagogues, short, and at first very simple, addresses in familiar language, the momentary effusions of the heart, which contained an explanation and application of what had just been read. Justin Martyr expresses himself thus on the subject: "After the reading of the Scriptures, the president instructs the people in a discourse, and incites them to the imitation of these good examples." Among the Greeks, where the taste was more rhetorical, the sermon from the very earliest times was of a more lengthened kind, and formed a very important part of the service. Singing also passed from the Jewish service into that of the Christian church. St. Paul exhorts the early churches to sing spiritual songs. What was used for this purpose were partly the Psalms of the Old Testament, and partly songs composed with this very object, especially songs of praise and thanks to God and Christ; and these, we know, Pliny found to be customary among the Christians. In the controversies with the Unitarians, about the end of the second century, and the beginning of the third, the hymns, in which from early times Christ had been honoured as a God, were appealed to. The power of church singing over the heart was soon recognized; and hence those who wished to propagate any peculiar opinions, like Bardasanes, or Paul of Samosata, endeavoured to spread them by means of hymns. In compliance with the infirmities of human nature, composed as it is of sense and spirit, the divine Founder of the church, beside his word, ordained two outward signs, as symbols of the invisible communion which existed between him, the Head of the spiritual body, and the faithful, its members; and also of the connection of these members, as with him, so also with one another. These were visible means to represent the invisible, heavenly benefits to be bestowed on the members of this body through him; and while man received in faith the sign presented to his senses, the enjoyment of that heavenly communion and those heavenly advantages was to gladden his inward heart. As nothing in all Christianity and in the whole Christian life stands isolated, but all forms one whole, proceeding from one centre, therefore, also, that which this outward sign represented must be something which should continue through the whole of the inward Christian life, something which, spreading itself forth from this one moment over the whole Christian life, should be capable of being especially excited again and promoted in return, by the influence of isolated moments. Thus, baptism was to be the sign of a first entrance into communion with the Redeemer, and with the church, the first appropriation of those advantages which Christ has bestowed on man, namely, of the forgiveness of sins and the inward union of life, which proceeds from it, as well as of the participation in a sanctifying divine Spirit of life. And the Lord's Supper was to be the sign of a constant continuance in this communion, in the appropriation and enjoyment of these advantages: and thus were represented the essentials of the whole inward Christian life, in its earliest rise and its continued progress. The whole peculiar spirit of Christianity was particularly stamped in the mode in which these external things were administered; and the mode of their administration in return exerted a powerful influence on the whole nature of the Christian worship. The connection of the moments, represented by these signs, with the whole Christian life, the connection of inward and divine things with the outward act was present to the lively Christian feelings of the first Christians.
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Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Worship'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/wtd/w/worship.html. 1831-2.