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Worship in the Apostolic Era

Ever wonder why we Lutherans do what we do in church? In this series we examine the depth and meaning of the various elements of our worship service, beginning with the history of Christian worship itself.

The first mention of Christian worship in the book of Acts occurs immediately following the account of Pentecost. The company of believers in Jerusalem, their numbers having increased dramatically, gathered regularly for worship. At their meetings in the temple courts and in homes they worshiped the ascended Lord, received instruction from His chosen apostles, and took Holy Communion (Acts 2:42-47).

When the Christian faith spread to the Gentile world, the new congregations in Asia Minor and Greece likewise met together regularly. It appears that Sunday, the day of Christ’s resurrection and of the coming of the Holy Spirit, quickly became the day for Christians to gather (Acts 20:7). We have no order of service from any of those early Christian gatherings, yet we know something of them from Paul’s epistles. They observed Holy Communion together (1 Corinthians 10:16; 11:17-34). They sang psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16). Some passages from the epistles appear to be quotations from these early Christian hymns (1 Timothy 3:16; 2 Timothy 2:11-13).

Why was it that Christians from the beginning considered it not only important but necessary to gather regularly for worship? It was because they believed that in Jesus they had a risen, living, and reigning Savior.

They remembered Jesus’ promise to be present whenever and wherever any of His disciples were gathered together in His name, even when it was only two or three of them (Matthew 18:20). What greater incentive could they have had to gather regularly to worship Him than the assurance that whenever they did this their beloved Jesus would be present among them?

Jesus had also showed His disciples that His promised presence at Christian worship is real. After He gave His life as an offering for sin and rose from the dead to show His victory over sin and death, Jesus gave His disciples abundant evidence of His ongoing presence with them by appearing to them during a period of forty days. When they were huddled in fear in a locked room, Jesus was there with them to calm and strengthen them. As two of them walked to Emmaus in gloom and despair, Jesus walked with them, restoring their faith in Him by explaining the Old Testament prophecies to them. When some of them were returning from an unproductive night of fishing, there was Jesus on the shore filling their nets with fish and inviting them to eat with Him. With these visible appearances, Jesus demonstrated the reality of His ongoing, constant presence with His disciples, even when they no longer saw Him. They could gather in His name and be certain that He was truly present with them to receive their praise and to hear and answer their prayers.

The disciples realized the importance of gathering for worship also because they remembered His command when He instituted the Lord’s Supper: “Do this in remembrance of Me.” (Luke 22:19) To carry out His command and receive the promised blessing of the Holy Supper the disciples needed to gather in His name just as they had gathered around Him on the night in which He was betrayed.

Jesus’ promise of His continual presence with His disciples when they are gathered in His name is the foundation of Christian worship for every age. It is the reason that Christian worship has continued and flourished for nearly 2000 years. It is the reason that Christians throughout the ages have given of themselves to devise beautiful and meaningful ways to worship the living Savior to whom we owe our life and salvation.

John Klatt is a retired pastor. He lives in Watertown, South Dakota.