Ever wonder why we Lutherans use the form of worship we do?
In this series we examine the depth and meaning of the various elements of our Lutheran worship service.
The Gospel of Luke records that on the day of Jesus’ resurrection, He joined two of His disciples as they walked and discussed the events of the previous Friday. They did not yet understand why Jesus had been crucified, so He took them through the Scriptures and explained what Moses and the prophets had foretold about Him. After Jesus had finished His Bible class with them and vanished from their sight, they talked about how their hearts had burned within them as He opened the Scriptures to them.
As we read about the experience of those two disciples and of Jesus’ personal instruction to the apostles during His three-year ministry, we might wish that we could have listened in. But we need not envy them, as if they received some instruction that has been kept from us. The apostles did not keep to themselves what they learned from Jesus. According to His promise, they wrote down what He had taught them as the Holy Spirit brought it back to their minds and gave them understanding of it. We have the instruction that the Son of God gave to His apostles in their writings in the New Testament. In addition to the four Gospels that record the Savior’s life, death, and resurrection, we have the blessing of the epistles. These writings of the apostles reveal to us the person of the Lord Jesus and the meaning of His life, death, and resurrection.
It is good for us to keep this in mind as we hear the epistle lesson read in our church services. We are hearing what Jesus taught His apostles. We are listening in on instruction from the greatest of all teachers about the most important of all subjects.
Recognizing this, the church through the ages has included the reading of portions of the New Testament epistles as a regular part of the Sunday service.
Readings from the Law and the Prophets were a part of the services in the synagogues at the time of Christ (Luke 4:16-21). The early Christians continued this custom in their services and soon added lessons from the epistles, later adding lessons from the gospels.
The three great festivals of Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost were the first to have definite readings. Eventually systems of readings were developed for each Sunday of the church year. These came to be called “pericopes,” a word from the Greek meaning a portion of Scripture that was “cut out.” The oldest of these, called the “historic series,” has been in use since the early days of the church.
The epistle readings in the various systems have been carefully chosen so that they cover the main teachings of the Bible in the course of a year. They ensure that those who come to church hear “the whole counsel of God.” (Acts 20:27)
Our custom of the epistle reading during the Sunday service emphasizes the importance of God’s Word in the service. Up to that point the congregation has spoken to God in prayer and praise. But when the epistle lesson is read, the congregation sits in silence and listens. This silent listening is a powerful statement that what God says to us is more important than anything we can say or do. It is through His Word that God gives us His grace. By the Word the Holy Spirit reveals Christ to us, works faith in us, and then sustains and strengthens that faith so that we have all the blessings that Christ won for us by His life and death.
There is also a blessing in listening to the epistle lessons together with our fellow believers. This experience reminds us that we are part of the family of believers, God’s own children through faith in Jesus Christ. In His Word He addresses all of us together in love, leading us to repentance with His Law and comforting us with His Gospel of forgiveness and salvation.