Wineskins Archive

January 13, 2014

The Old Testament: The Heart of Christian Worship (Jan – Jun 1995)

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by John T. Willis
January – June, 1995

The Bible of Jesus and the early church was the Old Testament. Jesus and his disciples quoted and appealed to the Old Testament for their beliefs, way of life, and corporate worship. Not only do the New Testament writers frequently appeal to the Old Testament for religious teaching, they also accept and reassert the content and ideas of the Old Testament. To fail to use the Old Testament, to reject its message, or to deny its basic unity with the New Testament is to oppose the teachings of Jesus, Paul, and all the New Testament writers, because for them the Old Testament was an indispensable witness to God, his mighty works, and his will for humankind.

The Old Testament is filled with teachings about and examples of worship of the one true God. These teachings and examples were authoritative in early Christian worship and played a very important role in that worship.

A study of the history of God’s people reveals a tendency to define worship as ritual performance of specific external acts in a specific manner at a specific place. Some have reduced worship to “five acts”: partaking of the Lord’s Supper, praying, singing, preaching, and giving. They assume that when one performs each of these acts “correctly,” God guarantees approval, acceptance, protection, and security. Such an understanding strokes the worshiper’s ego and makes her or him feel good for doing righteousness before fellow human beings and gaining their applause (see Matthew 6:1-18). It shifts the focus of worship from spiritual motivation, intentions, struggles, and attitudes of heart to physical activities “learned by rote” (see Isaiah 9:13-14). It relieves the worshiper from entering into an ongoing, growing, personal dialogue with God like Job, Jeremiah, and Jesus, encouraging him or her to come to God only in a time of crisis or need (see Jeremiah 2:26-27; 3:22c-25).

The Old Testament books of Genesis through Deuteronomy address this issue. Particularly appropriate to those who loved to boast that they had been circumcised, they point out that although Yahweh had instructed the Israelites through Moses to circumcise every male on the eighth day (Leviticus 12:1-3), he had emphasized that outward circumcision of the flesh has no value without an inward circumcision of the heart (see Leviticus 16:41; Deuteronomy 10:16; 30:6). Similarly, the author of the book of Jeremiah denounces the view of many of his Judean readers that they excelled all other peoples because they had been circumcised, declaring that they are no better than the peoples around them, because while others are uncircumcised in the flesh, they are “uncircumcised in heart” (see Jeremiah 4:3-4; 9:25-27). Likewise, Paul reproved Jewish Christians who boasted in fleshly circumcision, but had never experienced circumcision of the heart, the only “true” and “real” circumcision (see Romans 2:25-29; Colossians 2:11-13; Philippians 3:2-7).

The continuity of thought between the Law, the Prophets, and early Christianity on this fundamental principle of worship is typical of the theological unity of the entire Bible: first one’s heart must be right with God, and only then can her or his external acts of worship be acceptable (see Psalm 51:10, 16-19; Isaiah 1:10-17; Hosea 6:4-6; Micah 6:6-8). This suggests that one’s heart must be baptized into Christ or else external baptism of the body in water cannot be acceptable (Colossians 2:11-13; 1 Peter 3:21).

Emerging from this fundamental principle, the Old Testament reveals insights which illuminate and enrich every aspect of Christian worship:

    1. All creation (Psalm 19:1-4; 98:4-9), everything that breathes (Psalm 150:6), all nations (Psalm 100, 117), all God’s faithful people (Psalm 145:10), and every individual (Psalm 103:1-2) are to praise God for creating, and sustaining them, for giving them strength and protection, and for guiding them through life. This praise is to be continuous (Psalm 113:2) and everywhere (Psalm 113:3). God deserves such praise because his glory is above the heavens (Psalm 113:4; 148:13). Since the Old Testament was the Bible of the early church, praise was a vital aspect of early Christian worship (Acts 2:47; 3:8-9). Christians quoted the Hebrew Bible as authority for this (Psalm 117:1 in Romans 15:11). They declared that everything God did in Christ called for humans to proclaim “the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:6, 12, 14). Thus God’s people are to live “for the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:11).


  • The only appropriate human response to God’s acts and gifts in nature and history is genuine, heartfelt thanksgiving. The Old Testament is full of model expressions of thanksgiving. One psalmist summons God’s people to enter for worship with thanksgiving (Psalm 100:4). Another exhorts his fellows: “Come into his [God’s] presence with thanksgiving,” because he is a great God and a great king above all gods, and the depths of the earth, the heights of the mountains, the sea, and the dry land are his (Psalm 95:2-5). The author of Psalm 107 calls on hungry and thirsty travelers, guilty prisoners, those sick as divine punishment for sin, and sailors once caught in a mighty storm to “thank the Lord for his steadfast love” (verses 6, 13, 19, 28). The early church, following such teachings, thanked God “in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18), “at all times and for everything” (Ephesians 5:20): at mealtimes for their food (Acts 27:35; 1 Timothy 4:3-5); in times of sin and spiritual weakness for strength (1 Timothy 1:12-14); in periods of anxiety and concern for triumphal guidance (2 Corinthians 2:12-14); in death for victory through the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:57).



  • It is natural to complain or lament in times of reversal, loss, stress, and death. The Old Testament contains many complaints or laments, uttered by one who has been hurt or mistreated by enemies (Psalm 55:1-15), or who is experiencing pain because of sins committed (Psalm 38:3-8, 17-18), or who has lost a loved one in death (2 Samuel 1:17-27), or who feels God has forsaken him or her (Psalm 88; 22:1-21). Such laments reveal the worshiper’s honesty in expressing true feelings to God, as well as total dependence on God for resolution or deliverance. Mary, Martha, and Jesus wept and lamented over the death of Lazarus (John 11:31-38). While Jesus was dying on the cross, he complained or lamented that God had forsaken him, quoting Psalm 22:1 (Matthew 27:16; Mark 15:34). Paul appealed to the Lord three times that his “thorn in the flesh” would leave him, complaining because it “tormented” him. But the Lord’s grace enabled him to tolerate it. And through this experience, Paul learned to be “content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10).



  • A major aspect of biblical worship is “remembering” what God has done for his people and for all humankind. “Remembering” does not mean that one recalls intellectually some great deed that God did in the past, but that one “relives” past events in which God worked by some dramatic reenactment of those events, and that this reenactment controls his or her will for daily living. In other words, it means that one has a personal encounter with God in worship, and enters into spiritual communion with him.


Obviously one cannot “remember” a mighty act of God until that event takes place. For example, it was impossible for the Israelites to “remember” that God brought them out of Egyptian bondage through Moses until that event occurred. Likewise, it was impossible for human beings to “remember” Jesus’ death on the cross until that event occurred. Throughout biblical history, new events in which God worked in his world were added as events which God’s people were to “remember.” Since God was at work in each of these events, there is a continuity among them, not a conflict or antagonism.

One outstanding example of this continuity is Jesus’ instituting the Lord’s Supper at appropriate places in the course of the Jewish Passover meal (Matthew 26:17-30; Mark 14:12-26; Luke 22:7-22). This meal began with a prayer of grace, when the individual in charge would bless God for the bread and distribute small pieces of the loaf to the guests. At this point, Jesus compared the broken bread with the sacrifice of his body. After eating the main passover meal, there was a dialogue, then the blessing of God for the wine and a longer blessing of God, in three parts, for the food, the land, and the people. Then a cup of wine was shared by all present. At this point, Jesus compared the wine with the shedding of his blood. In this context, Jesus designates himself as the passover lamb offered for the redemption of all humankind (see John 1:29, 36; 1 Corinthians 5:7-8).

Jesus was born a Jew, and Christianity was born in the matrix of Judaism. The authoritative scriptures of the first century church were the writings of the Old Testament. Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17). Paul admonished Timothy: “Continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you have learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work”: (2 Timothy 3:14-17) Since Timothy had known these “sacred writings” or this “scripture” from childhood, it is clear that Paul is referring to the Old Testament. Paul also wrote: “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4). Like Jesus, his apostles and preachers, and the early church, the Old Testament is the root and foundation of Christian beliefs and practices. It is the heart of Christian worship.Wineskins Magazine

John Willis

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