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Worship Service Sacrifice
By Anthony D. Palma
The New Testament almost completely avoids using specifically “religious” terms when it talks about Christian worship. The New Testament writers did not use terms that implied ceremony or ritualism, such as leitourgia and latreia, when they spoke about a worship service.
The avoidance of these terms does not mean, of course, that there is to be no order in a worship service, but it does emphasize that true worship is not ritualistically oriented.
Two terms are commonly used: (1) sunerchesthai, “to come together” (1 Corinthians 11:17,18,20,33,34; 14:23,26); and (2) sunagesthai, “to gather together” (Matthew 18:20; Acts 4:31; 20:7,8; 1 Corinthians 5:4). Even in the most “liturgical” book of the New Testament, the writer uses a form of this latter verb when he says, “not forsaking our own assembling together [episunagogen]” (Hebrews 10:25, NASB).1
In the Greek Old Testament, the words leitourgia and latreia are generally used to convey the idea of worship. But a significant change in usage of the two terms takes place in the New Testament. The verb leitourgein and its noun form leitourgia are used with reference to Jewish or Old Testament worship (Luke 1:23; Hebrews 1:7,14; 2:17; 8:2,4,6; 9:21; 10:11,21); but only once is the verb ever used of Christian worship, where Luke speaks of the prophets and teachers at Antioch ministering to the Lord (Acts 13:2).
However, Paul does use religious terms in an apparently nonreligious sense — or at least a nonliturgical sense. He refers to himself as a minister (leitourgon) of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles in the priestly service (hierourgounta) of the gospel of God (Romans 15:16). He speaks of himself being poured out like a libation (spendomai) over the sacrifice (thusia) and service (leitourgia) of the Philippians’ faith (Philippians 2:17).
He also talks about their service to him as leitourgia (2:30) and calls their gift of money an acceptable sacrifice (thusia, 4:18). In another passage, Gentile Christians are called on to be of service (leitourgia) to Jewish Christians by sharing material blessings (Romans 15:27).
What is this saying to us? Its message is that true worship includes service to others.
Similar observations are true regarding the verb latreuein and its noun form latreia. The Old Testament counterpart of this word (‘abodah), when used in connection with God, always signified ritualistic service. Yet, Paul does not use it in this way. Instead, he spiritualizes the term by saying we are to present our bodies to God as a living sacrifice (thusia), and that this constitutes our spiritual service (logike latreia, Romans 12:1). Here again, Paul takes terms like sacrifice and service, which had definite ceremonial connotations, and spiritualizes them.
What then can we learn from this? First, that ceremonialism or ritualism is not an essential element of New Testament worship. Second, that true worship goes beyond the gathering together of God’s people; it must also include service to others.
Anthony D. Palma, Th.D., a longtime Assemblies of God educator, lives in Springfield, Missouri.
1. Scripture quotations taken from the New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. (www.Lockman.org)