Contrary to some people’s misguided views, liturgy was not a later ‘add-on’ instituted by a stultified church but was a vital part of Christian worship from the very beginning. The New Testament contains many references to the ongoing practice of liturgical worship as well as actual examples of first century liturgy.
In the book of Acts we find numerous references to the Apostles continuing to observe the Jewish liturgical hours of prayer. They prayed at the Temple (Acts 2:46). Peter and John healed a lame beggar as they “were going up to the temple at the time of prayer, at three in the afternoon” (Acts 3:1). They also observed the liturgical hours of prayer in the privacy of their own homes. In Acts 10:9, we are told that “At noon … Peter went up to the roof to pray”. In Acts 16:25, eight or nine years after the resurrection, we find Paul and Silas continuing to observe the liturgical hours of prayer, even while imprisoned in a Philippian jail: “About midnight, Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God.”
Not only did the Apostles continue to observe the liturgical hours of prayer (structural liturgy), but the New Testament church also continue to engage in verbal liturgy. In Acts 2:42, we read that the early believers “devoted themselves to the Apostle’s teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to THE prayers”. This is how it is written in the original Greek and it is a clear reference to set prayers that were repeated corporately when the believers met for worship. Similarly, in Acts 5:42, the Apostles appointed deacons to administer the distribution of food to the poor, so that they (the Apostles) could continue to “be devoted to THE prayers and to the ministry of the Word.” Once again, this is how it is written in the Greek, and it is a reference to liturgical, set prayers.
Not only do we have these references to the ongoing liturgical practices of the early Christians, but we have many actual examples of first century liturgy quoted within the New Testament letters themselves. Some of them are brief excerpts from well-known liturgy, such as:
“Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you” (Ephesians 5:14)
“To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory forever and ever. Amen.” (1 Timothy 1:17).
“He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed in the world, taken up in glory” (1 Timothy 3:16).
These are just a small sample of the many liturgical quotes contained within the New Testament. Each of these brief statements is believed to be an excerpt from a well-known first century prayer or creed that would have been very familiar to the recipients of the letters. For this reason, modern translators, recognising these as quotes from existing first century liturgy, indent these verses in modern Bibles and print them in verse form.
The New Testament also has several much longer quotes from first century Christian liturgy. For example, Philippians 2 contains a lengthy quote from what appears to be a well-known Christian creed:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
New Testament translators and publishers print this passage in indented verse form, to acknowledge its pre-existence as first century liturgy.
Philippians 2 is not the only extended quote from first century Christian liturgy within the New Testament. Similar liturgical excerpts can be found in Colossians 1:15-20, Hebrews 1:1-3, 1 Peter 2:21-25 and 1 Timothy 3:16.
The New Testament documents leave us in no doubt that liturgical creeds, prayers and hymns formed an integral part of the Christian church’s worship from the very beginning. One must therefore ask the question, if the Apostles and early Christians placed such importance and saw such value in liturgy, why have some modern traditions discarded it completely?
Kevin Simington (B.Th. Dip. Min.) is a theologian, apologist and social commentator. He is the author of 12 books, and his latest, “7 Reasons to Believe”, is now available. Connect with Kevin on Facebook or his website, SmartFaith.net.