1998 Inman Forum

"Some Contemporary Issues

Concerning Worship and the Christian Assembly"

Lecture 1


Chapter 1

THE CHRISTIAN PRIESTHOOD

by Dr. Everett Ferguson

Christianity involved a major change in the idea of worship in the ancient world. Worship to Greeks, Romans, and Jews involved (1) an altar, (2) a temple, (3) a priesthood, and (4) a sacrifice.(1) Worship meant offering a gift to the deity (a sacrifice), a priesthood to preside at the sacrifice and see that it was performed correctly, a sacred space belonging to the deity, usually including a temple to house the cult statue of the deity, and an altar where the sacrifice was offered. (1) An altar was indispensable to a sanctuary, the holy grounds dedicated to the deity, because sacrifice was the central act of worship. A common word in Greek for "altar" literally means "a place of sacrifice." Not every sacred site, not every sanctuary had to have a temple, but an altar was essential. (2) Where there was a temple, the altar was located outside, usually near the entrance; the sacrifice did not occur inside the temple. A temple was located at a holy place and not necessarily for the convenience of worshipers, for it was not a place of assembly for the worshipers. Rather it was the "house of the deity," where the statue was kept. There might also be associated with the temple storage chambers and treasure rooms for the gifts brought to the deity. (3) The priests were in charge of the sanctuary. Attendants at the sanctuary or the worshiper himself might actually perform the sacrifice, but priests knew the proper rituals and supervised the activities, at least at major festivals. (4) The central act of worship in the ancient world was sacrifice, a material offering to the deity. This sacrifice might involve the killing of an animal (part or all of which might be burned, part eaten by the worshipers, and part given to the priest), burning a grain offering or other food stuff, the burning of incense, or the pouring out of a drink offering. The sacrifice was offered on the altar, or in the case of a large animal in proximity to the altar and a symbolic part of the animal was placed on the altar.

The Jewish temple at Jerusalem included these same elements, so the Romans were able to recognize Judaism as a traditional religion. None of these things was visible in Christianity, so Romans had difficulty recognizing Christianity as a religion, a factor that complicated the church's relations with the government. In transforming these ideas associated with religion Christianity was not altogether an innovator, but Christianity did spiritualize these ideas and synthesize them in a way that pagan philosophers and Jews did not.

Christ the Center of Worship

Jesus Christ and the Christian understanding of him brought about the change in the way that worship was performed. Christianity applied the key ideas identified with worship and religion in the ancient world to Jesus Christ. Christ fills for Christians all these functions--altar, temple, priesthood, and sacrifice.(2)

(1) Concerning the altar, Hebrews 13:10 declares, "We have an altar from which those who officiate in the tabernacle have no right to eat." The exact reference of this statement is not clear. It may refer to Christ himself (Heb. 13:12-13), to his sacrifice on the cross (Heb. 13:11-12), or to the heavenly altar where he metaphorically officiates (cf. Heb. 9:11-14). The book of Revelation speaks of an altar in heaven (Rev. 6:9; 8:3). At any rate, the Christian's altar is not a literal, material altar but is associated with the work of Christ.

(2) Concerning the temple, although the book of Hebrews places the temple in heaven (Heb. 9:11-14, 23-24), the Gospel of John identifies Christ himself as a temple. John 2:19 quotes Jesus' saying, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up."(3) The Jews understood this of their temple in Jerusalem, but John, from the perspective of a post-resurrection standpoint, can explain in verse 21, "He was speaking of the temple of his body." So Christ's body was itself a temple. It was killed, but after three days it was raised again. The resurrection was the foundation of a new community, a spiritual temple, but that is to get ahead of myself.

(3) Now for the priesthood: Returning to the book of Hebrews, we find that it presents Christ as the high priest who ministers in the heavenly sanctuary. The author says, chapter 7, verses 26-27: "For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself." The passage continues in chapter 8, verses 1-2: "Now the main point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a minister in the sanctuary and the true tabernacle that the Lord, and not any mortal, has set up." Christ is our high priest, "the great priest over the house of God" (Heb. 10:21). He officiates in the heavenly tabernacle, not in an earthly holy place.

(4) Moreover, in regard to the sacrifice, Christ, in addition to being the priest who offers the sacrifice, is himself the victim that is sacrificed. Christ is the once-for-all atoning sacrifice for sin. Hebrews 9:26b says, "He has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself." The author of Hebrews continues in chapter 10, verse 10: "And it is by God's will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all," and then in verse 12, "When Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, `he sat down at the right hand of God.'" All the sin offerings of the Old Testament reached their completion in Christ's death on the cross. He offered his "blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption" (Heb. 9:12; cf. 13:20). With his sacrifice the whole system of atonement in the Old Testament was brought to a close. As the perfect sacrifice, Christ made superfluous all the animal and other material sacrifices of the Mosaic dispensation.

For the moment, we may summarize what has been said by observing that Christ has fulfilled what worship meant in the ancient world. His body that was resurrected is the temple, and he is the priest offering himself as the sacrifice in the heavenly temple.

Christians United with Christ

Turning from consideration of Christ, we give attention now to Christians. One of the amazing and wonderful teachings of the New Testament is that Christians are incorporated into Christ. They are so united with him that in some sense they become what he is, not in nature of course, but in status and privileges. Early in the book of Hebrews the basis of this teaching is given. Christ has become what we are; he has identified himself with us. This is the theme of chapter 2:10-18. Verse 14 says, "Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil." Then verse 17, "Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God." These statements explain the earlier declaration in verse 11 that "the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified are all of one." Hence, "Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters."

The idea of the solidarity of Christ with his people is expressed under other imagery elsewhere in the New Testament. In John 15:5 Jesus says, "I am the vine, you are the branches." And Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:12,27 speaks of Christ as the body and Christians as members of the body.(4) What Christ is, Christians are--by reason of being joined to him.

In a similar way, even as Christ is the temple, so Christians, the church, are called a temple. 1 Corinthians 3:16, "Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you?" 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 speaks of the bodies of individual Christians as temples of the Holy Spirit: "Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body." The predominant usage of the New Testament, however, is to speak as does 1 Corinthians 3:16 of the church as the temple. Ephesians 2:21-22, "In Christ the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together into a dwelling place for God in the Spirit." Remember what a temple was in the ancient word. It was the house of the deity; it housed the cult statue. It was not a place of meeting. Even in Judaism there was a comparable significance. There was no statue in the temple in Jerusalem, but the temple symbolized the presence of God with his people. The temple language in the New Testament bears the same meaning. The temple is the dwelling place of God. Only that temple is not now a physical structure but a community of people. The church is where God's presence is especially manifested in the world. He dwells in his people through his Spirit that is within them. Even as Christ was the temple of God among people, so now Christ's people through their union with him become the temple of God in which he lives. The passage in Ephesians stresses that this occurs in Christ by saying twice that it is "in him" that the whole building is joined together and that we are built into God's dwelling place.

Not only are we a temple in Christ, but through union with him we become a priesthood. He is the high priest, as we have seen from Hebrews. When joined to him, we share his priestly status. 1 Peter 2:5 introduces three of the four concepts in the ancient world associated with worship as applying to Christians: "Let yourselves be built into a spiritual house ["house' was a regular word in the ancient world for a temple], to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices." 1 Peter 2:9 picks up the language of priesthood: "You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people." According to Revelation 1:6, Christ "made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father" (cf. 5:10). Individual Christians are not called priests, but collectively they form a priesthood. And they are a priesthood because they are united to Christ, the high priest. As a priesthood, Christians have spiritual sacrifices to offer, but let us hold the development of that point for a moment and draw out some implications for Christians of this spiritual transformation of the ancient world's language of worship. Let us consider,

The Meaning of Christ for Christian Worship

The facts that Christ fills the functions of altar, temple, priesthood, and atoning sacrifice for Christians and that these functions are extended to Christians in a spiritual sense through their union with Christ have often been ignored by Christians through the ages. As human beings we keep trying to return to pagan and Old Testament models of a holy place, priests, and certain actions to appease God. Nevertheless, the spiritual interpretations of worship and religion in the New Testament have some important consequences for the way Christians view worship and the religious life. In order to warn us against returning to old ways of thinking, let me take these consequences up in the same terms in which we have presented the elements of worship in the pagan world and in the same order in which we have discussed them.

Christians have no sacred place, no material temple or earthly altar. Jesus addressed this subject in talking with the Samaritan woman at the well, as recorded in John 4. The woman raised the question with Jesus by observing that her ancestors worshiped on the mountain in Samaria near where they were talking, but the Jews say that people must worship in Jerusalem. Jesus replied, in John 4:21, "Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem" and then in verse 23, "But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him." In spite of churches that call their meeting places a sanctuary, which means a place that is sanctified or made holy, Christians have no special sacred space, no sanctuary. Even people who ought to know better, such as Baptists (at least in my part of the country) speak of their worship centers as "sanctuaries." And as a critic has observed, "If Baptists are doing it, can Churches of Christ be far behind?" As we will see in lecture three, auditorium may not be much better as a term to describe our place of meeting. It would be better to say simply "meeting house" for the building as a whole and "meeting room" or assembly hall for the specific place of gathering. In keeping with the same thought, there is no place for the language of altar within the meeting place.

Christians are themselves the temple. The New Testament put no emphasis on the place of meeting: It might be a house, a synagogue, the courts of the temple, or some other place. Wherever the community gathered, God was there. The holiness was in the people united with Christ not in the place where they met, and their meeting at a place imparted no special sanctity to the place apart from the meeting itself.

What applies to space applies also to time. Christians have no sacred times--no holy days or seasons. Paul in Colossians 2:16 draws from the cancellation of the debt of sin by reason of the cross of Christ the following conclusion: "Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths." He refers to the three kinds of religious observances in Judaism--annual, monthly, and weekly.(5) Romans 14:5-6 probably refers to differences among Jewish and Gentile Christians in their estimate of the Sabbath: "Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord." Galatians 4:9-11 considers the "observing special days, and months, and seasons, and years" to becoming enslaved again to "weak and beggarly elemental spirits."

Christians do have a day of assembly, the first day of the week, made special by the resurrection of Jesus. But Sunday is not a holy day or a "Christian sabbath" as some have tried to make it. The Sabbath commandment to rest was not carried over and applied to a new day in the New Testament. It was not until the time of Constantine that Sunday became a legal holiday. Having a holiday on Sunday makes it easier for Christians to fulfill the exhortation to meet together, but the meeting on this day does not make it more holy than another day, any more than meeting in a given structure makes it more holy than other buildings. I would consider the observing of Thanksgiving or Christmas or other days as civil or family celebrations, not church celebrations, not to fall under these prohibitions.

Nor do Christians have a sacred class of ministers. As we read earlier, 1 Peter 2:5 and 9 identify the whole Christian people as a priesthood. The latter verse, "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people," is based on Exodus 19:5-6, where God promised to Israel that if they would keep his covenant they would be his "treasured possession out of all peoples" and "a priestly kingdom and a holy nation." It is often argued that the whole nation of Israel had a priestly status in relation to the other peoples of the world, but that this was not inconsistent with there being a special class of priests within Israel, taken from the tribe of Levi, so the church could be a priestly people and yet have priests within it. This is correct so far as it goes, but it omits a crucial difference. In the Mosaic law there was express divine appointment of a special class of priests with detailed instructions about their choice, appointment, and duties. The New Testament, in contrast, is silent about a special class of priests. There is no appointment of priestly functionaries, nor a description of the leaders of the church in priestly terms. The development of priestly language for ministers is a post-New Testament development in the history of the church.

The function of priests is to offer gifts and sacrifices. The Christian priests, however, do not offer sacrifices that are consumed. Their sacrifices are "spiritual sacrifices" according to 1 Peter 2:5. What are the sacrifices of the Christian priest?

Sacrifices of the Christian Priesthood(6)

The language of sacrifice is used in the New Testament with reference to several Christian activities. The book of Hebrews offers two significant statements about spiritual sacrifice.

(1) One says that praise to God is a sacrifice. Hebrews 13:15 says, "Through Christ, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is the fruit of lips that confess his name." The Psalms had already identified thanksgiving as a sacrifice: 50:14, "Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving," and 50:23, "Those who bring thanksgiving as their sacrifice honor me." The Greek translation of the Psalms uses the same phrase as Hebrews, "sacrifice of praise." The phrase "fruit of lips" comes from Hosea 14:2. Notice that this sacrifice is offered through Christ; he is the heavenly high priest. The sacrifice of praise is "continually" available; it is not restricted to certain set times. This sacrifice is not the fruit or product of plants or animals, but comes from the voice, the spoken word. The human lips make acknowledgment or confession to God.

(2) Not only praise to God, but also good deeds to other human beings are a sacrifice to God. Hebrews 13:16 continues, "Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God." Do not be forgetful about benevolence, the author says. The word for "sharing what you have" is the word often translated "fellowship," but its most frequent usage in the New Testament is for a contribution of money or material goods. To do good for others is to serve God. We love God by loving his people. As 1 John 4:20 expresses it, "For those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen." The word for "pleasing" recalls an idea important in the Bible, namely doing what is pleasing, or well-pleasing, to God.(7) He is the one we seek to please in our offerings, not ourselves or others. But he is pleased when we share our possessions with others. Such is not only a blessing to a person in need but is also a sacrifice to God.

(3) Furthermore, support for preachers is a sacrifice. Paul uses sacrificial language to describe the gifts the Christians in Philippi had sent to him in order to support his apostolic ministry. Philippians 4:18, "I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God." The funds sent to Paul helped sustain his work of preaching the gospel. The financial gift from the Philippians was a sacrifice. In addition to describing it as a sacrifice pleasing to God, Paul adds two other descriptions from the Old Testament language of sacrifice: "a sweet smelling fragrance"(8) and "acceptable."(9)

(4) If the support of preaching may be called a sacrifice, so may the work of preaching itself. Earlier in Philippians Paul had drawn on sacrificial ritual to describe the pouring out of his life in order to spread the gospel. Philippians 2:17, "But even if I am being poured out as a libation over the sacrifice and the offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you." A drink offering was often poured out in connection with other sacrifices.(10) Paul compared his own emptying of his life in the service of preaching to a libation, the pouring out of a drink offering. He perhaps viewed the faith of the Philippians that resulted from his preaching as a sacrifice he himself offered to God, or perhaps he means faith is the Philippians' own sacrifice to God.

Paul's most extensive use of sacrificial language for his apostolic ministry of preaching occurs in Romans 15:16, Grace was given me by God "to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit." The terms for priesthood and sacrifice are piled up: "minister" is a word sometimes used for a priestly servant in the Greek Old Testament;(11) "priestly service" is a rarer word, meaning "act as a priest," "do holy work"; "offering" is the common word for sacrificial gifts;(12) "acceptable" is a strengthened form of the word used in Philippians 4:18 and refers in 1 Peter 2:5 to sacrifices well pleasing or "very acceptable" to God; and "sanctified" is common for setting apart persons or things for the service of God.(13) If one brackets out Paul's specifically apostolic mission to the Gentiles, this language might be considered a basis for calling a preacher a "priest," for preaching is a priestly ministry. However, such language is never extended in the New Testament to evangelists, and the use of a title is different from describing a work in metaphorical terms, for the use of the title makes a function concrete and no longer descriptive or comparative.(14)

(5) The Christian life is a sacrifice. 1 Peter 2:5 does not specify the nature of the "spiritual sacrifices" offered by the "holy priesthood," but presumably because of the moral teachings in the letter Christian moral conduct is at least included in the phrase. The description "spiritual sacrifices" is equivalent to the "rational worship" of Romans 12:1. Both passages are referring to the highest part of human nature, the reasoning, spiritual faculty that is capable of communicating with the divine. Romans 12:1 identifies the whole self as a sacrifice to God: "I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship." The verb "to present" was commonly used in the Greek world for bringing a sacrifice to a deity. The animal was killed and offered to the deity. The Christian, however, does not bring the body of dead animals to offer to God. The Christian brings his or her own body and presents it as a living sacrifice, not a dead sacrifice. The decision to do this is an act of the reasoning, spiritual nature of a person. This is the "holy," "sanctified" offering that to God is "well pleasing," the same adjective as in Philippians 4:18 and in the verb form in Hebrews 13:16. This is a worship or service to God that comes from the rational part of a person's being and so represents the self that is offered to God. This rational nature is expressed by the word "mind" in verse 2. That verse adds the thought that the giving of the body in worship to God means not being conformed to the "world," or "to this age." The renewing of the mind enables one to discern and approve the "will of God" and so to live accordingly. This worship that is according to the will of God is "good," "pleasing" once again, and "perfect" or "complete."

Implications for Worship and Assembly

This teaching in Romans 12:1-2 agrees with the language elsewhere in the New Testament. The words used in the Greek and Jewish world for worship at a temple or the performing of religious duties are used in the New Testament for the Christian moral life and for good deeds.(15) We do not have the time to pursue this word usage at this time, but any New Testament word study will bear out the point. Therefore, worship for the Christian is not confined to what is done in the church assemblies. However, those assemblies are an important part of the Christian's total service and worship to God.

The perspective presented in this lesson about spiritual worship does not make the assembly unimportant; rather it places it in a larger perspective. If we think of the church as a temple, then it is when we come together that we show forth the church as the true spiritual temple in which God dwells. Christians as a holy priesthood, who offer spiritual sacrifices, are also a spiritual house (1 Pet. 2:5). We demonstrate this corporate or community dimension of our existence as a "chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people" (1 Pet. 2:9) when we meet together. In assembly we show that we are a people, a community. The very meaning of the word "church," ekklesia, is assembly. To be a church, we must often be "in assembly." That is what it is "to be church."

A large number of passages speak of Christians coming together, gathering together, assemblying, or being together in the same place.(16) For instance, notice some verses just in Acts about how frequently the Christians are described as meeting together: Acts 2:44, "All who believed were together" or "were in the same place"; Acts 4:31, "When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaking"; Acts 11:26, "For a whole year they were gathered together in church and taught a great multitude"; Acts 12:12, "[Peter] went to the house of Mary . . . where many had gathered and were praying"; Acts 14:27, "And when they arrived, they called the church together and related all that God had done with them"; Acts 15:30, "When they gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter"; Acts 20:7-8, "On the first day of the week, when we met to break bread, Paul was holding a discussion with them . . . . There were many lamps in the room upstairs where we were meeting." So, I would suggest you do a concordance study if you want to be impressed with the importance of the assembly for Christians.

A form of one of these words for gathering together is used for the assembly of the Lord's people when he comes again. 2 Thessalonians 2:1, "As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him." And Mark 13:27, "He will . . . gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven" (also Matt. 24:31). The assemblies of the church in the present anticipate this universal assembly at the end of time. The word church can be used in the New Testament not only for local assemblies but also for the universal people of God, although we are not actually in assembly in this life, because such usage is an anticipation of this great assembly.

Several of the other passages on the assembly cluster in 1 Corinthians 11 and 14, and to these we will turn in subsequent lessons on the purposes of the assembly and misunderstandings of the assembly. For now, let us close with the reminder that participating in the assembly is part of our rational or spiritual sacrifice, the presenting of our bodies as living sacrifices to God, the presenting of ourselves, whose lives are not conformed to the world but transformed by Jesus Christ. While living in this manner, we look forward to the universal assembly of God's people when Christ comes again.


1. 1For Greek and Roman religious practices see my Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), pp. 137-298, esp. pp. 149-150, 157-159, 172-184 for the features singled out in this chapter.RETURN TO TEXT

2. 2See my book The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), pp. 215-217, 218-220.RETURN TO TEXT

3. 3Some such statement, misapplied, was used against Jesus at his trial--see Mark 15:58.RETURN TO TEXT

4. 4Everett Ferguson, The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today, pp. 91-103, 121-122.RETURN TO TEXT

5. 51 Chron. 23: 2 Chron. 2:4; 8:13; 3:3.RETURN TO TEXT

6. 6Everett Ferguson, The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today, pp. 222-226.RETURN TO TEXT

7. 7Associated with sacrifice in Mic. 6:7-8; Mal. 1:8; for a broader context in the New Testament, 2 Cor. 5:9; Eph. 5:10; Heb. 12:28; 13:21.RETURN TO TEXT

8. 8Gen. 8:21; Ex. 29:18; Ezek. 20:41. In the New Testament, Eph. 5:2 and 2 Cor. 2:14-15.RETURN TO TEXT

9. 9E.g., Lev. 1:4; 19:5; Isa. 56:7: 60:7; not acceptable in Jer. 6:20.RETURN TO TEXT

10. 10Ex. 37:16; Num. 28:7, 24; 2 Kings 16:13.RETURN TO TEXT

11. 11Ezra 7:24; Neh. 10:39; Ps. 103:21; specifically for priests in Isa. 61:6 and in the Apocrypha, Sirach 7:30-31.RETURN TO TEXT

12. 12Note Isa. 66:20 for the Gentiles as an offering to God.RETURN TO TEXT

13. 13E.g., Ex. 29:44; Lev. 8:11-12; Ezek. 37:28; 48:11.RETURN TO TEXT

14. 14Cf. Jesus' prohibition of the title "Father" among his followers (Mt. 23:9) with Paul's description of his making converts as being a father to them (1 Cor. 4:15).RETURN TO TEXT

15. 15See my book The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today, pp. 208-212.RETURN TO TEXT

16. 16See The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today, pp. 231-233.RETURN TO TEXT


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