Assembly in the New Testament

02forangeSomeone asked me to continue this study, not putting on the brakes when I hit the end of Malachi. I’ll do my best, as long as everyone continues to contribute. I’ll be in Cuba for a week or so, so you’ll have time to comment.

Jesus and his early followers were Jews. They attended the synagogue; they participated in daily temple activities; they participated in feasts. The early church was very Jewish. They continued following Jewish behavior for many years (Acts 21:20).

It’s amazing how little is said about the assembly in the New Testament. To be fair, some have suggested that since the letters were intended to be read to the assembled church, much of what is said can be assumed to be directed toward assembly behavior. I’m not convinced, but I’ll mention that argument out of fairness (or an attempt at the same).

1 Corinthians discusses the assembly. Hebrews 10 talks about “assembling” (sorry folks… the term “forsaking the assembly” isn’t in there). We have Acts 2:42-47 and Acts 20:7-12. And that’s about it (let’s throw in Matthew 18:17 for good measure).

Fill in the gaps for me. What am I missing?

Assembly and Synagogues

This series of posts is attempting to see what the Bible has to say about assemblies in the worship of God. That’s being done in an attempt to answer the question of whether or not God intended Christianity to be built around a series of weekly assemblies or not. I was encouraged to re-examine what the Old Testament says about assembly, which is what I’ve been trying to do. Thanks to all who’ve been helping.

This week I want to look at the synagogue system. “But that’s not Old Testament,” you wisely observe. That’s true. The synagogue system was not established in Scripture, but grew up out of necessity. When the Israelites found themselves in captivity, with their temple in ruins, they developed a series of assemblies which continue through the present time; that’s the synagogue system.

According to Jewish sources, the synagogue is primarily a place of prayer. It is also a place for the reading and exposition of Scripture. It required the presence of ten males and followed a set pattern of activities. It is built around three times of daily prayer, although special services take place on feast days and sabbaths.

Jesus attended synagogues, as did the apostles and early Christians. Does that mean that God approved of this “innovation”? Did the synagogue become the pattern for early Christian worship? Should it be a pattern for what Christians do?

Assembly and Holy Places

tab20All right, a little cajoling and we get some serious discussion going. Let’s continue our study of assembly in the Old Testament. Please join in, especially if you spot a mistake!

I want to look at the holy places that God appointed for worship: the tabernacle and the temple. In theory, the activities were to be the same in both. The basic activities (some of this taken from this website: THE ROUTINE SERVICE OF THE TABERNACLE) were:

  • Daily — The high priest was to replenish the oil-lamps of the seven-branch candlestick, and offer incense before the vail, every morning and evening: and on the great altar, he was to offer a lamb in sacrifice every morning and evening.
  • Weekly — On the Sabbath day, the daily sacrifice was to be doubled.
  • Monthly — On the first day of the month there was to be a large addition to the daily sacrifice. There were to be seven lambs, two young bullocks, and one ram, besides the daily lamb of the morning and evening; and these additional burnt offerings were to be accompanied by proportional meat offerings and wine offerings in the quantities specified (Num. 28:11-14) in addition to which, there was to be an offering of one kid of the goats for a sin offering.

In addition, there were annual services related to the feasts, which we discussed in the last post. As for the average worshiper, his interaction with the tabernacle had to do with what is seen in Numbers 29: “In addition to what you vow and your freewill offerings, prepare these for the LORD at your appointed feasts: your burnt offerings, grain offerings, drink offerings and fellowship offerings.” (Numbers 29:39) We see from later use (like Solomon, Daniel, etc.) that the Israelites understood that their prayers were to be directed toward this holy place. They also began to come to the temple to pray there (Luke 18:10). At some point, the Jews developed the practice of three daily times of prayer in the temple, one of which coincided with the evening sacrifice (Acts 3:1).

The primary purpose of the “holy places” was not for assembly, although assembly did take place there. How would you relate all of this to our day? [If you want to discuss “the priesthood of all believers” in relation to this, please include Exodus 19:6 in the discussion] Do the practices and commands surrounding the tabernacle and the temple teach us anything about our worship today, especially our coming together to worship?

Assembly and Feasts

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As Bob and I continue our study of what the Bible says about “assembly,” we’d like to invite some of the rest of you to join in with us. :-) Actually, I know that this is summer, and we all have unusual schedules. I’ll continue on with this study and hope that anyone that wants to comment on any part of it will feel free to chime in.

I wasn’t sure which order to look at things in, but Bob mentioned the festivals, so that seems like a logical continuing place. You can make a strong argument that Old Testament religion was feast-driven. As Deuteronomy 16:16 says, there were three times when all men were required to assemble: “Three times a year all your men must appear before the LORD your God at the place he will choose: at the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Weeks and the Feast of Tabernacles.” They had other special days, but these three days were the unifying points of their religion and their nation, the time when all able-bodied men were to gather in a designated place (first Shiloh, later Jerusalem).

There were other days that were holy days, community celebrations, that did not involved a national assembly. The Law says of these days: “These are the appointed feasts of the LORD, which you shall proclaim as times of holy convocation, for presenting to the LORD food offerings, burnt offerings and grain offerings, sacrifices and drink offerings, each on its proper day, besides the LORD’s Sabbaths and besides your gifts and besides all your vow offerings and besides all your freewill offerings, which you give to the LORD.” (Lev 23:37-38 ESV)

It seems to me, and please feel free to correct, that the Law envisioned the Israelites living in a situation where every man could come to “the appointed place” several times a year. Sacrifices and offerings had to be made and could not be made just anywhere. There were priests and Levites throughout the land, yet the tabernacle/temple was the designated place for worship.

What, if anything, does this say to us about our Christian worship?

Assembly & Sabbath

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In the comments section for the last post, a wonderful suggestion was made: reexamine what the Old Testament says about assemblies, particularly weekly assemblies. As I expressed there, my special interest is not just looking at what people did in the Old Testament, but what God told them to do.

The concept of the Sabbath goes back to creation, when God rested from His work on the 7th day. Beginning in Exodus 16, He tells His people to observe the 7th day of the week as a day of rest. That’s what Sabbath was about: rest. People were to refrain from all unnecessary work and allow their servants and animals to do the same. The Israelites were to keep the Sabbath holy by refraining from work.

Leviticus 23:3 calls the Sabbath “a holy convocation.” This could mean an assembly. However, when people were reprimanded in the prophets for failing to observe the Sabbath, they were never charged with “forsaking the assembly.” They were accused of working on the Sabbath.

During the Babylonian exile, the synagogue system was developed. People began to meet there for instruction in the Scriptures. Eventually they began to come together there each Sabbath. This was not because of divine instruction, but because men chose to do it that way.

Modern Jews are encouraged to meet on the Sabbath, but the assembly is not considered to be the main point of the day of rest.

When looking for a biblical emphasis on a weekly assembly, we’ll have to look elsewhere. The Sabbath doesn’t provide justification for such an emphasis.