Posted on 1 January, 2015 at 19:00 Comments comments (0)


The words worship, synagogue, and church are often misunderstood, misused, and abused, but are nevertheless interwoven into the fabric of Judaism and Christianity, and for just cause.


“Worship” is primary among these words, for without worship there would be no “synagogue” or “church.” The English word worship derives from the idea of “worth” or “worthiness,” for we worship that which we reverence or consider to be of great worth. The British still use the expression “Your Worship” when addressing certain persons of rank and dignity.


Worship has always been conceived in both ceremonial and spiritual terms. For example, Cain, a farmer, and Abel, a shepherd, brought physical products as offerings to God (Genesis 4:2-5). We are told that God accepted Abel’s offering – a lamb – but rejected the vegetables or fruit offered by Cain. We have supposed, perhaps rightly, that God had previously given instructions to men concerning the “ceremonial” worship that they were to bring to Him, but the Bible does not state this. In fact, the Law of Moses, coming much later, while specifying certain animal sacrifices for special events (Leviticus 1; 6:8-13), also allowed offerings of grain and other vegetables along with animal sacrifices as acceptable offerings (Leviticus 2; 6:14-23). The writer of Hebrews says that Abel’s offering was “a better sacrifice” than that of Cain (Hebrews 11:4) because he offered it “by faith” while Cain did not. If Cain’s offering was rejected because it was not an animal, we are not told so in the Bible. The fact is that Abel offered to God a worship which was both “ceremonial” and “spiritual,” but Cain only offered a ceremonial worship. The prophet Malachi railed against the people for offering to God animals which were lame, sick, or otherwise “blemished” (Malachi 1:13-14), showing that they did not honor or revere God. They were in effect saying that they “despised” the table of the Lord (Malachi 1:7). By the careless attention that they gave to their offerings, they demonstrated that, as far as they were concerned, worship could be dispensed with! They said, “My, how tiresome it is!” (Malachi 1:13). Like Cain, their worship lacked “faith,” and was only ceremonial. Jesus would later tell the Gentile woman at Jacob’s well, “God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24).


The second word “synagogue” does not appear in the Old Testament. Its origin is from the times of the exile, after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 586 B.C., but several centuries before Christ. The word itself is from two Greek words meaning “to assemble” or “to congregate.” Jews were apparently permitted to build altars and offer sacrifices in other places (Judges 6:25-26; I Samuel 6:9-10), but national ceremonial worship was authorized only on the altar which stood before the tabernacle or the temple in Jerusalem (cf. John 4:20). But for more than a hundred years following 586 B.C., there was no temple. During that time, faithful Jews could not go up to Jerusalem for the annual feasts (Leviticus 23) or receive the benefits of the Yom Kippur, the annual “day of atonement” (Leviticus 23:26-44). In exile in Babylon, without priests or the ability to offer the ceremonial worship required by the Law of Moses, an alternate plan developed to preserve Jewish beliefs and faith in God. Men of faith became teachers – “rabbis” – and meetings began to take place here and there, assemblies which came to be called “synagogues.” Then when houses were built especially for these assemblies, the houses were also called “synagogues.” These synagogues became the centers of worship and education for faithful Jews. The Lord Jesus, Himself, regularly attended the worship assemblies at the local synagogue in Nazareth, where He also was often asked to read the Holy Scriptures (Luke 4:16-19).


The third word “church” is commonly used to translate the Greek noun “ekklesia,” which for the Greeks of the first century only meant an assembly, paralleling the word synagogue, and is used in Acts 19:39 of “a lawful assembly,” convened for political purposes. Christ used the word ekklesia in Matthew 16:18 when speaking of his own “assembly” that he would build, which would never be “overpowered” by the forces of evil. Paul called this “assembly” the “body” of Christ” (Ephesians 1:22-23). When Paul addressed the divisive manner in which some of the Christians at Corinth were conducting themselves during the weekly gathering of the church, he wrote, “But in giving this instruction, I do not praise you, because you come together not for the better but for the worse. For, in the first place, when you come together as a church [literally, “in the assembly” or “in church”], I hear that divisions exist among you” (I Corinthians 11:17-18}. He continued to say that in such a divisive atmosphere (I Corinthians 11:20) “it is not really to eat the Lord’s Supper” (New Revised Standard Version) or “it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat” (NIV). Indeed, Paul’s meaning is that their unspiritual attitude rendered it impossible to worship God acceptably! Their intent in coming together “in church” was indeed to do that very thing – to eat the Lord’s Supper! But their attitudes made it impossible! So Paul writes, “What! Do you not have houses in which to eat and drink?” Their problem was not in eating and drinking, but rather in the refusal of the “haves” to share with the “have nots”! (11:21-22). If one supposes that the unacceptable worship was because these people were mixing their normal meals with the Lord’s Supper, one will miss the point. In those early times, congregations often met in homes, bringing their food with them, so they would have been eating and drinking at some point. But Paul’s point was that some poor people had no food to bring, while the wealthier members had food to spare, but refused to share it with their poor brothers in Christ (11:22). In such a circumstance, spiritual worship was impossible and the ceremonial worship was unacceptable.


We today are not different from God’s people of ages past. It is possible for us as well to consider “ceremonial” worship to be of more value than “spiritual” worship, or vice versa! While some consider that “going to church” and “going through the motions” is sufficient, others apparently think that they don’t need to “go to church” on a regular basis; they can stay at home and worship during commercials, or worship on the lake, while waiting for the fish to bite. They see no great value in being in the assembly; they reason that God is everywhere! But there is great value in being regular in the assembly of God’s church. In the first place, God’s people are the “body of Christ,” and the body must be joined together (I Corinthians 12). Secondly, the Lord has placed the “Lord’s Supper” in the weekly assembly (Acts 2:42; 20:7; I Corinthians 11:17-34). Finally, but not least, in the assembly we find good teaching, edification, and encouragement to love and help one another. As it is written, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering; for He who promised is faithful, and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another” (Hebrews 10:23-25).


 Donald R. Taylor