Within the past few decades, a new form of worship has become widely popular among Christians. Where before people would sing hymns accompanied by an organ, then listen to a sermon, in this new worship there are praise bands that use rock band instruments, short, catchy praise songs, sophisticated Powerpoint presentations, and the pastor giving uplifting practical teachings about having a fulfilling life as a Christian. This new kind of worship is so popular that people come to these services by the thousands. They go because the services are fun, exciting, easy to understand, and easy to relate to. Yet this new style of worship is light years away from the more traditional and liturgical Orthodox style of worship. How does an Orthodox Christian respond to this new worship? Is it acceptable or is it contrary to Orthodoxy? How should an Orthodox Christian respond to an invitation to attend these contemporary Christian services?
According to the Pattern
First we need to ask: Is there a guiding principle for right worship? St. Stephen, the first martyr, gave a sermon about the history of the Jewish nation. In this sermon he notes that Old Testament worship was “according to the pattern.”
Our forefathers had the tabernacle of the Testimony with them in the desert. It had been made as God directed Moses, according to the pattern he had seen. (Acts 7:44 NIV, italics added).
This phrase comes up again in the book of Hebrews.
They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. This is why Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: “See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.” (Hebrews 8:5 NIV, italics added)
The phrase is a reference to Exodus 24:15-18 when Moses went up on Mt. Sinai and spent forty days and forty nights up there. On Mt. Sinai Moses was in the direct presence of God receiving instructions about how to order the life of the new Jewish nation. Thus, the guiding principle for Old Testament worship was not creative improvisation nor adapting to contemporary culture but imitation of the heavenly prototype.
The next question is: What is the biblical pattern for worship? In Exodus 25 to 31, Moses received instruction concerning the construction of the Ark of the Covenant, the Tabernacle, the lamp stand, the altar for burnt offerings, the altar for incense, the anointing oil, the vestments for the priests, and the consecration of the priests. The principle of “according to the pattern” was repeated several times in the design specifications for the Tabernacle (Exodus 25:8, 25:40, 26:30, 27:8). This was the template for the spiritual identity of the Jewish people. To be a faithful Jew meant that one offered to Yahweh the proper sacrifices in the prescribed manner.
Despite the clearly laid out instructions in Exodus and Leviticus, the Israelites struggled to keep to the biblical pattern of worship. The struggle to maintain the right worship of Yahweh in the face of temptations to follow the idolatrous ways of the non-Jewish nations is a theme running through Old Testament history. The sin of the golden calf in Exodus 32 was not the sin of heresy (wrong doctrine), but the sin of false worship. When the northern tribes broke from Judah, Jeroboam did not create a new theology, instead he had two golden calves made and appointed non-Levites to be priests as a way of consolidating his rule (II Kings 12:25-33). II Chronicles is a history of the struggle to maintain fidelity to Yahweh by holding to the biblical worship. II Chronicles 21 to 24 relates how a bad king—Jehoram—led the Israelites astray through Ba’al worship and a good king—Josiah—brought them back through the restoration of the Passover sacrifice. Apostasy in Old Testament times meant abandoning Yahweh for other gods and the chief means was the sin of idolatry (wrong worship). The lesson here is that right worship was critical for a right relationship with God.
Thus, orthodoxy —right worship—in the Old Testament meant keeping to the pattern of worship that Yahweh revealed to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Right worship was also key to Israel’s covenant identity. This suggests that right worship is key to our Christian identity. By studying how worship was defined in the Old Testament and comparing it with the Orthodox liturgy we can better understand why Orthodox worship is the way it is and how contemporary worship has strayed far from biblical worship.
Where Does Orthodox Worship Come From?
Worship in the Orthodox Church is patterned after the Old Testament Temple. Typically, an Orthodox church has three main areas: the narthex (entry hall), the nave (the central part), and the altar area. This is similar to the Old Testament Tabernacle which consisted of the Outer Court, the Holy Place, and the Most Holy Place (Exodus 26:30-37, 27:9-19; I Kings 6:14-36; II Chronicles 3 and 4). The layout of Orthodox churches may seem strange to those who attend contemporary services, but it is patterned after the Old Testament Temple. As a matter of fact, Orthodox church buildings are often referred to as temples.
When we enter into an Orthodox Church we are entering into sacred space much like the Old Testament Tabernacle. When I go to an Orthodox church on Sunday, I enter into the narthex, a small entry room. I light a candle in front of the sacred image of Jesus Christ and commit my life to Christ in preparation for worship. The short time I spend in the narthex helps me to shift my mind from the world outside to the heavenly worship inside.
Then I enter into the nave, the large central part of the church building where the congregation gathers for worship. All around me I see sacred images of Christ, the saints, and the angels. This is patterned after the Jewish Temple which had images of angels, trees, and flowers carved on the walls (I Kings 6:29; II Chronicles 3:5-7). Up in the front is a wall of sacred images (the iconostasis). In the middle of this wall is a door with a gate across it. This wall of images is patterned after the curtain that separated the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place in the Jewish Temple (Exodus 26:31-33; I Kings 6:31-35). Behind this is the altar area where the Eucharist is celebrated. Just as the Jewish high priests offered sacrifices in the Most Holy Place at the Jerusalem Temple, the Orthodox priests offer up the spiritual sacrifice of Christ’s body and blood at the altar. The altar area also symbolizes Paradise, the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve enjoyed deep communion with God before the Fall. We receive Holy Communion in front of the altar reminding us that we have been restored to communion with God through Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross.
Orthodox worship is also patterned after the worship in heaven. At the start of the second half of the Divine Liturgy the church sings:
Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord of Hosts, heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.
This is a participation of the heavenly worship described in Isaiah 6:3 and Revelation 4:8. For the Orthodox Church this point of the Divine Liturgy is not so much an imitation as a participation in the heavenly worship.
Another way Orthodox worship is patterned after the heavenly worship is the use of incense. Incense was very much a part of the heavenly worship. In his vision of God, Isaiah describes how as the angels sang: “Holy, Holy, Holy” the doors shook and the temple in heaven was filled with incense (Isaiah 6:4). The Apostle John in Revelation describes how the angels in heaven held bowls full of incense and how the heavenly Temple was filled with incense smoke (Revelation 5:8, 8:3-4, 15:8).
The vestments worn by Orthodox priests are patterned after the Old Testament and the heavenly prototype. The entire chapter 28 in Exodus contains instruction on the making of priestly vestments. In heaven, Christ and the angels wear the priestly vestments (Revelation 1:13, 15:6). The vestments are more than pretty decorations, rather they are meant to manifest the dignity and the beauty of holiness that adorns God’s house.
Old Testament Prophecies of Orthodox Worship
Orthodox worship is more than an imitation of Old Testament worship. It is also a fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies. The Old Testament prophets besides describing the coming Messiah also described worship in the Messianic Age. Within the book of Malachi is a very interesting prophecy:
My name will be great among the nations, from the rising to the setting of the sun. In every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to my name, because my name will be great among the nations, says the Lord. (Malachi 1:11)
The phrase “from the rising to the setting of the sun” is a poetic way of saying from east to west—everywhere. Here we have a prophecy that the worship of God which was formerly confined to Jerusalem would in the future become universal. This was confirmed by Jesus in his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well. In response to her question whether Jerusalem or Mt. Gerizim was the proper place for worship (John 4:19), Jesus answered that in the Messianic Age true worship would not depend on location but on worship of the Trinity. His statement about worshiping the Father in spirit (Holy Spirit) and truth (Jesus Christ) (John 4:23-24) is a teaching that true worship is worship of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
What is striking about Malachi’s prophecy is the reference to incense. Where before incense was offered in the Jerusalem Temple, in the Messianic Age incense would be offered by the non-Jews. One of the most vivid memories many first time visitors have of Orthodox worship is the smell of incense. Incense is burned at every Orthodox service. In the Roman Catholic Church incense is used in the high Mass but not in most services. Most Evangelical and Pentecostal churches do not use incense at all. Thus, whenever an Orthodox priest swings the censer and the sweet fragrance fills the church one experiences a direct fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy. Protestants may complain about how strange incense is, but they should realize that the use of incense was an integral part of Old Testament worship and is one of the key markers of authentic biblical worship in the Messianic Age.
Malachi’s prophecy about “pure offerings” is a reference to the Eucharist. The Jewish rabbis taught that when the Messiah comes all sacrifices would be abolished with the exception of one, the Todah or Thanksgiving sacrifice. This was fulfilled in the sacrament of the Eucharist, that is, the last supper Christ had with his followers when he gave thanks over the bread and the wine (Luke 22:17-20). The word eucharist comes from the Greek word ευχαριστειν, “to give thanks.” Jesus’ statement about the cup of the new covenant meant that he was about to inaugurate the Messianic Age. The Eucharist is a remembrance of Christ’s death on the cross as well as a participation in Christ’s body and blood (I Corinthians 10:16-17). Thus, the Eucharist—the pure offerings—is another key sign of right worship in the Messianic Age.
In the last chapter of Hebrews is a strange verse that many Evangelicals and Protestants skip over:
We have an altar from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat (Hebrews 13:10; emphasis added).
What the author is asserting here is that the priests and Levites working at the Jerusalem Temple have no access to the Christian Eucharist. The Eucharist is only for those who confess Jesus as the promised Messiah and his death on the cross as the ultimate Passover sacrifice. The reference to the altar tells us the early Christians celebrated the Eucharist on real altars and that they had priests.
Protestants today have the habit of calling the platform area altars and spiritual songs as sacrifice. This involves a significant spiritualizing of the meaning of Hebrews 13:10. Furthermore, if we take this spiritualizing approach the phrase “have no right to eat” would not make sense. In the early Church if one did not confess Jesus as Christ, one could not receive the Eucharist. Contemporary Protestant worship on the other hand welcomes everybody and makes no distinction between believers and nonbelievers in its worship. In short, the early Church’s worship style was radically different from Protestant churches that have dispensed with the altar and the idea of the Eucharist as a spiritual sacrifice. To those who advocate contemporary worship, the Orthodox Christian can reply: We have an altar, where is yours?
An Evangelical or Charismatic visiting an Orthodox service might object to the Eucharist on the grounds that it is a re-presenting of Christ’s once and for all sacrifice. First of all, this argument comes from the Protestant debate against Roman Catholicism. Orthodoxy is not the same as Roman Catholicism. Second, the idea of the Eucharist as a re-presenting of Christ’s blood is contrary to the teachings of the Orthodox Church. In the Liturgy, the priest prays: “Once again we offer You this spiritual worship without the shedding of blood….” (Kezios p. 25; italics added).
For the Apostle Paul the Eucharist was just as important as the Gospel message. As he went about planting churches across the Roman Empire, Paul taught them the Good News of Jesus Christ and how to celebrate the Eucharist. This can be seen in Paul’s formal phrasing: “For I received from the Lord what I also pass on to you….” in I Corinthians 11:23 for the Eucharist and in I Corinthians 15:3 for the Good News (Gospel). Paul’s phrase: “What I received from the Lord….” parallels that in Exodus 25:9: “exactly like the pattern I will show you.” The infrequent celebration of the Eucharist in Evangelical and Pentecostal worship shows how far they have moved from historic Christian worship.
Another prophetic sign of worship in the Messianic Age is the priesthood. The last chapter of Isaiah contains a prophecy about the time when knowledge of Yahweh would become universal among the Gentiles and God would make priests of non-Jews.
And I will select some of them also to be priests and Levites, says the Lord. (Isaiah 66:21 NIV;emphasis added)
Part of this great ingathering would be the consecration of Gentiles to the priesthood. This was fulfilled when Jesus gave the Great Commission to the apostles (Matthew 28:19-20). Paul understood his work of evangelism as a “priestly duty” (Romans 15:16). In Isaiah is another prophecy about the important role that the Gentiles would play in the rebuilding of Israel, that of the establishment of the New Israel, the Church.
They will rebuild the ancient ruins
and restore the places long devastated;
they will renew the ruined cities
that have been devastated for generations.
Aliens will shepherd your flocks;
foreigners will work your fields and vineyards.
And you will be called priests of the Lord,
you will be named ministers of our God. (Isaiah 61:4-6 NIV; emphasis added)
Isaiah’s prophecy could be understood to refer to the Jews’ return from Babylon in 538 BC, but the fact that non-Jews would be part of the rebuilding process is an indication that the prophecy points to the coming of Christ. At the first Church council, St. James, the Lord’s stepbrother, quotes from the prophet Amos in defense of admitting non-Jews into the Church:
After this I will return
and rebuild David’s fallen tent,
Its ruins I will rebuild,
and I will restore it,
that the remnant of men may seek the Lord,
and all the Gentiles who bear my name,
says the Lord, who does these things
that have been known for ages. (Acts 15:16-17 NIV; Amos 9:11-12)
The key to understanding Isaiah’s prophecy about the priesthood is that a priest does not stand alone but in a certain context: temple, altar, and sacrifice. This pattern of priesthood, temple, and sacrifice can be found in I Peter 2:5:
…you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ (NIV).
The Apostle Peter reiterates the teaching that the Church is a “royal priesthood” in I Peter 2:9. This can be seen in the fact that the early Christians celebrated the Eucharist regularly on the first day of the week, Sunday. The early Christians understood the Eucharist to be a spiritual sacrifice and had priests to lead them in worship. Today, two thousand years later, the Orthodox Church still has priests standing at the altar offering the eucharistic sacrifice. Contemporary worship has none of these. Thus, Isaiah 61:6 finds its fulfillment in Orthodox worship, not contemporary worship.
Protestants may object to the Orthodox Church having priests on the grounds that because of Christ we have no need for a man to serve as a mediator with God. This objection is based upon a misunderstanding of the nature of Orthodox worship and the office of the priest. Basically, the priest’s role is to lead the congregation in worship. If one listens carefully to the litanies one finds the priest addressing the congregation, For … let us pray to the Lord, and the congregation responding with, Lord have mercy. In other words, the congregation prays with the priest, not through the priest. As a matter of fact, in Orthodoxy the priest cannot begin the Divine Liturgy unless the laity is present. This is based on the Orthodox Church’s understanding that the priesthood resides in the whole church, not just in the ordained clergy. The participation of the laity is just as critical for right worship as the clergy. This can be seen in the fact that “liturgy” comes from the Greek λειτουργεια (leitourgeia) which in Christian usage refers to worship and in the ancient world referred to “public service.” Jesus Christ is our Mediator and he exercises that ministry through