Come with me on an imaginary trip back in time. I want to show you some wonderful things. Some may surprise you; some may annoy you. I hope none of this will bore you.
Where are we going? To when are we going? We are going to an assembly of the church in the first century. Knowing what you know now, how will it compare to the way they did things then? The specific location is irrelevant. It’s not a secret, although a time would come when the church limited the number of those who knew where they would assemble. That time has not yet come, when we will be.
We are standing outside a largish building in a typical-looking town. There is nothing spectacular about this building, although it is clear that it sees frequent use. You know some buildings spend more time empty than occupied, just by the atmosphere around them. You’ve seen that type. Just look at most church buildings today. This building does not have that feel. Maybe that is because it is used every day. Let’s go inside.
Inside the main room of this building we notice a few differences between where the church assembled then and now. You might have noticed a cabinet in one endSermons do have their place; that Paul fellow uses them quite effectively in the marketplace. of the building. This is where the scriptures are kept. You see, not everyone can afford a copy of the scriptures. Most people would even be appalled at the thought of an individual owning a copy. After all, if you owned your own copy you might just leave it lying around, or put it where someone might put something on it. The scriptures are held in high regard, and are not to be treated casually. By the way, these scriptures are scrolls of what some today call the Old Testament. Most of the New Testament has not been written yet.
The most prominent feature of this room, though, is a platform in the middle of the room. All the seating is around this platform, and everyone can see each other when they are sitting or standing in the assembly. You see, we are standing in a synagogue. Yes, the church meets in a synagogue. But then, you should have known that. James told us that in what may be one of the oldest writings in the New Testament.
For if there come unto your synagogue a man with a gold ring, in goodly apparel, and there come in also a poor man in vile raiment; And ye have respect to him that weareth the gay clothing, and say unto him, Sit thou here in a good place; and say to the poor, Stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool: Are ye not then partial in yourselves, and are become judges of evil thoughts? (Jas 2:2-4)
Many English versions use the word “assembly” instead of synagogue. Many English versions are wrong. He is clearly talking about the building here. Furthermore, James uses “assembly” (a different Greek word) later in his letter (Jas 5:14, commonly translated “church”).
If we are over the shock of not having a pulpit up front while everyone faces the same direction, we can let the people in. They enter, an eclectic group of people. Men, women, and children from all walks of life, but mostly of modest means. In this particular synagogue the men and women sit separately, but there may be places where they mingle. There is no set time for the “order of worship” to start. The first few people to come in find a seat and may pray quietly. Some sing to themselves. As more people come in some might hear a song they know and join in. All the congregation present then sings that song. After that someone else may start another song. Nobody “makes announcements.” But that man in the back of the east side stands up and tells of a family illness. The man in the front of the south side does so, too. Then another man stands up and prays for those two. It is getting close to half an hour after the first people came in, and still more are coming. The building is nearly full by now. The worship is in full swing. One starts a song. Another says a prayer. Yet another reads (or more likely recites) a portion of scripture and expounds on it. He may talk five minutes, or fifty, and other men may add to the discussion. It is a discussion, not a sermon. Sermons do have their place; that Paul fellow uses them quite effectively in the marketplace. Now, don’t get too impatient. I didn’t tell you we would be done in just an hour.
Darkness approaches. It is, after all, evening. You don’t expect people to skip work in the middle of the day just to assemble with the saints, do you? Now most of the people who are going to be here have arrived. It is time for the Lord’s supper. (Yes, Paul uses that term in 1 Cor 11:20, although that is the only time it appears in the Bible.) Apparently there are some places that hold a “love feast” and include the Lord’s supper as part of that meal. We know this because Paul condemned the abuse of that practice in the aforementioned 1 Corinthians 11. Most early sources say the two were not associated, the love feast occurring in a separate location, such as the pizza palace down the street. Well, maybe in a private home. In the assembly, however, most places apparently held an observance of the death of Jesus in accordance with his own instructions.
After that communion with Christ, the assembly continues on much as before. There is no set preacher with a sermon. Someone from another place happens to be there today. He tells about what is happening among the church in his home town. Someone like Paul might get up and relate what he is doing for the spread of the gospel. “they rehearsed all that God had done with them, and how he had opened the door of faith unto the Gentiles.” (Acts 14:27) Nobody will be paid to preach. When Paul got paid it was more likely for his teaching those outside the church than for teaching during the assembly.
I notice one thing is missing. There is no formal invitation or altar call. Nobody is asked to come get saved. They did announce that a number of people were immersed recently, and introduced them, but no specific offer is made to afford someone the opportunity for immersion. There is a reason for this. Those who received salvation recently were all taught outside the common assembly. When they realized their unsaved state, and what needed to be done, they immediately sought immersion. There is none of the modern waiting for the assembly, or even scheduling a date a couple of weeks out. Salvation is too important to wait even a few hours. It is something that should be done “the same hour of the night” (or day). (Acts 16:33) What might happen to a person if he waits? Salvation is too important to put off. Certainly, if one present were to ask to be immersed the congregation would be happy to accommodate them, but that is less likely to happen.
After a couple of hours somebody might leave. It could be the first ones who came in, or even the last. As time goes on the entire congregation disperses, a few at a time. Some have a long way to go and it is dark outside. Others are getting tired. There is even a rumor that one young man fell asleep and fell out of a window during one of Paul’s discourses. (Acts 20:9) A few might even bed down in the synagogue for the night. It is too far for them to travel home at night. After most have left we go outside, and return to our own time.
If the situation were reversed, and one came from that congregation to our time, he might be as disoriented as we are. Our structured and very formal assemblies would bewilder such a person. Where, he might ask, is the heart if everything is already planned out? If someone is not done worshipping in an hour and a half why does everyone have to leave? And why do people take such tiny bites of the bread; do they not really want to participate in the body of Jesus? He would probably have as many questions to ask about our way of doing things as we have of his. Does that make his way any more right than ours? No. Neither is more right or wrong, just different. We follow the same gospel. We just have a few centuries of formalized High Church background in our Orthodox/Roman Catholic culture. This person has none of that.
By the way, now that we are back in our century I might as well tell you that I have no idea what day of the week we just went to. It may have been a Sunday. It may have been the Sabbath. It may have been any day of the week. They might have had to coordinate their assembly with those Jews who did not share a belief in the Way, because they also used the synagogue for an assembly every day. But, you say, they took the Lord’s Supper so it must have been Sunday. Not necessarily. While over time a specific Sunday assembly developed, and while Paul indicates that the gentile congregations tended to have larger assemblies on Sunday (Acts 16:1-2), there is nothing to indicate that the early church limited the Lord’s supper to that day. Some say Paul waited seven days until the people came together to break bread (Acts 20:7), so that must refer to the Lord’s supper. That is no more clear than that “breaking bread from house to house” daily Salvation is too important to wait even a few hours. It is something that should be done “the same hour of the night” (or day).(Acts 2:46) refers to a common meal. Since
Acts 2:42 mentions breaking bread in a context that indicates corporate worship, Acts 2:46 may indicate they took the Lord’s supper daily. Or it may not. The only absolute correlation between breaking bread and the Lord’s supper is 1 Corinthians 10:16. All other times the Bible mentions breaking bread it could easily mean one or the other, the Lord’s supper or a meal. In fact, since Acts 20:11 seems to imply a meal, there is no reason to demand that the reference four verses earlier refers to the Lord’s supper.
Well, we have just traveled two thousand years each way in just a short span. I’m tired. It’s not often I stay awake for 4,000 years. Maybe we have learned something together. God is less concerned with the cultural trappings of our assembly than he is with our faith. Yes, he wants our worship. But what he wants is our worship, wherever or whenever we are.