The Gift of Context in Worship

The Gift of Context in Worship November 21, 2016

Screen Shot 2016-05-23 at 7.25.08 AMThe Gift of Context in Worship, By Michelle Van Loon and

One of many gifts my Jewish identity offered to me was the deep conviction that the Old Testament and New Testament were a single, seamless narrative revealing God’s perfect nature and redemptive work among his created, beloved image-bearers. Though few Gentile Christians would disagree with that sentiment, I’ve learned many have a conflicted relationship with the first 75% or so of the pages in their Bibles.

While this statement reflects the continuing trend toward Bible illiteracy in our churches, my own experience has highlighted the reality that even those who count themselves as committed students of the Bible tend to be skittish about the Old Testament. There are a variety of reasons for this, but many of the main ones stem from the false binary that the Old Testament is all about works and Law. Since New Testament Jesus came to free us from the Law, this bifurcated line of thinking tends to lead well-meaning believers to the conclusion that they don’t need to worry much about what the Old Testament has to say except, perhaps, as a negative example for us today.

This disconnect is unhealthy because it leaves us with a malnourished understanding of God, the Bible, the world in which we live, and ourselves. The Jewish Jesus living and ministering in the first century would have never commended this approach to the Bible he read. Nor would any of his first-century followers, the majority of whom were also Jewish. As the demographics of the early church shifted from Jewish majority to Gentile majority, ferocious theological and political battles and the quest to build a new identity served to disconnect the body of Christ from her Jewish foundations.

In the last few years, there’s been an uptick of interest in learning about Old Testament history and context in some sectors of the Church. I’m grateful for that renewed interest. Yet there’s still plenty of work to be done in this area. As I’ve worshipped in many different kinds of Evangelical settings over the last four decades, I’ve run across a three statements that illustrate the disconnect some believers have from their spiritual root system when it comes to corporate worship:

(1) “Communion is a little snack we have during our church service.”

Granted, this one came from an elementary-school student, but I’ve heard variations, albeit slightly more sophisticated in expression, from a number of adults about the source of and purpose for communion. As a “snack”, a bit of unleavened bread and a sip of juice or wine isn’t very satisfying. But without the context of the Passover account found in Exodus 1-15, or of the command by God for the Chosen People to gather each year to recount this miraculous story of deliverance in prescribed ways, communion does read as a ritualized tiny snack to some church members. Jesus applied to himself two key elements of the final Passover meal he shared with his disciples – and extended that invitation to participate in that meal to each one of us.

(2) “John the Baptist invented baptism. (After all, his last name was ‘the Baptist’, right?)”

The roots of baptism go back to Leviticus, where the High Priest was commanded to wash as part of his preparation to enter the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle, then Temple. This practice eventually extended to all Jewish worshippers, as well as to converts who wished to express repentance, renounce their former faith allegiances, and join with the Jewish people. John the son of Zechariah (which would have been how he was known to those in his community) adapted immersion in the mikveh, a small pool fed by running fresh water, which was a practice common in Judaism at the time. As John stood on the banks of the Jordan River calling people to repentance, he baptized them as a way in which they could publicly proclaim their change of heart over their sins and prepare to welcome their coming King.

(3) “Pentecost was so wild, strange, and unexpected.”

Those who belong to congregations using the Christian calendar to shape their corporate worship tend to have some sense of the relationship between Easter and Pentecost, if only in terms of time: they are both springtime holidays. But churches that aren’t tied to a historical Christian calendar (or for that matter, marking time using the Jewish calendar) tend to downplay Pentecost. The events that comprise Holy Week and Easter are tied to Passover. Passover is inextricably linked to Shavuot (Shah-voo-OAT) as the Jewish people numbered fifty days from Passover to the time in which they’d come to Jerusalem to offer a portion of their land’s “first fruits”. Pentecost, which comes from the Greek word pentekostos (fifty), is what Greek-speaking Jews called the holiday of Shavuot.

After his resurrection, Jesus told his disciples to stay in Jerusalem, where they’d be literally clothed with God’s power from on high. That’s where they were a week and a half later, on Shavuot. When people from across the Jewish world made their way to the city for the feast, power from on high enrobed on Jesus’ followers so they could testify of the resurrection in languages they’d never before spoken. A handful of followers grew to more than 3,000 that Shavuot, the beginning of a great harvest that continues to this day. It was wild, it was strange, but it wasn’t disconnected from the harvest feast they’d come to Jerusalem to celebrate that day. Jesus continued to fulfill the intent and invitation of the holy days that had shaped the lives of the Chosen People for generations.

It is our born-again birthright to explore the richness of our spiritual heritage – a heritage that encompasses the pages of the Old Testament, telling one seamless story about the One we worship together when we gather in church.


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