Old Testament Worship and the New Testament Church
Upon visiting an Orthodox Church for the first time, those with little familiarity with Orthodox Christianity may find our worship practices strange and bewildering. They might even be tempted to think of them as either the peculiar customs of some foreign culture or “the tradition of men” that St. Paul warns against (Col. 2:8). However, a serious student of the Bible will soon recognize that what at first might seem so strange and foreign about Orthodox worship is actually rooted in the divinely-revealed worship of the Church of the Old Covenant: Ancient Israel.
As that same Church, but now living under the New Covenant (Heb. 8:6-12), Orthodoxy has continued in the form and practice of worship as God commanded in days of old. Certainly, the Old Covenant has been surpassed with the coming of Jesus Christ, and apart from Him is now obsolete (Heb. 8:13). However, according to our Lord Himself, the Old Covenant has not been abolished—rather, it has been fulfilled and fully revealed in Him (Mt. 5:17)!
The Israel of God
The very first Christians were Jews, and in embracing Jesus Christ as their long-awaited Messiah, they did not view themselves as inventing a brand new religion to replace Judaism. Rather, they understood the coming of Christ and the inauguration of His Church to be the fulfillment and the perfection of Judaism (Heb. 11). Holy Scripture witnesses to this, calling the Church “the Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16) and members of the Church “heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:26-69).
The Worship Commanded by God
If Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of Judaism, and if Christ’s Church as the Israel of God is the fulfillment of Ancient Israel, then authentic Christian worship must be foreshadowed in Jewish worship. And because it is the fulfillment of Jewish worship, Orthodox Christian worship perfects rather than abolishes the very forms that God laid down in the Old Testament. The true purpose of ancient Israel’s worship has not passed away, but is finally revealed and made perfect in Jesus Christ!
How do we see this in Orthodox worship today?
The Creed—First, we see this in Ancient Israel’s creed, which is also called the Shema: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One” (Deut. 6:4). This statement of faith defined who the Israelites were by proclaiming Who they worshipped. This Truth was revealed to the Israelites by God Himself, and it set them apart from all of the other cultures and religions that surrounded them.
In the Orthodox Church, we still hold fast to the belief in this One God, Whom Jesus Christ has revealed to be the One God in Three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Our perfected belief in the One God in Trinity is stated in the Nicene Creed, which we believe to be inspired by the Holy Spirit. As we recite this creed in our personal prayers and during our worship together, we commit ourselves to being the chosen people who have been set apart to worship the One True God.
The Liturgical Cycle of Feasts—Secondly, we see this in the Jewish cycle of worship. The worship life of the Jews was marked by a liturgical calendar of feasts. That God wanted His people to remember the special events of their salvation history is obvious. In the Old Testament, we find that the institution of a liturgical calendar is commanded by God Himself, most notably the commemoration of the Passover (Ex. 34:18-26). Other important annual events that the Jews were called to remember and celebrate included Pentecost (commemorating the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai) and the Festival of Booths (commemorating their 40-year sojourn in the desert). More than simply remembering something from the distant past, by celebrating these special days, the Jews spiritually participated in the great and wonderful events wrought by God for their salvation.
Some Christians cite the Apostle Paul’s warning against superstitious ritualism and false worship (Col. 2:16) as justification for not celebrating the wonderful events that Christ has wrought for our salvation. However, it is St. Paul himself who marks the feast of Pentecost (Acts 20:16; I Cor. 16:8), showing that the earliest Christian communities annually remembered such special feast days. Today, the Orthodox Church continues this most ancient tradition, celebrating the great and saving events of our salvation, primarily in the various feasts commemorating our Lord and His mother.
The Architecture of Worship—A third way we see Orthodoxy’s continuity with the worship of the Old Testament is in how our churches are built. Those entering an Orthodox church for the first time may notice some familiar Biblical characteristics about how the building itself is structured. Upon entering the church building, one comes into an entry space known as the narthex. This space is set apart from the rest of the church, and is symbolic of “the world.” In looking at the patterns of the Tabernacle and the Temple in the Old Testament, the narthex corresponds to the outer or great court (Ex. 27:9-21; 2 Ch. 4:9). Traditionally, this space is where baptisms take place and where the non-baptized would be permitted to stand during worship services.
Entering past the narthex, one comes into the church itself. This space is called the nave, and corresponds to what is called the Inner or Priestly Court or Holy Place in the Tabernacle and the Temple (Ex. 26:33, 27:21; 2 Ch. 4:9). The continuity between Temple worship and Orthodox worship is illustrated by the fact that Orthodox churches are often referred to as “temples” rather than “churches.” As only the Jewish priests could enter into the Holy Place, so, too, is the nave the place where the priests of the New Covenant—the royal priesthood of the Christian people—offer their worship and praise to God. Entering into the nave symbolizes leaving behind the world and entering into the Heavenly Kingdom.
To many, one of the most striking thing about an Orthodox temple is the iconostasis. This is the partial wall near the east end of the temple which is decorated with icons. The space behind the iconostasis is called the altar, and corresponds to the Holy of Holies where the Ark of the Covenant resided and where the Jewish High Priest would enter once a year to sprinkle blood on the Mercy Seat (Ex. 26:33; Lev. 16). The altar is symbolic of the Throne of God. Though the altar is separated from the nave by a curtain, we also believe that the veil in the Temple was rent in two when Christ sacrificed Himself for our salvation (Mt. 27:51; Heb. 6:19-20). Thus, during our worship services, the curtain is often opened, signifying Christ’s tearing down the wall of sin and death that separated us from Him and His uniting us with God the Father
As in the Tabernacle and Temple, many holy things used in worship are kept in the altar. Thus, only those who have a specific blessing from the priest or bishop to enter the altar may do so.
The Altar Table—Within the Orthodox temple, the altar table occupies the central place. The altar table is located behind the iconostasis in the middle of the altar area, which is elevated by several steps. In the Orthodox temple, the place of the altar table parallels that of the Ark of the Covenant, which was placed in the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle and the Temple (2 Ch. 5:7).
Not surprisingly, the altar table performs a similar function as that of Ark of the Covenant. As the Ark of the Covenant was a special place of meeting between God and man (Ex. 25:22), so it is that from the altar table we receive our most intimate communion with Christ. On the Ark of the Covenant was sprinkled the blood from the atoning sacrifice (Lev. 16:14); on the altar table, we offer the Bread and Wine which become the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which we partake of the once-for-all-sacrifice of our Passover Lamb. In partaking of this Sacrifice, we come to a special meeting with God and enter into the Mystery of His Death and Resurrection (1 Cor. 10:16).
One of the things found inside the Ark of the Covenant was the stone tablets on which were written the Ten Commandments (Heb. 9:4). Rather than the Old Testament revelation of God’s word, on the Orthodox altar now lies a book containing the four New Testament Gospels—revealing to us the Word of God incarnate in the Person of Jesus Christ.
Also kept inside the Ark of the Covenant was the wooden rod which budded for Aaron (Heb. 9:4). Today, we keep the Cross of Christ on the altar table, which is the wood from which budded forth our eternal life.
Finally, jars of manna were kept in the Ark of the Covenant (Heb. 9:4). Manna was the food which God miraculously gave to His people in the desert to keep them alive during their 40 years of wandering. Today, we keep a small portion of the Body and Blood of Christ on our altar table (this portion of the Eucharist is kept reserved in order to commune the sick and dying). We believe this Eucharist to be the miraculous Food of Immortality, given to us by God as a means of communion with Him whereby we receive grace to aid us in our Christian life (Jn. 6:53-54).
Other Liturgical Items—Besides the altar table, we find other items that are used in Orthodox worship that come directly from Old Testament worship. Among these, we find: 1) a seven-branch candelabrum (Ex. 21:35-37), 2) a censer and incense (Lev. 16:12-13; 1 Ch. 23:13; Mal. 1:11), 3) and priestly vestments (Ex. 28:3-4, 29:29-30).
Holy Icons—Perhaps the most striking things upon entering an Orthodox temple is the feeling of being surrounded. Icons adorn the interior walls and often the ceiling of the church. Standing in the middle of an Orthodox temple, we are literally surrounded by images of Christ and His mother, the angels, the saints and prophets, and various scenes from the Bible.
For many people, this seems a radical departure from the worship of Ancient Israel. In fact, the Jews were very strictly forbidden from making idolatrous images. This was a direct commandment given by God Himself in order to keep the Jews from worshipping idols and false gods (Lev. 26:1). How then can the Orthodox claim to be in direct continuity with the worship that God first ordained under the Old Covenant if they openly disobey this very simple commandment?
A simple reading of the Old Testament shows that this is not the case. God most certainly forbade the use of graven images in an idolatrous way. But far from a universal prohibition against all images, we see God Himself commanding the making of images for use in divinely-ordained worship.
It was God Who set forth the patterns of Old Testament worship, including the images of the cherubim which were to adorn both the Mercy Seat on the Ark of the Covenant and the veil of the Tabernacle (Ex. 25:9, 17-24; 26: 31-33). In the Temple, we again find images of cherubim in the Holy of Holies, and other earthly images used throughout the Temple’s interior (1 Kings 6:23-35). These “icons” reminded God’s people that He is a holy God, to be approached with fear and reverence, and that He is the Giver of life and the Creator and Sustainer of all.
The use of icons in Orthodox temples today hearkens back to this ancient practice. Far from being idolatrous, icons (icon is simply the Greek word for image) enhance our true worship of the True God. They remind us that when we gather together to worship Him here on earth we are entering into the worship that goes on perpetually in heaven. Icons show us the reality that we are worshipping alongside a numberless gathering of angels and saints who, though invisible to our earthly eyes, are truly with us as we offer our praise to the Holy Trinity. Even more than this, icons witness to the most incredible wonder at the heart of our Christian Faith. In the Old Testament, any depiction of God was considered idolatrous because He is pure spirit. But now, in the Person of Jesus Christ, we can look upon the very Face of God Himself (Jn. 14:8-9)!
Rites of Initiation—Another way in which Orthodoxy shares direct continuity with the worship of Ancient Israel is in her rites of initiation. God commanded that male Jewish children be circumcised on the 8th day (Gen. 17:9-12). Also, after 40 days, the mother and her child were to be brought to the Tabernacle or Temple in order for the mother to be made ritually pure (Lev. 12:1-8) and for a firstborn son to be offered up to God as holy (Ex. 13:2, 12; Lk. 22-23).
In Orthodox practice to this day, there are special prayers to be prayed over the child when he or she is 8 days old. Through these prayers, the child’s name is given, and he or she is acknowledged as belonging to God. After 40 days, the newborn child and mother are brought to church for the first time since the child’s birth. The mother is prayed over, asking God to bless her and cleanse her of any sin. The newborn child is then “churched”—brought into the temple for the first time, offered to God, and made a catechumen in preparation of being made a full member of God’s chosen people.
In Orthodoxy, the fortieth day initiation of churching is done with every child, since every child is holy to God and every Christian is a “firstborn” in the eyes of God, being a co-heir with the Firstborn Son, Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:14-17; Gal. 4:7). Churching is also done with both male and female children, since in Christ “there is neither male nor female” (Gal. 3:28). Full membership in Christ is extended to all, regardless of gender, ethnicity or age!
Beyond the receiving of a Christian name and dedication to God upon entrance into the church for the first time, the early Christians saw these Jewish rites of initiation especially fulfilled in the Christian rite of Baptism. With the circumcision of the male children and their consecration to God upon being brought to the Tabernacle or Temple, Jewish children were made full members of the house of Israel with all the rights and privileges accorded to God’s chosen people. Thus, on or sometime after the churching of the Orthodox child on the fortieth day, he or she is made a member of Christ’s Church through the Mystery of Baptism, whereby the child is initiated into the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Immediately following this, the newly-baptized Christian receives the anointing of Chrismation and the Holy Eucharist, thereby becoming a full member of the Church.
While many Christian denominations disagree with the practice of infant baptism, Orthodoxy sees a precedent for this practice in the patterns that God Himself commanded in the Old Testament. Moreover, we believe this to be in accord with the promise of Pentecost (Acts 2:38-39), the New Testament practice of baptizing whole households (Acts 16:30-33), and, most importantly, our Lord’s own words: “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 19:14).
The Priesthood—As in Ancient Israel, the priesthood holds a prominent place in Orthodoxy. In the Orthodox Church, this is first and foremost found in the priesthood of the Christian people (1 Pet. 2:9-10). All Christians are called to fulfill a priestly role, offering up prayers and intercession for the whole world, and thereby calling down God’s blessing upon all of creation. At Chrismation—the rite of initiation that immediately follows Baptism—every Orthodox Christian receives an anointing with Holy Chrism. In the Old Testament, this special anointing was reserved for the king and the high priest (1 Sam. 9:16; 10:1; 16:1-13; Lev. 21:10), though all priests were set apart and consecrated to God through an anointing with oil (Ex. 28:41).
In the Orthodox Church, every Christian receives this special anointing. The newly-baptized is consecrated to God and receives the gift of the Holy Spirit, empowering the fulfillment of priestly service to the Most High. Through this anointing with Holy Chrism—which is made and prayed over by the bishops as successors to the Apostles—the new Christian receives the gift of the Holy Spirit that was bestowed in New Testament times through the laying on of hands (Acts 8:14-17).
Besides the royal priesthood of the Christian people, the Orthodox Church also possesses a specific “liturgical priesthood.” The liturgical priest is someone who has been specially set apart and has been ordained to fulfill a particular role in the life of the Church. In the absence of the bishop, it is the priest who leads the worship services, administers the Sacraments, and serves as the pastor of the local community. As in Ancient Israel, this ordained liturgical priesthood has always been a distinctly male ministry.
In New Testament terms, this specific liturgical and pastoral role is referred to as the “presbytery” (often translated as “elder”). Like Ancient Israel, the New Testament Church is structured according to three ordained priestly and liturgical ministries. For Ancient Israel, these were: high priest, priest, and Levite (Lev. 21:10-15; Ex. 28:41-43; Num. 1:47-54). For the Church, these are: bishop, priest, and deacon (1 Tim. 3:1, 8; Tit. 1:5, 7-9; Acts 6:1-6; 14:23).
While there is no specific reference to presbyters as being “priests” in the New Testament, this understanding is very ancient and is made explicit following the New Testament era. With the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD and the destruction of the Temple, the service of the Jewish priesthood came to an abrupt end. The early Christians understood the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple as God’s judgment for Israel’s rejection of their long-awaited Messiah. As part of this divine judgment, the early Christians understood that the liturgical priestly ministry did not come to an end, but rather continued and was transcended in the ordained ministries of the Church.
Sacrifice—The heart of Old Testament worship was sacrifice. We see this in both the traditions of the Tabernacle and the Temple. While there is much discussion about the synagogue in many Christian circles today, the synagogue was essentially a manmade development that arose during the Babylonian exile, not something revealed by God. While the synagogue did become an integral part of Jewish life and was an important center of teaching—and did indeed help shape the form and content of the Early Church’s worship—it was the sacrifice of the Tabernacle and Temple traditions that lay at the heart of Ancient Israel. And it is sacrifice that lies at the heart of Orthodox worship today.
The people of Ancient Israel were commanded by God to offer a variety of sacrifices as individuals—burnt offerings, thanksgiving offerings, peace offerings, offerings for personal sins (Lev. 1:1-17; Lev. 2:1-16; Lev. 3:1-17; Lev. 4:1-5:13). As a community dedicated to God, however, two sacrifices stood out in particular. These were the annual sacrifices for Atonement and for the Passover (Ex. 30:10; Ex. 34:18; Lev. 16:1-8). These sacrifices were offered up to God for the people as a whole, and as such, were at the very center of Israel’s covenantal relationship with God and their worship of Him.
Sacrifice is still at the heart of what we do as Orthodox Christians. In the Holy Eucharist, we offer up the Bread and Wine which we believe become the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. And it is in His sacrifice—His once-for-all offering—that every sacrifice is fulfilled. The self-offering of Christ is an atoning sacrifice (Rom. 5:10-11); it is a Passover sacrifice (1 Cor. 5:7); in partaking of His Body and Blood, it becomes for us a sacrifice that is unto the remission of our personal sins (Eph. 1:7; 1 Cor. 10:16). Very importantly, the Eucharist is a sacrifice offered in thanksgiving for all that God has done for us (eucharist literally means thanksgiving). Thus, the whole life of Ancient Israel—the sacrifices at the very heart of Old Testament Judaism—is fulfilled in the One Sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ, Who offered up His life for us.
And it is this same all-encompassing sacrifice that we partake of at every Liturgy. In offering up the Bread and Wine and calling upon the Holy Spirit to transform them in the Body and Blood of Christ, we are not “re-sacrificing” Christ. Rather, we are fulfilling His commandment (Mt. 26:26-28), and by fulfilling His commandment and receiving of His Eucharist, we are entering into His sacrifice. By fulfilling His command to “take,” “eat,” and “drink,” we partake of His once-for-all sacrifice. This event, accomplished for us by God Himself, is so great that it is eternal; it transcends time and space, and we enter into it each and every time we gather together as the Church to the worship the Risen Lord through our offering and receiving of Holy Communion (Heb. 9:11-10:25).
The People of God—Finally, like Ancient Israel, we Orthodox Christians understand ourselves to be “the people of God.” We have been called by God and set apart for Him. We have been initiated into Christ through Baptism and Chrismation, by receiving Him in the Holy Eucharist, and through our whole life in the Church.
And this life offered to us in the Church is not simply in continuity with Ancient Israel because our worship practices are similar—it is not because we have studied the Bible in order to try to recreate the Early Church! Rather, the opposite is true. Our life and worship in the Orthodox Church are in continuity with Ancient Israel and the Early Church because we are that very same community, that very same people!
While we do believe that each person must have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ—a living relationship grounded in love, faith, and prayer—as Orthodox Christians, we continue to understand ourselves as did Ancient Israel: as a people. We are not merely a group of separate individuals somehow invisibly united by a religious ideology that has sadly been reduced to its lowest common denominator.
Rather, we are the kahal of the Old Testament and the ekklesia of the New Testament: the community of people that God has called to Himself and who truly are one in fulfillment of Christ’s prayer (Jn. 17:21-23). We are the Church that has been witnessing to the truth and love of the One God for 2000 years, and many more. We are the true heirs of Abraham. We are the Body of Christ, preserved by the Holy Spirit, united to Christ, and through Christ, united to one another—through our Orthodox belief, our Orthodox worship, and our Orthodox way of life.