Worship During a Pandemic




The Eruptions of Mount St. Helens in Washington State were spectacular. Those of us who are old enough to remember that first eruption wondered at the time how it was going to change the world. The caption under one picture read:







Notice, I began by referring to Eruptions, plural. It was not one eruption, but several. That beautiful snow-coned mountain was changed forever. But did it really change anything?

For some who lost their livelihood and even their lives, life changed forever. But for the most part, nothing really changed. Not too long after the eruptions stopped, I was able to drive up almost into the crater and look down into the devastation. Crowds of people continue to make the journey. Today, from the Johnston Ridge Observatory, the picture is entirely different. Life has returned to normal with little significant change. On a grander scale, nothing really changed. It was a momentary event.

Worship during the pandemic could be like that. Our ability to go to church has been disrupted momentarily. Regardless of one’s personal preference, Jewish or Christian, protestant or catholic, mega-church or small, everyone has been affected. It remains to be seen how soon the effects of the pandemic will pass and worship can get back to normal. Why not use this as a moment to reflect? Is this a time when God is speaking? Are we listening?

Freedom of religion in the United States has resulted in a hodgepodge of types of worship. Seldom is thought given to the biblical concept of worship. Consider the apostle Paul. He viewed his religious practices above reproach.

Circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee;...as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless.[i]

But an eruption took place in his life much more consequential than a volcano or a pandemic and he was faced with the need to re-examine worship. His eruption occurred when He met the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus where he intended to find and arrest anyone who did not hold to his views concerning worship. Years later he was forced to defend this transformation. At one point, a mob attempted to assassinate him. His accusers thought it so serious that they dragged him before Felix, the governor of the Roman province of Judea and Samaria. The charges brought against Paul involved wild accusations:

For we have found this man a real pest and a fellow who stirs up dissension among all the Jews throughout the world, and a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes. "And he even tried to desecrate the temple; and then we arrested him. [And we wanted to judge him according to our own Law. "But Lysias the commander came along, and with much violence took him out of our hands, ordering his accusers to come before you.] And by examining him yourself concerning all these matters, you will be able to ascertain the things of which we accuse him. And the Jews also joined in the attack, asserting that these things were so.[ii]

A careful study of Paul’s defense gives us a clear distinction of this transformation:

And when the governor had nodded for him to speak, Paul responded: "Knowing that for many years you have been a judge to this nation, I cheerfully make my defense, since you can take note of the fact that no more than twelve days ago I went up to Jerusalem to worship. "And neither in the temple, nor in the synagogues, nor in the city itself did they find me carrying on a discussion with anyone or causing a riot. "Nor can they prove to you the charges of which they now accuse me. "But this I admit to you, that according to the Way which they call a sect I do serve the God of our fathers, believing everything that is in accordance with the Law, and that is written in the Prophets; having a hope in God, which these men cherish themselves, that there shall certainly be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked. "In view of this, I also do my best to maintain always a blameless conscience both before God and before men.[iii]

The key to Paul’s transformation is found in the terms, worship, and serve. Paul admits that he continued to practice the Jewish faith in its outward conformity but inwardly there was a marked change. The term translated worship is proskuneo. The term translated serve is latreuo. At first glance, this change seems inconsequential. However, observing the contexts of each term as it is used in the New Testament is instructive.

Proskuneo, refers to an act of obeisance. To bow down. On the other hand, Latreuo, refers to the act of rendering service. In Judaism in Paul’s day, the distinction was dramatic. Only priests could serve in the temple. The people were relegated to certain locations in the temple complex, the court of the women, the court of the gentiles, etc. Only the high priest could enter the inner sanctuary referred to as the Holy of Holies.

Paul later appeared before King Agrippa to make his defense.

"In regard to all the things of which I am accused by the Jews, I consider myself fortunate, King Agrippa, that I am about to make my defense before you today; especially because you are an expert in all customs and questions among the Jews; therefore I beg you to listen to me patiently. "So then, all Jews know my manner of life from my youth up, which from the beginning was spent among my own nation and at Jerusalem; since they have known about me for a long time previously, if they are willing to testify, that I lived as a Pharisee according to the strictest sect of our religion. "And now I am standing trial for the hope of the promise made by God to our fathers; the promise to which our twelve tribes hope to attain, as they earnestly serve God night and day. And for this hope, O King, I am being accused by Jews.[iv]

Here, Paul does not use the term, proskuneo. We do not need to speculate why. To do, Paul would have raised the issue of Agrippa’s personal background. Historians tell us that at one time Agrippa was given “the right of superintending the temple in Jerusalem and appointing its high priest.”[v] So Paul does not need to draw the distinction between the service of the priest in the temple, latreuo, and the people restricted to areas outside the holy place, proskuneo. Instead he refers only to his ministry as a priest, latreuo.[vi] King Agrippa did not miss this distinction.

A quick observation of the use of the terms with a concordance shows that proskuneo is never used of the church. On the other hand, latreuo, is use. Why is this? Paul gives us a clue when he introduced himself to the church at Rome where there was a conflict between Jewish and Gentile Christians.

First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, because your faith is being proclaimed throughout the whole world. For God, whom I serve in my spirit in the preaching of the gospel of His Son, is my witness as to how unceasingly I make mention of you, always in my prayers making request, if perhaps now at last by the will of God I may succeed in coming to you.[vii]

Here, Paul inserts himself into the midst of the controversy by using the term, latrueo instead of proskuneo. He was not of the Aaronic priesthood and therefore, could not enter the Holy of Holies. In fact, Jesus, Himself, never entered the Holy of Holies, but only preached in the outer courts. Neither men were qualified.

So why did Paul use the term, latrueo, in Romans 1:9. The answer is the transformation that took place on the road to Damascus and later, as Paul studied the significance of this transformation. In that instant he was transformed into a priest. In that instant he entered into the Holy of Holies. Not into the physical Holy of Holies in Jerusalem but into the Body of Christ, the church.

We find this transformation described throughout his writings. Take the term temple. There are separate terms in the Greek. Hieron refers to the whole temple complex, the Holy of Holies together with the outer courts. Naos refers to the Holy of Holies. Archeological discoveries give some indication as to what the temple looked like following King Agrippa II’s remodeling of it. But the physical construction was not as important as what it represented, separation.

A familiar use of the term, naos, is when Paul applies it to the physical body of Christian believers.[viii] Earlier in this epistle, he referred to the church, the Body of Christ, as the naos.[ix] The Corinthian church surely needed this reminder. Christians are described as both temple and priests.[x] This was made possible by the death of Christ on the cross and the destruction of the dividing wall between the place where proskeuneo occurred, the outer courts, and where priests offered sacrifices, the naos.

As believers, we are encouraged to enter into the holy place, hagion,[xi] offering our sacrifices.[xii] The dividing wall has been taken away. There is no distinction among believers. All are priests. All offer sacrifices. This should be reflected in our relationship to Christ and our relationship to each other.

The pulpit is for preaching the Word of God. Not for entertainment.[xiii] The gathering of believers is service, latreuo, of believers to God in the form of ministering to each other.[xiv] This service should take place, not just on Sunday morning, but every day of the week. Not just by one individual or a worship team. Our times together on Sunday morning are important to the health of the Body of Christ. But to call it Worship Service, on the surface, is redundant and biblically erroneous. There should be greater involvement on the part of every believer both in the public gatherings of the church and in everyday life.

As Paul draws a distinction between the Old Testament form of worship and the New Testament meaning of the concept, he repeatedly gives warning that there will be times when hearts will grow cold. The desire for the teaching of God’s Word will cease to be a driving force in the church.[xv] Many will fall away from involvement in genuine worship inside the veil serving the Lord as priest.

Today, every effort needs to be made to ensure that the pandemic is not a factor in this drift. Pastor’s, the angels of the lampstands which are the local churches in Revelations 2 and 3,[xvi] along with church leaders, need to make every effort to guard the flock of God.[xvii] To stimulate and encourage, edify and challenge.

Paul’s journey from Judaism to Christianity, was not like the eruption of Mount St. Helens which brought isolated and momentary change. It has transformed much of the world, and continues to erupt today. The pandemic is an opportunity to examine the true meaning of worship in the church. God is speaking. Are we listening?

[i] Phil 3:5-6.

[ii] Acts 24:5-9.

[iii] Acts 24:10-16.

[iv] Acts 26:2-7.

[v] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herod_Agrippa_II.

[vi] Cf. Acts 26:7.

[vii] Rom 1:8-10.

[viii] Cf 1 Cor 6:19.

[ix] Cf. 1 Cor 3:16-17.

[x] Cf. Rev 1:6.

[xi] Heb 10:19.

[xii] Cf. Heb 13:15-16.

[xiii] Cf. 2 Tim 4:1-2.

[xiv] Cf. Heb 10:23-26.

[xv] 2 Tim 3:1-7; 4:3-4.

[xvi] Rev 1:11-2:22.

[xvii] 1 Pe 5:1-3.