How old do you like your hymns? (Understanding Worship in the New Testament Part 3)

Posted by Chris Jack on 10 June 2014

There is much that we do not know about how the first Christians conducted their gathered worship. Yet, there are some fascinating clues scattered throughout the New Testament. In particular, there are traces and fragments of liturgical (worship) material. Even this is not without its difficulties, for New Testament scholars are by no means agreed on just what material is liturgical and what is not. Thankfully, our concern is not to present a definitive list of New Testament liturgical material with which all would concur. Our more modest goal is to set out the main passages of the New Testament that are widely accepted as being of a liturgical nature. As we study the broad canvas of the type of worship material handed down to us in the New Testament, it has much to tell us about early Christian worship.

Certain classifications are commonly used for the New Testament liturgical material.



Doxologies (from the Greek word doxa, meaning 'radiance', 'splendour', 'glory') are expressions of praise to God, using particularly exalted forms of language. They were a regular feature of Jewish worship. The early Christians adopted the form, using existing Jewish doxologies where appropriate, but also developing their own. Some doxologies are simple, others are expanded, at times quite fully.

1. The berakhah (eulogy): 'Blessed be God'.— This is a common Old Testament expression of worship. It also resembles the Shemoneh Esreh (the Eighteen Benedictions), an element of the synagogue liturgy. (See Rom. 1:25; 9:5; 2 Cor. 1:3ff.; 11:31; Eph. 1:3ff.; 1 Pet. 1:3.)

2. 'To him be glory [and dominion] forever [and ever]' — This is a very common formula, while also being structurally less formal than the berakhah. (See Rom. 11:33-36; 16:25-27; Gal. 1:5; Phil. 4:20; Eph. 3:21; 1 Tim. 1:17; 6:16; 2 Tim. 4:18; Heb. 13:21b; 1 Pet. 4:11; 5:11; 2 Pet. 3:18; Jude 24-25; Rev. 1:6; 5:13; 7:12.)

3. 'Worthy are you/is he'— While not common, this is a form that is rich in the ways it is expanded. (See Rev. 4:11; 5:9,11.)



While there are no formal creeds as such in the New Testament (these were later developments as the Church worked out and established its theology), many scholars find creedal material in the form of fragments of creedal confessions, or confessional statements. At times, though not always, by any means, the presence of such material is indicated by the use of an introductory formula such as “It says . . .”.

Some confessions are brief: Jesus is Lord (Rom. 10:9-10).
Jesus is Lord (1 Cor. 12:3). Jesus is the Christ (1 John 2:22). Jesus Christ has come in the flesh (1 John 4:2). Jesus is the Son of God (1 John 4:15). Jesus is the Christ (1 John 5:1).

Others are more developed. (See Rom. 1:3-4; 4:24-25; 8:34; 1 Cor. 11:26; 15:3-5; 16:22; Eph. 4:8; 5:14; 1 Tim. 3:16; 2 Tim. 2:11-13; Heb. 1:3; 1 Pet. 3:18-22; Rev. 15:3-4.)

Significantly, the primary focus of this creedal/ confessional material is the saving work of Christ and His lordship.



These are expressions of wish or desire for a person or group. Common in Jewish worship, they have been described as "wish prayers". In particular, they invoke grace or peace. They are especially common at the beginnings and endings of letters. (See Rom. 1:7;15:5; 15:13; 15:33; 1 Cor. 1:3; 16:23; 2 Cor. 13:13; Gal. 1:3; 6:18; Phil. 1:2; 4:23; Philem. 3; 25; Eph. 1:2; Col. 1:2; 1 Thess. 1:1; 3:11-13; 2 Thess. 1:11-12; 2:16-17; 3:5; 3:18; Heb. 13:20-21,25; 1 Pet. 1:2; 5:14; 2 Pet. 1:2; 2 John 3; 3 John 15; Jude 2; Rev. 1:4; 22:21.)

Having already considered doxologies, creeds/ confessions and benedictions, we turn our attention now to prayers.



While there are numerous prayers and references to prayer in the New Testament, from a liturgical perspective the most notable material is in the form of a number of what have been described as 'prayer acclamations'. These are: Amen, Abba, Father, and Maranatha.


'Amen' is a Hebrew word with the meaning 'certain, true'. In the Old Testament it is used some 25 times to affirm or make binding what has been said, particularly in the context of prayer/praise offered to God (see 1 Chron. 16:36; Neh. 8:6; Pss. 41:13; 72:19; 89:52; 106:48) or curses (see Num. 5:22; Deut. 27:15-26; Jer. 11:5).

In time it came to be a fixed liturgical element in Jewish synagogue worship, uttered at the end of doxologies, benedictions and prayers. It was a means of corporate identification with the utterances of a single individual, whether the leader or a member of the congregation. This usage carried over into early Christian worship. 'Amen' was of course regularly used by Jesus, not in a liturgical way, but as an emphatic particle with the meaning 'truly, I assure you that . . . .' Liturgically, it carries the sense of 'let it be so'. It is used in this way over 20 times in the New Testament (see Rom. 11:36; 16:27; Eph. 3:21; Phil. 4:23; 1 Tim. 1:17; Heb. 13:21; 1 Pet. 5:11; Rev. 1:6-7; 22:20).

Particularly interesting is 1 Corinthians 14:16, which clearly reflects the custom of saying 'amen' in response to someone’s utterance (in this instance, praise/thanksgiving) addressed to God. This is, then, one point at which we are in direct contact with the very first believers. For whenever we corporately (or individually) utter the word 'amen', we are using exactly the same word they used.

Abba, Father

The word 'Abba' is another example of a continuity that stretches from the New Testament to today (see Mark 14:36; Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6). Now, as then, we at times express the reality of God being our Father by means of the Aramaic word 'Abba'. It is self-evidently an address to God, echoing the way that Jesus taught His disciples to pray (see the 'Our Father' [Matt. 6:9]) and the way He Himself addressed God (see Mark 14:36). Indeed, it is most probably Jesus’ own use of 'Abba' that led to this Aramaic word continuing to be used even in non-Aramaic-speaking settings. Is this, then, one of the earliest examples of a worship tradition being established? If so, it is a particularly precious one. For, addressing God as 'Abba' was, and is, an indicator of the intimate relationship that Christian believers have with Him. What a privilege to call the infinite God of the universe, who is sovereign over all creation, 'Abba, Father!' And how wonderful to identify with fellow believers from the first century right down to the present day as we cry out to our heavenly Father, taking up the word Jesus Himself used in addressing Him: 'Abba'.


This is another Aramaic word, or, more correctly, two words: 'marana' and 'tha'. Found only once in the New Testament (see 1 Cor. 16:22), it is nevertheless quite significant. It means 'the Lord is coming' or, more probably, ‘our Lord, come!’. Some connect ‘maranatha’ with the Lord’s
Supper, but this idea is contested by others. ‘Our Lord, come!’ is either invoking the Lord’s presence as believers remember Him through the bread and the wine, or it is eschatological, looking forward to, and praying for, His return. Either way, as the believers engage in worship, the focus is on Jesus, desiring His presence. And this is expressed by means of yet another liturgical term with its roots firmly in the earliest traditions.

How illuminating these prayer acclamations and liturgical declarations are—each one a fascinating little glimpse into the worship life of the early Christians.



Taken from 'InsideOut Worship: Matt Redman and Friends' published by Survivor.

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