Understanding New-Covenant Worship as the Fulfillment of the Old

Frescoe of Holy Trinity, Butte, MT (610x351)Worship before God gave Moses instructions on worship 

From the dawn of time, proper worship of God involved resting from work on the Sabbath day to hear God’s Word (Genesis 2:3).  At first, that Word was proclaimed by word of mouth with no written Scriptures: Adam to Seth, Seth to Enosh, Enosh to Kenan, and so on (see Genesis 5 and following).  That was how the Word and promises of God were faithfully transmitted from one generation to the next.  That was the first form of the “Service of the Word.”

However, the earliest worship of God not only had the Service of the Word, but also the Service of Sacrifice.  Such sacrifices were a thanksgiving for God’s blessings–but also pictured the one perfect sacrifice of the promised Messiah yet to come.  “By faith, Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain.  By faith, he was commended as righteous, because God approved his gifts” (Hebrews 11:4).  These sacrifices were offered, not to appease an angry God, but as an expression of the believers’ faith and trust in God who forgives all sins through the Promised Savior prophesied from the beginning (Genesis 3:15).


Worship during the time of the Tabernacle

When God brought Israel out of Egypt, He told them how they were to worship Him and how He would come to them.  “Wherever I cause my name to be remembered, I will come to you and bless you” (Exodus 20:24).  God gave instructions for the Passover and the Festival for Unleavened Bread.  Both were statutes, God-ordained rituals, that God’s people were to keep “forever” (Exodus 12:14, 17, and 24).

Exodus 24 through 30 and the book of Leviticus describe how God told and expected His people to worship Him.  Much of what God gave was in thorough detail.  God also said that those worship forms and ways were to be enduring, even forever (For example, we find this in Exodus 27:21, 28:43, 29:9, 30:21, 31:17, not even looking at the passages in Leviticus).

God chose the worship forms for the Israelites.  When the Israelites chose the worship forms they wanted to worship God, such as the golden calf (see Exodus 32:5), God was none too pleased.  Later, Moses told the Israelites: “You are not to worship as we are doing here today, everyone doing whatever seems right in his own eyes” (Deuteronomy 12:8).  The worship of God has never been one of personal preference but, instead, based on God’s “preferences” for us.


The development of Synagogue worship

In Exodus 34, even before the Tabernacle was built, God told the people of Israel: “Observe the Festival of Weeks, the Firstfruits of the Wheat Harvest, and the Festival of the Final Harvest at the end of the season.  Three times a year all your males are to appear before Yahweh God, the God of Israel” (Exodus 34:22-23).  God commanded the Israelites to observe three festivals at the Tabernacle/Temple even before the Tabernacle was built.

Why?  God was pointing forward to a time when going to the Tabernacle/Temple every Sabbath would be impossible for many Israelites because of geographical distance.  For those in such a situation, they came to those three festivals.  In other words, God was presupposing the development of synagogue worship away from the Tabernacle/Temple.

In Leviticus 23:3, God told the Israelites: “You may work for six days, but the seventh day is a day of Sabbath rest, a day of sacred assembly.  Do not do any work; wherever you live, it is a Sabbath to the Lord.”

Every Sabbath was a day set apart for worship.  Yet, many Israelites lived too far away from the Tabernacle/Temple to be there every Sabbath (unless all they did was travel back and forth).  For such Sabbath worship to take place, geographical places of worship had to develop wherever they lived.  That was the synagogue.

–          That the day of worship is called a “Sabbath” (rest) emphasizes what about who is doing the “work” during worship?


God never commanded synagogue worship, but He does presuppose its development.


Worship during the time of the Temple

Later, the Lord commanded Solomon to build a Temple for Him, which would replace the Tabernacle.  God promised to hear the prayers of His people wherever He put His name.  At the dedication of the Temple, Solomon prayed:

O LORD, my God, listen to your servant’s prayer and his petition.  Hear the cry and the prayer that your servant prays to You today.  Night and day, may your eyes be on this Temple, the place about which you said, “My name will be there,” so that you will hear the prayer your servant prays for this place [1 Kings 8:28-29].

The worship at the Tabernacle/Temple was a liturgy of sin and grace.  The sinner came before God and confessed his sins; the sacrifice was made and the blood sprinkled on the altar, and the priest pronounced God’s forgiveness and grace to the believer.  We see some of that when Moses instituted the first covenant:

Moses came and told the people all the LORD’s words and laws … And Moses took half the blood and put it in basins, and the other half he splashed on the altar….  Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people, and said, “This is the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you on the basis of these words.” [Exodus 24:3, 6, and 8; Hebrews 9:19-20]


How did Jesus worship?

When we read the New Testament, we see that Jesus followed the Old-Covenant patterns of worship.  He attended synagogue services (Mark 1:21; Mark 3:1; Mark 6:2).  He also observed the great Jewish festivals at the Temple, such as Passover (Matthew 26:18; Mark 14:14; Luke 2:41, 22:7-11) and the Feast of Tabernacles (John 7:1-13), even the Feast of Dedication (John 10:23-30).  Jesus fully participated in both synagogue and Temple worship.


The relationship of Christian worship forms to earlier Jewish worship forms 

A typical approach to worship in North-American Christianity is often based on the assumption that Jesus abolished the Old Covenant, replacing it with the New.  Such an understanding is only partly correct.  And when someone couples that worldview with the New-Testament’s lack of any specific worship instructions, it is easy to assume that worship is largely a matter of personal preference.  This is the North American religious climate of today.

However, Jesus did not abolish the Old Covenant and its worship forms.  Instead, Jesus fulfilled them: “Don’t assume that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets.  I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17).  Understanding that distinction is crucial.

Yet, if you’ve read through the New Testament, you might recall that the Apostle Paul wrote that in some way the Law has been abolished!


The Law is not Abolished

The Law is Abolished

Matthew 5:17: Jesus said, “Don’t assume that I have come to abolish [kataluo] the law or the prophets.  I have not come to abolish [kataluo] them but to fulfill them.”
Romans 3:31: Do we, then, nullify [katargeo] the law by this faith?  Absolutely not!  Instead, we uphold the law. Ephesians 2:14-15: Christ is our peace.  In his body, he has made both Jews and Gentiles into one group by breaking down the wall of hostility that kept them apart.  He brought an end [katargeo] to the law with its commands and regulations, so that he might create in himself one new man from the two, resulting in peace.


–          Did the Apostle Paul contradict himself?


–          If not, in what way then did Jesus nullify or abolish the law?


New Covenant worship the Old-Covenant worship in its fulfilled form

If you were to read through God’s statements on what He had set up for His people in the Old Covenant, you would find that God established those worship forms and patterns to last “forever.”  For that to be true, for those Old-Covenant worship forms to be “forever,” then the Old Covenant forms could not be abolished; otherwise, how could they be “forever”?

So, from both the Old and New Testaments, it makes sense to see New-Covenant worship as the fulfillment of the Old.  When we see New-Covenant worship forms in that light, we see that New-Covenant worship is the continuation of Old-Covenant worship in a fulfilled form.

 Continuity of Worship in Both Covenants

–          What are the implications of that understanding?


Both Old and New Covenant worship are supposed to be a reflection of heavenly worship

We also find–in both the Old and New Testaments–that worship on earth is to be a reflection of what takes place in heaven.  When God instructed Moses on how Old-Covenant worship was to be, God told him, “See to it that you do everything according to the pattern that you were shown on the mountain” (Exodus 25:40).  God gave Moses the plans for the Tabernacle and its courtyard, but also sacrifice instructions, who would serve as priests, and the ordination of Old-Covenant Priests.  Old-Covenant worship was based on, and followed, a pattern that God gave to Moses.

From the Old-Testament Apocrypha, Wisdom 9:8, we find: “You [God] gave me [Solomon] the command to build a temple on your holy mountain and an altar in the city that is your dwelling place, a copy of your holy tabernacle that you established from the beginning.”  So, the Temple, which replaced the Tabernacle, was also a copy of the heavenly Tabernacle.

In the New Testament, the book of Hebrews refers to Exodus 25:40.  It says that the pattern that God gave to Moses was “a pattern, a shadow, of what is in heaven” (Hebrews 8:5).  Yet, that heavenly pattern only applies to us now in their fulfilled forms, which Jesus instituted.  For the Apostle John, in his heavenly vision not only saw the resurrected and ascended Christ (hence, after the New Covenant was instituted), but also “the Temple in heaven–that is, the Tent of the Testimony” (Revelation 15:5).


“Temple worship” in the New Covenant

The sacrifices at the Tabernacle/Temple in the Old Covenant foreshadowed the one perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ for the sins of the world.  They also foreshadowed the New Covenant, the Lord’s Supper, that Jesus would put in place as the fulfillment of the Old:

And [Jesus] took bread, gave thanks, broke it, gave it to them, and said, “This is my body given for you.  Do this in remembrance of me.”  In the same way, he took the cup after supper and said, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”  [Luke 22:19-20]

The sacrifices of the Old Covenant brought to the people the benefit of Christ’s work before it was done.  The Lord’s Supper of the New Covenant brings to us the benefit of Christ’s forgiveness after it was finished.


OT foreshadowings of the Lord's Super (Lesson on Biblical Worship)


Implications of Temple worship for us in the New Covenant

The services at the Temple were reverent, elaborate, and detailed; they were beautiful and glorious.  The most beautiful treasures of God’s creation adorned His Temple: gold, silver, fine cloth, colorful embroidered curtains and robes, and jewels on the robe of the high priest.  Glorious sounds filled the Temple from trumpets and cymbals, stringed instruments, flutes, and other wind instruments.  Skilled and trained choirs sang beautiful settings of the psalms, some of them dating back to the time of Moses (for example, Psalm 90).  Aromas ascended to God as a sweet-smelling savor from the offerings of incense and animals, the lighted lampstand, the perfumed anointing oil (Exodus 30:23-25).  Even the sense of taste was sanctified for holy use as parts of the sacrificial animals were eaten by the priests and sometimes by their families (Leviticus 5:13; 7:9; 21:22, Deuteronomy 18:3).

Those specifics of Old-Covenant worship do not directly apply to us in the New Covenant.  However, since those worship forms were to last “forever,” they still live on in their fulfilled forms within the New Covenant.

Further, the worship principles that God revealed in the Old Covenant are still to live on in the New Covenant.  Since Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and God does not change (Hebrews 13:8, Malachi 3:6), it follows then that God’s principles on worship should transcend both the Old and New Covenants.  After all, they are a reflection of who God is–the One who does not change.  Thus, in the New Covenant, as in the Old, we find from the Temple that worship of God should, likewise, be:

  • reverent, elaborate, detailed, and beautiful;
  • beautiful treasures should adorn our worship spaces;
  • the best in music and instrumentation should be part of worship;
  • worship should also involve our senses of hearing, sight, smell, and taste. 


The Synagogue also foreshadowed New-Covenant worship

Synagogue worship did not entail the sacrifice of animals but, instead, centered on the reading of Scriptures and the exposition of what was read, a sermon, and a place for the faithful to gather and pray.

By the time Synagogue worship had become a central institution of Jewish worship, it was already considered to be of ancient origin, dating back to the time of Moses.  After the people of Israel began to return from their Exile in Babylon, religious life was reorganized.  Synagogue worship, consisting of prayer, reading of sections from the Scriptures, and an exposition of what was read, became more formalized.  It developed alongside the rebuilding and revival of worshiping and sacrificing at the Temple in Jerusalem.  During this post-exilic period, synagogues were built all over Israel.

Psalm 74 mentions both the Temple and synagogue.  Referring to enemies destroying the places where the one, true God was worshiped, it reads:

Your enemies … set your sanctuary on fire; they defiled the dwelling place of your name [the Temple].  They said to themselves, “We will crush them completely!”  They burned every meeting place of God [synagogue] in the land.  [Psalm 74:4, 7-8]

Synagogue worship was not a replacement for the Temple, but was an alternate form of worship for those who lived away from the Temple.  That was why synagogues were built facing toward Jerusalem.  Each synagogue also held an “ark” in which was stored the scrolls of the Torah.  Each synagogue had a raised area, symbolizing the Tabernacle/Temple within the courtyard, for there, the elders and/or rabbis conducted the service and taught/preached.  Those were designs incorporated from the Temple to remind the Israelites that Temple worship was the primary, God-instituted form and place for worship, with the synagogue being a later development to support Temple worship.

Although synagogue worship was a development within the Jewish tradition of remembering the Sabbath day to keep it holy, Jesus fully recognized and approved of synagogue worship (Matthew 4:23; Matthew 9:35, Mark 1:21, Luke 4:16).

 The Synagogue foreshadowing of the Service of the Word (Lesson on Biblical Worship)


These two elements of Jewish worship–synagogue and Temple–formed the basic components of the form or order of the liturgy for the early Christian Church.  In their fulfilled forms, synagogue worship became the “Service of the Word” and Temple worship and its sacrifices became the “Service of the Sacrament.”


The Old even prophesied the New 

In the Old Testament book of Malachi, Malachi pondered the Temple, the priesthood, and proper worship, not only for the people of the Old Covenant, but also for the New Covenant to come.  Within the book of Malachi, God partly prophesied the fulfillment of Old-Covenant worship into its New-Covenant form:

“My name will be great among the nations, from the rising of the sun to its setting.  In every place, incense and pure offerings will be presented in my name because my name will be great among the nations,” says the Lord Almighty. [Malachi 1:11]

We know this refers to New-Covenant worship because this prophecy tells of worshiping God, not just in Jerusalem, but everywhere!  Thus, such worship included the Gentiles, who were included as part of the Church in the New Covenant.  Where incense was earlier burned in the Jerusalem Temple during Old-Covenant worship, in the New Covenant, Gentiles would now burn incense in every place, among the nations.

However, what Malachi’s prophecy about “pure offerings” referred to has been of some debate.  The early Church saw Malachi’s prophecy as specifically referring to the Lord’s Supper (For example in the Didache, Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho, and Ireneaus’ Against Heresies).  The Lutheran Confessions see the “pure offerings” as referring to the entire Divine Service in the New Covenant, including the Lord’s Supper (Ap 24, paras 32-33).

In Malachi, God spoke of New-Covenant worship while the Old Covenant was still in effect, even using Old-Covenant wording.  Yet, those words in Malachi provide a bridge, helping us understand that worship in the New Covenant is still to be “a pattern, a shadow, of what is in heaven” (Hebrews 8:5), just as it was in the Old Covenant.


Excursus: Incense in the New Covenant

Based on the prophecy of New-Covenant worship in the book of Malachi, the burning of incense was left unchanged from the Old Covenant into the New.  Yet, of all the rituals to point forward to New-Covenant worship, incense is specifically singled out.

God’s burning nose: The Hebrew of the Old Testament describes that when God is angry His nose is burning.  We lose that idiomatic expression in our translations.  Incense then conveys the idea that instead of God’s nose burning at us in anger, He is, instead, pleased with us, which the smell of the incense helps convey.  After all, He commanded it to be burned “throughout your generations,” in other words, it is to go on without end (Exodus 30:8).

Further, since the worship on earth is supposed to reflect the worship in heaven, we now turn to Revelation to see what it may say about the use of incense in worship.  Revelation 8:1-4 reads:

Then, when the Lamb [Jesus] opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.  Then I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them.  Another angel, with a golden incense burner, came and stood at the altar.  He was given a large amount of incense to offer with the prayers of all [panton] the saints on the gold altar in front of the throne.  The smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, ascended before God from the angel’s hand.

We read in Revelation about Jesus breaking open the 7th seal.  After Jesus broke open that seal, we get silence 30 minutes!  So, what can these 30 minutes of silence represent?  Most likely, it points back, in part, to the Old-Covenant offering of incense.  Yet, it also must point to what takes place during New-Covenant worship, for, in his vision, the Apostle John also saw the resurrected and risen Christ.  In other words, incense was burned in heaven with a resurrected and ascended Jesus, point to New-Covenant worship!

–          What did the angel offer up to God?


–          What accompanies the incense?


–          Is this for some of the saints or for all?  Discuss.


–          Discuss.  In the New Covenant, during our worship, we also offer up our prayers to God.  Since our worship is also to be a “copy and shadow of what takes place in heaven” (Hebrews 8:5) and our prayers join with theirs before the throne of God, how can our practices better affirm what we see in the book of Revelation when it describes heavenly worship?


Leviticus 24:7: “Place pure frankincense near each row, that it may serve as a memorial portion for the Bread [of the Presence], an offering made by fire to the LORD.”

–          Incense was burned next to the Bread of the Presence to serve as a “memorial portion.”  What in the New Covenant is done as a memorial (or remembrance)?


–          What implications does this have for burning incense during that part of the Divine Service?



Incense Burning as a reflection of heavenly worship (Lesson 27)

Next Lesson: A look into the development of the Church’s liturgy



[1] Also see Exodus 25:9, 26:30, 27:8; Leviticus 7:37-8.