“The true place of worship, therefore, is a pure and contrite heart totally surrendered to the Lord God Almighty. It is here that the real experience of the presence of God is found.”
King David sat cross-legged in the desert dust at the entrance to the holy place of the tabernacle of the Lord. Having commanded his men to remain out of ear-shot while he made his way to the tent of meeting, he’d dismissed the priest on duty, that he may be alone. The fragrance of myrrh, sweet-smelling cinnamon, aromatic cane, cassia and olive oil drenched his senses, as the curtain to holy place moved in a gentle breeze. “That I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord,” whispered the king.
King David longed for the continual awareness of the presence of God. In his time, the only place available to worship God, was the tabernacle. Yet, he wrote, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer,” (Psalm 19:14). David was called a man after God’s own heart. I dare say, the king knew well that the heart was the true place of worship of Yahweh.
When we think of the term, a place of worship, myriad images may come to mind: cathedrals, chapels, mosques, synagogues. The online encyclopedia, Wikipedia defines a place of worship as “a house of worship or an establishment or other location where a group of people (a congregation) comes to perform acts of religious faith, honour, or devotion.”
William Temple said, “Worship is quickening the conscience by the holiness of God, feeding the mind with the truth of God, purging the imagination by the beauty of God, opening the heart to the love of God, and devoting the will to the purpose of God.”
So then, what is the true Christian place of worship? How or where do we enter it to worship our Lord God Almighty? I would like to point out that the true place of worship is no structure made with human hands.
Origins of the Christian Gathering
Christians gather to worship the Lord in many places, from cathedrals to coffee shops; from house churches to churches-without-walls. Which then, is the true biblical place of worship? Let’s begin answering this question by exploring the origin of places of Christian worship.
The Temple, Synagogues & Homes
Christian worship has its roots in Jewish worship. All the early Christians worshiped Yahweh according to Jewish customs. These customs involved temple worship and synagogue gatherings.
At the time of the formation of the first Christian church in Jerusalem, the temple still existed in Zion. The temple of the first century was a far cry from the original temple, as built by King Solomon. Solomon’s Temple was plundered by the Babylonians in 589 BC and modestly restored by Ezra 70 years later. However, it was Herod the Great who refurbished the temple and turned it into the very ornate and elaborate structure we read of in the New Testament, where Jesus and his disciples gathered to worship God.
Primarily, Jewish worship involved adherence to the Law of Moses, which involved following a religious calendar of feasts and offerings. Sacrifices could only be performed at the Temple in Jerusalem. Outside of Jerusalem, Jews would assemble in synagogues to pray, read and study the Torah. However, the synagogue was not necessarily seen as a place of worship. Rabbinical teaching holds that communal Jewish worship can be carried out wherever ten Jews (or a minyan) gather for prayer.
Worship at the temple in Jerusalem was ritualistic. Use of musical instruments was only permitted in the temple. Only the priest could perform religious rites in the temple. The early Christians in Jerusalem met in the temple to worship God. However, as we read in Acts 2:46, they also met in each other’s homes.
On the Sabbath, the early believers would gather at the Temple or in the synagogue to worship God, but on Sunday, the first day of the week, they would gather in each other’s homes to break bread (Acts 20:7). It is very likely they were in someone’s home on the Day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was poured out on all flesh. And it was on one of these days, in someone’s home, that Paul raised Eutychus from the dead.
So, which is it then? Was the true place of worship for the early Christians the temple, a synagogue or a home?
The Jewish Temple was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70. This must have resulted in more and more of the early Christians gathering in synagogues and homes to worship God. Eventually, as more Gentiles became Christians, fewer people worshiped in synagogues and more began to assemble in homes, mostly on Sundays. Gradually, Christian communities built bespoke buildings in which they gathered to worship God. These buildings eventually took on the collective name of the people who gathered there to worship – church buildings.
Churches today take on various shapes and forms, from cathedrals to chapels, from extravagant campuses to humble homes. Christians from all walks meet avidly in churches to worship God. However, do any of church buildings truly represent the true place of worship?
Biblically, we have seen that Jews worshiped at the temple in Jerusalem and synagogues outside of Jerusalem. However, in Bible times there were other God-fearing people who also worshiped Yahweh, but they did not worship at the temple. These people were the Samaritans. Apart from some theological differences, the Samaritans followed the Torah and worshiped God as the Jews did. The main difference, however, was that the Samaritans believed the true place of worship was not the Jerusalem temple but a mountain in Samaria where Jacob’s well was located.
One day, while travelling from Galilee up to Jerusalem, Jesus and his disciples stopped for lunch at Jacob’s well, near the city of Samaria. Jesus sent his men into town to buy lunch while he waited at the well. A Samaritan woman came by to draw water from the well. “Give me a drink,” asked Jesus.
A conversation ensued between Jesus and the woman. Eventually, referring to her religious traditions she said to Jesus, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshipped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.”
In response Jesus answered, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth,” (John 4:18-24).
Come Together in That Place
Clearly, Jesus points out that the true place for worship was not a temple or mountain. The true ritual of worship was not in animal sacrifices or the traditions of man. The true ritual of worship is not found in elaborate musical ensembles or exuberant praise and worship sessions. The true ritual of worship is a heartfelt sincere and spiritual expression of the adoration of God, to his glory. The true place of worship, therefore, is a pure and contrite heart totally surrendered to the Lord God Almighty. David said, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name!” (Psalm 103:1). It is here that a real and continual awareness of the presence of God is found.
The orthodox Jews believe that wherever 10 or more men are gathered together, they can worship in prayer. But Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” Two or three can gather anywhere, anytime to pray. Consequently, a true place of worship is not a house of worship or an establishment or other location where a group of people (a congregation) comes to perform acts of religious faith, honour, or devotion. A true place of worship is found where two or more humble hearts join together in a true spiritual expression of sincere adoration of God Almighty and in the fellowship of His Holy Spirit.
God is Spirit and he has created you and I as spirit beings. To connect with God in worship, we need to disconnect with the flesh and open our hearts to the living, breathing Holy Spirit. Heart worship can only be done in truth, otherwise it is not from the heart but from the flesh. And worship is not music, and music is not worship. Worship is prayer, and prayer is worship.
As R. T. Kendall said, “Prayer can no more be divorced from worship than life can be divorced from breathing.” Christian worship leader and songwriter, Martin Smith is quoted as saying, “The essence of worship is trying to arrange your whole life that pleases God.” True worship is a life totally surrendered to God. Worship is not an action, it is a lifestyle.
So, whether you meet with other believers in a cathedral or a coffee shop, always remember that the true place of worship is right there where your heart is.