For millennia, the church understood the purpose of its gathering to be for worship. Today some scholars argue that “Christians worship everywhere,” that there “was no chapter and verse” (so to speak) that indicated that the early church thought of its assembly as a time for worship.
This should be a warning to us on the dangers of exegesis. Sometimes we demand the Scriptures affirm certain teachings in a way that satisfies our own strict requirements, and so deny that they exist; in so doing we sometimes overlook the fact that the Scriptures actually affirm those themes in its own subtle way.
I believe that there are several themes and passages in the New Testament that point to the assembly of believers as a place of worship. I want to highlight a few of them off and on over the next several days.
The first is the phrase “house of God.” While this phrase undoubtedly meant to give the church the nuance of the meaning of the Graeco-Roman household, I do not believe that it can be so easily divorced from its Old Testament referent, traces of which we see in the Gospels.
In 1 Timothy 3:15, Paul says that he wants Timothy to know how to behave in the “household of God,” clearly equating this phrase with the church, as we see in the following phrase, “the church of the living God.”
The phrase “house of God” is used in all three Synoptic Gospels (the Synoptic Gospels are Matthew, Mark, and Luke) in connection with a single account related by each evangelist. All three, though differing here and there in the wording of the account, record the words, “house of God.” The three passages are Matt 12:4, Mark 2:26, and, Luke 6:4. The latter says, beginning in verse 3,
And Jesus answered them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those with him?”
Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record this story where Jesus shows he is Lord over the Sabbath. In this story, to what does the house of God refer? The tabernacle, which was at that point in Nob. (21:1)
“House of God” often refers to the tabernacle or temple in the Old Testament. But even before that, Jacob calls the place where he dreamt of the ladder to heaven, “Bethel,” or “house of God.” In Judges 18:30, the Danites set up some idols carved by Micah, “as long as the house of God was at Shiloh.” Several times in 1 Chronicles, the tabernacle is referred to the “house of God.” For example, 1 Chron 9:25-27 says,
And their kinsmen who were in their villages were obligated to come in every seven days, in turn, to be with these, for the four chief gatekeepers, who were Levites, were entrusted to be over the chambers and the treasures of the house of God. And they lodged around the house of God, for on them lay the duty of watching, and they had charge of opening it every morning.
The temple gets that name in 2 Chronicles. As in 3:3, “These are Solomon’s measurements for building the house of God: the length, in cubits of the old standard, was sixty cubits, and the breadth twenty cubits.” Likewise with Daniel and Ecclesiastes. So in Ezra, the “house of God” is what Ezra sets on to rebuild, and in Nehemiah the newly rebuilt temple reclaims its title as “house of God.” The psalmist Psa 52:8 is “like a green olive tree in the house of God. I trust in the steadfast love of God forever and ever.”
So in the Old Testament, the house of God refers to the place of God’s presence, and by implication, the place set aside for worship. There is no other place so designated for public worship than Christ’s church, gathered believers. In this era specific places do not matter, but the church itself (which is not a building, nor defined by a fixed place) is the specially designated locus for people to gather and worship God. True public worship can only take place in the midst of those who believe in Christ, the church. Public worship is not tied to place, but to a people–the church. This is not to say that believers do not worship outside church. Indeed, all of our lives are to be pleasing sacrifices–true spiritual worship–to God. Conscious and deliberate private worship should be an ongoing practice in the lives of saints, as much as they are able. But when those who are individually leading lives as sacrifices to God come together, the collected flames of worship burn more brightly to God. Truly, the church is the place that nurtures those individual flames of worship, and is the primary means designed by God to cultivate and grow that life of worship that characterizes believers.
Another important occurrence of the phrase “house of God” is in Hebrews 10:19-24.
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
Jesus Christ is a great priest over the “house of God,” the church. Therefore we should draw near to God in holiness, holding fast our confession. Note the context here of “not neglecting to meet together.” The author of Hebrews has the church in view. We the church are the “house of God,” he says, drawing near–worshipping– through Christ, our great high priest. We–the church–are entering the true holy places in heaven through Jesus when gathering together.
As I mentioned before, the reference to “house of God” would have had a double connotation as the churches in Ephesus, like all early churches, most likely met in someone’s house. In many ways God’s family or house resembles the Graeco-Roman family or house. Therefore Paul can in 1 Tim 3:4 connect the way the bishop oversees his own house with how he will oversee God’s house. I do believe that the phrase “house of God” would have taken on that added sense in the New Testament. Yet I find it very difficult to believe that the significance of the phrase’s connotation as temple/tabernacle would have so quickly been subsumed under “household,” particularly for someone like Paul who knew the Old Testament so well. The church is now the place wherein God lives; Christ himself dwells in its midst. I should add here that 1 Timothy 3:15 would not be the only place where Paul fuses the two ideas, using “house of God” to refer both to temple/place of worship/place of God’s presence as well as God’s household/family. Consider Eph 2:19-22,
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.
In conclusion, the phrase “house of God” which is used to refer to the church in several places in the New Testament, would have had connotations for believers familiar with the Old Testament of the temple, the place of God’s presence and place of worship.