Long ago, in ages past, the Creator remembered, recalling the promise He made to Abraham. “Through [Abraham, God will bless], all the people of the earth” (Genesis 12:3). So, years later, the Almighty enlists a Hebrew man raised in an Egyptian household, Moses. Through him, the remembering God rescues these descendants of the promise, using the water of the Red Sea to deliver them from Pharaoh’s armies.
For over 400 years, these Israelites lived as foreigners, strangers in a strange land. Over time, the unusual ways of Egypt became familiar. The Egyptian gods began to sing in their hearts more than Yahweh, the One who spoke His promises to His people. So, not only did the all-knowing God need to remove the Israelite from Egypt but the Egyptian lurking within each Israelite.
So, a reintroduction is in order. At Sinai, God gives His people His words, which we call the “Ten Commandments.” In the Hebrew, these sounds ring in their ears, “These are the words” (Exodus 20:1), not commandments. The first word is, “I, the Lord, your God, brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2).
The Lord saves and delivers, around which all else revolves. Only after their rescue, do the other words make sense. Don’t follow other gods, for they don’t set you free. Don’t take my name into the emptiness, for Yahweh is the Lord of glory, and no one else. Remember the Sabbath Day, the day to rest, for only His work saves you.
The Lord wants His people to remember who He is every week. So, He directs a day to set work aside, where He will come to them and save them once more. This salvation, however, will no longer be from a wicked Pharaoh who enslaves them, but from eternal death and the Devil.
The Almighty commands what is to take place, but not how. How are they to gather in His presence, where what they do doesn’t become some attempted saving deed done for their Maker? For if they are doing the work, they violate His words. The mystery is solved as Moses receives more instructions from God. Build a Tabernacle with many furnishings. Set up a priesthood to offer sacrifices, through which the Father will bring His forgiveness to His people. The instructions arrive, with much detail.
What the people want doesn’t matter, since the ways of Egypt still echo within them. The people make a golden calf at Sinai, revealing their wish to come to their Creator through the pagan forms of Egypt (Exodus 32:5). So, to give them a new heart, their Savior commands a Sabbath rest, with many rituals. These perform a purpose, reminding them of their Rescuer, and saving them once more.
So, on the chosen day to rest, the people assemble at the Tabernacle to recall the One who saves them. To remember is not only a mental act but being brought back to the saving event. Every week, when they are where their divine rescue comes to them, they remember, which takes place through those decreed rituals.
Every seventh day, the people gather where God comes to be with His people. Time passes, and King Solomon builds a Temple, a permanent version of the Tabernacle. Such is what the Almighty decreed for His people. To stay away from His directed rest is to violate His command. To do something else instead of remembering their Rescuer through His prescribed rituals is not recalling Him, but forgetting Him. For God told them how to remember, in His way. Any other way is wrong.
Still, what will occur when Israel grows, and many live too far away to go to the Temple every week? In Exodus 34, before the people build the Tabernacle, God tells them.
“Keep the Festival of Weeks, the Firstfruits of the Wheat Harvest, and the Festival of the Final Harvest at the end of the season. All your [people], three times a year, are to appear before Yahweh, the God of Israel.” [Exodus 34:22-23]
The Lord directs His people to celebrate three festivals. Shouldn’t they be at the Tabernacle every week anyway, based on what the Lord earlier decreed? Yes! So, telling the Israelites to attend three, distinct festivals is redundant and makes little sense.
Ah, but what God is doing does make sense. For He is pointing to a time when going to the altar of sacrifice, each Sabbath, will not be possible since most people will live too far away. For them, they will schedule those three festivals into their calendar.
The Lord presumes a place of rest away from His altar of sacrifice. For such a day will come. In Leviticus, He reveals, “The seventh day is a day of Sabbath rest, a day of sacred assembly…. wherever you live, the day is a Sabbath to the Lord” (Leviticus 23:3). “Wherever you live.” The people are to gather to rest in God, where they live.
So, two tracks of remembering their Rescuer now exist for the Jews. The Temple, which God commanded, is the primary way to remember Him. Now, if someone lives too far away, he goes to the synagogue, where Scripture enters his ears, and he receives instruction and a sermon. Still, the key event is what happens at the altar of sacrifice. For the Lord commanded the Temple, not the synagogue, which means those distant, scattered places of the preached Word exist to support the Temple.
Such a religious landscape exists when Jesus becomes incarnate. Later, as a man, He steps into His role as the Messiah, making His way to the cross. On the way, Jesus goes to both the Temple and synagogue, affirming both. Never does He undercut those institutions, only the Jewish misunderstandings and misuse of them.
The enfleshed Christ goes to death and dies. The Spirit He promised descends on the first Christians, 50 days after His resurrection. The Apostle Peter preaches a firestorm of a sermon, and the Holy Spirit brings 3,000 into the Church. Now what, for they live in the New Covenant, not the Old?
What did the first Christians do? In faith, they devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread, and to the Prayers (Acts 2:42). What we don’t realize is what is taking place in this explanation of Christian worship. So, we start with the last description first.
The Scripture uses the term, “the Prayers,” not “prayer.” Why, and why does this matter? Here’s why. “The Prayers” is a particular term referring to the synagogue assembly. Several first-century documents, engraved in clay, exist from archaeological finds. In them, a Jewish slave owner agrees to free a slave—if he continues to go to “the Prayers,” the synagogue. The expression uses part of the service to describe the whole.
So, Christian worship brings in the synagogue, though in a way which recognizes Christ’s fulfillment. Let’s consider “Exhibit A” in the bulletin. In our reading from Acts, we find a literary form called a “chiasm,” listing a couple of items, repeating them in reverse order, but using different words.
The Apostle’s teaching comes first, ending with “the Prayers.” Both are the same. In the synagogue, instruction and preaching took place, as did prayer. So, what happened in those gatherings become what we call, “the Service of the Word.” The pastor preaches, and we go to our Savior in prayer. Let’s examine “Exhibit B” so we can understand how the Apostles folded in the scaffolding of the synagogue service.
Still, we are missing the other half, which brings in the Temple. Of course, we don’t slaughter animals because Christ died for us. All those animals pointed forward to the Sacrifice of Christ, who will die to free us from eternal death and the Devil.
So, back to Exhibit A.
In the center, we find “the fellowship” and “the breaking of bread.” These aren’t two separate items, for the word for “fellowship” is the same word for “communion,” koinonia. What is this communion? “The breaking of bread.”
Again, we find an expression where a part describes the whole. In a communion, we come together for “the breaking of bread,” where Christ delivers to us what He offered on the cross to save us. Did our Savior not offer His body and blood for our salvation? Yes, and He gives us the forgiveness He earned in His death, here, in His Supper.
So, what takes place here is not our work for God, but what He does for us. Here, we rest, stopping our work. In this sweet hour of blessing, we experience the New Covenant forms of both synagogue and Temple worship.
So, we now examine “Exhibit C.” All the Temple sacrifices are now obsolete. For Jesus fulfilled them all in His death, who now delivers His forgiveness to us in His Holy Meal. For His Supper doesn’t only supersede the Passover but all the sacrifices.
The synagogue did not replace but, instead, upheld the Temple. The chiasm in Exhibit A revolves around this idea. For in a chiasm, the central or most important point is in the center, which makes sense since the synagogue supported the Temple, not the other way around. In the same way, the Service of the Word directs us to the Sacrament, where Jesus comes to us in His body and blood.
Now, this may sound strange to our ears, yet such is true. For when we consider what Christ decreed, we learn He did command us to celebrate His Supper: take, eat; take, drink. Those are commands from our Savior’s mouth. Not so with the proclaimed Word. For Jesus only spoke words dealing with preaching in the passive voice, “Repentance for the forgiveness of sin is to be proclaimed in His name” (Luke 24:47).
Every week, we remember our Savior because we need what He gives us—salvation. Now, if you think you come to Church to do something for God, you turn His rest for you into your work for Him. Stop and rest, which is what our Lord wants for you. Rest in Jesus’ rescue, where He delivers you from sin, death, and the Devil. Amen.