How We Christians Worship
Translation and Commentary by EVERETT FERGUSON Dr. Everett Ferguson is professor of Bible at Abilene Christian University and editor of Encyclopedia of Early Christianity (Gardland, 1990).
On the day called Sunday there is a gathering together in the same place of all who live in a given city or rural district. The memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits. Then when the reader ceases, the president in a discourse admonishes and urges the imitation of these good things. Next we all rise together and send up prayers.
When we cease from our prayer, bread is presented and wine and water. The president in the same manner sends up prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people sing out their assent, saying the “Amen.” A distribution and participation of the elements for which thanks have been given is made to each person, and to those who are not present they are sent by the deacons.
Those who have means and are willing, each according to his own choice, gives what he wills, and what is collected is deposited with the president. He provides for the orphans and widows, those who are in need on account of sickness or some other cause, those who are in bonds, strangers who are sojourning, and in a word he becomes the protector of all who are in need.
We all make our assembly in common on Sunday, since it is the first day, on which God changed the darkness and matter and made the world, and Jesus Christ our Savior arose from the dead on the same day. For they crucified him on the day before Saturn’s day, and on the day after (which is the day of the Sun) he appeared to his apostles and disciples and taught these things, which we have offered for your consideration.
—First Apology, 67
There is no better place to begin studying early Christian worship than with this account of Justin Martyr. Justin knew Christianity in Asia as well as Rome, perhaps in Palestine also. And in one of his writings, his Apology, he left us this description of a typical worship service of the second century. Justin may not tell all, but where he can be checked by other second-century sources, those sources accord with his account. Justin was not a leader of the assembly, so he wrote his account as an active layperson.
“On a day called Sunday, there is a gathering together.”
“Sunday” was the pagan name for the day of the week, used because Justin was addressing a pagan audience. “First day of the week” was the Jewish name; the “Lord’s day” was the peculiarly Christian designation. In the earliest Christian references to this day, the final assembling of the saints at the Lord’s coming is in mind.
Here Justin connects Sunday with Creation and Redemption: “ . . . the first day, on which God changed the darkness and matter and made the world, and Jesus Christ our Savior arose from the dead on the same day.” Thus, the Christian day of assembly was connected by Justin with the beginning of the physical creation and with the beginning of the new creation at the Resurrection.
“The memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read.”
The Scripture reading was from either the writings that became the New Testament, or the Old Testament, or both. The “memoirs of the apostles” would be particularly the gospels. The “prophets” was a standing designation among Christians for the entirety of the Old Testament. But the prophetic books in the narrower sense had special meaning for the early Christians, since they pointed to Christ’s coming, and they may well have been the part most frequently read.
Justin does not say whether the reading was part of a continuous cycle of readings (a lectionary) or was chosen specifically for the day. The phrase “as long as time permits” implies that the reading was not of a fixed length, but it does not have to mean a random selection.
There is a third possibility: the reading may have been continuous from Sunday to Sunday, with each reading taking up where the reading last left off—but not of a predetermined length. The readings appear to be rather lengthy. In that day, these readings provided the principal opportunity for the average person to become familiar with the Scriptures.
“The president in a discourse admonishes and urges the imitation of these good things.”
The sermon was given by the “president.” The word need mean no more than “presiding brother,” but it can also mean “ruler,” and there seems no reason to doubt that this individual was the functionary we know elsewhere under the title bishop. In Justin’s time, he was a congregational overseer or pastor, not a diocesan bishop. He presided at the liturgy and administered the finances of the church as well as preached. He was a different person than the reader.
The sermon was expository in nature, based on the Scripture reading of the day, and made a practical application. As an apologist (someone who defends Christianity to pagan readers), Justin stresses the moral content of the preaching; “The president . . . urges the imitation of these good things.” That accords with much of the preaching in the early church.
“We all rise together and send up prayers.”
Justin tells us the congregation stood for prayer. Other sources tell us about the significance of this posture: A person kneeled or prostrated himself to express humility, contrition, repentance, confession of sin. Standing, on the other hand, was a sign of joy and boldness, showing the freedom of God’s children to come boldly into his presence.
On the first day of the week, standing had a special reference also to the Resurrection. This was the characteristic Christian attitude in prayer, as other texts and archaeological findings confirm. For early Christians, standing meant one had special privileges to come to God as Father, through Christ. To stand in the presence of God meant to be accepted by him and to have the right to speak freely.
The prayer referred to at this point in the assembly was the corporate or common prayer. It was evidently a free prayer. Justin may give some idea of the typical content earlier in his Apology:
“We praise the Maker of the universe as much as we are able by the word of prayer and thanksgiving for all the things with which we are supplied. . . . Being thankful in word, we send up to him honors and hymns for our coming into existence, for all the means of health, for the various qualities of the different classes of things, and for the changes of the seasons, while making petitions for our coming into existence again in incorruption by reason of faith in him.”
This summary statement accords with the general pattern that is found elsewhere: it begins with an address to God as Father and Creator, praises him for his mighty acts, moves from thanksgiving to petition, and closes with a doxology—all being done with reference to Christ.
“Bread is presented and wine and water.”
The bread and wine may have been ordinary, but they had no ordinary significance to Christians. The two highlights of the eucharistic celebration for Justin were the consecration and the Communion.
According to Judaism, something was dedicated to a proper purpose “by the Word of God and prayer.” The president’s thanksgiving, Justin notes earlier, made the bread and mixed wine no longer “common bread and common drink.”
We need not debate the exact import of Justin’s words connecting the bread and wine with the body and blood of Jesus. It is sufficient to note that, according to Justin, by the Word of God (Jesus) and by prayer (of thanksgiving) the bread and wine were now set apart consecrated, given a new significance.
When Justin mentions “wine and water,” I believe he’s loosely referring to the practice of mixing wine and water. The common table beverage of the ancient world was wine diluted with water. Justin thus counters wild pagan stories about the Christian meal by saying that Christians ate ordinary bread and drank the common table beverage (not something more intoxicating).
“The president in the same manner sends up prayers and thanksgivings.”
Earlier Justin specifically called the food Eucharist. The word means “thanksgiving” and points to the most important feature of second-century Communion: it was a thank offering. Although the New Testament usually calls it “the breaking of bread,” second-century Christian writers adopted the name Eucharist.
Throughout his writings, Justin makes much of thanksgiving. This was the Christian sacrifice. Unlike the bloody offerings of paganism, Christians offered to God the pure spiritual sacrifice of prayer and thanksgivings. A quote from the Gnostic writer Ptolemy probably expresses Justin’s thoughts on this: “The Savior commanded us to offer oblations, but not those of irrational animals or incense, but of spiritual praises, gloryings, and thanksgiving, and of fellowship and doing good to our neighbors.”
The president made this prayer “according to his ability.” The idea seems to be that human thanksgiving is inadequate to the greatness of God’s goodness, but all, insofar as they are able, try to express their gratitude.
In Justin’s day the prayer was extemporaneous. But we can’t rule out the presence of some formulae recurring frequently. For example, elsewhere in Justin’s writings we read that the president “sends up praise and glory to the Father of all through the name of his Son and of the Holy Spirit and makes thanksgiving at length for the gifts we were counted worthy to receive from him” and “We thank God for having created the world with all things in it on behalf of man, and for having delivered us from the evil in which we were and completely overthrowing the principalities and powers by the one who suffered according to his will.”
The main theme, therefore, was praise and thanksgiving to God for his gifts, and these included both Creation and Redemption, but especially Redemption.
“The people sing out their assent, saying the ‘Amen.’ ”
The word amen is Hebrew and is explained earlier by Justin as meaning “may it be so.” The congregational amen at the conclusion of prayer or in response to a doxology was taken over from the synagogue in the earliest days of the church. By the amen, the congregation confirmed what had been said, and so made the prayer pronounced by one person the joint prayer of the whole people.
Justin seems to have been much impressed with this element of congregational participation. He describes its rendition with a word that has a double meaning: to make acclamation, or to sing. I have tried to bring out both meanings in the translation “sing out their assent.” We should think of a chant-like, unison acclamation. It was shouted out, not mumbled.
“A distribution and participation of the elements . . . is made to each person.”
The elements consecrated by prayer were then distributed by the deacons for the communion of the members. Each person received both the bread and mixed wine.
One was either in communion, or one was not. Sharing the bread and wine expressed the fellowship of the believing community. The deacons even carried the consecrated elements to those who were sick and unable to be present physically, preserving a sense of corporate fellowship among those confined to their homes or beds.
Justin mentions earlier (in describing a baptismal Eucharist) that following the common prayers, and before bread and wine were brought forward, “we salute one another with a kiss.” The “holy kiss” or “kiss of love” was particularly appropriate in a baptismal context, but it may have been employed at other observances of the Eucharist. It was an expression of brotherly love; it welcomed the newly baptized into the family of God. Justin had emphasized that “it is not lawful for any other one to partake” of the Eucharist than one in the full fellowship of the church.
The exchange of the kiss was the sign of being in that fellowship.
“Those who have means and are willing, each according to his own choice, gives what he wills.”
Although other sources describe offerings of produce, Justin describes a contribution of money. He emphasizes the voluntary nature of the gifts. The money deposited with the president was not an assessment. The congregational contribution, therefore, was unlike the “dues” of the clubs and private associations that were so common in the Hellenistic and Roman worlds. It was a freewill gift.
The persons who benefited from the almsgiving—orphans, widows, sick, prisoners, and strangers—are often mentioned in Christian texts.
These activities of Sunday assembly in Justin’s day have remained through the ages:
• the Word of God (both read and preached)
• corporate prayer (including the psalms)
• Communion of the bread and wine
• offering of one’s possessions.
Justin describes a liturgy, then, in which there are two balanced pairs of activity. In the service of the Word, God speaks to human beings. In prayer, human beings speak to God. The Word of God to us calls forth the response of our words to him.
In the second pair, the Eucharist represents God’s gift to us—spiritual life through Christ. The offering or contribution represents the gifts of his people to God. God gives, and we give in return.
The modern liturgical movement has said much about “primitive wholeness.” That describes Justin’s account. It is commonly said that in the medieval church the Mass was emphasized at the expense of other activities of worship, and that in the Reformation, preaching was highlighted at the expense of the rest of worship.
The worship described by Justin calls us back to fundamentals. CH
By Justin Martyr
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #37 in 1993]Justin Martyr was a philosopher and defender of Christianity who was martyred in Rome in about 165. He was the author of First Apology, Second Apology, and Dialogue with Trypho the Jew.
Inside Pagan WorshipMichael Walsh
Worship in the Early Church: Christian History Timeline
Chronology of worship in the early church.David F. Wright
Worship in the Early Church: A Gallery of Wordsmiths of Worship
Key personages who wrote for or about worship in the early church.James D. Smith III
Where Did Christians Worship?
The house church was a common meeting place in early Christianity, but not the only one.Christopher Haas
Subscribe to magazine
Subscription to Christian History magazine is on a donation basisSubscribe
Christian History Institute (CHI) is a non-profit Pennsylvania corporation founded in 1982. Your donations support the continuation of this ministryDonate