The origin of our weekly church service lies in the Bible in the book of Exodus. In Exodus 12, God instructs Israel to celebrate the Feast of Unleavened Bread for seven days, with a holy convocation (coming together) on the first and last days (Exodus12:16). This is the first time in the Bible that we come across the word ‘convocation’ meaning meeting, or coming together. Leviticus 23 also talks about a weekly convocation or meeting (on the Sabbath) and meetings or convocations on special feast days.
After the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple during the first century after Christ, the early church continued to celebrate only one of the biblical feasts – Passover. Their celebrations included the added element of celebrating Christ’s resurrection from the dead. This was celebrated on the Sunday during the week of Passover. For a long time this was the only feast and a central point in the Christian calendar. The cycle of 50 days between Passover and Pentecost were also observed, but were seen as part of one continuous period rather than separate feasts. This was the situation in the early church right up until the 4th century.
Changing the times and the laws
The Bible is very clear that the feasts have to be celebrated on the days that God has appointed for them (Leviticus 23:4). This was because the feasts in Leviticus 23 are prophetic and were or will be fulfilled in the time God appointed for them. In the first centuries of the early church, both Jewish believers and heathen believers observed the biblical calendar. Passover was celebrated on the biblical date beginning on the 14th day of the 1st month as stipulated in Exodus 12. In Asia Minor this practice continued till the 4th Century. However there was increasingly more anti-Jewish feeling in the church, which meant that people began to stray away from the teaching of the apostles.
During the council of Laodicea in the 367 A.D. Christians were forbidden to stop work on Saturday, the biblical Sabbath (which they were obviously still doing). They were also forbidden during Passover, to accept Matzot (or Matzos – unleavened bread) from Jews. John Chrysostom, the bishop of Antiochus, a man of enormous influence to this day in the Greek Orthodox Church, wrote in 386: “Jews are like unreasoning animals. Through their drunkenness and filth they are contaminated by the worst kind of evil, and have refused both the yoke of Christ and the plough of His teaching…. They are not fit for work and unreasoning beasts like this are only fit for slaughter.” John Chrysostom forbade gentile Christians to have anything whatsoever in common with Jews.
It was the Roman Emperor Constantine, a worshipper of the Roman sun god, who actually set about changing the times and the laws. He decided that a feast celebrating Christ’s birth should be celebrated on the same day that the rebirth of the sun god ‘Sol Invictus’ – the 25th of December. The Sabbath was moved to the ‘sun’ day. The Biblical calendar which made use of both the sun and moon cycles was converted to a calendar based only on the sun (solar calendar). Constantine also forbade Christians to continue celebrating their feasts on the dates God has appointed. In the year 325 he wrote about Passover: “It is undesirable to follow the customs of the Jews in the celebration of this most holy feast, because they have godlessly defiled their hands with enormous sin. we desire, dearest brethren, to separate ourselves from the detestable company of the Jews Let us have nothing in common with the detestable Jewish people.”
From then on, Passover was celebrated on the date on which the pagan goddess Ashtoret or Isthar (the female partner of the sun god) was honoured. In many languages this was even named after the goddess, so we have names like “Easter” in English and “Ostern” in German. Nearly all Christian churches and groups continue to celebrate the death and resurrection of Christ on the pagan date, even though many of them regard themselves as being faithful to the Bible.
Holy convocation: “Mikrah Kodesh”
The Hebrew phrase for a ‘holy convocation’, in Exodus and Leviticus 23 is “mikrah kodesh”. The convocation or coming together is ‘holy’ because it is special, set apart for God.
The Hebrew word “mikrah” is translated with convocation or meeting and means, among other things: An invitation to a feast or a celebration meal. When the tabernacle and after that the temple in Jerusalem still existed, sacrifices were brought and were eaten together by everyone. This continued in the early church. It was common practice to eat a special meal or feast with each other (an agape meal) after celebrating communion or the Lords supper together.
“Mikrah” or convocation also means ‘a rehearsal’. The convocation or meeting was a dress rehearsal for a future event. Through the feasts God gave Israel a preview of His prophetic plan. It is no coincidence that the exodus out of Egypt had to be celebrated with a Passover lamb accompanied with bitter herbs and unleavened bread (see Exodus 12 and Deuteronomy 16). It points towards Jesus, the true Passover lamb, who died and rose from the dead during this feast.
The Location of the Weekly Meeting
The early church in Israel and later in Greece and Asia Minor, always met either in someone’s house, in the courtyard or atrium, or in a place where there was flowing water.
There was often a slightly elevated place in the middle of the place where they met (and not at the front). This was called the ‘bimah’. From this slightly raised position, the Torah was read out aloud and explained. However the person who did the teaching was generally seated and their audience stood all around them. The seat on which they sat was called the “kathedra”, meaning literally – a seat. This is the root of the word ‘Cathedral’.
Both the synagogue and the other places where Christians later came together were intended for fellowship and community. People not only heard the Word being read aloud, but they learned together, ate together, celebrated together and worshipped together. In Hebrew this meeting place was called a ‘Bet Knesset’ (house of meeting).
Our modern word ‘church’ comes from the Greek “kuriakos”, meaning ‘that which is from the Lord’. The church is neither a building, nor an organisation; it is the people of God together – an organised organism.
The Timing of the weekly meetings
The early church met together on various days of the week, following the pattern in the synagogue (and based on the services in the Temple). In the synagogue there were 22 meetings a week for prayer, three times a day (at the time of the morning, midday and evening sacrifices and an extra meeting on Saturday, the Sabbath). On the Sabbath (Saturday) and on the days on which people normally fasted (Mondays and Thursdays – as did the Jews), people came to hear the Torah being read out aloud. Remember – very few people had their own personal copy of the scriptures at home. The Christian church however, grew further and further away from their Jewish beginnings and began to meet on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays and forbade fasting on the Mondays and Thursdays.
The content of the weekly meetings
In the early church the meetings had two important components. One was the reading of the Word, with everything that accompanied it.
The other was celebrating communion or the Lords Supper together with everything that accompanied it (including the ‘agape’- love meal- which was a shared meal).
For a long time, communion or the Lords supper was still celebrated together with an ‘agape’ or love meal (See 1 Cor 11:17 and Jude 12). However over time the two were separated and the Lords Supper or communion was celebrated during the morning service while the communal “agape” meal continued to be held in the evening.
The service looked roughly like this:
- The Word:
Scripture was read out aloud, often interspersed with singing
The bishop or overseer of the church gave a sermon or explanation
Prayer for the needs of the body of Christ (including prayer for other churches)
Those who were still being prepared for baptism or had not yet given their lives to Christ were then send out.
- The Lords Supper:
The kiss of peace (we no longer know what this consisted of)
Bringing forward the offers of bread and wine (which everyone had brought with them)
The prayer of thanks for the bread and the wine (known as ‘the eucharist’ which means thanksgiving in Greek)
Breaking the bread and pouring the wine
Sharing it out amongst each other
Conclusion by sending out the church with a blessing
From the Sabbath to Sunday
The first day of the week (Sunday) had, from very early on, a central position in the church, but not as a day of rest. It was in that time both in Israel and in the rest of the world a normal working day. For the first church, Sunday was a day to celebrate the resurrection of their Redeemer, with the Lords supper or communion. This resulted in it sometimes being referred to as the ‘Day of the Lord’. It was also referred to in Latin as ‘Dominica’, and amongst Jewish believers it was spoken of as the eighth day, the climax of the seven days.
Later on, Christians under the influence of the Emperor Constantine began to use the pagan Roman name “dies solis” – the day of the sun or Sunday. (The Romans worshipped the sun as a god.)
The first Christians in Israel and in Asia Minor continued to meet on Saturday, the biblical Sabbath , but celebrated the end of the Sabbath and the beginning of the first day of the week (on Saturday evening) with the Lords Supper in remembrance of Jesus resurrection.
They also continued to celebrate the feast of Passover on the biblical date beginning on the 14th day of the 1st month, but with the depth of meaning added by Jesus life, death and resurrection.
In the fourth century the Roman Emperor Constantine forbade meetings on the Sabbath. He went even further and chose a new date for Passover, which most of the Christian church still follow today. However the fact remains that the Passover meal, together with Jesus resurrection forms the basis of our church meetings.
The meetings are meant to be a weekly rehearsal for a very special future occasion – the wedding feast of the Lamb (see Rev 19:7). Our meetings are still meant to be ‘holy’ (see Heb 12:23) and we should still come together, each of us dressed in our best and with something to offer (Psalm 29:2).
 Eusebius, Vita Const., Lib. iii., 18-20.