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Liturgy in Messianic Worship

Liturgy in Messianic Worship.

By Barney Kasdan, Messianic Rabbi

We seem to live in a generation which prides itself in its self-sufficiency. Whatever looks good to the individual; whatever spontaneous response comes from my feelings; this has tended to be the response in our post-modern society. It is not surprising that many of these same values have carried over into our modern approach to worship. While there is certainly a proper place for individuality and spontaneity in worship, it seems there is a potential for some blind spots as well. I have met a number of believers who resist any liturgical format because it is too “structured”. But I wonder if such people don’t miss a rich element in the larger picture of worship. Perhaps we should first ask “what is liturgy?” The biblical word is derived from two greek words; “laos” meaning people, and “ergon” meaning work. A common Hebrew term that is similar is “avodah” which means service. It was the term applied to the priesthood as they served in the Temple. All this gives us an insight into how G-d defines worship through liturgy – worship is not a performance that we observe, but a service that we do! And it may surprise some people how often worship through a structured liturgy is mentioned in the Scriptures.

In the Temple period, many special readings and liturgical meditations developed as an expression of Jewish worship. Even hundreds of years before the coming of Yeshua certain prayers were common; the Shema (Duet 6:4-9), the Amidah (18 benedictions, later changed to 19 because of the early Messianic Jews…but that’s another story!) and some scholars even believe such prayers as the Kaddish and the Aleinu were in tact before the first century as well. Of course, we should not overlook the Psalms, the longest book of the Bible, which in essence is a book of liturgy! The fact that all these prayers were used and continue in the modern synagogue is common knowledge to anyone aware of Jewish tradition.

Did Yeshua and his early Jewish disciples reject this mode of worship? Judge for yourself. Yeshua consistently attended synagogue and the Temple (John 18:20). We are aware of His teaching ministry, but can you imagine Him being called upon as a respected rabbi if He did not enter into the liturgical worship of His day? For Him it must have been a beautiful expression of praise to the Father. As Yeshua was asked one day what was the greatest of all the commandments of Torah, what did He say? He quoted the Shema, which is the heart of the liturgical worship for the Jew (Mark 12:28-34). And how can we forget the “Disciples Prayer” (Matthew 6:9-13) which is simply a summary of many Jewish prayers. You may want to compare Yeshua’s teaching to the Siddur (Jewish Prayer book) where you will find the following parallels:

  • “Our Father” – 5th Benediction of the Amidah
  • “Hallowed Be Thy Name” – the Kaddish
  • “Thy Kingdom Come” – the Kaddish
  • “Thy Will Be Done” – the Kaddish
  • “Give Us Our Daily Bread” – 9th Benediction of the Amidah
  • “Forgive Us Our Debts” – 6th Benediction of the Amidah 

It seems clear that Yeshua not only worshipped through the liturgy but also quoted it in the course of His teaching! Of course, He did warn of possible excesses and meaningless repetitions, but that had more to do with the heart attitude in worship than the content itself. When one’s heart is in tune with the Spirit of G-d, the liturgical expression can be a beautiful form indeed. Not surprisingly, we find the early Jewish believers expressing their worship of G-d in similar forms. We are told that they met “day by day in the Temple” (Acts 2:42-47), again implying active involvement in the traditional worship that they were accustomed to. In a fascinating note, it is even recorded that they were continually devoted…”to prayer.” The original language actually says “the prayers”, implying that it was more than just an unstructured prayer meeting, but they still incorporated elements of “the prayers” of their traditional Jewish liturgy. They, like us, would not agree with all the theology of the traditional Siddur, but there is much we can agree with and incorporate in our Messianic faith.

By the way, perhaps we should be prepared for a somewhat liturgical service in the Messianic Kingdom. “And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the 4 living creatures; and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshipped G-d, saying, ‘Amen, blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might, be to our G-d forever and ever. Amen” (Revelation 7:11-12).

The traditional liturgy can be a beautiful vehicle for uniting us together in a spirit of praise. And the focus is not just our limited experience with G-d, but on the eternal truths of His Word. It makes sense, therefore, that even in eternity there will be a structure to our worship. I wonder how much of that will be similar to the structures already found in the Scriptures? One of the primary goals of the Messianic movement is to follow the Messiah within a biblically balanced Jewish culture. As our hearts are filled with the Spirit of G-d, it would seem that liturgy and Messianic worship can fit wonderfully together for the glory of Yeshua HaMashiach.