Worship and the Spirit in the New Testament

Yale Conference on Worship and the Spirit: February 21–23 2008
N. T. Wright, Bishop of Durham


At first sight, it appears strange that those who have written about the Holy Spirit in the New Testament have not usually given much attention to worship, and those who have written about worship in the New Testament have not usually given much attention to the Holy Spirit. Gordon Fee’s massive book on the Spirit in Paul has precisely three pages on worship; Paul Bradshaw’s splendid book on the Origins of Christian Worship doesn’t have either Spirit or Holy Spirit in the index. These may be unrepresentative but I don’t think so. Even the Westminster/SCM Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship has no entry under Spirit or Holy Spirit. You might have thought it would at least advise us to look under ‘Pentecost’ instead, but it doesn’t.

And yet it may not be so strange; or, perhaps the strangeness is located in the material itself. Mostly, when worship is either discussed or evidenced in the New Testament, the Spirit is not mentioned, and mostly when the Spirit is mentioned, worship is not. There are obvious exceptions, such as 1 Corinthians 14. But when we look at the great references to worship, or the great examples of worship, such as the hymns in Revelation 4 and 5 or the poems in Philippians 2 or Colossians 1, the Spirit seems conspicuously absent. Perhaps, after all, the apparent scholarly lacuna reflects, even if accidentally, a gap in the early Christian writings themselves.

A further word about the subject matter. In both cases – ‘worship’ and ‘Spirit’ – there is an implied double focus. As I hinted a moment ago, there is a difference between talking about worship and actually doing it, or at least quoting material used in worship. Thus Paul in Romans 1 refers to the worship which humans ought to be offering to God for his greatness, power and divinity, but which in fact they refuse. There is no suggestion – at least, I’ve never met one – that he is there quoting an actual liturgical formula. But at the end of Romans 11, when he is praising God for the depth of his wisdom and mercy, he is actually worshipping, whether or not he is using or adapting formulae known from elsewhere. And in between these two we find those Christological poems or hymns which form part of the argument of his letters but which many scholars have assumed were being quoted from the worship of the church. I shall be referring to all three of these categories, but it’s worth being clear that they are subtly different kinds of thing. (And all of them, of course, are now embedded in the documents, in Paul’s case the letters, that provide a different setting, context and genre.) So it is, too, with the Spirit. There are many passages that talk about the Spirit and its work and effects. Depending on your view of inspiration, you may want to say that the whole New Testament is the result of the Spirit’s work; and, once you step back from individual passages and construct a larger theology of worship, you will undoubtedly want to say that the Spirit is at work in the worship of the church even when that fact isn’t mentioned. Again and again the worship offered in the Book of Revelation appears binitarian, praising God and the Lamb, and only gradually do we understand what becomes clear near the very end, that the Spirit is at work within the church, enabling the worshipping church to be the worshipping church. ‘The Spirit and the Bride say, Come’; the Spirit enables the Bride to be the Bride. Once we recognise these dual and indeed multiple focuses, our subject-matter may appear wider than at first sight.

I don’t wish to widen it too far, however. A good deal that is written about early Christian worship assumes almost at once that ‘worship’ really means ‘liturgy’, and that liturgy can quite quickly be focussed on sacramental liturgy and the like. Now that is hugely important, though again it is interesting how, for example with the New Testament references to the Eucharist, the Spirit is conspicuously absent. (How careless of Paul, we are inclined to think! How much easier he could have made it for himself and for us if only he’d added the pneumatological dimension to 1 Corinthians 10 and 11! There is always John 6, of course, but that brings its own problems . . .) I want to focus, rather, on the fact and act of worship in itself, that is, on the human activity of giving God the glory, of praising the creator for his goodness and power, his judgments and his mercy both past, present and future. I want to try to understand how, in the mind of the NT writers at least, the Spirit was supposed to be involved in this activity, and where this understanding belonged on the larger map of early Christian theology and practice.

That understanding, it seems to me, was not substantially advanced by the earlier fad for discovering allusions to, or echoes of, primitive Christian worship in a good many texts of the New Testament. Without prejudice to the question of whether Philippians 2.5–11 was written for church use before Paul incorporated it into the letter as we now have it, labelling such a passage ‘worship’ or ‘liturgy’ is of little help exegetically either in understanding what the passage itself is saying or in grasping how it works rhetorically and theologically within the larger unit of the letter itself. The passion for discovering liturgy – what the late great Charlie Moule characterized as ‘our professors saying “worship, worship” where there is no worship’ – belongs, strictly speaking, not to the exegetical task but to the attempt to recover, behind the text, something called ‘early Christian experience’ and the like. Not that this is not a proper historical question in itself. I merely think it is a much more uncertain quest than the last generation supposed.

In particular, the attempt to discover fragments of worship, and signs of the Spirit’s inspiration, in the pre-synoptic tradition, seems to me very tenuous. In fact, both the motivation for such a search and the method by which it worked seem to me flawed beyond repair. I have no doubt that the stories of Jesus were told and retold within the life of the early church. But to work back from that and suggest that they were shaped by worship as such, let alone generated in the course of Spirit-inspired prophecy within such worship, seems to me pure assertion, and I shan’t be going in that direction in what follows.

Rather, I want to situate my study within the context of the much more historically secure worshipping life of first-century Judaism. This is the subject of another chapter, so I needn’t say much, except to note that of course this worship is focussed centrally on the Temple, with the prayers, festivals and particularly the sacrificial cult all prominent. Away from the Temple, synagogue worship would include, centrally, the reading of Torah, the singing of Psalms, and again the prayers, notably the Shema and the Eighteen Benedictions. And, so as not to keep you in suspense, my somewhat unoriginal proposal is that when we look at the Spirit and worship in the New Testament we find that the early Christians believed that their Spirit-led worship was the new-covenantal form of that synagogue and temple worship, worshipping the same creator God but filling that worship with new content relating specifically to Jesus crucified and risen – and believing (as, interestingly, did the community at Qumran) that the promised Holy Spirit was leading them in that worship.

But with that it is high time to turn to some particular texts. And I begin, obviously at one level though not at another, with the book of Acts.


1. Acts

The grand scene of Pentecost in Acts 2, prepared for in the previous chapter with the promise of Jesus which itself looks back to the words of John the Baptist near the start of the gospel narrative itself, has been studied so often in connection with the Pentecostal movement and its associated phenomena that we may have missed, or at least sidelined, two things about it which seem to me of great importance.

The first is that this chapter forms something of a parallel, in Acts, to the baptism of Jesus in the gospel, and thus demands to be understood not simply as a fascinating and initiatory incident in the very early life of the church but as the story which must be held in the mind as a kind of running heading for all that is to follow. Just as Jesus’ baptism and anointing with the Spirit in Luke 3 is to be understood as standing behind and explaining everything else, from his ‘Messianic’ proclamation in Luke 4 to his messianic death and resurrection, so that coming of the Spirit in Acts 2 is to be understood as standing behind and explaining everything else that the church then does, particularly its worship, its mission and its bold stand in obeying God rather than human authorities. Thus, when Luke later tells us that the Christians gathered together were all filled with the Spirit and spoke God’s word with boldness, this should be understood not as a fresh and momentary filling, repeating Pentecost as it were on a strictly temporary basis, but as a fresh manifestation of what had been the case all along since Pentecost itself. The church from Acts 2 onwards is the Spirit-led church, with worship as an integral part of its proper life.

The second point about Acts 2 is that the sudden filling of the house with the wind and fire is, I suggest, described in such a way as to evoke the various mainfestations of the creator God in the Old Testament, not least the filling of the Tabernacle or Temple with God’s presence at the end of Exodus, at Solomon’s dedication, and at Isaiah’s moment of vision and call. The church is thereby constitued as, among other things, the counter-Temple movement, and this becomes abundantly clear in the chapters which follow, not just in Stephen’s speech which draws this theme out explicitly but in the chapters which build up to it, in which the Christians more or less take over Solomon’s porch, close enough in to be a threat and far enough out to be an alternative. There is of course considerable ambiguity and tension inherent in all this, because they still worship in the Temple proper – presumably, though Luke does not say so, offering animal sacrifices – but their characteristic common life is not focussed there, but in their various homes, where they devote themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers. Here we have the root, I suggest, of that developed Temple-ecclesiology which we shall see elsewhere. Because the living God had come to live and work personally and powerfully in their lives and in their midst, the early Christians saw themselves as the alternative Temple, and though it took time for this to be worked out in all its implications it was present from the very start. And this in turn explains the constant counter-Temple theme, whether the Temples in question be that in Jerusalem as in Acts 7 or those in Athens as in Acts 17.

It is in this context, that of the church worshipping in the power of the Spirit, that the major new advances in mission take place. Classically, this is expressed at the start of chapter 13, where during worship, prayer and fasting the Spirit instructs the church in Antioch to set apart Barnabas and Saul for fresh work. And that work consists, not least, of calling pagans to acknowledge and worship the creator God, the God of Israel. There isn’t a direct, simplisitc account of the Spirit leading people to worship or calling forth that worship from them, but in the overall narrative Luke is telling the Spirit inspires the worship of the church, the worship which stakes the astonishing claim to be the reality to which the Temple-worship was pointing all along, and thereby enables the church to be the missionary community.

2. John

With John we enter a multi-textured and many-layered world in which the Temple and its worship are never far away. Jesus goes to Jerusalem not once or twice but frequently, following the pattern of regularly festivals – Passover, Tabernacles, Dedication, Passover again. Jesus, John has told us early on (1.33), is the one who has the Spirit and gives it to others; and the regular going up to Jerusalem is the rhythm of worship within the Jewish calendar which Jesus fills, fulfills and transcends, as he does with the six water jars in chapter 2, at which point John gives us a nudge in relation to the Jewish purification customs, implying again that these too are fulfilled and transcended.

It is within that overall context of Jesus’ transcending the Jewish life of worship that we encounter one of the most spectacular moments of Johannine pneumatology. In chapter 7, Jesus goes to Jerusalem for the feast of Tabernacles, during which water was poured out to symbolize God’s provision of water from the rock in the wilderness (the Exodus-motifs are seldom far away from Jewish, or indeed early Christian, worship). Then, on the last and great day of the feast, Jesus takes this central act of worship and transforms it around himself. ‘If anybody is thirsty, they should come to me and drink; the one who believes in me, as the scripture says, out of that person’s heart will flow rivers of living water.’ He was speaking about the Spirit, explains John, which those who believed in him would receive; for as yet there was no Spirit (oupō gar ēn pneuma) because Jesus was not yet glorified. Jesus is himself the source of the water – both the water in the wilderness and also, with a clear allusion, the water promised in Isaiah 55.1. Jesus is the real focal point of the festival, inviting people to ‘come to him and drink’, to give to him the place which YHWH himself would normally take in their worship. The double invitation to ‘come’ and ‘believe’ echoes the previous chapter, where Jesus declared that ‘those who come to me will never be hungry, and those who believe in me will never be thirsty’ (6.35); but this time the result of ‘coming’ and ‘believing’ and ‘drinking’ is not the mere quenching of thirst, important though that is, but the transformation of the believer not only into a receptacle for the living water, as in John 4 and 6, but a conduit or channel: ‘out of the believer’s heart’ (not merely into it) ‘will flow rivers of living water’. Here, offering Jesus the worship which transcends the dramatic retelling of the Exodus story in praise of YHWH results in the gift of the Spirit. This happens, John says, not at once, but after Jesus is ‘glorified’, i.e. lifted up on the cross. John 20. 19–22 answers to this as the risen Jesus breathes the Spirit onto his rejoicing followers, not for their own sake but to equip them for their otherwise impossible task: ‘as the Father sent me, so I send you’. The puzzle about the biblical reference in 7.38 (‘as the scripture says’) is best resolved, as I think the majority of exegetes agree, by reference to the end of Ezekiel, where the river of the water of life flows out of the renewed temple to irrigate the surrounding land, making even the Dead Sea (mostly) fresh. At every point this Spirit-and-worship theology is rooted in Temple-theology.

The Johannine theology of the Spirit reaches its full height in the Farewell Discourses, where Jesus promises that by sending the Spirit he will enfold his followers within the intimate personal fellowship that he already enjoys with the Father (14.15–26; 15.26–7; 16.7–11). Having declared in chapters 2 and 12 that the present Temple is redundant, Jesus constitutes those around him as the community in which the presence of the living God will be known, known by the Spirit, the Paraclete, who will be in them and with them. The so-called High Priestly prayer of chapter 17 then becomes the central act of renewed-Temple worship, grounding the worship of Jesus’ followers for ever afterwards in Jesus’ own prayer, his own holy self-offering to the Father, and enfolding those followers within his own holiness and offering even as he entrusts them with his own mission. Thus, though the Spirit is not mentioned in chapter 17, this great act of worship and devotion, with Jesus praying for his followers, catches up the promises of the preceding chapters and forms the basis for John’s strong, if often implicit, theology of the church’s own worship, indwelt by the Paraclete. That which the Temple had apparently offered – the presence of the living God and the sacrificial system by which the worshipper was renewed as a member of God’s people – is now to be attained by a different route, namely the self-offering of Jesus and his resulting gift of the Spirit. The negative verdict on the Temple, already adumbrated in chapters 2 and 12, is sealed with the declaration of the Chief Priests, ‘we have no king but Caesar’ (19.15). The positive verdict on Jesus and his followers is established with the resurrection, the gift of the Spirit, and the launching of the worldwide mission in chapters 20 and 21. Just as ‘the Word became flesh and tabernacled in our midst (eskēnōsen en hēmin, 1.14), so the Spirit now tabernacles within the followers of Jesus, fulfilling all that the Temple had been within a radically new reality.

All this points back to the cryptic but powerful statement in John 4.19–26. The Samaritan woman raises with Jesus, as well she might given the previous four hundred years of smouldering controversy, the question of the location of true worship: Samaria or Jerusalem? Jesus, while insisting that the Jews have the inside track on worship, because they remain the bearers of God’s promises of salvation, insists also that the question is wrongly posed. This is not because of some generalizing or Platonizing downgrading of the notion of sacred space, but because of the eschatology now inaugurated around Jesus himself. The hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshippers will worship in Spirit and in truth. (There is of course here the question, which we shall meet again in Paul, as to whether Spirit here has a capital or small S; I am content to let the question resonate for the moment.) This insistence, before the sequence of festivals has really got under way, means that the reader should already know, on Jesus’ subsequent visits, that the programme announced in chapter 2, of Jesus replacing the Temple with his own (dying and rising) body, will mean the fresh location of worship itself, not in one geographical spot but wherever people hear Jesus’ words, believe in him, and so come to worship the Father.

What then of John 3.1–15, where the language of baptism and Spirit comes thick and fast? In some later traditions, as other papers have explored, a supposedly ‘Johannine’ view of baptism, based on this chapter, has sat in uneasy tension with a supposedly ‘Pauline’ view based on Romans 6, with John’s language about birth from a mother’s womb contrasting with Paul’s about dying and rising with Christ. This in my view is a false antithesis. John 3 needs to be set within the larger context in which believers pass through death to new life (e.g. 5.19–29; implicitly already in 3.16). Romans 6, as we shall see, is part of a larger unit in which the idea of new birth plays a leading part (8.18–27). What John 3 does give us, within the limits of our present topic, is a statement of baptism and the Spirit which can only be understood in terms of inaugurated eschatology: ordinary human birth, and within that ethnic Jewish birth into the ancient people of God, is not enough, because God’s kingdom is coming as a new thing, and God is reconstituting his people around Jesus, who is himself marked out by baptism and the Spirit (1.33). This passage thus develops the dense statement in the Prologue: the Word was in the world, but the world did not know him, he came to his own but his own did not receive him, but to all who received him and believed in his name he gave the power to become God’s children, who were born not by the usual human method, or from a particular ethnic descent, but from God. John 3 is not, strictly speaking within our narrow limits, about ‘worship’ itself, but it explains the ground on which the later passages are standing.

The regular Johannine theme of ‘receiving Jesus’ or ‘believing in Jesus’, which runs from the prologue right through to near the end of the gospel, is ultimately to be subsumed within the larger, though less frequently stated, theme of worshipping the father. Believing in Jesus in the present will lead to the fresh gift of the Spirit once he is glorified; from then on, all those who believe, whoever and wherever they may be, will worship the Father in Spirit and truth, and will themselves become conduits of the Spirit in an outward flow of world-renewing grace. And in this larger picture, framing John himself within the Jewish scriptures he so frequently and hauntingly evokes, we see what has happened on a larger scale still. The purposes of YHWH in creation, purposes to be taken forward through obedient humanity, purposes borne forward through Israel as representative of that humanity, are now fulfilled in the human life, death and resurrection of Israel’s Messiah, and within that through his personal embodying of the Temple as the focal point of Israel’s worship, prayer and sacrificial self-offering. Those who belong to Jesus, who believe in him and follow him, are constituted as the new or renewed humanity, worshipping the creator God through Jesus in and through the Spirit, and by that same Spirit and in consequence of that worship enabled to be the bearers of new life for the world.

3. Paul

Taking a flying leap from John into Paul, we note the almost casual reference to Spirit-given worship in Philippians 3.3. Part of the self-definition of God’s people in Christ is that they ‘worship God in Spirit’ – as opposed, that is, to boasting in the flesh, in Jewish ancestry and purity. The question inevitably presses, as to whether Paul’s primary antithesis here is the standard Romantic one of ‘outward/inward’ worship, of going through formal rituals as opposed to worshipping from the heart. If that question had been asked Paul would of course have insisted (along with many Jewish teachers!) on the heart as opposed to the outward ritual. But along with others in the so-called ‘New Perspective’ reading of Paul I have come to see his fundamental antithesis not in terms of protestant or romantic controversies but in terms of his salvation-historical understanding of the single unfolding purpose of the one true God. The God who called Israel, and gave Israel the law, the covenants, the Temple and all that therein was, had now, in paradoxical fulfilment of all that, effected in Jesus and by the Spirit a massive transformation whose primary category was the opening of membership to all people without distinction. Of course Paul’s flesh/spirit dichotomy carries resonances in terms of the outward/inward distinction on the one hand, and the ethical consequences on the other, but I remain convinced that his insistence on the Spirit in the antithesis of Philippians 3.3 has as its primary referent the contrast between the ethnically circumscribed worship of Israel and the free offer of the gospel of Jesus to all nations. Everything else flows from this, not least the renewal of humanity which, long promised by Israel’s prophets, had now been accomplished through the death and resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit.

With that, we move to the Corinthian correspondence, where many readers would naturally go to find Pauline material on worship and the Spirit. But before we reach the obvious passage, 1 Corinthians 14, we must note that Paul has already grounded his theology of Spirit-led worship in the two strong Temple-passages in chapters 3 and 6.

In the first of these, the main stress is on unity. Appealing against faction and party spirit, Paul asks, ‘Do you not know that you are God’s temple, and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s Temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s Temple is holy, and that Temple is what you are.’ Or, perhaps better for hoitines este hymeis in 3.17, ‘and that’s the sort of thing you are’. The extraordinary claim Paul makes here, especially considering the muddled and fractious state of the Corinthians, is that what one might say about the single, holy Temple in Jerusalem, that it was the unique dwelling place of the one true God, is now to be said of the assemblies of those who meet to worship this God through Jesus and in the power of the Spirit. The Spirit within the church has, in other words, taken the place of the Shekinah within the Temple – a replacement all the more powerful when we consider that nowhere in second-Temple literature do we find the claim that YHWH has actually returned to take up residence on Mount Zion, and actually we find strong indications that he has not (e.g. Malachi). Paul’s claim fits into this narrative: YHWH has indeed returned, in the person of Jesus himself but also in the person of the Spirit. Though 1 Corinthians 3 is not about worship per se, it is not too much to claim that when we have such a theology of the renewed Temple we are observing the foundation of all that might then be said about the worship that is offered within it.

This worship then comes into the open, in what we would call an ‘ethical’ context (though that may simply show how narrow our post-Enlightenment categories really are!), in 1 Corinthians 6. Faced with the problem of sexual immorality, Paul builds up a sustained argument through verses 9–20, and as usual we would be right to see his final point (vv. 19–20) as deliberately chosen to round the whole thing off with his strongest argument: ‘Don’t you know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you possess (i.e. possess as a gift) from God, and that you do not belong to yourselves? You were bought with a price; so glorify God in your body.’ Here, as in Romans 12.1–2, the Temple is the place of worship. If the living God has chosen to come now to dwell, not in a single house of stone and timber but in the living bodies of human beings, that constitutes a call to worship, to a worship which consists of bringing glory to God in that body, not using the body for purposes which dishonour it, which (in other words) deconstruct the very nature of what humans were made to be and do. That is of course, in our language, a powerful ethical imperative. It is, for Paul, a matter of transferring the holy worship of Israel from the Jerusalem Temple to the bodies of individual members of the church, even in Corinth – especially in Corinth! Once more, the Spirit has taken the place of the Shekinah. Those who by baptism and faith are constituted members of the renewed worldwide people of God are called to a life of constant worship, constant sacrificial devotion to the God who is present to them and within them.

All this, I suggest, must be understood in the background as we turn to 1 Corinthians 12 and 14, which are themselves to be understood not least with a backward look to 2.6–16, for which there is no space here. Let me say from the start that I am innately suspicious of one standard reading of this passage, that which discovers here a priority of free-form, non-liturgical worship as the genuine Spirit-led phenomenon as opposed to liturgical or set forms, deemed to be less fully spiritual. That, I fear, is the long product of the muddling up of reformation theology with romantic and existentialist spirituality, and has little to do with Paul. Of course, the passage does indeed give us a picture of the early worshipping church as enjoying considerable freedom; Paul’s arguments against chaotic worship would be irrelevant unless there was an openness to fresh revelations of the Spirit which could in principle lapse into complete disorder. But his argument for unity despite diversity of gifts in chapter 12 (including a remarkable Trinitarian statement in vv. 4–6), and his argument for order rather than chaos in chapter 14, indicate as well that as far as he is concerned genuine spirit-led worship will have framework and body to it, not just free-floating and unstructured outbursts of praise and prayer. Interestingly, and perhaps despite expectations, chapter 14 actually hardly mentions the Holy Spirit; when Paul speaks of praying and singing with the spirit and with the mind (verses 14–16), his introductory remark in verse 14 indicates that this is his spirit, rather than the Holy Spirit, that he is referring to: ‘If I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind remains unfruitful’. On the positive side, we must of course say that the order he envisages is an order within which all sorts of new and unexpected things can and should happen. But we should also note the emphasis on mission: one of the key criteria for authentic worship will be that if an outsider enters, he or she will be confronted, not with chaos and apparent gibberish, but with the clear and convicting message of the gospel.

There is also, of course, the famous and tantalising glimpse of Spirit-led worship at the end of 1 Corinthians, in the cry ‘Marana Tha!’ (16.22). About this I have nothing new to say; merely to observe that it reminds us both of the continuing early Palestinian roots within the developing largely Greek church and of the eschatological context of all early Christian life.

The place of the Spirit in the complex and overlapping arguments of 1 Corinthians give way in the second letter to a very different presentation. Paul is here mounting an argument about the nature of his apostleship. Having been rejected by a majority in Corinth, because of their adherence to the newly-arrived super-apostles, he goes back to the cross and resurrection of Jesus and argues that genuine apostleship is modelled on and fashioned by those events and them alone. Faced with demands for demonstrations of God’s powerful Spirit, he responds with the message of weakness shaped by the cross. But, within that, his exposition of the new covenant in chapter 3 forms another perspective on his view of the Spirit and worship. The passage is highly complex, and there is no space here to retrace the steps of the exegesis I have proposed elsewhere. The crunch comes at the end of chapter 3. Paul has been arguing that his ministry is indeed genuine ‘new-covenant’ ministry, and that the evidence for this is the presence of the Spirit. But how do you know that the Spirit is present? Answer: because, when we worship together in the Spirit, we gaze at one another in the Christian fellowship and realise that we are gazing at the glory of the Lord, through the Spirit who dwells in you and me alike, in apostle and congregation, teacher and hearers. The unveiled face, the mutual recognition of the glory of the the Lord among the worshippers, indicates far better than any other ‘letters of recommendation’ that Paul might have been able to offer, that he is indeed the Lord’s apostle.

Notice what has thereby happened. Paul has here developed and enriched his new-temple ecclesiology. The Spirit, indwelling believers, enables them to look upon God’s glory as Moses gazed upon it in the wilderness Tabernacle, or as Isaiah accidentally saw it in the Temple. But the developing argument of chapter 3, in which Paul contrasts his own ministry, which is a life-giving work, with that of Moses, which was (despite his intentions; here we need all of Romans 7 to help us understand what is in his mind) a death-dealing work, indicates that as well as seeing the Spirit as fulfilling the promise of the Temple, Paul sees the Spirit as fulfilling the promise of the Law. And with that we move, by implication at least (but it would certainly have been clear for Paul) from the Temple to the synagogue, but without leaving behind the context of worship. Already by Paul’s day the synagogue theology was well developed: where two or three study Torah, there the Shekinah dwells among them. In other words, for those who cannot easily make the journey to Jerusalem, God has provided another way of meeting him in worship and self-offering. The Torah, read and studied and prayed in the synagogue, is the means of God’s presence. Now, for Paul, the Spirit picks up both Temple and Torah and, fulfilling both, transcends both. Here we are close to the very heart of Paul’s theology of worship and the Spirit.

Before plunging into Romans, where all these themes are drawn out still further, we pause and reflect on Ephesians. (One of the ironies of contemporary Pauline scholarship is that nobody much seems to have noticed that the revolution we think of as the ‘new perspective’ should have brought Ephesians and Colossians back into play; they are only ‘deutero-Pauline’ from within the truncated theological Old Perspective. But it may take another generation before the penny drops. Such is the power of unthinking theological and exegetical fashion.)

Ephesians offers the most explicit ‘new temple’ theology in Paul. Developing what we saw in 1 Corinthians 3, Ephesians 2 provides an extended picture of the coming together of Jew and Gentile within a single structure – which turns out to be the Temple itself, not now with a barrier keeping Gentiles out, or a law that enables Jews and Jews only to stay in, but with a welcome into a single new humanity, a welcome extended through the cross. ‘Through him (i.e. Jesus Christ) we both have access to the father in the one spirit’: ‘access’ is itself a Temple-word, with the worshipper approaching the holy place reverently but without inappropriate fear or shame because of the cross. And the final emphasis of the paragraph rams home the point: this building, consisting of human beings from every possible background worshipping together, ‘grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are built together to form a place for God to dwell by the Spirit’. It could hardly be clearer. The Spirit is the Shekinah, dwelling in the new temple which is the single family of those who are rescued by the gospel and renewed by the Spirit.

But what does that worship look like, or indeed sound like? Paul does not say ‘and this is the sort of thing you will say or hear when you are worshipping in this Temple’, but I think we are on safe ground if we work back into chapter 1 and see the great opening prayer of vv. 3–14 as a classic piece of early Christian worship, rooted in Jewish antecedent, inspired (Paul would undoubtedly say) by the Spirit, and including the Spirit within the narrative of praise for God’s mighty acts. The prayer, as is well known, develops the Jewish Berakah tradition, blessing God for his acts of salvation, which are cast in the form of a creation-and-exodus story: God’s people in Christ are chosen before the foundation of the world and rescued through the (paschal) blood of the Messiah, not so that they can escape the wicked world but so that they can be the advance guard of God’s plan to save and reunite the created order, bringing all things in heaven and on earth into a new unity in Christ (1.10). And the point of this, in verses 11–14, is that Jew and Gentile alike might together worship the one true God, albeit having come to this position by different routes: the Jewish people were chosen in accordance with God’s will, and Jewish Christians (1.12) were the first to hope in the Messiah and so live to the praise of his glory, while Gentile Christians, having been brought into the same family through the gospel, have now received the Holy Spirit so that they, too, can live to the praise of God’s glory. And here, explaining how and why this has come about, Paul notes as he does elsewhere that the Spirit is the arrabōn, the down payment, of the final inheritance. As the Spirit enables Jew and Gentile alike to worship the living God already, in the present, the church experiences a genuine foretaste of the final inheritance, which of course in the light of 1.10 is not ‘heaven’, as so often supposed, but the renewed and rejoined heaven and earth.

It is in this larger context that we must set the other mention of the Spirit and worship in Ephesians, that in 5.18–20. Drunkenness is the low-grade and shameful parody of that genuine self-transcendence, enhancement and ennoblement of what it means to be human, which can and should be known when the Spirit fills individuals and whole assemblies and enables them to speak to and sing with one another, making melody with the heart to the Lord, and giving thanks in the name of the Lord to God the Father. This, indeed, is one of Paul’s more strikingly trinitarian passages, reminiscent of 1 Corinthians 12.4–6, but this time giving not just a parallel between the three members of the Godhead but also a shape and a mutual relation: the Spirit enables worshippers to give thanks to the Father in the name of the Lord Jesus. Here we see, unsurprisingly but still importantly, the roots of developed trinitarian worship, not in a formula to be repeated (though there may be some of those too in Paul) but in the theological interpretation of what happens when Christians gather for worship.

All of which brings us at last to Romans. As with so many other great themes of Pauline theology, a good deal comes to clear and almost poetic expression in chapters 5—8. This section is not, indeed, a detached statement either of soteriology or of sanctification. It belongs exactly where it is within the ongoing flow of the letter. And yet its formal structures and repeated refrains give it a special quality, marking it out as indubitably the greatest of Paul’s sustained pieces of writing. As is well known, Paul has shaped the entire argument in a developing circle, so that the opening statements in 5.1–5 and 5.1–11 are echoed, on the basis of the intervening argument, in the closing stages of chapter 8. And it is this parallel, in particular between 5.5 and 8.28, which particularly convinces me that in 5.5 we have a statement not of God’s love for humans but of our love for God: in other words, a wholehearted worship which is poured out by the Spirit. Hope does not make us ashamed, because the love of God, i.e. our love for God, has been poured out into our hearts by the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. Why this ‘because’? Paul does not say here, but in 8.18–30 it becomes clear: the Spirit is once more the down payment, the gift-in-advance-from-God’s-future, the present possession which gives assurance of the future possession, the possession of the klēronomia, the ‘inheritance’, which, more clearly in Romans 8 even than in Ephesians 1.10, is the entire renewed creation. The whole argument of Romans 5—8 is held within this description of Spirit-led worship, love for God the creator and recreator. I have argued in various places that this Pauline theme of loving God is in fact his reworking, through Christ and the Spirit, of the great Jewish prayer, the Shema, linking this present passage with 1 Corinthians 8.4–6, Paul’s most explicit evocation of the Shema, and also with the theme of ‘obedience of faith’ in Romans 1.5, 3.30 and 16.26. Paul has consistently reworked the worship he inherited – Temple, Torah, prayer – around Jesus and the Spirit.

Thus, though Paul does not speak in chapter 6 explicitly either of worship or of the Spirit, we can see the substructure of what we have found elsewhere clearly visible in that chapter. The baptismal theology of the first half forms the basis for the ethical appeal of the second half: ‘being set free from sin, you were enslaved to righteousness’; ‘as you once gave over your members to uncleanness and to multiple lawlessness, so now giveyour members over as slaves to righteousness, with a view to sanctification’. More particularly, you have been, he says, enslaved to God (v.22), and must now serve him. As in 1 Corinthians, though that service looks like what we now call ‘ethics’, it would start with and be framed by what Paul calls ‘worship’. This is already clear from the long argument of 1.18–4.25, which begins with a description of the worship humans should have offered but did not (1.20–23) and the consequent fragmentation of human life, and ends with a description of Abraham worshipping God in the right way and so being given new life (4.17–21). This integration of worship and holiness is borne out further by the opening verses of chapter 12, where Paul echoes chapter 6 but within an explicit appeal: ‘present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your logikē latreia, your ‘rational worship’. Again, the Spirit is not mentioned, but the appeal is unthinkable, in Pauline theology, without it. The debates aboutlogikē, though important, would take us too far afield; suffice it to say that Paul seems to be implicitly indicating what he elsewhere makes more explicit, the contrast between the sacrificial worship of the Jerusalem cult and the sacrificial worship offered by those in Christ.

But to return to Romans 5—8. Chapter 7 forms, notoriously, Paul’s longest and densest argument about the Torah. What is not often noticed is that the language he uses about it is the language of worship: I delight in God’s Torah, according to my inner self, even though in my members I see another Torah, making war on that first one and holding me captive. The echoes of 2 Corinthians 3 in 7.4–6, where Paul uses ‘new covenant’ language to contrast the life under Torah with life in the Spirit, give us the clue as to what is going on. Paul looks back on his pre-conversion life, and does not suggest that it was misguided, that Torah was not after all worthy of his love and delight. The problem was not with the law, but with the ‘self’ that was, despite God’s call and gift to Israel, nevertheless still in Adam. Unredeemed Torah-worship, Paul is arguing, was proper God-directed worship, but it failed to be lifegiving as it might have been, not because there was anything wrong with Torah but because ‘I’, the Jew, was still ‘in the flesh’, part of the solidarity of the old Adam which could not but bring death. The Torah formed, as we have noted, the centre of worship in the synagogue, the direct means of God’s living presence with his people. Delight in Torah was delight in God. This passage points ahead to 10.2–3: Israel according to the flesh (i.e. Paul in his former life) has ‘a zeal for God, but it is not according to knowledge’.

This theme of worship – rightly directed but frustratingly thwarted – then spills over into the dramatic statement of 8.1–11. God has done what the law could not do, acting through the death of his Son to deal with the long and law-enhanced build-up of sin and acting through the Spirit to give the life which the law had longed to give but could not because of the raw material on which it was working. Just as the note of worship in chapter 7 often goes unnoticed, so the note of the Torah’s fulfilment often goes unnoticed in 8.5–8: the mind of the flesh is hostile to God’s law, cannot submit to it, and cannot please God, but (by clear and strong implication) the mind of the Spirit does submit to God’s law, and can and does please him (again, compare 12.1–2). The Spirit thus enables those in Christ to offer God the worship which Torah wanted to evoke, the reality of which synagogue-worship was a frustrated foretaste.

But it is not only Torah-worship which is fulfilled in the Spirit, according to this passage. Paul speaks once more, as in 1 Corinthians 3 and 6, about the Spirit’s indwelling. This was clearly a Temple-theme in those passages, and there is no reason to deny that it is so here as well. The Spirit dwells within those who are ‘in Christ’, and the result is that, just as YHWH’s indwelling would accompany the rebuilding of the Temple, in Ezekiel and elsewhere, so the Spirit will give life to the mortal bodies of those in Christ, even though they face bodily death because of the continuing entail of sin. Romans 8.1–11 thus offers a spectacular theology of Jewish worship reinvigorated through the Spirit, with Torah and Temple both pointing forwards to a new kind of fulfilment in Christ, a fulfilment in which the life that should have followed the worship of the living God is at last brought to reality in the resurrection.

Before we proceed with Romans 8, we note the larger pattern, again centrally characteristic of Jewish worship, which these chapters provide. Think of the story of the Exodus: the children of Israel, in fulfilment of the promise to Abraham, come out of Egypt through the shed blood of the Passover lamb, come through the Red Sea, leaving behind the world of slavery so that they can serve their covenant God. They arrive at Mount Sinai and are given the Torah, which proves a hard burden; but God is gracious, and goes with them, dwelling in their midst in the tabernacle, leading them through the wilderness by the pillar of cloud and fire, until they come at last to their promised inheritance. As I have argued elsewhere, Romans 5—8 follows exactly this pattern: in fulfilment of the promise to Abraham (chapter 4) and as a result of the blood of the Messiah (5.6–11) God’s people come through the waters and so from slavery to freedom (ch. 6), arrive at Mount Sinai and face the puzzle of the Torah (ch. 7), and then are led by the pillar of cloud and fire – i.e. the Holy Spirit – through the present life to the promised inheritance, which turns out to be, not ‘heaven’ as in much popular Christian imagination but the renewed creation (8.18–26). The Exodus narrative, which forms the backbone of so much Jewish worship, festival and liturgy, provides the framework for Paul’s exposition of what it means to be the single family of Abraham, the people of God in Christ.

That is the context within which we find his most spectacular (if characteristically dense) treatment of worship and the Spirit. First, the Spirit and the cry of the adopted child (8.15–17).. ‘You did not receive the spirit of slavery to go back to fear’ – in other words, now that you’re God’s Passover people on the way to your inheritance, don’t even think of going back to Egypt – ‘but you received the spirit of adoption. When we cry ‘Abba, father’, it is that same spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are God’s children’ (again, like the Israelites: ‘Israel is my son, my firstborn’); and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and co-heirs with the Messiah.’ There is a parallel to this, of course, in the remarkably trinitarian Galatians 4.1–7, again within an implied exodus-context. Opinion inevitably differs as to whether this cry of ‘Abba, father’ is a reference to the Lord’s Prayer or something like it; whether it is the spontaneous cry evoked by the Spirit within, or whether it is part of the church’s tradition, or whether Paul would not have recognised that disjunction. Perhaps equally important, to set the wider context of this moment of Spirit-inspired worship, is the notion of ‘inheritance’ in terms of the biblical background: the idea of the Messiah’s inheritance takes us back to Psalm 2, where it is the nations that are called to do him homage.

This leads directly into the famous triple groaning of verses 18–26. The creation groans in travail; the church groans within creation, awaiting its full adoption; and the Spirit groans within the church, and is heard by the Father, generating the trinitarian and Christological shape and framework of Christian worship: worship of the creator who will redeem and transform the creation, but worship evoked by the Spirit from the place where the world is in pain; worship offered by those who are discovering in the strange pattern of Jesus’ death and resurrection what it means to be younger siblings of the firstborn son (v. 29). The ‘inarticulate groanings’ of v. 26 may or may not be a reference to speaking in tongues – though, if it is, it seems strange to use alalētos, precisely ‘speechless’, to describe it. Let me simply quote from my own commentary at this point:

It is important to say that, if [Paul] is not referring to speaking in tongues, nor is he simply referring to silent prayer such as is commonly practised in private Christian devotion in the contemporary Western world (in Paul’s day most people would have prayed aloud, just as people used to read aloud, even when alone). Rather, he is speaking of an agonizing in prayer, a mixture of lament and longing in which, like a great swell of tide at sea, “too full for sound or foam”, the weight of what is taking place has nothing to do with the waves and ripples on the surface. Whether Paul expected all his readers to know this experience in prayer (as he seems to have expected them to know the Abba-experience) is difficult to judge. Then as now, perhaps, his words may have come as a challenge to a deeper wrestling with the pain of the world and the church, a struggle in which, like Jacob, Christians might discover that they were after all been wrestling with God as well as with their own weak humanness, and had prevailed.

Romans 8 is a fitting climax for this brief survey of worship and the Spirit in the New Testament. There are, to be sure, other passages in this great letter which could be studied. We should note the cry of adoration and wonder at the end of chapter 11, the call for the ‘living sacrifice’ and the ‘reasonable worship’in 12.1–2, and particularly the summons to united worship across traditional boundaries in 15.1–13, which ends – and this is the conclusion of the letter’s theological argument – ‘May the God of peace fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.’ Another echo of 5.5, and another indication that for Paul when the church was united in worshipping the one true God this was because God’s own Spirit was at work within it.


If the topic is enormous, the implications and conclusions are equally so. I have highlighted the way in which the early Christians understood their Spirit-led worship in terms of a Temple-theology, and to a lesser extent a Torah-theology, in which the tabernacling presence of God was both the object of worship and the enabler of that worship. This has of course direct and constant corollaries in terms of the call for holiness and the language of sacrifice in which that call was expressed. (I am aware that I have not even mentioned the letter to the Hebrews; this is not because it isn’t relevant at a secondary level, but because it does not make explicit the link between worship and the Spirit.) This wasn’t a matter of borrowing Temple liturgies, which are in any case difficult to reconstruct; but nor was it simply that the early Christians were thinking of the biblical Temple rather than the actual one they knew in Jerusalem. The earliest Christians were Jews; first-century Jews had Temple-worship in their bloodstream; and the first generation saw, from very early on, that in Jesus and the Spirit they had that towards which the Temple had been an advance signpost. Indeed, as we saw, the first Christians discovered this as a daily geographical and political reality. And from that root there grew, quite naturally it seems to me, the early liturgies, including sacramental liturgies, in which this was variously embodied. We have seen, as the context for this, the regular retelling of the Exodus story, and the way in which the story of Jesus – more fully, of the Father’s work in and through Jesus Christ and then by the Spirit of Christ – was told in those terms and with the intention of evoking that narrative.

All this is to insist once more that we understand early Christian worship as eschatological. Not that they thought the space-time world was coming to an end; as I and others have argued, that is largely a modern construct, a way of parking a problem within Enlightenment belittlings of early Christianity, a move moreover which normally ignores the resurrection. All that is another story. Rather, the early Christians believed that they were already living in the time of fulfilment and transformation, in which the great Exodus-shaped story which began with creation itself, and which took a fresh turn with Abraham, had reached its appointed goal, and was now bearing fruit in a quite new way. Early Christian worship was thus characterized by the sense of newness, of new covenant and new creation, and so by the sense of anticipating in worship something that would come completely true when that new creation was finished. To recognise this inaugurated eschatology within the earliest texts may be to alert ourselves once again to this dimension in the later developing liturgies. If the Spirit is the one who brings God’s future forward into the present, worshipping in the Spirit the God who raised Jesus from the dead means standing both at the overlap between heaven and earth and also at the place where past, present and future are mysteriously held together. That, I believe, is the best framework for understanding Christian sacramental theology; but that, too, is a topic for another time.