Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created… Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Rev 4:11; 5:12)
If there was ever any doubt in the minds of the first century Christians as to whether Christ should be praised, worshiped and adored alongside God the Father, it would have been dispelled by the astounding visions related by the Apostle John. In the very presence of the Almighty Father, sharing his very throne, the Lamb receives the adulation of every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, living creatures, elders and angels of the heavenly court, numbering myriads upon myriads. Creation is here ascribed to God, but the early Christians were also well aware that by Christ “all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities — all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col 1: 16–17). Christ shares the unshareable; all glory, the glory that belongs to God alone (Isa 42:8; 48:11; John 8:54; 11:4; 13:31–32; 14:13; 17:5; 2 Cor 4:4–6; Heb 1:3; 13:21; 1 Pet 4:11; 2 Pet 3:18; Jude 1:25).
The earliest Christian writings are the letters of Paul, in which we find passage after passage extolling the supremacy of Christ, his heavenly authority and honour and his worthiness to be worshiped and to share the honour and glory due to God. In many of these, the titles and prerogatives of God from the Old Testament are clearly ascribed to Jesus. One of the most explicit examples is in Paul’s letter to Titus. Titus 1:3 refers to “God our Saviour,” and 1:4 to Christ Jesus our Saviour. Titus 2:10 again speaks of “God our Saviour” and in 2:13 “our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ. Titus 3:4 has “God our Saviour” and 3:6 “Jesus Christ our Saviour.” As Bowman and Komoszewski explain,
These three contextual factors — that Jesus receives an array of divine names, often in the same passage; that Jesus often receives these divine names in allusions to, or quotations from, Old Testament texts speaking about God; that Jesus receives these designations in reference to his divine honors, attributes, works and position, in relation to all creation — are closely related. They converge in such a way as to prove that when the Bible calls Jesus by such names as Lord and God, it is applying those names to him in the highest possible sense.” (Putting Jesus in His Place 128–29)
The practice of the devotion to Christ in the early church continued beyond the time of the apostles, but in continuity with apostolic teaching. Preoccupied with worship, godly living and patient endurance in a hostile environment, it would be a couple of centuries before the church produced comprehensive theological treatises about the relationship of Jesus to the Father and the persons of the Godhead. Most of the earliest extant post-apostolic writings are apologetic (defence of the Christian faith to pagans and Jews) or polemic (addressing contemporary heresies such as Gnosticism). Yet scattered amongst these writings we see, almost in passing, a consistent reference to Christ as divine, and devotion to him in a context of worship. The ancient church writings are saturated with scripture, illustrating continuity with the traditions established in the New Testament regarding worship of Jesus alongside the Father.
Robert Wilken, who has extensively researched pagan perceptions of early Christianity notes that “To pagan observers… Christian identity centred on the worship of Christ.” This can be seen in the writings of Pliny, Lucian, Celsus, Porphyry and even in ancient anti-Christian graffiti. What these learned pagans found objectionable was that a crucified criminal was an unworthy object of such cultic worship, especially such exclusive worship. Origen cites Celsus as stating that Christians “worship to an extravagant degree this man who appeared recently and yet think it is not inconsistent with monotheism if they also worship his servant.” Christians “want to worship only this Son of man, whom they put forward as a leader under the pretence that he is a great God” (Against Celsus 8.12, 15). Ireneus, bishop of Lyons (c130 to 202) maintained that Christian doctrine and practice was enshrined in the Rule of Faith handed down from the apostles themselves and their words committed to writing in the scriptures.
Embedded in these scriptures we find credal statements such as Romans 10:9–10: “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” The following verse notes this equates to Old Testament promises that those who believe, trust and hope in God will not be put to shame. Another such statement is found in 1 Timothy 3:16: “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.” The “he” who was manifested, vindicated, seen, proclaimed, believed and taken up in glory is the living God of the previous verse.
Paul told the Ephesians to “be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph 5:18–20). He exhorted the Colossians to “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col 3:16–17). To sing to and about Christ is to sing to God; to praise Christ is to praise God, to honour Christ is to honour God (John 5:23; 1 Pet 4:11; 1 Tim 6:15–16; Eph 1:6, 12). Hymns to and about Jesus were evidently part of the earliest Christian worship traditions. Pliny, governor of Bithynia wrote to Trajan (98–117AD) concerning the Christians’ own testimony that they met regularly “to chant verses… in honour of Christ as if to a god.”
Scholarly consensus is that the New Testament contains fragments of hymns, either cited by Paul or arguably composed by him. These are segments of narrative praise similar in form to hymns of praise of God for his saving acts in the Old Testament. Similar Christological hymns are found in the writings of Melito of Sardis (d. 180). Two well known examples are
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.
For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible,
whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities–all things were created through him and for him.
And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” (Col 1:15–20)
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,
but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.
And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name,
So that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil 2:5–11)
Other passages are likely to be fragments of hymns, such as Ephesians 2:14–16; 5:14; 1 Timothy 3:16; 1 Peter 3:18–22 and Hebrews 1:3. Revelation contains hymns sung to God and Christ, which may or may not have been copied over into the earthly worship of the community (Rev 4:8, 11; 5:9–10, 13–14; 7:15–17; 11:15; 15:3–4; 19:1–8) The New Testament writers also interpreted some Psalms as specifically addressed to Christ (e.g. Heb 1:8–12 use of Psa 45:6–7; 102:25–27). Finally, there are doxologies and blessings such as 2 Cor 13:14; 2 Thess 3:16, 18; 1Tim 6:15–16 (c.f. Rev 17:14; 19:16); Heb 13:20–21; 2 Pet 3:18; 1 John 5:21 and Jude :24–25.
Did the early Christians pray to Christ? On the one hand, prayer was primarily directed to the Father through Christ (e.g. Rom 1:8–10; 1 Cor 1:4; 2 Cor 1:3–4; Phil 1:3–5; 1 Thess 1:2–3; Phm 4). On the other hand, there are examples of short addresses to Christ and a strong sense that Christ was somehow acknowledged, involved, participatory, with prayer to the Father. After all, Jesus is regularly envisioned and spoken of as sharing the Father’s throne and at the Father’s right hand, so he would hardly be excluded from communication with the Godhead. Jesus taught, “Pray then like this: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name…’” (Matt 6:9). Nevertheless, it is only by Jesus’ blood that we have access to the Father; he alone tore the veil of separation (Heb 4:15; 10:19–22; 9:12; Gal 4:6–7; Eph 2:18). Prayer is made in Jesus’ name, not as a mere appellation, but by the grace of his work on our behalf. Likewise, we are to pray in the Spirit, who in some way enables our prayers (Rom 8:26–27). It is through Christ that we praise and glorify God, as the hymns abundantly illustrate. God is glorified when we ask in Jesus’ name (John 14:13–14; 15:16; 16:23–24).
The Lord Jesus is directly addressed when seen in vision alongside the Father. Stephen, as he was being stoned, saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at God’s right hand. Stephen calls to Jesus, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” and adds, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:55–60). Saul, blinded on the Damascus road, hears the voice of Jesus, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” and Paul directly asks him, “Who are you, Lord?” to which Jesus replies, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:4–6). Paul regarded himself as having actually seen the Lord (1 Cor 8:1). The assembled disciples implored the Lord to show them his chosen candidate for apostleship (Acts 1:24 in context with 1:21). Paul pleaded with the Lord to remove the “thorn” from his flesh, which Christ denied so that his power might be made perfect in weakness (2 Cor 12:7–10).
Apart from these specific instances of direct communication with Christ, there are the short prayers which seem to have been part of corporate worship. Two Aramaic invocations, “Abba” and “Marana-tha,” addressed to the Father and to Christ respectively, have been preserved untranslated in Paul’s Greek epistles. “Abba,” Jesus’ beloved personal address to his Father has been graciously permitted to the lips of those adopted through Christ (Rom 8:15; Gal 4:6). Marana-tha means “Lord, come!” and is a petition for the return of Christ, addressed to Christ. It was probably translated into Greek in Rev 22:20; “Amen, erchou kyrie Iesou.” Evidence strongly suggests it was an invocation used in worship gatherings such as the Lord’s supper where Christ’s death was proclaimed “until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26; Didache 10:6). The Aramaic title mareh, like its Greek counterpart kyrios, could refer to any master or superior, but did have particular application to Lord God in Aramaic Christian writings.
Even though the formula of baptism invoked the triune name (Matt 28:19; Didache 7), baptism was described as “into the name” of Jesus; believers were baptised “into Christ” and “put on Christ.” Conversion was a calling on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, in direct fulfilment of the Old Testament calling on the name of the Lord, confessing with the mouth that Jesus is Lord (Acts 9:14, 21; 22:16 (Joel 2:32); 1 Cor 1:2; 6:11; Rom 10:9–13). It was for the name of the Lord Jesus that the early Christians suffered persecution (Matt 10:22; Luke 21:12–17; Acts 5:41; 1 Pet 4:14–16). Tertullian, writing in the late second century observed, “The one thing looked for is that which is demanded by the popular hatred, the confession of the name, not the weighing of a charge” (Apology 2).
In summary, if “worship” can be described as praise, exaltation, prayer, singing and invocation of the Name, the early Christians worshiped Christ. It was through Christ that they worshiped the one true God, without contradiction. The Lord Jesus Christ was, as Richard Baukham describes, incorporated into the divine identity. Larry Hurtado is a scholar who has extensively studied the evidence for the veneration of Christ in early Christianity and how that accorded with the Christians’ monotheistic heritage, and I shall let him have the last word. (One God, One Lord, 11)
The evidence suggests strongly that, well before [the later developments leading to the Nicene Creed] Jewish Christians gathered in Jesus’ name for worship, prayed to him and sang hymns to him, regarded him as exalted to a position of heavenly rule above all angelic orders, appropriated to him titles and Old Testament passages originally referring to God, sought to bring fellow Jews as well as Gentiles to embrace him as the divinely appointed redeemer, and in general redefined their devotion to the God of their fathers so as to include the veneration of Jesus. And apparently they regarded this definition not only as legitimate but, indeed, as something demanded of them.”
References and Further Reading
• Larry W. Hurtado, One God, One Lord, Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism, 3rd ed. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2015.
• Larry W. Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003.
• Richard Baukham, Jesus and the God of Israel, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008.
• Robert M. Bowman & J. Ed Komoszewski, Putting Jesus in His Place: The Case for the Deity of Christ, Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2007
• Robert L. Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, 2nd ed. Yale: U.P., 2003.
• The Didache c. early 2nd Century AD http://web.archive.org/web/20101009033540/http://ivanlewis.com/Didache/didache.html