Ancient-Future Worship:
Always Both-and, Never Either-or

By Darrell A. Harris


“What has been before will be again,” my paternal grandmother said. She often saw the events of the past not only recurring in the present, but giving shape to the future as well. While the term “ancient-future” appears at first glance to be a construct comprised of mutually exclusive ideas, my grandmother’s wisdom may offer some insight.

After nearly twenty years of friendship with Bob Webber and then having read his Ancient-Future Worship, I am overwhelmed at the scope, the sweep and the comprehensive richness of his concept. As contemporary worshippers hunger for the authenticity of the worship of ancient Israel and the early church, we may be catching glimpses of the eternal future of worship.

It occurs to me that there are five paradoxical dyads always in play in ancient-future worship. Ancient-future worship is always

·         both Trinitarian and Christocentric

·         both word and symbol

·         both declarative and dialogical

·         both communal and missional

·         both remembering and anticipating

Ancient-future worship is always both Trinitarian and Christocentric. Consider these examples of Trinitarian emphasis: the mingling of both singular and plural in the phrases “Let us make” and “in our image,” Abraham’s three visitors addressed as the singular Lord, the wording of the shema (saying that Elohim, a name that suggests plurality, is one), the Father’s vocal blessing and the appearance of the Spirit like a dove at Christ’s baptism, and the triune benediction of 2 Corinthians 13:13.

We can also observe a nascent Christo-centricity in the Hebrew Scriptures. Remember God’s Genesis prophecy that the woman’s seed would crush the serpent’s head, the prophetic Christ-prefiguring appearance of Melchizedek, and the mystery of the fourth person in the fiery furnace. Plus the New Testament references to the Lord Jesus having the preeminence in all things are in abundance.

Ancient-future worship always engages both word and symbol. Most evangelicals don’t need to be convinced of the priority of word. After all, we claim to be people of the book. But we can easily forget the centrality of the word’s counterpart, symbol.

When God promised never to destroy the world by water again, he gave a symbol of his promise, the rainbow. Ancient Israel engaged symbols for all their feasts and observances (blood on doorposts, ritual Passover meal of lamb, building shelters or booths for the Feast of Tabernacles campout, bread, wine, sacrificial offerings, etc.). Jesus constantly engaged symbol for teaching purposes (mustard seed, coin, etc.). And he gave us only one way to remember his death until his return—the sharing of the bread and cup.

Our emphasis on word is well placed. It is by the word that all creation was spoken into existence. We are washed with the water of the word. The word will never pass away. But it is symbol that helps us envision, enact and enflesh the word. It is the bread and cup that are a koinonia (or participation) in the very event and the very one being remembered.

Ancient-future worship is both declarative and dialogical. Again, we evangelicals get the declarative part, but sometimes at the expense of the dialog.

The public reading of Torah in the synagogue carried over in the public reading of the Gospels and epistles in the early church, and was restored after a season of absence in the Reformation. As British theologian/pianist Jeremy Begbie says, “At the heart of the Christian message, there is something being declared.”

Our worship is also dialogical. Remember the events of Exodus 24:3-8. Moses declares the word of the Lord to the people. Then there follows a group response, “All the Lord God has spoken, we will do.” That event records a dialogical exchange. The same is true of the Lord’s instructions about his laws to his people in the sixth and eleventh chapters of Deuteronomy. They were told to not just write them on their doorposts and hide them in their hearts, but also to chat about them in everyday situations.

Consider also the roots of the ancient liturgical salutation, “The Lord be with you,” adapted from Ruth 2:4. How wonderful to greet one another as Boaz and the field hands did with a dialogical blessing rather than just a cheery hello! Jesus greets his grieving disciples in a similar way after his resurrection (Luke 24:37).

Ancient-future worship is always both communal and missional. As with the other four dyads of ancient-future worship, this one also seems paradoxical, and again, perhaps even mutually exclusive in its construct. But remember it’s always both-and, never either-or. So many of our churches of every denominational and theological stripe excel at the one and at best give token consideration to the other.

In ancient Israel there was an obvious emphasis on the familial, tribal and national loyalties. But there were also ethical considerations towards the alien and sojourner (Deuteronomy 10:19, Leviticus 24:22, Numbers 15:14-16,) as well as the prophetic seed of missional thinking given voice by Isaiah (49:6) and others.

In the early church there also was an enormous emphasis on the familial dimensions of the community of faith. (i.e., the striking communal orientation of the early church in Acts 2-4, “Behold how they love one another,” quoted in Tertullian’s Apology). Although we are instructed to see to the faith family first, we are instructed to work for the good of all people (Galatians 6:10). So there was also a focus on reaching out to others. Each of the four evangelists records some form of what has come to be known as the great commission; Matthew, Mark, and John in their gospels, and Luke in Acts 1:8. James emphasizes care for widows and orphans in his epistle. Surely he was not speaking of only the needy ones in the household of faith. And when Jesus taught us how to minister to him in the hungry, thirsty, sick, naked, stranger and imprisoned, he refers to them as the least members of his family. Many scholars take him to mean any suffering member of the human family and not just of the circle of the faithful.

Ancient-future worship always remembers a past and anticipates a future. That past and future are always quite specific.

In ancient Israel, worship recalled the deliverance from Egypt with the Passover meal, remembered the wilderness wanderings with a campout, etc. Everything looked towards the culmination of their salvation story in the coming of Messiah and his Kingdom of peace.

The earliest sermons of the newborn church followed the same pattern, recalling creation, God’s call and forming the family of faith through Abraham and Sarah, God’s provision during famine, his deliverance from Egyptian oppression, his provision while they were in the wilderness, his disclosure of his ways in the giving of Torah, his constant pursuit of his people through the prophets—all culminating in Christ’s redemptive sacrifice on the cross and resurrection. Then echoing and completing the ancient Passover meal, they remembered those saving deeds of power by re-enacting Christ’s sacrifice in the sharing of the bread and cup until his return to finalize the restoration of the entire creation.

As we reshape our contemporary worship with the richness of these dyads of ancient actions and values, we not only reconnect with our forebears in ancient Israel and the early church, but we also invigorate our worship with anticipation of the eternal banquet when the Kingdom has fully come.

In the spirit of semper reformanda, it may be helpful for each of us to take inventory of our worship contexts in light of these five dyads essential for ancient-future worship. Typically in each dyad we are naturally stronger in one part of the pair than the other. May I challenge us to build on the strengths already in play in each of our situations, and then pray and talk with our fellow-worshipers about how to set goals to grow in the areas where we are not as strong? What has been before will be again. We are preparing for an eternity of ancient-future worship.



Posted February 2009

The Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies

© 2009 Darrell A. Harris