Volume 14, Issue 3: Thema
One of the foundational assumptions beneath most modern Bible-reading is the assumption of individualism. For example, Paul wrote the book of Ephesians to a
church, but countless quiet times have taught us all to regard it as "a message for
me." "How should I behave today? What should
I do tomorrow?" Instead of seeing Scripture as a most holy collection of the Church's covenant documents, we tend to see it as a grab-bag of inspirational quotes for personal victorious living, and devil take the hindmost.
It is important to note that a corporate covenantal understanding of Scripture does not exclude personal faithfulness; rather, it requires it. It is not possible to make a good omelette with rotten eggs, and so nothing written here can be taken as a disparagement of personal faithfulness. But in contrast,
an individualistic approach does not require corporate faithfulness. All the eggs in the world do not necessitate that someone make an omelette. In most cases, such individualism is sustained by a deliberate, cultivated low view of the institutional church, and this is radically unscriptural.
This question of individualism is important when we discuss what the Bible teaches about the public worship of God. This is because we have trained ourselves to miss the setting in which many well-known verses appear. But when this corporate covenantal setting is taken into account, the testimony
of Scripture is clear from beginning to end. God teaches us that public worship is
greatly to be preferred over private spiritual exercises. "The
Lord loveth the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob. Glorious things are spoken of thee, O city of God" (Ps. 87:2-3). Every grateful heart wants God's
name to be lifted up publiclyand the more public the better. "Declare his glory among the heathen, his wonders among
all people" (Ps. 96:3). One of the most natural things for us as believers to do is congregate so that we might worship God
together. "O come, let us worship and bow down: let
us kneel before the Lord our maker" (Ps. 95:6)."O magnify the
Lord with me, and let us exalt his name
together" (Ps. 34:3).
Worship therefore belongs primarily in the congregation. "I will declare thy name unto my brethren: in the midst
of the congregation will I praise thee . .
. My praise shall be of thee in the great
congregation: I will pay my vows before them that fear him" (Ps. 22:22, 25). Asaph struggled greatly in his private
meditations, but when he finally went to the sanctuary, God taught him (Ps. 73:16).
After His conquest of the principalities and powers, Christ followed the ancient custom of triumphant kings and
generalsspargere missiliaand He gave gifts to men. He gave these gifts so that His church would be built up into "a perfect man." In order to accomplish this very public goal, He gave
public officers, establishing them in the Church (Eph. 4:11_14). The early Christians were filled with the Holy Spirit when they were assembled
together (Acts 4:31). The tabernacles of the Lord are always appealing to the forgiven (Ps. 84:1). A day in God's courts is better than a thousand elsewhere (Ps. 84:10),
and yet God in His kindness permits us to assemble there every
seventh day (Lev. 23:3). The man who believes this while trusting God is truly blessed (Ps. 84:12). What one thing does the godly man want? That he might
dwell in the house of God (Ps. 27:4). This is no fossilized relic of the forms of worship in
the Old Testament. The day will come, the prophet said, when the inhabitant of one city will drag his brother off to worship Godand "I will go also" (Zech. 8:20_21).
Christians have the enormous privilege of ascending into heaven in their worship on the Lord's Day. This
anaphora, this lifting up, is what happens when the call to worship is given. When John was in the Spirit on the Lord's Day (Rev. 1:10), he was caught up into the heavenly places. The same
thing happens to uson the first day of every week. "And the smoke of the incense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel's hand" (Rev. 8:4).
Paul tells the Ephesians that they were located in two places. The first was obviousEphesus (Eph. 1:1). But their second location is something he emphasizes strongly throughout the book. They are
in Christ, who is in turn at the right hand of God the Father
According to Paul, we were co-crucified with Christ, co-resurrected, and co-enthroned "in heavenly places in Christ Jesus" (Eph. 2:5_6). We read these passages, but we individualize them. We go off to heaven in our private prayers, and rarely wonder where everyone else is.
Why should we not forsake the gathering of ourselves
together ?(Heb. 10:25.) Too often this verse is quoted as simply meaning that a man should "go to church." It means this, of course, but neglects the riches involved when we go to church with a scriptural heart and mind. This is really a command to
not neglect going to heaven in worship. The preceding context makes this abundantly clear. We have boldness to enter the Holy of Holies in heaven (10:19). How holy must
that sanctuary be? Because we have this boldness, let
us draw near with true hearts (10:22). When do we do this? On the sabbath rest
that remains for the people of God (4:9), which is to say, on the Lord's Day. God created the heavens and earth in six days, and He hallowed the seventh day as one of holy rest. No sufficient reason for changing the day can be foundshort of new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells. We
have a new sabbath because we have a new creation; the old has passed away. And this is just what we find. Jesus Christ rested after His glorious work of re-creation, just as God had rested after the work of creation (4:10). This is why we still have a sabbath, and why we have the privilege of entering into a
glorious heavenly rest.
In our public worship, we do not come to a mountain that can be touched (12:18), but we
do come to a mountain, a heavenly Zion. What happens when a small group of saints gathers in a clapboard community church somewhere out in the sticks? At their call to worship, they ascend to the City of
God, to the heavenly Jerusalem. They walk into the midst of innumerable angels (12:22). They come to the general assembly of the universal Church, and come into the presence of God Himself (12:23). Scripture says this understanding should rattle uswe should start working out our salvation together with
fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12_13). When we understand what is actually happening in a worship service, our contemporary flippancy evaporates. Since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, we are to have grace so that
we can serve (worship, latreuo) with reverence and godly fear (12:28).
This godly fear should lead us to inquire how God wants us to approach Him. What are the elements of our worship service as we renew our covenant with God weekly? But first a word about this word
renewal, which might be misunderstood. We do not renew our covenant with God because it was
going to expire or run out, like a lease. We renew our covenant with God because it is our life; we renew covenant with God in worship the way food renews physical life or sexual communion renews marriage.
In the Old Testament, the sacrifices assigned by God had a particular order and placementfor an important reason. There were three offerings that were commonly found together, and when they were found together they always followed a particular order (Lev. 9; 2 Chron. 29:20_36). First was the
guilt offering (Lev. 17). Following this was the ascension offering, often misleadingly translated as burnt offering (Lev. 16:24_25). And third was the peace offering (Dt. 12:17_19). The guilt offering made the worshipper fit to enter into the presence of God. In the second offering, the worshipper ascended
to God in the smoke of an offering that was entirely consumed on the altar. The peace offering was a tangible demonstration that God had received the worshipper, and was willing to share fellowship with him in common meal.
We know of course that, in the New Testament, the sacrifices of animals are done away with in the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ on the cross (Heb. 9:12). But the language of these Old Testament sacrifices does
not disappear. Rather, sacrificial patterns undergird all new covenant worship. This is why
we can understand the Bible as giving us a pattern of approach. First, in the service, we confess our sins, which corresponds to the guilt offering. Then we offer ourselves up to God, without reserve or reluctance, which corresponds to the ascension offering. And then we sit down with God in the Lord's
Supper, which corresponds to the peace offering. The heart of the service is bookended, at the beginning by the call to worship, and at the conclusion by the benediction, a comissioning that sends the people of God out into the world to serve Him there (Rom. 12:1_2).
There are various legitimate ways in which this can be expressed, but we have sought to structure our covenant renewal service in this way. First is the
call to worship, which includes a prayer of adoration and a congregational singing of
Gloria in Excelsis. Then is the element of
confession, which includes an exhortation, a prayer of confession, assurance of pardon, and congregational singing of thanks. Next is the time of
consecration. This includes the public reading of Scripture, the congregation time of prayer (petitions and thanks), the sermon, and a hymn or psalm of thanksgiving. This time concludes with
the offering brought forward in worship. We do not pass the plate during worshipthe money is collected in a box at the back, but it is brought forward as an act of worship. Then is the time of
communion, where the Lord's Supper is observed. Last is the
commissioning, where the people sing the
Gloria Patri with hands upraised, receive a final charge, and the benediction. We have found God's promise true, as
always. "I am the Lord thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt: open thy mouth wide, and I will fill it" (Ps. 81:10).
All of this is gloriouswhy would anyone ever want to do anything else? "I was glad when they said unto me, let us go into the house of the Lord" (Ps. 122:1). The answer is that we live in a fallen world. It is far easier to let the garden fill up with weeds than to cultivate and tend it. A basic principle
laid down by God holds true in worship, just as it does everywhere else: A man "becometh poor that dealeth with a slack hand: but the hand of the diligent maketh rich" (Prov. 10:4). Our contemporary worship is threadbare because we are lazy, and do not want to take the effort to study what God says about
how we are to approach Him. Among other things, all of them animated with faith, we are to approach Him
diligently. He is "a rewarder of them that diligently seek him" (Heb. 11:6).
The reformation of the Church requires liturgical reformation, and our need is desperate. But when "the Lord shall build up Zion, he shall appear in his glory" (Ps. 102:16).
We do not have fewer privileges than our brothers in the Old Testament. Our place of worship is still "beautiful for situation, the joy of the whole earth" (Ps. 48:2). But this is only true if we understand the character of God. We think of His lovingkindnessbut we do it in the midst of His temple