New Horizons

The Real Point of Worship

Larry Wilson

People who inquire about a church often ask, "Is your worship contemporary or traditional?" Whenever I hear that, I feel like the guy who's just been asked, "Are you still beating your wife?" How can you answer a question like that? It starts with wrong assumptions. It's the wrong question! It misses the real point of worship.

Is It Really That Important?

It's common in our day, however, for believers to avoid facing the real point of worship. Disagreements are smoothed over as mere preferences regarding "style." Even so, few things can occasion greater discord in the church than such "preferences." In such a climate, any effort to revise the OPC's Directory for the Public Worship of God (DPW)—which will be on the agenda of the General Assembly this year—seems to fall somewhere between quixotic and malicious. Is it really worth it?

It should give us pause to learn that John Calvin said that there were two main reasons why the Reformation was needed. The church needed "a knowledge, first, of the mode in which God is duly worshiped; and secondly, of the source from which salvation is to be obtained" (see "The Necessity of Reforming the Church" in Calvin's Selected Works, vol. 1 [Baker, 1983], p. 126). He listed worship first!

But why should that surprise us? God himself insists that he is "jealous" for faithful worship (Ex. 20:4–6). Someone once told me that asking the OPC to adopt a revised Directory for the Public Worship of God is like asking her to adopt an official sex manual. He was jesting, but maybe he got closer than he imagined to the point of worship. "I will be your God, and you shall be my people" is the refrain that sums up the covenant of grace throughout the Bible (Ex. 6:7; Jer. 7:23; 11:4; 30:22; Ezek. 36:28; 2 Cor. 6:16; Heb. 8:10). The Bible depicts this covenant relationship as a marriage. The Lord was the husband; Israel was his wife. Christ is the groom; the church is his bride. Therefore, when the Lord established his covenant with Israel as a nation, he first identified himself and the covenant relationship: "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery" (Ex. 20:2). Then he insisted on the faithful, exclusive love of his wife: "You shall have no other gods before me" (vs. 3). He continued to concentrate on worship in the second, third, and fourth commandments (vss. 4–11), reminding his wife that "I the Lord your God am a jealous God" (vs. 5). Throughout the Old Testament, God identified violations of the first and second commandments, not just as idolatry, but also as spiritual adultery.

Consequently, worship has everything to do with the covenant between the Lord and his bride. That's why it's so important and central to the faith and life of God's people. It's at the heart of who we are as individuals made and being remade in God's image. It's at the heart of who we are as the church. It's at the heart of our relationship with the living God.

This is also why issues of worship can provoke such passion, including passionate disagreement. That tempts us to avoid these issues. But our Lord Jesus declares that God is seeking worshipers (John 4:23–24)! As we grow in our love for God, we will, like John Calvin, grow in our zeal that God be truly worshiped, as well as truly known.

If our Lord grants such zeal, it will drive reformation and renewal in every aspect of the church's life. It will even renew our evangelistic and missionary zeal. John Piper helpfully exhorts:

Missions is not the ultimate goal of the church. Worship is. Missions exists because worship doesn't. Worship is ultimate, not missions, because God is ultimate, not man.... Worship ... is the fuel and goal of missions.... When the flame of worship burns with the heat of God's true worth, the light of missions will shine to the most remote peoples on earth.... Where passion for God is weak, zeal for missions will be weak. Churches that are not centered on the exaltation of the majesty and beauty of God will scarcely kindle a fervent desire to "declare his glory among the nations" (Ps. 96:3). Even outsiders feel the disparity between the boldness of our claim upon the nations and the blandness of our engagement with God. (John Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad [Baker, 1993], pp. 11–12)

It is of the utmost importance, then, that our hearts be gripped by the real point of worship.

What Is the Real Point of Worship?

What, then, is the real point of worship? In the Old Testament, God called his people to gather for public worship at a central sanctuary (the tabernacle or temple). Why? Because that's where God specially revealed his presence in order to meet with his people. In Bible shorthand, his "name" was there. God commanded, "But you shall seek the place that the Lord your God will choose out of all your tribes to put his name and make his habitation there. There you shall go" (Deut. 12:5). He promised, "In every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you" (Ex. 20:24). After Solomon built the temple in Jerusalem, he prayed to God, "that your eyes may be open day and night toward this house, the place where you have promised to set your name" (2 Chron. 6:20).

This meant that God's Old Testament people had to go to Jerusalem to meet with him—even when it involved the inconvenience of traveling great distances! That's the significance of the Samaritan woman's question to Jesus: "Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship" (John 4:19–20). In other words, where can you meet with God? Is it on Mt. Gerizim (as the Samaritans said) or is it in Jerusalem (as the Jews said)?

Jesus responded, "Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews" (vss. 21–22). In other words, the Jews followed the Old Testament form of worship and it was correct—for the time of the Old Testament. But "the hour is coming," Jesus said, when Old Testament worship will be outmoded.

Indeed, Jesus went on to say, "The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth" (vss. 23–24). When did that hour come? When the Christ came (vss. 25–26)! Jesus, the Christ, did come. He fulfilled the Old Testament forms. He transformed them. He ushered in the New Testament.

Because of the finished work of Jesus, God no longer limits his church to one nation (Israel). Now, the church is an expanding, international community.

Because of the finished work of Jesus, we no longer worship in shadows (that is, temporary Old Testament forms that were designed to point to Christ and prepare the way for him). Instead, we worship "in truth" (John 4:23–24; cf. 1:17; 14:6).

Because of the finished work of Jesus, we no longer go to a physical sanctuary in Jerusalem to meet with God. Now we go to a spiritual sanctuary in heaven itself. Why? Because that's where Jesus is! If God's Old Testament people had to approach him through one place, God's New Testament people have to approach him through one person. We approach the triune God through Jesus (John 14:6). God's presence is no longer in the temple. It is in Jesus.

God's Old Testament people needed a priest to enter the presence of God for them. Jesus is our high priest, and because of his finished work all of God's people are priests who can go into God's very presence through him (Heb. 10:19–25; 1 Pet. 2:4–5).

Now we worship "in spirit" (John 4:23–24). God is spirit, and now we approach him in his heavenly sanctuary by his Holy Spirit (Phil. 3:3; Rev. 1:10), the living water that Jesus promised (John 4:10–14; 7:37–39). In this way, we actually "come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel" (Heb. 12:22–24).

At the same time, our Lord meets us in our earthly worship assemblies, just as he promised, "for where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them" (Matt. 18:20). Just as God put his name in the Old Testament temple (Deut. 12:5), so now he puts his name in the New Testament temple. And that temple is Jesus Christ (John 1:14; 2:19–22) and those who are united to Jesus Christ, his church (1 Cor. 3:16; Eph. 2:19–22; 1 Pet. 2:4–5)! Now Jesus personally declares God's name in the midst of the church's worship services (Heb. 2:12; cf. Ps. 22:22)!

This is why the church's worship services are so very different from any other kind of meeting we have. Public worship is, first and foremost, a spiritual meeting between the triune God and his covenant people. The Father draws near to his people through his Son by his Spirit, and God's people draw near to the Father by the Spirit through the mediation of the Son (Eph. 2:18). True worship is nothing less than communion between God and his people.

What Difference Does It Make?

This is why a worship service is not really a sharing session, although there's a place for that. This is why a worship service is not essentially an evangelistic program, either, although there's a place for that, too. A worship service is not first and foremost a meeting of people with each other. Above all else, a worship service is a meeting of the living, triune God with his assembled covenant people. God's people assemble for "communion with God in his public ordinances" (DPW 1.5).

This is why the DPW says:

As a service of public worship is in its essence a meeting of God and his people, the parts of the service are of two kinds: those which are performed on behalf of God, and those which are performed by the congregation. In the former the worshippers are receptive, in the latter they are active. It is reasonable that these two elements be made to alternate as far as possible. (3.1)

This is why we preach, rather than discuss, God's Word in a worship service. The minister has been formally recognized by the church to serve officially as God's herald. When he faithfully proclaims Scripture, the Lord uses him as an instrument to speak personally to his people by his Spirit through his Word (Rom 10:14–17; see the article "Especially the Preaching of the Word"). In this way, the Lord puts his "name" in the midst of his people.

This is also why worship services are a duty and not an option for believers. "Let us draw near to God.... Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing" (Heb. 10:22, 25 NIV). This is why an informal gathering with your family or with a parachurch group can never serve as an acceptable substitute for public worship with the church on the Lord's Day (Ps. 87:2). The Lord's "name" isn't there!

This is why promptness to worship is important. If the President of the United States arranges to meet with you, do you keep him waiting? Yet in public worship the King of kings and Lord of lords himself has arranged to meet with you! How much more important it is to show up punctually and not to absent yourself from the meeting, except for emergencies.

This is why appropriateness in dress and demeanor in worship is important. In public worship, you enter the heavenly Holy of Holies to meet with the Sovereign of the universe. Do you act accordingly?

This is why preparation for worship is important. Our sinful hearts are "bent to backsliding" from God (Hos. 11:7 KJV). We are too weak to "get anything out of worship" unless the Holy Spirit empowers us to profit from the means of grace (see, for example, the prayer in Eph. 3:14–19). But do you admit your need? Do you seek him for ears to hear and hearts to heed the voice of the Great Shepherd? Or do you thoughtlessly breeze into his presence?

And this is why the question, "Is your worship contemporary or traditional?" misses the point. I've found that when people ask that, they are almost always assuming that worship is merely a meeting of people with one another. But the more important question is, "Do you see worship as a supernatural encounter between the living God and his people?" That's primary. Questions about styles of music, etc., are not unimportant, but they are secondary.

Each Lord's Day, then, as you gather with your church in the name of the exalted Christ, remember that you gather together first and foremost to meet with God. "Come into his presence with singing!... Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise!" (Ps. 100:2, 4). When his Word is read and proclaimed, listen eagerly to his voice and don't harden your heart against it (Ps. 95:7–8). And as the congregation prays and praises, "ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; bring an offering, and come into his courts! Worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness" (Ps. 96:8–9).

The author is pastor of Christ Covenant OPC in Indianapolis, Ind., and a member of the Committee on Revisions to the Directory for Public Worship. Unless otherwise indicated, he quotes the ESV. Reprinted from New Horizons, June 2007.

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