The Liturgy of Worship, Part II
Why does the writer of Hebrews say in 10:25 that we should not forsake the gathering of ourselves together? Too often this verse is quoted as simply meaning that we should “go to church.” It means this, but neglects the riches imbedded in the symbols used by the writer, riches available to anyone who approaches corporate worship with a “whole Bible” way of thinking. This is really a command to not neglect going to heaven in worship. The preceding context makes this abundantly clear. In vs 19, the writer says we have boldness to enter the Holy of Holies in heaven. And because we have this boldness, vs 22 encourages us to “draw near with true hearts.” When do we do this? According to Heb 4:9, we do it on the Sabbath rest that remains for the people of God, on the Lord’s Day. In our public worship, Hebrews 12:18 says that we do not come to a mountain that can be physically touched, but we do come to a mountain, a heavenly Zion. What happens when group of saints gathers at God’s call? Hebrews 12:22-23 says they are commanded to see themselves ascending to the City of God, to the heavenly Jerusalem. They walk into the midst of innumerable angels. They come in to The General Assembly of the universal Church and into the presence of God Himself.
This understanding should shake us up! 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, Hebrews 12:28 says we need grace so that we can worship with reverence and godly fear. (“serve” in that passage is “liturgia” – liturgy or worship)
This godly fear should lead us to inquire how God wants us to approach Him. What are the elements of our worship service as the Lord corporately calls us into His presence on a weekly basis?
In the Old Testament, the sacrifices assigned by God had a particular order and placement for 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; II Chron. 29:20-36). First was the “guilt offering.” Following this was the “ascension offering,” which is sometimes translated as burnt offering. And third was the “peace offering.” In the guilt offering, sin was judged and atoned for, making 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.
In Heb 9:12, we see that the sacrifices of animals are done away with in the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ on the cross. But the language of these Old Testament sacrifices does not disappear. Rather, the sacrificial wording and patterns undergird all New Testament worship. This is why we should understand that the Bible is giving us a pattern of approach.
Within the body of a worship service, we first confess our sins, which corresponds to the guilt offering. We then offer ourselves up to God, without reserve, which corresponds to the ascension offering (or “burnt offering”). And then we sit down with God at the Lord’s Supper, which corresponds to the peace offering. The body of the worship service has “bookends”: at the beginning, we are Called to Worship, and at the Benediction we are commissioned as the Lord sends His people into the world to serve Him there. In other words, our worship is framed before and aft by what God has done and what He has initiated (rather than what we have done or initiated!)
There are various legitimate ways in which this can be expressed; Thomas Cramner’s form of worship was different from Calvin’s, but both understood the function of each element of worship and why that function fell where it did in the service.
First, there is a Call to worship, which should include a reading from one of the classic calls given through out the Bible, a prayer of adoration and congregational singing primarily focused on God’s person and attributes.
In Biblical order, then comes an element of Confession, in which the Reformers included an exhortation, a prayer of confession, assurance of pardon, and congregational singing of thanks.
Next comes a time of Consecration. This should include the public reading of Scripture and the sermon. This time in the service can also include bringing forward our offerings in worship. In the past, many churches did not pass a plate during worship, but what they did do was collect offerings out of a box in the back of the church and bring it forward as an act of worship. Whatever the particular practice, the idea is this: God takes the fruits of our labors and blesses those common things for a special use in the life of the church.
Then comes the Communion, where the Lord’s Supper is observed. The Lord’s Supper completes the flow and function of covenantal renewal: we’ve confessed our sin, been promised forgiveness, been consecrated by the Word, and now that the Lord has renewed His covenant with us, He nourished us with His Meal prior to sending us out to do battle with the world. In this meal, we find God’s promise true; “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).
Last is the Commissioning, where the people sing with upturned faces before receiving the final charge, the benediction. By the way, benedictions are not prayers; they are a pronouncement of blessing meant to be received with upturned, expectant faces and eyes wide open!
All of this is glorious; why 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 it’s far easier to do things merely out of tradition or because “that’s what everyone likes.” It is time-consuming ‘spade work’ to understand the function of the liturgy and appropriate forms for that liturgy to take. Similarly, teaching God’s people the Biblical function of a liturgy, why a current form is the way it is, and to do it all in a manner that is not overly technical is hard work! Yet God gives us His promises that accompany this work: Proverbs 10:4 says, “A man becomes poor if he works with a slack hand: but the hand of the diligent makes him rich.” Much of our contemporary worship is threadbare because we are lazy; we do not want to take the effort to study what God says about how we are to approach Him. And due to a lack of knowledge and faithfulness, many say, “It’s just the same old dance week after week!”
Yet, for the congregation that diligently studies these things, great promises and gifts await them. Among other things, if by faith we approach Him diligently, He tells us He is “a rewarder of them that diligently seek him” (Heb. 11:6).