In 1865, a minister stood before an assembly of hundreds of ministers and elders and made a statement that would startle many Christians today. His name was James Begg, a faithful minister in the Free Church of Scotland, and he was acting as Moderator of its General Assembly. His remarkable words were these: “The worship of God is the most sacred thing with which His creatures have to do. It is more sacred than the government of the Church, more sacred even than Christian doctrine, for these are, in a sense, merely instrumental in bringing us into proper relations to God.” In other words, the truths of Scripture are revealed to bring us into a proper relationship with God, so that we can worship Him acceptably.
We should try to understand why worship is, in a sense, more sacred than doctrine.
First, we should remember that we were created to glorify and enjoy God. Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever. The Word of God tells us, “Whether therefore ye eat or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).
Second, one of the main ways we glorify and enjoy Him on earth is by worshipping Him. “Give unto the Lord the glory due unto His name, bring an offering, and come into His courts. O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness: fear before Him, all the earth” (Ps. 96:8-9). In our fallen state, we do not enjoy worshipping the true God. Our desperately wicked hearts want to forsake the worship of God, as many in our generation have done. However, the doctrines of Scripture reveal that God is in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them (2 Cor. 5:19). He has sent His only begotten Son into the world to be a Saviour, who can save us from our sins and renew us by His Spirit. When we are enabled to believe in Him, we can then begin to do what we were created to do – glorify and enjoy God. One way we do this is by worshipping Him.
Third, sinners who are saved by grace especially glorify and enjoy God in public worship. This explains why believers in Scripture were often happiest when in the house of God. In Psalm 27, David says, “One thing have I desired of the LORD, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to enquire in his temple.” At the time of Christ’s ascension into heaven, we read that the disciples “worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy: and were continually in the temple, praising and blessing God” (Luke 24:52-53). In the book of Acts, we read of thousands of Christians worshipping God daily with great joy: “And they continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, praising God, and having favour with all the people…” (Acts 2:46-47).
Fourth, in the worship of God, we are approaching God. We are drawing nearer to Him than at any other time. As one writer put it, “In [the act of worship] the majesty of the Most High is directly confronted. The worshipper presents himself face to face with the infinite sovereign of heaven and earth.”
Fifth, the worship of God will be the main way the saints will glorify and enjoy Him in heaven. The Apostle John, who was called to come up to heaven in a vision, saw 24 elders upon 24 thrones, seated before the great throne of God. These elders represent the Church that has been redeemed by Christ’s blood (Rev. 5:9). John records that he saw them “fall down before Him that sat upon the throne, and worship him that liveth for ever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying, Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created” (Rev. 4:10-11).
We now understand why Dr James Begg said that worship, in one way, is more sacred than doctrine. The doctrines of the Bible reveal Christ, who saves us from sin and opens up a way to approach God in worship. He enables us to glorify and enjoy God forever, in the eternal worship of heaven.
Since worship is so intimately bound up with God’s glory and our own happiness, we ought to take deep interest in the subject. We must search the Scriptures diligently for answers to questions about worship. What is worship? What is public worship, and how does it differ from other forms of worship? Why must we worship Him publicly, and not just in private? How should we worship Him publicly? Why has the form of public worship changed over time? Why is it so important that we worship Him exactly as He has commanded? Why is New Testament worship so much more glorious than Old Testament worship? If New Testament worship is so glorious, why do so many find it plain, dull, and lifeless? How should we prepare for public worship? These are the main questions that we will consider in this essay.
The word “worship” comes from the older word, “worth-ship” – ascribing worth to someone or something. So, when we worship God, we acknowledge that He is infinitely worthy and deserves to be loved, adored, feared, trusted, and obeyed above all.
Furthermore, worship is our response to God’s revealing of Himself. In other words, when God reveals Himself in creation, providence, and in the Scriptures, we must respond by worshipping Him. When David looked up to the heavens, which reveal God’s glory, he responded with praise: “Lord, what is man, that thou art mindful of him?” (Psalm 8:4). When the Lord passed by Moses and revealed the glory of His goodness, Moses “made haste, and bowed his head toward the earth, and worshipped” (Exodus 34:8).
The word “worship” in our Bibles is first found in Genesis 22. In this chapter, God tests Abraham’s faith and obedience by commanding him to offer his beloved son Isaac. Abraham obeys, believing that God is able to raise up his son from the dead (Heb. 11:19). But Abraham not only obeys, but he resolves to worship God when offering up his son. In verse 5 of Genesis 22, Abraham says to the young men with him, “Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you” (Gen. 22:5). The Hebrew word literally means, “to bow down, to lie down flat” out of reverence for someone, and submission to him. So Abraham by his example teaches us that God must be worshipped with faith, reverence and submission at all times, even when He is leading us through mysterious providences.
In the New Testament the Greek word translated “worship” is first found in Matthew 2:2. Here the wise men from the east come to Herod and say, “Where is He that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen His star in the east, and are come to worship Him.” Again, the Greek word for worship means to kneel or lie flat to express reverence. Thus, in verse 11, we read that when the wise men saw the infant Jesus with His mother, they “fell down and worshipped Him.”
We can learn much about worship from the example of these wise men. First, they openly professed their desire to worship Christ. So we must not be ashamed to say that we go to Church every Sabbath to worship God. Second, they had to deny themselves ease and comfort when traveling to Judea to worship Christ. So we must deny ourselves to go to the house of God. Third, they sought guidance about where to worship Him. So when it is our duty to go to an unfamiliar place, and stay over the Sabbath, we must make inquiries, or do some research to find out if there is a place where we can worship the Lord acceptably. Fourth, they were determined to worship Him, no matter what condition He was in. It did not matter to them whether He was dwelling in a palace or a house – whether many were worshipping Him or few were worshipping Him. Similarly, we must worship God, even if very few are worshipping Him.
Just a brief look at the words for worship in English, Hebrew, and Greek shows us how far the modern Church has drifted from Biblical worship. Instead of insisting that worship must be solemn, reverent, humble, and submissive to God’s will, the demand today is that worship be “uplifting” – that is, that the worship service make people feel good about themselves. True worship is indeed uplifting, but it involves humbling ourselves: “Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time” (1 Pet. 5:6). By humbling ourselves under His mighty hand, confessing our sinfulness and trusting in the Saviour whom He has provided, we are lifted up by the Lord Himself, and given a joy that no man can take from us.
We can now return to the question, “What is worship?” and attempt an answer. Worship is the penitent approach of a sinner to God through Christ, acknowledging His infinite worth and excellency, and professing submission to Him and confidence in Him.
We have been considering the meaning of worship, but this paper is about public worship. Where do we learn that we must worship Him publicly? We learn from two sources: the light of nature and the Scriptures.
First the light of nature teaches that we ought to worship God. In other words, the creation around us, and our consciences within us, tell us that there is a God who must be worshipped. The Westminster Confession of Faith states, “The light of nature showeth that there is a God, who hath lordship and sovereignty over all, is good, and doth good to all, and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart, and with all the soul, and with all the might” (chapter 21, section 1).
Since humans are social creatures, they have always felt instinctively that they need to gather together and worship God in a more formal way. For example, the ancient Egyptians had a very elaborate system of worship, involving priests, rituals, and large gatherings of people. Probably every heathen people has had some kind of public religious ritual. Tribal leaders or civil magistrates often required people to participate occasionally in these rituals. They believed that public religious ceremonies were necessary to appease the gods and to maintain unity among the people. (You may be interested to know that “religion” is from a word that means “to bind”. The heathen recognized that religion is necessary to bind people to their Creator and to one another. They saw that if society has no religion, then there is nothing to keep society together.)
As we all know, Western civilization has largely forsaken the public worship of God. Few people go to church regularly. But people still worship, just not the God of the Bible. For example, how many today idolise professional sport players, musicians, and movie stars! As Paul says in Romans 1, fallen man forsakes the true God, and worships and serves the creature more than the Creator. Man may become very wicked and atheistic, but he still feels that he must worship something.
Second, we also learn from the Bible that we must come together to worship the Lord publicly. “O come, let us worship and bow down: let us kneel before the Lord our Maker” (Ps. 95:6). We are told that we must not simply worship Him in private; we must also come together to worship Him. “Forsake not the assembling of yourselves together, as the manner of some is” (Heb. 10:25).
Because public worship involves people coming together to one place, it is sometimes called “corporate worship.” The word “corporate” refers to a “body”. In public worship, we worship Him as a body – singing the same Psalms, reading the same portion of Scripture, hearing the same sermon, all at the same time and in the same place.
Public worship differs from other forms of worship in several ways.
1. God reveals Himself more clearly and graciously in places of public worship than in other places.
In Exodus 20:24, He says “…in all places where I record my name I will come unto thee, and I will bless thee.” In Matt. 18:18, we learn that it is God the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, who is especially present by His Spirit: “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them.” The Lord’s special presence explains why the house of God is the place where sinners are most likely to be awakened, converted, comforted, guided, and sanctified.
2. The verses quoted above also show that the Lord has a special delight in the assemblies of people who gather to worship Him.
The Psalmist even says that God loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob (Ps. 87:2). The gates of Zion represent public assemblies for worship, and the Psalmist says that the Lord loves these public worship services more than private devotions. Why is this? The answer leads us to a third difference between public and private worship.
3. God is more visibly glorified when we worship Him publicly than when we worship Him in our homes. When, for example, people see Christians unashamedly enter a place of public worship, they are reminded of their own duty to worship God. Put simply, public worship is the main way that the Church witnesses to the world.
Christians today, living in a godless age, often debate how they are to spread the gospel. They claim that the Church must try different methods of evangelism – many of them unscriptural. But it is easy to overlook the importance of the main method of evangelism – public worship. Here the Lord manifests His Word through preaching (Titus 1:3), which is the principal means of convincing and converting sinners. When we see many people ignoring places of worship, or even mocking the few who are going to church, we might be tempted to think that public worship services are not an effective method of evangelism. But the Book of Acts teaches otherwise. It records the apostles going into existing places of worship and preaching the gospel with the power of the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven. The people would hear with astonishment, and some of them would be converted. Word of this would spread quickly, and more people would come to the next service. For example, after the Apostle Paul preached in Antioch in Pisidia, we read that “the next Sabbath day came almost the whole city together to hear the word of God” (Acts 13:44). Clearly, the problem is not that traditional public worship has become an outdated method of evangelism. Rather, the problem is that the public worship of God is not accompanied with the same measure of the Holy Spirit.
Another thing that distinguishes public worship from other forms of worship are the special rules that apply to it. This point takes us to the next section of our paper.
Earlier, we noted that people are born with an instinct to worship God. They instinctively feel that they should draw near to their Maker. But this instinct does not teach them how they should draw near and worship Him. Those who have no sense of sin and no sense of the holiness of God will not be concerned about the right way to worship God. But those who do will be asking the question, “Wherewith shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before the high God? shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves of a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” (Micah 6:6-7). Notice the earnest tone in these questions. The person in Micah 6 desires to come before the Lord to worship Him, but is painfully aware that he has offended Him.
Our Creator and Lawgiver, whose name is Holy, is the One whom we have offended. He must reveal how sinners may approach and worship Him. One thing He has taught from the beginning is that we cannot draw near and worship Him except through a Mediator. This Mediator offers Himself as a sacrifice to atone for the sins of many to reconcile them to God. These truths were dimly taught in the Garden of Eden after the fall, when the Lord sacrificed animals to clothe our first parents. They were taught that they needed a covering for their sins when they came before God, and this covering would be provided by the sacrifice of Another.
Throughout the Old Testament, every act of public worship involved a sacrifice. Even after Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Solomon’s temple, the Jewish captives in Babylon had to pray toward Jerusalem, the place of sacrifice. Again and again, they were taught that they dare not approach the Holy One without looking to the One who would appear to put away sins by the sacrifice of Himself (Heb. 9:26).
Today, every approach we make in worship must be done in the name of Christ, who offered Himself as a sacrifice to Divine Justice for the sins of His people.
However, so far we have not spoken about the specific rules of public worship. The truth that we must draw near to God and worship Him in Christ’s name, applies to all acts of worship, not just public worship. Yet enough has been said to demonstrate the close connection between the doctrine of the gospel and the doctrine of worship. The gospel reveals that there is a way for sinners to draw near to God and enjoy His favour. In true worship we make use of this way and come into His presence to worship and adore Him.
Furthermore, God shows us exactly how we must be saved, and exactly how we must worship Him. He does not allow us to add or take away from the way of salvation, nor does He allow us to modify the way of worship. When a Church thinks that it is at liberty to change the way they approach God in worship, it will not be long before that Church changes the terms of salvation. Church history shows that when churches think that they can add things to God’s worship to make it more pleasing to man, it is not long before they are tolerating Arminian doctrine which teaches that man can do something to save himself. Simply put, if we can change the way we worship, why can’t we change the way we are saved?
The special rules of public worship are known as the regulative principle of worship. This principle is rooted in the second commandment:
Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20:4-6).
This commandment is one of the longest of the 10 commandments in the moral law. It is 91 words long in English. (Only the fourth commandment is longer – 94 English words.) It contains detailed instructions, a special promise to those who obey, and a solemn threatening upon those who disobey it. All this detail should convince us that God has tremendous zeal for the way He is worshipped.
As the Shorter Catechism teaches, the second commandment requires “the receiving, observing, and keeping pure and entire, all such religious worship and ordinances as God hath appointed in His Word.” The most obvious transgression of this commandment is the making of a graven image. People who make them generally admit that the image is not God, but only something that reminds them of Him. They claim it is only something that helps them worship the true God. This is the same reason people give for bringing many unlawful things into the worship of God, like choirs, vestments (priest-like garments), and musical instruments. They claim that these things help them to worship God.
But all human inventions in worship are forbidden. Only what God has commanded to be done in worship is right. Everything else is wrong. In Deuteronomy 12:32, the Lord says, “What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it.” Notice that He does not say, “What thing soever I forbid you, do not do it.” Rather, He says, “Do only the things I command you to be done – nothing more and nothing less.”
The second commandment is broken by “will-worship” (Col. 2:23). That is, man’s will, not God’s, is the reason for bringing into worship something that God has not commanded. The Apostle says that these devices have “a show of wisdom” – there seems to be a wise reason for doing something in the worship of God that He has not commanded. It seems like a good idea – it seems like it will help us worship God better, but too often, people forget to ask, “Has God required us to do this?” If it is not required, then it will hinder us from approaching the Lord to worship Him in spirit and in truth.
For example, suppose a church installs stained-glass windows with scenes from the Bible drawn on them. The worshipper looks around him before the worship service begins and feels impressed by the beautiful artwork. He begins to think about the Bible stories that are depicted on the glass. He convinces himself that the painted windows are putting him into a better frame for worshipping God. The next Sabbath he looks forward to going to the same church and seeing the stained-glass windows. He expects that they will again put him into a more religious mood. But what is actually happening? The person is depending on human artwork to prepare him for worshipping God, rather than on the Holy Spirit alone. The artwork is actually hindering a true spiritual approach to the Most High.
When people hear that things such as choirs, vestments, and musical instruments in public worship are forbidden, they often ask, “How can these things be wrong, when God commanded them to be used in the past?”
To answer this question, we must begin by distinguishing between two kinds of laws in the Bible: moral laws and positive laws. Moral laws reflect God’s nature; they are therefore always right and can never change. For example, God is the source of all truth and always speaks the truth. He therefore commands that we never tell a lie. This commandment is always binding; there are no exceptions to it. (There may be times when it is lawful to conceal the truth – as when the Lord Jesus charged His disciples to tell no man that He was Christ – but that is another subject.)
Positive laws are laws that God gives in addition to His moral laws. (To remember what a positive law is, think of the addition (+) sign.) For example, God put the 10 commandments into Adam’s heart at his creation. In addition to these laws, God gave Adam a special command not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This special command was a positive law. It was simply an expression of God’s sovereign will. It was not inherently wrong to eat of that tree; it was wrong because God said so. God was telling Adam, “Do not eat of that tree – not because you understand why, but because I said so.” He was testing whether Adam would submit to His sovereign authority.
The first commandment is a moral command that must always be done. In this commandment, God says, “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.” Here God commands that we know and acknowledge Him to be the only true God, and our God, and to worship and glorify Him accordingly (see Shorter Catechism question 46). We must always worship and glorify Him, including when we are outdoors or hearing bad news. For example, when the Psalmist saw God’s glory revealed all throughout creation, he rightly responded with moral worship: “How manifold Lord are thy works! In wisdom hast thou made them all: the earth is full of thy riches” (Ps. 104:24). When God revealed Himself in that mysterious and sovereign providence of taking away Job’s possessions and children, Job responded by worshipping Him:
“Then Job arose, and rent his mantle, and shaved his head, and fell down upon the ground, and worshipped, And said, Naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return thither: the LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:20-21).
Now some people today misapply the truth that we must worship God everywhere at all times. They say, “We can worship God anywhere at any time. We don’t need to go to Church to worship Him or set aside a special day for worshipping Him.”
They forget that God also commands that moral worship be expressed in a more formal, structured way. These special commands about worship are positive laws. Again, they express His sovereign authority. We may not understand all the reasons why He has commanded us to worship Him in one particular way, rather than another way. God is saying, “Worship Me in this exact way, because I said so.” Here again, God is testing whether we will submit to His sovereign authority.
Because positive laws depend upon God’s sovereign will, He is free to change them as He pleases. For example, the day of worship is determined by His sovereign will. He can command His Church to remember the Sabbath Day on the seventh day of the week, and He can change it to the first day of the week (which He did after the resurrection of Christ).
This explains why God could change the form of worship over time. During the time from Moses to Christ, the Church was in a condition of spiritual childhood (see Gal. 4:1-3). They did not have the complete Bible as we do, and Christ had not yet come into the world. So God instituted a form of worship that was suited to their immature condition. Like children, He taught them more by pictures and symbols than by words. So He instituted a form of worship that had a tabernacle, a system of sacrifices, priests, feasts, ceremonies, and Levitical choirs that used musical instruments. These things taught them about Christ and the blessings that He would clearly reveal to the world.
Now that the Scriptures have been completed, the Church is in a mature condition. She learns more by the ear than by the eye. The form of worship involving priests, sacrifices, choirs, and musical instruments is now no longer suitable. The worship of the Church must be more spiritual. As Christ told the woman at the well: “…the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23-24).
Moreover, when Christ, the true High Priest, sacrificed Himself to put away sins, and poured out the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, He fulfilled the things symbolised in the ceremonial laws. This is another reason why the form of Old Testament worship is no longer suitable for the Church today. In fact, all remnants of Old Testament worship hinder us, rather than help us, in worshipping God.
So, in the New Testament, God has instituted a new form of public worship. He commands the singing of Psalms without musical instruments, the reading of Scripture, preaching, prayer, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. To see the Scriptural basis for each of these parts of public worship, you can study the proof texts in the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 21, sections 3-5).
We have learned that we must worship God exactly as He has commanded, because it is His sovereign will. But He also gives us reasons for exact obedience. One reason is found in the second commandment, where He says that He is a “jealous God”. Obviously, His jealousy is not at all like our sinful jealousy of others. The Shorter Catechism says it describes “the zeal He hath for His own worship” (Question 52).
Throughout Scripture, we see the Lord manifesting His zeal over His own worship. He slew Nadab and Abihu for offering strange fire which He had not commanded. He placed a permanent mark of disapproval on all kings who allowed high places to exist. These were altars on which sacrifices to the true God were offered, but not in the place which He had appointed. He slew Uzzah to manifest His displeasure at the wrong way in which the ark of the covenant was carried. The Lord Jesus Christ displayed this same zeal when He overthrew the money changers and drove out them that bought and sold in the temple.
The Corinthian Church, overall, worshipped God as He had commanded. The Apostle Paul praised them for remembering him “in all things” and keeping the ordinances as he had taught them (1 Cor. 11:2). But when they kept the Lord’s Supper in a disorderly manner, they were chastised with sickness and premature death.
Finally, the Apostle in Hebrews warns that the Church today must constantly take great care to worship Him acceptably, with reverence and godly fear, and the reason given is that He is still a consuming fire. Clearly, unscriptural worship gravely dishonours the Most High. It involves people drawing near to His throne and defying Him in His special presence.
In our day, the punishment upon false worship may not be as obvious as it was in Israel and Corinth. The Lord may express His displeasure in other ways, such as by withholding the Holy Spirit, so that many of the Church’s worshippers are left to die in their sins. He may give up the Church to sad divisions, worldliness, and error. However, we should not forget God’s mercy behind these solemn warnings. God has chosen to give the blessings of salvation in a particular form of worship. It is His will that this worship be kept pure and entire, so that we are not hindered from receiving His blessings.
Many people find the form of public worship commanded in the New Testament to be plain and dull. To them it has no form nor comeliness. One reason may be that their minds and hearts are still under the power of sin, so that they cannot see the beauty of the Lord in His house, as David did (Psalm 27:4). Even Christians may be tempted to bring things into public worship to make it more appealing to the senses. They need to be taught about the glory of New Testament worship. In 2 Corinthians 3:7-10, Paul shows that New Testament worship is more glorious than even the worship of Solomon’s temple:
“But if the ministration of death, written and engraven in stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not stedfastly behold the face of Moses for the glory of his countenance; which glory was to be done away: How shall not the ministration of the spirit be rather glorious? For if the ministration of condemnation be glory, much more doth the ministration of righteousness exceed in glory. For even that which was made glorious had no glory in this respect, by reason of the glory that excelleth. For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious.”
A great amount of teaching is contained in this passage. We can only attempt a brief summary. Basically, Paul teaches that the Covenant of Grace is administered in a much more glorious way than when it was administered in the Old Testament. Christ is much more clearly revealed than He was during the time of the Old Testament, and far more people are saved now. This makes the New Testament and its form of worship much more glorious than the old. Old Testament worship was glorious: when God revealed the form of Old Testament worship to Moses, his face shone so brightly that he had to wear a veil when speaking to the children of Israel. But even then, Christ was not clearly revealed. Therefore, Paul says that the New Testament and its worship is so much more glorious, that the Old Testament and its worship has almost no glory in comparison.
Many people wonder how this could be. New Testament worship seems so much plainer and simpler than Old Testament worship, which involved priests who wore costly garments, offered incense in a costly temple, and so on. However, the Scriptures show that New Testament worship excels Old Testament worship in several ways:
1. The worship of the Old Testament had only a human priest who acted as a servant within the house of God. But we have a divine high priest presiding over the house of God (Heb. 10:21). We should remember that every time that we go to the house of God, we have a glorious High Priest presiding over its worship.
2. The high priest of the Old Testament, in his garments of glory and beauty, was an impressive sight, but he could not give any spiritual blessing to any of the worshippers. In the New Testament worship, the divine high priest is present: “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world” (Matt. 28:20). And He is active: He walks among the seven golden candlesticks, which are the seven churches (Rev. 2:1). He is continually giving the grace of repentance and forgiveness to sinners, so that they can worship God in spirit and in truth (Acts 5:31 and John 4:24).
3. When the people in the Old Testament publicly worshipped God at Jerusalem, a priest who represented them went into a temple on earth. But when we worship God publicly by faith today, Christ represents us in heaven. He presents the worship of His people to the Father in heaven, removing all the sins and defects of their worship. John Owen exclaims, “…what can be more glorious than this…that the whole spiritual worship of the [New Testament] performed here on earth by the saints, is administered by such a holy Priest, who is at the right hand of the throne of the majesty of God!”
4. In Old Testament worship, the holiest place of the tabernacle contained the ark of the covenant. It was the clearest symbol of God’s presence. Of this place God said, “There will I meet with thee, and there will I commune with thee from above the mercy seat” (Ex. 25:20). However, only the high priest could go there – and only once a year. Everyone else was excluded. But in New Testament worship, we may continually go into the holiest place (heaven) by the blood of Jesus (Heb. 10:19). By faith in Christ, we actually enter into heaven itself when we worship God! As John Owen says, “[New Testament worship] is performed in heaven. Though they who perform it are on earth, yet they do it, by faith, in heaven.”
That is why Paul speaks as if New Testament worshippers are already in heaven, in a sense. “But ye are come unto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels…and to the spirits of just men made perfect…and to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel.”
We must pause and emphasise a lesson from the glory of New Testament worship: the absolute necessity of faith. None of the glory of public worship today can be seen without faith. Only by faith do we see the great High Priest presiding over worship. Only by faith do we perceive His presence. Only by faith do we receive His grace to worship God acceptably. And only by faith do we see Him presenting our worship to the Father in heaven.
Sometimes the Church – even though she worships God according to His Word and understands the importance of faith when worshipping God – finds a lack of spiritual life in her assemblies for worship. She is then lamenting with the daughter-in-law of Eli the high priest, “Where is the glory?” That is, “Where is the promised glory, life, and joy of New Testament worship?”
In most cases, the answer is that the Spirit of Christ has largely withdrawn from the assemblies for public worship. He may withdraw for a variety of reasons. For example, we may have grown weary of worshipping God, as the Jews in the time of Malachi did. We have lost sight of both the solemnity and tremendous privilege of presenting ourselves “face to face with the infinite Sovereign of heaven and earth.”
One commentator wrote long ago: “A man worships God when, under the influence of the Holy Ghost, he brings all his affections, appetites, and desires to the throne of God; and he worships him in truth, when every purpose and passion of his heart, and when every act of his religious worship, is guided and regulated by the Word of God.” True Christians may hear this and wonder if they have ever truly worshipped God. Yet it expresses their aim and desire. The Spirit of God is not provoked to withdraw by their failure to achieve this standard, but He is grieved when they no longer make it their aim.
Another way He is provoked to withdraw from assemblies of worship is when we are hearing the Word but not receiving it with faith and love, laying it up in our hearts, and practicing it in our lives. The cares of this life, the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things are entering into our hearts, preventing us from profiting from His Word and delighting in His worship.
Or we may be doing things that we suspect are not pleasing to the Lord, but we don’t want to know. We suspect that there are idols in our hearts and lives, but don’t want to have them pointed out. We do not want to be made willing to know, obey and submit to His will in all things. As a result, our prayers for the Spirit to be poured out upon our assemblies of worship are not being answered. If we regard iniquity in our hearts, the Lord will not hear us (Ps. 66:18).
Or, we may have looked at the growing wickedness around us, the declining numbers of those attending church, our own cold hearts and unfruitful lives, and given way to discouragement and unbelief. We are saying with the poor father of the demon-possessed child, “If thou canst do anything, have compassion on us, and help us” (Mark 9:22).
These observations give us hints about how to prepare for worship. We should remind ourselves of the astonishing privilege of New Testament worship, when we enter into heaven by faith in the blood of Jesus. We should examine whether we are delighting in His Word and worship and seek grace to forsake the things which take away our desire for them. We should pray that we would be delivered from the blinding and deadening influence of unbelief, so that we can see the King high and lifted up, and His train filling the temple (Isaiah 6:1).
And when we find our hearts cold, even averse, to worshipping God, we should still go up with hope and gratitude to His house of worship. We go to worship a reconciling God, who so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. We are going to the house of God; a glorious high priest presides over it and makes continual intercession for it in heaven.
Finally, we should never forget how much delight God has in the assemblies of His people for worship. He says of their gatherings: “This is my rest, here still I’ll stay, for I do like it well” (Ps. 132:11, metrical). As John Owen says, “The Lord Jesus sees more beauty and glory in the weakest assemblies of His saints, coming together in His name, and acted and guided in His worship and ways by His Spirit, than ever was in all the worship of Solomon’s temple.”
O enter then His gates with praise, approach with joy His courts unto. Praise, laud, and bless His name always, for it is seemly so to do.
- Ps. 100:4