What is church? Not what is the Church? But what is church? What is it that we do on Sunday mornings? When believers come together on Sunday mornings to sing, pray, fellowship, read God’s Word, listen to a sermon preached, and take the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper, what is all that? What are we doing? I ask these questions because it seems there is confusion within our current generation. Consequently, there is a dumbing down of church. There is a low view of church. There is an undervaluing and under-appreciation of what is happening on Sunday morning during the corporate gathering of the saints. So what is church? Is the Sunday morning service nothing more than a snazzier Bible study? Is it simply an extension of the Sunday school class? Or, is it something more?
These questions are worth asking because in recent years the argument is being frequently made that God can be worshipped anywhere. God is omnipresent, and “where two or three are gathered,” there God is in the midst of them. Of course, the result of this sort of thinking is that now there are many who stay home on Sunday mornings and “do worship” with their families. Husband, wife, kids—that’s their church. They sing a few songs, listen to a sermon online, and pray together. And if they are really spiritual, they take the Lord’s Supper together. There is also the latest phenomenon of online churches and virtual reality churches. There people can “connect” with other Christians logging on to a website or a virtual reality platform and worship with other believers, all while never leaving the comfort of their own living room. Is this church? Is this what the author of Hebrews meant when he exhorted his readers to “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some (Heb. 10:24-25 ESV)?
To understand what takes place during the Sunday morning worship service, we must first understand that the concept of the saints gathering on Sunday morning for corporate worship is not something that came into existence ex nihilo—out of nothing—but is a practice that is rooted in Old Testament (OT) temple worship. Afterall, Christianity is the outgrowth and natural progression in redemptive history of Old Testament Judaism. Thus, when we look at the Old Testament, what we see is that God’s people in the OT were commanded to worship God and to meet with God at the Tabernacle (pre-Solomon’s Temple), and then at the Temple in Jerusalem (ca. 970 BC—70 AD). Regarding the OT Tabernacle, Exodus 33:7 states: “And everyone who sought the LORD would go out to the tent of meeting.” The OT Jews all clearly understood that God is omnipresent and omniscient (Ps. 139:7-9). They understood they could pray to God from anywhere and he would hear them. But they also understood that the Tabernacle/Temple was the designated place on earth for meeting with God. Thus, when they came to the Tabernacle/Temple of the living God, they were coming to and entering into the very presence of God (Ex. 40:34-35). For the average Israelite, this was just as real and just as important as entering into the presence of King David or King Solomon or any of the kings of Israel. In going to the Tabernacle/Temple to meet with God, they were entering into the very presence of the King of kings.
However, the Temple is destroyed in the year 70 AD by the Romans and ceases to exist. Or, does it? In the Gospel of John, Jesus says to the Jews, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Of course, the Jews respond by saying, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” The disciple John then explains, “But he was speaking about the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken” (vv.19-22 ESV). The disciples would later understand that Jesus being the Temple of God was not just metaphorical language, but eschatological reality. In the book of Ephesians, when writing to a church of believing Jews and Gentiles, the apostle Paul writes: “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (2:19-22 ESV). Thus, Christ is not only the Temple of God, he is the cornerstone of that Temple, and all believers in union with Christ by faith “are being built together into a dwelling place for God.” The apostle Peter also takes up this theme when he writes: “you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 2:5 ESV). It is for this reason the author of Hebrews states: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together” (10:24-25 ESV). Not neglecting to physically come together for corporate worship because, while it is true that God is omnipresent and omniscient and believers can pray to him and worship him anywhere, it is equally true that the corporate gathering of the saints, the bringing together of God’s “living stones” forms the “dwelling place for God” and thus is the New Testament Temple and the designated meeting place of God’s people with Him.
Thus, the Sunday morning gathering of the saints for corporate worship is not just a snazzier Bible study. It is not simply an extension of the Sunday school class. And it is certainly not something that can be replicated via online or through virtual reality. The Sunday morning gathering of the saints for corporate worship is entering into the very throne room of the living God. Dr. Joe Kelley has rightly stated: “A spiritual and mystical ascent into heaven via public worship is difficult to conceive; even Calvin himself admitted as much: ‘I shall not be ashamed to confess that it is a secret too lofty for either my mind to comprehend or my words to declare. And, to speak, more plainly, I rather experience than understand it.’ Yet, in spite of its conceptual difficulty, it is foundational to a proper attitude towards public worship seeing that it is intricately linked to the believer’s union with Christ.” He goes on to say, “To perceive public worship as entering into God’s holy presence in heaven is not only humbling and terrifying, it is also joy unspeakable and full of glory. Such a perspective, in the words of the Psalmist, should cause every believer to say: ‘As the deer pants for streams of water, so my should pants for you, O God’ (Ps 42:1 NIV).”[i] I would add that to perceive public worship as entering into God’s holy presence in heaven should also cause us to exclaim with the Psalmist: “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD!’” (Ps. 122:1 ESV).
[i] Joe W. Kelley, “Seated in the Heavenlies: Integrating John Calvin’s Principles of Worship in a Baptist Context” (DMin diss., Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlette, NC, 2010), 215-216.
*Photo by John Price on Unsplash
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