The Worship Priority
Chapter 2 – Public Worship
So far I have endeavored to demonstrate from both the Old and New Testaments the essential meaning of “worship.” To worship is to enter into God’s presence for the purpose of conversing with Him. In worship we praise God, confess our sins to Him, and pray for His blessing. We also listen to Him as He speaks through the reading and proclamation of His Word.
Now we are ready to consider another important biblical fact about worship: Worship is a corporate activity.
“Corporate” means “that which is done as a body” or “that which is done together.” Worship is not something that an individual believer does on his own. Rather, to worship properly we must assemble together with other believers. Once again we find this truth illustrated in both the Old and New Testaments.
Old Testament Corporate Worship
Old Testament worship was the central activity of Israel’s corporate life. Individuals were to serve God, obey God, love God, and delight in God; they were even to praise God. To worship, though, Israel had to come together. God established a central place to worship. At first everyone came to the center of the camp to the tabernacle. Eventually they gathered in Jerusalem. This calling together for feasts and sacrifices forced the people of Israel to regularly renew their bonds with one another, for unless they could come together as one, they could not worship properly.
When the Northern tribes rebelled against the house of David, God did not instantly punish them. In fact, he promised their new king that if he followed God’s law, his family would rule for generations.(I Kings 11:38) It was when those same Israelites stopped gathering with the rest for worship that everything went downhill.(I Kings 12:26-27) They began worshiping the wrong way, and God cursed them.(I Kings 13:2) In a few generations they turned to the false gods of the surrounding nations, and in time the rebellious tribes were eradicated.(II Kings 21:17-23) Abandonment of the corporate worship of Israel was the first step toward their destruction.
Meanwhile the true people of God longed to gather for worship. The words of Psalm 84, “y soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the Lord,” express the desire of every true believer who was separated for a time from temple worship. They could not serve God in the same manner while apart.
New Testament Corporate Worship
Naturally the Jews who formed the core of the New Testament church continued to worship together. Their whole experience with worship was as a corporate event, so they continued to meet together. In fact, they devoted themselves to one another, and worship remained at the core of the new community of faith. (Acts 2:44-47) This commitment to public worship remained one of the mainstays of the New Testament church.
Not only was the corporate nature of worship a common feature of the church, it was and is a necessary element of the Christian life. Consider again the nature of worship. When God’s people assemble for worship, God makes Himself accessible to them in a unique way so that they may converse with Him. That the practice of regularly meeting with God is not something we should cast aside lightly should be evident to all believers.
Some may argue that the “priesthood of all believers” makes each of us able to worship God individually, at the time and place of our choosing. This language derives from I Peter 2:9, where Peter calls the church (collectively) “a royal priesthood.” In the very next verse he tells us, “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people.”” Peter’s intent is to emphasize the priesthood of the body of Christ, not individual Christians.
Others will say that we now have immediate access to God through Christ and the Holy Spirit. Thus we worship individually whenever we pray or read the Bible. Radically enlarged access to the throne of grace is indeed one of the pivotal changes in New Covenant worship, but in the very passage which expounds this change (Hebrews 10:19-25) we are commanded not to forsake the assembly. It is when we assemble together that we enter into the Holiest Places and hear the voice of God!
So while it is true that the individual Christian can (and indeed must!) pray and study Scripture, and while those activities have at times been called “private worship,” they are not entirely the equivalent of public, or corporate, worship. The Christian who does not assemble with others to worship misses something crucial, something God intends for him to have.
God and His People
Evangelical Christians have perhaps confused the issue by emphasizing a “personal” relationship with God. Of course there is a deep personal element in our relationship with God; He is our father and we His children. Even in big families each child can be said to have a “personal” relationship with Dad. Anyone who lacks a personal faith in God and who does not personally demonstrate the fruit of repentance is not His child. However, the Bible has a lot to say as well about God’s relationship with His people corporately.
Think of Paul’s marriage analogy in Ephesians 5:25-27. The church is the bride of Christ. Christ loves His bride, and gave himself up for her. He loves her, and He desires to meet regularly with her. I am not the bride of Christ, and neither are you. Each of us is at best a tiny part of the bride of Christ. We participate in the bride, if you will. Christ’s demand that we assemble to worship is a call to His bride to meet with Him. He doesn’t want to spend an hour with just her eyelash or her fingernail, which is what He gets if you or I try to worship individually! Like any man, He relates to His bride as a whole person.
As part of the evangelical obsession with a “personal” relationship we now hear people arguing, “I can meet with God at any time that I choose!” Truly, an individual may wish to meet with God, but the critical question is this: When and where will God meet with us? God has not consecrated particular buildings or tents in the New Covenant, but He has told us of His intention to meet with us. In His Word He commands us to assemble together, announcing His intention to meet with us when we do. If we desire to encounter God on a regular basis, we must be willing to participate in the meeting where He is present.
Just as the Jews in the Old Testament had to regularly renew relationships among themselves if they were to worship God rightly, so too Christians must find the spiritual strength to congregate together with other Christians in order to regularly meet with God. This is not easy, particularly since every church is a mixture of truth and error, of righteousness and wickedness. Worship is a sufficient reason to do the sometimes hard work of finding other believers and assembling together with them. When we do, we have the promise of God that we will enter into the Holy of Holies, and that He will meet us there.