The Worship Priority
The Second Commandment
Chapter 9 – The Regular Elements of Worship
The last chapter summarized the Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed positions on worship. Reformed churches follow the Regulative Principle, which teaches that we may only do that which God commands in worship. Not only are artistic renditions of God forbidden, we are not to innovate in any way. Worship is not the appropriate forum for the full exercise of our creativity. It is something else: the inner sanctum of the Christian life in which God reveals Himself.
This leads naturally to the question: How has God commanded us to worship? In answering, we look to the New Testament. Since the worship of the Old Covenant was designed to draw a picture of the Christ who was yet to come, much of its detail has become obsolete. We must find our worship practices on the pages of the revelation which came through and after Christ.
Looking there we find that there are no longer complex rituals leading to a partial knowledge of Christ. The Reality is here; we no longer require types and shadows. Complexity and ritualism is a thing of the past. What we find instead is this: New Testament worship is extremely simple.
Remember the basic definition of worship: it is a time when God meets with His people and converses with them. God speaks to us in worship, revealing Himself, and He invites us to respond to Him. All of the elements of New Testament worship (those things which we are to regularly do in our worship services) are applications of this principle of conversation.
Reading and Preaching the Word
The writer to the Hebrews opens his book with a description of the manner in which God speaks. In a day when many imagine that God speaks in the beauty of a sunset or through their dreams or feelings, it is important to see how the Bible says God speaks. He first spoke through patriarchs and prophets, whose writings we find in the Bible. Later he spoke through His Son, whose words again are recorded for us. In chapter 2, verses 1 and 2, the writer talks of how the apostles who had “heard” the message from Christ communicated it to others. Again, their words are preserved in Scripture.
How, then, does God speak to His people today? When Paul wrote to Timothy, who had never met Jesus and was not an apostle, he urged him to “dedicate himself to reading, exhortation and teaching.” (I Timothy 4:13) Here we discover the central element of New Testament worship. Timothy was to read the Bible to the church, to teach them what it meant, and to exhort them to follow it.
The reading and preaching of the Bible are the primary means in which God speaks in worship. We no longer see a physical cloud as Israel did at the tabernacle. Neither do we hear from apostles. Prophesying has ceased, just as it was prophesied to do. (I Corinthians 13:8-10) Nevertheless, God still speaks to His church. In both the reading and preaching of the Word they hear His voice. That God speaks through preaching ought not to be denied. Consider Paul’s words in Romans 10:14. Men cannot believe on Christ unless they hear Him, and they hear Him when there is a preacher!
I said earlier that as important as it is for us to speak to God in worship, it matters even more that we listen to Him. Biblical preaching must be the central element of our worship; mere pep-talks and lectures cannot take its place. It is of paramount importance that the Bible be read, explained and applied. Otherwise our worship cannot be called a conversation, for we are the only ones talking.
All of worship must be biblical, not only in its elements but in their content. Preaching is to be infused with Scripture; so too our prayers and our songs. The Bible must be central to all of worship, and this begins with biblical preaching.
Responding to God in Prayer
Paul urges the church to offer prayers to God for earthly affairs. We are to pray for our rulers, so that through His providence God will enable the church to accomplish its mission. Elsewhere we find that we are to take all our requests to God and that we are especially to pray for the advance of His Kingdom. Public prayer is an astounding opportunity for the church to have God’s direct attention – to address to Him the concerns and struggles which we have in accomplishing His work on earth.
Responding to God in Praise
Prayer is not the only means by which we address God in worship. The New Testament also commands us to join together in songs of praise to God. Ephesians 5:19 contains one such command. Much debate rages over the nature of worship music. We will consider some of those questions later, and I leave the discussion of the meaning of “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” until then. Look closely at the verse, though, and ask yourself: to whom do we sing?
Paul’s answer is not simplistic. In the first place, it is true that we address one another. This is why our songs in worship must be biblical – we are to learn from them. In Colossians 3:16 he elaborates; we are to “teach and admonish one another” while we sing. Returning to Ephesians 5, though, we also see that ultimately our songs are not addressed merely to one another. We are to make melody to the Lord. Our songs are another way of speaking to God. This is evident when we consider either the Psalms or the great Christian Hymns. Some address God directly, while in others the singers speak to one another about God. Both fulfill the requirements of New Testament instruction.
The reading and preaching of God’s Word and the offering up of prayers and songs of praise – these are the elements of New Testament Worship. The church is called to do these things regularly. They are neither complex nor mysterious; rather they encompass the simplicity and intimacy of worship which we enjoy since Christ has opened the door to God’s presence. In a future post we will examine the irregular ordinances – those symbolic remembrances which the church is to occasionally observe – Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The regular worship of the church, though, is not ritualistic. It remains a simple conversation between God and His people.