Note: Over the next 6 weeks, I will publish posts exploring worship, including an annotated commentary of my church’s worship service, a modified version of the Service for the Lord’s Day from the Book of Common Worship.
Reformed Worship, Part 1
Worship is the most important thing we do as a church. While we do many other important things, nothing compares with corporate worship (“corporate,” referring to the body [Latin = corpus] of Christ worshiping together, as opposed to private or family worship).
But all you have to do is walk into a different church building on a Sunday morning to discover that not all churches are alike! Some worship services are contemplative, where the worshipers quietly kneel in the pews, serenely communing with God. Some worship services feature boisterous music, casual preaching, and worshipers with their hands in the air. Other worship services are built around extensive rote recitations by the congregation—people standing, sitting, and speaking together as if they had been rehearsing it before you arrived. Still other worship services occasionally include speaking in tongues, an invitation to come forward to receive Christ, and even a fair amount of crying.
So what gives? Is there one unifying factor to Christian worship? The offering? It might seem that way. But more importantly, Christian worship—whatever its character—is built on the foundation of sharing communion with the living, Trinitarian God and worshiping the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit.
But who is worthy to do such a thing? After all, approaching a just and righteous God is an awesome thing! The Bible asks, “LORD, who may dwell in your sanctuary? Who may live on your holy mountain?” (Psalm 15:1 TNIV) And Scripture answers itself by saying, the one “who walks blamelessly and does what is right and speaks truth in his heart.” (Psalm 15:2 ESV) Which pretty much guarantees that none of us is worthy to approach God’s throne.
This much was clear from early on in Israel’s history: that sinful human beings could not draw near a holy God. So God provided an elaborate system of atonement to clear the air between the Lord and his people. But that complicated system boils down to this: If a worshiper wanted to be reconciled to the Lord, he would place his hands on the head of a blameless animal and confess his sins. Then the priest would kill the animal, symbolically killing the sins of the worshiper and “taking away” his sins. The other part of Israel’s worship involved the high priest entering the Holiest Place where the Ark of the Covenant was housed (in the Tabernacle and later the Temple)—the symbolic presence of God. The high priest would represent the people before God, praying for them, confessing their sins, and asking for God’s blessing on the people. After this, the high priest would come out of the Holiest Place and bless the people, saying, “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.” (Numbers 6:24-26 ESV)
But all of that was but a shadow of the perfection that was to come (Hebrews 10:1). Because the blood of all the animals in the world could not truly cleanse the people’s sins and set them free from their guilt; there needed to be a perfect sacrifice for sins (Hebrews 9:14; 10:4). And no human high priest could truly enter God’s presence and live; there needed to be a more perfect high priest (Hebrews 4:14).
Thankfully, God has provided a perfect way to be reconciled to him and truly worship him. Jesus Christ, who is both God and human, became that bridge between a holy God and sinful humanity. He himself became the perfect sacrifice to satisfy God’s justice once and for all (Hebrews 9:26), the perfect Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29). The blood of goats and bulls is no longer needed, because the blood of God’s Son is sufficient to redeem us permanently (Hebrews 9:12).
But the Lamb is also our Great High Priest; the Sacrifice is also the One who sacrifices. After his resurrection, Jesus ascended into the very presence of the Father—the true Holiest Place in heaven—on our behalf. (see Hebrews 9:24 ESV) Jesus has taken his—and our—glorified humanity into the very throne room of God. And there, at the Father’s right hand, he prays for his people, making our requests known to our heavenly Father (see Romans 8:34 & Hebrews 7:25).
This is good news! Now that Christ has blazed a trail into the Father’s presence, we have confidence that we may also approach God’s presence in the Holiest Place with boldness! The curtain that formerly separated people from God has been torn in two. (Matthew 27:51; Hebrews 10:20) And now, by faith in Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit (see Romans 8:26-28), we are enabled to draw near to God, not as a wrathful Judge, but as “Abba, Father.” (Romans 8:15) And by faith, we participate in the perfect communion that exists between the Father and the Son as we share in Christ’s humanity; in short, it is not we who are worshiping, but it is Christ who is perfectly worshiping for us!
And better still, when we enter into the heavenly places, by faith we participate in the divine company of the saints, the “great multitude that no one” can “number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages,” who stand “before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands,” who cry out “with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Revelation 7:9-10 ESV)
So regardless of what a Christian worship service looks like, or smells like, or sounds like, make no mistake: this is the heart of worship, the true foundation of our faith. Don’t be distracted by the kind of music that’s playing or what the pastor is wearing or the arrangement of the furniture; because that’s just window dressing. But when we enter a worship space, we can lift up your hearts to God, trusting in his faithfulness to us. So then, “since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess…Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Hebrews 4:14, 16 TNIV)
Soli Deo Gloria! (Glory to God Alone)