With this post I plan to begin a series on why we do what we do in Sunday worship. Corporate worship is central to our lives as Christians, and as many Christian pastors have pointed out, it is one thing we know we will be doing for all eternity. It is therefore important to periodically think about the way that it should be done, and to make every effort to worship not just in Spirit, but also in truth. Further, I believe that a better understanding of the biblical rationale which undergirds the structure and elements of a worship service, serve to greatly enhance our appreciation and engagement in worship. Before we examine the particulars of a Sunday service, however, there are a couple of big picture questions that need to be addressed by way of introduction. The first, given in the title to this post, is about the uniqueness of Sunday worship. Is there anything different about corporate worship compared to what happens during the rest of my week? The answer, I believe, is yes. In this post I want to show you that when God’s people gather corporately for worship on the Lord’s day, God is present with us in a unique and special way.
This may sound surprising, after all, isn’t it true that God is present everywhere? And does not the Scripture teach that as a believer, God himself dwells within me? Yes of course. These are both wonderful truths that should not be forgotten. However, it would be a mistake to conclude from this that there is essentially no difference between what happens on Sunday and what happens during the rest of the week. The Bible itself teaches that God is present with his people in a special way, different from his general omnipresence or indwelling of believers, when his people gather corporately. As my seminary professors used to remind us, it is true that God is present everywhere, but he is not present everywhere in the same way. God is just as present in Hell as he is in Heaven, but his presence in these locations are quite different. Or think of the story of the Exodus. God was certainly present in Africa when Israel was being led out of Egypt. However, God manifested his special presence to Israel, leading them with the cloud by day and pillar of fire by night, indicating that His presence with them was both unique and redemptive.
Similarly, while God is present with us when we are at work or school throughout the week, this is not the same as his presence when we are corporately gathered in worship. After all, Jesus promised that “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them” (Matt 18:20). In saying this, Jesus is not denying that he is present with us as individuals, but is promising a special presence when there is a corporate gathering of Christians “in his name.” Further, Paul writes in 1 Corinthians that when the body of believers is assembled together, they are assembled “with the power of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor 5:4). These considerations have led the PCA Book of Church order to conclude:
A service of public worship is not merely a gathering of God’s children with each other, but before all else, a meeting of the triune God with His chosen people. God is present in public worship not only by virtue of the Divine omnipresence but, much more intimately, as the faithful covenant Savior.
PCA pastor Jeff Meyers, in his book The Lord’s Service, captures this point well:
Even if we cannot define it precisely, God is nonetheless present in a heightened special sense when His people gather as the church on the Lord’s Day. For one thing, He is present there “for us.” This is a place and time where he gathers His people around the Word and Sacraments…The bread and wine are singular signs designed to assure us of His special, gracious presence with us.If we believe this, it should radically change our view of Sunday worship. We do not come to worship primarily to “do” something for God, but to enter his presence and receive something from him! We do not come hoping that God will meet us if our worship is good enough, but confident that He is not only there, but is there in a special, unique way - to bless and strengthen his people by his grace. If Jesus, by a special revelation from heaven, promised to show up this week at Charger Stadium to speak to his people and bless them, how many of us would miss it? And yet this is precisely the opportunity we have every Sunday, as Jesus has promised us that at the appointed hour for worship, “there I am among you.”