I want you to be persuaded of the need we have to gather Sunday by Sunday in order to worship God. Perhaps most of you do not need to be convinced of the central importance of corporate worship. Nevertheless, I think it is helpful to be reminded of why it is essential for Christians to assemble physically for Lord’s Day worship, not least because of what we have been through since March of this year.
As a result of the lockdowns and the near-universal practice of having services online, various questions have been raised about the nature of church worship. Questions such as: Is it really necessary to gather together physically in order to worship God as his church? It might be preferable, but is it prescribed? Why not have ‘virtual’ church, especially as it seems that non-Christians are more likely tune in to services on Youtube than they are to come to a place of worship? Perhaps you have asked yourself some of these and other related questions.
In response, I believe the Bible gives two main reasons why the physical gathering of the saints is required for Lord’s Day worship.
First, because gathered worship expresses God’s great purpose in creation and redemption to glorify himself by gathering a people into his presence who will praise and worship him. This ultimate purpose of God explains why, throughout the Bible, we see a very clear pattern of his people coming together to worship him. We see it in the beginning. God created Adam and Eve to worship him together. He placed them in Eden, a garden-temple. There he called them through his word to trust and obey him (see Gen. 2:16-17). Had they obeyed God’s call to worship him, they would have eaten from the tree of life. They and all of their children, a great company of people, would have feasted with God in corporate worship.
But as you know, our first parents did not obey their Father’s call to worship. Instead, they obeyed Satan’s alternative call to worship – a call to idolatry. As a result, God cast humanity out of the Garden, away from his presence. He sent them into exile, east of Eden.
But wonderfully, God’s great purpose to gather a company of people to glorify & enjoy him forever still stood. And so he made another covenant – a covenant of grace – in which he promised to bless all nations and to gather them as one great assembly (see Gen. 35:11) through the seed of the woman.
This promise of re-gathering a people to himself received partial, typical fulfilment in the life of Israel. At Mount Sinai, God called his people to himself and they gathered as his covenant assembly (see Ex. 19-24). Later on in Israel’s history, once God’s people had settled in the land and built the temple, God, through Solomon, gathered the representatives of the people and they assembled in Jerusalem for a special service of dedication (see 2 Chron. 5-7). The same thing happened when the exiles returned from captivity. In Nehemiah 8, we see God gathering the people to the temple for worship and blessing them as they do so.
Throughout the Old Testament, we see this repeated pattern – at Mount Eden, at Mount Sinai, and at Mount Zion – of God gathering his people to himself that they might worship him. Why? Because God’s great purpose is to gather a company of people to himself that they might glorify and enjoy him forever.
Tragically, however, instead of listening to God’s call to worship, his people kept listening to Satan’s alternative call to worship: Adam and Eve in the Garden eating the forbidden fruit; Israel at Mount Sinai bowing down to a Golden Calf (see Ex. 32); Solomon in Zion building high places for false gods (see 1 Kings 11); the returned exiles corrupting temple worship (see Neh. 13). The people kept obeying Satan’s call to idolatry and they were scattered as a result – scattered from the Garden and later on scattered from the Land.
All of which meant that, for God’s great purpose to be fulfilled, his people needed a Saviour. They needed a Perfect Worshipper – someone who, when he heard Satan’s call to idolatry, would respond by saying, “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve” (Matt. 4:10). God’s people needed a Perfect Sacrifice – a sacrifice that would actually cleanse them from the sins which barred them from God’s presence (see Heb. 9:11-14;10:11-14). And God’s people needed a Perfect Priest – someone who would bring them into God’s presence, not to Mount Sinai, but to Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, the Holy of Holies (see Heb. 12:18ff.).
This someone was of course Jesus. Jesus is our Perfect Worshipper, our Perfect Sacrifice, and our Perfect Priest. He gathers us to our Father in fulfilment of God’s great purpose. And this glorious reality is what we give expression to every Lord’s Day.
Every Lord’s Day, we hear the call of the Lord Jesus to gather for worship. And as we obey that call, we hear again the good news of forgiveness for our sins and we are brought by Jesus, through his Spirit, into our Father’s presence, there to enjoy feasting with him. Moreover, as we do so, we anticipate that great Day when the people of God from all the nations will be assembled together around his throne, worshipping him and feasting together at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb (see Rev. 7:9-12; 19:6-10).
Why do we need to gather for worship every Lord’s Day? Because God’s great purpose in both creation & redemption is to gather a people to himself so that together we might worship him. And this gospel message of God gathering a people who have been scattered by sin is expressed – and can really only be expressed – as we actually gather together physically every Sunday for worship.
Second, we assemble for worship because God promises a particular blessing on our assembled worship in a way that he does not for other forms of worship.
Jesus promises in Matthew 16:18, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” The word translated ‘church’ in this verse is ekklesia, meaning, not so much the ‘called-out’ ones, as the ‘called-together’ ones. In this passage, ekklesia means the gathered assembly of God’s ‘called-together’ ones. In other words, Jesus does not promise to build an invisible, nebulous entity we call ‘church’. No, he promises to build something that is ineradicably visible and physical.
Yes, the church is a Spiritual organism because it is formed by the Holy Spirit. We also speak of it as ‘invisible’ when thinking of it as the whole number of God’s elect (see Westminster Confession of Faith 25.1). But the church is an intrinsically material reality because it is made up of real people. The church is the people of God in all of our physicality.
This is why, as Matthew Roberts has helpfully pointed out, the two most common metaphors for the church in the New Testament are that she is a body and a bride. Both of these images convey the truth that the church is a physical-spiritual reality and in both cases “the physical ‘togetherness’ is the necessary condition for the spiritual reality to be present as well” (see https://matthewpwroberts.wordpress.com/2020/11/05/why-we-cant-stay-apart-a-sermon/).
The same applies to the church. As we gather together physically, so the Lord Jesus promises to be with us by his Spirit. By what means? By what we call the ‘means of grace’, namely, the word, sacrament & prayer.
It is as we assemble together Sunday by Sunday, hearing the word read and preached, participating in the sacraments, and offering up prayers both spoken and sung, that Jesus promises to be with us and to build us up. These are the physical means by which he promises to convey grace.
Now, it is true that we are to read God’s word and pray to him in private and in our families as well. Great benefit and blessing comes from that. But the promise of Jesus' presence and blessing does not pertain to those contexts in the way that it does to the context of corporate worship.
That is why Paul urges Timothy to devote himself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation and to teaching (1 Tim. 4:13). Why? Because Spiritual blessing is promised to those who by faith hear the reading and preaching of God’s word in church.
That is why Jesus says that “if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven” (Matt. 18:19). Why? Because Spiritual blessing is promised to those whose prayers are offered up by faith in church.
And that is why Jesus has given us the signs and seals of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Why? Because Spiritual blessing is promised to those who receive them by faith in church.
Friends, Jesus has promised to build his church! He has promised to build us! And he promises to do so in a particular and powerful way as we gather together Sunday by Sunday.
So, let us not forsake the assembling of ourselves together. Let us encourage one another by saying to one another, “Let us go to the house of the Lord. For there we shall find manna from heaven to sustain us in our pilgrimage through the wilderness of this world.”
We need to gather for worship because God’s ultimate purpose is to glorify himself by gathering an assembly from all nations around his throne to worship and adore him, and because he promises to bless our assembling together with his grace & presence.
How, then, are we to think of these last nine months, during which time we have not been able to meet together physically for long periods? Were our online services worship or not? Yes and no.
Yes, I believe we were worshipping God when we were ‘meeting’ online. God is a spirit and we worship him in spirit and in truth regardless of where we are. Heaven, not even highest heaven, can contain him, far less the four walls of a building. I have been greatly encouraged to hear of how a number of you have been blessed through our online services and prayer meetings, all of which reminds us that, while God ordinarily uses his appointed means of grace to communicate blessing, he is not tied to them.
However, it is surely self-evident that watching something on a screen at a distance from everyone else is not the same as gathering together in the assembly of the Lord for worship. Whatever we may care to call it, I do not think we can say that it was church worship. And while God in his goodness may well have blessed us through online services, I imagine that all of us are the poorer for not being able to meet together.
Which leads me to finish with three final applications:
1. We should mourn the absence of church worship. There is a time for mourning (see Ecclesiastes 3:4) and now, I believe, is such a time. We should mourn that, for long periods of 2020, we have not been able to gather and that, even when we have, it has not been the way it should be (e.g. not singing). Now is the the time for God to sanctify us in our tears.
2. We should prize corporate worship. Seeking to interpret providence should be done with great caution, but I do wonder if God has prevented his church from gathering for worship in recent months in order to make us cherish it more highly than perhaps we have done. Lord’s Day worship should be the high point of our week. It should be the event that we long for. Is it? As a result of what we have been through, may we all say with renewed zeal and vigour, “My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the Lord” (Psalm 84:2).
3. We should pray for the peace of Jerusalem (see Psalm 122). As you probably know, some churches took the decision, especially in the second lockdown, to meet for worship and to disobey the governing authorities. Whether they were right to do so or not is a matter over which godly Christians disagree, and I do not wish to comment one way or the other.
However, I will say this: nothing would give Satan greater pleasure than to see division in the church. He would love to use what we have been through to rent asunder the body of Christ and to stir up schism. After all, while God loves to gather and unite, Satan loves to scatter and divide. Let us not give Satan what he wants.
Instead, may we, for the sake of the house of the Lord our God, ever seek the good of the church, which Jesus has purchased at the price of his precious blood.
I look forward to seeing you all this coming Sunday!
Your brother in Christ,