Previous article in this series: January 15, 2013, p. 175.
And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people; (for he was above all the people;) and when he opened it, all the people stood up: So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading. And all the people went their way to eat, and to drink, and to send portions, and to make great mirth, because they had understood the words that were declared unto them.
We are engaged in a study of the elements of a Reformed worship service, as those elements are carried out according to the three great principles of Reformed worship. Recall that last time we finished an exposition of the “opening service.” We saw that God ushers us into His presence through these first aspects of the service, opening the way for the main elements of our covenantal assembly with Him. In this article and the next we go straight to the heart of this meeting between God and His people. We do that by examining the related elements of the reading and preaching of Scripture. These elements of worship have God speaking most extensively and freely to us in this covenantal assembly.
The reading and preaching of sacred Scripture are two separate elements of worship that normally go together in the service. We see that in Nehemiah 8. In verses 3-4 Ezra first reads the law. And thensays that he and the Levites preached that word of God. Since these elements go together they are often lumped together under one heading, as they are in the Heidelberg Catechism when Lord’s Day 38 calls them simply “the hearing of His Word.”
There is liberty in how often the Word is read in the service of course. The Protestant Reformed Churches generally read the Word twice in the morning—in the reading of the law and in the reading of the Scripture that the sermon expounds. We generally read God’s Word once in the evening in the passage the sermon expounds. Some churches have an Old Testament and New Testament reading each service, and that is a good practice too.
There is liberty also in length and form of the sermons, although justice must be done to the exposition and application of the text. And the clamor for shorter and simpler sermons is often indicative of spiritual weakness in the church.
Necessary Elements for Corporate Worship
As for the elements themselves, there is no liberty. Both the reading and preaching of Scripture must be part of public corporate worship. The regulative principle demands the reading and preaching of Scripture in worship. This is made explicit in, where the apostle Paul commands Timothy and all preachers to preach: “I charge thee therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing and his kingdom; Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine.” And if the minister is called to preach the Word, then it is implied that that Word must be read as well. Nonetheless, an explicit call to read Scripture in worship may be found in .
Besides these texts, the example of the church has always been a church that reads and preaches the Word of God in worship. When the Christian church began to spread and establish itself, it took over the worship of the Jewish synagogue, only making some changes due to the fact that the Messiah had now come. The apostle Paul’s mission method was to start working in the synagogue of whatever city he was in, and if the Jews believed in Christ, that synagogue would become a Christian church. If that happened, the same basic elements of worship in that synagogue also rolled over into Christian worship, only now the content reflected the worship of the name of Jesus and His victory over the curse of the law. If the Jewish synagogue did not wholly believe, then those who did believe would break off and start a Christian church that looked very much like the synagogue, again with basically the same elements of worship. Therefore, in the main, the elements of worship in the synagogue were taken into the apostolic church.
When the Reformation restored biblical worship to the church, the Reformers went back to the New Testament example and saw what the New Testament church did and what elements were used in their worship. They then established the church’s worship essentially after that New Testament example. As churches explicitly carrying on the Reformed tradition, we therefore have the same elements in our worship today thatsays were in the worship of the New Testament church. In fact, the elements we have in Reformed worship are basically the same elements that have been in the worship services of God’s people since the time of the Babylonian captivity, when the Jewish synagogue arose.
The chief element of synagogue worship, going all the way back to the start, was the reading and preaching of Scripture. Indeed, one authority on the subject states that “the primary purpose of the synagogue was to enable men to hear the law read and expounded.”1 The ministry of the Word was at the heart of the Jewish worship service, and this remained true in New Testament worship as well. The reading and preaching of Scripture was the primary, central element of worship and the heart of the covenantal assembly.
Where did the Jews learn to have the reading and preaching of Scripture primary in their synagogue worship? Besides the fact that it was logical to do so (their whole history revolved around their response to the revelation of God), the answer is, in Nehemiah chapter 8. Nehemiah records the history of God’s people shortly after the Babylonian captivity, when synagogue worship had recently begun. In Nehemiah 8 the people of God held a worship service in which the entire law was read and expounded. Ezra stood up upon a wooden pulpit () and proclaimed the Word of the Lord to the people. This, of course, is very similar to the way we preach our modern sermons. This practice in which Ezra read and preached to the people was carried on in the Jewish synagogue after this. Thus, we here in 2013 can trace our element of the preaching and its primary place in worship at least all the way back to Nehemiah 8, the day Ezra got into his pulpit in the re-settled city of Jerusalem.2
The Importance of These Elements
The reading and preaching of Scripture are the heartbeat of the church. Without them there is no church and there is no worship. If there is to be any commitment to God and understanding of His will, there must be the ministry of the Word amongst His people. All throughout the Old Testament one sees the truth of this.
Whenever there was spiritual decline in Israel, it was because people refused to have the Word of God. Whenever there was reformation in Israel’s history, it was because the Word was brought back to its place of central importance in the people’s life and worship. The reformation at the time of King Josiah, for example, was a reformation produced by the Word. After years of the temple being boarded up under a time of great apostasy, Josiah tells the high priest Hilkiah to open the temple to get things ready for repair. When he did that, the high priest found the book of Deuteronomy in the temple and had it read to the king. When the king heard the Word of the Lord, he realized how Judah had forsaken God, and he brought God’s people back to the worship of God prescribed in the Word. He put the Word back into its central place, and that caused reformation in Judah.
No surprise, then, that the Reformation of the sixteenth century was a reformation produced by this element of worship. In the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church had removed the Word from its central place. In place of the exposition of God’s Word, the Roman Catholic Church put the altar and the mass, with the result that the darkness of ignorance and evil crept over the entire continent of Europe. The Word was brought back to its central place in the sixteenth century, and over all of Europe the church was reformed according to that Word. The work of Luther and Calvin and the reformers was to push the altar out of the center of the church, and to replace it with the pulpit. It was the ministry of the Word that turned the world upside down.
The Reformed carry that conviction on, by God’s grace, in their worship of God. The reading and preaching of Scripture is the heart of the service. That is seen even in the way we order the furniture in the church. The pulpit stands in the center, indicating that the essence of the covenantal meeting with Jehovah is God speaking to us in His Word. We must have Him speak His will to us, for we are His people.
We have said that the worship service is the covenantal meeting between God and His people, and that that meeting is carried out as a dialogue between God and us. There are other parts of the service where God speaks—the salutation, benedictions, etc. But it is here at this point in the service where God speaks to us fully and freely as the God of the covenant. In the opening service God ushers us into this meeting, but He does so for this purpose, that He might speak to us intimately and substantially in His Word.
Who would not want this to be the central and primary part of worship? It is sad when one sees the pulpit in churches today moved off to the side to make room for the band or the choir. That often is a sign of what is happening to the reading and preaching of Scripture. The ministry of the Word is being pushed to the side. It is losing its chief place, and God’s voice is not favored in worship. This is why we come week to week, to meet with God, to hear Him apply His gospel to our souls and to give us marching orders for the week that lies ahead, and to praise Him and worship Him in response.
Here we receive the life of God. Here the Spirit works through the Word to fill our weary souls. In the preaching, as in the opening service, God speaks to us as our Friend-Sovereign. Here there is both the formality and familiarity of the covenant of grace. There is authority and there is love. With His Word He convicts us, He corrects us, He charges us. With His Word He also frees us in Christ, protects us, delights in us. He speaks as a king and a father speaks to his subjects and sons.
1 Maxwell, William D., A History of Christian Worship, An Outline of Its Development and Forms (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1982), 3. See also, Bavinck, Herman, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 4, 393. Ed. John Bolt (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 4 vols.
2 See Old, Hughes O., Guides to the Reformed Tradition: Worship (Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1984), 59.