Previous article in this series: March 1, 2013, p. 260.
And immediately I was in the spirit: and, behold, a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne. And when those beasts give glory and honour and thanks to him that sat on the throne, who liveth for ever and ever, the four and twenty elders fall down before him that sat on the throne, and worship him that liveth for ever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying, Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created. Revelation 4:2, 9-11
In our series on Reformed worship, we have moved beyond principle to an examination of the elements of corporate worship as they are carried out according to the principles of God’s Word. We first examined the aspects of the “opening service,” where God ushers us into His presence. Currently, we are studying the heart of the covenantal meeting between God and His people, the reading and preaching of Scripture. The ministry of the Word is the heart of the worship service. Here, God speaks to us as our King and Father in the covenant of grace. We discussed last time the necessity and importance of this aspect of the worship service. Now we examine the carrying out of the reading and preaching of Scripture and the relationship of these elements to all worship.
The Elements Carried Out
If the ministry of the Word is going to be God Himself speaking to us, it must be a faithful reading and faithful exposition of that Word. Only when the Word has its say does the ministry of the Word come with the authority of God Himself to His people. Then it is not the minister who makes exhortations; it is not the minister’s doctrine being taught; it is not the minister giving encouragement, it is God in Christ who speaks these things.
In Nehemiah 8, Ezra and the people understood this. That is why the message Ezra and the Levites brought to the people was not their own message, but an exposition of Scripture—the words of God. We have in Nehemiah 8 an example of expository preaching in a public worship service. All the people of Israel are gathered in Jerusalem; a massive crowd is there to worship the Lord. Ezra stands up and reads the law in verses 3-4. And then, in verses 7-8, the Levites and 13 priests “caused the people to understand the law. So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading.” Ezra read a portion, and then the other men, whom you can be sure were trained by Ezra, went around through the crowds and expounded that portion of the Word. They “gave the sense,” or explained what it meant and applied it to the people. Then Ezra read more, and they explained that portion to the people, so that they caused the people to understand.
This is what true preaching is and must be. It must take a portion of God’s Word and give the sense, that is, expound it and apply it. Therefore, the preaching must not be the minister’s own agenda, but the Word of God Himself faithfully expounded. The minister is an exegete of Scripture. The word “exegete” means “to lead out of.” This is what the minister must do. The content of the sermon is what he has led out of the Word, so that it is God in His Word speaking to the people. At the end of the sermon the people ought to be able to say, “I now know what that passage of Scripture means and how it applies to my life. I know what God has to say to me in that passage.” The people ought also to understand that the preaching they heard, if it was faithful, was God’s Word coming to them, not the minister’s.
If the ministry of the Word is to be authoritative, the sermon must come from someone who is trained and has the gifts to understand and expound the Word of God. He must be someone who has been taught the Word of God and its principles of interpretation, as were the Levites who preached in Nehemiah 8. He must be someone whom the church recognizes as having these abilities, and therefore someone the church calls to expound the Word. It must be this way because the congregation needs to hear God’s voice in His Word. The church therefore does not put someone upon the pulpit who cannot give the sense of the Word of God.
At Jesus’ transfiguration God declared publicly, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him.” When the preaching of the Word is faithful to the Word of God, God says the same thing: “Christ is speaking, hear Him.” That does not mean the minister turns into Jesus. It means that the Word of God proclaimed is Christ’s Word. The authority is not merely in the minister himself (although the man in the office should be respected for his office), it is primarily in the Word of God. If the preaching is not faithful to the Word, God’s people not only may, but also must protest it (with a willingness to see that they might be wrong themselves and a willingness to submit to a multitude of counselors). But when the preaching is faithful to that Word, then God says, “You are hearing Christ My Son in those words. Hear Him, listen to Him.”
Do you listen to Him? Do you give Him your undivided attention? It really comes down to a matter of trust. Do you trust Him? If you do not trust a person speaking to you, he can talk all he wants but you will not listen. However, if you do trust the one speaking, but you do not listen, then you are a fool. Who is more trustworthy to interpret your life than Christ? Hear Him! God in Christ is speaking to us in His Word. Do not harden your heart against His words, but come prepared to hear Christ Himself speak to you—to receive comfort for the soul from Him, to receive correction from Him, to hear Him tell you that you are His. Why would we sleep or daydream, when we could be hearing the words of Christ to us? We must be actively involved in the sermon, giving our full attention to what is being said, following the argument carefully.
In addition, as we receive the Word with our heads, we must receive it also with our hearts. As our hearts receive the Word, we must praise God for it. There ought to be worship happening in the hearts of the people of God as they are under the ministry of the Word. In this way, there is a mini dialogue within the grand dialogue. As God speaks, our minds and hearts are attentive, and we respond in our souls as we receive the Word.
The Word Produces Worship
In God’s people the Word read and proclaimed produces worship. Really all of worship depends upon the reading and preaching of Scripture. First of all, all the other elements of worship depend upon the reading and preaching of Scripture being at the center of our life and worship. How can we sing and pray to a God we do not know? He must reveal Himself to us in His Word. What motivation would we have to give to the Lord in the offering if He did not speak to us in His Word and declare His gospel of forgiving grace to us? What help is the law read to us in the service, if we do not know the God who gives it? If there is no gospel proclaimed to justify us, why would we worship at all, for the guilt of our sin would remain upon us? Even the call to worship, the salutation, and the benediction would be meaningless were it not for the reading and proclamation of Scripture. Who cares if we are being called to worship if we do not know the God who is calling us? We must know Him as His Word reveals Him.
But when Christ speaks to us in His Word week after week, then we can respond with song and prayer from the heart. This is what we see from Revelation 4. In this passage, John sees a vision of heaven after the church is redeemed. The saints are all together without sin, worshiping before the throne of God. In this vision, John sees God upon His throne. He is glorious. He is like a red sardius stone—a picture of His terrible wrath and justice. He is also like a jasper stone—a picture of His righteousness and purity. He has lightnings and thunderings and voices coming out of the throne, something that makes one think of God giving the law on Sinai—a picture again of His power and majesty and wisdom.
John sees the 24 elders gathered about this throne. Those 24 elders represent the whole church—the Old Testament 12 tribes of Israel, and the New Testament 12 apostles. Every elect believer is gathered there, and all the purified creation is there too. There are four beasts that represent all the different parts of God’s creation. They have eyes all around their heads, and with all of them they are looking at God upon His throne. Together they cry out, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come!” The church, represented by the 24 elders, worships Him as well. Verses 10-11: “They fall down before him that sat on the throne, and worship him that liveth for ever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying, Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power.”
What is recorded here is the very definition of worship. First, the elders fall down before Him. That indicates absolute humility before God. When the wise men came to worship the baby Jesus, they fell down before Him. Falling down is saying that I am nothing, and Thou art everything. Second, the elders express their humble devotion, “Thou art worthy, O Lord.” That is worship, recognizing the worth of God and praising Him for it. Third, the elders lay down their crowns, saying in effect, “Thou art worthy, and we are not, and we place whatever worth we have before Thee at Thy throne.”
But the question is, why do they fall down, and why do they lay their crowns at His feet, and why do they cry out that God is worthy? The answer is, because they saw Him. They saw Him in His majesty and glory, and seeing Him they knew they were nothing and He was everything.
This is what happens in the proper preaching of God’s Word, we see God upon His throne. In the Word, God communicates Himself to us, “This is who I am, the glorious, sovereign God.” He declares His worth to our minds and hearts. And in the preaching of the Word He tells us who we are, nothing before Him, yet those whom He has loved and redeemed. O, how we need this! How quickly we lose sight of His glory and majesty! And how quickly we lose sight of our own unworthiness! We are self-deceivers. We need God to tell us who we are, specks of dust in this universe. We need God in His Word to tell us that apart from Him we are damn-worthy rebels. But we need God in His Word to tell us that we are damn-worthy rebels who are never apart from Him. We need to hear Him say we are a people cared for by the God of the universe, redeemed
in the cross of Jesus Christ, and in Him elevated to a position of honor before God’s throne.
It is this that makes us fall down before God and cry out, “Thou art worthy, O Lord!” Without regular preaching in our lives, we do not want to come to church for the purpose of worship. Without God’s Word proclaimed regularly, we do not come to church with the desire in our hearts to fall down and exalt His worth. When we do not know Him and His plan of redemption in His Word, we come to church instead for the purpose of having it out with God. And when we do not know ourselves properly, we come to church with “why’s” in our hearts instead of worship in our hearts.1 “God is going to meet with his people? Good, because I have some questions for Him. Why is this happening in my life? Who does He think He is? What is He doing with all this trouble and suffering in this world?”
It is only when we know Him as He is in His Word, and it is only when, from His Word, we know ourselves as nothing in His sight yet redeemed by grace, that we come ready to fall down and worship. Then the “whys” go away. And even though we do not know all the answers, we can trust Him and simply worship, for He is God, and we are not. We can sing to Him of His sovereignty. We can sing to Him of appreciation for His love. We can pray to Him, thankful that this majestic One is our Father. And we can turn all of our questions into the statement of the elders in verse 11: “Thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.”
The Believer’s Attitude
Knowing this, what then ought to be our attitude toward the reading and preaching of the Word in the covenantal assembly? It ought to be the attitude of the Israelites in Nehemiah 8. First, we ought to be as attentive to it as they were. Nehemiah 8:4: “and the ears of all the people were attentive unto the book of the law.” Second, we ought to have a deep reverence for the Word and know the privilege it is to hear it. Verse 5: “And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people…and when he opened it all the people stood up.” Standing was the Old Testament saints’ way of honoring the Word of Jehovah God. They stood as one would stand when a dignitary walks into the room. Third, we ought to desire it with all that is in us. Notice verse 1 of Nehemiah 8. The people gathered as one man, “and they spake to Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses.” They did not wait for Ezra to bring God’s Word out. They wanted to hear what God had to say to them, so they went to Ezra and said, “Go up to that pulpit and declare to us the Word of the Lord!” Fourth, we ought to take great joy when the Spirit works in us to hear and understand that Word with minds and hearts. Verse 12: “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.”
1 For this insight I am indebted to Dr. Henry Krabbendam. Krabbendam, Henry. “Worship and Preaching.” Worship in the Presence of God. Ed. Frank J. Smith and David C. Lachman. Fellsmere, Florida: Reformation Media and Press, 2006. 157-177. Print.