By the order of worship we mean two things: 1) Those elements which ought to be included in (or excluded from) the worship service; 2) In what order these elements ought to be arranged.
Both of these we want to discuss in these articles. But both these questions which arise in connection with the order of worship have to be answered on the basis of a more fundamental question: What is the nature of worship? What do the Scriptures call us to do when we are summoned to worship?
There are several ideas which we must consider in this connection, although we do so briefly.
First of all, worship must be on the first day of the week.
We do not want to enter into an argument here with Jews and Seventh Day Adventists. We shall assume that the church, which celebrated the Lord’s Day from the beginning of the New Testament, did so on the first day of the week.
But this was not by choice. It was specifically commanded by the Lord Himself. And in this command there lies one of the central ideas of worship.
In the Old Testament, the law read: “Six days shalt thou labor and do all thy work; but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God. . . .” It is clear from the exposition of the law given by God Himself that the, idea behind this commandment was this: Israel must work six days in order to enjoy a day of rest. That is, Israel could not receive a day of rest until and unless she first labored for six days. The seventh day came at the end of six days and would be for the people a true rest only if first they had worked faithfully for six days. I say “faithfully,” because not just work as such could bring them to a day of rest; it had to be faithful work which was performed in harmony with God’s law and to His glory. If Israel worked in this way, then they could also enjoy the true rest of the Sabbath. But if they failed to work faithfully, then they could not receive the Sabbath either.
Their life in the land of Canaan was closely tied in with this idea of the law. Canaan was, after all, the land of rest. And only by faithful labor in that land, labor done according to the law of God and to God’s glory, could they also continue to enjoy the blessings of the land of rest.
The difficulty was that they could not and did not do this. They corrupted and polluted the land by introducing into it the idolatry and idolatrous practices of the heathen. And because they did not labor in that land faithfully, famines and pestilences came upon the land, and the land was finally taken away from them. That is why we read in II Chronicles 36:20, 21: “And them that had escaped from the sword carried he away to Babylon; where they were servants to him and his sons until the reign of the kingdom of Persia: To fulfill the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed her Sabbaths: for as long as she lay desolate she kept sabbath, to fulfill threescore and ten years.”
This was true in all Israel’s life. It was spiritually impossible for the people to work six days faithfully in order to enjoy the Sabbath. And the reason is simply that Israel was, by nature, wicked. No man can keep the law of God.
So also in this respect, the law pointed ahead to Christ and was the schoolmaster to lead Israel to Christ—to use Paul’s expression in Galatians 3. Christ fulfilled the whole law for His people. He fulfilled it in such a way that the transgression of the law is forgiven and the keeping of the law is earned for His people. Christ, because of His sacrifice and by the power of His Spirit, writes the law upon the hearts of His people so that they can keep it.
This is beautifully expressed in the change of the. Sabbath from the last day of the week to the first day. It is no longer necessary for God’s people to work six days in order then only to enter into the rest—something forever impossible for them. But now Christ, by His cross and resurrection (on the first day of the week), gives them His rest which He earned for them at the very beginning of the week so that God’s people can, by the power of this graciously-given rest, work in their calling according to Gods law and to His glory for the six days that follow. All their life to God’s glory is rooted in and is the fruit of grace.
This means that the Lord’s Day in which we worship God is a day given to us by Christ in which He gives us the true rest of heaven by which we are able to walk as His people in the world. The Lord’s Day must be looked at from that point of view and celebrated in that consciousness. Apart from this it is impossible to keep Sabbath.
In the second place, we have an important passage in Scripture which defines the character of all true worship. I refer to Christ’s words to the Samaritan woman: “God is a Spirit: and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24).
In His conversation with the Samaritan woman the woman had turned the discussion to the proper place to worship God: Mount Gerazim, where the Samaritans worshiped God, or Mount Zion, where the Jews worshiped God. In answer to this question Jesus told her that the Jews were right: Jerusalem was the appointed place to worship God. Nevertheless, Jesus told her, this will soon be an irrelevant question. While it is still the Old Testament, the question has importance; but “the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father” (vs. 21). It is in this context that Jesus speaks as He does about the most basic principle of the worship of God.
There are several elements in this text which we ought to notice.
The word which is used here for “worship” means literally, “to bow the knee towards.” There are other words in Scripture for worship, but this is one of the key ones. It is, of course, a figurative word which refers to the kneeling and bowing of a subject before his king. This symbolic act is indicative of the majesty and sovereignty of the king which the subject acknowledges. It is an excellent word, therefore, to use for our worship of God. It means that the character of our worship is such that in worshiping Him we acknowledge and confess His supreme and glorious majesty; that He Jehovah is all-glorious, alone worthy of all praise and adoration; that God is the supreme King, Lord of all, Who rules over all according to His good pleasure; and that we confess this when we “worship.”
This, in turn, means two things. It means, first of all, that God alone determines how He ought to be worshiped. And, secondly, it means that the most fundamental purpose of worship is to praise God. This latter could bear a bit of emphasis. From a certain point of view, we have made worship man-centered. We have done this by going to church and leaving church with the question in our mouths: What benefit can I get out of going to church? We are concerned about ourselves and what is of value to us. We even ask each other this question sometimes: Did you get anything out of the sermon today? And elders sometimes set this question on the foreground when on family visitation they ask: Are you blessed through the preaching?
These questions may, of course, be asked. And there ought to be spiritual blessing in the worship of God. But it is not the most important thing. The chief question is: Have we gone to church to praise and bless our God, Who alone is worthy of all praise. Perhaps it is because we have become so man-centered that worship services also become man-centered. If we go to bless the Name of God, the blessing to us will come.
Another striking feature of the word of Christ to the Samaritan is the fact that Christ contrasts the worship of God in the Old Testament with that in the New. In the Old Testament, Israel had to go to Jerusalem to worship. This was because the temple was there and it was only in the temple that God dwelt. To go to God one had to go to the temple. There was no other place on earth.
This temple was a picture of God dwelling in covenant fellowship with His people—they dwelt under one roof. But it was a very poor form of covenant fellowship because the people could not come very close to God. God was behind the veil between the wings of the cherubim on the cover of the ark. The people were in the outer court. And between God and His people was the veil, the altar of burnt offering, the stinking and burning carcass of thousands of sheep and oxen, and the Aaronitic priesthood. It was like a husband and wife living together in one house, but on opposite sides of the house in locked rooms, able to communicate together only through servants who carry messages. All this was because the blood of atonement was not yet shed.
But Christ is the true temple. He is such because in Christ the perfect sacrifice for sin is made. And through that sacrifice Christ becomes the temple of the living God. God dwells in Christ because Christ is very God of very God—to use one of the formulations of the ancient church. Paul speaks in Colossians of the fact that in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily. But God’s people also dwell in Christ because they are the body of Christ, united to Him in the mystical union of faith. And so God and God’s people come together in Christ in closest possible union. The doors and walls are broken down and God takes His wife into His own everlasting arms in Jesus Christ.
But all that means that worship now is worship in spirit and in truth—as Jesus expresses it.
The union of the elect with Christ by faith is worked by the Spirit. And so we enter into the temple to worship God by the Spirit of Christ in our hearts.
So we need not go to Mount Zion, to the old Jerusalem anymore. “Where two or three are gathered together in My name,” Jesus says, “there I will be in the midst of them.”
And so we must also worship God in “spirit and in truth.”