Previous article in this series: November 15, 2012, p. 81.
Last time we examined the various aspects of what has sometimes been called “the opening service.” This section of the liturgy includes the call to worship, doxology, salutation, votum, and benediction. In this article we take a step back and see the importance of this first part of the order of worship in context, especially as we remember that worship is a covenantal assembly with Jehovah.
The Purpose of the Opening Service
You have perhaps noticed that these aspects of the opening service are not strictly the elements of worship that are demanded by the Regulative Principle. The reason for this is that though these aspects of the opening service are part of the worship service, they do not represent the heart of the service. They are biblical, and they go back in Reformed worship at least to the time of Calvin.¹ The use of the benediction in particular goes back to biblical times.² But these, what I will call “minor” elements, are the opening service, not the heart of the covenantal meeting.
However, “minor elements” does not mean “unnecessary elements.” This opening service is necessary. It is necessary simply by virtue of what the public corporate worship service is—the covenantal assembly meeting with Jehovah God. The purpose of the opening service is to usher us into God’s presence.
A Formal Introduction
We do not come into God’s presence presumptuously. We do not come to the house of God and start speaking to Him as though we happened to bump into Him on the street. There is a certain formality to this meeting. He is the God of heaven and earth; we are dust creatures. There must be a proper leading into the communion and fellowship of the meeting.³
This is similar to the way one would be called to come before a king in the Middle Ages. You would not just waltz into the throne room as though you had a right to come before the king in yourself. You would not start speaking as though the king were any common man. There are the proper introductions that must take place. The king has to beckon you into his presence in the proper fashion. Even if you were the one who wanted the meeting, you would not come into the throne room until the king called you to come in. When the king did call you in, you would respond with an expression of humility and praise for the king’s majesty. Then the king would greet you perhaps. You would in turn express that you are in need of his help, and there is nowhere else you would turn for that help. He would receive you with his blessing. And only then, after you had been ushered into his presence in this proper way, would you get into the heart of what the meeting was about.
This is what is happening in the opening service. God is leading us into His presence, but in such a way that we know He is God and our sovereign, and we are His creatures. He sovereignly calls us into His presence in the call to worship. We respond in humility and praise for His majesty in the silent prayer and doxology. He greets us with the salutation. In the votum we express that we are in need of His help and depend on Him for what we need. He receives us with His blessing, assuring us of His help in the benediction. And only after this may the heart of the meeting between God and us take place.
A Familiar Introduction
But not only is there a certain formality to the way God ushers us into His presence, there is also a certain familiarity. For not only is God our Sovereign, He is our Father and Friend. If we go back to the illustration of coming before a king in the Middle Ages, but add another element to that illustration, this becomes clear. Assume now that this person who seeks an audience with the king is not only the king’s subject, but also the king’s son. In this case there would still be formality, for the son is still the king’s subject. But the formalities would be infused with love, warmth, grace, and tenderness, for this subject is also the king’s son.
This, too, we have in the opening service. The formal structure is there to usher us into the presence of the sovereign God properly, but that structure is filled with language that breathes love and warmth and sonship. We are being ushered into the presence of our Father! He calls us His beloved as He greets us. We are not merely citizens of His country, but citizens who are also sons! He breathes not some vague, cold, strictly formal blessing upon us, but He pronounces the blessing of His heart upon His children whom He loves. “Grace to you and peace, my children,” He says. And we sing not only because He is sovereign, but also because He is all love towards His children in His sovereignty. We vow that He is our help, not simply because He is King and able, but because He is Father and willing.
Formality and Familiarity in the Covenant
It is this wonderful combination of formality and familiarity in the opening service that makes it so perfectly covenantal. The covenant is the relationship between God the friend-sovereign and His people the friend-servants. It is a structured fellowship. There must be the recognition that He is God of heaven and earth, a consuming fire in His holiness, perfectly just, so far above us. But at the same time there must be the recognition that this God is our Father and Friend who has redeemed us and cares for us and loves us and draws us close because He loves to have us close.
The opening service is a biblical and precise representation of this covenant relationship as we are ushered into the presence of God. And having thus been brought in, we engage in the main elements of worship in reverence, and also in the sweetest, closest communion and love. Ushered in to Him in this way, we are free to participate in the main reasons for the meeting with the same formality and familiarity. God speaks to us His law as sovereign and Father. He absolves our sins and speaks comfortably to us in His Word, as Holy, Just, and Merciful. And we respond with a reverent and deep filial adoration in song and prayer and giving in the heart of the service.
The Comfort in the Opening Service
There are two voices in the world today speaking to us about life and purpose and meaning and joy. There is the voice of man, and there is the voice of God. The voice of man calls out and tells the church that life and purpose and meaning and joy are found in pursuing what is temporal. It is a voice with no authority. It recognizes no voice from above to lead and to guide. Ultimately this voice is the voice of Satan himself. And as in the Garden of Eden, Satan calls the church to come join him and fellowship with him. He uses the world to call out with lies, “come to me, for at my side there are pleasures forever more.” But this voice has no true ultimate authority to call us, and we are fools to respond. Though it pretends to be fatherly and pretends to offer fatherly benefits, this voice is the voice of no father and friend.
In the opening service of public worship, a different voice calls to us. It is a voice that calls from above. It is the voice of God our Creator and our Savior, the voice of true authority. The voice comes from beyond this world and this life. It is the voice that tells us who we are, why we are here, and where we are going. It is the voice of true Fatherhood. It is the voice that speaks to us of what true peace is in this life. And this voice of God calls us in the opening service into fellowship. It tells us that in His presence we will find true purpose, meaning, and joy.
In the opening service we come by faith, and our response to this voice is that we have no desire to be led by the voice of Satan. God’s voice, as the voice of power and tender love, is the voice that has our attention. And we will come to Him for fellowship and for worship. We will come to Him, and we will leave the world behind.
And in the opening service, being ushered into God’s presence, God tells us we are His. He gives us to experience that in His presence is fullness of joy; at His right hand there are pleasures for evermore ().
¹ See Maxwell, William D., A History of Christian Worship, An Outline of Its Development and Forms. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1982. 112-119.
² The benediction was present in synagogue worship along with the other major elements of worship. See Edersheim, Alfred, Sketches of Jewish Social Life in the Days of Christ. London: James Clark and Co. LTD., 1961. 275. Also, the benediction may be referred to in. Some have said the mention of prayer with uplifted holy hands could be the benediction.
³ Much like in prayer, we do not begin with the heart of the prayer until certain things are said that lead us into His presence in the right way.