The Church Service – Part 2


The Church Service (part two)

Seeing that in a church service it is the Lord, through His office-bearers, who calls His flock to be assembled together, all attention is to be focused on Him. When gathered with His true flock, we may be sure that He, the LORD, is there as well; not in a visible form, but with His Spirit. Knowing that He is present should have a profound effect on all those who attend. Great respect is to be shown to Him. This must give the tone for the entire duration of the assembly. Let me explain.

Meeting with the LORD in the assembly of His people

After the Liberation of 1944 a lot of attention was understandably given to the covenant bond the Lord made with His people. A number of authors applied this to church liturgy, emphasising the covenantal aspect of the church service[1]. This led to the conclusion that church services should be conducted in such a way that the LORD speaks through His Word and we who believe respond. Thus it was structured as God speaking, we responding, God speaking, we responding – back and forth like that. This was a change from the form of liturgy previously used among the churches[2]. God is present in the church services in His Word and by His Spirit and therefore church attendance must be accompanied by great respect. We are meeting with the LORD!

It may be due to emphasis on this continual pattern of God speaking and the people responding that a lack of respect creeps into our church services. Perhaps it appears too much like a dialogue between God and man. Although it was never intended that way, it may almost seem like two equal partners—God and man—speaking with one another. But as we know, in the covenant the Lord has made with His people He and His people are unequal partners. God is majestic, powerful and holy. His people are weak and sinful. The difference in status is immeasurable. We are privileged to be there with our Holy God. It is already a privilege to be there because who we are we but men; how much more so because we are men who have fallen into sin.

This vast difference in status is illustrated, for example, in the Old Testament age in how the LORD kept His people from approaching Him at Mt. Sinai. Boundaries were placed around the mountain[3]. The people were also reminded of this difference in status when they gathered at the tabernacle and temple. The assembly itself could not come near the LORD whose glory is in the holy of holies. Only the priest could approach Him, and only in a certain context and with various restrictions. He had to be ceremonial cleansed and the right sacrifices had to be made. The assembly as a whole was restrained from approaching the LORD by remaining in outer court. Even at that distance the assembly was expected to show due respect[4]. The unclean were not even permitted into the court. By the ordinances the LORD had given it remained very clear that He was God and they were men[5].  He was far exalted above men. Besides, mankind had fallen into sin and thus could not approach the Lord at all!

This has changed in the New Testament age now that Christ is our High Priest. Upon His death the way into the sanctuary has been opened. This is explained in the letter to the Hebrews, which speaks about the real sanctuary, heaven, of which the one on earth was symbolic and a fore-shadowing. Now that Christ is our Priest we may approach the throne of grace with boldness. This boldness reflects our confidence in Christ. However, the LORD remains God and we remain men. This comes out in a particular way in Hebrews 12 where we are reminded of the awesome way in which the LORD had appeared on Mount Sinai. His appearing there was so awesome that even Moses had said I am exceedingly afraid and trembling. We, the New Testament Church, have come to something even greater than that, namely, to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem … and to God the Judge of all… Because we have moved along with the LORD’s progression in His work for our salvation, we are warned not to refuse Him… Our attitude towards the assembling together is now summed up this way: Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear. For our God is a consuming fire.

The judicial element of the Church service

It is striking how in the letter to the Hebrews, in the context of being gathered together, we are told about God who is Judge of all and also that He is a consuming fire. This shows that there was clearly something judicial about the Lord meeting the children of Israel at Mount Sinai. The LORD spoke His covenant word consisting of various commandments. By it, the LORD had set out the perimeters of His covenant bond with His people. Just as they were not permitted to cross the boundaries set around Mt Sinai, so they were not to transgress the boundaries the LORD gave in these commandments. They were privileged to be His people, to have Him in their midst, but were expected to revere and obey Him.

That the LORD had given the Ten Covenant Words as the boundary for His covenant relation with His people is further shown by all the ceremonies and sacrifices. The LORD did not allow covenant breakers into His presence. Those who assembled at the tabernacle and temple had to bring their sacrifices. The priests, as specially appointed servants, offered the animals to the LORD and upon doing so gave the assurance: your sins are forgiven. Their task was mediatory. They served as mediators between the most Holy God who is Judge of all on the one hand and, on the other hand, men who had transgressed God’s commandments and fallen under His curse. When the priests, upon returning from bringing the sacrifices, gave the blessing, it was a judicial-like assurance that now all was well between the LORD and them.

But of course the blood of bulls and goats that the priests offered in the past could not take away sin. Especially from hindsight we understand that these sacrifices foreshadowed what Christ would do. The blessing of what He would do was already evident by how the LORD, through the priest, granted assurance of forgiveness once proper sacrifices had been made.

When the Lord Jesus had completed His work, He sent His disciples, now appointed as apostles, to preach the gospel. The Greek word commonly used to speak about their task shows that it was to proclaim the glad tidings. What were these glad tidings? In brief: He who believes and is baptised will be saved…[6] The apostles were to give this message as duly appointed servants and messengers. That was comparable to how the priests in the past, upon bringing the sacrifices, could give the people assurance of forgiveness. It was now said on the basis of Christ’s sacrifice. This is a judicial-like declaration. Remember how the resurrected Christ had breathed on His disciples, told them to receive the Holy Spirit and added: If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them…[7]

This was to continue through the ages and continues today. Think of how, when speaking about church discipline, we are very clear in our formulation; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.[8] This is just as true when speaking about the preaching of the gospel. In Lord’s Day 31 we confess the first key to open the kingdom of heaven to be the preaching of the gospel. This preaching, says the Catechism, is to be a public proclamation and testimony to each and every believer that God has really forgiven all their sins… Notice the word really. It is really true[9]. The believers who assemble together are given the message that their sins are really forgiven. This message is endorsed and confirmed by the use of the sacraments.  You see how profound church attendance really is. Here the kingdom of heaven is opened.

In the church service the kingdom of heaven is also closed. The official preaching of the Word is a two edged sword[10]. To neglect the church service is then like neglecting the outcome of a judicial hearing. How careless is it for those who look for an undeserved acquittal to neglect being there to hear the official outcome! Perhaps we can have some human understanding for those who hardened themselves against the Lord to neglect and be absent from the church service. They know the verdict and are not interested in hearing it. This is also true when speaking of the second key, church discipline and in particular, excommunication.

To be sure that there is no misunderstanding here we must remember that the Lord God is, of course, the final Judge of all. At times there are unfaithful servants who do not give the pronouncement that the LORD has directed them to give. We can think of examples from Scripture and church history where unfaithful servants have given false pronouncements. When the church censures and excommunicates the faithful, it has proven to be the false church[11]. However, in His true churches the Lord gives His word through His servants and we may never undermine the reality of how He speaks of binding in heaven what is bound on earth. Being in church is a very serious matter. Here the gates of heaven are opened and closed!

The central focus in the Church service on Christ

In view of this judicial aspect of the church service (God the Judge sets us free because of Christ’s sacrifice), attention is focused in a particular way on Christ. Even though the tabernacle and temple predated Christ, the foreshadowing of His coming and sacrificial work was already central there. How much more is that sacrificial work central in the New Testament age!

One can put it this way: among the servants whom the Lord appoints in the churches today are those who are given the particular task to preach and teach[12]. They do not bring their own message. The Lord, so to speaks, gives a Bible in their hands and says; this is the message that you must bring. Thus, along with overseers of the assembly, the Lord’s people are called together so that they may hear the message given in the Bible. Today everyone has a copy of the Bible and can check to see if the message given there is really brought. In fact, all those in the assembly are expected to test the word they hear[13].

When asking what the central message given in the Bible is, the answer is: Christ and salvation through His blood. This is evident from how the Lord had sent His apostles to be witnesses of Christ[14] and His resurrection[15]. The Apostle Paul also says that in His preaching he did not want to know anything except Christ and Him crucified[16]. The Lord Jesus also said that the Scriptures testify of Him[17]. That Scripture is the message of salvation through Christ is therefore also rightly reflected in the formulation of the Heidelberg Catechism. In Lord’s Day 1 we confess that we belong to Christ. It is His Father that takes care of us and it is through His Holy Spirit that we receive assurance. It was in this context of how Scripture focuses on Christ as our Saviour that the preaching and thus also the entire church service is Christ-centred (Christocentric).

There has been a recent tendency to speak about the preaching and church services as being Theocentric which means centred on God. In view of what the Lord teaches us about Himself in the greatness of His three Persons it would be foolish to make too much of an issue between these two expressions Theocentric and Christocentric. Nevertheless, Scripture teaches us about the centrality of Christ as our Saviour who bought us with His blood. We are shown how He became one with us in flesh and blood; how He receives us, the church, as His bride; How He is our Head and we are the members of His body. Therefore we can speak of Scripture as being Christocentric. Hence also the preaching that flows from God’s inspired word is to be Christocentric.

This Christ-centredness reflects on the entire church service. It is a meeting of the covenant LORD God with His covenant people but certainly not a meeting of equals. God is God and we are His creatures. Moreover, we are granted the privilege of being gathered there in the assembly as covenant children because Christ, as our Mediator, has made it possible. He did this through His perfect obedience, suffering and death as necessary payment for the judicial pronouncement. It is in Christ that we are received as children of His Father.

It is a wonderful thing to be allowed to attend the church services; to be where the most high God speaks to us through the preaching of His Word and the Holy Spirit works with that Word – the declaration of Christ and salvation through His blood – in our hearts. Our focus is on Him, not on us. Him we revere, love and want to obey. And therefore we will attend the church services respectfully, humbly and thankfully.

In the next instalment some attention will be given to the actual church service and what happens there.

[1] For example; Rev. G. Van Rongen, Liturgy of God’s Covenant (ILPB) and D. Deddens Where Everything Points to Him (Inheritance Publications, 1993)

[2] Form A in the Book of Praise is the order agreed at the Synod of Middelburg 1581 and Form B reflect the order that arose from this new approach.

[3] Exodus 19:21 – 22

[4] Here we think of the stipulations as described in the Book of Leviticus. See also the summary in Hebrews 9.

[5] Think, for example, of the lepers, Leviticus 13 – 14 and those with bodily discharge, Leviticus 15.

[6] Mark 16:16

[7] John 20:23

[8] Matthew 18:18

[9] This, among other passages, is based on Christ’s words in Matthew 16:19.

[10] See Hebrews 4:12

[11] See how we confess the marks of the false church in Belgic Confession, Article 29

[12] 2 Timothy 2:2

[13] 1 John 4:1ff

[14] Acts 1:8

[15] Acts 1:21 – 22

[16] 1 Cor. 2:2

[17] John 5:39