RPTS Graduation Address
Text - I Corinthians 11:20-34
May 18, 2001
Teacher and People Gathered in One Place on the Lord’s Day
I recently read a short exchange between two church members. George said to Bob, “Pastor Steve really met our needs when our son had his car accident. He was right there for us. I’m sure glad he’s our pastor.” “Yes,” Bob answered, “Pastor Steve helped you, but emergencies don’t happen often. Usually, we see him only at church, and frankly, he puts me to sleep. I sometimes wonder why we even go.”
Lord’s Day services. Like it or not, you men going into the pastoral ministry will be evaluated on how well you conduct them. People will discuss your preaching for its truth, but also for its ability simply to hold their attention and “be interesting.” They will note your prayers and music choices. Lord’s Day services are a pastor’s top responsibility. Making things more difficult for many pastors today are the worship wars taking place in many churches. Will it be contemporary worship or traditional worship? Will it be liturgical or “Spirit led?” So my topic tonight is, “What are church services all about?” Knowing the answer to that question will help you as you begin to lead your churches in the worship of God.
When the Apostle Paul wrote to the large, divided, proud, and scandalous church in Corinth, he addressed a church that was worshiping improperly. There were showoffs who made a display of their spiritual gifts. A man guilty of incest worshiped as a member in good standing; there had been no church discipline. There was so much disorder in the worship services that if outsiders came in they would think people were crazy. Worst of all, observance of the Lord’s Supper was an abomination, so bad that Paul wrote to them: “When you come together in one place, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper.” (I Corinthians 11:20) The Corinthian saints, proud of their large and gifted church, simply did not understand worship. Paul had to reteach them how to worship God. What did he have to say? We won’t look at all of his instructions, just three things in chapter eleven that was read in your hearing a moment ago.
First, church gatherings are different from the rest of life. This may seem obvious -- it is obvious! -- but some then, just as some now, couldn’t see the difference. The Apostle wrote, “Eat at home.” Second, church gatherings are covenant ceremonies. Therefore, worship can’t be a case of each church doing what is best in its own eyes. “This cup is the new covenant in my blood,” Jesus said. Third, church meetings are times of judgment. Anyone who partakes of the cup in an unworthy manner, drinks judgment to himself. Woe to those saints and woe to those churches which come together and do whatever they like and fail to discern the Lord’s body.
The first point: church gatherings are different from the rest of life. In Corinth Christians observed the Lord’s Supper as an ordinary home meal. Each ate when he was ready to, poorer brethren went hungry, some got drunk. They did not understand that their “eating” in church was a different kind of eating than what they did at home. I can almost hear Corinthian saints saying, “All of life is worship. Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. What better way to glorify God than to eat and drink thankfully before him.” (I Corinthians 10:31) But church is not home. Paul’s rejoinder to their obliteration of the difference between Lord’s Day services and the rest of life was to assert the difference. “What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing?” (11:22) He then reinstructed them on the proper way to eat the Lord’s Supper, ending with this rule: “But if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home.” (11:34) There is one way for eating at home, there is another way for eating at church. Eating at home means one thing, eating in church means something else.
Why do different rules apply to the saints when they eat at home and when they “eat” in church? Because when the saints come together each week, they appear before God to remember and reaffirm his covenant with them. Life at home is lived within the covenant, but it is not a time of covenant renewal.
Notice that Paul does not use the term “worship” for church gatherings. Instead, he uses phrases like, “when you come together” (11:18, 20), “... if the whole church comes together in one place” (14:23), “Whenever you come together” (14:26). The assembly of the church recalls Israel’s assembling at Sinai to receive the covenant. After that first assembly of Israel at Sinai, God called Israel to meet regularly before him. “Three times a year all your males shall appear before the LORD your God.” (Deuteronomy 16:16) Every seventh day, in fact, Israel gathered for a solemn assembly. (Leviticus 23:3) Both before and after Christ came, God called the gathered saints the “ekklhsia,” a Greek word meaning “assembly” and a virtual synonym for another Greek word, also applied to the gathered saints both before and after Christ, “sunagogh.”
Church meetings are different from the rest of life, and differently governed, because they involve the whole church assembling at God’s call at a set time to renew his covenant. The assembled church is not the family, it is not the state, it is not the saints living in the world as salt and light, it is not a group of friends getting together. It is the saints assembled before God with a sacrifice to hear him, ask his favor, and pledge anew their loyalty to him.
Sunday services, our second point, are a time of covenant renewal. Whether Communion be observed or not, every Sunday service leads to Communion and depends for its spiritual reality on what Communion signifies. When Israel met weekly in its synagogues for prayers, their being heard depended on the Temple sacrifices offered daily by the priests. When the church meets, the heart of its worship is likewise in the heavenly temple where our Mediator serves. Each Lord’s Day the church comes not to a mountain like Sinai, but to “Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel.” (Hebrews 12:22-24)
Communion remembers Christ’s body broken for us and his blood which ratified the “new covenant” promised by Jeremiah. (Jeremiah 31:31) When we eat the bread and drink the cup, we partake of the one Christ and in union with him appear before God. (I Corinthians 10:16-17) There is a Real Presence of Christ in Communion, and by faith we take spiritual nourishment from Christ himself. Christ himself is our covenant, the Servant of the LORD of whom Isaiah prophesied, “I will keep you and give you as a covenant to the people, as a light to the Gentiles, to open blind eyes.” (Isaiah 42:6, 49:8) When you lead Lord’s Day services, you come with the church before God’s throne to reaffirm your part in Christ our covenant.
Biblical covenants have a definite structure. Whether made between God and his people or between a human superior and his inferiors, they have the same general structure. What the Westminster Assembly called the “elements” of worship are nothing other than ways of reviewing God’s Covenant of Grace with his church. Covenants begin 1) by naming the parties to the covenant, continue by 2) recounting the history of how the covenant parties came to be associated, 3) review covenant duties, especially of the people to their lord, 4) call down blessings and curses from God for performance or nonperformance of covenant duties, and 5) conclude with a sign by which to remember the covenant. Communion, like Passover for the Old Covenant, is a sign of our continuing participation in the covenant, while baptism, like circumcision for the Old Covenant, is a sign of our entrance into the covenant. What about the rest of what Westminster called the “elements of worship?”
The call to worship at the beginning of the service is God’s call to his people to meet with him. The elders issue the call in Christ’s name, setting the time and place for the saints to meet. The call to worship names the parties to the covenant: God and his saints.
The reading and explaining of the Scriptures review how we came to be associated with God. While we were sinners, Christ died for us, and the Holy Spirit converted us from a way of death to the way of life. God’s mighty acts in history, both in Christ and in our own individual histories, have brought us together before God. The Preface to the Ten Commandments begins with the same essential history. “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” (Exodus 20:2)
Besides explaining the Scriptures, preaching includes exhortation, that is, urging obedience to God. The Protestant Reformers John Calvin and John Knox both included the Ten Commandments in their church services, to convict of sin and to teach how to live. The law of God, printed on the conscience of man at his creation and republished in pure summary form in the Ten Commandments, reminds sinners how they have failed to obey God and leads them to repentance. The law of God also answers the question that looms for every new believer: now how should I live? In the covenant review and reaffirmation that is at the heart of the church’s gathering, the law of God provides the basis for exhortation to be faithful to our Lord.
I began today by reminding you that churches will evaluate you on how well you lead worship on the Lord’s Day. Part of their reaction to your leadership will depend on their own preparation, something over which you have no direct control. Saints who come in faith will hear the call to worship as God’s voice speaking to them and will be glad for the invitation. Those who are living without faith will hear only your voice. Saints gathered in faith will hear in the reading and preaching of the Scriptures the voice of God speaking to their hearts. Yes, it is a man reading and preaching, but he is God’s man speaking God’s Word. They will answer “amen” in their hearts and quite properly “amen” with their voices. When you preach, it is not primarily your ideas that you are expressing, but the faith and experience of all of the saints. The Word of God is their Word also. Amen!
Should people come to church expecting God’s blessing? Absolutely yes! One man said to me recently, “Why do I come to church each week? Because I go away refreshed.” The new covenant is a covenant of grace, and every part of the Lord’s Day service is a means of grace to the faithful. The Holy Spirit grants grace through his Word to the hearts of believers. The church’s gathering should please God, and what pleases him more than to give gifts to his people? The saints’ gatherings are a means of grace and blessing to them.
A central part of the church’s gathering is prayer. When Israel gathered before God at Sinai, they made requests of God. They asked, among other things, not to hear his voice again. Let him speak to us through Moses, they said. (Exodus 20:18-21) They also expressed their awe of him, answering, “Amen. All that the LORD has said we will do.” (Exodus 24:7) When you or someone else leads the church in prayer, you ask favors from your King, you give him thanks for past blessings, you ask forgiveness for failures pleading for mercy through Christ’s blood, you bless God’s name and praise him. The saints’ gatherings are not for the bare recital of covenant facts, they are for the present communion with God, with a repeated central request, “Lord, have mercy, “ “Lord, let your face shine on us,” “Lord be gracious unto us and give us peace.” Everyone says “Yes” to the call to worship, every saint says “Amen” to what God has done and to his law, all pray together silently -- or not so silently -- while the leader prays. People will evaluate you pastors on how well you conduct Lord’s Day services, but never think that they are your performance. All of the saints are appearing with you before God to embrace him and his Word and to ask his help. Your calling is to lead them in doing that, not to persuade them what a nice and friendly guy you are or how gifted you are.
Here is the third point: church meetings are times of judgment. Covenants include blessings and curses. Notice how blessings and curses are intertwined with the Ten Commandments: “for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain,” “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation,” “showing mercy to thousands, to those who love me and keep my commandments,” “that your days may be long upon the land which the LORD your God has given you.” Peter wrote that judgment begins at the household of God. (I Peter 4:17) Therefore, since the saints meet before God with whom they are in covenant, it is not surprising that Paul warns the Corinthian saints about God’s judgment when they meet. His words are stern. “Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.” (11:27) Why? Because he does not do so in humble faith. He does not remember that he is meeting with God, so unrepented sin and unmended relationships do not worry him. He fails to distinguish between church gatherings and the rest of life in which eating heartily is fine. In Corinth God had brought sickness and death to many in the church because of their unfaithful taking of Communion, the sign of his covenant. (11:30)
Since blessings and curses are part of the covenant, God’s judgments of excommunication are done in the midst of the assembly. Concerning the man guilty of incest Paul told the Corinthians what to do. "In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (I Corinthians 5:5) Such judgments are necessary to “purge out the old leaven.” (I Corinthians 5:7) But along with judgments go God’s blessings. It is with a blessing that Paul begins his letters: Grace and peace to you from our Lord Jesus Christ. We likewise begin our gatherings with God’s gracious invitation, his call to worship. We conclude them with God’s blessing, the benediction. “May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” “May the Lord’s face shine upon you and give your peace.” That is the blessing which we seek from God when we gather together in one place.
What about singing to the Lord? Paul assumes that when we meet together we will sing. We sing to the Lord with grace in our hearts, bringing a sacrifice of praise to him. We also sing to each other, so that in song the saints teach and admonish one another. (I Corinthians 14:26, Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16) It is in our singing that it is most clear that while Lord’s Day services may be led by the preacher, they are the activity of the whole people. Furthermore, in singing it becomes obvious that God’s Word to his people is broader than any text or sermon theme.
In our church we use the oldest and most universal of all church hymnals, the Book of Psalms. Any preacher who has ever tried to match Psalms to his preaching has discovered a wonderful thing. The Psalms don’t match our sermons very well. In each Psalm God weaves together many elements of his truth, and the singers move quickly from praise of the Creator to confession of sin to pleas for help. In the Psalms all of God’s truth is sung, refracted through the experiences and emotions of the saints. All parts of the covenant, who God is and who we are, God’s law, his mighty acts of salvation in history, blessings and curses, are repeated in the Psalms. Nothing is omitted, especially not Christ. With our eyes opened by the Holy Spirit and the veil lifted, we see Christ portrayed again and again in the Psalms.
In considering how the assembly of the saints is a covenant ceremony, we return finally to the Lord’s Supper where we began. Every covenant has a sign attached to it by which its participants will know that they are in the covenant. The sign of God’s covenant with all mankind in Adam was a tree. God’s covenant sign with Noah and his descendants was the rainbow. The sign of God’s covenant with David was the temple in Jerusalem that his son Solomon built. The sign of the New Covenant is the Lord’s Supper. The call to worship, the reading and preaching of the Word, our confession of sin, prayer, singing to God and to one another, prepare us to renew our part in the Lord by communing with him, whether we commune weekly or yearly.
The centrality of the Lord’s Supper in our worship makes plain the nature of church assemblies: they are covenant ceremonies. The “elements” of worship are not unconnected activities which the church does one after the other in no particular order. On the contrary, they are all of them means of grace in which the church, meeting before God’s throne, remembers Christ our covenant and pledges itself to serve him.
New graduates, many of you will soon be ordained and installed as pastors in Christ’s church. Some of you may already be pastors. Your calling from God is to lead the church before God when it gathers on the Lord’s Day. You will speak God’s Word to his people, you will pronounce his blessing upon his people, you will distribute the bread and the wine to the saints. You will call them together, you will remind them how God saved them, you will exhort them how to live now that they are saved, you will lead them in prayer to God, you will pronounce God’s blessing on his saints, you will choose the songs that they sing, and you may well have to pronounce God’s judgment on the erring. Doing these things is your calling. Your congregations will evaluate you on how well you conduct Lord’s Day services. God will also judge you on your work, a thought that should sober us. James wrote, “My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment.” (James 3:1) Paul told Timothy, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (II Timothy 2:15) You men will build on a foundation that stretches back to Christ and his Apostles. May what you build endure even fire itself. In Corinth Apollos built on the foundation laid by Paul. So did many others. What of their work? Paul wrote: “Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will reveal it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is.” (I Corinthians 3:12-13) I don’t quote James and Paul to frighten you, but to remind you that the preacher of God’s Word has a high calling. God will hold you accountable for your work. When God gives much, he requires much. And this also is a faithful saying, “If a man desires the office of a bishop, he desires a good work.” (I Timothy 3:1) Elders as well as deacons who serve well “obtain for themselves a good standing and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus.” (I Timothy 3:13) What more could you ask? May God’s blessing and the might of his power go with you. Amen.