How Sweet and Awful Is the Place: Zion and Congregational Worship
How Sweet and Awful Is the Place: Zion and Congregational Worship
[Published in Reformation and Revival Journal 2000]
Gregg Strawbridge, Ph.D.
All Saints Presbyterian Church, Lancaster, PA www.allsaintspresbyterian.com
For worship to be fully biblical and experientially meaningful, we must recapture the awe of coming to Zion, to His house. Having the fulness of new covenant revelation, in the Final Word (Heb 1:2), we do not look to the place for worship, as if the building were the temple or the house of God (Joh 4:21-23). Rather, the sanctified place is a time - when and where the assembly of God's people meet in His special presence and on His appointed day.
The Awesome Unseen Reality of Zion
The language of Zion is a familiar part of our vocabulary of praise. We sing "glorious things of" "Zion city of our God" in the words of John Newton and with Timothy Dwight confess that we "love thy kingdom, Lord, the house of thine abode, the church our blest Redeemer saved with His own precious blood." And we may even know of the awful place illustrated by Isaac Watts:
HOW SWEET AND AWFUL IS THE PLACE WITH CHRIST WITHIN THE DOORS,
WHILE EVERLASTING LOVE DISPLAYS THE CHOICEST OF HER STORES.
WHILE ALL OUR HEARTS AND ALL OUR SONGS JOIN TO ADMIRE THE FEAST,
EACH OF US CRY, WITH THANKFUL TONGUES, LORD, WHY WAS I A GUEST?
WHY WAS I MADE TO HEAR THY VOICE AND ENTER WHILE THERE'S ROOM
WHEN THOUSANDS MAKE A WRETCHED CHOICE AND RATHER STARVE THAN COME?
'TWAS THE SAME LOVE THAT SPREAD THE FEAST THAT SWEETLY DREW US IN;
ELSE WE HAD STILL REFUSED TO TASTE, AND PERISHED IN OUR SIN.
PITY THE NATIONS, O OUR GOD, CONSTRAIN THE EARTH TO COME;
SEND THY VICTORIOUS WORD ABROAD, AND BRING THE STRANGERS HOME.
WE LONG TO SEE THY CHURCHES FULL, THAT ALL THE CHOSEN RACE
MAY, WITH ONE VOICE AND HEART AND SOUL, SING THY REDEEMING GRACE. (1)
These hymns focus our words on a deep biblical stream of thought flowing in both testaments. In a robust passage the writer of Hebrews tells his readers,
But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the general assembly and church of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant . . . (Heb 12:22-24). (2)
This passage invites our imaginations to see the new covenant people in no less a cosmic context than our brethren at Sinai. There is more to worship than meets the eye. The gathered congregation is like the tip of an iceberg surfacing above the water with the massive invisible spiritual world below. In worship, we see people in all their flaws and beauty. We may fixate on the walls, the pews, the pulpit, the microphone, the table (IN REMEMBRANCE OF ME), the piano, the synthesizer, ... and sometimes lose the grand vision of the "church of the first-born." Scripture assures us that this grand vision of the church is not a grand illusion. The very words of God (Heb 11:22ff) tell us worship is a meeting of the highest heavens with our congregation on earth through the only mediator, Jesus.
The picture is painted no where better than in C.S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters, writing, of course, as an elder devil to a younger devil,
One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans. All your patient sees is the half-finished, sham Gothic erection on the new building estate. When he goes inside, he sees the local grocer with a rather oily expression on his face bustling up to offer him one shiny little book containing a liturgy which neither of them understands, and one shabby little book containing corrupt texts of a number of religious lyrics, mostly bad, and in very small print. When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbours. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like "the body of Christ" and the actual faces in the next pew. It matters very little, of course, what kind of people that next pew really contains. You may know one of them to be a great warrior on the Enemy's side. No matter. Your patient, thanks to Our Father Below, is a fool. Provided that any of those neighbours sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous. . . . Keep everything hazy in his mind now, and you will have all eternity wherein to amuse yourself by producing in him the peculiar kind of clarity which Hell affords. (3)
Lewis is brilliant and his literary incandescence is glowing here. This is the dilemma we mortal, redeemed-wretches have in coming to worship. Even the most energetic and vibrant services are still encumbered by the people in the pew. The most inviting atmosphere of transcendental architecture (if such a thing exists in the American evangelical context), and the brightest and best arrangement of events, complete with professional sound, lighting, and digital projection, inevitably yields to the simple poem: "the church is not the steeple, but the people." Encumbered with all the sterility of a public meeting, we often forget that the very Christ of the radical Resurrection promises to be present. Perhaps the communion table should read, "I will build My church; and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it" (Mat 16:18).
In what follows, I have chosen to take a central motif, the place of worship, Zion, and consider its direct relation to the day of worship.
Zion as the Place of Worship
Zion as His Presence
Congregational worship is not only sanctified because of its manifestation of the spiritual reality, it is sanctified because of His special presence. Jesus will never leave or forsake us and we know that His presence in our lives individually is a precious reality. The Word teaches us, however, that there is more to the gathering of the saints than a multiplication of individuals indwelt with God.
In the well-known passage, Matthew 18:15-20, Christ teaches His invisible presence in the visible congregation. The "keys of the kingdom" in church disciple are exercised when the procedure in verses 15-17 are followed. Notice that the final explanation for the authority for binding something on earth is--"For where two or three have gathered together in My name, there I am in their midst" (v 20). The import of this passage for worship is that we can be assured that when the church gathers together in Jesus' name, He is truly there. I hope you will not ask me to explain the exact nature of this special presence.
A lesser known passage which also teaches us of Christ's special presence in the congregation is found in Hebrew 2:12, "I will proclaim thy name to my brethren, in the midst of the congregation I will sing thy praise." This quotation of Psalm 22:22, applied to Jesus, seems to refer both to His earthly ministry in the congregation and to the spiritual presence of Christ with His congregation today. Believing that Christ is singing praise in our congregations, as it were, beside us in the pew, implies much in the way of our preparation, participation, and priorities in worship.
The roots of God's presence in worship are deep and thick. Many First Testament passages illumine the uniqueness and sanctity of congregational worship. If the New Covenant congregation is in some sense "Mount Zion," "the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem" (Heb 12:22), and minimally this cannot be denied - then the First Testament references to Zion's worship, inasmuch as there is overlap, can be principally applied to the gathered New Covenant worshipers. Surely it is no less true of Christ's congregation that "God is in the midst of her, she will not be moved" (Psa 46:5) or that in some special sense "His tabernacle is in Salem; His dwelling place also is in Zion" (Psa 76:2). If anything, it is more true that because our Incarnate Lord indwells Zion, "Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God has shone forth" (Psa 50:2). Our prayers, no less than our Elder Covenant counterparts, are to plead for God to "Remember Thy congregation, which Thou hast purchased of old, which Thou hast redeemed to be the tribe of Thine inheritance; and this Mount Zion, where Thou hast dwelt" (Psa 74:2). Blessing comes when we are like those saints of old in whose hearts are "the highways to Zion," and when upon arriving "every one of them appears before God in Zion" (Psa 84:5-7). We are called to have special affection for the "house of the Lord" which is His temple (Psa 27:4).
It is perfectly clear in the New Testament that the saints, individually and collectively are the temple of God. But we are also called the house of God, "we have a great priest over the house of God" (Heb 10:21). Therefore, we should say with the psalmist, "Now O LORD, I love the habitation of Thy house, and the place where Thy glory dwells" (Psa 26:8). At His house we receive more than we can ever give: "They drink their fill of the abundance of Thy house; and Thou dost give them to drink of the river of Thy delights. For with Thee is the fountain of life; in Thy light we see light (Psa 36:8-9). We should say that "we will be satisfied with the goodness of Thy house, Thy holy temple" (Psa 65:4). If we believe these things we will say with more vigor than even those who have come before, "I was glad when they said to me, 'Let us go to the house of the LORD'" (Psa 122:1).
The concept of Zion is really trans-covenantal. A survey of even Older Testament references will yield a concept of Zion which is much more congregational than geographical. Over the thousand years from great David to His greater Son, the term grew into the verbal symbol of the Lord's gathered people (Heb 12:22, perhaps 1Pe 2:6)
Zion as the Lord's Day: Biblical Considerations
The concept of God's presence with His gathered people pervades Scripture. Does this relate to the time of worship, though? Did Jesus intend for His gathered people to meet in His special presence on an appointed day? Or was this left to mere circumstance and preference? In answering this, we shall consider not only the biblical evidence (which is authoritative), but also the practice of the historical church (which is instructive).
The New Testament uses the term, "Lord's day" only once. John writes in the Apocalypse, "I was in the Spirit on the Lord's day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like the sound of a trumpet . . ." (1:10). A.T. Robertson observes that Kuriakos ("Lord's") had the sense of "imperial" and its immediate usage was an "Emperor's Day on which money payments were made (cf. 1Co 16:1f.). It was easy, therefore, for the Christians to take this term, already in use, and apply it to the first day of the week in honour of the Lord Jesus Christ's resurrection on that day (Didache 14, Ignatius Magn. 9)." (4)Kuriakos is used only twice: once in reference to the Lord's day (Kuriakos hemera, Rev 1:10) and once in reference to the Lord's Supper (Kuriakos deipnon, 1Co 11:20).
The significance of the day pertaining to the Lord comes into focus when we ponder that the Resurrection of our Lord took place on the first day of the week, Sunday (Mat 28:1, Mar 16:9). It appears that Christ met with his disciples in His post-resurrection, pre-ascension state on the first day of the week (Sunday) on at least four separate occasions (Mat 28:9, Luk 24:34, 18-33, Joh 20:19-23). "When therefore it was evening, on that day, the first day of the week . . . Jesus came and stood in their midst, and said to them, 'Peace be with you'" (Joh 20:17). One week later we are told, Jesus met with the disciples again on the same day, Sunday. "And after eight days (hemeras okto) again His disciples were inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors having been shut, and stood in their midst, and said, 'Peace be with you'" (Joh 20:26). Then we find in the apostolic record, "Now on the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul, ready to depart the next day, spoke (dialegomai) to them and continued his message (logos) until midnight" (Acts 20:7). Paul instructed the church at Corinth regarding receiving collections, "On the first day of every week let each one of you put aside and save, as he may prosper" (1Co 16:2).
Zion's Development and the Sabbath Day
The significance of the scattered references to the first day of the week and the Lord's Day comes into sharper focus when we see that they stand upon the foundation of the Jewish observance of the Sabbath. Observing the implications of Genesis one, Adam's first day was a day of rest, since he was created on the sixth day. Unlike the day of sin when they "hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God," after Adam's creation, he awoke to a day of His Maker's presence, apart from his dominion duties. The one then six, pattern then should remind us of the theologically pregnant concept of rest, then service. The rest, then work pattern is founded upon both the Sabbath creation ordinance (Gen 2:2) and marvelously typifies the Reformed view of justification. The Sabbath gift was certainly not a meritorious reward of rest for Adam's works. Of course, later the Sabbath commandment was codified in the decalogue (the fourth commandment, Exo 20:8). As such, the Jews' Sabbath observance, including their synagogue convocations (Lev 23:3), were obligatory applications the law. It appears that a weekly convocation and day to "cease" also became culturally non-negotiable. Certainly the However, there was much more depth of significance to the Old Testament sabbath observance than a mere ritual of ceasing from labor and gathering for religious worship.
In the second giving of the Ten Commandments, we see that the Sabbath was a memorial occasion to remember the release from bondage by the power of God (Deu 5:15). Even the land was to be given "sabbaths" (Lev 25:4). The cycle of restitution, the Jubilee, is a sabbath (Lev 25:8-10). Even the time of the Babylonian exile is measured as a sabbath (2Ch 36:21). Moreover, the very paradigm of time structure leading to the "fulness of time" (Gal 4:4, coming of Messiah ) is in sabbatical pattern (seventy sevens, Dan 9:24). With this level of Old Testament biblical theology on the Sabbath, the typological and Christological qualities of the seventh day rest should come as no surprise (Heb 4:3, 9-10, Col 2:16-17). The Lord's Day is the first day of the week, the numerical "eighth day," counting from the first creation day. Viewed with the typological and Christological aspects in mind, observe that this "eighth day" of creation turns out to be the first day of the new creation. It was the day of new life, of new creation, of resurrection.
But is there more specific warrant for a change of worship-day? Is there something in the red letters about this? Jesus taught us that He had authority over the sabbath, the day of remembrance, "For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath" (Mat 12:8). When He instituted His new passover supper, He said, "This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me" (Luk 22:19). Just as passover was memorialized on the sabbath (Deu 5:15), Jesus required His disciples to memorial His work of redemption, the antitype of the Exodus. However, His work of redemption was not complete until the first day of the week. And of course, only after His cross-resurrection work was complete, did He met with His disciples. And His disciples continued to do this: "on the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread . . ." (Act 20:7).
The first recipients of the gospel saw the weekly Sabbath pattern of worship as divine law, and yet the church emerged from the first century worshiping on the first day of the week -- how might this be reasonably explained? While this day-change was germinating in the time of the apostles, it flowers in the centuries that follow. Our Seventh Day Baptist brethren might object to Sunday worship due to the lack of explicit warrant for first day worship. But a sufficient reason can be given for the mixed practice of seventh day and Sunday meetings of the apostles: they were in the terminal generation. The age of the Christ-rejecting first century Jewish generation was transitional to the wineskins of new covenant worship (Mar 2:22). (5) Jesus predicted the synagogue work of the apostles without error (Joh 16:2, Acts 13:14, 14:1, 17:2, etc):
Therefore, behold, I am sending you prophets and wise men and scribes; some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues, and persecute from city to city, that upon you may fall the guilt of all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I say to you, all these things shall come upon this generation. (Mat 23:34-36)
I believe that the threads of new covenant worship are sufficiently plain in the New Testament, though they are not yet woven into the new fabric. No quantum leap into the historical and theological unknown is necessary to conclude that the apostolic church had warrant to worship on the day of Resurrection. One should not hesitate in admitting that the explicit biblical material is meager regarding the question of worship on the first day of the week. Remember though, the nature of that transitional time, after which the fundamental Judaistic institution was no more (the temple was destroyed, anno Domini 70). But, what the Scriptures suggest in seed, the universal church demonstrates in full bloom. The voice of these verses is joined by the deep chorus of the theological importance of the Resurrection of Christ on the first day of the week and with the specific demand of memorializing His completed redemptive work, "Do this in remembrance of Me." The strong implication follows: His disciples should remember His creational acts on the first day of the new creation; and they should remember his redemptive work on the day they were demonstrably complete.
Zion as the Lord's Day: Historical Considerations
The earliest writings of the church are in accord with the priority of the gathered congregation for worship on the first day of the week. Even the pagan Pliny the Younger reported that Christians meet "on an appointed day." (6) The Didache commands that, "On the Lord's Day come together and break bread." (7) The Epistle of Barnabas likewise says, "Wherefore, also, we keep the eighth day with joyfulness, the day also on which Jesus rose again from the dead." (8)
Ignatius of Antioch speaks of the early Jewish Christians as "those who were brought up in the ancient order of things have come to the possession of a new hope, no longer observing the sabbath, but living in the observance of the Lord's day, on which also our life has sprung up again by him and by his death." (9) Justin Martyr reproves the Jew Trypho saying that Christians "too would observe the fleshly circumcision, and the sabbaths, and in short all the feasts, if we did not know for what reason they were enjoined you." (10) Justin is no doubt referring to the apostolic teaching that such were "things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ" (Col 2:17).
Tertullian argues against the one "who contends that the sabbath is still to be observed." (11)The Didascalia very unambiguously, though with a slight thought of speculation, states, "The apostles further appointed: On the first day of the week let there be service, and the reading of the Holy Scriptures, and the oblation, because on the first day of the week our Lord rose from the place of the dead, and on the first day of the week he arose upon the world, and on the first day of the week he ascended up to heaven, and on the first day of the week he will appear at last with the angels of heaven." (12) Victorinus says that "on the Lord's day we may go forth to our bread with giving of thanks" [after fasting] "lest we should appear to observe any sabbath with the Jews . . . which sabbath he [Christ] in his body abolished." (13) Eusebius of Caesarea tells us that the "only truly holy day" is "the Lord's day" with "the days set apart by the Mosaic Law for feasts, new moons, and sabbaths, which the Apostle [Paul] teaches are the shadow of days and not days in reality." (14) Athanasius reasons, "The sabbath was the end of the first creation, the Lord's day was the beginning of the second . . . we honor the Lord's day as being the memorial of the new creation." (15) The early fourth century Council of Laodicea encourages that "Christians should . . . particularly reverence the Lord's day and, if possible, not work on it. . ." (16) The Catholic Encyclopedia informs us that "the Council of Elvira (300) decreed: 'If anyone in the city neglects to come to church for three Sundays, let him be excommunicated for a short time so that he may be corrected' (xxi)." (17) While more early witnesses to the Lord's Day meeting could summoned, one final word will suffice from The Apostolic Constitutions,
And on the day of our Lord's resurrection, which is the Lord's day, meet more diligently, sending praise to God that made the universe by Jesus, and sent him to us, and condescended to let him suffer, and raised him from the dead. Otherwise what apology will he make to God who does not assemble on that day . . . in which is performed the reading of the prophets, the preaching of the gospel, the oblation of the sacrifice, the gift of the holy food. (18)
So, did Jesus intend to specify the day on which His church, body, temple, people, congregation, Israel, bride, saints, Zion, New Jerusalem, holy nation, kingdom of priests, etc. was to assemble for worship? Did He not intend for His church to gather in His special presence on "His day," the day of His resurrection, the day He met with His disciples after His resurrection, the day that John called the "Lordly Day"--the day on which the church met under apostolic leadership? I have sketched a Biblical, theological, and historical defense that He did intend to specify the regular day of worship. And the Christian church has biblical foundation, theological implication, and historical precedent to call that meeting on the day of Resurrection. Just as the ancient hymn says,
THE DAY OF RESURRECTION! EARTH, TELL IT OUT ABROAD;
THE PASSOVER OF GLADNESS, THE PASSOVER OF GOD.
FROM DEATH TO LIFE ETERNAL, FROM THIS WORLD TO THE SKY,
OUR CHRIST HATH BROUGHT US OVER WITH HYMNS OF VICTORY.
OUR HEARTS BE PURE FROM EVIL, THAT WE MAY SEE ARIGHT
THE LORD IN RAYS ETERNAL OF RESURRECTION LIGHT;
AND, LISTENING TO HIS ACCENTS, MAY HEAR, SO CALM AND PLAIN,
HIS OWN ALL HAIL! AND HEARING, MAY RAISE THE VICTOR STRAIN.
NOW LET THE HEAV'NS BE JOYFUL, LET EARTH HER SONG BEGIN;
LET THE ROUND WORLD KEEP TRIUMPH, AND ALL THAT IS THEREIN;
INVISIBLE AND VISIBLE, THEIR NOTES LET ALL THINGS BLEND,
FOR CHRIST THE LORD HATH RISEN, OUR JOY THAT HATH NO END.
Zion: How Should We Then Worship?
The following four points of application are by no means exhaustive. They are merely suggestive.
Convocated on His Day: On the basis outlined above what can be said to the erring church member who can "take or leave" the Lord's Day worship? The most direct response is very directly stated in the Word.
And let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more, as you see the day drawing near. (Heb 10:24-25)
Do not forsake the assembly! For the biblically conscientious Christian, congregational worship with the assembly of God's people should be a priority and highly valued. Casual dismissal of what some hymn writers call "Mount Zion's appearing" indicates either blatant biblical ignorance or significant spiritual declension. We make a profound statement to all the world by setting that day aside. We testify of the creational pattern, of the Scriptural tradition, and most importantly that the Savior of the world was Christ, raised from the dead for our salvation.
Called into His Presence: If congregational worship is convening in His ordained presence, we should consciously and intentionally recognize that entrance. When we enter into His presence as a congregation, we invoke His name. Therefore, worship is to begin with some level of recognition of the congregational entrance into His presence. The votem and the call to worship function this way. The Psalms repeatedly illustrate the recognition of entering into God's presence (Psa 100). The wording I have found helpful both in prayer or anticipating the Call, is "We are gathered here not on any day, but on the Lord's day, the day of your resurrection..."
Convened in Gladness: We must enter His presence with the realization of the awfulness (in the older sense of the word, "awe-full") of the occasion (Heb 12:22, "acceptable service with reverence and awe"). Just this fact alone would remove flippancy, silliness, the "Jesus is my buddy" approach, and many other problems in evangelical worship. On the other hand, our recognition of God's presence need not quench joy, fellowship, excitement, and gladness. An undue application of "reverence" will land us in opposition to many clear commands for worship. God's people are to "Enter His gates with thanksgiving, and His courts with praise" (Psa 100:4). Among other relational-horizontal features of worship, greetings and the "passing of the peace" is to be extended (Rom 16:16). (19) Our assembling is for "encouraging one another" (Heb 10:25).
Consecrated to Serve: We enter into His presence realizing that Mount Zion has appeared. That is the essential theology of the Call to Worship. Though worship extends to all of life, there must of necessity be an end to the public, congregational worship of God. It would be unreasonable for it to fade out - like so many pop songs. How much better for it to be as an explosion of little lights into the world. The benediction, a pronouncement of God's blessing on the people, is a common and Biblically-based approach to sending out the congregants. Here we have some conflict with the revivalistic tradition which reduces the closing of worship to an altar call response. The people of Zion have been summoned to His holy presence. Those that are not yet born in Zion are welcome and we hope they realize "God is certainly among you" (1Co 14:25). In fact, I hope believers realize this! Whatever evangelism occurs, it should not interfere with commissioning sons of light to go forth into the world to serve their King. Thus, at the conclusion of the service, therefore, the same people are blessed and sent forth to glorify God in all of life. Having been refreshed by bread of life and renewed in their service as God's people, they are sent forth to perform those vows in all of life. Soli Deo Gloria!
1. 1This hymn is based on the parable of the great supper in Luke 1416ff.
2. All Scripture citations will be from the New American Standard Version (1977), unless otherwise noted, and all of the italicized print in Bible texts represents points I am seeking to emphasize.
3. 3Pp. 12-13 of the Revised Edition (New York: Macmillan, 1961).
4. 4Word Pictures on Revelation 1:10 (this version from Bible Works for Windows 4.0).
5. Interestingly, in the Markan and Lukan (5:37) passage this saying precipitates the Sabbath controversy.
6. 6Letter 10 [c.a. 112], cited in James F. White's, Document of Christian Worship: Descriptive and Interpretive Sources (Wesminster/John Knox Press, 1992), p. 18. Many of the citations I give can be found nicely arranged in White.
7. 7Section 14.
8. 8Section 15.
9. 9Letter to the Magnesians 8 [A.D. 110].
10. 10Dialogue with Trypho the Jew 18, 21 [A.D. 155].
11. 11An Answer to the Jews 2 [A.D. 203].
12. 12Didascalia 2 [A.D. 225].
13. 13The Creation of the World [A.D. 300].
14. 14Proof of the Gospel 4:16:186 [A.D. 319].
15. 15On Sabbath and Circumcision 3 [A.D. 345].
16. 16Canon 29 [A.D. 360].
17. 17Published in 1913 by the Encyclopedia Press, Inc.
18. 18Apostolic Constitutions 2:7:60 [A.D. 400].
19. The traditional greeting is "the peace of Christ be with you...and also with your spirit."