A GODLY HERITAGE: GOD
INTERNATIONAL RP CONFERENCE
GRAND RAPIDS, MICHIGAN
JULY 29 - AUGUST, 2000
I swam across a lake once, about a mile. The hardest part wasn’t the swimming, it was going in the right direction. In a pool you can follow a line on the bottom or a lane marker. But in a lake there’s nothing to follow. I had to stop every thirty or forty strokes, lift my head, and correct my direction. Otherwise I’d head off in the wrong direction. Life is like swimming a lake. Our goal is God, but if we do not heed his call to stop every seven days and look at him, we swim in circles. Then even living in the land and raising children becomes pointless.
Every Lord’s Day God our King calls his saints to assemble before him. “Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy.” (Exodus 20:8) “Come before his presence.” (Psalm 100:2) “Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving.” (Psalm 95:2) “...not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together.” (Hebrews 10:25) Our King summons his people to appear at his court. God commands us to “go to church.” We obey his call and assemble at the appointed day: to hear the terms of the covenant, to confess our transgressions of the covenant and ask for pardon, to bring tribute of tithes and thanksgivings and praise, to claim the covenant privilege of petition, and to renew the covenant in its sign of Communion.
In modern democracies we aren’t used to thinking about how to relate correctly to royalty. But if we want to understand what God tells us about coming before him, we will have to make the effort. Otherwise, we will remain mired in arguments about “traditional” worship vs. “contemporary” worship with their implicit question, “What do you like best?” “If you prefer contemporary, come for our 9:30 service; traditional is at 11:00.” Remember, however, that at church you appear before God your King, and you immediately see the pointlessness of the question, “What do you like best?” The proper way to think about the church meeting before God is etiquette, not style. Etiquette is behavior that is required of us, not style, behavior that we choose because we like it.
God’s call to appear before him is a friendly summons: in the terms of Jesus’ parable, an invitation to a feast. (Matthew 22:1-14) Once, in Adam, God exiled the human race from his presence. Now, in Jesus Christ, he calls the saints home, making us once more his heirs. “O Lord, you are the portion of my inheritance and my cup.” (Psalm 16:5) The guarantee of our inheritance is Christ’s gift of the Holy Sprit to his church. Our weekly meetings before God are the visible token that by an unbreakable covenant God is ours and we are his. (II Corinthians 5:5)
Every inheritance besides God will eventually fulfill its purpose and pass away. Children are a heritage of the Lord, but children marry and leave home. Land outlasts families and by contrast seems eternal. “One generation passes away, and another generation comes; but the earth abides forever.” (Ecclesiastes 1:4) Nevertheless, heaven and earth will pass away. (Mark 13:31) But nothing, not angels or principalities, neither death nor life, can separate us from Christ’s love. Therefore in Psalm 16 David sang not only of his temporal blessings, but of Christ’s Resurrection. “My flesh also will rest in hope. For you will not leave my soul in Sheol, nor will you allow your holy one to see corruption.” (Psalm 16:9-10) In those words David wasn’t speaking of himself, but of Christ; yet because of Christ, therefore also about himself. Because Christ has risen, so will David rise to behold his Lord. So will all the saints. So will we. God is our inheritance.
In its weekly gatherings, the heirs of God meet before God our King. He is our Father in heaven, he is our Royal Bridegroom, he is our King. God was King in Israel. Christ is the only Head and King of his Church. What is at the very center of living the Christian life? The heart of the Christian life is to meet in God’s presence in the church each Lord’s Day to review and renew his covenant with us
Uncertainty abounds concerning the weekly meetings of God’s People. What should we do? Does it matter? Who should decide what the church does when it meets, the preacher or some other authority? Who is the meeting for, God, the Church, or outsiders? Can a saint gather together by himself? What exactly is worship? Until now, I have avoided the word “worship.” Here’s why. The more basic biblical concept seems to be “meeting with God” rather than “worshiping God” -- hence the common phrase, “Go to church,” or the Quaker, “Go to meeting.” A boy asks his mother, “Why do we go to church every week?” She answers correctly, “We go to meet with God.” Of course, in our meeting with God we acknowledge and praise his worthiness, we worship him. But our meetings with him are for more than worship: they are first of all simply to appear before him as commanded, then to ask for pardon, and then to listen to God and make our requests of him. The whole meeting is a review and a renewal of his covenant with us.
At Mount Sinai when he met with Israel, God commanded them to gather regularly in his presence. “Three times in the year all your males shall appear before the LORD God.” (Exodus 23:17) Eventually that requirement meant traveling to Jerusalem. But every week an Israelite had to rest where he was, he and his household, and remember God the Creator -- “for in six days the LORD created the heavens and the earth” -- and God our Redeemer -- “and you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt and God brought you out by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm.” (Exodus 20:14, Deuteronomy 5:15) On the Sabbath Day the Levites who were scattered throughout Israel taught the law, even while at the Temple the priests represented Israel and served God on behalf of the people. Jerusalem’s Temple with its sacrifices was an echo of Israel’s meeting with God at Sinai. It was also an earthly shadow of the heavenly Temple where God sits enthroned. Israel’s synagogues to teach the Law and to pray depended for their spiritual reality on the regular Temple sacrifices. No sacrifice on behalf of sinners, no access to God! Meetings of the saints likewise depend for their spiritual reality on the sacrifice of Christ presented once for all in the heavenly Jerusalem, where Christ intercedes for us continually. Indeed, our meetings unite men and angels, living and exalted saints, the telephone solicitor and the painter in the same service of the living God.
Meetings! Paul wrote to the Corinthians about their meetings, not about “worship.” “When you come together in one place,” he began, and then he taught them again them how to observe the Lord’s Supper. (I Corinthians 11:20) “Therefore if the whole church comes together in one place,” introduced a warning that, if they all speak in tongues, outsiders will think they’re crazy. (I Corinthians 14:23) “How is it then, brethren? Whenever you come together...,” Paul continued and then gave rules about their meetings ending with, “Let all things be done decently and in order.” (I Corinthians 14:26, 40) The writer to the Hebrews does not tell his readers to be sure to worship God each week; instead he exhorts, “not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together.” (Hebrews 10:25) James admonishes his readers to treat all men who come into their assemblies the same. (James 2:2)
Can a person meet God by himself, walking for example in a beautiful forest or on Manhattan’s East Side? Yes, of course, he can pray to God anywhere and feel awe at God’s greatness. He can praise God’s worthiness, his “worthship,” his “worship.” But here’s what he can’t do alone; he can’t assemble alone! Even families can’t assemble by themselves; they are already together, all week long. When the saints gather each week on the appointed day at the time set by the elders, they are a visible church. Anyone can see them. Notice. The world has no problem with private prayers or private religion. It fears and often hates “organized” churches, “terrible as an army with banners.” (Song of Songs 6:4) The world sneers at “organized religion,” because God’s power is in the church visible. No matter how small the church, God promises to be present in its midst. (Matthew 18:20) Paul, in fact, encouraged the Corinthian brothers that, if they behaved properly, an unbeliever coming into their assemblies would “report that God is truly among you.” (I Corinthians 14:25)
When the church meets before God, how does it know that God their heritage is present with them? Christians want to feel the spiritual reality of God’s presence. The pain of God’s felt absence is the greatest pain that resulted from our expulsion from Eden. Human experience reveals the most effective way of feeling the presence of the divine: idols. When the devout see an idol, they see a visible reminder of the invisible god. By meditating and praying toward the idol, they can focus their attention on the unseen deity. Sometimes the idol by its portrayal of the deity even becomes a means of teaching about the god, perhaps portraying his greatness and majesty, maybe portraying his gentle kindness. Idols moreover put the learned and the unlearned on an equal footing in the worship of the deity. Millions of Christians, in fact, like millions of Buddhists and Hindus, have found visible portrayals of their god to be a great help to devotion. Think how many, many Christians have taken comfort from their favorite picture of Jesus. Idols, in short, promise to help us feel the truth: that we meet in the presence of God.
Idols, however, deceive. They mislead the saints, they corrupt the true knowledge of God, they eventually destroy saving faith, they provoke our jealous God to anger. God forbids them, absolutely, unconditionally, repeatedly. Forty years after he spoke to Israel at Sinai, he said again through Moses. “Take heed to yourselves, for you saw no form when the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, lest you act corruptly and make for yourselves a carved image in the form of any figure.” (Deuteronomy 4:15-16) Idols tempted Israel continually, until God exiled them from the land of their inheritance. John finished his letter to Christians with a short command: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” (I John 5:21) God forbids idols, the all time most popular means of devotion.
In forbidding idols, God warns men that they cannot trust themselves to act as they would like to in his presence. They cannot adopt a style. They must do as he commands and observe proper etiquette. Actually, it makes sense that God does not summon us to meet with him and then let us do as we like in his presence. No earthly king ever did that, how much less the heavenly King. In the presence of even a gracious and kind king, his subjects do not act with casual informality. They don’t adopt a style, they observe etiquette. When the world still had kings, people knew how to appear before a King. They came wearing the right clothes; we wear the righteousness of Christ. They came ready to listen. They came ready to make amends for offenses. They came with gifts. They came with praise. They came with requests. They came to pledge their allegiance anew. They came expecting the king’s blessing because the king cared for his people. The anything-goes-in-worship-unless-you-can-show-me-it’s-forbidden spirit fatally overestimates finite and sinful man’s ability to know how to behave properly in God’s presence. Left to ourselves the very first thing we would choose, idols, is completely off the mark. What makes anyone think that whatever other things we dream up will be acceptable? Only by sticking to what God has instructed us to do when we come before him will the church remain free from the inventions of its leaders and the corruptions of popular piety.
How does God choose to make his presence known among his people? Not by idols but by his Word and Spirit! When Israel met with God at Mount Sinai, they saw no form. Instead, they heard God’s voice. They heard his Ten Words, what we call the Ten Commandments, and they were terrified. However, when we gather before God each week, we come to a place more daunting than Sinai. As the writer to the Hebrews warns, we do not
“come to the mountain that may be touched and that burned with fire, and to blackness and darkness and tempest, and the sound of a trumpet and the voice of words, so that those who heard it begged that the word should not be spoken to them anymore.” (Hebrews 12:18-19) Where do we come? “But you have come 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)
The meeting of the church in each city joins in the invisible communion of all the saints before God. We believe in the communion of saints. No matter how few we may be visibly, we are nonetheless part of an innumerable company. How do we know that we meet in God’s presence? We meet with the saints among whom he has promised to be. God’s Word is read and heard just as it was heard at Sinai. We have the gift of the Holy Spirit. And he has given us a sign by which to remember our communion with him, the Lord’s Supper.
What happens when God’s people meet with him each week? By Word and Spirit God is present on his throne in the person of his Mediator, Jesus Christ. At the Protestant Reformation, the Reformers placed the pulpit at the focal point of church architecture. Go into any church that is heir of teachers such as John Calvin or Samuel Rutherford and at the most visible point, usually at the center of the front of the church, is the pulpit. Why? Because the first thing to do when the saints meet before God is to hear his Word. The first believers after Pentecost continued first of all “steadfast in the apostles’ doctrine.” “Till I come, give attention to reading,” Paul wrote to Timothy. (I Timothy 4:13) Often before reading the Scriptures, a preacher will say, “Listen to the Word of God.” The Church has always listened to God’s Word. In Israel God commanded the nation to gather periodically to hear again the terms of his covenant with them. They did that in the days of Joshua and Hezekiah, Josiah and Ezra. In other words, from their entering Canaan until their return from Exile, they listened to God’s Word read. In one of the earliest accounts of Christian assemblies outside of the Bible, Justin Martyr about the year 150 A.D. writes:
On the day which is called Sunday, all who live in the cities or in the countryside gather together in one place. And the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read. Then, when the reader has finished, the president, in a discourse, admonishes and invites the people to practice these examples of virtue. Then we all stand up together and offer prayers. And when we have finished the prayer, bread is presented, and wine with water; the president likewise offers up prayers and thanksgivings according to his ability, and the people assent by saying, Amen. Those who are prosperous, if they wish, contribute what each one deems appropriate.”
Justin Martyr, after mentioning reading of the Scriptures, goes on to name the second aspect of hearing the Word besides reading, preaching. “When the reader has finished, the president, in a discourse, admonishes.” Paul told Timothy, "Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine.” (II Timothy 4:2-3)
Sometimes I hear Christians wonder why so much of the weekly church meeting is devoted to Bible reading and preaching. Here is the reason: the very first thing that the subjects of a king should do is hear what he has to say. God says repeatedly, “Listen!” In order to encourage hearing, the Reformers invented something new in church architecture: pews. The point of pews was for people to sit still and listen to the Word of God rather than mill around talking to each other. “Take heed how you hear,” Jesus warns. (Luke 8:18)
What do we hear in the reading and preaching of the Word? We hear two things: “what man is to believe concerning God and what duty God requires of man.” (WSC, 3) To put it another way, we hear first what great things God has done for us and we praise God for his “worthship,” -- we worship him. God began his word to Israel at Sinai by reminding them how he had saved them. “I am the LORD thy God who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” Each week, we hear something like the following: “I am the LORD your God who so loved the world that I gave my only begotten Son that whoever believes on him will not perish but have everlasting life.” Jesus came to deliver us from Satan and from the power of death and from the condemnation which sin brings. The Bible is the history of our redemption. God’s people delight in knowing the details of his dealings with us from Noah to Abraham to David to the prophets to Jesus himself to the spread of his Kingdom to all the world.
In the reading and preaching of the King’s Word, we hear, second, how God expects us to live, walking “worthy of the calling with which [we] were called.” (Ephesians 4:1) The great summary of how we should live is found in the Ten Commandments, but also in the Proverbs of Solomon, the teaching of Jesus, the admonitions of Paul, and indeed throughout the Scriptures.
Besides hearing God’s Word when we meet, we speak to God in prayer. What do we ask for? We ask first for pardon for our sins. If you have challenged the king by disobeying him, it is wise to act like Shimei when he met David returning to Jerusalem. Quick, seek forgiveness. God is gracious. He promises that “if we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (I John 1:9) And since he has been gracious to us, he commands us to be gracious to others, forgiving our debtors. We ask for all of our large and small daily needs, like bread and health. We ask our King to protect us from our enemies, especially from the Evil One. We ask that our Lord’s Kingdom would grow and expand until it fills the entire earth. We ascribe glory to our King whose is the majesty and the power. What does the Church do when it meets with its King each week? Word and prayer, ask help and hear God.
How do sinners even dare come into God’s presence, when even our righteousness is no better than filthy rags? (Isaiah 64:6) Only with a sacrifice. No sacrifice, no access to God. Christ is our sacrifice. God in Christ has taken away our sin and clothed us with the righteousness of Christ. Anyone not trusting in Christ as his Mediator will in the end be thrown out of God’s presence. In a parable comparing the Kingdom of God to a king’s wedding feast for his son the Prince, Jesus ended with this warning:
“But when the king came in to see the guests, he saw a man there who did not have on a wedding garment. So he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you come in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the servants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.” (Matthew 22:11-14)
Christ gave the Church a ceremony to stand for the New Covenant which he made in his blood. It is the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. When the Church eats the bread and drinks the wine, it exhibits the secret of its life: it lives by the righteousness of Christ received by faith. We look backwards through time to his death, forwards through time until his Coming, and in the communion of the saints we receive nourishment and life from Christ. In the Lord’s Supper the Church knows that God has brought us home into his kingdom with a feast. We have part in God our heritage.
Meeting weekly with their King, the saints hear God in his Word read and preached remind them of his covenant and exhort them to faith and obedience, confess their sins and make requests, and observe the sign of God’s covenant with us. It is a matter of proper etiquette, not chosen style. These are obvious and proper things to do when appearing at a king’s court. One more thing the saints have always done when meeting with God. Sing! At the temple, a special chorus of Levites sang. In the synagogue Jews chanted the Psalms. Now all Christians are priests, and we all offer the sacrifice of praise. (Hebrews 13:15) Paul wrote to the Colossians about “teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” (Colossians 3:16) In “teaching and admonishing” through the Psalms, we all teach one another “what man is to believe concerning God and what duty God requires of man.” In the year 112, the Roman governor Pliny the Younger examined two deaconesses for being Christians. Expecting to find monstrous crimes, he found only that the Christians met before daybreak on a certain day, took an oath to abstain from crime, and sang a song to Christ as a god. However, since they were stubborn and would not offer incense to Caesar as god, he executed them.
What do we sing to Christ in the Psalms? At a recent Psalm Sing, I was struck by the kaleidoscope of truth in the Psalms. The Psalter is the Bible in miniature, God’s truth refracted through the prism of human experience and emotion. We sang about God’s creation, then turned the kaleidoscope to see Israel returned from Exile, praised God -- “Hallelujah, praise Jehovah”-- rejoiced in God’s defeat of his enemies, praised the Messiah -- the Psalms speak of Christ, you know. He said so. -- then we looked forward to Judgment Day. In the next Psalm we confessed our sins, asked God to save us from our enemies, and finished with a lullaby about the Lord our Shepherd. Throughout our weekly meetings, we sing God’s whole truth to him and to one another, truths mixed together in song the same way our lives bounce from thanks to God to prayerful pleas to reminders of how to live. In the Psalms the priesthood of the saints together sing to our King his truth, our needs, our thanks, and his praise.
In our weekly meetings we know God as our heritage, the One from whom we will never be separated. We know one more thing: we are Christ’s inheritance. Israel sang, “Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD, The people he has chosen as his own inheritance.” (Psalm 33:12) God told Christ, “Ask of me, and I will give you the nations for your inheritance, and the ends of the earth for your possession.” (Psalm 2:8) Elders in every congregation shepherd God’s “lot” or “heritage.” (I Peter 5:3 AV kleros) God is our heritage; we are Christ’s inheritance. As husband and wife belong to each other, so do Christ and his church. The Beloved and the Church both exult, “My beloved is mine, and I am his.” (Song of Songs 2:16) When a husband and wife embrace, they know that they belong together. Paul tells them not to separate for long, but to come together again after prayer. (I Corinthians 7:4-5) When God and his church meet each week, we know that we belong to him and he to us. The destiny of the saints is to be with God, united forever in the Covenant brought by Jesus, united forever in Jesus who is our covenant. (Isaiah 42:6-7 see 49:8) Christ is our King and the church meets with him weekly according to his etiquette. Finally, our king through his ambassador dismisses us with his blessing. (Number 6:22-27, II Corinthians 13:14) We gather at God’s call and we leave with his benediction.
The heart of the Christian life is meeting with God our King in the visible assembly of the saints to review and renew his covenant with us. God, through the elders he has given to the church, calls us together on his appointed day. No one can assemble alone, and God commands us not to forsake assembling together. Meeting at the King’s court, the household of God where judgment begins, implies the need for correct etiquette. The human love for idols as the means to feel God’s presence demonstrates that we cannot be trusted to behave as we like in his presence. What is proper etiquette? To hear our King speak. To confess our violations of his covenant and ask forgiveness. To sing his truth in his words to his praise and our mutual edification. To bring offerings and make requests in prayer. To renew our covenant commitment, especially in the Sacrament of Communion. To receive in faith God’s blessing pronounced and thus to be dismissed. And throughout our audience with our King to remember that we appear acceptably only because he has given us the proper clothes, the righteousness of Christ, and he has expiated our sins by the death of Christ as our sacrifice. No sacrifice, no access to God. The heart of the Christian life is meeting with God our King in the visible assembly of the saints to review and renew his covenant with us. To come to church before God our heritage brings us to a place more awesome than Mount Sinai itself.
How do you dare not appear at court when your King has summoned you? Every Lord’s Day you belong at church, observing proper etiquette. The heart of the Christian life is meeting with God our King in the visible assembly of the saints to review and renew his covenant with us.
We have come to the end of our conference. What will you remember about our godly heritage a year from now? You will remember that you have a three-part inheritance: land, children, and God himself, lost in Adam, regained in Christ. Thank God for the land which feeds you, praying that the day will come soon when your land -- the land of Japan and the land of the United States, the land of Canada and the land of Australia, the land of Cyprus and the land of Ireland -- when all lands will serve the Lord, idols destroyed forever. Earnestly desire children to fill the earth and even more to fill the Church. Pray for the holy seed and raise your children to know and obey the LORD. Jesus has all authority in heaven and on earth and sends you to make disciples of all the nations and to teach them to obey all that he has commanded. (Matthew 28:18-20) And love your God with all your heart and soul and strength and mind, never failing to assemble with the saints to review and renew his covenant with you.
Land, children, God himself, our godly heritage, but the greatest of these is God. His is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. “To him who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy, to God our Savior, who alone is wise, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and forever. Amen.” (Jude 24-25) “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.” (II Corinthians 13:14) “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people. God himself will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. there shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:3-4) “When I awake, I will see his face.” (Psalm 17:15) “I know that my Redeemer lives and he shall stand at least on the earth. And after my skin is destroyed, this I know, that in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. How my heart yearns within me.” (Job 19:25-27) “Even so, come Lord Jesus!” our godly heritage. “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.” (Revelation 22:20-21)