The Gift of Congregational Worship: Part One
This article was originally published in October 2018, little did we know how much we would miss and therefore value congregational worship when the pandemic stripped it away. It’s a good time to reflect once more on the gift of congregational worship.
By Tim Chester
Congregational worship is a gift from God.
Is that right? I believe it is. But I suspect Christians often see it the other way round. They see congregational worship as a gift we offer to God or an act we perform for God.
Yet consider what the writer of Hebrews says in Hebrews 10:5-7:
Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said:
‘Sacrifice and offering you did not desire,
but a body you prepared for me;
with burnt offerings and sin offerings
you were not pleased.
Then I said, “Here I am – it is written about me in the scroll –
I have come to do your will, my God.”’
It turns out God never wanted sacrifices. That is surely an astonishing claim because for hundreds of years people all over the world have been offering sacrifices on the assumption they were giving God what he wanted. After all, was it not God who invented sacrifice? Yes, it was. The writer reminds in verse 8 that sacrifices were instituted by God’s law. Sacrifices, he says, ‘are offered according to the law’.
The point is this. Sacrifice was never for God’s benefit. What it could do for him? What does the God of heaven want with a dead cow? In Psalm 50 God says ‘the cattle on a thousand hills are mine’. We often use this line when we need to raise funds for some project. But in its original context it is a warning not to suppose we do something for God in our worship.
I have no need of a bull from your stall
or of goats from your pens,
for every animal of the forest is mine,
and the cattle on a thousand hills …
If I were hungry I would not tell you,
for the world is mine, and all that is in it.
Do I eat the flesh of bulls
or drink the blood of goats? (Ps. 50:9-13)
God is not some petty deity that needs people to supply his needs or boost his flagging ego.
So why did God ask for sacrifices if he did not need them? The answer is he gave them as the promise and picture of atonement in Christ. That is why Hebrews 10:5-7 (and Psalm 40 which it quotes) mingles this reminder that God does not desire sacrifice with the words, ‘A body you prepared for me’. Jesus has come in human body to be the sacrifice for sin. As a result, ‘we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.’ ‘For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.’ (Hebrews 10:10, 14) Animal sacrifices were given to nurture faith in the coming Lamb of God. Their benefit was not for God, but for the worshipper.
God’s reminder in Psalm 50 (quoted above) that he does not need sacrifices is prefaced by the words: ‘I will testify against you, Israel.’ What is God’s testimony against Israel? ‘I am God.’ (Ps. 50:7) The point is that Israel is treating God as if he is just a bigger, more powerful version of a man. And God’s response is, ‘I am God; I’m in another category.’
The technical term for this is ‘aseity’. God is completely self-sufficient and self-sustaining. I am dependent on the mother who gave me birth and parents who nurtured me. This morning I ate food grown by others, processed by others, distributed by others, sold by others. I am dependent on thousands of people. But God is dependent on absolutely no-one. Jesus said, ‘As the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself.’ (John 5:26) God does not need sunlight, warmth or food. He is not a chemical reaction that requires ingredients or a catalyst. He has no need of anything outside of himself.
It is not just his being that is self-sufficient. He is emotionally self-sufficient as well. He has joy and love in himself. The Father, Son and Spirit exist eternally in joy – always complete, always satisfied, always fulfilled.
So when God calls on us to worship he is not fishing for compliments. He is not sad and lonely up in heaven. He is the fulness of light and life and love in himself. We do not cheer him up with our singing. That would like shining a torch at the sun to boost its light.
And yet God demands our worship. Why? Why does he ask for what he does not need? Because he is generous; because congregational worship is a gift.
This idea was central to the renewal of worship and liturgy at the Reformation. In the Medieval church the focus was firmly on what we do for God. A service was performed for God or a sacrifice offered to God in the Mass to earn his merit. The Reformation switched this round. When the people of God gather it is God who is active and it is God’s voice which predominates.
The word ‘liturgy’ comes from a Greek that combines the words ‘work’ and ‘people’. So the Catholic Church is fond of describing liturgy as ‘the work of the people’. But in fact ‘work for the people’ would be a better translation. In the Roman world leitourgia were public works donated to the people by rich benefactors. They build an amphitheatre and then donated it to the people. Corporate worship is not a work we perform for God’s benefit. It is a work which God, the ultimate benefactor, donates to us.
Or consider what takes place in baptism. What do you do when you are baptised? Nothing. It is done to you. It is an act you cannot perform for yourself. It is a mirror of salvation. What did we do to be saved? Nothing. Jesus has done it all. It was Jesus who was immersed into death and hell on your behalf.
The same is true of the Lord’s Supper. The Dutch Reformed minister Gerard Wisse says:
Our celebration of the Lord’s Supper is not in the first place an act whereby we bear witness to our conversion, our pious frame, or our relationship to the Lord – even though these things may also be discussed. Rather, it is primarily God’s act towards us … As a sacrament it is a warranty – a visible sealing of the veracity of His promises … In a sacrament the focus is in the first place on a message which comes from God to us – the message of who and what the triune covenant God is and remains for His people.
So it is not that God gave his Son 2,000 years and ever since I have been repaying him through my worship. It is not that God gave me new birth by his Spirit 45 years ago and ever since I have been repaying him through my worship. Every Sunday morning as my church gathers, God generously gives me the gift of congregational worship.
do not misunderstand what I am saying. Our worship can is pleasing to God. As we sing his praises with sincere hearts then God enjoys our worship. But he does not need our worship. And so his pleasure is the pleasure of a gift well-received. Think of the pleasure you feel when you choose a gift with care and the recipient’s face lights up as they unwrap it. That is akin to the joy God experiences as we worship him. He is not thinking, ‘At last, someone’s giving me the recognition I deserve.’ Instead, he enjoys seeing his love fulfilled and his grace achieve its goal.
In a future article we will explore how congregational worship is a gift from God to his people.
 Gerard Wisse in Joel Beeke & Paul Smalley (eds.), Feasting with Christ: Meditations on the Lord’s Supper, Evangelical Press, 2012, 98-99.