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Biblical Priorities for the Life of the Church (3) - How in the world should we worship?

Series: Biblical Priorities for the Life of the Church

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Nov 26, 2006

Psalm 29:1-2, Romans 12:1-2, Psalm 100:2, Hebrews 10:25

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The Lord's Day Morning

November 26, 2006

Psalm 29:1-2

Biblical Priorities for the Life of our Church

How in the World Should We Worship?

Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

Amen. If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to open them with me to Psalm 29, and you’ll need to keep your Bibles handy today because we're going to try and cover a lot of ground in both the Old Testament and the New Testament as we continue this series of topical expository messages on biblical priorities for the life of our church.

We started this series, if you can remember back that far, in October. On October 22, we started by thinking about the context of the church — where are we in the world today? And we talked about how individualism and relativism and consumerism pervade our culture and impact our outlook, even on religion. For instance, because we live in a society of great cultural and monetary and resource affluence, we tend to view ourselves as consumers and that can cause us even to approach religion as consumers; to view God as the ultimate goods and services provider, and to view ourselves ultimately as religious consumers. And that of course reverses the dynamic in the Scripture which has — not God beholden to us, but us as those who are in rebellion against God and beholden to Him, having no hope except in His sovereign mercy. And so our very self-perception as consumers makes it hard for us to understand some of the vital messages of the Scripture. We talked about how those tendencies of individualism and relativism and consumerism have impacted churches, evangelical and liberal.

Then back on November 12, we looked at expository preaching. We said that in preaching the goal is not simply to convey true and right and useful information from the Bible, although we should learn from the Scriptures. We should learn much truth and much useful truth from the Scriptures as it's proclaimed, but the goal of preaching is the transformation of the heart so that the saints are built up (they’re discipled, they’re matured), and so that sinners are converted to the Lord.

Now that's obviously something that only the Holy Spirit can do. Not the greatest orator in the world can speak life from death. Not the greatest orator in the world can bind up your broken heart, as a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ facing tremendous trials in this fallen world. But the Holy Spirit can, and the instrument that He has used and chosen for the building up of the saints and the calling of those who do not know Christ to faith in Christ is the foolishness of preaching. And doesn't that very instrument — precisely because of the weakness of the human word — exalt the power of God and His word? That He would use spoken words by a human, fallible person, to be the instrument that His Spirit uses to call faith into being where it is not? To bring immaturity where there is immaturity? And so the very choice of preaching as the prime instrument whereby He will build up His church is ironic, and it's funny, because no man has the power to speak spiritual life into being. And yet the God who spoke the world into being by His word has chosen to use the speaking of His word again as the prime instrument whereby His church is built up.

And we also said that the faithful preaching of Scripture helps our minds be conformed to God's will and to God's ways rather than being conformed to the world around us — falling prey to these things like individualism and relativism and consumerism.

And today we're going to talk about worship as one of the priorities, one of the qualities of a biblical congregation of Christians. And usually, in Christian circles, even in conservative Bible-believing circles, where the word worship comes up, the first thing we think about is our own preference for the style of music that's used. That's one of the things that we think about constantly in the church today. For the last forty years it's been what sociologists and students of theology call the worship wars — some people want to have more contemporary forms of worship and others want to have more traditional forms of worship. Well, how many verses are there in the New Testament about the importance of the style of the music that you use in a worship service? Right! You gave me the right answer: None! And that lets you know that if somebody says it's very important if we're going to do worship right to use this particular style, that they’re not even on the same wavelength of the New Testament. We care greatly about our own preferences and such, but the Bible is concerned about other things.

I'm going to look at four things with you today that the Bible is very concerned about with regard to our worship. Let me just tell you what they are ahead of time. I want to look first of all at the importance of worshiping God in all of life; secondly, I want to look at making sure that God is the object of our worship...the object of our affections, the object of our desires; thirdly, I want to look at the importance of following the Bible in the way that we worship together, in both the form and content of what we do together; and then, fourth, I want to look at the importance of our loving and relishing the Lord's Day together.

But before we do so, it might be helpful for me to define worship, so we're going to start with the definition of worship in Psalm 29 in just a few moments. Now let me admit ahead of time there is no way that I can cover all that I would like to cover about the subject of biblical worship; and so, to help me I want to recommend to you that if you've not gotten the booklet in our bookstore called Worshiping God Together: Congregational Worship at First Presbyterian Church, that you do so and read it. And feel free to send in your questions or your comments, or topics of conversation that you’d like to engage to me or to other members of the church staff. We’d love to talk with you about it, but it will give you a little bit more background than we would have the opportunity to do today. You can get it in our Presbyterian Bookstore.

Now before we read God's word together, let's look to Him in prayer and ask for His help and blessing.

Heavenly Father, we thank You for the privilege of being able to gather in Your house freely to worship You, to meet with You. We ask that You would open our eyes to behold wonderful truth in Your word, and that by the grace of Your Holy Spirit that we will understand it, believe it, embrace it, love it, and live it in Jesus' name. Amen.

Hear God's word in Psalm 29:1-2:

“Ascribe to the Lord, O sons of the mighty,

Ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.

Ascribe to the Lord the glory due to His name;

Worship the Lord in holy array.”

Thus far the reading of God's holy word.

Let me just stop right there and say if you’re looking for a quick biblical definition of worship, the psalmist has just given it to you. You know how in Hebrew poetry there is often parallelism: the Hebrew poet will say the same thing twice, back to back, so that you understand better what he's saying. Notice especially verse 2:

“Ascribe to the Lord the glory due to His name;

Worship the Lord in holy array.”

There's the parallelism. Ascribing to the Lord the glory due His name, giving to the Lord the glory due His name, is worship. Ascribing to God that He is more valuable than anything else in this world to us — that is what worship is. It is acknowledging that God is more valuable than anything else in this world, just because of Who He is. And so we start this morning simply by giving that definition of worship. If you want to elaborate on that a little bit, there's a good bit of discussion of that in the booklet that I've just mentioned.

Now, in the next four passages that we're going to read (and I'm sorry...to the folks in the TV room, I'm going to surprise you and add a verse that I don't have in the bulletin, so you’ll just have to do the best you can).

In the next four passages that we're going to read together, here's what I want you to see: In the Bible, worship is of two sorts, or takes place in two different arenas. There is worship in all of life. That is, when we 24/7, 365 days of the year desire to live for God's glory, we are worshiping Him in all of life, and both the Old Testament and the New Testament talk about that kind of worship. Jonah 1:10 talks about that in the Old Testament. Romans 12:1-2 talks about that in the New Testament.

Then there is another kind or area, or place, for worship, in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. That is when the saints gather on God's day (in the Old Testament the seventh day; in the New Testament the first day...in the Old Testament the seventh day Sabbath; in the New Testament the first day Lord's Day), and they gather together to sing, pray, hear God's word read and preached, together. They come to meet with God together. Gathered worship, congregational worship, public worship — that's the other type of worship spoken about in the Scripture. You’re going to see that mentioned in Psalm 100:2. You've seen it alluded to here in Psalm 29:1,2, but you’re going to see it again mentioned in Hebrews 10:25. So I'm just letting you know ahead of time what to be looking for.

Let's start off in the Old Testament in the Book of Jonah. If you turn with me to the Minor Prophets of the Old Testament, and to the Book of Jonah–right before Micah, right after Obadiah. It's chapter one, verse nine. It's a fascinating passage. Jonah is on the ship going where God told him not to go, and a great storm has arisen. And the sailors on that ship were scared to death, and somehow they got the idea that Jonah was the source of the problem. And notice what they ask him in verse 8:

“Tell us now, on whose account has this calamity struck us? What is your occupation? Where do you come from? What is your country? And from what people are you?”

[They had to be from Jackson! Notice that they ask, “Jonah, who are your people?” When trouble is upon us, “Who's your mama and daddy?!?”] Now Jonah's answer to that question– Who's your mama and daddy?–is a fascinating answer.

Notice it has two parts: “I'm a Hebrew,” he says (verse 9); and, “I fear the Lord God of heaven who made the sea and the dry land.” Isn't it interesting that in answer to the question ‘Who are you? Where do you come from? Who are your people?’ Jonah's answer is ‘I am a worshiper of the Lord God of Israel, who made everything. That's who I am. I'm a worshiper of the Lord God of Israel.’ By that Jonah doesn't mean ‘On the Sabbath Day, on Friday night, I go to synagogue.’ What he means when he says, using that word I fear, is I reverence in all of my life...it is my business to glorify the God who made everything.

Now the irony of that, of course, is that - what is Jonah doing as he gives that answer? He is not serving the Lord God of Israel! He is going as far away from doing what the Lord God told him to do as he can possibly get.

And by the way, let me just stop right there. (Point of application before we even get to the sermon!) I think that's the biggest challenge in corporate worship today: it is that we serve other gods during the week, and then we want to come and meet and worship the one true God on Sunday, having not been serving Him the other six days of the week. I think that's the big challenge in all the churches today. Our hearts are divided; we think that you can serve God and mammon; we think that you can love one God and serve another.

And Jonah was caught in that tension. He was truly a follower of the living God, but his heart was divided, and the whole book is about getting that heart back together, isn't it?...so that he just serves the God of Israel. But there's an example of worship in all of life. The word fear is used — a good Old Testament word, which was a word by which they characterized the whole of religion in Old Testament. It is the fear of the Lord that is the beginning of wisdom, the author of Proverbs will say. The reverence of God, the worship of God — godliness in all of life is what is being spoken of in Jonah 1:9.

Now look at an example of this in the New Testament. Turn with me to Romans 12:1,2. Look especially at verse 1:

“I urge you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Now it's so interesting there that Paul will use Old Testament language that is tied to the rituals of worship. What was one of the things that you did in the Old Testament when you went down to the temple on the feast day? You gave a sacrifice at the altar. But Paul's not talking about Christians doing that in the New Testament. What is he talking about in Romans 12? Living a life of godliness. Not acting like the world. And what does he say that is? That is your spiritual service of worship. So there's worship in all of life that he's talking about; living in a way that glorifies God.

Now that's one arena of worship in the Bible, but the other arena of worship in the Bible (and now I want to ask you to turn back again in the Old Testament to Psalm 100)...the other arena of worship in the Bible is worship in the gathering of God's people, in the congregation of God's people; public worship where you meet to hear God's word read and proclaimed; where you meet to lift up prayers and praises in song to God; and in Psalm 100:1,2 we read:

“Shout joyfully to the Lord, all the earth.
Serve the Lord with gladness.
Come before Him with joyful singing.”

Notice there the emphasis is to come before the Lord. Clearly this is a context in which the people of God, if they’re coming before the Lord, where do they have to do that in the Old Testament? At the tabernacle, or at the temple. That's where you came before the Lord. And they’re called to do what, when they come there? “Serve the Lord with gladness.”

Now we will often talk about what we do on Sunday morning at 8:30 and 11:00, and Sunday evening at 6:00. What do we call it? A worship service. That's because that English word to worship or serve the Lord parallels the way that those words are used in both Hebrew and in Greek. To serve the Lord is to worship the Lord, and so they’re to serve the Lord with gladness and come before Him with joyful singing. That's talking about what they’re supposed to do when they’re together. That's not “all of life” worship, although it's true that they need to serve the Lord with gladness in all of life, but it's especially focusing on what they do when they come together at the tabernacle or the temple.

Now, the same emphasis is given in the New Testament. Turn with me to Hebrews 10. In Hebrews 10:25, the author of Hebrews makes it clear that that kind of gathered worship has not ended in the days of the New Testament, and therefore it continues on; and therefore it is important, he says, not to forsake — what? — “the assembling of [ourselves] together, as is the habit of some.” (Hebrews 10:25).

Now, thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He add His eternal blessing to it.

I. Here's what I want to stress to you today: A healthy church is filled with believers who, by God's grace at work in their hearts, have a passion for biblical worship.

They live both to glorify God in all of life and to gather with the saints to meet with Him. They love to glorify God in all of life, and they love to gather with the saints to worship Him. And a church that has that passion will manifest that passion four ways, and those are the four things that I mentioned earlier, and I'd like to talk with you about them for a few moments.

First of all, that passion for the worship of God will be manifested through worship in all of life. We will be about the business of glorifying God.

You know, worship is a transitive verb. It's...for those of you who are not English teachers, that means that it requires a direct object. You can't just worship; you have to worship something.

Now, by the way, it's important for us to understand that. Christians are not distinct from everybody else in the world because we “worship.” Everybody worships! There is nobody who doesn't worship. Sam Harris, who's just written the best-seller The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, who is an atheist who thinks that religion is dangerous and that we need to get rid of it all — Sam Harris doesn't “not worship.” He worships something. He may not know what to name it, but everybody, even atheists, worship. Muslims worship; Buddhists worship; Hindus worship; atheists worship; everybody worships. The only question is “Who do you worship?”

Christians are unique not in that we worship, but that we worship God — or to be specific, we worship God through Jesus Christ our Lord. We know that the only way to come into worship with the one true God is through the means that God has appointed and the way that God has made possible, and that is through Jesus Christ our Lord. That's what's unique about Christians. So what's unique about Christians is not worship; it's the object of worship: God.

Now that is vitally important because one of the challenges, as we've already mentioned, in Christian worship as we gather together is if you’re not worshiping God in the rest of the week and then you come to worship God, there's going to be a problem. Because God will not allow us to worship and serve Him and another. He's a one-people God, and we're to be a one-God people.

In Psalm 15, in an Old Testament way, a question is being asked by the psalmist about who c Now, this is emphasized in the Scriptures. Turn with me to Psalm 15. an really worship. David is asking it in a very interesting way. Look at verse 1, Psalm 15:

“O Lord, who may abide in Thy tent?
Who may dwell on Thy holy hill?”

Now let me just stop. What tent is David talking about? The tabernacle. What holy hill is he talking about? Mount Zion. What's so important about that tent — the tabernacle on the hill of Mount Zion? It is the one place that God has told His people to do what? To gather for worship. So David is now asking you the question: ‘Who has a right to come to that tabernacle on that hill and meet with the living God?’

Now his answer is fascinating. Look at verse 2:

“He who walks with integrity, and works righteousness,
And speaks truth in his heart.” [And he goes on to describe more...]

Now, is David saying that the way you are saved is by your deeds? No. He's saying though all of us are saved by grace, through faith in Jesus Christ, that everyone who rightly worships God when you gather together is also going to worship God in all of life by being a person of integrity, by acting with righteousness and not with wickedness, by speaking the truth...and then he gives a whole series. In other words David is saying that your worship in all of life is what prepares you to come before God in gathered worship.

There is in fact an inseparable connection between those two things. Our worship of God in all of life prepares us to come together and meet with Him with God's people. And then, coming together to meet with Him and God's people prepares us again to worship Him in all of life. And so there is an inseparable connection between those two things. It starts in the heart because worship is always a response to God's grace shown to us, and it comes from the heart. It shows itself in life, and then it marks itself as we gather in worship. Our love to God starts as a response to God's grace in our heart; it shows itself in our life; and then it marks the kind of worship that we give to God when we gather together. And so sometimes we’ll often say, “Well, you know, I didn't get that much out of that worship service.” I know a young man who said that to his dad — “Dad, I didn't get much out of that worship service.” And his dad quipped very quickly, “Well, maybe you didn't put very much into it!” And there was maybe more biblical truth in that response than that dad knew!

The point is that our preparation in worshiping God in all of life is what gets us ready to worship God when we gather together. And if you don't find God in worship, it may be you didn't bring Him with you....in this sense that you haven't been worshiping God in all of life in your family, in your work, in your service in the community. You haven't been seeking to glorify God (Shorter Catechism, Question 1: “Man's chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”) If you haven't been doing that in all of life, then consequently that impacts your experience when you gather with the people of God.

II. The second thing I want you to see is simply this: God is the object of our worship.
We are to desire God above everything else in our worship in all of life, and in our gathered worship. Our gathered worship ought to be characterized by desiring God and encouraging one another to desire God more than everything else. I've already mentioned that the uniqueness of Christian worship is that we worship God. Everybody worships, but Christians worship God through Christ. And they long for God more than anything else. Let me ask you to turn forward in the Book of Psalms to Psalm 63.

In Psalm 63, the psalmist says,

“O God, Thou art my God; I shall seek Thee earnestly;
My soul thirsts for Thee, my flesh yearns for Thee,
In a dry and weary land where there is no water.
Thus I have beheld Thee in the sanctuary,
To see Thy power and Thy glory.
Because Thy lovingkindness is better than life,
My lips will praise Thee.
So I will bless Thee as long as I live;
I will lift up my hands in Thy name.
My soul is satisfied as with marrow and fatness,
And my mouth offers praise with joyful lips.”

The psalmist is saying ‘Lord God, without You there is no satisfaction; with You there is nothing more that can be desired.’

William Guthrie, the famous Scottish preacher, said that about Christ: “Less will not satisfy; more could not be desired.” And so the psalmist finds his satisfaction, his delight, his love, in God. He has a focus on God as the object of worship. And that's so important for us to understand as we gather together. That's the focal point of what we do when we gather as a people: to go hard after God.

I want to read to you from Jonathan Edwards, and from John Piper. John Piper, in addressing this issue, quotes a short passage from Jonathan Edwards’ writings, and then he adds his own comments, and this is what he says:
“True saints center their attention on Christ, and His beauty transcends all others. His delight is the source of all other delight. He in Himself is best among ten thousand, and altogether lovely. These saints delight in the way of salvation through Christ because it demonstrates God's perfection and wonder. They enjoy holiness, while they take no pleasure in sin. God's love is a sweet taste in their mouths, regardless of whether their interests are met or not. They rejoice over all that Christ has done for them, but that is not the deepest root of their joy. No, they delight merely because God is God. And only then does our delight spill over onto all God's works, including our own salvation.”

In other words, they do not see God as a means to an end — ‘God, You’re somebody who gets me something; You’re the ultimate goods and services provider.’ No. ‘God, You are the end that I'm after. You’re not a means to an end that I discard when I finally get what I want. You’re what I want.’ And when we gather together, we're here to go hard after God. And this is what Piper says about that:

“The authentic inner essence of worship is being satisfied with Christ, prizing Christ, cherishing Christ, treasuring Christ. This is tremendously relevant for understanding what our worship services should be about. They are about going hard after God. When we say that what we do on Sunday mornings and evenings is “go hard after God”, we mean that we're going hard after satisfaction in God. We’re seeking God as our prize, as our treasure, our soul food, our heart delight, our spirit's pleasure; or, to put Christ in His rightful place, it means that we're going hard after all that God is for us in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen.”

Now this is vitally important because in our own day there are many people who have sensed an absence of God in the worship of the church, whether they can put their finger on that or not. And very often they've tried to find some other substitute to fill the place of the absence of God in worship...and, my friends, there's nothing that can fill the place. There's nothing.

A number of years ago, R.C. Sproul was having a conversation with a man who was a very famous church leader in the world today. This man had started a whole series of evangelical churches throughout the United States, and this man had been deeply touched by R.C. Sproul's book, The Holiness of God. But in the course of the conversation, this man said to R.C., “I've been polling people about church, and they’re telling me two things over and over: that church is boring and irrelevant. And so what I'm going to do is, I'm going to change church so that it is no longer boring and irrelevant. I'm going to make it exciting and entertaining, and I'm going to make it very relevant and practical, and this is going to transform Christianity.” And R.C. said to him, “Bill! No, no, no. Look,” he said. “Nowhere in my Bible from Genesis to Revelation do I ever see a story of someone encountering God and being bored. I find some people encountering God and dying; I find some people encountering God and being terrified; I have found some people encounter God and their life is transformed; but I do not find anywhere in the Bible somebody encountering God and going away and saying, ‘You know, God is boring and irrelevant.’ So the problem is not with God, and it's not with revving up things at church so that things are exciting and relevant. The problem is there are many people that are not meeting the living God. Because if you've come to church and met the living God and you think that it's boring, then you haven't met the living God of the Bible, because there's nothing boring or irrelevant about Him. Anything but.”

And so when we come together, our goal is to go hard after God. That's what we want to do.

III. Thirdly, those who have a passion for biblical worship have a passion for following the Bible. They want God-directed worship, in form and content.

Turn with me to John 4:24. You remember this famous story of Jesus’ speaking to the woman at the well in Samaria. And in the course of their conversation they start talking about worship, and He tells her this (John 4:24):

“God is spirit. [Some of your translations may say “God is a spirit.”]... “God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth.”

Now there's a whole sermon series in that phrase, but here's what I want you to get out of it: What Jesus is saying is that the nature of God determines the worship of God. Jesus is saying who God is and what He is like determines the way you go about worshiping God. God is spirit; therefore, those who worship Him must worship Him in spirit and truth. Jesus is saying that to that woman, for one thing, so that she will come to understand that there is a day that is going to be coming when neither in Jerusalem nor in Samaria will anyone claim that that's the one place where you have to worship the one true God. No. You’ll worship Him everywhere. Why? Because He's spirit and He is everywhere, you will worship Him anywhere and everywhere in Jesus Christ. That's the point that He's going to make in this passage. But the interesting thing that I want you to note is this passage makes it clear that who God is determines how we worship.

Now. If that is true, then it is very, very important to make sure that our worship is directed by whom? Not by our opinions. Not by the latest trends. But by God through His word. That is, we want our worship to be determined in both its form and content, both its parts and its substance, by the word of God. That's why one of our mottoes at First Pres is “Sing the Bible, pray the Bible, read the Bible, preach the Bible.” We want the Bible to be radically in control of everything we do from the Call to Worship to the Benediction. We want to make sure that we're doing what the Bible tells us to do, the way the Bible tells us to do it, because the great problem that we face is not atheism, it's what? Idolatry. And even worship can produce idolaters.

Think of it, friends. When Aaron made the golden calf (this is a trick question!)...when Aaron made the golden calf, did he intend to make another god other than the God who had brought the children of Israel out of Egypt for the people of God to worship? (The answer is in the Bible, by the way. The answer is no.) When he makes that golden calf, what did he say about it to the people? “This is the God that brought you out of Egypt.” Now, what did God say about that? That was idolatry.

Wait a minute! They were worshiping You, God; they were just using this golden calf to do it. Right. And what did God tell them not to do in the Second Commandment? Don't make a graven image of Me. Don't worship Me according to your own ideas and opinions. Worship Me the way I tell you to worship Me.

And so those who have a passion for worship will have a passion for God-directed worship in form and content.

IV. And finally, those who have a passion to worship God will love the Lord's Day.
They will long for that day to come. They will have a God-centered view of Sunday. They’ll thrive on the Lord's Day. Robert Murray M’Cheyne said this about Sunday:

“A well-spent Sabbath we feel to be a day of heaven on earth. We love to rise early in the morning and sit up late so that we will have a long day with God.”

The Lord's Day is meant to be a foretaste of eternal communion with the living God, and so all those who worship God will look forward to the Lord's Day. They won't....‘Oh, no. Not another Sunday...oh, no...I don't have to go to worship, do I?’ No! They’ll say ‘I can't wait to be with God's people on His day. I can't wait for this day of rest and gladness and refreshment.’

So all these things will characterize a church with a passion for biblical worship: a desire to glorify God in all of life; a desire for God above all else; a following of the Bible in everything that we do; and, a delight, a love for the Lord's Day and for the worship of the Lord's Day.

Let's pray.

Heavenly Father, as we seek to worship the King, help us to do it in spirit and in truth. This we ask in Jesus' name. Amen.

[Congregational hymn: “O Worship the King”]

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This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.

Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.