Covenantal Worship

Editor: the following is a slightly edited version of chapter 4 of Pastoral Ministry from a Covenantal Perspective, by Dr. Maynard Koerner, 2014. Used with permission.

The underlying concept of God’s covenant with man is that of an ongoing relationship. Understanding how this relationship functions is very important in meeting the needs that God’s people have for nourishment. We begin with the covenant community coming before God in worship. While worship was always very important as I grew up in a small, rural church, I am not sure that the reason for worshiping God and the principles involved were always that clear. Certainly it was understood that God requires worship, but what is God’s purpose in this requirement?

It is no secret that there is much discussion today about worship and the approach people take toward it. Many have strong opinions. Some have even referred to the current debate concerning worship as the “worship wars.” I am convinced that often such discussions center on what individuals like or do not like from a very personal perspective. Many decide what church to attend based on which worship service seems to meet their personal tastes the best. However, biblical worship ought never to be driven by personal tastes, but rather by the principles derived from Scripture. There is a real need for the worshiping community to have a more biblically based set of principles by which worship is understood and practiced.

Worship as a Pattern for Life
God put man in the Garden of Eden to live before Him in this creation and to enjoy life in His presence. This was broken by sin and is restored in Christ. But the important thing is to understand that all of life is before God and in service to God. Yet there is a very important distinction between worshipping and living before God. We use the word ‘worship’ to describe that activity by which we meet with God to praise Him and be fed by His Word. We also understand that for the rest of our life we are to live before God and to meet His purpose for us; we call this ‘service.’

These two aspects of life are very closely related and yet very distinct from each other. It is important that we do not confuse them. The principle for this pattern of life is established in the creation and spelled out in the fourth commandment with the direction to work and rest. Work is serving God in His creation; rest is meeting with Him face to face for the sustenance of life itself.

Worship is Covenantal in Nature
To understand that the basic nature of man as created by God is to be in fellowship with God, we also need to understand what effect sin had on this nature. When Adam sinned the relationship was cut off. The prohibition against sin was clearly stated in that man would die when he ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The biblical account demonstrates the break because when God came to man following the fall, Adam and Eve hid from God. They were ashamed. It is God who comes to them and by grace reestablishes the relationship. The answer to man’s failure in the test of obedience, was that God by grace provided restoration of that fellowship through the promised seed (Genesis 3:15). Even though man was put out of the garden to remind him of his need for grace, the avenue for fellowship with God was provided.

The promise of a seed which will crush the head of the serpent is ultimately fulfilled in Christ. Christ is spoken of in Romans 5 as the second Adam because he accomplished with his life and sacrifice what the first Adam could not. Following the fall into sin the covenant relationship continued based on grace. As a result of the covenant, fellowship with God is now once again basic to the relationship between God and man. As we consider worship and the principles underlying worship we must begin with the basic fact that worship is covenantal in nature. It is the covenant community, with God promising to be God to a special people who respond to him in faith, which then calls upon Him in worship. It has been suggested that worship is a “covenant renewal ceremony”:

“It is in this context that we talk about the “covenant renewal ceremony.” Whenever we gather for public worship, it is because we have been summoned. That is what “church” means: ekklesia, “called out.” It is not a voluntary society of those whose chief concern is to share, to build community, to enjoy fellowship, to have moral instruction for their children, and so forth. Rather, it is a society of those who have been chosen, redeemed, called, justified, and are being sanctified until one day they will finally be glorified in heaven. We gather each Lord’s Day not merely out of habit, social custom, or felt needs but because God has chosen this weekly festival as a foretaste of the everlasting Sabbath day that will be enjoyed fully at the marriage supper of the Lamb. God has called us out of the world and into his marvelous light: That is why we gather.”

The emphasis in covenant making is the notion that God has called a people, He has made them special, and He has set them apart as a community which calls upon Him to praise His name. Specifically, they are set apart through the work of Christ; the mediator of the covenant. In his book on worship Hughes Oliphant Old states it this way:

“Christian worship is in the name of Christ because worship is a function of the body of Christ and as Christians we are all one body. All of our worship must be in him! What an important New Testament concept this is that the church is the body of Christ, and how vividly the first Christians understood that they were all together one body, the body of Christ. They understood their worship to be part of the worship that the ascended Christ performed in the heavenly sanctuary to the glory of the Father (Hebrews 7:23-25; 9:25; 10:19-22; 13:15).”

When we speak of worship being done by the body of Christ we are speaking of the covenant community.

To speak of worship as covenantal is then also to say that worship is “otherworldly.” That is, worship is not to be guided by the principles which are attractive to the world. The antithesis which exists between the church and the world is not to be ignored when the Church worships.

“J. Gresham Machen, who battled worldliness in the church through his whole life, had little trouble defending the idea that the church should be separate from the world. In “The Separateness of the Church,” a sermon he preached at Princeton Seminary in 1925 on Matthew 5:13 (You are the salt of the earth), Machen declared that these words of Christ ‘established at the very beginning the distinctness and separateness of the Church.’ If the distinction between the church and the world was ever lost, Machen warned, ‘the power of the Church is gone. The Church then becomes like salt that has lost its savor, and is fit only to be cast out and to be trodden under foot of men.’”

An additional implication of worship being covenantal is that it properly connects worship with the rest of life. It is crucial to maintain the distinction between corporate worship and the service (worship) that the believer offers to God in all of life (Romans 12:1). It is equally crucial to understand that every aspect of life is to be lived in service to God. When the covenant community meets with God to praise Him and to hear His message it is being prepared to work for God. As the people of God live their lives in the world they seek to serve God in all that they are involved in.

Paul Engle explains, “You can worship God in your job at an office or factory, by serving on a community committee, or by planting a garden. This does not negate the importance of corporate worship on the Lord’s Day but rather it prepares you for corporate praise. The Sunday assembly in turn should send you forth eager to glorify God in the situations that occur during the ensuing week. True worship cannot be isolated from all we are in life nor can true living be isolated from worship.”

Examining the Pictures of Worship in the Bible
The Scriptures have a great deal to say about worship. There are four basic pictures given in Scripture that I find establish the basic principles for worship. The fundamental principle for worship is that which is established in the fourth commandment. God sets forth here the purpose for man: it is to serve God with a particular pattern of life. The pattern is six days of work and one of rest; six days of serving God in His creation and one of intimate fellowship with God. The rest speaks of the spiritual need which man has, but that spiritual aspect is not divorced from serving God in all of life. All of life then, both work and rest, is the fulfillment of who man is: an image bearer of God created to live in the life sustained for him by God. Keeping in mind this basic principle, the pictures in Scripture which we will now examine establish how the principle of work and rest becomes a reality for God’s people.

The Establishment of Public Worship

We begin with the second part of Genesis 4:26: At that time people began to call upon the name of the Lord. In Genesis 4-5 there is a brief history of two kinds of people. These chapters present the line of Seth, which is the people of God, and the line of Cain, which is the ungodly line. Established here are the basic characteristics of their life.

Genesis 5:1 states that this is the genealogy of Adam, a family history if you will. This is not a complete history. It is not even really a history, the reference is more in the sense of “this is their story, this is who they are.” This is a presentation of the character of the people of God. In the previous chapter is the life, or the characteristic of the ungodly. We read of Cain naming a city after his son (Genesis 4:17). We also read of Lamech, who says to his wives that if anyone gets in his way he will kill him (Genesis 4:23). The characteristic of the life of the ungodly is that life is about the individual, about man. It is an attempt to get away from being dependent upon God. It is this approach to life which ultimately leads to the need for God to destroy the earth with the flood in Genesis 6-8.

To understand the character of the life of the godly we need to go back to the beginning of chapter four when Eve names her first son following God’s promise that life will continue. In verse one Eve names her son Cain and states, I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord. The name literally means that Adam and Eve received a human. This is the first record of a birth, which points to the continuation of life. So now they are fully aware that they should be dead, yet here is a son. It is the sign of ongoing life. The promise given by God is that of the seed. This is a seed. Eve gives credit to the Lord. By means of this name “Cain” she acknowledges, perhaps very primitively, a genuine faith in the promise.

Obviously, Cain, who murdered his brother, did not turn out to be the seed in terms of the continuation of the covenant promise. When they have a third son we see again that in naming him Seth, Eve expresses her faith since this name means “the substitute.” Eve’s faith is passed on to the next generation when Seth has a son and names him Enosh which means “the frail one, the dependent one.” Notice the sharp contrast between Cain naming a city after his son, and Seth giving his son a name which indicates being dependent upon God.

All of this helps us to understand first of all that the godly are a people who believe in God. They express their faith in the promise of God. This leads to this statement at the end of Genesis 4:26, At that time people began to call upon the name of the Lord. There is an emphasis upon the first word in the sentence which in the original is translated by the ESV, at that time. As we then look at the statement in Genesis 4:26b, it indicates that a people who are dependent upon God are a people with a basic principle of life. This principle, established by means of the story of the godly, is that they are a people who are characterized by faith. As people of faith they are then also a people who call upon God. This is the beginning of public worship. The idea of worship–calling upon God because you are dependent upon the Creator–is engrained in man since he is created in the image of God.

So as life begins on earth–life by sinful, fallen men–there are those who trust in themselves and there are those who trust in God. Those who trust in God are a people who call upon Him in worship. The first picture we have of public worship in the Scriptures is that worship is what people of faith do. It is a fundamental character of the godly. Worship is not an option, it is not something men do because it is appealing, or any other outward attraction. Rather, it reflects the basic character of the man who is right with God.

God Meets with His People in Worship
An ongoing difficulty in the Old Testament concerning God meeting with His people was the fact that sin was not yet paid for by Christ. God provided an outward covering to Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:21 which pointed to the sacrifice of Christ. Yet throughout the Old Testament man could not come directly into the presence of God and live. Sin stood between them. The holy God cannot have sin or sinful man in His presence, yet as the covenant God His desire is to meet with His people. After the renewing of the covenant in Exodus 19, God directed the people to meet with Him at Mount Sinai, but they were warned not to touch the mountain. The entire time of meeting with God was a frightful, bad experience for the people. As a result they asked that Moses meet with God from then on (Exodus 20:18-19).

This leaves a dilemma: how can God be with His people as they are in the wilderness and yet not consume them? In Numbers 2 we are given a description of God’s directions for life in the wilderness. A major aspect of this is the tabernacle. The tabernacle provided that God could be present by means of the inner sanctuary or “Holy of Holies.” God’s most complete presence was in the Holy of Holies. Thus He was in the midst of His people, yet they did not have direct contact with Him. The only contact with God that they had was through the service of the priesthood. The tabernacle–the portable place of worship–provided for God’s people to have access to God and be directed by Him in life.

The camp was set up with the tabernacle in its midst. The people camped in twelve tribes around the tabernacle. Between the tabernacle and the people were the Levites who provided for the service of the tabernacle. When they camped or when they marched God was always in their midst by means of the tabernacle. It is particularly important to note the description of this arrangement. Each tribe had its own standard. The standard identified who the people were according to the tribe and it marked where they camped and traveled. But it also marked the connection the tribe had with God: The people of Israel shall camp each by his own standard, with the banners of their fathers’ houses. They shall camp facing the tent of meeting on every side” (Numbers 2:22).

It is a bit difficult to get the full sense of this verse, but it does indicate that by means of the standard, there is a line of sight by which the people of each tribe are connected to the tabernacle, thus with God. We also read this concerning their travel: Then the tent of meeting shall set out, with the camp of the Levites in the midst of the camps; as they camp, so shall they set out, each in position, standard by standard (Numbers 2:17). Once again, close contact between God and His people is maintained by means of the tribes and their standards.

This entire picture is that of life for the people of God is lived before God. Notice that the tabernacle was not set up for worship and then taken down again. Neither was the tabernacle set up off to the side so that those who wanted to could go there to worship when they wanted to. Rather, it was in the center of the camp and it was always there. Now, there was a particular means of formal worship, but God was still central in all aspects of their life. They worshiped God, they traveled with God, and they camped with God. In every way and with every thought God was central to them.

The principle which is so fundamental here is that worship and fellowship with God do not only apply to one small part of life. It is central to life. Life is service before and unto God. This life is both worship in the formal sense and service (worship) in the form of living before God and following Him by means of His direction. The Old Testament people did not have the complete revelation of God as we do today. They needed specific direction from God. The revelation from God was a guide for life. Today we have the full revelation for life from God in the Scriptures, and the principle is that we still need to have God central in everything that we do. God’s covenant people live and worship with their eyes upon God.

Direct Access to God is Provided by Christ

What we have seen in the Old Testament picture is that God, by means of the tabernacle and the priesthood, provided a way by which He could meet with His people both in formal worship and as they lived in His presence. While meeting with God is typified through the tabernacle and priesthood it is made real by Christ in the new covenant. Restoration with God is accomplished through the Messiah, our Savior Jesus Christ. The author of the book of Hebrews says this concerning our access into the presence of God:

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water (Hebrews 10:19-22).

Jesus Himself is now the curtain through which we come into the presence of God, which is implied in the reference to “entering the holy places.” The blood which is sprinkled is that of Jesus. This statement is in the context of an exhortation by the author for the public gathering of God’s people in worship. The implication is that when Christ offered Himself for our sins on the cross and the veil of the temple was torn, access to meet with God face to face was opened to all believers. We no longer need priests to represent us before God.

This picture presents a very important principle concerning New Testament worship: When God’s people gather corporately for public worship and they do so in the name of Christ, they are by faith coming into the Holy of Holies in the temple of the living God, the new Jerusalem (Hebrews 12:22 ff.). To meet with God is truly an experience through which God’s people are fed, and by which their spiritual needs are met. This is the ultimate pastoral provision for God’s people.

Worship Takes Place in the City of the Living God

The author of Hebrews gives a most complete picture of New Testament worship in chapter 12. He begins by comparing the notion of coming to God as it was experienced at Mount Sinai and at Mount Zion. At Mount Sinai it was a horrible experience because the blood of Christ had not yet covered for sin (Exodus 19).

In contrast, now worship is described as follows: But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem (Hebrews 12:22). By faith God’s people in worship meet with God in the new temple built without hands. That is, we come directly into the presence of God, in the most intimate of fellowship with Him. This is further described as coming before the angels, meeting with all the saints who have gone before us, to Jesus who is the mediator of the new covenant, and to God who is the judge of all. Coming to God—the judge of all—based on the sprinkled blood of Christ, indicates that all those coming before God have been judged righteous.

We have just briefly touched on four pictures given in the Scriptures concerning worship. However, what is abundantly clear is that worship is meeting with God.

Paul Engle writes, “What is it that makes the assembly of the church unique? Why is it different from other types of meeting? The church is different because it is an assembly of God’s people in His very presence. The assembling of the church is a meeting with God as well as with fellow believers. The assembly is an extraordinary, supernatural event. This is implicit in the very term church.”

Based on the redemption we have in Christ our whole life is restored to God. Keep in mind that God created a pattern for life; that is living before Him and coming to Him in worship.

If worship is meeting with God, then there must be communication with God. God speaks to His people and His people respond. How does He speak? The biblical understanding of worship, in the context of meeting with God, is that in reality Jesus Himself speaks by means of ordained ministers preaching from the Scriptures. This is implied by the Apostle Paul when he states this series of rhetorical questions: How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him (of) whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? (Romans 10:14)

I placed parenthesis around the word “of” in the second question because the best translation does not include this word. The implication is that when ministers who are faithful to the revealed Word are preaching during corporate worship they are not telling the congregation something “of” Jesus. Rather, in that context it is Jesus Himself who is speaking to His people.

This simply underscores again the greatness and intimacy of worship. Truly participating in worship is the most fundamental means by which God’s people are provided for spiritually. From a Reformed perspective the preaching of the Word has always been seen as central to the work of the ministry. But I would add that an important purpose of preaching is to meet the pastoral needs of the sheep. Those needs include both instruction and encouragement.

Worship as a Celebration of the Resurrection of Christ

Heidelberg Catechism #21 asks, “What is true faith?” The answer begins with stating that it is “not only a sure knowledge whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in His Word, but also a hearty trust, which the Holy Spirit works in me by the Gospel.” In stating that faith includes having a hearty trust the Catechism establishes that there is a heartfelt emotional aspect to Christianity. In the same way that the “sure knowledge” of faith must be addressed by ongoing teaching and preaching of the content of the word of God, so also the “hearty trust” aspect of faith must be addressed. It is here where the pastoral aspect of ministry specifically comes into play.

This pastoral aspect involves a number of things which will be addressed in a later chapter, but it also must be grounded in formal worship. A Reformed understanding of worship sees the preaching of the Word as central, and that preaching is to be a serious exposition of the biblical text. This is exactly how preaching ought to be viewed. The problem arises when a focus on the centrality of preaching makes the remainder of worship unimportant. If we understand that worship is meeting with God, then all that we do in worship ought to reflect the awesome privilege of meeting with God. All of worship ought to receive as much attention in terms of being well planned and put together as the preparation for the preaching of the Word does. My own experience has been that all too often, very little attention is given to the non-preaching aspects of worship. In most situations in the RCUS, where ministers are expected to do everything, it is very difficult to find the time needed for careful planning of the various aspects of worship.

There are two very important elements in worship which can appear to be contradictory but ought not to be. We approach God with a deep sense of awe and reverence, and even sober mindedness. But at the same time, we understand that in meeting with God there is a certain anticipation and excitement. It is properly an emotional experience. A cursory reading of the Psalms indicates there is a considerable emotional aspect to worship.

In my experience as a pastor I have often commented that it would be good for members of the congregation to have the perspective of the preacher as he looks into the faces of God’s people during worship. All too often the faces look as though they were at a funeral. The Psalmist says, I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’ (Ps. 122:1) I would suggest this is an expression of awe and joy properly put together as a stance for worship.

In the early chapters of Acts, when the followers of Christ first began to worship following His ascension, they met on the first day of the week because they celebrated the resurrection of Christ that had taken place on the first day of the week. I have often stated that in reality, every Lord’s Day is Easter, meaning that it is a celebration of the resurrection of Christ. Historian Philip Schaff concludes that the ancient church viewed the Sunday from its Christian aspect “as a new institution, and not in any way as a continuation of the Jewish Sabbath. It observed it as the day of the commemoration of the resurrection or of the new spiritual creation, and hence a day of sacred joy and thanksgiving. . . . [This day therefore stood] in bold contrast to the days of humiliation and fasting, [just] as the Easter festival [stands in contrast] with Good Friday.”

One of the basic elements of early Christian life and worship was Christian fellowship (Acts 2:42). This reflected an emphasis on the mutual joy of believers celebrating with each other. In the book of Revelation we find a picture of the future consummated worship in heaven where worship vibrates with songs of praise.

By the fourth century there had been a shift in emphasis from a celebration of the resurrection of Christ to a remembrance of the death of Christ, as the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper came to be seen as a re-sacrifice of Christ. Schaff summarized it this way, “According to this doctrine the Eucharist is an unbloody repetition of the atoning sacrifice of Christ by the priesthood for the salvation of the living and the dead; so that the body of Christ is truly and literally offered every day and every hour and upon innumerable altars at the same time.”

This shift which came to its fullness during the Middle Ages had significant influence on how all of worship was approached. Worship now appeared to be more in tune with the idea of a funeral rather than a wedding feast. Schaff wrote, “. . . yet that old sacrificial service, which was interwoven with the whole popular life of the Jewish and Graeco-Roman world, exerted a controlling influence on the Roman Catholic service of the Eucharist, especially after nominal conversion of the whole Roman heathendom, and obscured the original simplicity and purity of that service almost beyond recognition.”

The reformers rejected and condemned the notion of the re-sacrifice of Christ in the sacrament, as evidenced by Heidelberg Catechism #80. The liturgy of the reformers maintained a sense of coming before God with confession of sins and a pardon. With the Puritans there developed such a strong emphasis on the sermon and the call to struggle with sin that the remaining aspects of worship perhaps faded somewhat into the background.

In my childhood there was such an emphasis upon reverence and awe when one entered into church that it would have been unthinkable to even smile and have a sense of joy and excitement in worship. I believe that conservative Reformed worship has to some extent lost the celebratory aspect of worship. The reformer Zwingli apparently sought to address the attitude in worship “with catchy illustrations and humor such that people were actually known to laugh in the cathedral in Zurich, Switzerland. Ulrich Zwingli was the preacher who dared to break the somberness of medieval worship.”

In what is often referred to as contemporary worship, there is concerted effort to make worship exciting and appealing. This has developed into what I call a “pep rally” type of celebration. Such a celebration is manufactured and has the potential to artificially create a sense of excitement. I am not promoting this type of celebration.

What I am promoting, however, is a real sense of the joy that should be in the heart of the believer when he enters into the presence of God in worship and should be, in fact, evident on his face. It is simply an emphasis upon the grace of God and the reality of that grace in the life of the believer. This approach to worship begins with the individual. Yet, the manner in which worship is planned and put together is important in promoting such an approach. We should not simply assume that the believer is aware of how to approach worship based on the manner in which the church has always done it. There is a need to lead the congregation to a healthy concept of worship by teaching and by example. This begins with preparation for worship.

To assist the reader I have included an order of worship as Appendix A. This is the order of worship which I am currently using. There are some variations from week to week which is also indicated. Notice that there is a definite distinction between preparation for worship, worshiping in the presence of God, and then leaving with God’s blessing. This reflects the basic requirements of worship which are spelled out in The Directory of Worship for the RCUS.

True meaningful worship comes from the heart. We do not seek man-made emotionalism in worship; true worship is not merely going through the motions. There is a connection between spending time with God personally or as a family by communing with God in the Word and prayer throughout the week and being prepared to have meaningful worship in the corporate context. Engle writes, “One cannot isolate private and public worship into separate compartments. As one’s private worship develops, one’s appreciation for public worship grows, and vice versa. A person who has had a week of vital communion with God will be best prepared to enter into the fullness of corporate praise. Likewise, assembly on the Lord’s Day can stimulate enriched private devotion during the ensuing week. Each feeds the other.”

Indeed, there is a connection between worship and work or life apart from formal worship, as spoken of earlier in this chapter. In ministering to God’s people and being the shepherd to whom the sheep of Christ (Acts 20:28) have been entrusted for feeding, the pastor needs to be very aware of how he is preparing the members for living before God in all of life. This not only involves encouraging members to have a consistent devotional life, but also involves teaching how to apply biblical principles in every part of their life. As the Israelites viewed God as central to worship and in life, as seen in Numbers chapter 2, so faithful covenantal pastoring involves keeping God before God’s people as they go about their lives Monday through Saturday.

Dr. Maynard Koerner
Heidelberg Theological Seminary, Sioux Falls, SD

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