Last week I discussed implications of the doctrine of Scripture’s authority over our corporate worship, and I suggest that it involves at least three aspects: elements, content, and form.
The fourth implication of biblical authority over our corporate worship is that the order of our worship should be derived from the Word of God. If the Bible is the sufficient authority for our worship, then even the structure of our services should follow what God has given to us in Scripture.
In the Old Testament God established a structural pattern for corporate worship assemblies that continues also into the NT. God often calls these assemblies of worship “memorials,” meaning more than just a passive remembrance of something, but actually a reenactment of God’s works in history for his people such that the worshipers are shaped over and over again by what God has done. Beginning at Mt. Sinai (Exod 19–24), God instituted a particular order of what the OT frequently calls the “solemn assemblies” of Israel. This order reflects what I like to call a “theo-logic” in which in the assembly, God’s people reenact through the order of what they do God’s atoning work on their behalf. In Old Testament worship,
God reveals himself and calls his people to worship
God’s people acknowledge and confess their need for forgiveness
God provides atonement
God speaks his Word
God’s people respond with commitment
God hosts a celebratory feast
This same theo-logic characterized the progression of sacrifices within the tabernacle assemblies, moving from the sin offering to the guilt offering to the burnt offering to the grain offering and finally the peace offering. The same structure appears at the dedication of Solomon’s temple (2 Chron 15–17). In each case, the structure of the worship assemblies follows a theo-logical order in which the worshipers reenact the covenant relationship they have with God through the atonement he provided, culminating with a feast that celebrates the fellowship they enjoy with God because of what he has done for them.
While the particular rituals present in Hebrew worship pass away for the NT church, the book of Hebrews tells us that these OT rituals were “a copy and shadow of heavenly thing” (8:5). Thus while the shadows fade away, the theo-logic of corporate worship remains the same: we are reenacting God’s atoning work on our behalf when we gather for corporate worship. Significantly, Hebrews teaches that when we gather for services of worship, through Christ we are actually joining with the real worship taking place in the heavenly Jerusalem of which those Old Testament rituals were a mere shadow. And so it is important to recognize that the two records we have in Scripture of heavenly worship also follow the same theo-logic modeled in the OT. When Isaiah was given a vision of heavenly worship in Isaiah 6, the order of what happens mirrors the same theo-logic as that given to Israel for its worship.
1 In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. (Revelation: God reveals himself and calls us to worship.)
2 Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3 And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” 4 And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. (Adoration: We recognize the greatness of God and praise him for it.)
5 And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Confession: When we acknowledge the holiness of God, we also recognize our unworthiness to draw near to him because of our sin.)
6 Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” (Propitiation: As Christians, we are assured of pardon through the sacrifice of Christ, which makes worship possible.)
8 And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.” 9 And he said, “Go, and say to this people: “ ‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ 10 Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” (Proclamation: The Word of God is taught. & Dedication: We respond to the Word of God with consecration.)
11 Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” (Supplication: We bring our requests before the Lord.)
And he said: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is a desolate waste, 12 and the Lord removes people far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land. 13 And though a tenth remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak, whose stump remains when it is felled.” The holy seed is its stump. (Commission: God sends us into the world to serve him. Just as the service began with God’s word, it ends with a word of blessing from him.)
Likewise, when John is given a similar vision of heavenly worship, the order of what happens is the same. From creation to consummation, the corporate worship of God’s people is a memorial—a reenactment—of the “theo-logic” of true worship: God’s call for his people to commune with him through the sacrifice of atonement that he has provided, listening to his Word, responding with praise and obedience, and culminating with a beautiful picture of perfect communion with God in the form of a feast.
This is why historic worship services, intentionally structured on the basis of this biblical theo-logic, has always followed a standard order: The service opens with God speaking to us. We do not come to worship of our own initiative, and we are not somehow “calling God down” or inviting him to join us. Rather, it is God who calls us to draw near to him, and thus the service begins with a scriptural call to worship.
When God reveals himself to us, two responses are inevitable. First, we respond with adoration and praise. This usually takes the form of a hymn, a prayer of praise, and a doxology.
Then, we recognize our sin and unworthiness, and so we confess our sins to God. We responded this way when we first believed, and we should continue to do so daily. Thus through a Scripture reading, a hymn, silent repentance, and a corporate prayer of confession, the congregation acknowledges our sin together before God.
As Christians, we find forgiveness and pardon in Christ, and so the service continues with celebrating that forgiveness. Through a Scripture affirmation and a hymn of praise for Christ’s sacrifice, we both rejoice in the gospel and proclaim it to any unbelievers who may be attending.
Next, we are ready to hear God’s instructions through the preaching of his Word. Our response is one of dedication and giving of our offerings.
The climax of the service is Communion with God. Worship is drawing near to God in communion through Christ, and this is what the whole service has been progressing towards. Coming boldly to the Throne of Grace (Heb 4:16) for supplication and eating at Christ’s Table means that we are welcome and that we have open access to him, despite our sin. This is possible only through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, which is beautifully pictured in the Communion elements. Communion with God is the purpose of the gospel, and thus Communion is the climax of a worship service.
The service concludes with a word from God in which he sends us into the world to obey him and share the gospel to unbelievers, along with a word of blessing.
The particular hymns, Scripture passages and other elements of the service are determined by their fit in three categories: First, we consider the church year, which follows the life of Christ through remembering his coming, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension. Second, we consider the function of the hymns or Scripture passages within the Scripture-shaped service order and that also facilitates the dialogue between God and us in the service. Third, we consider the sermon passage and theme for the day.
By ordering our corporate worship in this manner, through the course of the church’s life, we are submitting the entirety of our corporate worship to the Word of God. If we fail to do this, like the Pharisees, our worship will be vain. But if our worship is inspired, shaped, and guided by Who God is, what God does and what God says—if the primary content and form of our worship services is derived from the Scriptures—we can be sure that our worship will be acceptable to God.