So far in this series I have established the importance of grounding our theology and practice of worship in the sufficient and authoritative Word of God. Then remainder of this series will address the natural next question: What is that theology and practice of worship that the Bible prescribes? And in this post I will begin address the first important theological question, according to Scripture, what is our goal in corporate worship?
For some today, the main purpose for which we gather is evangelism; every service is designed to bring in seekers and move them toward conversion. For others, the purpose of our gatherings is revival or fellowship. Others see the goal of our gatherings to express praise to the Lord, others want an emotional experience, and for some, the gathering is simply a duty to perform. So what does the Word of God identify as the central goal of our corporate gatherings as a church?
A passage of Scripture that I believe beautifully pictures God’s intent for his church is Ephesians 2:11–22.
Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— 12 remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. 17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.
In this portion of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he is describing the nature of the gospel, which we will discuss more in a moment, but notice the goal of the gospel at the end of this passage—Paul says that as people come to faith in Jesus Christ, they are brought near to him and built into a temple, a dwelling place for God.
This temple metaphor is not coincidental; the gathered NT church is the dwelling place for the Spirit of God in this age in the same way that Israel’s temple was God’s dwelling place in the OT economy. The Bible also teaches that each individual believer is a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19), but in this passage the focus is on the collective church; notice verse 21: “in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.”
And this way of describing the nature of the church is not unique to Ephesians 2. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:19, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” Again, it is important to recognize that in this verse the pronouns are plural—you all are God’s temple, and this is in the context of discussing the church. Paul says the same thing in 2 Corinthians 6:16—we, the church, “are the temple of the living God,” and Peter says in 1 Peter 2:5 that Christians plural “are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”
Now why would the New Testament use this image of a temple to describe the gathered church? Well, what happens in a temple? What most naturally comes to mind when someone uses the image of a temple? You see, Paul is deliberately using this metaphor to signify our central purpose as the gathered church—in this temple, built by the Spirit of God and indwelt by him, worship takes place. So that narrows the answer to our initial question a little bit; the gathered church, as the temple of God, is meant to worship him.
But we still need to explore a bit further to discern what the nature of this worship should be. We might recognize that our purpose when we gather is to worship, but what exactly is that? Is worship merely a duty to perform? Is worship simply expressing hearts of praise to God? Is worship an emotional experience?
Well if Paul is deliberately using the image of a temple to describe the gathered church, let’s take a moment to look at what, exactly, the Old Testament temple (and earlier, the tabernacle) was.
First, God calls the tabernacle and temple in the OT his sanctuary. He told Moses in Exodus 25:8, “let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst.” Calling it a sanctuary communicated the idea of something consecrated and set apart to protect the holiness of God from the uncleanness of everyday life. No uncircumcised or uncleansed person could enter the sanctuary. God gave very clear and specific instructions for how his sanctuary was to be built, how it was to be cared for, and what was required for someone to enter in. The sanctuary and all of the elements therein had to be regularly cleansed by the priests; sinful worshipers had to offer sacrifices of atonement in order to enter God’s sanctuary. And God specifically commanded in Leviticus 19:30, “you shall reverence my sanctuary: I am the Lord.”
This idea of set-apartness is then extended to the church as God’s temple, which is why Paul calls the church in Ephesians 2:21 “a holy temple in the Lord.” Paul says in 1 Timothy 3:15 that there is a particular way “to behave” in the church because it is set apart from other gatherings; in fact, he indicates that the entire purpose of writing to Timothy is so that “you may know how one ought to behave” in the gathered church. Something about the assembled church requires particular behavior that is set apart from behavior in the rest of life. So while an individual Christian is the temple of God’s Spirit and ought to behave in ways that are pleasing to him, the church gathered is, in a special and distinct way, the sanctuary of God’s presence, wherein God’s people behave in worship differently than in any other circumstances. And this is why, as we saw in previous posts, behavior in the church must be regulated by God’s clear instructions in a way more explicit than for behavior outside the church. Yes, as an individual temple of the Holy Spirit, you may worship God at any time and in any place, whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, but there is a special, set-apart, necessary worship that takes place when we gather as the church. It’s not about a building or particular place, it is about a gathered people, the church, the holy temple of God.
House of God
This description of the temple signifies the weight and significance of what we do when we gather to worship, but we must also recognize another important description of the temple in the Old Testament. Several passages in the OT call the tabernacle the “house of God.” The same term is used to describe the temple. Second Chronicles 3:3 says Solomon built “the house of God,” as does many other OT passages (Ps 52:8, Ezra 4:24, Neh 13:11). Again, the question to ask here is what does this image of a house signify about the temple and about the worship that takes place there? As God’s house, the temple is where God dwells with his people; this is why Jacob called the place where he met with God “Bethel,” which literally means “house of God” (Gen 28:10–22); a house is where you meet with someone, you dwell with them, you fellowship with them. In other words, this emphasizes the fact that Israel’s temple was not simply a place where they performed rituals or had some sort of experience; the temple was where they met with God.
And not surprisingly, the NT also refers to the church as God’s house. In 1 Timothy 3:15, Paul calls the church “the household of God,” and he says in Galatians 6:10that Christians are “of the household of faith.” Hebrews 10:21 also calls the church “the house of God” and stresses in verse 25 that we must not neglect to meet together. Jesus told his disciples in Matthew 18:20, in the context of talking about the nature of the church, that when the church gathers, Christ is “in the midst of them.” And we find that very language in Ephesians 2 as well; just before Paul calls the church God’s holy temple, he says in verse 19 that believers are “members of the household of God,” and in verse 22 he describes the church as “a dwelling place for God.”
So from these two images, sanctuary and house of God, we can recognize a bit more clearly the nature of who we are and what we are to do as the gathered church—we are a holy, set apart dwelling place for God, and when we gather, we do not simply perform duties, express praise, or have an experience; when we gather as the church, we meet with God.