When the church assembles to worship God’s presence arrives in a unique way. This flies in the face of all those who claim they don’t need the church to have a relationship with God.
In A Gathered People (p131) the authors make the point concerning Psalm 50:5 that “God calls his people together – for them to gather (sunagein in the LXX, thus “synagogue”). The [Greek] term … is used to describe assemblies which draw near to God to enjoy the divine presence.” God wants to synagogue, gather, with his people.
The immediate objection that comes to my mind is to ask, “If I have God’s presence, the Holy Spirit, living within me, how can I possibly experience more of God’s presence?”
I certainly believe the Bible teaches the indwelling of the Holy Spirit within individual Christians (Gal. 4:6), but perhaps two verses from 1 Corinthians will clarify this for us.
1 Corinthians 6:18-19 provides the clearest statement that the Holy Spirit resides within us individually. “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own;you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.” I suspect that the idea that our bodies are a temple of the Holy Spirit is the most well-known temple reference in the new covenant.
1 Corinthians 3:16 provides an alternative perspective that the assembled church is God’s temple. “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?” In Greek the words “you” and “yourselves” are both plural and the word “midst” indicates the assembly. Since Paul demonstrates in chapter 6 that he understands the Holy Spirit’s presence within each of us, it seems that his reference to God’s dwelling in the midst of the assembled church indicates a greater presence than we experience alone. (See also Ephesians 2:20-22.)
The references to the temple will also help us understand this concept. At Mount Sinai God gave Israel instructions for building a tabernacle (tent) located in the centre of their camp that functioned as the worship centre for the nation. As the tabernacle was inaugurated, Leviticus 9:23 describes that, “the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people.” We use the Hebrew word Shekinah to refer to this visible presence of God. God’s Shekinah presence appeared again at the inauguration of Solomon’s temple in 2 Chronicles 7:1-3. “The priests could not enter the temple of the Lord because the glory of the Lord filled it.”
On both these occasions the nation of Israel assembled, worshiped God, and experienced his presence at the temple. This imagery should provide a powerful perspective for us as we think about our times of collective worship. The sum of God’s presence is greater than the parts. The assembled church is the dwelling place of God: A place where he reveals his glory. One application of this is found in John 13 where Jesus told his followers, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” When Christians interact with each other, we demonstrate God to the world.
Hebrews 10:19-25 draws all these themes together very effectively. (As you read this, note that in the Greek this is one sentence. Verse 19 starts a thought that v25 concludes.)
- v19 We enter the Most Holy Place where God’s footstool the ark of the covenant was kept, the location of God’s presence in the Israelite camp/temple.
- v22 We confidently draw near to God. Throughout Hebrews the term “draw near” or “approach” “describes a believer’s approach to the throne of God in worship.” (A Gathered People, p141)
- v25 We meet together because that’s where we enter the Most Holy Place, and we encourage each other.
Finally, although the assembled church invokes God’s presence, it also foreshadows the ultimate gathering of the saints in the presence of God. The church assembled is a taste of the feast God has prepared for us. Look at this wonderful description of assembly and worship found in Hebrews 12:22-24.
But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly,to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
- What are your expectations when you come to worship with the church?
- Do you agree that God’s presence is particularly palpable when the church assembles?
- To what extent do the actions and words of those leading worship influence your experience of God during worship?