The church is, among other things, a worshipping community of believers. Alistair Begg explains that Christian worship has formal and informal dimensions and can be both structured and unstructured, both traditional and spontaneous. The Bible does not set such qualities in contrast but instead encourages us to hold them in balance—which, sadly, many churches fail to do. Striking this balance requires that we, as God’s servants, consecrate ourselves and celebrate God’s praise while God reveals His presence.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Our God and our Father, we pray that you will teach us what it means to be the church in our day. Thank you for all the lessons that we’ve been learning in the morning hours concerning the absolute priority of Christ and the necessity of our submission to the Word of Truth, the warnings concerning error, the necessity of biblical structures of leadership, the necessary devotion and diligence to the things of yourself, and wisdom in establishing our direction. Thank you for all that you’ve been teaching us in the evening hours as we looked at some of the areas of the church when it was young. And we pray that tonight, in these moments, as we think about what it is to be a worshipping community, that you will be our teacher. For Jesus’ sake we ask it. Amen.
We’ve been basing our studies in the evening hour loosely on the concluding verses of Acts chapter 2. And we have been noticing, in the evenings, some of the expressions of the church as it was young, in its early days in Jerusalem. And we have seen, amongst other things, that it was a learning church devoting itself to the apostles’ doctrine. We’ve also noted that it was a loving church committed to the care of one another, and especially to all that was represented in the mutuality of being brothers and sisters in the Lord Jesus Christ.
We have also noted in passing, and come to note now in a more fuller fashion, the fact that it was also a worshipping community. And while keeping your finger in 2 Chronicles for future reference, you may like simply to turn to Acts chapter 2 and to notice that it says there at the end of verse 46 that they were together in the homes of one another, eating together, and their hearts were “glad and sincere,” and they were “praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.” We also had noted earlier, in verse 43, the opening phrase, that “everyone was filled with awe”—that they were, in that little section, meeting not only in the temple courts, but they were also meeting within their homes.
And so, what happens is that there emerges very clearly a pattern of both formal and informal dimensions of worship: the formal within the framework of the temple courts, the informal in their gatherings in their home. I think it is safe to say that their worship was at times structured and at other times unstructured—that it would be, within the context of the temple precincts, if you like, somewhat traditional; whereas, in the opportunities in gathering in the homes of one another, it was probably more spontaneous.
And there is this balance in these verses that is so very, very important, because it is often this very balance which is not found in worshipping communities. So you go from local church to local church, and they ask you questions like, “Well, do you have traditional worship, or do you have nontraditional worship?”—immediately polarizing the two opportunities and assuming that they are somehow or another mutually exclusive. Or, “Do you do things in a very structured way, or are you a more unstructured group? Are you a joyful group, or are you a more somber group?”—again, always seeking to polarize that which, in the balance of Scripture, I don’t find polarized.
And indeed, as I’m suggesting to you here, there is this wonderful ebb and flow. Their worship was both joyful and it was reverent. There was a sense of awe. They were not merely a company of folks who were expressing themselves on a peculiarly horizontal plane, but they were people who were coming, as it were, into the presence of God, and they first of all looked up in awesome wonder. They understood what it was to be in God’s presence, and they knew him to be both transcendent and to be imminent. They knew him to be beyond their understanding, and yet they knew him to have revealed himself in his Son and made himself present by his Spirit.
And their gladness of heart had the kind of basis that is the basis for all Christian worship. There was good reason for them to be praising God; there was good reason for them to be joyful. After all, the gospel was good news. God had sent his Son. They had been redeemed by his outstretched hand. They were no longer in condemnation. They were now set free by the word of his truth. They had once not been a people; now they were the people of God. They had once lived in darkness; now they lived in light. They had once not known mercy, and now they knew mercy. So who, of all people, ought not to be joyful in this context?
Furthermore, God had sent his Spirit to them, and as a result of having done so, part of the fruit of the Spirit was joy itself. And therefore, we should not be surprised that when they came together, they were marked by this glad and joyful experience.
John Stott, himself a very traditional gentleman, says of this, “[And their joy was] sometimes a more uninhibited joy than is customary (or even acceptable) within the staid traditions of the historic churches.” Their joy was often “a more uninhibited joy than is customary” or acceptable.
And in reviewing some of the letters that have come my way in the last twenty-four months, a number of you have felt it important at various times to write and essentially tell me that you are rather put off by any of these uninhibited and unfettered expressions of joy. And one that I reread this week was a reminder to me that “it was never like this when I came in 1983,” and that they wanted me to know how distinctly disturbed they were by what they saw as a very unfortunate trend.
Now, what they’re essentially saying is, first, that they’re concerned about the worship, and therefore, I appreciate that. Secondly, they are concerned that it would be reverent, and I am committed to that. But what they are also saying is this: that “unless it continues in the way in which I have determined is right, then I want you to know that it’s wrong.” And it is at that point that we have to inevitably part company.
Every worship service should be a joyful celebration of the mighty acts of God through the Lord Jesus Christ. It is right for worship services to be dignified; it is not right for worship services to be dull. And a number of people want to explain dull as dignity and joy as irreverence. Now, it is possible for dignity to be dull and for expressions of joy to be irreverent. But the point is that the pattern in the Acts of the Apostles and the worshipping community of God’s people does not immediately set these things in distinct contrast with one another in the way in which it is most common to do in contemporary circles. And so you have, on the one hand, as I’ve said before, services which are much more akin to what you would find going on in a crematorium, and you have other services much more akin to what you would find going on in some kind of circus tent. And, of course, the circus variety go on their own way, and the crematorium people go in their own way. We’ve been trying to discover something in between the circus and the crematorium—and our journey continues.
“Everyone was filled with awe” because the Lord Jesus was present, and they knew that he was present. There was reverence, and there was rejoicing. There was formality, and there was informality. There was structure, and there was that which clearly was unstructured.
Now, again, you’re sensible people, and you must examine the Scriptures to see if these things are so.
Now, that’s all I want to say about those verses at the end of Acts 2. I want to illustrate this, in part, from the portion of Scripture that we just read from 2 Chronicles chapter 5. In fact, I’d like to start earlier in 1 Chronicles and chapter 23 and just give you the wider context of what we’re finding, because it is difficult to jump into this ancient book and to have any sense of our bearings. It would be a bit like being blindfolded and taken to somewhere in the country and then let out of the car, somebody takes the blindfolds off, and you’re left hopelessly trying to get your bearings and find out exactly where it is you’ve been deposited. So somebody takes you and drops you down in 2 Chronicles chapter 5, and unless you are a student of the Old Testament, you’re saying, “Where in the world have I arrived, and what does this mean?”
Well, I can’t do a great deal with it, but I want to do a wee bit with it, and just to give you a context, we’ll start in chapter 23 of 1 Chronicles: “When David was old and full of years, he made his son Solomon king over Israel. [And] he also gathered together all the leaders of Israel, as well as the priests and [the] Levites. [And] the Levites thirty years old or more were counted, and the total number of men was thirty-eight thousand.” Now David began to break them up; he said, “Of these, twenty-four thousand are to supervise the work of the temple of the Lord … six thousand are to be officials and judges. Four thousand are to be gatekeepers and four thousand are to praise the Lord with the musical instruments I have provided for that purpose.”
Now, I commend to your attention a study of the musical instruments of the Old Testament. All right? And you will very quickly discover that there ain’t no organ. All right? Which, of course, is a standard part of traditional worship. Okay? There is also a disturbing array of material upon which people bang, clang, and do a variety of things. Indeed, those of you who are particularly interested in the world of musicality will be well repaid from a careful study of these things. And a lot of them have a distinct resemblance to contemporary guitars, you will, of course—many of you—be disappointed to discover. At the same time, there’s a tremendous amount of banging around on drums and the clashing of cymbals, which others of you will also find of great concern. I’m sorry, but it’s there in the Bible.
My purpose is not to point that out; it is simply to show you that there were four thousand people who were to be set aside with all the materials so that they could “make a joyful noise to the Lord.” And as you read through the remainder of 1 Chronicles, you discover that the priests were divided up into groups: in chapter 25 you have the singers, in chapter 26 you have the gatekeepers, then you have the treasurers, and so on; chapter 27 you have the group divided up into armies, then you have the king’s overseers; and when you get to chapter 28, you have David’s plans for the temple. When you get to chapter 29, he’s bringing together all the gifts for the temple, and it’s quite incredible. For example, “With all my resources,” he says in 29:2,
[I’ve] provided for the temple of my God—gold for the gold work, silver for the silver, bronze for the bronze, iron … wood … onyx … turquoise, stones of various colors … all kinds of fine stone and marble—[and] all of these in large quantities. Besides, in my devotion to the temple of my God I now give my personal treasures of gold and silver for the temple of my God, over and above everything I have provided for this holy temple: three thousand talents of gold … seven thousand talents of refined silver, for the overlaying of the walls of the buildings, for the gold work … the silver work, … for all the work to be done by the craftsmen.
Then comes the question, “Now, who is willing [himself] to consecrate … to the Lord?” Quite a staggering challenge, you see, when the leader not only invests the resources that are part and parcel of the kingdom but says, “What I’m going to do now is, I’m going to take my own personal treasure store, and I’m going to use it to make walls with it. I’m going to go into my investment accounts, I’m going to take them out, and I’m going to use the material in my investment accounts so that the walls can be overlaid with gold and with silver. Now, I want to ask you a question,” he says. “Which of you men is prepared to consecrate himself to the Lord?” See, it’s a consecration to the Lord. The temple is only a means to an end. It’s not a consecration to the temple; it’s not a consecration to walls; it’s not a consecration to a building. It’s a consecration to the Lord. And the temple is merely symbolic of his presence.
Now, when you get into 2 Chronicles—which, of course, we have to do somewhat quickly—you have the transition to Solomon. And you will find that the preparations for the building are extensive, there in chapter 2. Then you have the building, the construction work, being done in chapter 3. Then you have this amazing, wonderful furnishing description in chapter 4, which is akin to the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, whom those of you who are architects will know to be one of the great architects of all time, who just happened to come from Scotland. And Rennie Mackintosh, when he designed a house, designed it right down to the cutlery. And those of you who are students of architecture will know that to be true. He did not merely finish with the plans and the structures, but he designed also the furnishings: the chairs, the tables, and in many cases even pottery, and right down to the very utensils that were used in eating. Now that’s the kind of thing that you have here in chapter 4.
And “when all the work [that] Solomon had done for the temple”—we’re now in chapter 5—“of the Lord was finished, he [then] brought in the things his father David had dedicated—the silver and [the] gold and all the furnishings—and he placed them in the treasuries of God’s temple.” What an amazing day that must have been! And what a heritage from his dad! He wouldn’t have been able to do that with any sense of sort of marginal interest. He must have pondered so many things as he oversaw these things being brought in and carefully placed, and as he recognized that somehow or another there was the stamp of his father’s kingship and the interest of his father in the God of all creation here in this manifestation. And then they anticipate the ark, which was the symbolic presence of God himself being brought to the temple.
Now, it’s in that context that I need you to notice three things, and I’m merely going to point them out to you; I’m not going to take time to expound them. We’ve said so much about worship in recent days that I don’t want to be guilty of simply repeating myself, but will you notice the consecration of God’s servants? In verse 11 it says, “The priests then withdrew from the Holy Place. All the priests who were there had consecrated themselves, regardless of their divisions.” They had been divided into twenty-four groups, each of them serving for two weeks. But the thing that marked them was the fact that they recognized that if they were to come before God with any sense of rectitude, they must do so from the perspective of consecration.
The particulars are not important for us—not as much as the very notion itself. Because when you think about the nature of consecration as it relates to worship, if you know your Bible at all, your mind will immediately go to Romans chapter 12 and to Paul’s words: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices.” In other words, to consecrate yourselves; “to offer your bodies as living sacrifices”; to regard your life as not being your own; to regard your emotions as being given into God’s care; to regard the totality of who you are and what you have—your gifts, your graces, your personality, all that makes you up—he says, “as the priests did in 2 Chronicles 5, I want you, in the same way, to come and consecrate yourselves.”
Now, let me say that when we find ourselves responding to this, we must immediately beware of two things. Beware of counterfeit consecration. Counterfeit consecration—such as Judas Iscariot. He was present at the Lord’s Supper. He went through all that the rest went through. To all intents and purposes, he was as close to Christ as the rest were. He was certainly engaged in all that he had heard from Jesus, he had followed along with the rest, and he was apparently one, with another eleven, involved in consecration. But his consecration was counterfeit.
It’s the same kind of thing that we saw last Sunday evening in relationship to Ananias and Sapphira: they gave the impression of consecration, but their consecration was counterfeit. And God warns all the way through the Bible about counterfeit consecration . He says, “Don’t bring to me your sacrifices; I’m tired of your sacrifices. I’m tired of your burnt offerings. They’re a stench in my nostrils. I desire obedience, not sacrifice. I don’t care if you wave your arms around; I want to know if you’re living in purity. I don’t care if you’re exuberant or unexuberant; I want to know that you’re consecrated to me.” Beware counterfeit consecration.
Beware, also, intermittent consecration. Intermittent consecration. “Well, I will follow you for a little while, and then I’ll go on my own for another little while,” and so on—the way many of us engage in exercise programs: bursts of enthusiasm followed by periods of chronic inertia. And the consecration of Romans 12 is not only a logical consecration in light of what God has done in his mercies, but it is a lasting consecration as well as being a living consecration: “Let your bodies be a living sacrifice.”
If we are going to make discoveries about worship—and I’m not talking style here—if Parkside Church is going to discover dimensions of genuine worship, it will not do so absent the consecration of God’s servants. It will not happen. You can create structure, you can establish performance, you can even have a jolly good sing. But genuine worship is grounded in the self-giving abnegation of the servants of God.
Secondly, notice not only the consecration of God’s servants, but look at also the celebration of God’s praise. It’s a wonderful picture; I would loved to have been there just to see what it was like. You’ve got this very fine and grand picture of these Levites lined up, “dressed in fine linen … playing cymbals, harps and lyres.” I can just hear an elderly gentleman expounding this in the past, saying, “And they weren’t coming to the service in their jeans, you know.” I said it was an elderly gentleman; I didn’t say it was me. I’m just telling you what I’ve heard. Clothes do manifest something of attitude.
And they had all the accoutrements necessary, and “the trumpeters and [the] singers”—verse 13—“joined in unison.” In other words, there was a unity in the celebration; there was a functional unity, insofar as we’re told that they sang in unison, and they sang “as with one voice.” There was no disparity; it was as though there was just one voice making this sound. They were marked not only by unity but also by fervency. Trumpets sounded, and cymbals clanged, and other instruments joined in this great cacophony of sound, and “they raised their voices in praise to the Lord and [they] sang.” So there was a fervency about what they were doing. There was none of this mumbling in your beard. There was none of this jingling your change in your pocket. There was none of this superficial stuff, you know. No, if you’d been there, you would have said, “My, my! These people are into this!” If you’d come as an outsider you would have said, “From a distance, I thought it was just one person with an amazing voice. Now that I’ve got closer, I discover that it is multiple voices, but they possess a unity, and they are marked by a fervency.”
And they are also marked by absolute clarity in what it is they are conveying. They weren’t just having an emotional trip. They weren’t just having an experience for themselves. They weren’t just having some form of subjective high that was based on their interest in music. They were declaring theology. See? “He is good; his love endures forever.” Their minds were engaged in truth. Their worship was rational, insofar as it engaged their minds. It was biblical, insofar as it was grounded in the Old Testament truths. It was volitional, insofar as they committed themselves to it in an act of the will. And it was emotional, inasmuch as their hearts were caught up in wonder and in praise.
Now, loved ones, that’s supposed to be what happens when God’s people celebrate in worship. And there are all kinds of words in Hebrew that define what’s going on in relationship to worship, and I wouldn’t go through them all, but one of words is halal, which simply means “making a noise”—some of you are not very good, but you can make a noise; yada, which has to do with our bodily actions; zamar, the playing of music. But it was unmistakably a celebration, joyful and reverent.
Joseph Kemp, who was the good minister of Charlotte Chapel from 1902 to 1915, was intrigued by what he was hearing about the revival in Wales. And he went from Edinburgh into Wales to see what was going on for himself. And when he came back, he told the congregation at Charlotte Chapel—and I quote him—“The Holy Ghost was in their singing.” See, there was a spiritual dimension to what was going on that could only be explained in terms of God. It didn’t have to do with style, it didn’t have to do with structure, it didn’t have to do with anything other than God in its ultimate source. “There was that,” he says, “which shot itself through”—I love that phrase, “shot itself through”; their worship was impregnated—“shot itself through all prescribed forms and shattered all conventionality.”
Now that’s enough for many of us to get off the boat right there. Because those kinds of phrases represent terror in our minds, because we have to control everything. Oh, yes, we would like God to work, but we only want God to work within the framework of our trenches. We’re not in charge of the trenches. The Scripture sets the parameters for the way in which God works. God’s character establishes the parameters for who he is and what he does. Therefore, we need not fear. He draws the boundaries; we live within them.
And, says Joseph Kemp—and it must have been a fairly gutsy statement, ’cause, you know, sixty years later in Charlotte Chapel, the people were still struggling a little bit with it—he said, “[But] such a movement with all its irregularities is to be preferred far above the dull, dreary, monotonous decorum of many [of our] churches.”
Now, I don’t want to be unkind, but as I travel this country, I encounter two things. Superficial stuff that is kind of geared to making pagans feel comfortable in worship—so, you get it to the lowest common denominator; it’s a kind of trivial sound. I’m not remotely interested in that. If we do evangelistic outreaches that are geared to the vast majority of the people coming as pagans, we may do them very differently. But within the framework of our average Sunday-by-Sunday worship, we’re not endeavoring to do that. And anyone who thinks that that may be part and parcel of it has missed the point completely, and I apologize for a lack of clarity.
So, on the one hand, a kind of superficial trivialization of anything that would be remotely close to worship, and on the other hand, the most doleful experience that you could ever imagine. And I go from place to place, and I say to myself, “Does God move by his Spirit anymore? Does God still ‘shoot himself through’ all the regularities? Does God still, by his Spirit, do unconventional things?”
And lastly, there is not only the consecration of God’s servants and the celebration of God’s praise, but there is the revelation of God’s presence. Look there at the end of verse 13 and the beginning of 14: “Then the temple of the Lord was filled with a cloud, and the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled the temple of God.”
Now this gets me excited. I start to get interested at this point. I want to be there for one of those events. I don’t want to live my Christian life in such a way that everything I do, say, mean, enjoy, and apply can all be explained in terms of human activity. I want there to be that about life, ministry, relationships, worship, evangelism, conversions, salvation, that we’re forced to say, “God did this”; that we’re not a slick marketing operation; that we’re not a production crew in relationship to worship; that we’re asking God to consume the place with his presence.
That’s what we’ve been looking at when we’ve considered it—and with this I conclude—in 1 Corinthians 14, where Paul says, concerning the way in which people could come into the experience of the worshipping church, especially in relationship to the question of ecstatic utterances, he says, “Tongues … are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is for [the] believers, not for [the] unbelievers,” and so on. He says, “If an unbeliever or someone who [doesn’t] understand comes in while everybody is prophesying”—speaking the word of God—“he will be convinced by all that he is a sinner and will be judged by all, and the secrets of his heart will be laid bare. So he will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, ‘God is really among you!’”
Would you pray to that end, church? Would you? I mean, do you just want to be Parkside Church, the big building on the end of Pettibone Road? Do you want to let everyone who describes our church just be able to describe it in terms of all these superficial characteristics? “They have a large this, they have one of these, they’re about to get one of these, they have this. The explanation is clear: it must be because of x, or whatever else it is.” Or do you want people to come amongst us and, on account of the consecration of God’s servants and the celebration of God’s praise and the revelation of God’s presence, find themselves saying, “God’s in that place”?
Now, you can say—and you probably will say—whatever you like, but God started us on a journey twenty-four, thirty months ago, I don’t know. I don’t think the journey’s over. I certainly expect God—don’t you?—to do things exceedingly abundantly beyond all that we can ask or even imagine. Expect to see unbelieving people become committed followers of Jesus Christ—unlikely people being brought to faith—in such a way that we say, “I would never in my wildest dreams have imagined that that girl would ever trust Christ. God did this! I would have never thought that I could learn to worship God in that way. Surely God is in the place.”
What do we need? We need a fresh vision—a fresh vision—of God himself. Let’s bow and ask him for that.
Father, make yourself known to us, we pray, in the hearing of your Word, in the praising of your name, in the breaking of bread. We don’t want to manufacture anything. We don’t want to be manipulated into anything, certainly by mere men. We don’t want to be stuck, Lord, with staid conventionality, nor do we want to be caught up in some kind of superficial movement. We just pray, Lord, that you will come to us and embrace us afresh by your Spirit. Fill us afresh with your goodness. Open our lips that our mouths might show forth your praise. Be our vision. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
 John Stott, The Message of Acts, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1994), 85.
 See Acts 17:11.
 1 Chronicles 23:1–3 (NIV 1984).
 1 Chronicles 23:4–5 (NIV 1984).
 Psalm 100:1 (ESV).
 1 Chronicles 29:2–5 (NIV 1984).
 1 Chronicles 29:5 (NIV 1984).
 2 Chronicles 5:1 (NIV 1984).
 Romans 12:1 (NIV 1984).
 See Isaiah 1:11–14 and Hosea 6:6.
 2 Chronicles 5:12 (NIV 1984).
 2 Chronicles 5:13 (NIV 1984).
 2 Chronicles 5:13 (NIV 1984).
 2 Chronicles 5:13 (NIV 1984).
 Winnie Kemp, Joseph W. Kemp: The Record of a Spirit-Filled Life (London: Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1936), 29–30.
 Kemp, Joseph W. Kemp, 31.
 1 Corinthians 14:22 (NIV 1984).
 1 Corinthians 14:24–25 (NIV 1984).
 See Ephesians 3:20.
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.