December, 2017

Reflections on Evening Worship – Keeping the Whole Day

As Pastor Donny has mentioned, the Session is considering the addition of an evening service of worship to complement our morning service. In order to facilitate conversation about an evening service, this reflection—and the next five—will lay out a multi-faceted case for why an evening service is a God-honoring and edifying addition to the life of this church. With that in mind, the first installment in this series will consider how framing the Lord’s Day with morning and evening worship is a fitting way to honor the fourth commandment’s command to keep the whole Sabbath day.

Before looking at the fourth commandment, it is important to note that Scripture does not mandate the New Testament church to worship morning and evening on the Lord’s Day. We are not being disobedient to the Word of God if we do not come together both morning and evening. But, the same can be said about worshiping together on Christmas Eve. There is no command to come together to worship on Christmas Eve, and those who do not do so are not disobeying God’s will. We do worship on Christmas Eve, however, because we find that it is God-honoring and edifying. It is God-honoring because it sets apart and recognizes the incarnation as an important event in the history of redemption. It is edifying because 1) we are worshiping God, 2) we are communing with brothers and sisters in Christ, and 3) we benefit spiritually from recognizing important events in the history of redemption. We should view evening worship in a similar way. It is not required, but when we do it, it honors God and edifies the saints.

One way that evening worship honors God and benefits us is that it provides structure to each Lord’s Day so that we are better able to keep the whole day holy to God. Let’s consider what God says in the fourth commandment, and then how evening worship fits in.

The four verses that comprise the fourth commandment shout out loud that God’s people are to keep the whole Sabbath day holy to God. Specifically, we see a few things related to the word “day.” First, it is frequent. Seven times the word “day” or a reference to it pops up in these verses. Second, it is central to the point. At the beginning of the commandment, “day” modifies the word “Sabbath” to highlight that we are to remember not just a Sabbath but a Sabbath day. Moreover, God blesses the whole Sabbath day because he rested on the seventh day of creation. Throughout this commandment, we see that the unit of measure is a day. We are to keep time not in hours nor in any other measure, but in (whole) days.

We also see in this commandment that the pattern of keeping one whole day out of seven as a Sabbath to God is founded on the creation week. Exodus 20:11 makes explicit reference to Gen 2:2-3 which summarizes what has happened in Gen 1:1-2:1. In Gen 1:1-2:1, there is a description of six consecutive days of creation and one day of rest. There is no eighth day and there is no repetition of the first day of creation. This suggests that God’s creation week was the model for how Adam and Eve were then to keep time going forward—and therefore how we are to keep time as well. Six days we are to work; one day we rest; rinse and repeat.

What we learn from this model is that one whole day is dedicated to rest. God did not create over the course of seven days with periods of rest here and there. He worked six whole days and rested one whole day. Thus, we are not conforming to God’s pattern when we try to intersperse some rest time here and there with the hope of it all adding up to one seventh of our week. Ordinarily, we are to keep the whole Sabbath day and to work the rest of the week.

The fourth commandment gives us good reason to think through how we can honor God in the way that we keep the whole Sabbath day holy to him. What evening worship offers to us is a structural support. It is like book ends that support books sitting on a desk. Without both book ends, the books are far less likely to stay where you put them. When you use both book ends, whatever is placed in between is more structurally secure than it would be without them. An evening service of worship is that second book end to help us organize and keep structurally sound all the other activities of rest and worship that we will do on the Lord’s Day. Is it possible to keep the whole day holy without an evening service? It certainly is, just as it is possible that a row of books on a desk will remain standing even if it does not have book ends. But consider what happens when you bump the desk. There is nothing to keep the books steady, just as there is nothing to help us to keep the whole day when our lives get complicated. When we frame the Lord’s Day with worship, we have a helpful support in our endeavors to honor God’s command that we keep the whole day holy to him.

Ordinary Means – Listening to the Word

The Good News of Jesus Christ is outwardly communicated to us through God’s Word. God has ordained that we will come to knowledge and understanding of the redemption that has been won by Christ through the reading and preaching of God’s Word (WLC 155). Through the reading and preaching of God’s Word, Christ is revealed to the elect. The Holy Spirit makes this communication effective. But, humanly speaking, if the preaching of the Word is to be effective, it must be heard.

The Christian is obliged to hear and to listen to the Word preached. We must put ourselves in close enough proximity to the voice of the preacher (either immediately or mediately through recordings) so that his sound is received into our ears and translated by our brains into intelligible noises. This is hearing. But hearing must be accompanied with listening. Any parent can probably explain the difference between simply hearing and listening. A child might hear his parent’s instruction, but if it does not actually register in his brain, then he has not listened. One can have background music playing in the office and hear it, but not really listen to it. The Word preached must be heard, meaning we need to be present enough to receive the sound, but it also must be listened to.

Every preacher has looked out into the congregation and seen blank stares or eyes closed in slumber. Perhaps the sermon is heard, but it is patently obvious (in spite of the person’s protestations) that he is not listening. What is required in not merely hearing but listening to the sermon? The Larger Catechism 160 says we must listen with “diligence, preparation, and prayer; examine what [is heard] by the scriptures.” In order to listen to the preached Word, we need to listen with diligence and preparation. Preparation likely begins the night before by getting enough rest so that one is not drowsy. The work week can be burdensome. For many people sitting down for 30 minutes during the sermon is the only time they slow down during their whole week. With that exhaustion, they are nodding off after a few minutes. We must prepare to receive God’s Word by being physically ready to sit and actively listen to the Word.

We also need to listen with diligence and preparation by learning how to listen. T David Gordon notes that most people in Western society today are aliterate.[1] It isn’t that they can’t read, but rather that they don’t read. And when they do read, it is in a shallow and vapid manner. I recently read the 1904 newspaper clipping from my great-great grandfather’s mysterious death from the Eagle Valley Times. It was written by a nameless journalist in a nothing town in the Colorado frontier at the turn of the 20th century. And it is more eloquent than nearly anything written by journalists today. It isn’t because people can’t write like that, it is because people won’t read like that. Ours is a highly visual age. We are a people who want to consume images instead of words. This is combined with the Google-age where nearly limitless information is available with a few taps of the thumb. When we do read, we tend to read for information and not to understand. If we read poetry, we read looking for some line we like instead of seeking to understand the thoughts of the poet. All meaning and interpretation becomes centered around the consumer. The meaning of the word is whatever it means to me. And the result is that when a word is given, our literary abilities are too scrawny to meet the task. This affects how we listen to preaching. We need to prepare to listen to the preached Word by laboring to understand what God is saying to us through the Word.

One aspect that will help us to do this is if we receive the preached Word as the Word of God. The Larger Catechism instructs us to “receive the truth with faith, love, meekness, and readiness of mind, as the word of God.” The 2nd Helvetic Confession 1.4 is even clearer when it confesses that “the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.” The preacher is not regarded as God, but even though he is a sinner the word faithfully preached is good and true. If we see the preached Word with this kind of gravitas, then we will do the work necessary to listen and understand. If we value rightly the preached Word then we will also labor to meditate upon it. We will turn it over in our minds and contemplate its meaning. We will examine it thoroughly and weigh it against the whole of Scripture that we might better understand God and what he requires of us. And then we will do it. We will bear fruit in our lives. God’s Word “shall not return void” (Is 55:11, KJV).

[1] T. David Gordon, Why Johnny Can’t Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers, unknown edition (Phillipsburg, N.J: P & R Publishing, 2009), 37.

Ordinary Means – Preaching the Word

Sailing during the Age of Exploration was a dangerous occupation. There were innumerable hazards from the sea. And there were other hazards simply due to the nature of life away from land. Once longer sailing trips across the Indian and Pacific Oceans became part of the routes of explorations, diseases like scurvy began to enter into the picture. Scurvy was a nasty and deadly disease for sailors. Sir Richard Hawkins, the 17th century English seaman and explorer, described it as “the plague of the Sea, and the Spoyle [spoil] of Mariners.”

Scurvy was essentially a deficiency of vitamins C and B. This deficiency caused a breakdown of tissues on a cellular level. Its effects were horrific. The skin would turn black. Ulcers would appear all over the body. Teeth would fall out. There would be a hyper-sensitivity to smell, sound, and light. But the literature of the day most widely discussed the disfigurement of the sailor’s gums and his revolting breath as a result. It was a brutal disease that would wipe-out whole crews. Commodore George Anson led a squadron of six ships into the Pacific in 1740. Of his 2000 sailors over 1300 died, mostly due to scurvy.

It was discovered that citrus would cure scurvy. A healthy dose of vitamin C would be added to the sailor’s daily ration of grog (a water/rum drink common on ships) in the form of lime juice. Before “limey” was slang for a British person, it was a derogatory word for a British sailor who drank this lime juice to prevent scurvy. In short, the disease of scurvy was cured when the deficiency was supplied.

The evangelical church today is suffering from a form of spiritual scurvy. There is a deficiency in our spiritual diets that leads to all sorts of spiritual ailments. That deficiency is a lack of the Word of God in our lives. God has ordained that the ordinary manner to supply this necessity to our spiritual diet is through the reading and preaching of God’s Word. The preaching of God’s Word is a crucial and essential component of our spiritual lives. Without it we will suffer a spiritual scurvy.

The Westminster Larger Catechism instructs that the Word of God is to be preached by qualified and called men. Those who preach should be “sufficiently gifted,” meaning they are spiritually mature as demonstrated through his life (1 Tim 3:1-7). He should also be intellectually gifted and trained. He must be able to handle the Scriptures appropriately. He must be able to apply the Scriptures to everyday life. He must be able to communicate clearly. And he must be “called to that office.” An elder/pastor/preacher is a not a vocation, per se. It is not a profession as much as it is an office. The preacher is to be appropriately called by the church to fulfill that office. One does not simply decide that he will become a minister. He must be called by God and that calling must be confirmed by that church. Even Jesus did not make himself a High Priest, but he was appointed by God (Heb 5:4-5).

The preaching of God’s Word is to be done by a man properly qualified and called. And that man is to preach God’s Word with sound doctrine. He is to preach diligently and plainly. Sound doctrine is essential for Christians to come to true knowledge of who God is and what duty God requires of man. Pure food and pure water are needed for health. Pure doctrine is needed for the vitality of our souls. The preaching of God’s Word must, therefore, accurately explain the truths of Scripture.

The preacher must also preach diligently and plainly. He must preach “in season and out of season” (2 Tim 4:2). He must present the truth of Scripture in a way that is understandable. He must not skip the difficult portions or ignore unpopular passages. He is not to rely on eloquent rhetoric, but instead he is to trust the power of God’s Spirit. Augustine was one of the most eloquent and skilled rhetoricians, and yet he was captivated by the power of Ambrose’s preaching, a power that didn’t consist in rhetoric, but the Spirit. This is contrasted with how today’s evangelical is enamored with a charismatic or winsome communicator who delivered a polished and engaging speech but does not preach the power of God’s Word.

When the Word of God is not preached faithfully by qualified and called men, the people are afflicted with a severe deficit. The body that goes without the preaching of God’s Word suffers from a spiritual scurvy. If left untreated, it will lead to death. But God has provided for the proclamation of the Good News so that His People would hear His Truth for their conversion, edification, and salvation. And all of this is done toward this chief end, the glory of God.

Ordinary Means – Reading the Word

When I lived in the former Soviet Union, I was fortunate enough to visit several Russian Orthodox churches. Inside, there would be some ornate and elaborate display off to the side with icons, candles, and a beautiful gold-plated Bible. But if you asked any of the people in the church about the Bible, they were clueless. They had never really read it. It might never have even been opened. They believed the Bible was powerful. But they would never actually read it. That was something priests or religious scholars might do. But for the ordinary person, they might have a copy of it. It should be reverenced and honored, but it was not to be read.

We too believe the Bible is powerful. But we do not believe it is magical talisman. There is no power inherent in the book. Instead, the words of the Bible are powerful because those words are the means by which God reveals himself to us and the Holy Spirit works salvation in us. The Word on its own will never save, but with the Holy Spirit, will use that outward means to affect an inward regeneration. The Word is not, strictly speaking, essential, but it is the outward and ordinary means of grace in the Christian’s life.

As such we should read the Bible. This should be patently obvious, but it is far too common in the church today that this is assumed but not practiced. Many churches and many Christians live lives that are practically devoid of the Bible. Evangelical churches sit through sermons that give pointers on better living that never explain the Scriptures. It is not uncommon for whole worship services to be conducted in which only one or two verses are actually read. It is becoming more and more rare for Christian families to have a time of family worship. Individuals might read a brief devotional each morning but rarely seek to study their Bibles.

The answer to this is problem is simple. Just do it. The officers in the church should make sure that their worship services are saturated with Scripture. They must lead by reading God’s Word to the people. Fathers must take charge of the spiritual growth of their families by reading God’s Word to them. And every Christian should labor to read and understand the Scriptures. Christians are to be a literate people. When we think about educational philosophies and schooling choices, these should all be governed by one principle motive: What choices will make my child a better reader of Scripture?

The Larger Catechism #157 follows this idea up with this simple question, “How is the word of God to be read?” We are to read the Scriptures with a high and reverent esteem, with a firm persuasion that it is true, with a desire to know, believe, and obey God’s will, and with diligence, meditation, application, self-denial, and prayer. There is a lot to digest in that answer.

We are to read with high and reverent esteem of the Scriptures knowing that it is true. The Bible is different from any other book. It is the standard by which all other knowledge is to be judged. We come to it as the plumb line of truth. When questions arise, we must doubt our own understanding before we doubt the veracity of Scripture’s claims. We should humbly admit that our fallen and feeble minds are more suspect to error than God’s perfect word.

We are to read with a desire to know, believe, and obey God’s will for our lives. Shorter Catechism #3 is a wonderful summary of the whole catechism. “What do the Scriptures principally teach? The scriptures principally teach what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man.” This should be our motive in studying the Scriptures. Who is God and what does God require of me? We can study the Bible as literature, history, or art, but if we miss this central message, then we are doomed. Johannes Vos asks this question, “What would we think of a guilty, convicted criminal who, when offered a free pardon, would pay no attention to this offer, but merely write an essay on the literary form and style of the message by which the offer was conveyed?”[1] We have not read the Bible rightly unless we have read it with a desire to know God and his will for our lives.

Lastly, we are to read with diligence, meditation, application, self-denial, and prayer. The Bible is a big book. It has difficult things in it. The apostle Peter even acknowledged this (2 Pet 3:16). It takes some effort and diligence to understand it. It also requires meditation. This is not some eastern metaphysical kind of exercise. It means to spend time contemplating and chewing it over in your mind and studying it deeply. But all of this knowledge must be applied to real life. Without application we become hypocrites. The Word must actually change our lives. And for application to take root, we must practice self-denial. We cannot only accept those teachings that we find agreeable, but we must submit our will to God’s Word. Finally, we are to read with prayer. The Spirit does the work of the Word in our lives. Without prayer our study will only lead to conceit and pride.

 

[1] Johannes Geerhardus Vos and W. Robert Godfrey, The Westminster Larger Catechism: A Commentary, ed. G. I. Williamson (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2002), 444.