Worship: Emptied or Filled?

August 23, 2022
Brian Gunning

Israel is not the church, and the church is not Israel. But Scripture gives the church warrant to learn from Israel.  For example, Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10: 

Now these things became our examples, to the intent that we should not lust after evil things as they also lusted (v. 6)Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come (v. 11). Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall (v. 12).

And there are many other parallels between Israel and the present-day life of the Christian. One of these parallels is worship. The church can learn a great deal from Israel’s worship from the Lord’s instructions given to the nation on how they would approach God. Consider one such example. In Exodus 23 Israel was given instructions in keeping the Feast of Unleavened Bread. One of those instructions was that “none shall appear before Me empty.”

You shall keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread (you shall eat unleavened bread seven days, as I commanded you, at the time appointed in the month of Abib, for in it you came out of Egypt; none shall appear before Me empty)… (v. 15)

No self-respecting Israelite would dare to come before the Lord “empty.” I wonder how many times I have appeared before the Lord empty as we meet to remember Him on a Sunday morning. The many silences indicate this problem is more widespread that we would like to admit.

Modern day worship in the church is quite different from what Scripture teaches. In many churches today, the worshippers attend with an expectation that the specialists of the worship teams will lead the congregation in worship and hopefully produce a worshipful atmosphere or feeling. But is that what Scripture teaches?

This is not a new development in church history. In fact, it is a return to a dark period of church history. Scott Aniol writes in a paper entitled “Return to Rome? The Need for a Modern Worship Reformation” delivered to the 2020 Chafer Theological Seminary Bible Conference, March 10, 2020:

Medieval worship also developed the error of sacerdotalism, the belief in the necessity of a human priest to approach God on the behalf of others. As a result of the drastic increase of church attendance in the fourth century, a strict distinction between clergy and laity had developed wherein the clergy did not trust the illiterate, uneducated masses to worship God appropriately on their own. Thus, the clergy offered “perfected” worship on behalf of the people. The pronouncement by the Council of Laodicea in 363 illustrates this: “No others shall sing in the church, save only the canonical singers, who go up into the ambo and sing from a book.” While this was a local council, it illustrates what became common among most churches in the Middle Ages.

The quality of worship became measured by the excellence of the music and the aesthetic beauty of the liturgy, and while this facilitated the production of some quite beautiful sacred music during the period, it resulted in “worship” becoming mostly what the priests did in the chancel, which eventually was often distinctly separated from the nave by high rails or even a screen. This clergy/laity separation was only exacerbated by the continued use of Latin as the liturgical language despite the fact that increasing numbers of people did not understand the language.

By the end of the fourteenth century, members of the congregation rarely participated in the Lord’s Supper, and even when they did, the cup was withheld from them lest some of Christ’s blood sprinkle on the unclean. Roman worship had moved from the “work of the people” (leitourgia) to the work of the clergy. As even Roman Catholic liturgical scholar Joseph Jungmann notes, “the people were devout and came to worship; but even when they were present at worship, it was still clerical worship… The people were not much more than spectators. This resulted largely from the strangeness of the language which was, and remained, Latin… The people have become dumb.” The people became mere spectators of the worship performed by priests on their behalf.

Biblical worship requires that each worshipper come prepared to worship. Hearts and heads are to be full, not empty. In Israel, the worshipper would come with an offering. Such offerings were obtained through work. The rearing of the animal, the growing of the wheat, or in some cases the exchange of hard-earned money to obtain something to offer. In other words, their worship took work. Likewise, in the church age we too are called to worship and bring something. And it will take work. How then can we come full instead of empty? Here are some suggestions.

The content of our worship is already provided for us in our Bibles. In practical terms, to be a worshipper, is to bring before the Lord what He has already stated to be true about His Son in Scripture. Therefore, a prepared worshipper comes by meditating on what the Scriptures say about the Lord Jesus Christ and brings that out in prayer and meditation as believers gather together. The Scriptures are our source of worship material. Notice Luke’s observation: “And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.” (v. 27).

As we read through all of Scripture, both Old and New Testament, we are presented with more than enough to occupy ourselves with worship. For example, we might notice various typological examples of Christ in the offerings and tabernacle. Or we could think about statements made about Him prophetically in the Messianic Psalms. Consult a good study Bible which will identify those Psalms. You could notice the many references in the prophets about Christ. We can notice the direct statements made by the gospel writers and continue through the epistles ending with the “Revelation of Jesus Christ.”

Stopping to observe these statements to think and meditate on them, and if opportunity arises to audibly share these with fellow believers on a Sunday morning will equip us and fill us up as worshippers. We will not be empty. Another way of preparing for worship is to spend time reading through various hymns of worship. It is a good investment for a Christian to obtain a personal copy of the hymnbook used in your assembly for worship, so it is available to you throughout the week. Many hymnwriters capture in a beautiful way the truths of Scripture concerning the Lord Jesus Christ. It will enable us to inform ourselves and to fill up our baskets of worship. These things need to be intentionally scheduled and not left to chance opportunity. A habit of preparing for worship on a Saturday night or early Sunday morning or periodically throughout the week will prepare us to be worshippers.  

But all of this, although within the grasp of every believer, will take work. Just as an Israelite in the ancient world would have to work in rearing his flock or growing his harvest—planting, feeding, cleaning, harvesting, and many other forms of work—so likewise this process of preparing for worship will take work. But what a reward this work will give us.

Are we empty worshippers? “Empty worshippers” is a contradictory expression.  If we are “empty,” then we are not worshippers. If we are worshippers, then we are not “empty.”

The modern church often has church staff who are charged with the responsibility to bring the worship. The congregants attend with the expectation the worship team will bring a beautiful worship experience. But often in assemblies there are only a handful who are prepared to be true worshippers. It is easy to sit back and come simply expecting them to do all the work.

Worship takes work.