The assembly in light of the New Testament texts
You’ll notice that there’s not much in the “worship” passages about the Sunday morning assembly. The scriptures certainly assume that God’s people will gather together, but the assembly is never called “worship.” And yet it’s a modern assumption that the assembly is worship, and while many would concede that the rest of life is worship, too, the assumption is that the assembly is the deepest, truest worship.
There are arguments to be made, but I think we make a serious mistake if we simply leap from “assembly” to “worship” and start talking about how to “do worship” as though there’s some semi-secret rulebook for how to conduct the assembly — a secret, Christian Leviticus hidden in the silences and inferences.
Indeed, the evidence is that we shouldn’t bother looking for such a thing. Indeed, the scriptures rather plainly deny that possibility.
Rather, our efforts are better spent in considering the purposes for the assembly that are actually given. God is not silent.
(Heb 10:19-22 ESV) 19 Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.
The author of Hebrews builds a case contrasting the continuous salvation found in Jesus to the necessity of repeated sacrifices under the Law. Thus, the sacrifice of Jesus gives us “confidence” and “full assurance of faith” because our hearts and bodies have been cleansed “once for all” (Heb 10:10).
(Heb 10:23 ESV) 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.
The result of this assurance and confidence is the need to “hold fast … without wavering.” Jesus is faithful, but we may not be. How do we deal with the daily struggle of being faithful? God keeps his promises, but we might not. What’s the solution?
(Heb 10:24-25 ESV) 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
We meet. We meet to encourage each other to “love and good works.” “Stir up” can also be translated “irritate”! The NIV translates “spur on” (poke sharp metal into the ribs!) The KJV says “provoke.” We need to push each other so hard that we risk being a little painful!
Why? Why push our brothers and sisters to love and good works? Well, for at least these reasons —
1. How else could we be like Jesus? How else could we imitate God? God loves and does good works. Therefore, so must we. The goal is to be restored to God’s image.
Earlier, the author had quoted Jeremiah 31 —
(Heb 8:10-11 ESV) 10 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 11 And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.
You see, “my laws” are the characteristics of God, his image, his likeness. We will be God’s people because we “know” God. We will know him because his nature will be impressed on our natures.
This is not merely about obedience. It’s about being transformed to be like God, to share in his passions, his love, his mission.
(2Co 3:17-18 ESV) 17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
“Glory” is a word that refers to the presence of God Almighty.
(Exo 40:33-35 ESV) 33 And he erected the court around the tabernacle and the altar, and set up the screen of the gate of the court. So Moses finished the work. 34 Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. 35 And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.
God, through his Spirit, is transforming us “into the same image from one degree of glory to another” — to be more and more like God.
The assembly, therefore, helps us cooperate with God’s work within us, so that we do not reject the confidence and assurance we have in Jesus by rebelling. Rather, by pursuing God-likeness, by growing in love and good works, we flee rebellion and pursue God. And therefore we are confident of our eternal salvation — we are pursuing God and therefore can’t be in rebellion.
(Heb 10:26-27 ESV) 26 For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27 but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.
You see, we can rebel and, if we engage in ongoing rebellion, we are damned. Therefore, we meet to encourage each other to remain true to God’s truth.
What is the purpose of the assembly? To draw us closer to Jesus, so that our hearts and minds are shaped into a cross, that is, so that we become more and more like the Glory of God, more and more like his Son, and more and more like a sacrifice.
What is the test of a great assembly? Did we encourage others to become more like Jesus by living lives of love and good works.
In Hebrews, before the author gets to 10:24-25, there are two kinds of “works” in view.
There are the works of God —
(Heb 1:10 ESV) And, “You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning, and the heavens are the work of your hands;
(Heb 3:8-9 ESV) 8 do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness, 9 where your fathers put me to the test and saw my works for forty years.
God’s works declare his glory and draw people toward him.
And there are “dead works,” that is, works done to earn salvation —
(Heb 6:1-2 ESV) Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, 2 and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.
(Heb 9:14 ESV) 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.
The author later introduces the idea of God’s law being written on our hearts —
(Heb 8:10 ESV) 10 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
And so, because it is God working through us, our works are no longer “dead works” but “good works” —
(Heb 10:24 ESV) 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works,
These are not works that earn salvation but, rather, works — like the mighty works of God himself — that declare the glory of God. It is, after all, God in us that produces these works.
(John 3:21 ESV) “But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”
(John 14:12 ESV) 12 “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father.”
The assembly, therefore, is designed to help us become more and more like God — a people who do good works that declare the glory of God and who love the way Jesus loves.