What Takes Place at the Worship Assembly?
Many believe that worship attendance seems to have little relationship to God’s demands for the Christian life. During my school years at Harding University, most of the student-body petitioned every semester for chapel attendance to no longer be a requirement. Students would complain that “nothing happens in chapel” and express their boredom by neglecting and refusing to attend. This is a well-known issue, not just in Christian universities, but also in congregations of the Lord’s church. Some members become bored with the same acts of worship every Sunday, dull with their stay-at-home “virtual worship,” and weary to the point of “dropping out of church.”
In the Book of Hebrews, the New Testament Christians had developed a disturbing custom of dropping out of the worship assembly (10:25). They had become “dull of hearing” (5:11) and were in danger of falling away (3:12; 6:4-5). They had “hands that are weak and the knees that are feeble” (12:12). Thus, to express their dullness, boredom, and weariness they dropped out of public worship. My fellow Christians, dropping out of public worship is not like withdrawing from a club. It is more like throwing away a precious treasure… like choosing a worthless trinket we could have now in place of something of far greater value… or like Esau who threw away his precious inheritance for a single meal (12:16). When we focus too much on the physical, we lose sight of the spiritual.
In Hebrews 12:18-29, the inspired writer makes a contrast between the Old Testament Mount Sinai and the New Testament Mount Zion. It serves as a reminder for what happens every time we come to worship, even when we are not moved emotionally. These beautiful words might have been read to a small congregation meeting in someone’s home. Nothing about that assembly would look impressive. Yet the little congregation hears that something very important takes place when they assemble for worship.
The Great Encounter Takes Place – 12:18-22a
Unlike Moses and the Israelites, we “have not come to what may be touched” (verse 18a). The writer remembers a time when the people of Israel encountered God at Mount Sinai in Exodus 19. Their encounter dealt with things that could be physically seen, heard, and touched (verse 18b-20): “a blazing fire and darkness” and a raging “tempest” storm that made the viewers sweat profusely; “the sound of a trumpet” and a thundering “voice” that made the listeners “beg” for it to cease. Upon witnessing this event, you would agree with Moses when he says, “I tremble with fear” (verse 21). Truly, it was an awesome and impressive spectacle!
But Christians, who meet in small congregations that are plain and unimpressive, “have come to Mount Zion” (verse 22a). The phrase “you have come” is one word in the Greek and could be translated “draw near.” It was the Old Testament word for the high priest who would “draw near” to God at the temple to sacrifice (10:1). But having come to Mount Zion, we all have access to God through the blood of the High Priest, Jesus Christ (4:16; 10:19-21).
Have you ever thought about what happens in worship when you are not in the mood and when the singing and preaching are not pleasing? It is always tempting for us to judge the quality of worship by the beauty of the setting or the impressiveness of what we see and hear. The Israelites at Mount Sinai had encountered God in a scene that was tangible and terrifying to the senses. But our worship is different… “You have not come to what may be touched.” Our worship may not look impressive, but we still are in God’s presence! When we encounter Him, He is speaking to us through His Son from the “heavenly Jerusalem” – “the city of the living God” (12:22b) that cannot be seen or touched, and which creates no terror. It is one of the great blessings of the Christian faith to “come” and “draw near” to God in worship (12:22; also 10:22).
The Great Ensemble Takes Place – 12:22c-24
These little communities might have had difficulty believing this, but they needed to make time for the public worship assembly—not virtual, zoom, or skype! If we do not make time to worship with the assembly publicly, we disobey God and lose our perspective on life and sense of values. We begin to think that the only things that are real are the things we can see and touch. But in the public worship service—in the singing of hymns, the preaching of the Word, and all that comes with it—we have come to the heavenly Jerusalem!
Often, we think of worship as an ensemble of friends in the local community, but it is more than that. First, it is an ensemble of angels: “innumerable angels in festal gathering” (verse 22c). The Greek word “innumerable” means “tens of thousands”—lit. 100,000,000—, but the writer seems to use the word as an expression for an indefinite number. Angels rejoice when a sinner becomes saved or when a brother repents and is restored (Luke 15:7, 10). They also continually represent the child of God to the Father in heaven (Matthew 18:10). They aid and serve us in ways of which we know nothing at the present time (Hebrews 1:14).
Second, worship is an ensemble of Christians worldwide: “to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven” (verse 23a). The Greek word for “assembly” here is not the usual word used for “church.” Rather, it is a word that refers to a “national gathering of celebration to honor someone” (Kittel 5.721). When we come to worship, we are gathered with all New Testament Christians worldwide to honor, celebrate, and sing, “Christ the Lord is risen!” In countless languages, Christians, in unison, recall the death of Jesus by sharing in the Lord’s Supper. It is good to be loyal to our own congregation, but it is also good to know that in worship we meet with New Testament Christians around the world.
Third, “God, the Judge of all” is included in the great ensemble (verse 23b). In ancient Israel, He was present despite fire, darkness, and gloom. But for us He is present in the study of the Word and in the offering of praise (10:19-25).
Fourth, the great ensemble includes those who have preceded us: “to the spirits of the righteous made perfect” (verse 23c). The heroes of faith (chapter 11) are the “so great a cloud of witnesses” (12:1) and the righteous spirits (12:23c) who sit in the stadium and cheer us on as we finish our race. We are in danger of living only for the moment and losing our contact with the past. But in worship we meet with those who have preceded us.
Fifth, Jesus and His blood share a part in the great ensemble: “Jesus, the Mediator of a new covenant and the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (verse 24). In worship we meet with the One who gives us the confidence to draw near to the Father. Jesus is the One who was offered once and for all, bringing absolute forgiveness (10:10, 18). A society that has lost its sense of worship has been left all alone without a word of comfort or direction from outside and without anyone to offer a word of forgiveness. In worship the blood of Christ “speaks” to us! We come as imperfect Christians, having failed to live up to Christ’s standard. There may be some who come having failed as parents, grandparents, sons, daughters, husbands, and wives. But as we enter worship, we discover the blood of the One who speaks to us words of comfort and forgiveness: “For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more” (8:12).
Realizing that worship is the great encounter with God and the great ensemble listed in 12:22-24, it seems ludicrous that anyone would be careless about going to worship service. To neglect worship to enjoy the things we can see and touch is absurd! But like Esau, we are tempted to throw away the lasting gift for the one we can have now (12:16). When we neglect worship, we throw away the lasting possession… Therefore, the readers are told, “Do not refuse Him who is speaking” (12:25).
Cory Landolt holds a BA degree in Bible & Ministry, and another BA in Psychology at Harding University. He obtained his BA in Bachelor’s in Theology at the School of Preaching in Bear Valley Bible Institute International. Cory is a 2009 graduate of the Future Preacher’s Training at the Pennington Bend church of Christ in Nashville, TN. He is also a 2009 graduate of the Fisher’s of Men program at OceanSide church of Christ in Atlantic Beach, FL and a former writer for the Gospel Advocate. He has completed six years of mission work on the Navajo Indian Reservation: one year at Fort Defiance, AZ, and five years at Kayenta, AZ.
Cory met his beautiful wife on the Reservation and they have been married for 3 wonderful years! God blessed them with a beautiful son, Arthur Landolt, who is now three months old. Currently, he is a minister for the Pangburn church of Christ.