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David Instone-Brewer considers a heavenly perspective on our worship gatherings
The wonderful opening to the Anglican Westminster Shorter Catechism states: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” It’s a succinct summing up of what is surely one of Christianity’s least controversial doctrines. But there are puzzling aspects about it.
Firstly, the statement makes it seem like we worship God for the fun of it. But the catechism’s proof text is Psalm 86, which says (in summary): Please help me (v1-7); no one is as great as you (v8-13); so save me from my enemies (v14-17). This implies that we glorify God to encourage him to help us – as if we need to flatter him to gain favours.
So do we worship God because he demands it of us? That’s certainly the way the world seems to operate. Dictators crave adulation so much that they organise crowds of supporters and fill the media with positive news about themselves. Personality cult leaders expel members who express doubts about their greatness or fail to praise them loudly enough. But all this is a world away from the worship that God wants.
So in what way is God’s worship different? Firstly, although God is pleased to receive worship, he doesn’t demand it. Admittedly, Church doctrines do make it seem as though worship is commanded. The Reformed Westminster Confession states, “Religious worship is to be given to God”. The Catholic Catechism finds this command in Jesus’ response to Satan: “You shall worship the Lord your God”. The Orthodox Catechism lists our “duties” which start: “In the first commandment we are taught to know and worship the true God.”
However, the Bible texts these doctrinal statements use originally had a different message: the emphasis about worship was that it should not be given to the wrong gods. The first commandment is not, “You shall worship me”, but “Do not worship other gods” (Exodus 20:3-6). And Jesus’ reply to Satan was in rejection of Satan’s invitation to worship him instead of God in return for a great reward (Matthew 4:8-10). The emphasis of the text Jesus quotes in reply is: “It is the Lord your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve” (Deuteronomy 6:13).
You’d expect these Church documents to use clearer proof texts to show that God commands us to worship him. But in complete contrast to Satan and humans who crave worship, nowhere in the Bible does God demand or even ask for it.
We certainly should worship God – it is a natural response to his goodness and greatness – but he does not demand it of us. When people demand praise or unquestioning service it normally indicates that they don’t deserve it. Mandatory worship is as un-genuine as love given on demand. We might encourage others to love and praise God – like Moses encouraged us to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart…” (Deuteronomy 6:5) – but only a despot commands it for himself.
This still leaves the tricky question, why should we worship? Why is God pleased by it? Demons and despots need it to bolster their egos and remind their subjects how great they are, to gain more power over them. Our God doesn’t need any of that. So perhaps we are encouraged to meet together to praise and glorify God for our own sake – to remind ourselves of who he is? This may certainly be helpful, but there is another, more exciting reason. The biblical basis for it is thin, and somewhat surprising (at least to me), so I’m presenting this with enthusiasm but not with absolute certainty. In Ephesians 3 we read about the “mystery” of God’s plan, and we find out what it is in verse 10: “His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms” (my italics). It appears from this verse that our church worship services are being listened to, intently, by an unseen congregation.
WE ARE ESPECIALLY IN THE HEAVENLY REALMS WHEN WE WORSHIP
The “heavenly realms” is a phrase found only in Ephesians. God is there with Jesus “at his right hand in the heavenly realms” (1:20), but “the powers of this dark world and… the spiritual forces of evil” are also in the heavenly realms (6:12). And, surprisingly, even we are there in some sense because “God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms” (2:6). We are especially in the heavenly realms when we worship as a Church because all the other occupants of the heavenlies are in attendance too!
Your reaction to this should be scepticism. The text is ambiguous and it is possible that Paul meant something else. However, this interpretation has become much more likely since the discovery of documents among the Dead Sea Scrolls which show that many Jews already had this understanding. The Song of the Sabbath Sacrifice talks about Jewish worship being sung “in the congregation of all the wise godlike beings and…divine spirits”. Another text in the Damascus Document calls for careful behaviour by those who “enter the congregation, for the holy angels are in your midst”. This also agrees with obscure Old Testament texts such as “You who inhabit the praises of Israel” (Psalm 22:3 translated literally). And it explains Paul’s strange comment about dressing decently in church (which in his day meant that women should cover their heads) “because of the angels” (1 Corinthians 11:10). Presumably, Paul didn’t explain this phrase because his readers were familiar with the concept that angels attended our worship services.
Our worship is not just for our own edification. Our services are attended by a heavenly congregation which is larger and more important than the largest earthly church. It seems odd that they could learn about God from us, but 1 Peter confirms that “angels long to look into these things” from people who speak “by the Holy Spirit” (1:12). Understanding this transforms worship for me because it means that each service, however mundane to us, is of great consequence. We are in direct communion with every other church across the globe because we are all part of a huge church service joined together in the heavenly realms. We should be humbled by this, but we should also realise that it makes each of us important.
Raising the roof next Sunday may not be do-able literally, but there’s no doubt that our worship will be grabbing the attention of the heavenly congregation.