Acceptable Worship Assemblies
"Now all the people gathered together as one man in the open square that was in front of the Water Gate; and they told Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses which the Lord had commanded Israel . . ."
THE IMPORTANCE OF ASSEMBLING
What would you hear if you could listen to the sounds at your neighbors house on Sunday morning? Would it be the sound of boats being prepared for a day of fishing at the lake? Would it be the sound of golf clubs being thrown into the trunk of the car in anticipation of an early morning round of golf? Or would it just be the snoring of those who enjoy sleeping late on the weekend? In a some houses you might hear the scurrying about of families preparing to "go to church."
It is important to Christians that they regularly assemble with other Christians to study and to worship God . By my count, those who are members of the congregation where I attend have attended nearly 120 services already this year. Such an emphasis on assembling is well placed. The inspired writer of Hebrews said in Heb. 10:25, "Not forsaking the assembling of yourselves together as the manner of some is . . . "
True Christians believe that it is important, not just that they assembly frequently to worship God, however, but that they do so in the way that He prescribed. Otherwise, all those practically hundreds of sermons, prayers, songs, etc. will be of no value. Jesus said of some of the people of His day, "In vain they do worship me teaching for doctrines the commandments of men" (Matt. 15:9). Amos 5:21-23 records a time when God totally rejected the worship of Israel saying, "I hate, I despise your feast days, And I do not savior your sacred assemblies."
Men take many approaches today to make worship services "successful." Well-designed church buildings provide a worshipful atmosphere, choirs and great organs deliver uplifting music, and preachers present short and positive sermons. Such misplaced efforts often focus on how worship can be made more interesting and enjoyable to the participant rather than to making it more acceptable to God. Most often the problem with worship is not with the worship environment but rather with the hearts and attitudes of the worshippers.
How do we ensure that our worship is not "vain" and that it is not rejected by God? One way is find an example of worship in the Bible that pleased God and to emulate the attitudes that those worshippers had. Such an example occurred when the remnant of Jews returned to Canaan from Babylonian captivity and, under the leadership of Nehemiah and Ezra, rebuilt the temple and the walls of Jerusalem. This worship was recorded in Neh. 8. Let's examine this passage and see what we can learn about acceptable worship services.
ZEAL FOR THE ASSEMBLY
Verse 1 says that "all the people gathered together as one man." We can learn several things from this wording. The primary implication is that all the people that could attended this assembly. It wasn't that just the few who felt like it attended while the others stayed home. Compare this situation with that of many assemblies of local churches. On Sunday morning, most members attend, on Sunday night somewhat less, and only a fraction of the total membership is present on Wednesday night.
The excellent attendance of this assembly is seen to be even more notable when we understand that the people attended because they wanted to, and not because they were ordered to. Verse one says that "they told Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the Law of Moses." They requested this service, not Ezra. In many congregations today, preachers and elders must continually plead with members to get them to attend the services of the church. The attitude of many members is reflected by questions such as, "Do I really have to attend every assembly?" "Do I have to attend on Wednesday night?" Some of them sound like those of Malichi's day whose response to worship was, "Oh, what a weariness!" (Mal. 1:13). In contrast, David said, "I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the Lord" (Psm. 122:1). When we have the kind of attitude toward worship that David did, we will attend every assembly that we can.
THEY WERE UNITED IN PURPOSE
The fact that those in Neh. 8 "gathered as one man" also indicates that they were united in purpose. Division among brethren makes acceptable worship difficult or impossible. Paul pleaded with the Christians at Corinth that "you all speak the same thing, and that there be no division among you" (1 Cor. 1:10). The psalmist David said, "Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity."
THEY WERE ATTENTIVE
Some Christians seem to be as committed to attending the assemblies as those of Nehemiah's day were yet when they get to those services, they don't seem to be all that interested in what is going on. They daydream during the prayers, cut their nails during the songs, and write notes to others during the sermon. This is not the kind of attitude and behavior that we see in Neh. 8. Verse 3 says, "The ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law." This is not surprising in view of the obvious importance that they assigned to this assembly. Paying attention will be easier when we realize that it is the very word of God that is under consideration (1 Thes. 2:13) and that it has the power to save our souls (Rom. 1:16). It will also help to remember who it is that we have come together to worship "the King of Kings and Lord of Lords" (Rev. 19:16).
THEY HAD MADE PREPARATION
Notice that the service of Neh. 8 was not just a spur of the moment event. The people had determined in advance to have this service and then made careful preparation for it. This is indicated by the fact that they had built a special platform for Ezra to stand on as he read the law (see verse 4). If our services are to be as successful as this one was, we also will need to make preparations. That might include going to bed at a reasonable hour the night before, doing our Bible class lesson as assigned, and leaving home in time to be at the place of meeting on time. Teachers, preachers, song leaders, and others having a part in leading the worship activities have a responsibility prepare themselves to effectively carry out their responsibilities.
THEY WERE REVERENT
An important characteristic of the worshippers in Neh. 8 was their reverent attitude. When the Book was read, they all stood up (verse 5). Later they "bowed their heads and worshipped God with their faces to the ground" (verse 6). The position of their bodies presents a good indication of the attitude of their hearts. They understood that they were worshipping the almighty King of the universe and the one who is worthy of all praise, honor, and glory. If our worship is to be acceptable, it must be offered in the same reverent manner. God told Moses, "By those who come near Me I must be regarded as holy; and before all the people I must be glorified" (Lev. 10:3). The inspired writer of Hebrews wrote, "Let us have grace by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear"
THEY WERE ACTIVELY INVOLVED
Some who attend church assemblies see their role as being quite passive. It is as though they come to watch worshipping done instead of to do it themselves. They sit there waiting for things to happen to them; to be taught, to hear beautiful singing, to be mentally stimulated. But note that the word "worship" is a verb denoting action. It is something that each worshipper does. The worshippers of Neh. 8 certainly understood that. When the Law was read they stood up (verse 5). They responded with "amen" to Ezra's words of praise to God (verse 6) and as we noted above, they bowed their faces to the ground and worshipped. They were actively involved in the worship service. There is a lesson here for modern worshippers. Each one should join in the song service (Col. 3:16), listen carefully to the public prayers so that a sincere "amen" can be given (1 Cor. 14:14-16), consider carefully the teaching and preaching (Acts 17:11; 1 Thes. 2:13) and partake thoughtfully of the Lord's Supper (1 Cor. 11:23-29).
WHAT WAS THE RESULT OF THEIR ASSEMBLY AND WORSHIP?
We have seen that the assembly of the worshippers in Neh. 8 was characterized by zeal, unity, attentiveness, preparation, reverence, and active participation. But what, if anything, was the result of their assembly? Was it just a brief emotional experience with no lasting impact? Was it just few hours spent in doing their religious duty after which they returned the business as usual? Not at all.
THEY LEARNED GOD'S WILL
One result of this service was that the people came to better understand the will of God for their lives. Ezra and those assisting him "read distinctly from the book, in the Law of God; and they gave the sense, and helped them to understand the reading" (verse 8). Then all the people rejoiced greatly "because they understood the words that were declared unto them" (verse 12). Some modern assemblies concentrate, not on the word of God, but on social problems, politics, or a variety of other subjects. Consequently, those attending are unlikely to experience the learning that characterized the assembly of Neh. 8.
THEY OBEYED WHAT THEY LEARNED
While learning is an inevitable result of acceptable assemblies, it is not enough. James exhorts his readers to "be doers of the word and not hearers only" (Jam. 1:22). We see such an obedient attitude modeled by those of Nehemiah's day. When their study revealed that there was a certain feast that they had not been observing correctly, they immediately repented and obeyed what they had learned (Neh. 8:13-17). On a later occasion, when they came to understand that the law prohibited them from association with Ammorites or Moabites, they again obeyed without question or delay (Neh. 13:1-3). The lesson for us is clear. Truly successful worship services result in worshippers being taught God's word and in obedience to that teaching.
IN CONCLUSION . . .
Worship is an important part of God's plan for Christians but if not offered correctly, it will be in vain. We learn from the example of Neh. 8 that acceptable worship involves unity, zeal, attentiveness, preparation, reverence, and involvement. Assemblies for worship and Bible study should result in an increased knowledge of God's will and a determination to obey that will to the best of our ability.
What about your worship; do you have the attitudes discussed above? Are you continuing to learn more about God will for your life? Are you willing to obey without question what you learn to be right?
By James E. Law
From Expository Files 1.11; November, 1994