This morning as I scanned my Facebook feed it was filled with “Church Is Essential” banners as Christians in Northern Ireland expressed their opposition to planned restrictions that will include a prohibition on churches meeting in their buildings.
I wrestled through this subject earlier in the year, greatly unsettled by the circumstances caused by the response to Covid-19. The decision to suspend public worship was not an easy one, and earlier this year I shared some of that struggle. In the message I’ve linked to, I mention in passing three scriptural reasons why church—or more specifically, corporate worship—is essential, and why the call to assemble ought to be issued every Lord’s Day from church elders. It wasn’t the focus of my message, so I’ve fleshed out the points a little more below for your benefit. These views are my own and are shared in the hope that they might give clarity to others wrestling with the challenges of these days.
1. Jesus Christ calls His people to assemble together on the Lord’s Day because it is the desire of the risen Christ to acknowledge His gathered people as brethren (Hebrews 2:12).
In Hebrews 2:12, the apostle quotes from Psalm 22:22. This is a well-known Messianic psalm and is almost universally acknowledged as such. What is particularly interesting is that the verse appears to be a pivotal point from which the psalm turns from the sufferings of the Messiah to the expressions of a risen Messiah.
It was after the resurrection when Christ first acknowledged his disciples as brethren (John 20:17) and gathered with them (John 20:19). Many commentators note this transition, but Thomas Coke (1747-1814) helpfully remarks:
Our Saviour here passes from the mournful view of his death to the comfortable prospect of his resurrection. He intimates, that after God should have delivered him from the power of death by a glorious resurrection, he would more fully publish his gospel, by which the adorable perfections of God, and especially his wisdom and mercy, would be more eminently displayed among his apostles, and among the rest of his disciples and followers, whom He is not ashamed to call his brethren, Hebrews 2:11.
The writer to the Hebrews quotes the psalm which prophesied of an event that was fulfilled on the first resurrection day, the Lord’s Day, when Christ met with His fearful disciples and encouraged and comforted them. But this He has continued to do for two millennia, meeting with His gathered saints and comforting them. A careful reading of John 20 will show that the one disciple that did not gather, Thomas, was permitted by Christ to continue in his doubt and misery for an entire week until he assembled with the saints the following Lord’s Day and met with the risen Christ and heard the medicinal Word that our Saviour had for his soul.
2. Jesus Christ calls His people to assemble together on the Lord’s Day so that He can do what He never did during His earthy ministry, namely, sing with the Gentiles (Romans 15:8-12).
This is a wonderful text, and it was only when studying the subject of the essential practice of corporate worship on the Lord’s Day that I noted it in this light. Again, in this passage there are several quotations from the Old Testament (including Psalm 18:49; Deuteronomy 32:43; Psalm 117:1; Isaiah 11:10), and it reflects the fact that while Jesus Christ primarily ministered to the Jews, it was always God’s intention to gather unto Him the Gentiles. Robert Haldane (1764-1842) says:
In the passage referred to, Christ is represented as confessing or acknowledging God among the Gentiles, and singing to the praise of His name. Christ did not appear personally among the Gentile nations. This prediction, then, must be fulfilled of Him in His people, as one with Him. Than this nothing more clearly proves the unity of Christ and His people.
Although Haldane rightly points out that Christ did not appear personally among Gentile nations, yet as he suggests, Christ does truly come into the Gentile nations through the ministry of His people. Ephesians 2:17 presents the case that Christ preached in Ephesus areas, yet we know this must be seen as through the ministry of the Lord’s people. But the point is, Paul argues in Romans 15 for the importance of the Gentiles singing (v9), and doing so with the Jews (v10-11) in a corporate fashion, and when they do so, Christ is with the Gentiles as they confess and sing. This is a particular blessing of corporate assembly as Jesus Christ stands in the midst of biblical and penitent churches (Rev. 1:13).
3. Jesus calls His people to assemble together on the Lord’s Day to preserve souls from apostasy (Hebrews 10:23-25).
Not much needs to be said here, since it is the most well-known text that has been used by believers during this time of state-enforced lockdowns.
John Owen (1616-1683) is worth reading on this passage. Among many helpful comments he says:
That those assemblies, those comings together in one place, were the only way whereby the church, as a church, made its profession of subjection unto the authority of Christ in the performance of all those duties of sacred worship whereby God was to be glorified under the gospel.
Are souls in danger of drifting from Christ? What is the Lord’s answer? The assembly of the saints and their interactions with one another. Christians must meet, not just for their own sakes, but for the sake of others that need their presence and encouragement.
While I am not in denial of the virus that is spreading around our communities, among the young and healthy it’s almost an irrelevance. One subsection of our communities must take precaution—the immune compromised and those that live and work with them. But every Lord’s Day the Lord’s people do not assemble, none of the above can be done. Take that in. None of the above can be done without the assembly of the saints.
I’m sure this will be received with varying levels of agreement, but these considerations (among other things) have established in me a greater conviction concerning how essential corporate worship really is, not just to me, but to the Lord. Christ commands that these things take place, and we must obey Him unless there is good reason not to, and it’s difficult to argue that that’s the case for a large portion of our community.