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December 20, 2013

Book Excerpts: A Gathered People (Sept-Oct 2007)

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Revisioning the Assembly as Transforming Encounter


by John Mark Hicks, Johnny Melton and Bobby Valentine
September – October, 2007

A Gathered PeopleLeafwood/ACU Press 2007

Life and Assembly in God’s Story

The following are three quotes that describe worship. This one is from Israel’s worship.

Come, let us bow down in worship,
let us kneel before the LORD our Maker.

Psalm 95:6

This one is out of the idea in Churches of Christ in the 1950s that there are five and only five acts of worship.

To be scriptural our Lord’s day worship must contain all of these five required items…To have less than these required five is to render the worship vain! To have more than these, is to corrupt the worship!
John Banister (1951)i

Finally, this one is from a contemporary writer who follows the “Edification Model” that sees no special presence of God in the assembly but views worship as a way of filling the tank of discipleship to go on living in “daily worship.”

You won’t find any place in the New Testament where these ideas of special presence or encounter with God are part of the Christian assembly…There is no more special presence of God on Sunday morning at the church building than
there is in your car Monday morning … The idea of limited or special presence of God comes from temple traditions and cathedral thinking … What happens in the assembly of the saints is totally up to you!

Mike Root (2000)ii

Where have we gone astray? How can we recapture the wonder of worship that ancient Israel and Jesus had when they worshiped? The purpose of this article, partly an excerpt from our new book, is to revision the ancient ways of assembly in Israel, Christ, and the church that will help shape our assemblies today.

Worship is certainly the rage these days. There are major worship conferences every year. Popular Christian artists are producing worship CDs. Dozens of books and hundreds of articles are dedicated to all aspects of worship. In many ways this is as it should be—the church should be passionate about worshipping the God of glory.

Churches of Christ have done more than devote energy to the study of worship, especially corporate worship. We have agonized over it! Our birth as a religious tradition took place in liturgical acts of worship. From Barton W. Stone’s communion festival at Cane Ridge in 1801 to Alexander Campbell’s dispensing of his communion token at Glasgow in 1808, concern for proper worship has been a hallmark of our identity.

Churches of Christ despite all our agonizing have been more reactive than programmatic. We, as a people, have rarely formulated a positive and foundational theology of worship. This has sometimes led us to embrace false dichotomies about worship. The most frequent false dichotomy is found in two common but opposing understandings of assembly in Churches of Christ—the “Five Acts Model” and the “Edification Model.”

Two Models of Assembly

The “Five Acts Model” believes worship is five, and only five, acts of worship performed by the corporate assembly on the Lord’s Day. Assembly is something we do for God through prescribed acts; it is a function of obedience. The “Edification Model” reacts negatively to this and suggests that the assembly is only for mutual encouragement and that all of life is worship. Assembly is something we do for each other. The assembly is not worship in any special sense—no sacramental encounter with God—since it is designed only for edification.

Both positions are reductionistic as they overstate their cases. Scripture, in both Testaments, affirms that all life is lived out before God as worship. Everything we do should be done to honor the God of glory. Yet, the assembly is a sacramental encounter with God. It is an edifying, enriching mediation and enjoyment of the gracious presence of the Triune God. The uniqueness of the assembly is its sacramental character—God does something for us.

Briefly critiquing these two models, we hope to offer a more holistic approach to worship that values both the lives poured out before God as sacrificial offerings but also the sacramental reality of God’s presence among those gathered in his name.

Beyond the Lord’s Day and Filling Our Tanks

While we sympathize with the necessary corrective of the Edification Model, it also has a number of flaws. Just as we believe that all of life has theological significance before God, we also believe the assembly has theological significance. As much as we endorse the idea that our lives are living sacrifices, the assembly is more than mutual edification; it is an encounter with the Triune God.

The semantic fields of “worship” have been well plowed in many excellent studies.iii There is no need to rehearse this material here but only to provide a few comments to frame our discussion. The most common words translated “worship” in our English Bibles are the Hebrew histahawah (170x) and the Greek proskuneo (61x). Both of these words literally mean to bow or prostrate oneself before a superior. This word pair signifies recognizing and granting homage to a superior. These words reveal the radical continuity in the basic meaning of worship in both Testaments.

The second major word pair is the Hebrew abad and the Greek latreuo/latreia. These words are remarkably similar. They basically mean to serve, especially in some kind of religious or “cultic” (ritual) service. The Hebrew abad is used in such passages as Exodus 3:12: “when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.”

A final word pair is the Hebrew sharath and the Greek leitourgeo/leitourgia. These terms often refer to the ministry and service of priests. For example, it describes the service that Zechariah rendered to God during his tenure at the temple (Luke 1:23; cf. Jeremiah 33:21-22).

The Edification Model assumes a radical discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments. It denies the relevance of Israel in understanding Christian assembly. There are many reasons to study the Old Testament, Root believes, “but not to give us insights into how the New Testament church assembled.”iv It is common to read that the New Testament “liberalized” and “spiritualized” worship from the stifling ritualism and legalism of the Old Testament, or that Jesus transformed the “fleshly” and unspiritual worship of the First Testament to a truly spiritual approach in the New.v This has little support from Scripture.

Moses taught that the greatest of all things is to love Yahweh with all our hearts and to love our neighbors as ourselves (Deuteronomy 6:4-5; Leviticus 19:18). The circumcision of the heart is an essential requirement for being in relationship with God (Deuteronomy 10:16). The Lord himself actually performs this critical heart operation (Deuteronomy 30:6; cf. Jeremiah 4:4): “The LORD your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul and live.”

The Old Testament rejects any kind of ritualistic formalism that separates a consecrated life and assembly (Psalm 50:16-17).

What right have you to recite my laws
or take my covenant on your lips?
You hate my instruction and cast my
words behind you.


The Old Testament teaches that God desires the sacrifice of a contrite heart (Psalm 51:16-17), that obedience is better than cultic ritual (1 Samuel 15:22), and that a true fast includes helping the poor (Isaiah 58:6-7). According to the Jeremiah, lifestyle gives validity to worship rituals (Jeremiah 7:1-15). Amos denounces those who keep a form of religion but have a life that is antithetical to it (Amos 5:18-24):


I hate, I despise your religious feasts;
I cannot stand your assemblies.
Even though you bring me burnt
offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.
Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!


Old Testament faith is not only a religion of cultic rituals but also the devotion of the whole life to

Throughout Scripture there is a symbiotic relationship between discipleship (life) and assembled worship. For example, one of the word pairs mentioned above, abad and leitourgia, tie the daily life of the disciple with the worship of God. The Israelite bondage in Egypt is characterized as abad (Exodus 1:14; cf. 5:18; 14:5, 12), yet Moses uses the same word to describe assembling on the mountain (Exodus 3:12; cf. 4:23; 7:16; 8:1).

Paul also links discipleship and worship. Romans 12:1-2 demands that Christians offer up their bodies as an offering to God: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship (leitourgia).” Our lives (discipleship) become worship through spiritual service. Serving meals to the homeless is just as much worship as serving the Lord’s Supper (cf. Hebrews 13:15-16)—both are leitourgia, service or worship.

The worshipper encounters a God who inclines his ear to the orphan and oppressed (Psalm 10:12-18) and identifies himself as a father of orphans and defender of widows rights (Psalm 68:5-6). In the worshipping assembly redeemed slaves are reminded that Yahweh continues to set the captives free (Psalm 146:7-10). As a gathered people, God not only requires corporate rituals but a holy life dedicated to the service of other human beings.

Prophets attended church services like those presupposed in the Psalms. But they noticed that many did not like certain selections when sung. Their enthusiasm for assembled worship, despite their neglect of ethical living, led them to the mistaken belief that God remained among them (Micah 3:9-11):


Hear this, you heads of the house of Jacob and rulers of the house of Israel, who abhor justice and pervert all equity, who build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with wrong. Its heads give judgment for a bribe, its priests teach for hire, its prophets divine for money; yet they lean upon the LORD and say, ‘Is not the LORD in the midst of us? No evil shall come upon us.”


These ancient believers disconnected corporate worship and life—they acted as if their cultic observance covered up their ungodliness. Yet even if these Judeans offered rivers of oil and their firstborn on Yahweh’s altar he would nevertheless reject their worship. Instead, God wants a living sacrifice: “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

But this emphasis on sacrificial life-worship does not undermine the nature of divine presence within the worshipping assembly. Around 742 B.C., Isaiah sacramentally encountered the Living God in the temple courts (Isaiah 6).

Among the gathered saints we, like Isaiah, see the “face” of God (Psalms 95:2; 96:6, 9, 13; 98:6, 9; 100:2). As we bring our broken and fallen lives into his presence we find healing, comfort and transformation. Through liturgical action, the assembly remembers the story of grace and enables us, like Isaiah, to find our own place in the story. We come to the gathering of God’s people tired and often abused but we leave as the salt of the earth and the light of the world. How can this be? Because God, as he has always done, comes to dwell among a rag tag group of aliens and transforms them into a kingdom of priests.

Jesus the True Worshipper

Jesus is the Messiah, the hope of Israel. Jesus is the New Adam, the new beginning of humanity. Jesus is Immanuel, the living tabernacle of God. Jesus is also the true worshipper. Jesus’ life was worship—a life supremely devoted to the Father and regular gatherings with the people of God.

The rhythm of his life was to some extent shaped by Israel’s great pilgrimage festivals. These feasts connected Jesus with the history of God’s redemptive acts in Israel. For example, Luke tells us that Jesus’ family went to Jerusalem to participate in the Passover “every year” (Luke 2:41).

The Gospel of John draws extensively on Israel’s liturgical calendar and Jesus’ habitual attendance at these worship gatherings. In John 5-10 Jesus attends the three major feasts prescribed by the Torah. Israel’s worship assemblies provide an interpretive lens for understanding the identity and mission of the Messiah. Jesus habitually made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover (John 2:13, 23; 11:55). Jesus himself is the Passover lamb and thus the fulfillment of Israel’s foundational festival.

The second pilgrim festival of the Jewish year was Weeks (Pentecost). Though the festival in John 5:1 is not named, it has, since ancient times, been identified as Weeks.vii The content of chapter five is directly related to the themes of that festival. For example, the gathering celebrated, among other things, the giving of the Torah and during this festival Jesus confronts Jewish leaders about their lack of faith. Moses, many believed, was in heaven interceding on Israel’s behalf as he did during the Golden Calf tragedy. But instead of interceding, here Moses accuses Israel of hardheartedness because they do not believe what he wrote about Jesus.

The texture of John 7 and 8 is woven with imagery from the Festival of Tabernacles. Jesus arrived at the temple halfway through the feast (7:14). On its last day Jesus seized the teaching opportunity. Every day at dawn a priest filled a golden pitcher from the pool of Siloam and brought it to the Temple while the people sang the words of Isaiah: “with joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation” (Isaiah 12:3). The Temple choir sang the Hallel Psalms (Psalms 113-118) as the priest poured the water and wine into a bowl at the altar.

The dramatic ceremony recalled God’s blessing of water in the wilderness (Exodus 17:1-6) and the promise of living water that would flow from Ezekiel’s new temple (Ezekiel 47:1-12). In this assembly Jesus claims to be the source of this water (John 7:37-39). John 8:12-30 apparently takes place on the last evening when the feast lamps and torches were placed in the Temple’s Court of Women. Pious Jews brought lamps and would dance and sing as the Levites played zithers, harps and other musical instruments. The entire area was ablaze with light and rejoicing. Jesus seized this moment of worship to proclaim, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

The last major feast mentioned by John (John 10:22) is not found in the canonical Old Testament. The Festival of Lights or Dedication originated in the oppressive days of Antiochus Epiphanes who sacrificed swine on the Temple altar and raised an image of Zeus in God’s temple. Dedication celebrates the rededication of the temple by the Maccabees in 167 B.C. Jesus participated in this festival even though it is not commanded in the Torah. John uses this moment to highlight the irony that these leaders believed in the miracle of lights but they did not “believe the miracles” of Jesus (10:38, NIV).

The festivals provided Jesus an opportunity to gather in sacred assembly with his fellow Jews to worship the Father. But the festivals also provided Jesus with opportunities to make powerful claims about his vocation as Israel’s Messiah. In the context of these worship assemblies, Jesus affirmed that the hopes and dreams of Israel expressed in the feasts were realized in his own person. Jesus was the fulfillment of these festivals.

Jesus, the true worshipper, not only participated in cultic assemblies, but also was devoted to personal spiritual disciplines and service to others. He dedicated himself to regular seasons of prayer. “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark,” for example, “Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed” (Mark 1:35). Prayer saturated the ministry of Jesus and this inspired the disciples to ask for special instruction in this discipline (Luke 11:1-4). Jesus also went about “doing good” (Acts 10:38). A careful reading of the Gospel narrative reveals that Jesus and his disciples also shared with the poor. Judas carried the “common purse” (John 12:6) or “money box” (RSV) used to hold the funds out of which they lived and gave to the poor.

Jesus was consecrated to the Father. He embodied the call of Israel to be a holy nation and a kingdom of priests. In him we see devotion to God in assembled worship and a life of worship.


Psalm 40 brings the themes of this chapter together in a single song. The psalm worshipper confesses that God desires lives poured out as sacrifices. Yet at the same time the worshipper also praises God in the “great assembly” (Psalm 40:6-10):

Sacrifice and offering you did not desire,
but my ears you have pierced;
burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require.
Then I said, ‘Here I am, I have come –
it is written about me in the scroll.
I desire to do your will, O my God;
your law is within my heart.”
I proclaim righteousness in the great assembly;
I do not seal my lips, as you know, O LORD.
I do not hide your righteousness in my heart;
I speak of your faithfulness and salvation.
I do not conceal your love
and your truth from the great assembly.”


Thank offerings accompanied grateful responses to God’s grace (cf. Psalm 50:14-15, 23). Psalm 40 emphasizes the importance of the assembly as it declares God’s praises for salvation. The Israelite who sought and received deliverance came to the great assembly to glorify God’s name. Divine deliverance required public proclamation. According to the preacher of Hebrews, Jesus himself joins disciples in the great assembly as they praise God for such a great salvation (Hebrews 2:12, NIV):

“[Jesus] says,
I will declare your name to my brothers;
in the presence of the congregation I will sing your praises.”

The horizontal and vertical dimensions of worship are held in substantial unity in Scripture. Assembly means nothing apart from the sacrificial lives of the people of God, but assembly is essential in shaping the lifestyle of the gathered. Through worshipping assemblies God’s people experience the grace of God’s presence and the covenant community is empowered to bear witness even in its weakness. Through worship gatherings we proclaim the story of redemption, the renovation of our lives, and the reclamation of the world by the Creator.

i John Bannister, “The Worship of the Church,” Abilene Christian College Lectures, 1951 (Austin, TX: Firm Foundation, 1951), 146.
ii Mike Root, Empty Baskets: Offering Your Life as Worship (Joplin, MO: College Press, 2000), 33, 185.
iii Andrew E. Hill, Enter His Courts with Praise: Old Testament Worship for the New Testament Church (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), 1-10.
iv Mike Root, Spilt Grape Juice, 48.
v See Dusty Owens, “The Worship of God,” located at . See Kenneth L. Barker, “False Dichotomies between the Testaments,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 25 (March 1982), 3-16, for an incisive refutation of this logic.
vi Hill, Enter His Courts, 11-29
vii George R. Beasley-Murray, John: Word Biblical Themes (Waco, TX: Word, 1989), 77.
viii John Goldingay, Psalms, Vol. 1: Psalms 1-41: Baker Commentary on Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 579.
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