The people of God have always had a mother and so when we talk about the church, we are not talking about an idea, we are not talking about a club, we are talking about her. In addressing the question of the church then, we need to understand just how important the question is.
It’s important because the church is our mother and the law requires us to honour our mother.
Speaking of Hagar and Sarah in Galatians 4:24-26, Paul says, “These women are two covenants…”. One of them, Sarah, is our mother and corresponds to the heavenly Jerusalem (Revelation 21:2), the church.
Revelation 21:9 tells us that this heavenly Jerusalem is also a bride and in Hebrews 12:22-24, we are told that we have come to Mount Zion, to the Heavenly Jerusalem.
Putting this together, we see that our mother is Sarah. She is a holy city and a beautiful bride.
Between the first and last person ever redeemed by God, this bride, our mother, is the historical people of God through all ages and all time. It is these people and these people alone who will spend eternity with Jesus.
In the New Testament, these people are described as the “Ecclesia”, which simply means, the assembly or congregation. It is a word used to describe the people of Israel, a local Christian Community, and the full gathering of all of us before God’s throne.
These people are constituted and incorporated into the body of Christ by God. They belong to Him. They live in His presence and obey the laws of His kingdom.
When we assemble as the church, we come to something and we come for something.
First, what have we come to? The author of Hebrews tells us that we have come to,
…the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (Hebrews 12:22-24)
In assembling together we have been joined by the spirits of just men made perfect which means that we have gathered with the saints of old. A great assembly, a multitude of angels, a gathering of the firstborn enrolled in Heaven.
It’s more than just this church or that church; this people or that people. We gather together as the entire assembly of God’s people throughout history. It’s no small gathering!
This massive gathering is an earthly gathering before a heavenly throne.
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In gathering together each Lord’s Day, we have come before a heavenly throne and therefore God, the Judge of all the earth is in our midst. We come to Jesus, our Mediator: We come before sprinkled blood which speaks a better word than Abel.
Abel’s blood cried out for vengeance. Jesus’ blood speaks the word of grace, mercy and forgiveness.
This ought to affect our conduct when we come together. It ought to affect everything from how we dress, to how we listen, speak and sing. Not with hands in our pockets as though we were waiting in line for tickets to a football game, but with reverence, fear and trembling.
This takes us to our second question. What have we come for? The author of Hebrews writes,
Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe for our God is a consuming fire. (Hebrews 12:28-29)
According to Hebrews, we have come to worship God with joyful fear and trembling. We come to worship before the Judge of all the earth.
This ascending into Heaven is what is happening when the call to worship is given each Lord’s Day.
And so, our gathering does not begin with man speaking to man, or even man speaking to God, but God speaking to man and man, standing in reverence before the call of God.
God speaks, and if our hearing is halfway decent, we tremble.
We have a pretty breezy approach to life and this breezy attitude has a habit of wandering into our worship. Worship should be joyful and uplifting. But given who and what we have come to, it should also cause us to tremble.
Israel was confronted with a terrible site at the foot of Mount Sinai. Fire, darkness, a storm and the voice of God. It was so terrible they couldn’t bear it and so they pushed Moses to the front of the queue.
We read that and think, “phew, glad those days are over”. We tend to think that the New Covenant is more user-friendly, more, “come as you are”.
But this is precisely the opposite of what the bible teaches. The mountain has changed, but God has not. And so the author of Hebrews warns us,
See that you do not refuse Him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who spoke to them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who speaks to us from heaven (Hebrews 12:25)
Sinai was a shadow, a reflection of a heavenly reality. Israel trembled at the shadow. How much more should we tremble at the reality.
There were severe penalties for those who refused the Law that thundered from Earthly Sinai. How much more severe will things go for those who refuse the word of grace that thunders from heaven?
And so, we come to worship. To hear God speak and to respond with grateful, trembling joyful hearts.
We also come to share in the ministry of Intersession, with prayers of confession and praise. And to receive a word from heaven to comfort and humble our hearts.
And so the church is a gathering of God’s people before the throne of heaven. We come in awe. We come to hear and see. And in the seeing and hearing, we are being transformed.