AUDIO FOR THIS SERMON CAN BE FOUND HERE
I saw it just this week in a Facebook post: “Does a Christian HAVE to go to church?”
The debate raged hotly.
And of course, we need to ask just what one means by the question: Do you mean it technically? Or actually? So in one sense – it depends.
Let me ask a different question for clarity’s sake: Can a person be married if they never talk to their spouse, ignore their needs or wants, live in another location, fail to grant conjugal rights and date other people?
Well technically married? Yes. But can they have a marriage? That is quite different thing isn’t it?
Maybe we should ask it this way: Can one voluntarily and habitually abstain from Church and be a Christian? Sure. But not much of one. And the Biblical reasons why not are quite compelling.
Interestingly enough, this was one of those topics proposed to me to cover in this little break we’re having from our usual systematic study of a book of the Bible. And it is a vitally important one especially in today’s world where the internet and other media access have given rise to what we might call “the virtual church.”
Don’t get me wrong: I love the access technology has given us to preachers and teachers we might otherwise never have the opportunity to learn from. Although that does have inherent danger to it as well. It is tempting to think all I need for my spiritual health is to listen to the best preachers I can on the web. But of course all the rough and tumble, the scraping and abrasion that comes from actually having to interact with people each week – having to forgive them, see my faults, overlook their faults, and serve them gets lost in the process. The stuff of real growth.
A few years ago Sky and I attended a funeral where the pastor of the Church was not a little bitter about this trend. In what was NOT a good display, his sermon went down a by-path when he went off on folks. He was bemoaning the fact that here he was conducting an actual funeral for someone he knows, when as it is, lots of folks from week to week stay at home and get their “church” on TV or on the computer. That’s when he said something to the effect of: “So the next time your loved one dies or is in the hospital, call your celebrity pastor and ask him to sit by their beside or pray with them. Call the TV preacher when you want to get married. See if the one you’re sending your money to across the country will come and preach this funeral for you!” As I said, he was a bit bitter. But he did have a point of sorts.
For those who are shut-ins or otherwise unable to meet with a local assembly – with you, I find this technological access could not be more valuable. But just as those who for some medical reasons may not be able to eat regular food can have their life sustained by feeding tubes and other means – these are never meant to be permanent arrangements except under the most extreme conditions.
And from the Biblical models we’ll see this week and maybe the next several weeks, the supplement we may receive from being able to go on line, listen to podcasts or watch videos etc., is wonderful – but it is not meant to be the norm for a host of reasons.
Beyond all that, I want to unpack what I believe to be the foundational reason for the necessity of gathering with the saints in public worship out of our text in 1 Peter: That of the call, right, privilege and sacred duty of Priesthood of the Believer. 1 Peter 2:1–10 / ESV / So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation— if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good. As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in Scripture: “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” and “A stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense.” They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”
Did you catch verses 5 & 9? 5 – you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ…9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
You may not consider this very often, maybe no one has ever taught it to you at all – but when you became a Believer in Jesus Christ as your sin-bearer, you were ordained into the priesthood of the Believers.
This recovery of the priesthood of each believer back from the Medieval captivity it suffered under Romanism, was one of the keystones of the Protestant Reformation.
The essential reality of that recovery wasn’t to destroy the need for preachers and teachers in the Church – numerous places in the New Testament reaffirm the necessity of those roles along with certain structures like Deacons and Elders. But what the Reformers were seeking to recover for folks is that we need no mediator, no human go-between between ourselves and God – especially in prayer and for the forgiveness of sins. But there is more to this Priesthood idea than that.
Now it is as true with this issue as it is with anything else: it can be taken to extremes. People can begin to imagine themselves as Church unto themselves and that they do not need the rest of the Body of Believers. Trinitarian theology isn’t built around a human “me, myself and I.” Paul puts the decisive nail in the coffin of that idea in 1 Corinthians 12:12–21 / ESV / For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”
And our text today mitigates against that thinking too – 5 – you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ…9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
We are not just “priests” as though we can be rogue or lone-ranger priests – we are part of a priest-HOOD, built together as a “spiritual house”, a “race” and a “nation” and a “people.”
These are all collective and communal terms. No single person is a whole house, a race, a nation, a people or a priesthood. No one is a priest unto or by themselves, but are part of a priesthood. This of course is borne out in the Old Testament typology of Israel’s priesthood. There was no such thing as a lone priest who served whenever or wherever they felt like. They all ministered together as a group. And that, only in the context of the Tabernacle first, and then in the Temple. They functioned in the context of gathered public worship. The only time that pattern was not followed is in the tragic accounts in Judges 17-20 where we have 2 bizarre and gruesome illustrations of what happens when a Priest goes independent. The Priests labored TOGETHER, never independently. And the language of our text today clearly indicates that same reality for the New Covenant Priesthood.
What then are the constituent aspects of our Priesthood? What does that look like? Peter is going to mention just 3 in this short passage I want to focus on this morning. One of them especially bringing us right to the Lord’s Table today.
1. The Word
Peter see the Believer’s priestly role in regard to the Word of God, offering up sacrifices and proclaiming the excellencies of Christ. The Word; Sacrifice; Proclamation
In the portion from Leviticus we had read for us already, we confronted a most stunning chapter in the history of Israel and it’s Priesthood. Aaron and his 4 sons had just been ordained to the Priesthood when 2 of them, Nadab and Abihu decided to go rogue. And they were killed for it by fire coming down out of Heaven. Lev. 10:1 explains: ESV / “Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the LORD, which he had not commanded them.”
The admonition given by God in Ch. 16 in the aftermath of this tragedy helps explain the problem. The Law said only the High Priest could enter into the holy of holies and that alone, and only once a year – on the Day of Atonement. Full of themselves, these 2 just thought they could play fast and loose with the worship of God and be really innovative entering together. Additionally, offerings had to be employed as proscribed by God – just waltzing in with fire for the altar of incense was unacceptable. God’s instructions were clear – the fire had to come from coals off the altar outside. They apparently skipped this which is why it is called “strange” or “unauthorized fire”. So Leviticus 10:3 notes: ESV / Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the LORD has said: ‘Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’ ” And Aaron held his peace. God is to be sanctified – set apart – by our observing how He WANTS to be worshiped, and not just willy-nilly, according to our whims. And it is up to us to find out what that looks like from what He has revealed. He will be sanctified – set apart according to the honor due Him, and not approached according to our own imaginations or desires.
And how is that to be done? Leviticus 10:8–11 ESV / And the LORD spoke to Aaron, saying, “Drink no wine or strong drink, you or your sons with you, when you go into the tent of meeting, lest you die. It shall be a statute forever throughout your generations. You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean, and you are to teach the people of Israel all the statutes that the LORD has spoken to them by Moses.”
It is up to the Priesthood to soberly preserve the right worship of God in society by paying close attention to the teaching of His Word. So it is our text reminds us in the context of the Believer’s Priesthood today: 1 Peter 2:2 ESV / Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation—
As the Priests then had the responsibility to instruct the people in God’s ways and how He is to be worshiped, AND, model it for them – so that still remains for us. It is a task which cannot be separated from a life-sustaining dependence up the pure spiritual milk of God’s Word.
Why do we frame our own worship services today around certain core elements like prayer, praise, the reading and expounding of the Word and the sacraments of Baptism and The Lord’s Table? Because these are drawn from the Scriptures and the practice of the early Church under the oversight of the Apostles. The Word MUST inform what we do. We are His Priesthood – and the protection and preservation of the right worship of God in the world is committed into our care.
So why do His Priests have to come to Church? That we might discharge this sacred duty together. Keeping Biblical worship alive as a testimony to the true and living God both in our generation and in our location. And we become avid students and protectors of the Word so that we too can: “distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean, and you are to teach the people of Israel all the statutes that the Lord has spoken” (Leviticus 10:10–11, ESV)
Secondly, we come to Church to fulfill our Priestly role in offering up sacrifices. In the OT there were daily sacrifices, occasional sacrifices when people sinned, made vows or gave thanks, and proscribed yearly sacrifices. But our sacrifices are not the sacrifices of the OT Priesthood. Now that the New Covenant is in effect – now that Jesus has fulfilled all of those OT types by His own death on Calvary for our sins, we come to offer “spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God Jesus Christ.” 1 Peter 2:5 ESV / you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
Now once again, God made it clear through the types and shadows of the Levitical Priesthood that this is a group activity and not one done solo. In fact, there was to be no such thing as private sacrifice in Israel under any circumstances. Lev. 17:3-4 spells it out. ESV / If any one of the house of Israel kills an ox or a lamb or a goat in the camp, or kills it outside the camp, and does not bring it to the entrance of the tent of meeting to offer it as a gift to the LORD in front of the tabernacle of the LORD, bloodguilt shall be imputed to that man. He has shed blood, and that man shall be cut off from among his people.
Sacrifice needed to be a public thing, not private. For it is only fitting that the public worship of God be preserved. It did not mean people couldn’t pray or seek God on their own – but it did mean there had to be a high regard for honoring God as He wants to be honored, and that in a public manner which is watched over and conducted by the collective Priesthood. Now, under the New Covenant we have this instruction for our sacrifices in Hebrews 13:15–16 ESV / Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.
Praise Him at home and in the workplace for sure – but by all means do not neglect to gather with the whole of the Priesthood and offer up sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving that honor and acknowledge His name! Do it as a public spectacle and testimony to the nations that God has a people who worship Him as He desires, and as is fitting His glory. And there is no question that we cannot do good to others and share what we have apart from being together. This again is the sacred privilege and duty that is attached to our Priesthood. Why would we neglect such a trust as it has been committed unto to us to serve Him publicly in this way?
I’ve often heard people argue the false dichotomy of “do you come to worship to give God something or to get something from Him?” The answer must be YES! Both! I come to offer up my sacrifices of praise publicly as one of His Priests, and to receive at His hand the Word broken to my soul in the midst of the assembly. True Biblical worship must incorporate both. Only coming to Church to receive denies my priestly call and turns worship into something for me rather than for the fame of His name. And only coming to give makes it seem as though I am God’s benefactor and not His servant dependent upon Him Both elements must be present according to His dictates.
Do you want to know how to honor God well fellow Priests of the most High God? Psalm 50:14–15 ESV / Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and perform your vows to the Most High, and call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.”
We honor God most pleasingly when we demonstrate to the world around us in public worship, how we acknowledge His faithfulness to us in thanksgiving, and pray to and call upon our God together. How we honor Him by showing them we depend more upon Him than anything the world can offer, in prayer.
But 3rd this morning – and this brings us specifically to what we do now in coming to the Lord’s Table – we fulfill our Priesthood when there is –
1 Peter 2:9 ESV / But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. We are called to be a royal Priesthood – which Priesthood includes the proclamation of the excellencies of Him who called us out of darkness into His marvelous light.
The Lord’s Table once again is not a private affair. It is both public and communal. In fact, the idea of taking communion privately is an oxymoron. It is COMM-UNION – communal by nature. A symbol of the common union all of us share who have believed the Gospel, been born again and been joined together by sharing the same Spirit of Christ Jesus. No, we do not all preach. We have not been universally gifted for it. Nor do we all teach. We’ve not all been gifted the same there either. But as His ordained Priesthood, we are all equal proclaimers of the excellencies of the Lord Jesus as the incarnate Son of God, the sinless Lamb of God slain for our sins. The full satisfaction for our guilt before the Father – and in the joyous anticipation of His return and our resurrection to be with Him forever.
It is in this mindset – as a unified Priesthood – Paul tells us: 1 Corinthians 11:26 ESV / For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. Must Christians come to Church? How else can we fulfill the sacred honor and duty of our royal Priesthood? It cannot be done apart from the rest of Christ’s Priests. And so we come today.