The Blessing of Corporate Worship

A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on January 8, 2023.

            Come, bless the LORD, all you servants of the LORD,

                        who stand by night in the house of the LORD!

            Lift up your hands to the holy place

                        and bless the LORD!

            May the LORD bless you from Zion,

                        he who made heaven and earth! (Psalm 134).[1]

While we are still assessing the worldwide issues that came out of the pandemic, for Christians, surely, we can agree that one of the key lessons learned was the value of corporate worship on the Lord’s Day. Perhaps we got a taste of what our brothers and sisters face in countries where they are not free to assemble in worship or even persecuted for it. How easy it is to take in-person, assembled worship for granted. You may remember, like me, the anticipation and excitement of returning to corporate worship with grateful hearts to praise the Lord together. Now, I want you to think back to that moment, and capture that in your memory, if you can. Because, that experience captures the essence of this psalm. Or, borrowing from this psalm, we could say that we were blessed to bless the Lord.

There are two Hebrew words that are typically translated “bless” in English. The first is ’ashre, which carries the sense of well-being that comes from living for the Lord. For example, the first psalm begins,

            Blessed is the man

                        who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,

            nor stands in the way of sinners,

                        nor sits in the seat of scoffers;

            but his delight is in the law of the LORD,

                        and on his law he meditates day and night (Ps. 1:1-2).

The second word, and the word we encounter in Psalm 134, is berakah, which is a verb used in two ways: what we do to God and what God does to us. But how and for whom it is used affects its meaning. In other words, for us to bless God and for God to bless us are very different.

Note that the word “bless” (berakah) is used three times in this psalm. The first two times it is used from us to God, “bless the LORD.” In this use, the word does not connote a need in God but an appropriate response from us. In this case, the word could be translated “praise,” but it also connotes gratitude. To “bless the LORD” then means to worship him with grateful praise.

This is not the case, however, with “bless” in the third verse, “the LORD bless you.” As it is used, the word connotes a covenantal relationship, such as between the Lord and his chosen people. The Aaronic blessing is an excellent example of this. The Lord told Moses to have Aaron and his sons bless the people saying,

                        The LORD bless you and keep you;

                        the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;

                        the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.

So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them (Nu. 6:22-27).

Such a blessing was not for everyone but specifically for the chosen one of God, who did not merit God’s blessing but received it.

To further understand this distinction, we may think of this psalm in the sense of corporate worship: First, the assembly of worship (“Come, bless the LORD”); Second, the act of worship (“bless the LORD!”); And third, the blessing of worship (“May the LORD bless you”). Each of the three verses carry these three distinctions (assembly, act, and blessing) and reveal to us God’s blessing of corporate worship.

The Assembly of Worship

The psalm begins with an invitation or call to worship: “Come, bless the LORD.” It is a call to assemble in grateful praise of the Lord. But it’s not anyone who is called but specifically “all you servants of the LORD.” Who are these servants? They are those “who stand by night in the house of the LORD.” To “stand” in this case is to “minister” in the holy temple.

According to 1 Chronicles, the servants of the temple were the Levitical priests, who cared for all aspects of temple worship, morning and evening, “thanking and praising the LORD” (1 Ch. 23:26-32). The psalmist calls these “servants of the LORD” to worship, those chosen and set apart by the Lord to serve in temple worship. At first reading, this assembly may sound exclusive, but we must remember that the Lord redeemed the children of Israel out of Egypt to be “a kingdom of priests” and a “a holy nation” unto the Lord (Ex. 19:6). The Levitical priests were not exclusive but representative of Israel.

This is not dissimilar to the minister’s role in New Covenant worship. While every Christian has a ministry (Eph. 4:10-13), not every Christian is a minister (1 Co. 12-14). Some men are set apart by Christ as servants of the Lord and given the task and responsibility of equipping “the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:12). As a steward and instrument of the Lord, the minister does this primarily through the preaching of the Word, the administration of the sacraments of baptism and communion, and the ministry of prayer. Like the service of the Levitical priests under the Old Covenant, the service of the minister is essential to our assembled worship under the New Covenant.

But the minister’s service is not confined to a temporal temple on Mount Zion, but to the Lord’s temple of Christ’s construction: As the apostle Paul explains: “For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, ‘I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people’” (2 Co. 6:16). All who are in Christ are “like living stones … being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pe. 2:4-5). And so, under the New Covenant, the psalmist’s call, “Come, bless the LORD, all you servants of the LORD,” is a call to all us who have believed on the Lord Jesus Christ to assemble as the Lord’s temple to worship the Lord!

The Act of Worship

Having assembled in worship, the psalmist directs “you servants of the LORD” in the act of worship:

            Lift up your hands to the holy place

                        And bless the LORD!

Lifting the hands was a common practice in Old Testament worship. The intentional posture was not theatrical but devotional and directional, toward “the holy place.” The Levitical priests are to lift their hands not any which way but specifically to the sacred place of the Lord’s presence, the sanctuary or Holy of holies, the inner sanctum of the temple. This visible posture conveys a point: Of all the duties of the Levites, this was chief, to “bless the LORD.”

This is also the case in their presence. Hands cannot be lifted to the holy place unless they are present to worship. As servants of the temple, the Levites understood the necessity of their presence. Temple worship was impossible without them.

So it is with us. If we do not assemble, there is no corporate worship. In fact, the very word “church” (ekklesia) literally means the “assembly” or “congregation.” Our presence is essential to what the church is, and our posture is essential to what we do. If we assemble as consumers, for example, will the music entertain us, the sermon satisfy us, the “performance” meet our expectations? Have you come today as a consumer of entertainment or a worshiper of the Lord? (As a friend of mine says, “If you want a contemporary music performance, surely you can do better than a church service. Go to a rock concert!”) Motives do matter, and if we do not assemble in right worship of the Lord, we’re not a church but merely a club. One pastor puts it this way,

[When we assemble] Our stories may be interesting, but they are not the point. Our achievements may be marvelous, but they are not germane. Our curiosity may be understandable, but it is not relevant. Bless the Lord. … Do that for which you were created and redeemed; lift your voices in gratitude; enter into the community of praise and prayer that anticipates the final consummation of faith in heaven. Bless the Lord.”[2]

The purpose of our assembly is first and foremost to the bless the Lord.

But often we don’t feel like it. Sunday comes around every week, and sometimes we just don’t feel like assembling with the saints. I have to imagine this was the case with some of the Levites too. If your job involved serving at the temple, regardless of your duty, it would be easy to simply go through the motions. Yes, you could lift up your hands to be faithful in posture, but what of you heart? But the psalmist’s call to worship is also a command: “bless the LORD!” And it is here that we learn that duty and delight are two sides of the same coin.

Our feelings do not dictate God’s worthiness to be worshiped. And, yes, there are times we don’t feel like assembling in worship, but like the cry of a baby at midnight to her mother’s ear, our duty is also an act of love that is rewarded with the delight of the act itself. Our Shorter Catechism begins with this question: “What is the chief end of man?” To which it answers, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”[3] Duty and delight, glorify and enjoy, “bless the LORD!” and “May the LORD bless you.”

The Blessing of Worship

The psalm concludes not with a prayer but a pronouncement, a personal benediction (“you” is singular): “May the LORD bless you from Zion.” Here the blessing is not praise of the worthy, as when we bless the Lord, but a pronouncement to the unworthy. As Derek Kidner distinguishes, “to bless God is to acknowledge gratefully what he is; but to bless man, God must make of him what he is not, and give him what he has not.”[4]

The blessing comes “from Zion.” Zion was the place of sacrifice, pointing to the cross of Christ. Zion was the presence of God, pointing to the Spirit of Christ. Zion was the place of worship, pointing to the Church of Christ. So, blessing comes not from the ancient place of worship but from the person of Christ, “he who made heaven and earth.” Who, according to the first chapter of Colossians,

is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross (Col. 1:15-20).

The blessing we receive from the Lord comes only through Christ Jesus our Lord.

In Reformed worship we refer to the pronounced blessing as the benediction, which literally means “good word.” Just as corporate worship is, in essence, a covenant renewal ceremony in which the covenant community gathers to hear the covenant promises, which have been secured for us by Christ, and respond by faith, so our worship concludes not with a prayer nor best wishes but a pronouncement of God’s covenant blessings, a good word indeed. Though our father Adam broke the Covenant of Works (Hos. 6:7), God established an eternal Covenant of Grace, made with and secured by Christ. It is only in Christ that we are in a covenant relationship with God. The curses we deserve have been atoned for by Christ: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Co. 5:21). In union and communion with Christ, the covenant blessings, from beginning to end, are ours. And all of this is summed up in the benediction, or as Derek Thomas explains,

This … good word that is pronounced at the close of the worship service, [is] a reminder of our standing in covenant relationship with God, a reminder of God’s sovereign initiative and determination to bring us safely home as well as our commitment and obligation to remain faithful to Him by way of a response to the grace we have received.[5]

And so, at the end of every worship service, the benediction is pronounced, as it should always be. Just as, prior to his ascension, Christ lifted up his hands and blessed them (Lk. 24:50), so the minister lifts us his hands and pronounces the benediction. And as we always gather on the first day of the week in worship, so we are sent out into the rest of the week with the blessing of having worshiped the Lord our God in spirit and truth (Jn. 4:24). As so, we have assembled this Lord’s Day as Christ’s church in corporate worship of the Lord our God, to bless the Lord. And in blessing the Lord, we too are blessed:

            May the LORD bless you from Zion,

                        he who made heaven and earth!

[1] Unless referenced otherwise, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001).

[2] Eugene H. Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019), 188.

[3] “The Shorter Catechism” Q. 1, The Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms (Lawrenceville: PCA Christian Education and Publications, 2007), 355.

[4] Derek Kidner, Psalms 73-150: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 490.

[5] Derek W.H. Thomas, Let Us Worship God: Why We Worship the Way We Do (Sanford: Ligonier Ministries, 2021), 134.

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