It is a strange ritual. A group of men and women agree to meet together once a week. One of the key things they do is listen while one man preaches. Why do they do it? Why does he, the preacher, do it? And—the big question in our culture—why the need physically to meet in order to hear him preach?
This is the second in a pair of articles. I take as my text for both articles these words, spoken by God to Moses at Sinai: ”Assemble the people before me to hear my words” (Deut 4:10).
Here we have an assembly (“Assemble the people”) and a purpose (“to hear my words”). In a previous article, we focused on hearing the word. I touched on the awesome fact that a man may be so humbled, gripped, and transformed by the word of God that when he preaches and expounds Scripture, he speaks the very words of God. This alone is sufficient reason to labor at preaching. But I want now to focus on the rationale for the physical assembly, the meeting of the church for preaching.
So here’s the question: was the assembly necessary purely for a functional reason, because without meeting they could not physically hear God’s words? They had no books to read God’s words; they had no iPods to hear a recording of Moses speaking God’s words; so they must necessarily gather to hear. We, by contrast, have books, texts available online, MP3 and MP4 recordings. We are well able to hear the preaching of God’s words with no need physically to gather. So may we not be allowed translate this text, with dynamic equivalence, “Make sure the people attend to my words using whatever technology will make this possible”?
No! No! No! The assembly is not merely functional; the assembly was and is necessary, because assembly is what God is doing in remaking a broken world. The assembly of “all Israel” at Sinai became the paradigm for the gatherings of all God’s people throughout the Old Testament; it is remembered as “the day of the assembly” (Deut 9:10; 10:4; 18:16). This assembly “moved” (spiritually) from Sinai to Zion with the death of Jesus, so we now assemble not at the place of grace foreshadowed, but “at” Jesus, the place of grace accomplished (Heb 12:18-29).
The local church really and concretely represents the regathering that God is doing in a broken world. The whole story of salvation may be told around this theme of scattering as the judgment of God and gathering as the rescue of God. (I have expanded on this in Remaking a Broken World, Authentic Media, 2010, and in chapter 5 of The Priority of Preaching, Christian Focus, 2009.)
To put it bluntly, it matters to go to church, and it matters for the preacher to be physically present to preach in the assembly of the church. The assembly is not just to hear the word; indeed, it is the word of the gospel that gathers unlikely men and women under grace. Preaching gathers the church, preaching shapes the church as a community of grace, and preaching sustains the church as the grace of Jesus is proclaimed and pressed home to hearts, consciences, and lives. To hear a recording of the word in a bubble of comfortable isolation is no substitute for gathering with God’s people. Technological wizardry is no substitute for bodily assembly.
And we assemble with “all Israel,” that is, with all of a multicultural church fellowship, unlikely men and women gathered by grace. We do not just assemble with “people like us.” When we hear preaching together, we are accountable to one another. I am less likely to zone out or switch off, because I know you may speak to me afterward about the Scripture that was preached. You know the word I have heard, and I know that you know the word I have heard; so I listen the more carefully, and together we are more likely to respond with repentance and faith.
The purpose of preaching is not to do good preaching; the purpose of preaching is to shape the assembly of God’s people to become like Christ in heart and in character, and to be Christlike witnesses in a needy world. For through the godliness of the local church the world will be reached for Christ.
When the preacher looks back on Sunday, he typically feels low because (a) a number of people were not there who should have been there, (b) there was pretty obvious evidence of sin in those who were there, including himself, (c) the singing wasn’t great (or perhaps it was great, but he knows it was superficial), (d) he didn’t preach very well, and (e) the whole thing felt humdrum, ordinary, and insignificant. Indeed, he would agree with his kind but skeptical neighbor who wonders why he wastes his energies in preaching and being a pastor.
But—and this is huge—if the pastor is preaching faithfully, and the Spirit of God is doing a long-term persevering work of sanctification by bringing the word home with full conviction, then in that oh-so-imperfect gathering we find the seeds of the new creation. The seeds are planted by the gospel of grace he has preached. One day the little forgivenesses, the unseen forbearance, the unimpressive kindnesses, the growing love of very different people, in that little local church, will metamorphose into being a part of a remade creation. And his woefully weak and pathetic preaching will then be seen to have been a significant part of the agency God has used, along with his people’s prayers, to effect this miraculous change.
Discouraged preacher, do not give up! What you are doing this Sunday is of deeper and greater significance than perhaps everything that has hit the news this week.