A people Gathered around God’s Word (Practical Implications 1)

There is a strong theme running through Scripture that God shapes his people by his Word. Creation is formed by God speaking as he calls light and separates it from darkness, speaks into being the oceans and land, the stars and planets, the sun and the moon.  He creates the first people and instructs them to fill the earth: he blesses them.  He tells Adam and Eve how to live in the Garden of Eden.  He speaks judgement against sin and calls Noah to build an ark so that his family will be saved.  He blesses Abraham and promises him many descendants.  He calls him to leave his home and promises him a new land.  He calls Moses to lead the people of Israel from slavery to freedom.  At Sinai (Horeb), God gives the people laws to live by when they are in the land which he has promised them.

In Deuteronomy 4:10, Moses reminds the people about how those events at Sinai had come to pass:

 Remember the day you stood before the Lord your God at Horeb, when he said to me, “Assemble the people before me to hear my words so that they may learn to revere me as long as they live in the land and may teach them to their children.”

The Old Testament describes the people of Israel as an assembly; when this word was translated into Greek, the same word was used as is used in the New Testament describes the Church. It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that commentators from an earlier age such as Calvin were in the habit of describing God’s people in the Old Testament as the Church.  The point of this assembly or gathering was so that God’s Word could be proclaimed to them so that they would hear and obey.

This gives us a strong sense of what our priorities should be when we assemble as churches. There are plenty of good things that can and should happen: there will be praise and singing, prayer, etc. Of course, we cannot escape the practicalities of announcements and it’s great to spend time catching up with one another.  However, central to our gathering should be the hearing of God’s Word.

I think that if we are to take this seriously then this will mean more than simply having one or two Bible readings during the meeting. Gatherings should be shaped by and saturated in Scripture.  We will want to give space for Scripture to be read aloud but we can also use liturgy and songs that are rich in Biblical quotations and allusions as well. [1]

Because of my belief in Scripture’s role as the means by which God speaks authoritatively, it affects my approach to how we structure our Bible teaching in church life. I am firmly committed to an approach where we systematically work through a book of the Bible, taking a section each week and digging into it to find out what it has to say.  This approach is known as expository preaching and differs from topical preaching where the preacher selects a subject and then identifies the relevant Bible texts which relate to the topic.  Whilst the latter does at least rely on Biblical content (in some churches you will sadly not even get that but will be treated to the preacher’s own reflections and opinions on a range of issues) it does run the risk that the preacher tries to shape Scripture around his priorities.

By working systematically through books of the Bible, you ensure that you cover all of Scripture including the bits that we find difficult to accept not just our favourite passages. It guards a congregation against a preacher’s hobby horses or from him selecting a topic to preach at specific people or problems (sometimes the two may seem to be the same).  In my experience, God’s providence means that we are often surprised at how timely and relevant a particular Bible passage and sermon is to a situation without the preacher needing to manipulate or control the agenda[2]

[1] To avoid lengthy footnoting here it’s worth mentioning that I really owe the insights here to Chris Green , The Message of the Church: Assemble My People (Nottingham. IVP, 2013).

[2] On this see Mark Dever, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church (Wheaton, IL.: Crossway, 2004), 35-55.