I was recently party to a conversation in which a degree of debate was held as to the significance of covenant in the Bible. One party to the discussion downplayed the significance of covenant language while the other argued that covenant forms the basic framework into which all of Scripture fits. I tend to agree with the latter.
While the word “covenant” is not used in the creation account, Hosea 6:7 affirms that God’s relationship with Adam and Eve was one of covenant. God later entered into covenant with Noah (Genesis 6:18; 9:11; etc.), Abraham (Genesis 15:18), Moses (and, through Moses, Israel) (Exodus 19:5), and David (2 Samuel 7). Still later, God promised to make a new covenant with his people (Jeremiah 31:31–34), which was fulfilled in Christ (Luke 22:14–23). As archaic as the language of covenant may seem, the covenant framework is crucial to understanding Scripture. It is also crucial to understanding worship.
Consider the covenant that God made with Israel at Sinai, which took place in the context of gathered worship. In the story (Exodus 19–24), we see five basic elements of the covenant that he made with the people. First, he called his people out of Egypt to Sinai to worship him (19:9–15). He then rehearsed his redemptive work to them, reminding them in effect of his cleansing (20:1–2). He then consecrated them as his special people by giving the Ten Commandments (20:3–17), to which they responded with an affirmation of intended obedience (24:1–3). The people then saw God and communed with him (24:9–11) after which they were commissioned as his witnesses to the nations (see Joshua 4:24). The five steps taken to establish covenant, then, were calling, cleansing, consecrating, communing, and commissioning.
Significantly, this is not the only time this pattern is observed in the Old Testament. Time and again Israel broke covenant with God. Time and again, God renewed his covenant with them, following these same five steps. The same basic shape can be seen in Leviticus 9 when Aaron led the people in worship and again in 2 Chronicles 29:20–36 when Hezekiah restored worship that had long been distorted. If the patterns sounds strangely familiar, it should—because it is precisely the pattern that new covenant worship takes on the Lord’s Day.
When the church gathers to worship, we begin with a call from Scripture to worship. We then offer a prayer of confession and embrace his cleansing in Christ. We are consecrated as we listen to his word read and preached as his covenant people and respond with hearts of faith. We commune with him around the Lord’s Supper and then, with his blessing pronounced upon us in benediction, are commissioned as his disciples to go into the world and make more worshippers. Corporate worship, in other words, looks very much like a covenant renewal service. It looks like one because it is one! Corporate worship is an act in which God’s covenant people, having sinned throughout the week, gather to renew covenant with God. What happens in corporate worship? We renew covenant with God.
The writer to the Hebrews explicitly highlights this parallel in 12:18–29. Reminding his readers of what happened at Sinai, he then writes of how we have likewise come to heavenly Jerusalem where we meet Jesus, “the mediator of a new covenant.” In the same way that Israel was in a covenant relationship with God in the Old Testament, the church is in a covenant relationship with God in the New Testament. And though we sin as frequently as Israel did, God graciously comes to us week after week in corporate worship to renew his covenant with us. As Jonathan Landry Cruse observes, “Even though we do not deserve his favor—and have done plenty to earn his wrath—God reminds us in worship that our relationship with him is about his commitment to us, not our performance before him.”
When we gather for worship, therefore, we do not engage in empty rituals devoid of meaning. Instead, we gather as God’s chosen people to renew our covenant with him as we hear of his graciousness toward us. We are thereby equipped to go into the world as his commissioned ones to gather more worshippers to him.
The gathered worship of a church reminds us of the wonderful privilege of having a mediator. Apart from Christ, we would flee when God approached us. In Christ, we receive forgiveness and cleansing as he renews his covenant with us and commit to serve him with greater fervour than before. Will you gather for this covenant renewal with us?