At a recent conference in which I was involved, a black Namibian brother told me of a prayer meeting he had tried to arrange in his church. He told me that several of the white farmers, rather than joining that prayer meeting, had decided to hold their own prayer meeting, and so there was a prayer meeting for the black members and another for the white members. Without saying as much, the white members were refusing to worship together.
Another man, a Zambian brother, told me of a time in the 1990s when he had travelled with his to South Africa to collect a vehicle they had purchased. That Sunday, they dressed in their Sunday best and went to a little church in Zeerust. A white man met them at the door and told them that they were not welcome. They decided to sit on the porch outside the building, where they could still hear the Word preached, but the white man again came to them and told them that they couldn’t sit there. Once again, that was an example of a professing Christian refusing to worship together.
What these brothers experienced has a parallel in the book of Ephesians. Ephesus was a culturally and ethnically diverse city, and the church there was likewise culturally and ethnically diverse. But believers in Ephesus were called by God to worship together. The wall of hostility that existed between Jews and Gentiles had been torn down by the gospel, and now this church had a glorious opportunity to display the power of the gospel, the wisdom of God, and the nature of the supernatural transformation brought about by the gospel. In short, they had the glorious opportunity to show Christ.
But Paul knew that, in order to do this, they would require supernatural help. Therefore, he exhorted them to be filled with the Spirit. Being filled with the Spirit would enable them to fulfil the divine mandate that God had given them to worship together.
Because we are still sinners, we need help to worship together. We need help in our focus. The Spirit supplies this help. As we submit to His control, and live life before the face of Christ, He enables us to live in community with one another and to corporately display the character of Christ. And He does this in community, through community and for the community. According to vv. 19–21, the Spirit produces a Christ-centred speaking, singing, satisfied and submissive community of faith. This is a miracle that is imperative for the people of God.
In this study, we will consider what it means for the Spirit-filled church to worship together. We will do so by, first, considering the mandate to worship together, and, second, considering the marks of worshipping together.
The Mandate to Worship Together
First, our text shows that it is a mandate for the church to worship together in the Spirit. Paul tells us in v. 18 that believers in the church must “be filled with the Spirit,” which produce the speaking, singing, satisfaction and submission of which he writes in vv. 19–21.
But we must also notice that this command is a corporate command. The church must be filled with the Spirit. And if we will be filled with the Spirit then we need the church. The principle is simply this: You and I cannot be Spirit-filled apart from the church, and if we are Spirit-filled we will be part of a church.
The text before us clearly pictures the gathering of the church in a meaningful way. Spirit-filled believers get together and they get together to worship. Spirit-filled believers prioritise and participate in and with a local church.
This principle should be evident from the fact that what it means to be filled with the Spirit is to grow in Christlikeness. The Spirit was sent to point God’s people to Christ and to produce Christ in them (John 16:13–14). And the Bible makes it clear that Christ is all about the church.
Christ loved the church and gave Himself for it (5:25). He walks in the midst of His Church and holds the church in His right hand (Revelation 1:12–20). He disciplines His church (Matthew 18:15–20). He gifts His church (4:11–16; 1 Corinthians 12). He sings with His church (Hebrews 2:12). He manifests himself through the church (1 Corinthians 12). He is the head of His church (1:22–23). He is the chief Shepherd of all shepherds in His church (1 Peter 5:1–4).
In light of the above, how can someone possibly claim to be Spirit-filled who will not be committed to what Christ and the Spirit are committed to? Are you filled with the Spirit? If so, you will be committed to and accountable to a local church. You will gather with the church. You will prioritise the church. If you do not, you cannot claim to be filled with the Spirit.
The church is the means as well as the manifestation of being filled with the Spirit. Being filled with the Spirit is not a mystical experience in isolation, but something that requires effort in the context of community. This is obvious as you read the account of the early church in Acts.
The first time we read of believers being “filled with the Holy Spirit” is in Acts 2:1–4, and it happened when “they were all with one accord in one place.” In Acts 4:23–31 the believers are again “filled with the Holy Spirit,” but only when “they were assembled together.” In Acts 13:1–2, it was when believers were gathered together that the Spirit spoke to them. The Bible commands Christians to be filled with the Spirit, and the church is the filling station.
When the pastors of your church exhort you to gather it is because they want what is best for you. They want the most for each member. They want each member to live supernaturally for God’s glory. They want to compel you so that the community might be compelling.
The Marks of Worshipping Together
But what does it look like for the church to worship together in the Spirit? How is this Spirit-filledness manifested in the church? Paul gives four manifestations of the Spirit-filled community.
We Edify with Our Speech
First, Paul says that those who are filled with the Spirit edify one another with their speech: “speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (v. 19).
The word translated “speaking” is a very basic word. At root, it means to utter words or to emit a sound. It speaks of using words to declare one’s mind and disclose one’s thoughts. And this speaking is done “to one another.”
Spirit-filled believers connect to and communicate with other believers. And they do so in order to edify them (see Colossians 3:16).
One of the most common exhortations in the New Testament is for believers to “greet one another” (see 4:29–30). The Holy Spirit moves those whom He fills to others whom He fills. Do you speak to one another in the church? Are you deliberate about it? Or do you actively avoid fellow church members? Do you rush off immediately after the service is finished?
Perhaps you don’t find it easy to speak to others. Remember that the gospel drives us toward need, not comfort. Perhaps you argue that you are shy. Remember that Jesus isn’t! The Spirit will empower you to move beyond “personality.” If you are Spirit-filled, you will speak in an edifying way to other believers so that you can help them to be Spirit-filled too.
The speaking of which Paul writes here is intentional: “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” The idea is that we will be speaking truth to others, which will help them and give them hope. Instead of speaking only about sport or technology or entertainment, we will speak words of comfort, conviction and encouragement. If we are filled with the Spirit we will speak in such a way that others who hear our speech will be encouraged to be filled with the Spirit.
We Exhort with Our Singing
Second, Paul argues that those who are Spirit-filled will exhort others with their singing: “singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord” (v. 19). The content of this singing will be truth: “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” In this way, singing is a means of addressing one another.
John MacArthur notes that “where the true gospel is known and believed, music is loved and sung. God’s Spirit in the heart puts music in the heart.” As we sing truth together, we encourage one another to persevere.
Music is a powerful tool. When Saul was troubled by an evil spirit, it was David’s music that soothed him. When Paul and Silas were imprisoned for the sake of the gospel, they found encouragement in singing to the Lord. After Jesus told His disciples that He would be leaving them soon, He concluded the Last Supper with a hymn. The slaves in the United States used to find comfort and encouragement by singing spiritual songs. Years ago, when visiting an underground church in another part of the world, I found great strength in the corporate singing in worship.
Truthful singing exalts the God of our faith, and when we exalt the God of our faith we exhort the community of faith.
The word translated “melody” literally means “to pluck,” and was used of plucking strings on a musical instrument. There is a hint, then, of musical accompaniment to the singing here commanded.
This singing is done from the “heart.” The heart in the Bible speaks of thoughts, feelings and mind. The greatest investment in any choir is not a powerful singing voice, but a Spirit-filled heart. Spirit-filled believers sing from hearts whose “strings” have been touched by God. On the other hand, the singing sometimes touches our hearts (see Psalms 22:3; 33:1; 40:3; 96:1–2; 149:1). When Israel experienced deliverance from Egypt through the Red Sea, they responded in song (Exodus 15:1–18). The song both arose from touched hearts and, no doubt, touched the hearts of those who lifted their voices to the Lord in song.
As we exalt God in song, the effect is exhortational. We may exalt God by singing, “What a Faithful God Have We,” and at the same time we exhort others to trust in this faithful God. We exalt God by singing, “How Great is Our God,” and at the same time we exhort others to trust in this great God. We exalt our indescribable God by singing the song so named, and at the same time we exhort others to rejoice and trust in a God beyond description. The psalms were designed for this very purpose: to at the same time exalt God and exhort God’s people.
There is a sense in which the church choir gathers every time the church gathers to sing. Of course there is a place for a choir ministry, in which those who are particularly musically gifted minister for the benefit of the congregation. But, in reality, every member is a part of the choir. Therefore, when the church gathers, open your mouth and sing! It is not the time during the singing to read your bulletin or check your phone! If it is well with your soul, let it be known by your speaking and your singing.
We are therefore to sing corporately, sincerely, thoughtfully, meaningfully, truthfully purposefully, frequently and redemptively. Our singing ought to minister meaningfully to others.
We Empower with Our Satisfaction
Third, the Spirit enables us to empower others with our satisfaction: “giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 20).
The word translated “giving thanks” speaks of an attitude of gratitude. The word was used of saying grace at a meal. We are to be thankful always about all things—though Paul does offer an important qualification.
Paul qualifies this thanksgiving for all things as being “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” We are not thankful for evil, though we are thankful for who God is in the midst of evil. As Paul wrote elsewhere, “In everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
Because the Spirit humbles us, we are a thankful people. He leads us to obey, therefore we are thoughtful. Joni Eareckson Tada makes the point that the Bible never actually tells us to feel thankful but it does tell us to be thankful. Thankfulness is a matter of obedience, not feeling. The Holy Spirit shows us Christ who was thankful. (John 11:41–42; Matthew 11:27ff; Matthew 26; etc.). The Holy Spirit points us to Christ’s love, sovereignty and power, making us satisfied and therefore thankful.
A missionary in London was once called to an old tenement building, where a woman was dying. The room was tiny and cold and the woman was lying on the floor. The missionary tried to help her and asked if there was anything she wanted. He never forgot her response: “I have all I really need, I have Jesus Christ.” The missionary was greatly impressed by her words, and when he left there he wrote these words:
In the heart of London City,
mid the dwellings of the poor,
these bright golden words were uttered,
“I have Christ, what want I more.”
Spoken by a lonely dying woman,
stretched upon a garret floor,
having not one earthly comfort,
“I have Christ, what want I more.”
As we are satisfied and thankful, we encourage others to be satisfied and thankful (see 2 Corinthians 9:12–15). Paul never lost his gratitude for God’s salvation, and the result was that he was able to help others be thankful and satisfied. The grumbling spirit is incompatible with the Holy Spirit. Let us not grieve Him by grumbling.
We Exemplify with Our Submission
The fourth and final mark of worshipping together in the Spirit is seen in v. 21: “submitting to one another in the fear of God” (v. 21).
The word translated “submitting” literally means “to line up under.” It was a military term used of rank and file. The submissive attitude is one that asks, “How can I serve you?” And as we adopt this attitude, we exemplify the attitude and character of Christ.
Paul makes this point in Philippians 2. In vv. 1–4, he exhorts the Philippians to humbly serve one another. The basis of this exhortation, according to vv. 5–8, is that that is exactly what Jesus Christ did. He did not selfishly hold onto the equality that He had with the Father, but willingly laid aside His rights to become a servant to His Father. In similar fashion, we are called to lay aside our own rights and preferences so that we can instead serve others. In that way, our relationship with Christ is to inform our relationship with others.
We exercise this submission “in the fear of God.” That is, our submission to others is a consequence of our reverent submission to God. As Stott says, “In brief, Spirit-filled believers love God and love each other, which is hardly surprising since the first fruit of the Spirit is love.” This is a lordship issue.
The Spirit of God leads those whom He fills to take up their cross. My granddaughter recently asked her mother, “Mommy, how do we get to heaven?” My daughter replied, “Well, Jesus died on the cross so that we can follow Him and be in God’s family forever. So that means that when we die we can go to heaven. Isn’t that great news?” My granddaughter thought for a moment and then replied, “It’s not really great news—because we die!”
But Jesus made that very point: We must lose our life if we will find it. We must die in order to live.
Are you willing to lay aside your preferences to serve others? Are you willing to suffer for the sake of others? Do you enter into the joy and sorrow of others in the church? Are you prepared to take the first step in order to have difficult, yet necessary, conversations with others?
Submitting to one another in the fear of God will mean a willingness to submit to your leaders as they follow Christ. It will mean praying for and with one another. You can be sure that the Spirit will not lead you to skip the church prayer meeting!
The Spirit-filled life is not measured merely by your private morality, or even by your private spiritual experience. It is measured, instead, by how you conduct yourself with others. Essentially, it does so in how well we worship together.
The illustrations with which we began this study show evidence of professing Christians who were certainly not filled with the Spirit. But it was not all bad. The Zambian brother, after being turned away from the church, walked across the road and found a small group of black Christians who had likewise been turned away. He gathered them together, opened his Bible, and proceeded to lead them in worship. That is evidence of a man who is filled by the Spirit.
May God fill us, and may we conduct ourselves supernaturally to the glory of God.