This was a message given at the Reforming Southeast Kansas Conference in Caney, Kansas in October of 2020.
Good morning. I want to thank Josh Eaton for putting this conference together and asking me to be a part of it. I could not be more supportive of a theme that the Church needs to be discussing at this moment in time than the one we are discussing today: that of the gathered church. Almost a year ago, on December 31st, 2019, as we were ringing in the new year, I don’t think any of us saw what was coming for us this year. We did not see civil governments in the United States telling churches “not to meet or else.” I think it’s safe to say that the majority of churches were not prepared with the necessary principles for what would happen to them this year. We ought to extend grace to one another for our different responses, but now that we have seen what is going on, we need to settle it in our bones as to what we are going to do when they tell us again this winter to stay home and not to go to church. And what should be settling in our bones is that we’re having church.
When I say that we should have church, I don’t mean that we log on to Facebook in our PJ’s and tune in to our Church’s livestream thinking that we are having church. If that’s what you’re doing you can be sure that you are not having church. What I mean by having church is what the Bible means – that we gather together in our local assemblies to partake of the means of grace and worship God as He has said He wants to be worshipped. “But why gather?” you say. “Why can’t I have church online?” That is the topic and title assigned to me today: “Why we gather.” So I hope to answer that for you this morning: “Why does the Church gather?” I’ve got four reasons for you, we’ll go one at a time.
We Gather Because Jesus is There
First, we gather because Jesus is there. I want to start with a little bit of exposition in Matthew 18, a familiar passage: 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
There are a couple different common pitfalls with Matthew 18:20. The first is that it can be totally cut out of the context and applied in all kinds of silly ways. For those who try to study the Bible in a good expositional way, you know that this verse is given in the context of the issue of church discipline. And the second error is to see Matthew 18:20 as applying strictly and only to the issue of church discipline. So look at that section. Matthew 18:15-17 gives us the steps of church discipline. Verse 18 tells us about the heavenly consequences of what we do on earth. Verse 19 tells us the Father answers the prayers where we agree together. And then we have verse 20. Now verse 20 begins with a very small but very important word: “for.” That’s basically like seeing the word “because” there. But what that should alert us to is that what is about to come after the word “for” is the foundation for what was said before the “for.” So what Jesus says here about church discipline and agreeing together in prayer is founded on a more transcendent principle that where two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name, there Jesus is among them. So that is a true thing, that Jesus builds his church discipline and prayer teaching on. Now, I think it’s also helpful to note: what is the context of church discipline and agreeing together in prayer? The context of those things is the local church. It is gathering together. So the larger principle here is that when the church gathers for formal church functions, Jesus is there among them. So when we gather for formal church functions like singing, praying, preaching, observing the ordinances, Jesus is there among us.
Now, so often this idea is really overlooked because people will say “Well yeah, the Holy Spirit indwells all believers therefore Jesus is always with us, so of course He’s with us when we gather together.” While of course that is true, if that were all that Jesus meant then He wouldn’t have had to say what He said in Matthew 18:20 because that would’ve been repetitive. But I think that Jesus is saying here that He is with us in a different kind of way when we gather together as a Church than when we are by ourselves. That is to say that there is a unique presence of Jesus with his people when the Church is gathered together, that cannot be experienced or replicated outside of that gathering together. It does not matter if we can sit at home and watch the worship leader on stage or the pastor give his message, we are not experiencing the presence of Christ in the same way when we do that.
Now, there are two different ways to think about Christ’s presence with us when we are gathered together that helps us understand how it is different than when we are not gathered together. The first is the foundational starting point that each and every believer is indwelt by the Holy Spirit. So that means when a bunch of Christians get together, the Holy Spirit is not just in me, but it’s also in you, and him, and her, etc. So in one sense there is more of Christ there, in the sense that there is His body, the church, together and functioning. You certainly want to be careful with that phrase, because in our union with Christ as believers we always have all of Christ, and yet when a bunch of people who have all of Christ gather together there is something different and special about that. The second way we understand this is not only is there Christ in each of us, but as Matthew 18:20 says, Christ is there “among” us. He is there in the midst of us. Not only is He in us, but also in between us. So there’s this binding together that we have through Christ. So that presence of Christ in the midst of us, is the thing that makes it different when we are gathered together. Because we go home and we still have Christ in us, but we are not in that room where Christ was also in between all of us.
So there’s two ways you can go with what I’m saying here. One, I am not promoting and I don’t want you to go there. And that is Charismatic crazy land that views the Holy Spirit as an experience and we have to beg and call Him to fill the atmosphere, and then we’ll know that He is there because we’ll get goosebumps on our skin and tears in our eyes, and always happens seems to happen when the lights are set just right and the sustain is just perfect. That is not at all what I want you to think I am talking about. I am presenting to you a view of the presence of Jesus that only comes from reformed theology and some of the reformers themselves. Here is an important distinction: this promise from Jesus that He is with us when we gather together is true every time we gather together, whether we are consciously thinking about it or not, or whether we get that cool emotional feeling or not. Jesus doesn’t say that “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them, and you’ll know it because I’ll make your knees weak and eyes wet.” No, He just says, “Where you are together, I am there.” Promise. Your emotional experience has no bearing on whether this is true or not. Because it’s true, whatever your emotional experience. And honestly that’s so much better. So as Christians, we should not be people led by our emotions, but instead we should be led by the truth, and we should inform our emotions and expectations of what the truth is. How would we prioritize and prepare for our Church gatherings if we really believed that Jesus was going to be present in the midst of us, even if the music is off key or awkwardly sung? If we believed Jesus was present in the midst of us when we gathered, we would easily taste the fake imitation of watching worship online. And that’s not to say that watching worship or preaching online is a bad thing, those things can obviously be a helpful resource and God can use them greatly, but it is to say that it’s not the same thing. If we believed Jesus was present with us in a unique way when we gather together that we can’t have any other way, I don’t think people would’ve shut their churches down this year. If we get a special presence of Jesus when we gather together, we’re going to want to do that every chance we get, and being there with Jesus will be worth any risk.
I think part of the reason we said church wasn’t essential this year was because we’ve lost an understanding of the real spiritual presence of Jesus with His gathered church. And I’ll be honest, I think part of the reason we’ve got to this point is because we stopped having a high view of the Lord’s Supper, and stopped believing that Jesus is present with us in the Lord’s Supper. We stopped believing that we’re communing with Christ in communion. I certainly reject the Roman Catholic position of transubstantiation that the elements are transformed into the body and blood of Christ. But I also think it’s important to reject the Zwinglian view that the Lord’s Supper is merely a memorial. If it’s just a memorial of the death of Christ, what’s the big deal? There’s a lot of ways we can remember the death of Christ. But I take John Calvin’s view to be the most reformed and correct view, that the elements are not transformed, but Christ is really present with us, we are remembering His death, but also communing with Him right there. So I think there is a major connection here between this Matthew 18:20 principle of Jesus being among His Church when they are gathered and His presence in the Lord’s Supper, because the Bible puts the Lord’s Supper in the context of the gathered Church – meaning the Lord’s Supper is something that we do when we gather together. You can’t take the Lord’s Supper at home by yourself. The Lord’s Supper is to be taken when the Church is gathered together, and Jesus is present when the Church is gathered together, so you can start to see very easily how Christ is present in the Lord’s Supper.
It’s also our singing. That can’t be done faithfully online as a substitute for gathering to sing. Around Ephesians 5:18-19 it tells us, “be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs…” Address one another in Psalms…in other words, “sing to one another.” This isn’t talking about special music. This is something that everyone is commanded to do. That means that when we are singing together as a congregation it is not just us singing vertically to God – like this worship is just between me and God, and everyone here is having their own private worship session to God – no! If that was the case then why sing when we gather? Our congregational singing is yes for God, but also for and to one another! And if we are singing the Psalms as we should be, our singing is admonishing and encouraging one another. Now, sadly, many congregations don’t sing, so you really miss out on this blessing. When we become Christians we all have to learn how to sing and throw our effort into and practice, it doesn’t come easy. But once you have a congregation that sings, it is one of the greatest encouragements in this world – to be in a room full of Christians singing beautifully and loudly together blesses my soul like nothing else. It makes me ready to charge hells gates. Now you can’t do that online, or at home by yourself. You just can’t.
Now you might say, “well, at least we can listen to the sermon online just like we do in person.” Wrong. Sermon recordings are of course a great blessing and resource, but it is not the same means of grace if you are not there with the gathered church. Preaching can not be replicated online. That’s why Martyn Lloyd-Jones did not want his sermons recorded (they were against his will). And we’re blessed for it. But he had a point. It’s not the same. There is an unreplicable receiving of the Word when you are gathered with God’s people together on the Lord’s Day observing all the other means of grace with Jesus present among you. Because we are not just listening by ourselves, we are receiving it as a congregation, as the body of Christ. We are all hearing with one another. If John is two rows over crying because he is convicted of his sin, that is either of great encouragement or conviction to me. Maybe I observe the 5 year-olds sitting attentively listening to God’s Word (and they better be in the service btw), that’s going to bless or convict me. We could go on and on with examples like that. But there is a difference between congregational listening in the special presence of Christ, and individuals with headphones in. But also I would add that receiving sermons on the Lord’s Day with the gathered church is special because it is what God has specifically commanded us to do, and it is specifically what God has ordained as a means for our sanctification. God has not commanded us to listen to 5 sermons during the week. That may be great. But if you listen to 5 sermons during the week but you don’t come to hear your pastor preach to your congregation on the Lord’s Day, you are worse off, and in sin, if you had no good reason not to be there. But if you only get one sermon a week and it is your pastor’s sermon at church on the Lord’s Day, you have exactly what you need. A Lord’s Day sermon with the gathered congregation is a more effectual means of grace than online listening. Why? Because God commanded one and not the other.
You see, we gather because we need it. We need the actual gathering, not just the information we receive in the gathering. We need the gathering itself. We are not walking brains. We need more than just mere intellectualism. We can’t just download what we need from the internet into our brains. We are not computers. We are flesh and blood, soul and body, mind and spirit. And when we gather to partake of the means of grace, all of our being is being engaged: our mind, our wills, our bodies, etc. The gathering of worship affects all of our being, and we need that. Jesus doesn’t just have us sit and think for five minutes about His body and blood broken and poured out for us. He has us eat and drink physical bread and wine. It’s not arbitrary. He’s addressing the totality of our being. And the totality of our being is addressed in a myriad of ways in the gathered worship, in ways that it is not sitting at home.
We Gather Because God said to
So that was the first reason we gather: because Jesus is there. Don’t worry, I’ll move quicker through these next ones. This next one is very simple, but it is foundational. We gather because God said to. God told us not to neglect meeting together, Hebrews 10:25. That really should be all we need. God said it so we’re going to do it. However, that is just not enough for some people, and that’s sin on their part, because it is enough. That’s our ultimate reason for everything: God said so. But I think that one of the reasons that this is not enough for some is because for so long now, churches have not done what God has commanded them to do when they meet together. And if you don’t obey God on how He says He is to be worshipped, then you lay the foundation for not obeying God when He says to worship. We are told to meet together and sing Psalms, and take the Lord’s Supper, and pray, and preach the Word, and that women are not to preach, and yet we are not following instructions there on how God wants to be worshipped, so it is not a long jump to not following His instruction to be worshipped. We are to gather because God said so, and if we find ourselves not gathering, we need to ask ourselves if it started with us not doing what God said to do when we worship.
We Gather Because it’s not safe
The third reason we gather is because it’s not safe. You see, we can’t possibly get sick and die if we don’t gather. Now most people are saying that’s why we shouldn’t gather, because we might get sick and die. But it’s actually why we should. Full disclaimer: the biblical principle is that if you are actually sick you are to stay home, that is the right thing to do. So I’m not saying go to church if you are sick. I am saying, if you are well, go to church, because it is dangerous. When we gather we are looking at one another and saying, “I would die for you.” We are saying, “I would die to be here with you, brother and sister.” The coronavirus did not suddenly make church dangerous, it just reminded us that it is dangerous and it always has been. Every week when we go to church we are risking getting some virus someone didn’t know they had and getting sick and dying, or we risk getting in a car accident, and we are saying to our church, I’d die for you. I am willing to risk it to be here. Obviously at other parts of the world at other times you have different kinds of dangers and risks. And they are all worth it.
But not just physically is it not safe, we are gathering to go battle, spiritually. The devil doesn’t stop fighting. He’s a divider with a house divided and he wants to scatter and disperse Christians from one another, because isolation is a neutralizer. Satan can’t handle an army of God so he wants to scatter and neutralize. So we need to realize we’re an army. We are stronger when we are together. We can fight sin and defeat it in each other’s lives better together. We can go and be an effective church in our communities when we are united together. But we need to know that it doesn’t come easy or safe, because we are facing opposition from the enemy.
We Gather because Jesus Gathers Us
Finally, we gather because Jesus gathers us. If we are Christians we will gather. Because we were once lost. We were once separated from the promises of God. We were once aliens and strangers to the gospel. We were once enemies to the cross. But the Father gave us to the Son, so the Son came to gather us in. Jesus said in John 12 that “when the Son of Man is lifted up, I will draw all men to myself.” Our sin once made us distant and lost. But when Jesus was lifted up on the cross, He took our sin on Himself, atoned for it with His blood and died. Then He rose from the dead on the third day and then sent His spirit to gather all for whom He died into His fold. Fundamentally the death of Jesus gathers His people together. It obliterated the dividing wall of hostility between men, it destroyed barriers of sin, destroyed things that divide, and united us together in His death and resurrection to make one new man. So when we gather each Lord’s Day, that’s what we are showing. That Christ has gathered us in, we are no longer lost but found, we are no longer scattered and separated but united in our Lord. We are no longer distant but have been brought near. When we gather with our church, we are getting near to Jesus, for Jesus is there. And Jesus gathers us in to be near to Him. Don’t you want to be near to Jesus?