Through his Evangelism Explosion program, Dr. D. James Kennedy taught my generation a diagnostic question for use in personal evangelism: “Suppose that you were to die today and stand before God and He were to say to you, ‘Why should I let you into my heaven?’ What would you say?” Our topic here is worship, not evangelism, but I ask you to consider a similar question: “Suppose that you were to die today and find yourself in heaven; would you know that you were there?”
The Rev. John Eliot (1604–1690), whose story can be found in Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana, was a New England Puritan pastor and missionary to the Indians, a translator of the Bible, and one of the editors of the Bay Psalm Book. In a sermon heard by Mather, Eliot said that if you are a believer who had been “duly zealous for and zealous on the Sabbath day,” you would certainly know you were in heaven, for you would have spent one-seventh of your time in heaven while you lived on the earth. More than that, you would have spent many other days in heaven as you walked with God in daily life through the exercises of personal piety, family worship, and participation in Christian fellowship and service. If you are a faithful believer, says Eliot, you would be “no stranger to heaven while thou livest; and when thou diest, heaven will be no strange place to thee; no, thou hast been there a thousand times before.”
The governing idea in Eliot’s conception is that true communion with God is, by His grace, known and enjoyed by the Christian as he walks in faith and in faithfulness according to the ordinances of God. The idea is eminently a biblical one. The tabernacle, instituted by God through Moses at Sinai, was the dwelling place of God among His people (Ex. 25:8). By the architecture of the tabernacle (designed by God Himself) and the service appointed for it, God dwelt among His people and made Himself known. He is Immanuel, God with us. His name and His glory dwelt in that place. The name and glory of God are revealed in His holy attributes, by His Word and deeds. When Moses pleaded for a revelation of God’s glory (33:18), God granted his request by proclaiming His name as all His goodness and glory passed by (34:5–8).
Solomon’s temple served the same function. In his dedication prayer, he saw the temple as a meeting place between God and His people, where God could be addressed by His people concerning all their needs (2 Chron. 6:12–42). Did he think that prayer could not be offered elsewhere? Was it only in this one place that God would hear prayer? Or was it instead that the temple, by its very existence as a building constructed at God’s command and by His design, like the tabernacle that preceded it, served as a standing witness to God’s presence among His people — to His covenanted promise to be their God and to demonstrate His willingness to receive their prayers? Speaking of worship at God’s house in his comments on Psalm 42, John Calvin spoke of it as “the sacred bond of intercourse with God.” Though prayer could indeed be addressed to God from any place, the provision of the tabernacle and later the temple provided solid, added testimony to His people that His ears were open to their cries. The house was given by God for just this purpose.
The New Testament, of course, does not tie our communion with God to a temple of stone, but we should not suppose that He has removed all means by which we are joined to Him in a holy fellowship and assured of that fellowship. Our corporate gatherings serve the same purpose as the holy convocations at the tabernacle and temple did long ago, and most of the fundamental elements of worship remain the same. It is just as important for us today to meet according to the instructions of His Word as it was for our fathers to construct the house of God according to His design and to perform the service there that He commanded. The external regulations given to us are few by comparison, but obeying the ones we have been given is just as essential for us as it was for them. As we keep these ordinances, God meets us in our worship and brings us into heaven:
Open now the gates of beauty,
Zion, let me enter there,
where my soul in joyful duty, waits for him who answers prayer.
Oh, how blessed is this place,
filled with solace, light, and grace!
Lord, My God, I come before thee, come thou also unto me;
where we find thee and adore thee,
there a heav’n on earth must be.
To my heart, O enter thou,
let it be thy temple now.