The individual human soul, rightly seeing the glory of Christ and rightly savoring the glory of Christ, is at the heart of God’s purpose in creating the world. Until we grasp, in some measure, why that is the case, we will not be able to give an account for why the corporate reality of the worshiping church is essential to God’s purpose in creating the world.
So what I hope to do in this message is steer a biblical course between two errors. On the one side, I want us to avoid the error of thinking that the relationship between the individual worshiping human soul and God is in itself the ultimate purpose of God in creation. It’s not.
On the other side, I want us to avoid the error of being so captivated by the corporate reality of the worshiping people of God — the body of Christ, the temple of God, the bride of Christ — that we lose sight of the fact that the vital, ongoing, eternal intensity of the individual soul’s affection for God is absolutely essential to the very existence of the corporate reality of the worshiping church.
The New Testament forbids us to forget, neglect, or minimize the radical, essential, eternal significance of the individual worshiping human person. And the New Testament forbids that we forget, neglect, or minimize the coming into being of the blazingly beautiful bride of Christ who is more than the sum of her flaming parts, though not less.
Individual Soul and Glory
Let’s begin by focusing on the relationship between the individual soul and the ultimate purpose of God in creation. One of the clearest statements in the Bible of God’s ultimate purpose in creation is found in Isaiah 43:6–7:
Bring my sons from afar,
and my daughters from the end of the earth,
everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory.
Or there’s Ephesians 1:11–12: “[He] works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we . . . might be to the praise of his glory.” And we have Romans 11:36: “From him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.”
God created the world, he sustains the world, he governs the world, he is doing his saving work in the world, in order to display his glory — his greatness, his beauty, his worth, the whole panorama of his perfections. We see this all across Scripture:
- “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1).
- “The trees of the forest sing for joy” (Psalm 96:12).
- “Let the rivers clap their hands; let the hills sing for joy together” (Psalm 98:8).
- “[The meadows and the valleys] shout and sing together for joy” (Psalm 65:13).
- “Sing, O heavens . . . shout, O depths of the earth; break forth into singing, O mountains, O forest, and every tree in it! For the Lord . . . will be glorified in Israel” (Isaiah 44:23).
The heavens, the mountains, the hills, the forests of trees, the rivers, and the meadows — they all were created to sing the glories of their Maker. And they do. And so does the most brilliant assembly of one hundred and fifty unbelieving singers gathered to perform Händel’s Messiah at Easter, surrounded by the most accomplished orchestra of unbelieving musicians. When they play with excellence and beautifully sing those magnificent biblical truths, all of it reflects the glory of God, like trees clapping their hands.
Why Worship Must Cherish
So if God gets so much glory from the external echoes of his excellencies in the things he has made — including unbelieving musicians and scientists and athletes — why is there any need for the individual human soul to have any particular affections for God? Isn’t God’s purpose to be glorified being achieved anyway?
“God does not intend to be half-glorified.”
No, it’s not. God does not intend to be half-glorified.
A king may be glorified for his great achievements and power and wisdom if he rules his kingdom with an iron hand and sees to it that great fortifications are built, and beautiful buildings and gardens are constructed, and citizens, under coercion, are forced to become excellent musicians and perform for him the finest pieces of musical art. This king may have a reputation for his power throughout the world.
But he is not so great nor so glorified as a king who is loved by his people — admired, revered, cherished, treasured, enjoyed, desired — so that out of that affection for their king, these happy subjects build even greater fortifications and buildings and gardens and musical compositions. A king is more glorified by a cherishing people than a cowering people. God does not intend to be half-glorified.
Not All Sound Is Worshipful Song
Jesus said to the scribes and Pharisees, “You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me’” (Matthew 15:7–9). Here you have an excellent use of lips: “You honor me with your lips. My honor, my glory, is sounding from your lips. I am being glorified by your mouth, just like I’m glorified by the mountains and trees and rivers that have no souls, and just like I am glorified by unbelieving choral ensembles that sing the ‘Hallelujah Chorus.’”
But Jesus still says that their heart, their soul — their individual human soul — is far from him. What does he mean? Jesus tells us in Matthew 15:9: “In vain do they worship me.” In vain. Meaning: “The external echo of my excellence is a zero when it comes to the essence of the kind of worship I created this world to give. A zero.”
Why? “I did not create the world to get magnificent nothings from the hearts of humans created in my image — whether they are singing the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ in unbelief or going through the motions of corporate worship in church on Sunday morning. That’s not why I created the world. I created the world not only for the echo of my excellence in the external wonders of the created world, including humans created in my image, but also for the echo of my excellence in the affections of my people.”
And where those affections are missing — where Jesus is not trusted and loved and cherished and treasured and desired — the words of God through Amos 5:23 will sound out over our worship services and choral performances:
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
to the melody of your harps I will not listen.
And it almost goes without saying (but it is so crucial I will say it) that these absolutely essential affections for God happen in the individual human soul — or the heart, as Jesus calls it Matthew 15:8. This is why the vital, ongoing, eternal intensity of the individual human person’s affection for God is absolutely essential for the fulfillment of God’s purpose in creating the world, namely, that he be not half-glorified (as by trees and unbelieving musicians), but glorified as he ought in the affections of the heart.
Gathered People and Glory
Now we turn to this question: If affections for God in the individual human soul are the essence of the self-glorifying purpose of God in creating the world, how do those heart-affections give rise to the corporate reality of the worshiping church? Because it is clear from the New Testament that God’s ultimate purpose is not millions of isolated, independent, human souls with white-hot affections for God, like great solos.
God is bringing into being a diverse, global church pictured as the body of Christ, the temple of God, the bride of Christ. Paul pictures the church as the wife of Jesus in Ephesians 5:27 and says that Christ’s purpose in coming and dying was “so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” Christ means to have a beautiful wife. That’s not the same as saying he aims to have many individual worshipers. She is more than the sum of her parts, though not less.
This conference is devoted to blessing churches understood as local expressions of that emerging, global, everlasting, corporate, worshiping reality called the bride of Christ. What local churches do in their gathered worshiping assemblies is rehearse for that eternal vocation of corporate worship by the bride of Christ.
To God and One Another
The text that connects the heart of the individual worshiping lover of Jesus with this corporate reality is Ephesians 5:18–19: “Be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart” (Ephesians 5:18–19). Notice those three dimensions: all of this singing is from “your heart,” all of it is “to the Lord,” and all of it is “addressing one another.”
It doesn’t matter whether the words of the song happen to be (the vertically directed) “We Come, O Christ, to You” or (the horizontally directed) “Come, Christians, Join to Sing.” Whether it is verbally directed to God or verbally directed to man, in both cases it is to God and in both cases it is addressing man because in corporate worship everybody is hearing every song, and God is attending to every song. And all the songs are sung from the heart — or they’re not worship. That is God’s design, as we rehearse for the everlasting corporate worship of the bride.
What is plain from those three dimensions in Ephesians 5:18–19 is that the birthplace and essence of worship is the individual human heart. That’s where the glory of Christ awakens the Christ-exalting affections that magnify his greatness and beauty and worth. Then from this furnace of Christ-exalting affections there flames up expressions in song to God and to people.
“God designed for Christ to have a worshiping bride and not just worshiping individuals.”
The corporate reality of the worshiping bride of Christ is brought into being by God’s combining these individual burning hearts of worship into a new reality — the worshiping bride of Christ — first in the foretastes of our gatherings and finally in the complete, perfected, eternal worship of the bride. This is the ultimate goal of God in creation.
Why? What is it about the corporate reality of the singing bride that makes her worship the ultimate end of God’s purpose, rather than simply white-hot individual worshipers? Why is it that God designed for individual hearts aflame with holy affections for God to combine into a new reality of corporate worship, the worshiping bride of Christ? I’ll give three biblical answers to that question, and they all have the effect of elevating the importance of united congregational worship as high as I know how to elevate it. It is the rehearsal and foretaste of the ultimate aim of creation.
1. Shared joy increases joy.
First, there is a pointer in 2 Corinthians 2:2–3, where Paul touches on the mystery of the union of souls as individual joy becomes shared joy. Paul says to the church, “If I cause you pain, who is there to make me glad but the one whom I have pained?” And: “I felt sure of all of you, that my joy would be the joy of you all.”
In the body of Christ, where we are spiritually united in him, something profound happens in the experience of joy in God. It’s not merely that the corporate reality is the assembly of solitary joys. Paul said, “My joy is the joy of you all, and yours is mine. My joy is more because yours is mine, and yours is more because mine is yours.”
Therefore, the totality of Christ-exalting affection that comes into being especially in corporate worship is greater than the sum of individual affections. The worshiping bride is the goal of creation because the interpenetration of Christ-exalting joy is something new, something greater, something more God-glorifying than the assembled joy of individual worshiping hearts.
2. Diverse voices sing more beautiful harmonies.
Second, the unified harmony of diverse voices is more beautiful than the greatest sound of voices in unison. It is a glorious thing when a thousand voices, like a trumpet blast, sound in unison. But when those voices break into the unified diversity of harmony, something more glorious comes into being.
And this is not just a musical phenomenon. It is true in relation to countless diversities God is assembling into his church — across all time and all geography. Ethnic diversities, age diversities, male and female diversities, personality diversities, taste and preference diversities, voice quality diversities. (Think of voices like Bob Dylan and Pavarotti.)
In the unified diversity of the worshiping bride of Christ something more beautiful is created, and Christ is more glorified as the Creator and Redeemer and Beloved of that bride. That’s why the corporate worship of the bride is ultimate.
3. Diverse affections display Christ’s worth.
And third, God designed for Christ to have a worshiping bride and not just worshiping individuals, because the greatness and beauty and worth of the Leader is revealed by the extent of the diversity he is able to inspire and unify in one following, one body, one bride.
This is why the song of heaven in Revelation 5 calls attention to the worthiness of Christ — precisely because he ransomed so many diverse peoples and united them into one kingdom and one singing priesthood.
They sang a new song, saying,
“Worthy are you to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation,
and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on the earth.” (Revelation 5:9–10)
“When you gather in worship next Sunday, remember: you are a rehearsal of the end for which God made the world.”
The glory of Christ shines more brightly because he is the kind of Leader-Redeemer who holds together the allegiance and the affections of so many peoples, tribes, tongues, and nations in our worshiping kingdom.
The universe was created to display the worth of the Lamb, and in him the glory of God. When you gather in congregational worship next Sunday, remember: small or large, you are not just individual worshipers; you are a manifestation, a foretaste, a rehearsal of the end for which God made the world: the combining of individual souls aflame for God into something more — the greater joy, the greater harmony, the greater diverse affections of the worshiping bride of Christ — the goal of all things.