One of the most intimate services we will hold until we dwell in the presence of our God in eternity is the Lord’s Supper. It points us to the body and blood of Jesus which unites us together in love and directs our attention to the promise of Jesus’ triumphant return when our King shall descend in glory. So, what about COVID-19 communion?
Needless to say, the present COVID-19 pandemic has caused a great disruption on the worship of God’s people around the world. I have friends high in the Andes mountains in Ecuador who are worshipping in their home without the gathered church. I have friends in Zambia, Africa who are gathered with their family members worshipping the Lord, but yet without the assembled corporate body of their local church. This pandemic has a widespread effect that has impacted us all.
During this pandemic, people begin thinking of solutions to problems. Politicians are trying to organize communities for the safety of the people, medical professionals are trying to treat the sick with this disease while others are laboring for a vaccine, and church leaders are trying to minister to their local church while remaining disassembled. During this strange and discouraging season, some pragmatic leaders are beginning to use the phrase “virtual church” which has been around for a while, but now it’s gaining a bit of traction during this season of social distancing.
It didn’t take long before pastors began to press the limits of technology. Pastors are beginning to lead their local churches in the observance of the Lord’s Supper—virtually. Why does the Lord’s Supper require more than technology can provide for local churches to worship together?
Virtually Connected and Literally Disconnected
The intimacy of the Lord’s Supper was put on vivid display in Jesus’ final Passover meal and inaugural Lord’s Supper celebration (Matt. 26:26-29). The disciples were present with Jesus and he spoke directly to them after breaking the bread and served it to them with clear directions. Jesus defined it clearly and served his disciples in an intimate gathering preceding his cruel crucifixion.
Technology has a wonderful place in our world and is providentially given to God’s people during this pandemic for the purpose of being connected and spreading the good news. I personally love using technology for the glory of God—especially since I was converted while listening to a sermon online. I likewise have an undergraduate degree in business information systems. However, it’s quite possible to be connected virtually and disconnected literally at the same time. That’s where we find ourselves in this season of social distancing.
Consider the word of Paul to the church at Corinth. All through the eleventh chapter, Paul points to the church being called together. In fact, Paul references the togetherness of the people some five times between 1 Corinthians 11:18-34. Jesus modeled the togetherness of the meal in his earthly ministry with his disciples and gave specific instructions to continue eating and drinking in remembrance of him (Luke 22:19).
Logic alone should tell us that it’s impossible to use technology to enjoy an intimate meal with a friend or spouse while separated—much less the entire gathered church family. The special and unique assembly of the Lord’s Supper cannot be reduced to pixels on a screen. Technology can only bring people so close, but it cannot ultimately bring people together. However, logic is not the basis for our position on the Lord’s Supper—theology is our foundation.
The Lord’s Supper, like baptism, is not a private event. It’s public and is one of the two ordinances given to God’s Church. In 1 Corinthians 10:17, Paul writes these words, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” The church publicly gathered in the presence of one another are called to be served together from the same bread—indicating their unity in Christ. This cannot be accomplished as a pastor looks at a camera and gives directions to people in their homes. The assembly of God’s people is necessitated in order to fulfill God’s plan for the Lord’s Supper.
Fencing the Table Matters
Before serving the Lord’s Supper, it’s essential to provide clear directions to the people in order to protect the sacredness of the ordinance. The Lord’s Supper is one of two ordinances of the church and is not salvific, but there is an element of uniqueness and sacredness that needs to be upheld in the Lord’s Supper. It’s a time where we remember the body (Jesus’ incarnation), the blood (Jesus’ substitutionary sacrifice), and long for Jesus return. It’s also a time when we are called to remember sin and confess our sin properly before engaging in the Lord’s Supper (see 1 Corinthians 11).
Furthermore, such fencing provides clear directions regarding who is welcome to partake of the Lord’s Supper and who is not invited. The unbelieving family member who is a guest of our worship service and the person under church discipline must understand that they are barred from the Lord’s Table. This should be made clear. The person who has unbelieving children should manage their household well and prevent their children from partaking. The Lord’s Supper is a solemn act of worship. The special presence of the Lord among his people in a unique manner carefully and intentionally overseen by the elders of the church is simply not possible through the screen of an iPhone.
In short, the church needs faithful pastors to look them in the eye across the table and provide both clear instructions for this joyful celebration and stern warnings for profaning the Lord’s Supper.
Providentially Hindered for a Season
Persecuted Christians in a prison are providentially hindered from the Lord’s Supper. Is God dishonored by their inability to worship through the Lord’s Supper? We must exercise wisdom as we think through the work of God and his providence in this season of a pandemic that has created many challenges to God’s Church around the world.
As we seek to overcome the many challenges to our worship during this pandemic that has brought the entire world to a stop—we can use technology to bridge the gap, but we must remember that it’s not virtual church. The church is not virtual. The church is literal. We must not seek to reduce the church to pixels on a screen. It simply cannot happen. We are providentially hindered from gathering together during this season of social distancing, and God is not caught off guard by this. God is very much active and ruling over this season and will accomplish his purpose.
If a local church has concealed their low view of the Lord’s Supper and other aspects of Christian worship, the present COVID-19 pandemic will likely unveil it for everyone to see. When the man on the cross next to Jesus embraced Christ by faith—he was providentially hindered from being baptized. God ordained it. Rather than redefining the Lord’s Supper to a virtual meeting that turns it into something other than the Lord’s Supper altogether—we must remain patient and remember God is sovereign over this season and desires to be worshipped properly and with order.
God’s design of the worship of his Church transcends pandemics and culture. This season shall pass and local churches will once again assemble together, embrace one another in Christian love, and celebrate the body and blood of King Jesus through the Lord’s Supper as we long for him to return and make all things new.
Come, Thou long expected Jesus
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation,
Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.
—Come, Thou long expected Jesus
The very first time we see the term church used in the New Testament is when Jesus said to Peter, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). The English word church is the translation of a Greek term, “ekklesia” which means, “a called out assembly.” The term can have a couple of meanings in reference to God’s people. For instance, it can be centered on the universal church (or as the Apostles’ Creed refers to it: the holy catholic church), or it can be a reference to a local assembly, such as the church at Ephesus.
By the very definition of the church, assembling is part of what the people of God do on a regular basis. Yet, during this season of social distancing due to a pandemic that has nearly shut down the entire modern world—the church must continue to worship. We are called to worship God, and yet, even in our very best attempts, our worship is incomplete.
The Incomplete Assembly
Recently, after the COVID-19 spread was raised to the level of a pandemic, health officials in conjunction with the COVID-19 Coronavirus task force, released a statement requesting that mass gatherings be reduced to a group of 10 people or less. Unless your church is a small plant the size of a large family unit—the regular gathering of the church is a violation of this request. While this is not a law or local ordinance that mandates the non-assembly of the church, it is a wise move nonetheless to prevent the disease from spreading rapidly. Just yesterday, Jerome Adams, the Surgeon General, issued a statement stating that this week we can expect things to “get bad” as things continue to develop.
In short, this season of social distancing that requests the Church to disassemble is a Romans 13 issue whereby the Church in America seeks to demonstrate compliance and proper submission with the governing authorities. If anyone should demonstrate proper respect to this health crisis, it should be the Church. To violate the request and continue meeting demonstrates a lack of proper concern and love for your neighbor and it puts on display a rogue attitude that resembles the world rather than Christ (see Rom. 12:2). Before you continue gathering as a church, ask yourself a series of questions:
- Is this a violation of Romans 13?
- Is this wise and good for the care of our church?
- Is our gathering during this pandemic the proper way to love our neighbor?
- Is this a poor example that can be viewed as rebellious or irresponsible by the watching world?
- Is our gathering during this pandemic necessary? We know that the receiving of the ordinary means of grace is not salvific, so while necessary for spiritual growth and the proper worship of God, is it proper during this season to assemble?
This is not an unbiblical law that demands the Church to bow to Caesar. Instead it’s a temporary move in the midst of a massive health pandemic in order to reduce the spread of a deadly disease. We could learn much by the practical steps of the churches during the 1918 Spanish flu that claimed some 50 million lives at the end of World War I. Local churches were moved to drastic action including a limited season of disassembly for the wellbeing of the people. What if the people during Cyprian’s day (AD 249 – AD 262) had known about the practical nature of germs and how to prevent the spread of disease? The total impact of the mysterious Plague of Cyprian is unknown, but the city of Alexandria, Egypt dropped from 500,000 to 190,000. While some of these numbers could be the result of people fleeing the city, the report from the bishop of Alexandria stated the following:
This immense city no longer contains as big a number of inhabitants, from infant children to those of extreme age, as it used to support of those described as hale old men. As for those from 40 to 70, they were then so much more numerous that their total is not reached now, though we have counted and registered as entitled to the public food ration all from 14 to 80; and those who look the youngest are now reckoned as equal in age to the oldest men of our earlier generation.
Before we overreact and move to embrace the idea of First Internet Baptist Church—we must remember that the unassembled church will have incomplete worship until we gather together once again. There are certain pragmatic church growth leaders who are already suggesting that this pandemic has caused us to see a new and better way to “do church” through the lens of technology. It would not shock me if a book is written on the unassembled church ministry and conferences are held to teach pastors how to grow their church without brick and mortar and large overhead costs. However, such pragmatic decisions might look good on a fancy website, but that fancy website will not enable the church to be the church as God designed. Assembly is required. When we consider the language of Scripture that points to our adoption (Rom. 8:15; 9:4; Gal. 4:5; Eph. 1:5), God as our Father (Matt. 6:9), and the members of the church as a family of faith or household of God (Eph. 2:19; Gal. 6:10)—it’s clear that the assembly of the church is a necessity.
An unassembled church ministry is an incomplete church ministry. Only during a limited season as a result of an act of God (disasters, snowstorms, and other natural disasters) do local churches disassemble. However, that is simply out of necessity and it’s always limited. Such is the case with this pandemic. We must seek to care for the church, encourage one another, and worship through the means of technology to the best of our ability while remaining disconnected from the world and one another—but it should be an extremely limited season with the ultimate goal of gathering together in the near future.
Extraordinary Common Grace Cannot Deliver the Ordinary Means of Grace
The assembled church gathers to worship God weekly, and the worship should be centered around what is commonly known as the ordinary means of grace. Biblical worship must be guided by the boundaries of Scripture and should have both a vertical and horizontal aspect, but such design is regulated by God through his Word. Scholars have maintained a theological consensus that whatever considers itself a church must be engaged in the right preaching of the Word, the proper administration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and prayer. Some add church discipline to the equation as well, although it’s not required for weekly worship practices, but the ongoing regular practice of baptism, the Lord’s Supper, preaching, and prayer are absolute necessities for the local church.
In short, the church must be nourished through the preaching of Scripture. It’s a mistake to think that the church can survive without preaching. During this season of social distancing some leaders are suggesting that the church needs less preaching and more conversing. O. S. Hawkins stated the following on Twitter this past Sunday:
Listened to so many of my buddies on line this am….if I had one suggestion it would be the shorter and more succinct the better w/ on line messages (15 minutes)….our listeners are concerned-draw them in as if you are conversing w/ them not peaching to them or at them imo
The church needs preaching. The people need for their pastors to actually preach to them. This is God’s intended means of growing the church—both spiritually and physically. So, through this entire disassembly season, the church cannot live on a steady diet of short talks or conversational chats. The church needs the right preaching of the Word weekly—and especially during this season filled with doubts, fear, and disease.
While technological advancements have provided some good tools for churches to use and consider as a bridge during this pandemic (see the article I published last week offering suggestions and ideas), such extraordinary common grace remains incomplete for the church’s worship. True assembly cannot happen through the screen. So, the church will be limited no matter how good the production may seem on the screen. Furthermore, the very best technology will never be able to facilitate the distribution and oversight necessary for the church to worship together at the Lord’s Supper. Such attempts will be cheap imitation and will fall flat—no matter what pragmatic solution is offered. The Lord’s Supper is a church ordinance and must be guarded against abuse—even as trendy church leaders seek to offer up solutions during this season of social distancing.
As we seek the wisdom of God during this time of economic and medical uncertainty, we can be certain that our God remains sovereign and is working out all things during this pandemic for his glory. We can likewise be certain that he is worthy of the Church’s worship, and we must strive to worship him—even if our worship is incomplete and lacking—we must nevertheless seek to worship our God in spirit and truth.
In closing, if I can offer up some practical suggestions to my brothers and sisters in Christ, I would encourage us to be an encouragement to one another. The Church’s leaders are discouraged and stretched thin as they seek to care for the church during this strange season of church history. Make use of technology for sure, but remember soon enough, the need to assemble will come and we must turn off the screens and assemble together. Last of all, the watching world is watching the Church. May our testimony have the aroma of God’s grace and may their eyes see God’s people exercising solid faith and humble submission to governing authorities as we care for one another and demonstrate love for our neighbor.
Soli Deo Gloria
Today, many pastors are praying about how to lead their churches through this COVID-19 season of confusion, panic, and even public hysteria. This pandemic response is complicated on various different layers including medical, economic, and social situations that the entire world is seeking to navigate.
As the new language of social distancing is being employed by health officials—President Trump has announced a request for all mass gatherings to basically be eliminated. The new circle has been reduced to the size of a large family unit—only 10 people. Much of the media attention has been centered upon the gatherings of bars, restaurants, and schools—this season presents a great challenge to local churches as well. So, now the leaders of local churches are seeking to lead their congregations in such a way that allows for ministry connections without physical overlap and contact in order to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
Stop Playing the Shame Game
First, I would encourage people to simply stop playing the shame game online. If you honestly believe that churches not gathering during this virus pandemic is a violation of Hebrews 10:25, please keep that to yourself and stop seeking to shame people by a misuse of the biblical text. It’s essential for Christians to comply with federal and state requirements on mass gatherings—as well as other state and federal laws. That’s our calling according to Romans 13. Furthermore, this is not a situation where Christians are being told to not worship God and that they must turn their back on the gospel in order to bow to Caesar. This is a unique season that requires us to use common sense, wisdom, and submission to our authorities—the very authorities that God has implemented for our good.
Communication, Communication, Communication…
One of the keys to effective leadership is communication. One of the ways to ensure that a church is functioning properly and efficiently is through clear communication. Unfortunately, during a season of disconnect, it’s difficult to get the word out to everyone. It’s likely that the very best attempt to send out church-wide e-mails about the modified ministry schedules misses a specific age demographic who doesn’t use online communication such as social media and e-mail. This is where communication matters greatly. The church must do everything possible to talk, listen, and help serve the entire body—even if that means by taking time to pick up the phone and call people to be sure everyone is on the same page.
One of the ways that we are addressing the ministry adjustments is by sending out a physical letter to the entire church family so that everyone receives a copy and can understand how we are going to function for the next few weeks. They say that in the real estate world everything revolves around location, location, location. In ministry, it’s often communication, communication, and communication. During this season of disconnect, it would be wise to encourage deacons to make phone calls to families in the church to check on the members and especially the elderly. Furthermore, it would be wise for pastors to do the same—while maintaining a study routine that may be altered due to online service preparation.
Technology is a Common Grace of our God
Just as God causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust (Matt. 5:45), he has allowed the advancement of information technology which can be harnessed by the Church for God’s glory. This means that tools are available that can greatly help the local church to remain connected in a season of disconnect. Some of those tools include the following:
- Zoom: This service will allow Sunday school classes and small groups to meet together, even if it’s through the mode of screen based technology that employs the use of web cams and keyboards. There is a way for non-tech people to call into the meeting and listen as well.
- YouTube: This is an easy tool for churches to stream their services live and the feed can be placed on the church’s website and social media channels in order for more exposure. You can also use YouTube to location really good songs to use during family worship on a regular basis or to bridge the gap during this social distancing season.
- Online Hymnal: You can make use of the .pdf version of the Hymns of Grace which can be used for families and small groups (of 10 or less) to sing together during a season of fear and darkness—which is a vital part of Christian worship.
- Text Group / Conversations: You can use your smart phone technology to setup a text conversation among your small group or Sunday school class that will enable everyone to communicate and encourage one another during this complicated ministry season. There is also another technology called Group Me that can help here too.
- Online Giving: Churches can harness the power of online giving platforms to help fund the ongoing budget and ministry needs of the church during this season. Today’s solutions are user friendly and super simple to setup. We use one through our G3 app which is fueled by Subsplash online giving. We use another service through our local church called Simplify Give, and within a couple of days a church can have it setup and functional.
- Physical Letter: This is an old technology, but there is great power in the pen that is often missed in a casual e-mail. Take time to write to people within the church! Teach your younger children the importance of mailing letters to encourage the elderly and your leaders during this time.
The church is God’s plan for his people. We are called the body of Christ and the body has a functionality that is greatly disrupted by disconnect. It’s extremely important for leaders to listen, pray, and use the necessary technological tools that will enable the local church to remain connected, serving, worshipping, and caring for one another during an indefinite time period of disconnect.
The church needs one another. We need to encourage one another (Heb. 10:24-25) and we must serve one another (1 Thess. 4:18; 5:11). When we are being told to keep distance between ourselves and to disconnect from gatherings in order to prevent the spread of this virus—we must labor all the more to overcome such challenges in order to encourage one another, build-up one another, and worship our God together (even when we are not in the same room)—remembering that we are one body made up of many members (Rom. 12:4).
May the watching world see the Church of Jesus thrive during a season of unrest and public panic. May we demonstrate resolve rather than fear. May we trust in our sovereign God who created us and sustains us—along with the entire universe. There is nothing too big—or too small for that matter—that God cannot control. There is nothing, including the COVID-19 virus that escapes his eyes and nothing too powerful to overcome his governing providence. It may remain a mystery for us, but we can trust that God is working this whole thing out for his glory.
May the Lord teach us a valuable lesson regarding the necessity of the local church and the importance of assembly during a time where we are being forced to disassemble.
The thought of a modern disease sweeping across the world and claiming large percentages of cities like historic plagues sometimes causes fear to swell in the hearts of people. As we’ve been hearing about a new virus since December of 2019, the spread has consistently moved from China throughout the world. This week President Donald Trump, while addressing the United States regarding the disease, instilled a firm travel ban that goes into effect tonight in order to prevent further outbreaks of the disease—COVID-19, otherwise known as the Coronavirus.
We are currently at the pandemic stage of the disease as it has now transitioned into an international epidemic—crossing the ocean on planes and boats to various different nations around the world. As we watch the NBA suspend their season indefinitely as a result of a player on the Utah Jazz who has tested positive, major conferences and events cancelled, schools closing, and many businesses going to remote location operations—what should be the response of the church? Should we panic? Should we be overcome with fear?
In the 14th century, the Black Death was an epidemic of bubonic plague, a disease that spread through wild rodents and fleas where they lived in great numbers and density and in close proximity to humans. It spread far and wide resulting in the death of 50 million people in the 14th century, or 60 percent of Europe’s entire population.
When the Black Death raised its nasty head again in 1527 in Germany, many people began to panic. People were fleeing for their lives. Yet, Martin Luther and his wife Katharina, decided to stay in their home. It wasn’t a stubborn response to the need to evacuate, but a loving response fueled by love and sustained by faith in their sovereign God. Rather than running for the hills, they turned their home into a makeshift hospital. They took in the sick, cared for them, demonstrated genuine Christian hospitality, and risked their own lives in the process. During this crisis, their son almost died.
As Luther and Katie ministered to people, they watched some recover and they watched many cross over the precipice of life into eternity. Undoubtedly many of these people Luther had ministered to in the city during his lectures and sermons. The pain would be severe. The stench of the Black Death was all throughout Wittenberg and the German landscape. Luther was not only standing up to the powerful Roman Catholic Church as he exposed their false doctrine, but he likewise stood strong in the midst of a horrible disease.
It was with this backdrop that Luther penned the words to “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” which is one of the most famous hymns in the history of the church. As he faced the plague, looked at the black death surrounding him, and contemplated the frailty of his own life (and the lives of his family)—he thought about the walls of the castle and how he once found refuge. Then he considered the words of Psalm 46 and applied the grand truths of God’s sovereignty to his dark situation.
A mighty Fortress is our God,
A Bulwark never failing;
Our Helper He amid the flood
Of mortal ills prevailing
No matter what you face today as you journey through this world with devils filled who threaten to undo you—you can walk with confidence that your God is big. “Greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4). No matter what trial you face or what challenge is presented before you as the news media continues to talk about the present day pandemic of the COVID-19, remember to lean on the theology of the Bible and find comfort and peace that passes all understanding in the God who is big, strong, and serves as our Rock and our Refuge! If God is for us, who can be against us (Rom. 8:31)?
Remember that as you face news reports and hear about the spread of a new virus into your nation, state, and even close to your neighborhood—the proper posture of a Christian is resolve and confidence in God rather than fear and panic. That doesn’t mean that as a Christian you should not take precautions or use common sense, but it does mean that we should have confidence in our God in the face of trials. Our God is our fortress.
Remember that when watching reports and listening to the media, it’s important to not be manipulated by overreactions and political tactics. When comparing the COVID-19 to the flu, the numbers are nowhere close to the same. The 2017-2018 flu resulted in 959,000 hospitalizations and 61,099 deaths in the United States alone. Current numbers for the COVID-19 virus are at 5,000+ worldwide with the most susceptible are those with underlying conditions, weak immune systems, and the elderly.
As we navigate this present day pandemic, let the Church of Jesus Christ shine in the midst of this crisis. Dear fellow Christian, may your theology be put on display in a world gripped by fear. Common sense and great resolve in a sovereign God is what the watching world should see from the Church of Jesus. The watching world should see the Church elevate our trust in our sovereign God in the midst of a world gripped by fear and given to panic. We can pray for the medical community as they research and seek ways to address this virus from a scientific and medical perspective. We can use logical tactics that will help avoid the spread of germs such as washing hands and limiting personal contact. Ultimately, Luther’s bulwark must be ours too.
A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;
Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing:
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and power are great, and, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.
Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing;
Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing:
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He;
Lord Sabaoth, His Name, from age to age the same,
And He must win the battle.
And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us:
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.
That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth:
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever.
Psalm 46:1–3; 6-7 – God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling. Selah…The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah
When you read the Bible, sometimes you will come across a term or a phrase that catches you by surprise. One such phrase that always makes me think is found in Romans 12:1, where Paul urges the Christians in Rome to offer up themselves as a living sacrifice. Certainly you would anticipate dead to be used in conjunction with sacrifice, but Paul says, living sacrifice and the way it’s employed should cause us to consider the way such a phrase drives home a distinct point.
As Moses met with God, he was given the law to deliver to the people. At the heart of God’s blueprint for the worship practices of his people was the altar. We see this language in Exodus and throughout Leviticus.
Exodus 20:24 – An altar of earth you shall make for me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen. In every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you.
The Hebrew root for altar means “to slay” or “slaughter.” As Moses met with God, he was likewise given the specific blueprint of the Tabernacle that was to be constructed and which would govern the way in which Israel worshipped God.
The Old Testament tabernacle was the place where God’s people kept the Ark of the Covenant. Specifically – this was the place where God met with His people. The Ark of the Covenant was the dwelling place of God’s presence with the children of Israel. The Tabernacle was a tent like structure constructed with wooden poles and curtains. It is best described as a tent-like temple! It was where the worship and sacrifices were carried out by the children of Israel.
The Ark had a mercy seat where the High Priest would sprinkle the blood of the lamb on the Day of Atonement each year for the nation of Israel. Nobody could enter into the Tabernacle (large tent like structure) on the Day of Atonement and enter into the Holy of Holies except the High Priest. The purpose was a worshipful sacrifice offered up on behalf of Israel to God by the High Priest.
As the Tabernacle was constructed and completed, it was surrounded by walls and had one door or entrance. As you entered the door—the very first thing you would see would be the bronze altar – ablaze with fire. It was large. It was central. It was necessary in order to meet with God.
The altar was made of wood from the acacia tree and overlaid with bronze (which was a typical sign of judgment on sin), The altar was 7.5 feet on all four sides and 4.5 feet deep. On the inside was contained a bronze grating which was used to hold the animal that was offered up to God. On each of the four corners were horns that projected from the top of the corners. In scripture, the “horn” stands for power and strength (Habakkuk 3:4). A. W. Pink comments:
There it stood: ever smoking, ever blood-stained, ever open to any guilty Hebrew that might wish to approach it. The sinner, having forfeited his life by sin, another life—an innocent life—must be given in his stead.
Out of the five types of sacrifices, the burnt offering was common for Israel and we see it in specific ceremonies or big events in Israel’s history as well.
- Gideon offered burnt offerings Judges 6.
- When the Ark of the Covenant was returned from the Philistines – burnt offerings were offered to God (1 Samuel 6).
- David offered burnt offerings as a result of his sin (2 Samuel 24).
- King Solomon offered 1,000 burnt offerings at the dedication of the temple (1 Kings 3).
When you hear about the worship sacrifices of Israel, the common denominator is death. Each year, the city of Jerusalem would fill up with people and animals for sacrifice. Josephus, the ancient historian, claims that several hundred thousand lambs were herded through the streets of Jerusalem every Passover. Jews who lived outside of Jerusalem would travel home for Passover. According to 2 Chronicles 35, when King Josiah celebrated Passover, he slaughtered more than 37,000 sheep.
So, to hear a phrase such as living sacrifice would’ve caught the attention of anyone—especially the Jew. Yet, that’s exactly what Paul says regarding the self-sacrifice of God’s people. They are to offer themselves up to God as a living sacrifice.
Remember when Jesus was tempted by the scribe in Mark 12, king to trip him up with a question—to see if Jesus would violate the law of God. Yet, when asked what the greatest Commandment was, Jesus responded by quoting the Shema from Deuteronomy 6.
Mark 12:29–31 – Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’  The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
In essence what Jesus does in this one citation is he summarizes the law of God in full. He summarizes the first of the two tables of the Ten Commandments by pointing us vertical – to love God supremely. He summarizes the second table of the Ten Commandments by pointing us horizontal – to love our neighbor as oneself.
The idea of offering up yourself as a living sacrifice, as Paul describes it, is the same point that Jesus made in his quotation of the Shema. God demands everything. In order to worship God as supreme (as Romans 12:1 says – spiritual worship) involves the proper engagement of heart, soul, mind, and strength. In other words, the totality of who we are both inwardly and externally should be devoted to God.
Since we have been raised to walk in newness of life and are called out of darkness into the marvelous light of Christ—our lives should be viewed as devoted to Christ rather than this world and our worship should have the aroma of godliness rather than carnality. John Calvin states:
By bodies he means not only our skin and bones but the totality of which we are composed. He adopted this word that he might more fully designate all that we are, for the members of the body are the instruments by which we carry out our purposes.
When was the last time you evaluated your personal and corporate worship? Is it carnal or spiritual? Is it self-serving or self-sacrificial? What about how you use your time, talent, and treasure? May the Lord receive worship that is logical and spiritual!
As a pastor I am often asked for recommendations on books and specific authors to read. Often, I point people to the Puritans. In fact, I lead a men’s group in our church and we meet for bagels and coffee on Tuesday mornings, and the book we’re currently reading is The Works of George Swinnock Vo. 1. Sometimes people will respond to me by stating that the Puritans are a bit of a challenge to read with their long sentence structures or choice of vocabulary. Reading the Puritans is a spiritual investment into your soul that you will learn to love and cherish the more you read and spend time in the library of the Puritans.
The Puritan View of Scripture
When you read the writings of the Puritans, in the majority of the works, you are reading transcripts or essays taken from sermons that were preached to their churches. They were consistently in the Scripture as they were known to be constantly preaching the Word. It was Charles Spurgeon who said the following about John Bunyan:
Read anything of his, and you will see that it is almost like reading the Bible itself. He had read it till his very soul was saturated with Scripture; and, though his writings are charmingly full of poetry, yet he cannot give us his Pilgrim’s Progress—that sweetest of all prose poems — without continually making us feel and say, “Why, this man is a living Bible!” Prick him anywhere—his blood is Bibline, the very essence of the Bible flows from him. He cannot speak without quoting a text, for his very soul is full of the Word of God. I commend his example to you, beloved. 
If you want a prime example of what it means to embrace the full sufficiency of Scripture for all of life and godliness—examine the life and worship of the Puritans. They held to a firm grasp of the Bible’s inerrancy while consistently reading and saturating their minds with the Scriptures for both devotional and ministry. We would do well to emulate their view of Scripture.
The Puritan Pursuit of Holiness
The Puritans grew out of a time period of great trials and church life that emphasized ecclesiastical hierarchy that often promoted Phariseeism—the heart of hypocrisy. The Puritans despised such an approach to religion, which they felt should be experiential (or experimental). The warm devotional life of the Puritans led to a genuine submission to God, through his Word, which promoted a life of holiness rather than hypocrisy.
The Puritan approach to preaching confronted the consciences of people, warning them of sin, and pointing them to the cross of Jesus. As one Puritan wrote, “We must go with the stick of divine truth and beat every bush behind which a sinner hides, until like Adam who hid, he stands before God in his nakedness.” Thomas Boston once wrote:
In vain will ye fast, and pretend to be humbled for our sins, and make confession of them if our love of sin be not turned into hatred; our liking of it into loathing; and our cleaving to it, into a longing to be rid of it; with full purpose to resist the motions of it in our heart, and the outbreakings thereof in our life; and if we turn not unto God as our rightful Lord and Master, and return to our duty again. 
The Puritans and Perseverance
Who are the Puritans? Joel Beeke writes, “They were not only the two thousand ministers who were ejected from the Church of England by the Act of Uniformity in 1662, but also those ministers in England and North America, from the sixteenth century through the early eighteenth century, who worked to reform and purify the church and to lead people toward godly living consistent with the Reformed doctrines of grace.” 
Needless to say, they understood trials and how to walk through the fire in order to live for the glory of God. Thomas Boston wrote, “Affliction doth not rise out of the dust or come to men by chance; but it is the Lord that sends it, and we should own and reverence His hand in it.”  George Whitefield once said the following of the Puritans:
The Puritans [were] burning and shining lights. When cast out by the black Bartholomew Act, and driven from their respective charges to preach in barns and fields, in the highways and hedges, they in a special manner wrote and preached as men having authority. Though dead, by their writings they yet speak: a peculiar unction attends them to this very hour (Works, 4:306-307).
As we consider the Puritans’ boldness in their reform attempts of the Church of England and their unwillingness to compromise in their worship of God—such a boldness requires faithfulness under trial. John Flavel once said, “The Scriptures teach us the best way of living, the noblest way of suffering, and the most comfortable way of dying.”
I would encourage you to make it a point to read the Puritans. You will find that their use of poetry and imagery elevates the beauty of Christ. As you read the Puritans, at times you will smell the jail and at other times you will smell the fragrance of grace and see the light of the gospel. They were aquainted with grief and yet pointed faithfully to Christ.
I would like to recommend a couple of resources for you if you’re new to the Puritans:
- Mr. Spurgeon as a Literary Man,” in The Autobiography of Charles H. Spurgeon, Compiled from His Letters, Diaries, and Records by His Wife and Private Secretary, vol. 4, 1878-1892 (Curtis & Jennings, 1900), p. 268.
- The Works of Thomas Boston, reprint Richard Owen Roberts, 1980, v. 11, p. 347.
- Joel Beeke, “Why You Should Read the Puritans” [accessed 3/3/20]
- Thomas Boston, “Of the Decrees of God,” Commentary on the Shorter Catechism.