Even though the Bible had not been written and no churches existed at the time this commandment was given, God instituted it knowing the role that it would play in spreading the gospel. Therefore, while He, undoubtedly, knew that His people needed a day of rest, as well as time to teach their children spiritual truths, He gave this commandment with the work of the ministry and the spread of the gospel in mind (John 5:39).
Since true worship cannot be forced, the law did not require worship. Instead, it called for a day of rest, thereby protecting the right to worship by making it illegal for employers to force their employees to work on the Sabbath. As a day of rest, the Sabbath is a constant reminder of the fact that God created the world in six days, and that we are ultimately accountable to Him for everything that we do. At the same time, the Sabbath commandment is not repeated in the New Testament because the job of the church is not to require, but to give. God gives us His grace through the preaching of the gospel and ministry of the Word, and we worship regularly because we love God and are nourished by His Word, not because we are trying to earn His favor.
Prior to the Babylonian captivity, congregational worship was virtually nonexistent. While the priests may have led those who were at the temple in some sort of devotions, most of the people lived several days journey from the temple. During certain periods the “sons of the prophets” may have joined together for worship, but they were a minority. However, that all changed when the Jews were uprooted from their homeland and carried captive to the land of Babylon. In Babylon they experienced a rather severe culture shock. They not only struggled to maintain their own identity, but felt a desperate need for moral support and for some way to preserve and pass on their own religion and culture. That desperation led to the practice of gathering in synagogues for fellowship, joint worship, and study.
At first they simply gathered together, after a day’s work, to discuss the law while enjoying the fellowship of their countrymen. However, because any group of Jews could gather at any time for joint prayer and worship, it soon became customary for them to join together for worship on the Sabbath day. As joint worship developed they naturally looked to the older men of the congregation (elders) for leadership and instruction in the Word of God. Then, as the generation that remembered life in Israel began to die off, congregations hired younger men that had been trained in the laws of Israel [i.e. teachers], to both lead the Sabbath worship and instruct their children in the law. However, because each congregation was autonomous, it was the men of the congregation, not the Rabbi they employed, who made the decisions.
After seventy years in Babylon, as the children of Israel returned to Judea, Ezra caused the Law of God to be read and explained to the people (Nehemiah 8:1-8). That practice of reading and explaining God’s Word soon became a regular part of congregational worship, and Luke even records one instance in which Christ was called upon to give the reading (Luke 4:16-22). To those readings was added the practice of preaching, thus what was begun by Ezra has continued to our present day.
In a loose sort of way the Jewish synagogue followed the pattern of the temple. Just as the original Ten Commandments were kept in the Ark of the Covenant, the Scriptures (scrolls) were kept in a box in the front of the Synagogue. However, among early Christians, this box somehow came to be referred to as an “altar” rather than an “Ark.” The cross, like the mercy seat, is at the center of this “altar,” and the candles on either end correspond to the cherubim on each end of the Ark (Exodus 25:18-22). Although synagogues placed the pulpit in front of the Ark, early Christians moved it to one side, to emphasize the fact that the way to the Mercy Seat is now open (Matthew 24:51).
While there are many good reasons for attending church, such as worshipping God, setting a good example for your children, promoting God’s kingdom, encouraging other Christians, and being encouraged by them; God works through the preaching of His Word, not only to bring us to faith but to nourish our faith, strengthen our faith, and keep us in faith.
We could never make ourselves believe! In fact, if we tried (without God’s help) Satan would soon have us convinced that we were deceiving ourselves. However, because our faith is a gift of God, He not only brings us to faith but also keeps us in faith, when we trust the preservation of our faith to His grace (Jude 1:24).
I sometimes hear people talk as if they do not need the Bible – Just trust in Christ, they say. However, even though our faith is a gift of God’s grace, without the Bible we would have nothing to believe in. Without the Bible we would not even know that Christ existed, much less that He died for our sins. Our faith is not faith in a feeling, but faith in the objective promises of God’s Word (Galatians 3:6, 22). God works through His Word to bring us to repentance exposing, reproving, and convicting us of our sin. He then brings us to faith, using His promises of forgiveness in Christ to assure us that our sins have been washed away (Romans 3:10-28). Moreover, once we have faith, He continues to strengthen and nourish that faith, by holding His promises before us through the regular preaching of His Word (John 21:16-17). Therefore, far from being a one-time thing, faith is an ongoing trust and reliance upon Christ and His finished work. [Ephesians 2:8,9, 1 Corinthians 12:3, Acts 18:27, Romans 10:14-17, 1 Peter 1:5, Romans 5:20, Romans 4:1-8, Mark 16:16, Galatians 5:4.]
For that reason, church attendance is far more than just something that we do. As God has brought to faith through His Word, He keeps us in faith through His Word (1 Peter 1:23, 1 Peter 2:2) Therefore, we are not doing something for God by going to church, instead He is doing something for us. Through worship, preaching, and staying close to His Word our faith is continually renewed as we are regularly reminded of our sins and assured of God’s mercy in Christ (1 Corinthians 3:6).
Although our love of Christ should move us to want to be in church, our desire should be to exalt Him, not simply to please ourselves. We should go to church so that we can give of ourselves to the furthering of His kingdom, not because we think that we get something out if it. Moreover, because our aim is to exalt Him, the worship service should be designed to honor Him, not to entertain those who attend.