My friend, West, left a question on another post. He was asking about comments I’ve made to the effect that it isn’t a worship leader’s responsibility to lead people into God’s presence. Only Jesus can do that. West wrote:
Heb. 9 through Heb. 10:1-22 call us to enter the Most Holy Place confidently. John Frame says “The Most Holy Place was opened to us at the death of Christ, when the veil of the temple was torn in two” (In Spirit and Truth, 27). If God is enthroned on and abides in the praises of his people, and if he is wherever 2 or 3 are gathered in his name, then it seems that there is an actual, spiritual experience of “entering into” the holy of holies when we gather and praise him. That being said, it seems that we as leaders in corporate worship have a kind of priestly duty to bring God’s people into his presence, his Most Holy Place, like the Israelite musicians of old. I don’t know. Am I just way off on this?
I don’t think anyone is “way off” to ask a question like this. Part of the reason there’s so much confusion about worship and the presence of God is that we so often experience a new awareness of God’s presence when we sing his praises. We often feel like we have “entered God’s presence.” What’s going on?
First, in the Old Testament, the high priest entered the holy of holies once a year on behalf of Israel (Heb. 9:6-7). Jesus has now “entered once for all into the holy places.” We shouldn’t think of ourselves as “entering” them again because Jesus has entered them for us. Hebrews exhorts us to draw near to God with full assurance because we have entered the holy of holies through our union with Christ. In Christ, we are always in the heavenly places and are exhorted to “draw near.” Of course, we can do that at any time, although there is a particular significance when we gather as the church to express our faith in the Gospel.
Second, the issue is how we enter God’s presence. The writer of Hebrews encourages his readers to put their faith in Christ’s finished work, not to try to duplicate it. David Peterson, in Engaging with God, says, “Fundamentally, then, drawing near to God means believing the gospel and making ‘personal appropriation of salvation.'” (240). In one sense we have the “priestly duty” of reminding people of what God has said and done (Neh. 8:8). But we are not leading them into the Most Holy Place. Jesus has done that for us. Through faith in his finished work we now have the privilege of confidently drawing near to God.
D.A. Carson shares some very helpful thoughts in this topic. He’s commenting on the thought that “worship leads us into the presence of God.”
“Objectively, what brings us into the presence of God is the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. If we ascribe to worship (meaning, in this context, our corporate praise and adoration) something of this power, it will not be long before we think of such worship as being meritorious, or efficacious, or the like. The small corner of truth that such expressions hide (though this truth is poorly worded) is that when we come together and engage in the activities of corporate worship (including not only prayer and praise but the Lord’s Supper and attentive listening to the Word…), we encourage one another, we edify one another, and so we often feel encouraged and edified. As a result, we are renewed in our awareness of God’s love and God’s truth, and we are encouraged to respond with adoration and action” (Worship by the Book, 50-51).
So as I’m standing in front of the church, leading them in songs, Scripture reading, and prayer, my goal is not to “lead them into God’s presence,” but to help them remember and celebrate what Christ has accomplished for them through his righteous life, atoning death, and glorious resurrection. As they place their faith and trust in the perfect high priest, they will most likely experience a fresh awareness of God’s nearness. Their position in Christ hasn’t changed. Their appreciation of it has. The church will be built up and God will be glorified.
Understanding this area really brings freedom to me as a worship leader. I don’t have to try to pull off an impossible task. I don’t have to be anxious about whether or not people will “make it.” I simply have to present what Christ has done in a clear and compelling way to encourage people’s faith. The Holy Spirit takes care of the rest.