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“My soul, wait thou only upon God, for my expectation is of Him.”
The word “expectation” has been weighing heavily on my heart these days, especially as it relates to the gathering of the Body of Christ in its various expressions. It seems that this is one of the most defining factors when it comes to the ongoing experience of the church, and so I hope to focus some attention on it in this and the next few posts. In particular, I want to focus on what I believe is the most significant factor determining the nature and level of our “collective expectation” as we gather in Christ’s name.
To begin with, let’s take a look at the word “expectation”. The Oxford American Dictionary defines it as:
“A strong belief that something will happen or be the case.”
To dig a little deeper, the root of the word, “expectation” is “expect” which comes from the Latin word “exspectare”. This is comprised of the prefix, “ex-” (“out”), + “spectare” (“to look”). “Expect”, therefore means to, “…look out for; desire, hope, long for, anticipate, look for with anticipation,” (Online Etymology Dictionary)
With this in view, the question I’d like to pose is, “When we assemble as the Body of Christ, what is it that we are looking out for, desiring, hoping, longing for, anticipating, and looking for with anticipation?”
Much, if not most, of what actually transpires in a gathering of the church is dependent on both the content and degree of our collective expectation.
As I’ve thought and prayed on this matter, I’ve come to believe that the most significant factor determining the content and degree of the collective expectation of any group has to do with the matter of “centrality.” By “centrality” I mean, that which is the preeminent purpose, person or activity around which a group assembles. Whatever that “center” is, and whatever it substantively supplies to the group, I believe are the primary factors determining the collective expectation of the group as it gathers.
To give some examples of this, I’d like to highlight three major movements in Church history that encompass most of the Christian world as it stands today. Each one of these movements has a distinctive “center” which greatly influence the content and form of the movement’s unique expression. Each of these “centers” also greatly influence the expectation of those who belong to and participate in their regular assemblies.
1. Roman Catholic centrality and expectation – The distinctive “center” of Roman Catholic worship is the Eucharist, ministered by a priest or bishop. Whatever songs, prayers, readings, rituals or teachings may be included in their service, the Eucharist stands as the centerpiece. Those who attend, therefore, have an expectation that rises mainly to the level of what the priest through the Eucharist can supply to the people. According to Catholic doctrine, this includes the transubstantiation of the elements so that Christ (it is believed) becomes literally present under the auspices of the bread and the wine and is offered again as a sacrifice to the Father each time the Mass is performed. The expectation of the people therefore, is one of a prescribed, liturgical, mystical ritual that contains and communicates deep religious meaning and imputed spiritual virtue. If the Eucharist and/or the ministry of the priest were ever removed from the regular Catholic assembly, the Catholic collective expectation would be violated.
2. Protestant/Evangelical centrality and expectation – The distinctive “center” of Protestant/ Evangelical worship is the sermon, ministered by the pastor/preacher. This moved to center stage, literally and figuratively, through the Reformation as the Scriptures were restored to the Church and Bible exposition became paramount. When Catholic cathedrals were converted into Protestant Church buildings, the lectern/pulpit was physically moved from the side to the center of the platform to facilitate preaching as the main event. The expectation of the people attending a Protestant or Evangelical church service to this day rises mainly to the level of what the pastor/preacher can supply to the people, especially through the sermon. If the sermon and/or the ministry of the pastor/preacher were ever removed from the regular gathering of a “Protestant” or “Evangelical church”, the Protestant/Evangelical collective expectation would be violated.
3. Pentecostal/Charismatic centrality and expectation – The distinctive “center” of Pentecostal/Charismatic worship is the anointing, gifts, and manifestations of the Holy Spirit, ministered primarily through a pastor and/or ministry team. While perpetuating the same basic building-based, platform/pew, clergy/laity form of church assembly passed on by the Protestants/Evangelicals (who inherited it from the Roman Catholics), Pentecostal/Charismatic assemblies place the highest premium on the working of the Holy Spirit. Since this is often experienced most powerfully through corporate worship (singing) and personal prayer ministry, much attention is devoted to the “song service” at the beginning, and the “altar ministry” at the end of the service, with an expectation of anointed preaching in the middle. Although the congregation is sometimes given a measure of liberty to function in spiritual gifts, this is often highly monitored and controlled. Most of the ministry of the Spirit is relegated to those on the platform, or to those they endorse. The expectation of the people attending can vary greatly in these congregations depending on the degree to which the Holy Spirit is given liberty to function, but it generally rises to the level of what the platform ministry can supply to the people through the Holy Spirit’s giftings. If the Holy Spirit’s manifest working or the “anointed (platform) ministry” were ever to be removed from the regular gathering of a “Pentecostal” or “Charismatic church”, the Pentecostal/Charismatic collective expectation would be violated.
And so we see with these three examples, three distinct “centers” around which these various groups gather. We also see three diverse sets of “collective expectations” that are embraced and embodied by those who assemble in these three expressions of the Church. How very different the content and degree of these are from one another, all defined by the “center” around which they gather.
Centrality, Expectation, and God’s Design
The question that begs to be asked, then, is, “How does this line up with God’s design for the Church?”
In these examples, we see one expression of the Church that is “sacrament-centered”, one that is “sermon-centered”, and one that is “Spirit-centered”. These three represent a vast majority of the assemblies which call themselves Christian throughout the world today.
So, what is God’s thought for “centrality” in His Church? Is the “center” to be the sacraments?…the sermon? …the Spirit? Are we allowed to choose our preferences, or does God have a universal “center” for the assembling of His churches?
Instead of answering these questions directly and immediately, I’d like to illustrate this matter with an example from the Old Testament, drawing on the tabernacle of Moses.
When the priests would go into the Holy Place of the tabernacle, there were three pieces of furniture at which they would minister: the table of shewbread, the golden candlestick, and the altar of incense. These three bear a striking resemblance to the three “centers” of the examples we have been looking at:
- The table of shewbread had cakes of unleavened bread on it and had prescribed drink offerings that were offered; a striking resemblance to the Lord’s Supper, or Eucharist.
- The golden candlestick illuminated the Holy Place, and, interestingly, had 66 pieces of ornamentation on it; a striking resemblance to the Scriptures, which is a “light” and a “lamp” (Ps. 119:105), and is comprised of 66 books.
- The altar of incense had fire burning on it and there the priests would offer incense night and day, representing the prayers and worship of the people of God; a striking resemblance to the emphasis of those who seek the manifest presence and working of God’s Spirit.
So, with this analogy, we can ask, which is the “centerpiece” of the Holy Place? Which piece of furniture is to have the preeminence? Which, if any, is to be considered the “most holy”?
I think the answer is pretty clear…none of them. They are all of equal importance and holiness. They are all part of the fullness of the worship of God. In fact, it would be a distortion of God’s design to exalt one above the others.
So, let’s take this analogy a step further and look at what the scenario would be if the veil separating the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place were torn in two by the hand of God and unhindered access were given to the priests to minister before the Ark of the Covenant in the manifest glory of God.
Which furnishing would be the “centerpiece” then? Which would have the preeminence? Which, if any, would be considered “most holy”?
Clearly, the Ark of the Covenant would be. It would dwarf the other three in preeminence for God has declared it to be His throne and dwelling place on earth. It is truly “most holy”! Of all the furnishings in the tabernacle, the ark of the Covenant is indeed God’s “centerpiece.” It would be fully in keeping with God’s design for the priests to focus in on this piece, not to the exclusion of, but supremely above the others.
With this new scenario then, consider how the “collective expectation” of the priests would transform from when the veil was intact and access was only given to the three pieces of furniture in the Holy Place. Imagine the exponential increase in both the content and level of their expectation as they would enter into the sanctuary and, additionally, behold a rent veil, the Ark of the Covenant, and the manifest, “shekinah” glory of God abiding upon it. Imagine how their sense of expectancy would multiply as they stood and ministered daily in the place where before only the High Priest could go, and that but once a year on the Day of Atonement.
Now, as if that were not enough, this analogy can be pushed yet one step further to be even more in line with New Covenant realities.
Consider, further, how the collective expectation of the entire nation of Israel would explode into unfathomable new dimensions if instead of the average Israelite only being allowed to enter into the outer court of the tabernacle to bring sacrifices to the priests for offering on the brazen altar, they were given the rights and privileges of the priesthood to go into the Holy Place to minister before the Lord, and even into the Most Holy Place to worship before an unveiled Ark? How would the collective expectation of the entire Israelite community exponentially transcend what existed before? It is hard to even comprehend!
And that, my friend, is a picture of what is available to you and I… all of us together in the New Covenant!
If we were ever able to get a hold of that, our experience of “tabernacle” would never be the same again! 🙂
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So, in closing, let’s go back to the original question I posed, “When we assemble as the Body of Christ, what is it that we are looking out for, desiring, hoping, longing for, anticipating, and looking for with anticipation?” Is it in keeping with the limited, unbalanced emphasis of the three examples given in focusing primarily on one of the activities of the Holy Place, or does it transcend that to primarily center in what lies beyond the veil in the Most Holy Place, the Ark of the Covenant, the Lord Jesus Christ Himself?
In the next few posts, I’d like to explore more fully what it means to have Christ Himself as our collective Center, and Christ Himself as our collective Expectation!
In the mean time, I hope that you will take time to ask the Lord concerning these things yourself. His Spirit will lead us into all truth as we seek Him with all of our heart!
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