My church’s dark wood pews and red cushions are probably 30 or 40 years old, approximately as old as the congregation itself. Hymnals and Bibles rest in carpet-padded racks on their backs; holes cut in the wood hold discarded communion cups in groups of four.
After years of use, many of the pews sustain scratches, and a few have even come loose from their anchors to the floor. Our pews are familiar, but, like the sagging, Craigslist-purchased sofa in front of my TV, they are not particularly noteworthy.
Over a lifetime, I’ve belonged to churches that had hundred-year-old antique pews and churches that had vinyl-covered stacking chairs, circa 1970. I’ve also, more than once, been part of a church that was purchasing new seating. In those churches, the building committee would bring an assortment of chairs and single-sized pew segments into the church for members to try. After worship, we’d take turns perching on the samples, arranging our Bibles and notebooks underneath, and standing for imaginary hymn singing. We’d comment on the height and width, note the level of back support, and make suggestions for color and fabric. We wanted to make sure we had good seats.
These days, roped-off pews and social distancing might mean you’re sitting somewhere different on Sundays, but even your new spot will probably become familiar eventually. And whether your church has historically significant pews, custom seating, or metal folding chairs, your seat in church is more than it appears. It’s more than the place where you lay your Bible and greet your friends. It’s even more than the place where you regularly worship alongside the ten or a hundred or a thousand members of your local church.
If you belong to Christ, your seat in church is not just a seat in church. It’s a seat in heaven.
Your seat in church isn’t just a seat in church. It’s a seat in heaven.
Hear how the author to the Hebrews describes the church gathered for worship:
You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (12:22–24)
In these verses, we see that worship with the church brings us to a glorious place. The Old Testament temple was doubtless an impressive place to worship—carved cedar walls, altars overlaid with gold, olivewood doors, and basins of burnished bronze (see 1 Kings 6–7). But the writer of Hebrews tells us that when we come to worship in the local church, we come to a place far more remarkable. We come “to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (Heb. 12:22).
Worship with the church brings us into heaven itself. Like an embassy building in a foreign nation, whose foundation rests on soil that actually belongs to its mother country, the local church gathered for worship is an outpost of heaven on earth. As citizens of heaven (Phil. 3:20) and subjects of its king, the church can rightly be called a colony of heaven.
Second, we see that worship brings us into glorious company. Though they may look ordinary from the outside, the members of our local church have their names written in heaven (Luke 10:20). But it’s not only these ordinary-and-yet-extraordinary saints who join us for worship. When we assemble as the church, we join the whole host of heaven. “You have come,” the author of Hebrews writes, “to innumerable angels in festal gathering . . . to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven . . . to God . . . to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus” (12:22–24).
When I sit in my fifth-row pew, I seldom think about angels. And, yet, they think a lot about our worship (see 1 Cor. 11:10; 1 Pet. 1:12). In fact, “innumerable angels in festal gathering” join us every Sunday (Heb. 12:22).
If the Lord opened our eyes for a single second we would, like Elisha’s servant, be astonished and encouraged by the great company of “those who are with us” (2 Kings 6:16). They delight in the preached Word (1 Pet. 1:12), rejoice when sinners repent and believe because of it (Luke 15:7), and testify to the value of even the weakest worshiper of Christ (Matt. 18:10). Commanded by Christ to minister to his beloved children, the angels never miss a worship service (see Ps. 91:11; Heb. 1:14).
Not only does our worship gathering welcome the angels, it also includes all the true worshipers of God from every previous age. “The assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven” and the “spirits of the righteous made perfect” (Heb. 12:23) join us in the familiar seats of our ordinary churches as we offer simple, Word-filled worship to the Lord. As those who loved to worship the Lord while they lived on earth, the “righteous made perfect” are a “cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1) in our services, testifying to the greatness of the One we worship. By faith, they knew him as worthy when they worshiped in chairs and pews like ours, and, now, they proclaim him as worthy by sight (Heb. 11).
When you come into a half-empty sanctuary on a rainy Sunday evening, be encouraged! The gathering may look small and insignificant; in reality, it’s filled with those who sinlessly and ceaselessly worship God before his face.
As encouraging as it is to worship alongside departed saints and heavenly angels, Hebrews 12 offers us even greater encouragement for corporate worship. Not only do innumerable created beings fill our pews, but God himself is there.
Not only do innumerable heavenly beings fill our pews, but God himself is there.
“God, the judge of all” receives our ordinary, week-by-week worship, and “Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant” perfects our feeble praise (Heb. 12:23–24). We worship God only through the work of Christ our mediator, and so Christ himself is necessarily present with us in every service.
He promises us that even in a gathering of “two or three”—an assembly so small we might be tempted to cancel the service altogether—he is there (Matt. 18:20). The same Jesus who left his disciples bodily and yet remained with them by his Spirit (John 14:18, 28) shows up for every worship service of those who call on his name.
Jesus’s atoning work makes our prayers and praises acceptable to God, his presence encourages our weak faith, and his voice leads our songs. Hebrews 2 quotes Jesus: “‘I will tell of your name to my brothers: in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise’” (v. 12). However unremarkable and off-key our congregational singing, it is infinitely precious to God because the Son himself is our worship leader, and our voices are strengthened and beautified by his. As the Puritan Jeremiah Burroughs said, “Christ takes us by the hand” and brings us into corporate worship.
Dear Christian, in light of these glorious realities, don’t forsake the church’s assembly for worship (Heb. 10:24–25). Be there when you are rejoicing (Ps. 122:1). Be there, like Christ himself, when you are facing great trials (Matt. 26:30). Be there when you are tired, and when you are doubting.
Listen to God’s Word read and preached, sing the songs that God’s people have always sung, join your hearts to prayers that ascend to God’s throne, take the bread and wine and witness the water of baptism. There is nowhere else on earth that you will be nearer to heaven.
There is nowhere else on earth that you will be nearer to heaven.
A few years ago, one of our church mothers had major surgery. An operation that was originally supposed to keep her in the hospital for days kept her there for weeks. One complication led to another, and the doctors were baffled about why her otherwise-healthy body could not seem to recover.
Every Sunday, the rest of us came to worship and sadly noted the empty seat on the front right. We sang, but no notes came from her spot; we prayed, but she didn’t voice her “Amen”; we received the Word read and preached, but she wasn’t there to nod her head and murmur her assent; we took the bread and wine, and her portions were left untouched.
Week after week, she wasn’t there. And then she was. The elder stood to call the church to worship, and, out of the corner of my eye, I saw her in her usual spot. She was weak from endless days in a hospital bed and battered from multiple surgeries, but she was there—singing, praying, listening, and receiving. She opened her Bible on her lap, and nodded her head as the pastor preached. That Sunday, the room felt full again, every person in her place, each of us contributing to the whole. Our ordinary, local church worshiped together, and all of heaven joined us.