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Worship as Covenant Renewal (Bible Study)

While we cannot find either a precise order of worship or rules for the practice of worship in the Bible, we can discover much about the nature of worship by stepping into events of worship that are described in Scripture.

Lesson 10               See all lessons
Scripture: Joshua 24:1-28


In the last lesson we did that by looking at Nehemiah 8 and noting that this worship event taught us that worship is listening and responding. This month we will do the same with Joshua 24.

The people of Israel had had a very painful history up to this point. After years of slavery in Egypt, they spent a whole generation in the wilderness. The journey was difficult, and their faith and obedience was sorely tested. But Moses led them faithfully. When they finally reached the Promised Land and were preparing to enter, the Lord took Moses from them, and Joshua assumed the role of leadership. The book of Joshua records their entrance into the Promised Land. Four main thought-segments make up the book of Joshua; it will be helpful to have this overview in mind as we approach the 24th chapter:
             Entrance into the Land (chapters 1-5:12)
             Conquest of the Land (chapters 5:13-12:24)
             Distribution of the Land among the Tribes (chapters 13-21)
             Unity of the Tribes and Loyalty to the Lord (chapters 22-24)

Three themes are interwoven throughout the sections of this book.
              (1) God's constant faithfulness to his covenant, established with their father Abraham,
              (2) the identity of the people of God as destiny-shaping, and
              (3) the constant and attractive threat of neighboring false gods.

In this context, Joshua calls them together for a renewal of the covenant with God as a strategic step of establishment in this new land.

The Actions of Renewing a Covenant

Careful observations of this event recorded in Joshua 24 will provide very helpful information for us about worship.

1. Notice that this is an event of worship. Here God and his people are gathered. They speak to one another in a similar pattern to what we observed last month in Nehemiah 8. At some times God speaks to his people (through a leader); at other times his people speak to him.

2. The people called by a leader to assemble before God. Joshua served as God's voice in calling them to worship at Shechem. Notice verse 1: As he summoned them, they "presented themselves before God." If we refer back to Joshua 8:35, we discover that in a similar event, they apparently were accustomed to coming together as an intergenerational group for the women, children and "aliens" were included.

3. The leader speaks for God and retells his story. In verses 2-15 Joshua recounts their history as a story of God's love, mercy, and guidance. The entire history from Abraham through Isaac, Moses, and the events in the wilderness is recounted. They are reminded of their present situation as those in a new land because of God's gracious hand. Joshua concludes this section by exhorting them to fear the Lord and throw away the false gods they have taken from their neighbors. He then adds his own family commitment: "But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord" (v.15).

4. The people respond to God in verses 16-24. Note the dialog, including both the exhortation and challenge that takes place. "We will serve the Lord”…. “But he is holy and jealous and you have sinned”…. “But we will serve him”… “Then throw away the other gods”… “We will obey him!" Imagine the drama and strength in that dialog!

5. The covenant is renewed. In verses 25-27 Joshua leads them in bringing the dialog to a conclusion with a renewed covenant. He makes a record of decrees and laws, sets up a large memorial stone to visualize their commitment, and declares it a witness.

6. Joshua dismisses God's people from the gathering. See verse 28. The meeting between God and his people is completed, the covenant between them is renewed, and the people can return to their own portions of the new land to live out the commitment they have made.

Response Required

Two things stand out here. In both this event and the one we studied in Nehemiah 8, we observe that worship happens when God's people are gathered before him in assembly. Corporate worship is a conversation between God and his people, moderated by a human leader. Now, particularly in Joshua 24, we observe that corporate worship requires that we respond to God. When God graciously assembles us in his presence and recounts his saving acts for us, we are not merely receiving information, acquiring greater knowledge, or even simply praising God. Rather, God calls us to commitments of renewal that involve obedience. Our commitments to renewed obedience are based on our covenant identity as the people of God.

In Joshua, this involved a commitment to "throw away the foreign gods that are among you and yield your hearts to the Lord…" (Joshua 24:23). The people understood this response involved a commitment of obedience (Joshua 24:24). God looks for a life-shaping response of obedience!

Our worship should include the same. To be in the presence of God in corporate worship and assume that no commitment of obedience is expected is failing to recognize the immense significance of God's covenant claim on us. Covenant renewal and commitments are the fruit of our dialog with a covenant-keeping God.

We acknowledge that many of our responses and commitments are intensely private matters and are made in the privacy of our hearts, perhaps within a worship service or after it. But having said that, we should bear in mind that there are two locations in our normal worship services where the need for a response seems the highest.

1. The first is in the Service of Confession after we have received the assurance of pardon. What a powerful promise from God that we are forgiven! Does it not call for a response of grateful obedience? This response can be expressed liturgically in a number of ways:
             -singing a song or anthem of thanksgiving,
             -proclaiming a corporate affirmation of faith,
             -declaring a personal commitment to obedient living,
              -receiving God's Law as our guide for grateful living,
             -bringing our gifts for the kingdom in an offering of gratitude,
             -hearing and joining in a public profession of faith, or
             -celebrating the sacrament of baptism.

2. The second location is after hearing and receiving the proclamation of the Word of God. Although at one time, it was customary for the sermon to be nearly the last thing in the liturgy (so it would be better remembered as we left!), it now seems to make much more sense to provide a time and way for worshipers to offer a response to God's Word within the worship service. A private and personal response after worship can be very important, but a corporate response is also necessary. This response can be expressed in a number of ways:
             -singing songs and anthems of thanks and faith,
             -joining in corporate professions/affirmations of faith,
             -hearing and joining in a public profession of faith,
             -calling for a response or responding to a call to come to Christ for salvation,
             -calling for or making a personal commitment to renewed obedience, or
             -celebrating the Lord's Supper.

This is an awareness that worshipers must learn. Worship is not complete if it ends without some kind of call for response. A classroom lecturer may simply end with a plan to continue the lecture next time. A concert may end with inspiration. A personal conversation may conclude with an agreement to meet again. But a worship encounter with God will require some kind of renewed commitment to live in covenantal obedience.

Tips for the Discussion Leader

Because the thoughts for this lesson are drawn from a specific historical situation, it is important that all who are a part of this discussion are very familiar with both the passage and the context in which it takes place. Be sure that you have read Joshua 24 carefully, and encourage others to do the same. Perhaps you want to have someone review the context of this story by summarizing the material in the "Introduction" above. You may even want to prepare for this discussion by printing out the entire passage and having the group read it responsively. Have one member of the group read Joshua's words, and the entire group read in unison the words that were expressed by Israel. Such a method will make the dialog here very striking.

Beware that some members may perhaps not be very familiar (or at least quite rusty) with the idea and concept of God's covenant. For your preparation reread Genesis 17:1-14, and remember that this covenant relationship between God and Israel is the thread that runs throughout all of Old Testament history. It's also a core conviction within Reformed Theology.

If your time is limited, keep the group focused on the key question: Do we respond to God when we worship?

Discussion Starters

1. How aware and knowledgeable are we that we have a covenant with God? Can you think of songs and other Scriptures that bring to mind God's covenant with us?

2. How can we broaden the congregation's understanding of God's covenant with us? Is it true that usually the only time we hear about it is at a baptism service?

3. Do you think our worshipers sense the need to respond in some way? What do you think it means to "renew the covenant with God"?

4. Assess your usual worship pattern, perhaps by examining the worship sheets of several recent weeks.
             -Do we allow time and methods for response in our worship life?
             -What kinds of responses do we give after the assurance of pardon?
             -What kinds of responses do we give after the preaching of God's Word?

5. What suggestions do you have for creating greater opportunity to respond to God in covenant renewal?

Further Reading
Genesis 17:1-14 and Heidelberg Catechism, Lord's Days 32 and 33

Lesson 11
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