Embarking upon the last week of his ministry, and with the countdown to the Cross well and truly underway, Jesus sent two of his disciples into the village of Bethphage to procure a donkey and a colt for his triumphant entry into Jerusalem.
They brought the donkey and the colt, laid their clothes on them, and set him on them. And a very great multitude spread their clothes on the road; others cut down branches from the trees and spread them on the road. Then the multitudes who went before and those who followed cried out, saying: “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” And when he had come into Jerusalem, all the city was moved, saying, “Who is this?” So the multitudes said, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth of Galilee.” (Matthew 21:7-11)
In this eyewitness account, Matthew provides a graphic description of one of the most spontaneous outpourings of devotion in the New Testament, containing all the elements of a classic worship service.
First of all we have Jesus, the object of worship, assuming his rightful place in the midst of the church. Strange as it may seem, it is all too easy to go through the motions of so-called worship without the Lord even being present. Yes, I know that God is omnipresent (everywhere at the same time), but there is a distinct difference between his omnipresence and his manifest presence – that dynamic moment when his glory is revealed and his power is demonstrated.
Too often Jesus is excluded from the very house that bears his name. He finds himself on the outside looking in – knocking on the door and hoping that someone will hear his voice and invite him in (Rev. 3:20).
Secondly, we have the instruments of worship – the multitudes which followed Jesus from Galilee and now thronged the roads to Jerusalem for the festival of Passover. Without any human instigation, the caravans of pilgrims spontaneously broke into chants of praise, based on the Egyptian Hallel (Psalms 113-118) which celebrates the deliverance of Israel from Egypt.
However, this was no ordinary Passover celebration. As Jesus rode by, the multitudes cried out, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” thereby acknowledging Jesus as the Messiah of Old Testament prophecy – the anointed Son of David who would save his people from their enemies and usher in a golden age of peace and prosperity.
And thirdly, we have the Spirit of worship, the Great Facilitator of universal adoration for the Son of God. How did these people know that Jesus was the Messiah, David’s greater son? The same way that another rough-hewn Galilean, Peter, came to know who he was: Simon Peter answered and said, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus said, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” (Matt. 16:16-17).
The Spirit of worship is also the Spirit of revelation – the one who unveils the Son of God before our eyes and inspires an appropriate response in our hearts. Speaking of the Spirit, Jesus said, “He will glorify me, for He will take of what is mine and reveal it to you” (John 16:14). This same Spirit carried John away in a vision to a great and high mountain, and showed him the great city, holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God (Rev. 21:10).
John said, “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day, and I heard behind me a loud voice, as of a trumpet … and I turned and saw in the midst of the seven lampstands One like the Son of Man clothed with a garment down to the feet and girded about the chest with a golden band … and when I saw him I fell at his feet as dead” (Rev. 1:10-17). The message is clear: when we are in the Spirit we will hear his voice and see his glory, and worship will flow like a river from the depths of our hearts!
The problem of touching the ark
The biggest obstacle to worship is the spirit of control – human intervention in the normal process of spiritual lovemaking. This is often disguised as ‘worship-leading’, but is, in effect, ‘man sitting in the temple and trying to take the place of the Spirit of God’ (2 Thess. 2:4).
When Jesus rode into Jerusalem there was nobody ‘leading the worship’ – nobody that is, except the Holy Spirit. The disciples were not walking up and down the lines with cue cards: ‘Clap’, ‘Laugh’, ‘Shout Hallelujah’, and ‘Cry Hosanna’. It was ‘as the Spirit willed’.
Moreover, there were no stringed quartets playing quietly in the background and no choirs humming the hallelujah chorus. The people themselves were the instruments, and the Spirit of God used them to perform ‘psalms, hymns and spiritual songs’.
The age-old problem of human interference in the flow of the Spirit is demonstrated in the story of Uzzah, who reached out and grasped the ark of God to steady it as it was being transported to Jerusalem. The Bible says that the anger of the Lord was aroused against Uzzah, and God struck him for his irreverence, and he died there by the ark of God (2 Sam. 6:6-7).
The Ark not only represented the Shekinah – it actually contained the divine presence, and God had strictly warned the priests not to touch the holy things lest they die (Num. 4:15). Over the years I have seen people try and ‘steady the ark’ – moderate or regulate the flow of God’s Spirit, usually in the name of ‘balance’ or ‘order’. However, the end result is always the same: death … death of a move of the Spirit, death of a church, and in some cases, death of a ministry.
The roots of modern Pentecostalism are found in two historic outpourings of God’s Spirit: the Welsh revival of 1904 and the Azusa Street revival of 1906. Whilst the circumstances differed, the common characteristic of both revivals was spontaneous and heart-felt worship orchestrated by the Spirit of God. Consider the following account from the eminent London journalist W. T. Stead, who visited the revival in Wales and reported on the extraordinary scenes:
The most extraordinary thing about the meetings which I attended was the extent to which they were absolutely without any human direction or leadership. ‘We must obey the Spirit’ is the watchword of Evan Roberts, and he is as obedient as the humblest of his followers. The meetings open – after any amount of preliminary singing, while the congregation is assembling – by the reading of a chapter or a psalm. Then it is go-as-you-please for two hours or more. And the amazing thing is that it does go and does not get entangled in what might seem to be inevitable confusion. Three-fourths of the meeting consists of singing. No one uses a hymn-book. No gives out a hymn. The last person to control the meeting in any way is Mr Evan Roberts. People pray and sing, give testimony; exhort as the Spirit moves them. As a study of the psychology of crowds, I have never seen anything like it. You feel that the thousand or fifteen hundred persons before you have become merged into one myriad-headed, but single-souled personality. (The Welsh Revival of 1904 by Eifion Evans, pg 127)
Similarly, an eyewitness of the Azusa Street revival in Los Angeles stated:
The news spread far and wide that Los Angeles was being visited with a ‘rushing mighty wind from heaven.’ The how and why of it is to be found in the very opposite of those conditions that are usually thought necessary for a big revival. No instruments of music are used. None are needed. No choir. Bands of angels have been heard by some in the Spirit and there is heavenly singing that is inspired by the Holy Ghost. No collections are taken. No bills have been posted to advertise the meetings. No church organisation is back of it. All who are in touch with God realise as soon as they enter the meeting that the Holy Ghost is the leader …. (With Signs Following by Stanley Frodsham pg 33)
And another participant, Frank Bartleman, wrote:
Brother Seymour generally sat behind two empty shoe boxes, one on top of the other. He usually kept his head inside the top one during the meeting, in prayer. There was no pride there. The service ran almost continuously. Seeking souls could be found under the power almost any hour, day or night. People came to meet God. He was always there, hence the continuous meeting. God’s presence became more and more wonderful. In that old building, with its low rafters and bare floor; God took strong men and women to pieces and put them together again for his glory. It was a tremendous overhauling process. Pride, self-assertion, self-importance, and self-esteem could not survive there.
No subjects or sermons were announced ahead of time and no special speakers for such an hour. No one knew what might be coming, what God would do. All was spontaneous, all of the Spirit. We wanted to hear from God through whomsoever he might speak. We had no respect of persons. The rich and educated were the same as the poor and ignorant, and found a much harder death to die. We recognised God only. All were equal. No flesh might glory in his presence. He could not use the self-opinionated. Those were Holy Ghost meetings, led of the Lord. It had to start in poor surroundings to keep out the selfish human element. All came down in humility together at his feet. (With Signs Following by Stanley Frodsham pg 36)
What am I saying? That we should not plan or structure our meetings? That we should abandon our musical instruments and sing a cappella? No! I am simply pleading for the Holy Spirit to be recognised as the leader of the church, and to be given free rein to orchestrate the worship of God’s people, just as he did on Palm Sunday. For only then will the glory of the Lord be revealed, and only then will all humanity see it together.