Why Some People Come To Church
By Jeff Short
“Also, thou son of man, the children of thy people still are talking against thee by the walls and in the doors of the houses, and speak one to another, every one to his brother, saying, Come, I pray you, and hear what is the word that cometh forth from the LORD. And they come unto thee as the people cometh, and they sit before thee as my people, and they hear thy words, but they will not do them: for with their mouth they shew much love, but their heart goeth after their covetousness. And, lo, thou art unto them as a very lovely song of one that hath a pleasant voice, and can play well on an instrument: for they hear thy words, but they do them not. And when this cometh to pass, (lo, it will come,) then shall they know that a prophet hath been among them” (Ezek. 33:30-33).
In the book of Genesis, the fourth chapter and twenty-sixth verse, we have these words, “Then began men to call upon the name of the Lord.” I believe what we have in this verse is the relation of the time that men began to assemble to corporately and publicly worship God. God is to be worshipped privately in the closet. God is to be worshipped openly in the home. God is also to be worshipped publicly in the assembly. Through the process of time, God gave greater revelation of Himself and with it more explicit instructions of how He should be worshipped. He did not begin in the beginning with worship in the church as Jesus Christ established it. Rather, He revealed Himself more and more until the full revelation came in Christ (Heb. 1:1-2). This was a main point in Stephen’s sermon before the Sanhedrin (Acts 7:2-53).
In the time of Nehemiah, we have the beginning of the preaching of God’s Word, much like the preaching of Christ and the Apostles and the true preaching today. The people were gathered together and Ezra the scribe brought out the book of the law. Nehemiah 8:8 tells us, “So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading.” We see here the public reading of God’s Word and the expounding of what was read. This was preaching and teaching that took place in the assembly of the people. It was not mere oratory or exercise. It was for understanding. True preaching is always for the understanding of the people. It is not for the preacher to display his knowledge or eloquence. The pulpit is not a platform for a man to air his personal grievances or pet peeves. The preaching is to be of God’s Word for the doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction of the hearers. In Ephesians we read that God has given the ministry of the Word “For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:12). Preaching is for a purpose. It is not an end of itself. When Christ preached, He asked, “Have ye understood all these things?” (Matt. 13:51). It seems He was not satisfied to merely wax eloquent.
Now in the time of our text, a portion of Israel was carried off into captivity. They had no temple to attend. They had no tabernacle pitched among them. There were no synagogues at that time. The people would gather at the prophet’s house for worship. There they would hear the Word of God preached. There they would receive instruction together. However, God had a complaint against them. He was unimpressed with their performance and spoke a sobering warning to them.
In examining this instance, I shall endeavor to show firstly that the mercy of God is apparent in the people’s lives. I also hope secondly to uncover the bad manners of the people before God. Lastly, I wish to discover the awful result of their bad conduct. Let us turn to the Word and receive instruction.
I. Firstly, the mercy of God is readily apparent in the lives of the people. The mercy of God is that attribute by which God is long-suffering and forebears giving sinners immediately what they richly deserve. His temporal mercy is exercised upon all mankind “seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things” (Acts 17:25) whether saved or lost, if you have life and breath today, it is a token of divine mercy. In fact, what time we have allotted to us on this earth is space that God gives for repentance according to His mercy. Have you experienced His goodness and yet rejected Him? “Or despisest thou the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance?” (Rom. 2:4). Such mercy was manifest upon the children of Israel at this time.
God’s mercy is apparent in that greater difficulties did not attend their trials. They were in Babylon in captivity. However, the yoke was not as heavy upon them as it was upon others. Their fathers were sorely put upon in the bondage of Egypt. Other generations could testify of famine, pestilence, and sword. These people were spared many of these sorer trials. They did enjoy some measure of liberty. They were not detained from their families. They were permitted religious exercise. The captivity was a chastisement from God, but it could have been much worse. Therefore, their yoke was not as heavy as some had in past similar experiences.
Mercy is exhibited in the fact that God rebuked them. Our proud rebellious hearts do not welcome rebuke. It is our nature to resist and struggle against reproof. The pride of man can admit of no errors. The Israelites had strayed from the commandments of God. They went whoring after idols. God sent chastisement in the form of captivity.
The rebuke of the Lord is really an act of mercy and the right understanding of it will generate thankfulness. David confesses that God’s rebuke had not come to him without warrant. He says, “Before I was afflicted I went astray: but now have I kept thy word.” (Psa. 119:67). The hand of the Lord was not heavy upon him without reason. The children of Israel had solicited God’s reproof by their rebellious ways. David also shows wisdom and a right understanding when he declares, “It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I might learn thy statutes.” (Psa. 119:71). David graciously accepts the divine correction and is happy to be put right. For the child of God, chastening is a token of God’s love. “For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth.” (Heb. 12:6). For the unsaved, a rebuke is a token of mercy and a guide into the path of righteousness. “The rod and reproof give wisdom” (Pro. 29:15). I thank God that in His mercy He showed me my sins. He not only showed me my sins, but He also showed me the Savior. His rebuke broke my selfish will and led me to Jesus Christ. Praise God for divine mercy shown to sinners!
The people were shown the mercy of God, seeing that they had a place to assemble for worship, fellowship, and instruction. It has not always been the case that God’s people have had a place for public worship. Some have wandered in the earth destitute and afflicted. David had none with him to offer united prayer when he was hiding in the cave of Adullam. To have a place to worship freely, no matter how humble is a blessing and a token of divine mercy. It does not have to be a large fancy building. The place could be a house, hut, cave, or under a tree. The blessing is in having a designated place to assemble with others and worship God. The Israelites had a designated place for worship. They assembled at Ezekiel’s house. Even in captivity, far away from Jerusalem, they had a place.
Mercy is manifest by the fact that the people had a faithful ministry of the Word. A faithful ministry in a location is a blessing to that people. The Lord said of His people in His Word, “And I will set up shepherds over them which shall feed them: and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall they be lacking, saith the LORD.” (Jer. 23:4). Man has many needs. He needs food, water, and shelter. Nevertheless, if he gain all these and lose his own soul, he has lost it all. Man’s greatest need is for his soul to be fed with God’s Word, “the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.” (II Tim. 3:15). The Israelites had this sign of God’s mercy because they had a faithful preacher in Ezekiel. He was the man of God ministering faithfully to the people.
Just as a faithful ministry in a location is a blessing, the lack of it is a curse. This lack can be in two ways. First, there may be no preaching of Christ whatsoever. The case is miserable where Christ is not named. Second, the lack of a faithful ministry may be in the existence of an unfaithful ministry, “Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof’ (II Tim. 3:5). Often, the presence of a false ministry is worse than having no ministry at all. God said of unfaithful shepherds, “My people hath been lost sheep: their shepherds have caused them to go astray, they have turned them away on the mountains: they have gone from mountain to hill, they have forgotten their resting place.” (Jer. 50:6). The Lord denounced the religionists of His day that professed to be teachers of the people saying, “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves.” (Matt. 23:15). He said the people’s condition was worse for having attended their ministry. In reality they had “shut up the kingdom of heaven against men” (Matt. 23:13).
II. Secondly, we witness the bad manners of the people before God. The people were speaking “by the walls and in the doors of the houses.” They were out of earshot of the preacher. They felt safe in airing their superficial opinions and carnal criticisms. We notice that even though Ezekiel did not discover them, God knew exactly what was happening. He knew their speech and their thoughts in and out of the sight of Ezekiel. God is here relating the situation to Ezekiel.
God does not charge them with open and gross sins. At different times, the Israelites were guilty of open heinous sin before God. He would charge them with idolatry, immorality, drunkenness, and such like. However, in our text, He does not complain of such things. The people are not even charged with unfaithfulness, as far as attendance to public worship is concerned. They were not causing disruptions in the meetings. They were not sleeping during the preaching of God’s Word. They were not even like one woman that was a church member, which I saw a few years ago. She came into the service carrying a manila folder. She sat down a couple of pews back from the front. I noticed her later, sitting there, balancing her checkbook during the service. I have seen many things, but that was a first. These people were not chargeable with any of these infractions.
They were equal to their peers in the externals of religion. “They come unto thee as the people cometh, and they sit before thee as my people, and they hear thy words.” They were present when they were supposed to be present. They did not attend the preaching only every now and then when they had nothing else to do like some others. They listened to the preaching. They even seemed to enjoy the services and the messages. They would shake the preacher’s hand and tell him how they enjoyed the sermon, “with their mouth they shew much love.” They could probably be overheard afterwards talking with others about what a great blessing the message was and singing the praises of the preacher.
However, later, when they were amongst their own element God reveals to Ezekiel, “the children of thy people still are talking against thee by the walls and in the doors of the houses, and speak one to another, every one to his brother.” Oftentimes, someone will flatter the preacher after he has preached and the preacher knows that one is not being honest. The preacher has a good vantage point. He can see everyone in the congregation. He can tell if someone is really enjoying the message or not. It seems it was difficult to ascertain in the case of these people. They really seemed to enjoy the messages.
God charges the people with hypocrisy. They listened with interest and showed “much love” with their mouths. However, they were consistently “talking against” Ezekiel “one to another, every one to his brother.” This is the height of hypocrisy. They were putting on a show and a convincing one at that. Ezekiel was not aware of the situation until God informed him.
Their hypocrisy was evidenced by the fact that the preaching of the Word, they seemed to enjoy, produced no lasting affect upon their lives. They were like the thorny ground hearers of Matt. 13:22, “He also that received seed among the thorns is he that heareth the word; and the care of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, choke the word, and he becometh unfruitful.” They were barren. They spoke very well of Ezekiel and his sermons, but their hearts were far removed. “They hear thy words, but they will not do them: for with their mouth they shew much love, but their heart goeth after their covetousness.” For all their outward shows, they were more concerned about their houses, gardens, clothes, businesses, money, families, etc. than they were about the Living Word. They would sit under the preaching with smiles on their faces while their minds were busy in the affairs of the world. They were not worshipping God. They were not growing spiritually.
No true man of God is satisfied to be congratulated by his congregation. He will not be content to have their praises if he has not their hearts. The Word of God should ever be making a difference in our lives.
The people’s performance was strictly for vainglory. They were well satisfied in hearing only. They enjoyed hearing the Word preached, but it remained abstract to them. They did not find in the Word how they might better their lives of service. They did not make a personal application of what they heard and were likely uncomfortable with the applications made by the preacher. Paul warned the Romans, “For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified.” (Rom. 2:13). We are instructed in God’s Word, “But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves. For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass: For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was. But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed.” (James 1:22-25).
The people’s enjoyment was more of an entertainment. God told Ezekiel this saying, “And, lo, thou art unto them as a very lovely song of one that hath a pleasant voice, and can play well on an instrument: for they hear thy words, but they do them not.” They were pleased with the preaching much like someone is pleased with a fine performance concert. The prophet had a “pleasant voice.” They appreciated his skill in crafting sermons and delivering them passionately. He was one that could “play well on an instrument.” Their fancies were delighted, but the consciences were not pricked. Their ears were tickled, but the hearts were not changed. They were no better for their faithful attendance to worship than if they had faithfully frequented the shows, something they likely did as well for all such people manifest an appetite for the superficial.
The people were also charged with disrespecting God’s man. God informs Ezekiel, “The children of thy people still are talking against thee.”“With their mouth they shew much love,” but out of earshot of the prophet, they talk against him. The people were very free with their criticisms and carnal opinions. It is a fearful thing to lightly bring railing accusations against God’s man. Often people will have some ideal preacher in their mind by which everyone else rises or falls. They have no use for a preacher that does not copy their ideal. They have revered this fine old fellow, probably through no desire of his own, until they have come near to Romish practices. If this model preacher were the Lord Jesus Christ, I could almost understand such thinking. However, most frequently, the model is some beloved party leader and sometimes it will be an endeared old pastor.
The Lord has many different preachers with vastly different abilities. He has different fields of labor where they are needed. One preacher may excel where another would falter and the reverse would be true were the roles switched, even though both were earnest and godly men. This was a part of the situation Paul faced in the Corinthian church. They began to be divided, exalting one preacher above another and refusing those not cut from their preferred narrow cloth.
Let us recall the time the Lord fed the great multitude with the fishes and loaves. The people were seated orderly on the ground and the Lord gave the food to the disciples to distribute. Suppose some said, “I will only have John to feed me.” Perhaps others said, “I will not suffer Peter to serve me. I will have only Andrew.” Even others said, “I do not want any fish. I only want bread.” On and on we could go. This is completely absurd and yet many are just this way with preachers today. It is absurd to refuse to be fed by God’s man because his brogue, mannerisms, sermon construction, or the like do not sound like our favorite. Paul even said that some men preached “Christ of contention, not sincerely” (Phi. 1:16). Nevertheless, Paul rejoiced in that Christ was preached. Let us be careful of lightly setting aside God’s preachers. If they be faithful and godly men “who labour in the word and doctrine,” (I Tim. 5:17) they should be esteemed “very highly in love for their work’s sake.” (I Thess. 5:13).
III. Thirdly, we see the consequences of the people’s bad conduct. Each of us should be certain that the Lord says of us, “I know thy works.”“All things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do.” (Heb. 4:13). God took note of these people’s ways. Whomever they might have fooled, they did not fool God. He promises to reward them according to their deeds.
The veracity of God’s Word is not affected by the dereliction of the people. God told Ezekiel, “And when this cometh to pass, (lo, it will come,).” His Word is sure. No matter how many mockers and gainsayers arise, the Bible is still true and outlives its fiercest opponents. Just as the Word is not shaken because some doubt, neither is true Christian religion vain because it has some hypocritical attendants. Though these people had not regarded the Word, God’s Word shall come to pass in their midst. God promises, “It will come.”
In the main, they did not appreciate what they had. We have already noted the divine favor that attended their way. Though blessed by God, they did not appreciate their situation. They were much like Ephraim of old. God complained of Ephraim, “I have written to him the great things of my law, but they were counted as a strange thing.” (Hos. 8:12). They did not treasure the Word. Their interest was more like a literary connoisseur instead of a Berean student. They counted the Word as a common thing. They did not look there for their necessary food. “But he answered and said, “It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.” (Matt. 4:4). The promises, precepts, reproofs, and warnings had nothing to do with them.
Their case was similar to Esau. Esau did not appreciate his birthright, his inheritance. He had so little respect for it that he sold it for a mess of pottage. Esau’s God was his belly. These people’s “heart goeth after their covetousness.” They were more interested in the worldly things than the things of God. They had no respect to blessing of God and sold it for their worldly enjoyments.
God promises to reward their conduct by removing their blessings. God said, “And when this cometh to pass, (lo, it will come,) then shall they know that a prophet hath been among them.” He says that they will be made to know that a prophet had been among them. They will lose the faithful ministry that was a blessing to them. God promises to take it away from them.
The Lord sent out His disciples to go and preach in the various cities. He gave them instructions concerning the cities that did not receive them. He told them, “But into whatsoever city ye enter, and they receive you not, go your ways out into the streets of the same, and say, even the very dust of your city, which cleaveth on us, we do wipe off against you: notwithstanding be ye sure of this, that the kingdom of God is come nigh unto you.” (Luke 10:10-11). Rejecting His word would be a testimony against that city. They would know that the kingdom had come nigh. The people in Ezekiel’s day were going to suffer the loss. Their rejection of Ezekiel’s ministry would be a testimony against them and they would know that a real prophet, a true man of God, had been among them. They would not understand the value of the blessing until it was removed, and as a reward for their conduct, it would be removed.
In conclusion, we see that the goodness of God should have made the people thankful. They should have manifested their gratitude with humble service. Their hearts were hard and rebellious. Much like a spoiled child, they did not appreciate what they had and felt that they deserved a good deal more.
Why do you come to church? What we do when we come to church is not like anything else that we do. It is the place where God’s honor resides. “LORD, I have loved the habitation of thy house, and the place where thine honour dwelleth.” (Psa. 26:8). It is a place where a special presence of Christ is manifested to His people. “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matt. 18:20). It is a place where God is to be glorified. “Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen.” (Eph. 3:21). Do you come to meet with and worship God? On the other hand, do you come to meet with your friends and be caught up on the latest happenings? Do you come to learn more of Christ to be conformed to Him? On the other hand, do you come to put on a show or appear respectable? We should come to meet with and worship God. We should come to learn more of Christ and to glorify Him through our service. If we come for any other reason, we come for vainglory. Usually our actions speak the loudest concerning our intentions. In most churches after the Word has been preached, immediately folks start talking about the weather, business, their garden, their plans for the upcoming week, the ballgame scores, etc. The Bread of Life has broken to us. The eternal Word of God has been proclaimed and all we can think about is the dinner waiting in the oven or what time we have to get up in the morning. May God help us to have a holy regard for His Word and a reverence for His house.
Lastly, we see that the people suffered loss because of their unfaithfulness. What loss shall we sustain because of our unfaithfulness? What if God removed from us the blessings that we do not appreciate? May God give us grace to appreciate His divine mercies and that we may avail ourselves of the blessed ministry He has given to us.