Instead of focusing on what worship should look like, perhaps a better beginning would be to discover what worship is.
By Doug Reed
Often, when we think of worship, we focus on its form. Are the old hymns better or the new choruses? Should worship be formal and reverent, or should it be unfettered and lively? Which instruments should we use if any at all?
Years ago I attended a church that used the same method every week to create an atmosphere of praise. The services would start out with very lively hymns and choruses, and the tempo would gradually slow down. The congregation could tell when it was time for the sermon by the tempo of the music. By the time the pastor got up to preach, there was such quiet reverence you could hear a pin drop. It was very effective.
Yet, In discerning the nature of true worship is seeking the perfect format the best place to begin? Instead of focusing on what worship should look like, perhaps a better beginning would be to discover what worship is.
Surprisingly, such a discovery will not lead us to worship’s best form. Rather, it will take us to a better appreciation of worship’s many forms. In fact, we will begin to find worship in the most unexpected places. Moreover, we will discover a deeper and more satisfying relationship with the Lord.
Jesus to the Samaritan woman at the well:
“Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews. But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:21-24)
It is helpful to remember the context of Jesus’ statement. The woman at the well was a Samaritan. The Jews did not consider the Samaritans to be full blooded descendants of Abraham. The folks in Samaria had intermarried with pagans and thus were racially impure. Furthermore, the Jews and Samaritans had various doctrinal disputes. The most notable was over who had the real temple of God.
The Jews in Jerusalem traced the history of their temple back to David and Solomon. The Samaritans thought they did even better. They worshipped on Mount Gerizim. Their tradition said it was the very mountain upon which Adam first sacrificed.
The heart of this conflict ran very deep. The old covenant temple was the house of God. By saying they had the correct temple, each side was saying God lived with them and favored them over their neighbor. The resulting animosity was so great that the Jews had little to do with the Samaritans.
When the woman at the well perceived Jesus was a prophet, she thought she had encountered a golden opportunity. At last this immense conflict could be settled! Jesus’ answer was certainly unexpected. He said that the day was coming when the question of who had the right mountain would be irrelevant. What could possibly bring such a dramatic shift in mindset? The answer is fulfillment. The day was coming and was already present when old covenant worship would find fulfillment. That day would bring worship in spirit and truth.
To understand this fulfillment it is helpful to understand the ancient mindset concerning worship. We as 21st century Christians associate worship with things such as singing hymns and choruses of praise. However, in the ancient world worship was more closely associated with sacrifice. In fact, some scholars say that giving offerings and sacrifices to God was the essence of worship in that day.
No place is this more evident than the first century temple in Jerusalem. The temple was the central place of worship for the Jews, and the heartbeat of the daily routines of the temple was sacrifice.
The different sacrifices practiced in the temple are too numerous to examine in detail. However, let us attempt a simplification in hopes of understanding the types and shadows represented in the temple services. Alfred Edersheim in his book “The Temple its Ministry and Services” describes three major types of sacrifice. There were offerings for sin and trespasses, the burnt or gift offering, and the peace offering. Let us examine each and its fulfillment in turn.
Sin and trespass offerings always came first in the temple’s order of worship. Trespass offerings were for individual sins. The sin offering was for the whole person or for the entire nation of Israel. Sin offerings were often given at the time of the major Jewish feasts such as Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles.
It is easy to see the fulfillment of such offerings for sin and how such fulfillment would end the debate over which mountain was the true place for sacrifice.
”For Christ has not entered the holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us; not that He should offer Himself often, as the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood of another—He then would have had to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now, once at the end of the ages, He has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.” (Hebrews 9:24-26)
The old covenant sin and trespass offerings did not stop sin from occurring. However, they took away sin’s power to bring wrath. Before Christ the sin and trespass offerings were thought to avert physical wrath from the people. They allowed Yahweh’s continence to shine upon the people in the form of physical prosperity and a secure land in which to dwell. However, the blood of bulls and goats could never put away sin. No matter how many animals were sacrificed, sin kept its power. Sin had the power to separate from God.
This reign of sin was illustrated in the Old Testament temple. God resided in the Holiest of Holies. However, a thick veil kept people from entering the glory of God. Embroidered on the veil were two Cherubim with flaming swords. They were not there to invite people in but to give an ominous warning to keep out. In spite of countless sin offerings, the veil remained intact.
Christ’s sacrifice, which fulfilled the sin offering, broke the power of sin to keep us from dwelling in God’s presence and from knowing heavenly blessing and treasure. At Christ’s death God demonstrated the superiority of Jesus’ sacrifice by tearing the veil surrounding the Holiest of Holies. The fact that Jesus put away sin does not mean that we no longer sin. However, sin has lost its power to separate from God. Now, all in Christ may boldly enter the presence of God.
While we as Christians can never offer the sacrifice for sin, part of worship is participating in its benefits. We may come to God mindful of our shortcomings and failures. Yet, if we leave with such a consciousness, we have not truly worshipped. In worship Who Jesus is and what He has done supersedes who we are and what we have done. Thus, we leave worship with a righteousness consciousness.
At the heart of worship is participation in Christ. In true worship we participate in the Righteousness of Christ and our own righteousness or lack of it fades from view. Self-consciousness is replaced by Christ-consciousness.
Moreover, Jesus’ once and for all offering for sin eliminated the need for any further sin or trespass offerings. This is why in the first century the temple and the entire old covenant system of types and shadows was waning and ready to pass away. The shadow was fading. The Substance of Christ was shining ever more brightly.
The second major type of offering was the burnt or gift offering. It followed the sin offering and wholly depended on the acceptance of the first. This offering was entirely consumed by fire, and it represented being given or surrendered to the Lord.
”I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service.” (Romans 12:1)
In Romans 12 we see that believers were to present themselves as a living offering to God as their spiritual service of worship. Obviously, Paul was not exhorting the early believers to give themselves as a sin offering. God no longer needed an offering for sin. However, God still desired and still does desire the gift offering. This gift offering God cherishes is us.
“For our God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:29)
Just as the old testament gift offering was consumed by fire, so is the new covenant gift offering only not by literal fire but by the fire of God. As John the Baptist promised, Jesus would baptize both with the Holy Spirit and with fire. (Matt. 3:11).
“In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ….” (I Peter 1:6-7)
We might be tempted to think that the fire of God consumes all the bad things in us that we might become good people and thus acceptable to God. While there is some truth to this, this is not the central focus of the sanctifying work of God. Consider the apostle Paul. Coming into the fullness of Christ was not the process changing from a bad person to a good person rather it was the process of leaving the righteousness of man for the righteousness of Christ. Recall Paul’s words in Philippians three.
“For we are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit, rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh, though I also might have confidence in the flesh. If anyone else thinks he may have confidence in the flesh, I more so: circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.
But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith….” (Phil 3:3-10)
Paul suffered the loss of his own righteousness that he might gain the righteousness that comes through faith in Christ. To Paul “rejoicing in Christ Jesus” and “putting no confidence in the flesh” had a definite connection to worship in the spirit. In Philippians three we see in Paul a picture of the life consumed by God.
Moreover, Paul spoke of his co-death with Christ as spiritual reality (See Galatians 2:20), yet it also had a practical working out in the loss of all things. To Paul to be crucified with Christ meant to be dead to one’s own righteousness and to the power of sin that one might live to God. The resulting life to God led to Godly living. Co-death with Christ was a one time event, yet it was worked out daily in believer’s lives, and often not apart from suffering.
All of us at one time or another have said “Lord, I give my life to you!” To God this is an act of worship. It is giving the gift offering to God. This sacrifice is a true love offering, for all that is given to God is consumed. Therefore, as Peter said, we should not be surprised at the fiery trials that often enter the lives of true worshippers. Those who worship God will suffer the loss of their own righteousness and all independence from God. One cannot truly worship God without cost. Yet, those who love God enough to worship Him will certainly gain Christ.
In Luke nine we see a picture of a life of worship.
Then He said to them all, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and is himself destroyed or lost? For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words, of him the Son of Man will be ashamed when He comes in His own glory, and in His Father’s, and of the holy angels. But I tell you truly, there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:23-27)
Once the sin offering and gift offering were accomplished there remained a third sacrifice which was the peace offering. The peace offering was the most joyous sacrifice of all. Actually, it was more of a meal than a sacrifice. Unlike the other two offerings, the peace offering did not accomplish anything. Rather, it was a celebration of completion. The sin offering and the gift offering were accomplished. What remained was blessed fellowship with the Lord.
During the peace offering the animal given was divided up and eaten by both the priesthood who represented God and the worshippers. Thus, it was akin to sitting down to a meal with God.
We see the meal with God imagery throughout the scriptures. For example, in Revelation 3:20:
“Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.”
To the Jews this passage was no doubt reminiscent of the peace offering. In Jesus’ words we see the Lord’s desire that we partake of the peace offering with Him. Worship is answering God’s desire that we sup with Him.
The old covenant temple was a house of worship. It was considered the place where heaven and earth met and became one. The infinite touched the finite in the most holy place. Through Christ we have become God’s house of worship. We are the place where the Infinite Creator and the finite creation meet and become one. Worship is the celebration of our union with Christ. This is where worship should take us. At times worship is solemn. However, it always should end in a celebration of our fellowship with God. Indeed, the Christian life should be a celebration of who Jesus is and what He has done for us.
Considering these things, it is easy to see how fulfilled worship ended the war between the Samaritans and the Jews. Which mountain or what form worship took became unimportant. Through Christ worship has become a matter of the heart. Form still remains unimportant.
At Thorncrown Chapel we have been privileged to witness all types of worship. Once we had a group of Amish visit us. They sat almost motionless throughout the entire service. There was no expression of emotion. Yet, at the end of the service they became quite animated and talked about how much they enjoyed worshipping with us. We have also seen folks who shouted and literally danced in the aisles. Which worship does God like better? If we choose one over the other we engage in the same sort of argument the Samaritans had with the Jews. “My mountain is better than yours!” The heart of worship is receiving from God and being given to God. When that happens there is worship no matter the form. Worship is not just singing hymns on Sunday. It is a way of life. When we understand this, we enter into the divine dance between the Creator and the creation through Jesus Christ.
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