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The Church 7a: The Essence of Biblical Worship, Part One

The Church 7a: The Essence of Biblical Worship, Part One

Biblical worship is best understood through what the Holy of Holies in the Jewish Temple teaches us.  What is found there for the Jewish people represents, in essence, what also constitutes Christian worship of the one God in three Persons, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The Holy of Holies helps us to understand worship of God as

1.      acknowledging the worth of God’s holy commandments for His covenant people through obedience and repentance;
2.      being aware of and responding to His glory and holiness; and
3.      giving thanks for and receiving His mercy and forgiveness. 
Each of these might be discussed in regard to the Temple imagery and symbolism, what this means for worship, where this view of worship challenges certain contemporary practices, and how this understanding of worship relates to mission.

A.     Worship as Honouring God by Obeying His Holy Commandments

Imagery of Worship: An Altar of Incense and the Ark of the Covenant

In the Holy of Holies of the Jewish tabernacle in the wilderness and the Jerusalem Temple that replaced it, a golden altar for incense, representing the worship offered before the One God, stood before the ark of the covenant.  The ark of the covenant contained three things: the tablets of God’s Law, a golden urn holding manna, and Aaron’s rod that budded (Hebrews 9.4).  Aaron’s rod was in the ark as a warning to those rebelling and complaining against God (Numbers 17.8, 10).  God had given manna to sustain the Israelites forty years in the wilderness.  A small amount of it was kept in the ark of the covenant (Exodus 16.31-35) to remember that God’s people live not only by bread but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God (Deuteronomy 8.3).  The Ten Commandments on tablets of stone were the basis for the words that came from God’s mouth for His people.

Thus the ark represents God’s holiness with regard to His commandments—commandments that define what it means to be God’s own treasured possession.  The ark contained God’s Law for His people.  It contained God’s warning not to rebel.  And it contained God’s reminder that His people live by every word that proceeds from His mouth.  The holiness of this ark is seen in a story that took place when it was being transported.  When the ark began to slide off the cart, a man by the name of Uzzah reached out his hand to steady it.  When he touched the ark, he immediately died because of the LORD’s anger (2 Sam. 6.7; 1 Chr. 13.10).  With the image of the ark for understanding worship, we come to see worship of God as acknowledging that we live in God’s world according to His laws and should not disobey.  Biblical worship, like Biblical wisdom, is the fear of God, and, as Biblical understanding is the departure from evil (Job 28.12, 20; Ps. 111.10), like Christian worship.  The end of the matter of philosophical speculation on the meaning of life, says the author of Ecclesiastes, is this: ‘Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone’ (Eccl. 12.13).  Likewise, to worship God is obey Him as His children.

Worship and the Holy Commandments of God

We might learn from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.  In it, the order of service for Holy Communion begins with praying the Lord’s Prayer and a collect (brief prayer), and then the priest is instructed to rehearse the Ten Commandments.  The people, kneeling, are instructed to ask God for mercy for their transgressions and for grace to keep the Law.  Moreover, the first and second greatest commandments of our Lord are also rehearsed—to love God with all our hearts, souls, and minds, and to love our neighbours as ourselves.  Then the priest says (using an older, 1789 version), ‘O Almighty Lord, and everlasting God, vouchsafe, we beseech thee, to direct, sanctify, and govern, both our hearts and bodies, in the ways of thy laws, and in the works of thy commandments….’  While not followed everywhere in Anglican circles to this degree, the focus at the beginning of this part of the service is, as it were, on the ark of the covenant: God’s Law.  Worship that honours God is worship that acknowledges the fact that being God’s people means being under his commandments.  It understands that repentance and mercy are appropriate responses to the God who gives us his Law so that we might live.  In worship, there is a place for recognizing our human sinfulness, and there is a place to pray for God’s mercy.

Perhaps the two classic passages illustrating the failure of worship due to the failure to obey God’s commandments are Isaiah 58 and Jeremiah 7.  In both, God’s people are depicted as following a form of obedience but not a real obedience.  Isaiah says of the house of Jacob that ‘day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God’ (Isaiah 58.2).  Jeremiah says,

Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known,  10 and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, "We are safe!"-- only to go on doing all these abominations?  11 Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching, says the LORD (Jer. 7.9-11).

This second passage is one Jesus quotes when he cleanses the Temple (Matthew 21.13).  Jesus’ concern with ‘cheap grace’ worship at the Temple has to do with people who find in their worship a too easy access to God’s blessing despite their sinful behaviours.  Even as he challenged the worship at the Jewish Temple, he would today challenge worship in many churches where sin is taken rather lightly but people, thinking themselves ‘covered’ by God’s abundant grace, do not truly repent and live righteously.  As Micah says,

Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?"  8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6.7-8).

What Christians add to this understanding is not a new license for sin because of God’s abundant grace through Jesus’ sacrificial death for our sins but both a forgiving grace and a transforming grace in Jesus’ sacrificial death for us.  Jesus not only dies for our sins, but we die to sin in him and are raised to new life with him (Rom. 6.1-14).

A Challenge for Contemporary Worship

Contemporary worship in many churches does not always follow this focus on God’s commandments, human sinfulness and confession, and the grace of forgiveness.  One reason appears to be that some people are uncomfortable with this emphasis on God’s Law and human sin.  They choose not to read uncomfortable passages dealing with human depravity, such as Rom. 1.18-3.20 (check your lectionary, if you use one, to see if it is there!).  God is seen more as a jolly old chap, someone who empathizes with our human challenges and failings, who will not hold his Law over our heads but wants to pour out his love to and through us.  This view of God sees God as a parent who is a little embarrassed over his harsh treatment of us when we were young but now recognizes that we’ve turned out pretty well after all and are grown up enough to make our own decisions.  Thus the holiness of God’s Law is denied as the commandments are relaxed, and so, also, the very notion of sin is relaxed.  The closest one comes to confessing actual sin is confessing that we have not been fervent enough in caring for the environment or treating our enemies and neighbours with divine love or on seeking justice for the latest social concern.  Well and good, but sin is kept ‘out there’—a failure of sufficient action by social activists more than as a condition of the heart that delights to break God’s Law.  The commandments of God, on this view, are, if not outdated, more a general and suggestive approach for life; we had best critically evaluate them before embracing them too fully and readily.

A more typically Evangelical view in worship is also disturbed by too much of an emphasis on sin.  It understands that God has overcome our sins in Christ and no longer counts them against us.  We are not saved by works of the Law but by grace through faith in Jesus.  And so, the emphasis on sin and repentance is played down as a part of worship even if theologically acknowledged—let us rather get on with celebrating God’s mercy, forgiveness, and grace.  Yet this can—indeed has!—led to a diminished focus on the holiness of God and His commandments.  Instead, a more cuddly and fatherly God is worshipped, and we see ourselves less as sinners in the hands of an angry God than as scallywags who’ve had a little too much fun.

The General Confession of sin in the daily Anglican Morning Prayer, however, not only speaks of erring, straying, and following the ‘devices and desires of our own hearts,’ but it also states outright, ‘We have offended against thy holy laws.’  (One can only marvel at the great contradiction when, despite this focus in the liturgy, so many churches in this tradition in the West have celebrated their disobedience of God’s Law in sexual ethics.)  Moreover, a weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper reminds us of Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins in a way that no other act of worship does.  We are set squarely in front of the cost of our sins with the reminders of Jesus’ body and blood given for us in the elements of bread and wine, while at the same time we joyfully receive the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation to God in Christ Jesus.

The ‘three songs and a sermon’ form of Evangelicalism that has become so popular in non-denominational churches, along with certain denominational churches, typically undercuts if not totally dismisses any act of worship that focusses our minds and hearts on our own sinfulness before a holy God who has given us His commandments so that we might live.  If we pass too quickly to sing and reflect upon God’s grace, we cheapen that grace by ignoring the gravity of our own sin.  But so great a sacrifice of Christ Jesus, the Son of God, challenges us to appreciate human sinfulness—including our own—and life lived apart from God’s rule.  These typical Evangelical worship services also reduce the amount of Scripture that is heard by the people in worship, and they have one or two short prayers that carry little substance and are easily missed, being more about transitional moments in the service than prayers from the heart of the people of God.

In the contemporary West, as society recoils from the notion of sin altogether, the Church can either succumb to such cultural influences on its own theology and practices or stand up as a counter-cultural witness.  The beginning of such a witness lies first in worship, in hearing God’s Word (reading Scripture and being instructed by it), repenting of breaking God’s commandments and living for ourselves, and receiving His forgiveness.  By not making such repentance a feature of our worship, we signal to the world that our separation from its ways is more about our own claim to superiority than about our own brokenness in sin and reception of a forgiveness available to all.

The first dimension of Biblical worship, then, is to (1) acknowledge God’s commandments (the tablets of the Law) as though we were standing in the Holy of Holies before the ark of the covenant, (2) heed His warning of judgement to all who rebel against Him (represented by Aaron’s rod), and (3) feed upon the manna of His word that we might live.  Thus we pray, ‘give us this day our daily bread’ (both physical and spiritual), ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, and deliver us from evil.’  This is itself worship, acknowledging that God is worthy of our obedience.

Without elaborating too much here, the presence of the tablets of the Law also reminds us of the place for instruction in God’s Word as part of our worship.  Teaching from Scripture in a service of worship leads to a response of conviction before our holy God or a response of praise and thanksgiving to God.  The more we turn teaching into rhetorical flourishes—‘sermons’—in the Greek style of public speaking instead of teaching of Scripture, the more the focus is on the rhetorical skills of the minister, self-help messages for the audience in the coming week, or political agendas of interested parties.  The church will be well-served by getting away from the idea of preaching in the sense it is so often practiced and by returning to a more ‘synagogue’ understanding of teaching the Scriptures as part of worship.  Our concern for the message during worship is not to be, ‘What application does the minister have for us of Scripture this week in his engaging message?’ but ‘What does Scripture teach us that we might obey and give glory to God?’

Mission, Worship, and Obeying God

Worship as acknowledging God’s worthiness to be obeyed translates into mission in two ways.  One is within the congregation at worship, the other is that mission is a form of worship.  These points come out in Paul’s two canonical letters to the Corinthian churches.  First, Paul understands congregational worship as having a dimension of mission.  This can be seen when he says that partaking of Communion is a ‘proclamation of the Lord’s death until he comes’ (1 Cor. 11.26).  What Paul as an apostle does in proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus in the public squares of the cities where he ministered, the churches do in worship during the Eucharist.  Also, as the gathered church meets together and hears, along with any unbelievers who have joined them, the words from God in prophecy, the secrets of the unbeliever's heart are disclosed,’ and ‘that person will bow down before God and worship him, declaring, "God is really among you" (1 Cor. 14.25).

Second, mission is a form of worship.  Paul sees himself in his ministry as a libation being poured out (2 Tim. 4.6).  The imagery of the Temple’s golden altar for incense features as an image for mission in 2 Corinthians.  Paul says,

But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him.  15 For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing;  16 to the one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things?  17 For we are not peddlers of God's word like so many; but in Christ we speak as persons of sincerity, as persons sent from God and standing in his presence (2 Corinthians 2.14-17).


Thus worship is missional in the congregation insofar as it reflects on the death of Christ for our sins and involves God’s prophetic word to us such that we are convicted of our sins.  And, as in 2 Cor. 2.14-17, mission is itself a worshipful service unto God, as the missionary is an incense in society that is the ‘aroma of Christ to God,’ pleasant to those receiving the Gospel and unpleasant to those rejecting it.  The altar of incense, whether congregational worship or missional service as worship, always appears together with the ark of the covenant, challenging us all: ‘Will we, God’s covenant people, live by His Law?’

[Two further articles to follow on worship as awareness of God's holiness and glory and worship as thanksgiving and reception of God's mercy.]