The Church: The Essence of Worship: Part IV
Two misguided human pursuits are the aspiration to self-rule apart from God and devotion to something other than God. In the ink of these two alternatives, human history is written. Over against this story, however, is the story of God in human history, creating and providing an alternative that culminates in the work of Jesus Christ.
The experiment of the Western Enlightenment, leading from a deistic rationalism to an atheistic existentialism, is characterised by human aspirations to self-rule, life apart from God. Evangelism in the West has often involved responding to the claim that there is no God. Whereas the practical implications of such a debate used to focus around such issues as praying in public schools or on the sports fields, increasingly the issues of an a-theistic culture have to do with moral freedom.
In non-Western cultures, the issue is not whether God exists but who or what demands our devotion. This might come in the form of competing religions, or it might come in the form of social commitments, including devotion to the ancestors.
Two Human Aspirations in Scripture
In Scripture, we see these two misguided pursuits. The first, the human claim that there is no God, is equally an aspiration to autonomous existence, self-rule. Thus, it is not simply disbelief in God’s existence; it is further a claim made by the wicked, who do not follow God’s Law. The psalmist says, ‘In the pride of their countenance the wicked say, "God will not seek it out"; all their thoughts are, "There is no God”’ (Psalm 10.4). Atheism does not just claim that God does not exist; it is also a prideful aspiration to self-rule that leads to a life lived apart from any relationship with God, any acknowledgement of His judgement, and any interest in obeying His righteous commandments. The atheist sets himself or herself up in place of God, making claims to things that rightfully are God's alone.
The second misguided human pursuit is idolatry, devotion directed to some other deity or thing than the one true God. Israel’s story is one of being chosen to worship God, as opposed to the idols of other nations. Israel's story is also, sadly, one of failing to give God her sole devotion, ,becoming like the other nations in idolatry. The prophet Isaiah’s vision for a final outcome to this story is when ‘every knee shall bow’ to the one and only God (Isaiah 45.23)—a vision that will be accomplished in the worlds devotion to Jesus Christ (Philippians 2.10-11).
Thus, there are two views that Scripture counters:
- Humans themselves vying for divine status;
- Humans devoting themselves to something other than God, creating their own objects of worship—idols.
Autodeism: Humans Vying for Divine Status
Scripture, a collection of different types of writing in three different languages by different authors over hundreds and hundreds of years, begins and ends with the same human challenge to God. The first eleven chapters of the first book of the Bible, Genesis, focus on the human condition that results from humans vying for divine status, what we might call ‘autodeism,’ humans making divine claims for themselves. Atheism is really a type of autodeism, focused more on the claim that there is no God than on the corollary explored in Scripture that humans set themselves up in place of God. Yet the one implies the other: if God does not exist, then humans step into His role.
Revelation, the last book in the Christian Bible, ends with the divine pretensions of a human ruler and empire. In Genesis 1-11, three attempts to raise humans to divine status are made:
- The Fall and humanity’s aspirations to moral divinity: The human attempt to take on divine authority in moral judgement. Adam and Eve eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil so that they might become like God (Gen. 3). The judgement of God includes their not being allowed to live forever.
- The Nephilim and humanity’s aspirations to heroic divinity: The human attempt to use god-like power on the earth. The Nephilim were the children born from the ‘sons of God’ and the ‘daughters of men’ (Gen. 6). The judgement of God involves shortening their lifespan to 120 years and, ultimately, destroying everyone other than Noah and his family.
- The Tower of Babel and humanity’s aspirations to divine achievement: The human attempt to develop to such an extent that they take on divine capabilities. The judgement of God involves diversifying the people by making them speak in different languages (Gen. 11).
The book of Revelation depicts Rome and the Roman Empire as the epitome of human aspirations to divinity. The emperor aspires to divinity (ch. 13) just as the empire aspires to military and economic greatness (chs. 17-18).
Idolatry: Human Devotion to Anything Other than God
In the rest of Scripture, however, misguided human aspirations are not so much the attempt to replace divinity with human beings but to replace God and the worship of God with something else. This is either literally or figuratively idolatry. The story of redemptive history is the story of God reclaiming the devotion of His creation, the restoration of His own glory. Out of the chaos of the misguided, divine aspirations of humanity in Gen. 1-11, God called Abram (Gen. 12). In His covenant with Abram (Gen. 12.1-3), God reversed the situation by granting what humanity strove to accomplish:
- Great Nation: Despite Adam and Eve’s failed attempt to achieve justice through their own knowledge and rule, God promises that He would make the children of Abram into a great nation. Despite Adam and Eve being severed from the land of Eden, God gives to their offspring a new land of their own.
- Great Name: Despite the Nephilim heroes of old seeking to make a great name for themselves, God promises that He would make the name of Abram great. He would be the hero, not because of His own greatness but because of God’s blessing.
- Great Achievement: Despite the efforts at divine achievement by humans building the Tower of Babel, God would make Adam (and his offspring) a blessing among the nations.
God’s Redemption of Humanity and His Reclamation of His Due Glory
As Christians, we worship the one, true God over all creation. We give God the glory due to Him, neither setting ourselves up as alternative divinities nor devoting ourselves to alternatives to God. Our understanding of God is Trinitarian: the one God’s eternal, personal relatedness as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—one God in three Persons (not three Gods!). Our devotion to Jesus and worship of Him makes the claim that He is God—all that God is, Jesus the Word of God is (John 1.1). We believe that Jesus is the eternal ‘Son’ of God—not in the sense of a physical son, of course, but in the sense of the eternal relationship within the Godhead. And we believe that Jesus became human to redeem humanity and reclaim His due glory. In this, we believe that the misguided aspirations toward ‘Autodeism’ and Idolatry are reversed, and right devotion is reestablished through Jesus Christ.
- Christ Reverses Humanity’s Aspirations to Moral Divinity: Thus, God in human flesh accomplishes the misguided aspirations of Adam and Eve to make their own moral judgements and to rule creation apart from God. Jesus Christ alone is righteous, tested as we are and yet without sin (Heb. 4.15). The restoration of order involves a mission of teaching the nations the commandments of Jesus (Matthew 28.20).
- Christ Reverses Humanity’s Heroic Divinity: We also worship Jesus as Lord (e.g., Romans 10.9). He is not some god-man hero, whether as the Nephilim in pre-Noachic times or in the Greek and Roman myths. He is God incarnate: not half god and half man but fully God and fully human. And yet His rule is an aspect of His accomplishment of victory over sin and death (Eph. 1.17-23). His victory over sin was accomplished in the flesh by sacrificially shedding His blood on the cross to redeem us from our sins and reconcile us to God. His victory over death was accomplished by being raised bodily from the dead (1 Cor. 15.54-57).
- Christ Reverses Humanity’s Aspirations to Divine Achievement: We further believe that Jesus’ great achievement of conquering sin and death is the means by which God has reestablished His blessing of all nations, all humanity. Christ died for the ungodly (Rom. 5.6), for us—sinners (Rom. 5.8; cf. 1 Cor. 15.3), for all (2 Cor. 5.14. His gift of grace was abundant and free (Rom. 5.15). In Christ, the divisions of humanity are overcome (Eph. 2.14). Human aspirations are rightly ordered only as Christ is head, and it is in this way that the full stature of humanity is achieved (Eph. 4.13).
- Christ Redirects Humanity’s False Devotions to Things Other than God: Jesus Christ is presented, in the vision of John in the book of Revelation, as the sacrificial Lamb who receives divine worship (ch. 5). He has been given all authority in heaven and on earth, and it is into the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that Christians are baptized (Matthew 28.18-19). To be a Christian is to forsake false devotions and be redirected to worship the One, true God by being reconciled to the Father through the work of Jesus Christ and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Because we are His children, ‘God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba, Father’ (Galatians 4.6).
In all this, then, Jesus has overcome the misguided aspirations of humanity, with its self-devotion and misdirected devotions. As we worship Him, we lay down our pretentions to determine our own morality apart from God and become our own judges of good and evil. As we worship Him, we abandon our vain aspirations to heroic rule apart from His Lordship. As we worship Him, we give up a misguided hope in human achievements and progress to acknowledge that the greatest gift is the grace of God through Jesus’ sacrificial death for us, bringing us redemption from sin and reconciliation to God and one another. And, as we worship Him, we put away our idols, our alternative devotions that pull us away from God.