Worship Wars – Part 3

In our general overview of worship, we’ve so far seen that worship was indeed regulated by God’s Word in the Old Testament, or better under the Old Covenant. We made mention of the importance of the first four of the Ten Commandments, as they pertain to worship. We looked at several instances of worship, culminating in the Levitical Priesthood, sacrifices, and tabernacle/temple as well as instances of improper worship, which we saw resulted in dire consequences, including the ultimate exile of Israel from the land. We need to now concern ourselves with the transition from Old Covenant worship to New Covenant worship. This transition is often seen by identifying ways of continuity and discontinuity between the two.

The entire book of Hebrews is concerned with this transition of worship from the Old (Covenant) to the New (Covenant). As the book unfolds, we find continuity with the God who still speaks, only that His media of speaking has changed from under the Old, in various ways and by the prophets, to in these last days, speaking by His Son (discontinuity). We find that this resurrected Son, the Christ, is now exalted to the right hand of the Father, possessing all authority. In his inauguration of the New Covenant, we see that He is the mediator, better than Moses, the sacrifice, better than the animals, the High Priest, better than the Aaronic priesthood, and the Temple, better than the one built with hands. All of this is laying the groundwork for worship under the New Covenant. In fact, after outlining his treatise on the transition from Old to New Covenant, the author of Hebrews concludes

Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, 29 for our God is a consuming fire.

Hebrews 12:28-29

We see then another note of continuity here with the significance of worship, with reverence and awe. Though having now received a new and better kingdom, it is the one and same God, unchangeable, and a consuming fire. This phrase is undoubtedly an allusion to the consuming fire of God seen by Moses at the burning bush when he received the ordinances of Old Covenant worship (Exodus 24:17) and in the warning against forgetting the Old Covenant ( Deuteronomy 4:24).

In our overview of this transition in worship, our attention really needs to turn towards our Lord’s earthly ministry, for perhaps more than any other account it displays this transition with clarity. Again noting that the difficulty here lies with how one views the fulfillment of the external worship under the Old Covenant, in Christ, there are some passages that can guide our understanding of the transition. Hopefully, these illustrate for us that just as worship was regulated under the Old, it too is regulated under the New, a point of continuity.

The first passage for our consideration is found in Matthew 4:1-11. In this familiar passage, we find the temptation of our Lord, by the hand of Satan, on the heels of enduring a 40-day wilderness fast. Using Scripture, three separate references, Christ culminates His defense with a mention of the Who of worship, “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.” Of significance here is the citation of Deuteronomy 6:13, an appeal to the Old Testament in order to show the that the One and same God, from Old to New, remains the object of worship, a further note of continuity.

The next passage is found in Mark 7:1-13. In this passage, our Lord rebukes the Pharisees tendency to exalt man-made traditions over the commandments of God. To counter their questioning of why His disciples do not hold to the same traditions, Jesus quotes Isaiah 29:13 in Mark 7:6-7, placing this squarely in the context of worship

6“‘This people honors me with their lips,
    but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
    teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’

Mark 7:6-7

As to our subject, here we have a reproof against false or vain worship, which includes those things contrary to what God has commanded. In this instance, adding the traditions of men, gives us guidelines for the What of Worship, namely what is to guide our worship. It is not open to influence from the traditions or preferences of men, rather it is confined to the Word of God and what He has commanded, an additional note of continuity. Now, an objection may be raised here that Jesus was upholding the Old Covenant system/commandments , since the New had not yet been inaugurated, but it is our principle that we are interested in, namely that God’s prescription of worship is grounded in the Scripture alone and that this was still recognized at the time of Christ. One additional note to point out from this passage is that worship is viewed as a matter of the heart, and not merely an external expression of words. This warns us to the possibility of hypocritical worship.

We have thus far the building blocks of NT worship, the guidelines or parameters we might say, namely that God is the Object of worship and that His Word is the sole rule for worship. Which brings us to the Where of Worship and a passage from John 4:1-30. This passage records for us the conversation between our Lord and the Samaritan woman at the well (Jacob’s). Note specifically their words below

19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. 20 Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 

John 4:19-24 ESV

The woman is clearly fond of reciting the tradition of her worship, tied even to her ancestry, which would have included Abraham and Jacob. She was ok with worship being limited to a particular mountain, or holy ground, a view held by her people since the construction of a temple on the mountain in 400 BC, later destroyed by the Jews in 128 BC (see Kostenberger, Commentary on NT use of the OT). The mountain in view here is Mt. Gerizim (Deut. 11:29; 27:12) and the mention of both the field that Jacob had given Joseph and Jacob’s well is also significant. The geographical setting of the conversation and the mention of both the Mountain and Jerusalem are purposeful because they are widely considered “holy ground.” Our Lord counters this notion by asserting that worship of God is not confined to a particular location, settling centuries old dispute between Samaritans and Jews. In other words, not only is there no “holy land,” but there are no holy buildings, including the Jerusalem temple, old tabernacles, synagogues, and other religious buildings including churches! (1 Kings 8:27; Acts 7:48, cf. Isaiah 66:1-2) The worship of God is NOT regulated by a prescribed location, for “God is spirit”. This is a point of discontinuity.

Commenting on this passage and expressing the importance of the Word of God regulating worship, John Calvin writes

“all so-called good intentions are struck by this thunderbolt, which tells us that men can do nothing but err when they are guided by their own opinion without the Word or command of God.”

John Calvin

Furthermore, the guiding principles of New Covenant worship are defined in this passage as spirit and truth, not that they were not guides under the Old Covenant, but that they are more fully seen, without the hindrances of types and shadows, and more fully expressed, without the externalities of priest, sacrifice, and temple.

Before we summarize this post, we may note that we have yet to mention the When of worship and then the most arguable point, the How of worship. Let us conclude with a note of exhortation concerning our responsibility having now seen and tasted the greater fulfillment of Old Covenant worship in the person and work of Jesus Christ. If anyone should be worshiping God properly, shouldn’t be us who have been given a new heart? Shouldn’t it be the people of God who worship in “spirit and in truth”? Shouldn’t it be His children who have the completed revelation of God’s Word? Shouldn’t it be believers who live on this side of the cross? Shouldn’t it be incumbent upon us to offer God “acceptable worship with reverence and awe? For our God is [still] a consuming fire.”

The Son has set us free and we are free indeed, but we are not free to run wild in worship, doing as we please, and claiming it as worship of the God. We are regulated in His worship by His Word, a point we shall take up further in the next post, should God be pleased to allow it.

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