Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Centrality of Worship in the Scripture

Ed Steele, Associate Professor of Music
Leavell College, New Orleans, LA

[On this Lord’s Day, we are republishing this post from May 6, 2011. It traces the significance of worship throughout the Scriptures.]

Worship is central to the Scriptures from the beginning to the end. Worship is central to understanding the Old Testament. Man and woman were created by God for fellowship with each other and with Him. Since we live in a post-Eden world, we cannot know what it must have been like to walk and talk with God without any hindrances. But for those who have a saving faith and knowledge of the Lord Christ, such an unhindered walk will be part of what heaven is like. Whatever such a walk was, it must have been unhindered worship as well. There are a number of wonderful texts that trace worship in detail, but our purposes here allow me to just highlight a few.

Consider the first sacrifices offered to God: those of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4. One was accepted and one was not. Since this predates any of the Jewish sacrificial system, one must look deeper than the fact that one of the offerings was with blood and the other wasn’t. Timothy Pierce (Enthroned on Our Praise: An Old Testament Theology of Worship. Broadman and Holman Academic: Nashville, 2008, 36) observes that Abel gave the first born, while Cain just gave of the land’s produce, implying a lack of intentionality. Worship had not been commanded but grew out of the relationship with God in the garden. Wrong worship led to tragic outcomes. Worship continues to be central to the message.Noah offered God a sacrifice upon leaving the ark. This act of worship was pleasing and came with a promise: “The LORD smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: ‘Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done’” (Gen 8:21).

When Abraham arrives near Bethel in Canaan, God promises the land to his offspring. Abraham responds by building an altar (Gen 12:7-9) and calling on the name of the Lord. He did this again when he moved to Mamre at Hebron (Gen 13:18). When God promises that he would be the father of a great nation, Abraham falls face down in worship (Gen 17:3). Perhaps the most defining moment in Abraham’s life was when he built the altar in obedience to the commandment of God on Mt. Moriah. He laid his son Isaac down as the sacrifice (Gen 22:9-11). This portion of Scripture has rightly been the source of much study and sermons, and it could easily be a book in its own right. However, let’s focus on just a few of the details that relate to worship.

Notice that worship demands sacrifice; the command to use Isaac as the sacrifice tested Abraham’s obedience. Yes, but it does not negate the fact that when God calls him to sacrifice, it is just that and nothing less. Even in the midst of the scene, it is the grace of God that provides the solution; a ram is provided by God. Worship still demanded a sacrifice. Worship still demands sacrifice; it always has.

Abraham left an example of worship so powerful that even his servant responded in worship when God directed him to get a wife for Isaac (Gen 24:26). Isaac worships when God reveals Himself and renews the covenant (Gen 26:24-25). Jacob sets up a sacred stone and poured oil on top of it as an act of worship when God promises to bring him back to the land of his father (Gen 28:16-18) and again when he resettles in the land of Canaan (Gen 33:20). When Jacob returns to Bethel, the place where God had previously spoken to him, he builds another altar to God (Gen 35:4-7). Jacob is mentioned as worshiping two other times: as he reaches Beer Sheba on his way to reunite with Joseph in Egypt (Gen 46:1) and just before he blesses Joseph’s sons (Gen 47:31).

The life of Moses is punctuated with times of worship: of the most notable are his first meeting with God through the burning bush (Genesis 3) and the giving of the law in Exodus 19 and 20. It is interesting to note that the people’s first response to Moses’ signs and announcement of deliverance is worship (Ex 4:31). The repeated request from God to Pharaoh through Moses was to “let my people go, that they may worship me” (here the word used for worship is sometimes translated “serve,” which implying that serving God is a part of worship) (Ex 5:1, 7:16, 8:1, 8:20, 9:1, 9:13, and 10:5). The Passover was instituted as a time of worship (Exodus 12). Along their journey to Canaan, God provided manna; yet on the seventh day there was none so that the time might be spent in rest and worship (Ex 16:23). When Jethro, Moses’ father in law heard all that God had done, his response was worship (Ex 18:11-12).

When God renews His covenant with the children of Israel at Sinai, He tells them “Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex 19:5-6). The very description of their calling was related to worship, that is, being a “kingdom of priests.”

Let’s focus briefly on the commandments. The first four cover our relationship to God as humans and the last six, to our relationship to each other. Let’s examine the first section in Ex. 20:2-8:

[2] “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.

[3] “You shall have no other gods before me.

[4] “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. [5] You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, [6] but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.

[7] “You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.

[8] “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.”

God reveals Himself as God, all-powerful and deliverer and then sets down how we are to relate to Him:

  1. The worship of God is primary.
  2. There can be nothing you do that would undermine the relationship you have with God.
  3. You must not miscommunicate Who God is or disrespect Who God is and
  4. You must set aside time to maintain your relationship with God.

When God give His “ten words,” what does He consider as first and foremost? Worship! Chapters 25-31 and 35-40 of Exodus deal with the details of the establishment of worship in the tabernacle. Idolatry in the form of the golden calf and the restoration of God’s intent and purposes fill chapters 32-34. The book of Leviticus is the book of regulations about the sacrifices used in worship. Chapters 3 and 4 of Numbers deal with the division of the Levites in the organization of carrying out Tabernacle worship.

When Balak fails to get Balaam to curse Israel (Num. 22-24), he succeeds in getting some of them to fall into sexual sin and worshiping the Moabite idols (Num. 25:1-3). Later, as they approached the Promised Land, on the border of Canaan, God commands them to destroy the idols of the nations they conquer (Num. 33:50-56).

In the repeating of the Covenant at Horeb, God reminds them again and again how important it is to watch their worship (Deut. 4:15-24, 32-39, 5:6-14, 11:16, 17:1, 26:10-11).

The first act of the Israelites after crossing the Jordan was to celebrate the Passover, an act of worship (Josh 5:10). At the end of Joshua’s life after the land had been divided, the leader calls them again to worship (Josh 24:14-24). The book of Judges is the account of the failure of the people to keep their commitment to worship Jehovah alone, which led to them being defeated by their enemies but eventually being restored. Samuel’s parents worshiped as they dedicated their young son to the service of the Lord. God showed the Israelites that the ark was not a good luck charm, and that He showed that He didn’t confuse the trappings of worship with genuine worship of God when He allowed the ark to be captured (1 Sam 4-6). Samuel clarifies that worship was more than just following the rituals of sacrifice after Saul disobeys God’s direct command to kill all the Amalekites (15:22-35).

The life of David is a life highlighted in worship. Whether fleeing from Saul, fighting his enemies, or rejoicing in his victories, David’s life is one marked by the adoration of Jehovah. He is the author of many of the songs in the hymnbook of the Bible. David is the warrior king who is the “sweet singer of Israel” and the heart of his songs is worship. It is no wonder that one of the first things he does after reuniting the 12 tribes is to bring the ark of God to Jerusalem. Entire books are written just on his life and deeds, so no attempt will be made here to add more detail. Other biblical passages that highlight specific times will be studied in more detail later.

The apex of the reign of Solomon is the completion of the temple of God, and his downfall was his failure to keep worship primary in his life. In Proverbs he declares that the “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (1:7), which is that reverential awe of God. The sin of Jeroboam was the creation of a convenient alternative option for worship, calves of gold, strategically located in the country and operated by those who had no preparation or calling. Later, during the reign of Ahab, Elijah, God’s prophet, calls the nation to repent and return to worship and fire falls to consume an evening sacrifice, but the repentance did not last. Leader after leader of the northern kingdom followed the ways of Jeroboam in idolatry and eventually the nation is defeated by the Assyrians and carried off into exile. Prophet after prophet had warned the leaders and the people but to no avail. The summary of the story is found in 2 Kgs. 17:7-13:

All this took place because the Israelites had sinned against the LORD their God, who had brought them up out of Egypt from under the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt. They worshiped other gods and followed the practices of the nations the LORD had driven out before them, as well as the practices that the kings of Israel had introduced. The Israelites secretly did things against the LORD their God that were not right. From watchtower to fortified city they built themselves high places in all their towns. They set up sacred stones and Asherah poles on every high hill and under every spreading tree. At every high place they burned incense, as the nations whom the LORD had driven out before them had done. They did wicked things that aroused the LORD’s anger. They worshiped idols, though the LORD had said, “You shall not do this.”

Judah, the smaller half of the divided kingdom, experienced occasional times of spiritual refreshment, centering on a return to the worship of Jehovah, and expressing many times their fervor with their celebration of the Passover. However, in the end, they too suffered exile.

Many of the major themes in the books of the Old Testament center around the return to worship: Ezra, Haggai, and the rebuilding of the Temple; the celebration and worship at the completion of the rebuilding of the wall in Nehemiah; and Isaiah’s experience of worship (6:1-8) not only set the course for his life but serves as an example for us as well. Jeremiah weeps for the coming destruction of Jerusalem for the failure to repent and worship as God commands. Ezekiel’s vision displays the straying from God and the Spirit of God leaving the Temple. Daniel is cast in the lion’s den for his commitment to worship. God uses Hosea to show that Judah’s idolatry is like adultery. Micah reminds the people that worship is more than ritual but is “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God (6:8). Habakkuk teaches us to worship God despite our circumstances. Malachi condemns the people for their careless attitude toward worship.

When eternity breaks into time with the birth of the Incarnate Son of God the heavens are full of angels in worship. Jesus explains that worship is not geographical but relational (John 4:21-24).

“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”

The life of the early church was marked by worship, fellowship, and prayer (Acts 2:42-46). The singing of worship songs by Paul and Silas had such a profound effect that the prisoners did not escape after an earthquake and that the jailer and his entire family came to Christ (Acts 16:25). Paul defines “reasonable worship” in Rom 12:1-2, and in 1 Cor. 10: 31 that we are to do everything for the glory of God. In Ephesians and Colossians we are to sing and make melody in our hearts to the Lord. One of the greatest hymns of the Incarnation is found in Phil 2:6-11. In Heb. 12:1-3, the author says:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

In Heb. 13:15, we continually offer a “sacrifice of praise.” Peter refers back to God’s original covenant to make the people of God a kingdom of priests in 1 Pet. 2:9. And finally in Revelation, the culmination of time and eternity centers around the worship of the Lamb on the throne, surrounded by countless men and women from every age, every tongue, and every nation, praising God and saying “Worthy is the Lamb!”

Worship is central to the Scriptures from the beginning to the end.


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