Introduction to Worship (part 1)
Beyond refutation, the single most important aspect of the spiritual life is worship. It is not only demanded and prescribed by God, it is the very essence and deepest expression of man’s relationship with his Creator, God, and Father. Because worship is necessitated by the very nature of the Creator/creature distinction, its exercise is timeless, not being bound by time and space or the issues of sin. For all of eternity the preeminent, focal activity of the saints and the heavenly hosts will be the delightful, unhindered, and glorious worship of the Most High.
In view of the centrality and preeminence of worship, it is all the more appalling that so few of those who call upon this God seem to know what it means to worship Him. Though worship is a personal disposition and act of intimacy with God, it is nonetheless crucial to understand that worship is defined, delineated, and described by Him, and those who draw near to Him must come before Him in an acceptable manner.
If a person were to study the matter of worship, where would he go in his Bible? Which book, more than any other, sets forth the nature and parameters of acceptable worship?
Almost beyond question, it is the book of Leviticus, for from beginning to end it sets forth in a definitive way the acceptable approach to God. ar’q.YIw: , “And He proclaimed” is appropriately its Hebrew title, for the prescriptive statement, “The Lord spoke,” occurs 36 times in its pages.
II. Definition of Worship
Worship is the proper response of the soul to God. This response is made:
- consciously, with a biblically determined knowledge and understanding; coming to the God who is, not the “god” we have fabricated through our own delusions and ignorant speculation, (Psalm 145:1-21, Hebrews 11:6)
- purposefully, with a focused vertical orientation, undistracted by temporal and personal concerns.
- preparedly, with a soul made alive by union with Christ and a heart and mind set upon things above, filled by the Spirit with the delights of God, His glory, and His mercy and grace in His Son (Philippians 3:2-3; Colossians 3:1-4, 16-17).
Therefore, worship can be rightly defined as entering into the presence of God consciously, purposefully, and preparedly for the sole purpose of acknowledging and exalting Him through prayer, praise, and proclamation. (cf. Revelation 4:1-11, 5:1-14)
III. Delineation of Worship
A. Worship and Sacrifice
When one studies the Old Testament system of worship that conveyed in shadow and type the true worship that was to be brought to full flower through the redemptive work of Christ, it is immediately and powerfully evident that the very essence of the worship of the children of Israel was sacrifice. Regardless of the specific expression of Old Testament worship, sacrifice was always the central focus of that worship.
Many tend to see this intimate relationship between worship and sacrifice as resulting from the Law of Moses, so that sacrifice as essential to acceptable worship was unknown prior to Sinai. Nothing could be further from the truth, for from the beginning these two components of spiritual exercise were bound together. (Genesis 4:1-4; 8:20-21; 12:1-8)
The significance of this fact is the perpetual reality that, for man in his fallen and estranged condition, there is no approach to God without sacrifice, and hence no possibility of worship.
- God pressed this truth in a fearful way by the veil that served to separate His presence from the presence of men. Though all of the nation of Israel camped around the Tabernacle, personal access to God was denied to them and the maintenance of their relationship with Him was accomplished by the sacrificial mediation of those whom God appointed to stand before Him.
As the distance from God’s stated presence decreased, the number of men allowed to come was drastically reduced, and that approach was always made acceptable by sacrifice.
- Only the Levites could minister in things associated with the maintenance and transportation of the Tabernacle.
- Only the priests could enter the holy place of the Tabernacle.
- Only the high priest could enter into the very presence of God in the Holy of Holies, then only once a year, and then only after sacrificing the prescribed sin offering for himself and his family.
The fundamental significance of the Levitical ministry, and the overarching theme of the book of Leviticus, is that God alone determines, defines, and demands the who, what, and how of the approach to Himself. Not one place in all of the Scripture is that matter left to the judgment or conviction of men.
- The necessity of sacrifice to an acceptable approach to God is perhaps seen most powerfully in the ordination process God established for Aaron and his sons, as well as all those who would follow as priests appointed to serve before God. Central to the priests’ ordination was the prescribed sequence of three separate bloody sacrifices. Not only were those specific sacrifices ordained by God, He prescribed both their substance and mode of presentation. God is not only the sole recipient of worship, He defines and prescribes its features and content.
- First came the sin offering, which was the most important of all the sacrifices. It differed from the trespass offering in that it made atonement for the person, not simply a single offense. Because it was primary, it had to be offered first. The particular animal offered was determined by the circumstances and the theocratic standing of the offerer. In the case at hand – the ordination of the priests, a bull was to be offered which represented the highest form of sin offering.
- Second was the burnt offering, which symbolized the entire consecration unto God of the offerer and God’s pleased acceptance of him. Many view this sacrifice as picturing the consuming fire of God’s wrath, but the Hebrew idea is not so much “burning” as “causing to smoke”, and what is pictured is a soothing aroma acceptable to God (Leviticus 1:9). Significantly, its acceptance depended upon the acceptance of the previous sin offering.
- Finally came the ram of ordination, a second type of burnt offering which expressed the consecration of the priests. Accordingly, it conveyed the consecration of the whole man (Leviticus 8:22-23) without qualification (Leviticus 8:25-28).
In similar fashion, immediately following the period of ordination Aaron offered a series of sacrifices on behalf of the people. This sequence also began with a sin offering followed by a burnt offering. However, these were then followed by the peace offering, which was the most joyous of all the offerings, for it represented joyful fellowship with God who had condescended to “feast” with the offerer at a sacrificial meal. It was this participatory meal that was of primary importance in this sacrifice; a sacrifice which was preeminently expressive of the gratitude of a soul justified and made acceptable to God (Psalm 56:12, 116:17-18).
Note the significance of what is conveyed: An acceptable approach to God demands atonement, propitiation, and reconciliation.
- The reason is that worship implies intimacy between God and the worshipper and the crux of human sinfulness is estrangement.
- Moreover, they are accomplished in a fixed order. For there is no propitiation (satiation) without atonement for the entire person, not just for a certain sin. Likewise there is no reconciliation where enmity continues, so that reconciliation (with its goal in sonship) stands upon propitiation (cf. Romans 3:21-26, 5:1-11; Ephesians 1:1-12; Hebrews 2:1-18; etc.).
B. Worship and Worshippers
In consideration of these truths, who is it that may worship?
- Not religious persons, no matter how sincere, devout or upright;
- Not everyone who claims the name of Jesus Christ or any self-proclaimed, self-styled “spiritual” follower of God;
- Only the redeemed who have been reconciled to God by the atoning and renewing work of His Son and joined to Him by His indwelling Spirit (Romans 5:1-11; Hebrews 10:14-22; cf. also John 4:5-24 and Philippians 3:2-3).
All others seek to “enter by another way” and bring upon themselves due condemnation, for they have failed to “make a distinction between the holy and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean”; they have failed to enter by the appointed door (Leviticus 10:9-10; John 10:1-10).
What does this say about:
- structuring worship, whether content or style, around the “unchurched”?
- striving to attract the “unchurched” to worship services?
- failing to instruct the congregation with regard to the peculiarity and sanctity of worship and the condemnation that comes upon those who would worship God in sin, hypocrisy, and unbelief?
IV. Description of Worship
Finally, then, what does God reveal about the nature of true worship? What are the principles that govern an acceptable approach to Him, even by those who have been enabled to draw near through atonement, propitiation, and reconciliation? Although it is not the purpose of this study to amass an exhaustive list of biblical principles of acceptable worship, the book of Leviticus provides some fundamental principles of worship for those who would draw near to God.
A. The Consecration of the Worshiper
The first principle is unqualified consecration to God. In the context of Leviticus 10:1-5, Aaron’s sons offered “strange fire” which they had not been commanded. At the commencing of the Levitical system fire had come from the Lord to ignite the brazen altar and consume the burnt offering, and it was that fire – God’s ordained fire – that was to be used in the burning of incense before Him (9:24, 16:12-13). Though it is not clear that this positive commandment had already been given, what is evident is that Aaron’s sons were not the least concerned about worshiping God in a self-determined manner.
B. The Perspective of the Worshiper
The second principle, derived from the same context, is that in every expression of true worship God will be regarded as holy.
- God’s demand of those who “come near” has reference in this context to a person’s spiritual approach, and the import of this principle is that there is no spiritual approach to God apart from a profound regard for His holiness – that is, for who He really is. This understanding is crucial in discerning Christ’s words that worshippers of God must worship in spirit and truth.
- It is also significant to note that this verb, “come near,” in the causal stem is most frequently used in connection with the presentation of sacrificial offerings to God. This fact again emphasizes the inseparable bond between worship and sacrifice.
C. The Testimony of the Worshiper
The third principle from this context demands that in every exercise of worship there is to be the indisputable testimony of the honor of God.
- Whereas the previous principle concerns the disposition and affection of the heart apart from the scrutiny of men, this principle is concerned with the outward testimony that is portrayed in the sight of men.
- Just as God looks on the heart, so that true worship is an issue of the inner man, where the heart is right before God there will necessarily be the outward manifestation of that inward sanctity. The significance of this truth is profound, especially for those who would lead God’s people in His worship.
- An irreverent testimony discloses an unsanctified heart, which makes a mockery of worship and dishonors God (Malachi 1:6-14).
- It portrays to the saints a disdain for God’s holiness and honor, encouraging in them a corresponding irreverence and disdain for God (1 Samuel 2:27-36).
- It communicates to them the acceptability in God’s sight of a lack of reverence and sobriety and indirectly (if not intentionally) moves them to share in the sin of the worshiper.
Yet God’s design is that those observing our worship will gain a clear and convicting testimony of His infinite and awe-inspiring “weightiness” as the holy and blessed Sovereign concerning whom “even Lebanon is not enough to burn, nor its beasts enough for a burnt offering” (Isaiah 40:15-17; cf. 1 Corinthians 14:23-25).
D. The Discernment of the Worshiper
The fourth principle derives from God’s command issued to Aaron and his sons regarding their ministry in the Tabernacle. In Leviticus 10:8-11 God demands that they take no wine or strong drink prior to entering the tent of meeting in order to “make a distinction between the holy and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean.”
- The seriousness of making this distinction in the context of worship is such that to fail to do so was sufficient under the Law to incur the death of the violator. This principle, like the others, finds its true meaning in relation to Christ, but this only heightens its importance: If estranged Israel was obligated to distinguish between the holy and profane, how much more those who possess the mind of Christ.
- How desperately do the Church and its leaders need to discern and insist upon this principle in its worship. Every person who professes to know this God ought to examine his own worship and renounce whatever is profane in his approach to “high and exalted One”: the uncleanness of his hypocrisy, triviality, distraction, temporality, and selfishness.
E. The Spirituality of the Worshiper
The final principle is two-fold and is extracted from an overall consideration of the book of Leviticus. This book, like the entire Old Testament, prophesies of and prepares for Christ, and it does so particularly with respect to the topic of worship: It informed Israel’s perception and understanding of its daily life in relation to its covenant God and Father.
- In the first section (chapters 1 through 16), Leviticus deals primarily with a person’s approach to God – its basis, means, and essence. In a beautiful way this section ends with God’s instruction concerning the most holy of convocations, the Day of Atonement. This feast is the preeminent picture of the atoning work of Christ which is the sole basis of man’s acceptable worship of God.
- The second section is concerned with a person’s walk before God, and in it God discloses that those who would have fellowship with Him are to be characterized by uprightness of heart and conduct, even as He demands, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2).
- And so it is that those who would worship God must worship in “spirit and in truth,” coming before Him in the truth and confidence of an acceptable atonement that has been offered and received on their behalf. They are partakers of “so great a salvation” and have an enduring obligation to offer up “spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ”: the joy of a renewed, transformed and disciplined mind and the devoted love of a heart that exults in and proclaims the “surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.”
“Drawing Near to God” (part II)
The Practical Implications of Biblical Worship
I. Prerequisites to Worship
In the previous section it was seen that worship can be defined as entering into the presence of God consciously, purposefully, and preparedly for the sole purpose of exalting Him through prayer, praise, and proclamation.
In consideration of this definition, worship presupposes three primary realities:
A. A Spirit-imparted and Spirit-nurtured Knowledge of God
This knowledge of God is in Christ as mediated by the Spirit of Christ. God cannot be truly known, honored or praised, except as He is known, honored, and praised in Christ. Therefore, only the redeemed and regenerated can worship;
B. A Heavenly Perspective and Priority
True worship involves a vertical orientation – a mind and heart set on things above and in which the word of Christ dwells richly.
It is important to note that this statement does not deny or overlook the truth that the entirety of the Christian’s life in this world is to be one of worship – a life of constant, conscious communion with God, and that this life of communion is filled with temporal, horizontal, and personal concerns. But it does recognize certain distinctives within the life of worship.
- The first is that a distinction must be made between life as worship and directed times of personal and corporate worship. All of life is lived in conscious communion with God in Christ by His Spirit, but that communion expectantly and rightly expresses itself in purposed times of focused, undistracted intimate worship free of any engagement in temporal or personal affairs.
- The second is that worship is free of personal distractions only in the sense that it is not self-focused or self-seeking.
- At the same time, worship is intensely personal in that it is the person himself who is worshiping.
- Even more, the Christian’s worship necessarily has a profound sense of self simply because true worship praises and thanks God for His great love and work of redemption in Christ, which love and work have direct reference to himself.
II. Practical Considerations
Having considered the nature of worship and the principles that must govern it, it is necessary to address how those principles are to be implemented in practice. If worship is a personal encounter with God through a conscious, purposeful, and proper approach into His presence, how is this encounter provoked in the context of the corporate gathering?
A. The Fundamentals of Worship
At its heart, worship involves the worshiper rehearsing, acknowledging and rightly responding to God’s great and all-encompassing saving work in His Son. Note again the worship scenes in the book of Revelation.
- Therefore, true worship must always be set in a context of biblical and theological accuracy (Matthew 15:1-9, John 4:24, Philippians 3:3, Hebrews 11:6).
- As well, it must have a conspicuously vertical intention and orientation. This is evident in all the Scripture’s worship prescriptions and examples.
- It must always be conducive to a spiritual encounter with the true God in the context of a personal, saving knowledge of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 11:17-34; Colossians 2:16-19; Philippians 3:1-3).
B. The Role of Liturgy in Worship
- Worship is to be purposeful and directed; liturgy provides this structure and focused orientation.
- Liturgy brings order and predictability, but it must also allow for anticipation and responsiveness. Worship is neither mechanical nor rote: It is a corporate encounter with the living God.
- Patterns bring familiarity and order that act to minimize distraction from the necessary vertical orientation.
- Nonetheless, spiritual worship must have a degree of spontaneity.
- That which is rote actually evokes distraction through boredom and lack of concentration.
- There is a personal and “mysterious” aspect to an encounter with God that defies the imposition of a rigid structure.
Worship must be ordered but not orchestrated; it must be structured but not stilted; patterned but not pragmatic.
C. Leadership in Worship
- Leaders must model all of the aspects of true worship themselves.
- They must establish an environment that is conducive to the focused meditation upon God and that which is holy.
- They must manifest holiness and the “fragrance of Christ” as they strive to bring the life and power of God to His people.
D. Participation in Worship
- Participation is absolutely essential because worship is personal.
- Worship that is “spectator” oriented is nothing more than entertainment or the ministration of “priest-craft.”
- Corporate worship must be ordered and orderly, but not programmed or mechanical (1 Corinthians 14:1ff).
- Non-participative worship is ordered and orderly, but denies the very meaning of corporate worship and destroys its life. (Note that every member is to participate in worship whether or not he contributes to the mechanics of the worship service.)
- On the other hand, participative worship engages the body, but can forfeit order and orderliness and result in fragmentation and distraction.
The solution is found in a congregation’s right understanding of worship – personal as well as corporate – and its right implementation of the dynamics of corporate worship.
- There is a necessity for the proper use of the gifts in worship.
- There is to be a plurality of contribution as determined by biblical propriety, but it must serve the cause of instruction, exhortation, and edification of the whole body.
- Everything is to be done decently and in an orderly manner, free from independence and self-serving expressions.
- In the context of the formal worship of the body it is only through order, propriety, and mutuality that God is honored and His worship is adorned.
E. Music in Worship
- Perhaps more than any other aspect or component of worship, music has a profound capacity to move the worshiper toward God or away from Him. Music is inherent to worship in that it touches people in their innermost being. And precisely because of personal differences, different types of music move people in different ways and to different extents.
- Apart from any consideration of the lyric content, the capacity of a certain kind of music to evoke feelings of reverence, distraction, or irritation is very much influenced by cultural factors.
- Certain hymns that epitomize musical worship to one person may leave another person cold and unmoved.
- Despite these differences, there are clearly certain parameters that must govern music in the context of worship.
- The lyrics associated with it must be biblically and theologically correct and evoke a high view of God.
- The music must not be provocative in that it moves the worshiper from his prepared, vertical focus.
- The music, in either its content or presentation, must not draw attention to the person or persons who are performing it. The tendency to gravitate toward “entertainment” must be vigilantly guarded against.
- As with every “offering” of the Body of Christ within the context of corporate worship, music must be offered out of a prepared, earnest, and devoted heart.
- Aside from these considerations, what must determine matters of style, instrumentation, or format?
- Is “special music” or choral music acceptable? Many argue that it is not simply because the Bible does not specifically prescribe it. But the truth is that both musicians and singers were integral to Israel’s corporate worship, and God was pleased with that worship. At the very least, this fact makes it impossible to insist that God is displeased with musicians and singers as such, unless one is ready to accept that God has changed with respect to what He regards as pleasing worship.
- Must instruments be limited to the organ or piano? What about the use of guitars or drums? What about orchestra instruments
- The former consideration shows that various string and percussion instruments were used in Israel’s worship. This means that such instruments are not inherently unacceptable for use in worship.
- At the same time, musical instruments – and more particularly, musical forms – that are not conducive to the defining worship principles of sober reverence and undistracted devotion are to be avoided. Again, the natural and subtle tendency for worship to slip into self-centered entertainment must be discerned and avoided.
- Is contemporary music of any kind appropriate in worship? If all contemporary music is to be rejected in favor of traditional Western church music, then it must be argued that musical expressions in other cultures are equally unacceptable to God. In reality, musical structures are always culturally conditioned – what is strange, distracting or even unpleasant in one culture is normative in another.
- If a particular musical form serves only to distract and alienate, then it cannot be conducive to true worship. To impose 17th century English hymns upon an African congregation would surely serve only to prevent their worship, just as would the imposition of their music upon an American congregation.
- On the other hand, “pop culture” cannot be the determining factor in worship music either, for its orientation is purely temporal, secular, and sensual. To the extent that so-called “contemporary Christian music” has become the property of the music business, and therefore of pop culture, it must be rejected as inappropriate for the worship of God.
- That said, musical styles that are more contemporary can be acceptable for worship, but they must not be distracting or provocative to the worshipers. As well, the lyrical content must be scripturally accurate and reverential. Consistent with this understanding, many have sought to wed together more modern musical styles and instrumentation with the lyrics of the Psalms.
- What if people feel alienated from the hymns of the past? This question is simply the reverse side of the previous one, and so is answered in the same way. Many Christians in contemporary America have grown up without any exposure to classical music, let alone traditional hymns. “High church” music is entirely foreign to them, and so cannot help but present a distraction to their worship. At the same time, the Church has an incredibly rich heritage in its music, and it is appropriate to begin to broaden the exposure of such individuals for the sake of their own edification, while being careful to avoid frustrating or alienating them.