Archive for February, 2009

Conserving Biblical Worship – 3

February 9, 2009

Cain, Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, Uzza, Jereboam, Uzziah, apostate Israel and Judah, Ananias and Sapphira, the churches at Corinth, Ephesus, Thyatira, Pergamum, Sardis and Laodicea are biblical examples of false worship. What is noteworthy in all of those cases is that the guilty parties were not denying the existence of Yahweh. Often their false worship was simply adding a new practice to the prescribed order. Sometimes it was innovating, and offering the new practice in God’s direction. Sometimes it was omitting something God did require. There are at least two implications from these examples.

One, the error of false worship is not an error of identity alone. You can worship the right God in the wrong way, and God regards such worship as false. Of course, if you persist in worshipping the right God in the wrong way, over time, your false methods will end up warping your view of God until eventually you are worshipping a god who resembles your worship. However, false worship does not always start with wrong identity. It nearly always ends with it, though. 

Two, for God to respond so severely to the perpetrators of false worship shows us that God regards such people as culpable for their actions, actions which He takes very seriously. For God to hold people accountable for their false worship can only mean one thing: He must make it clear how He wants to be worshipped. For someone’s worship to be a transgression, God must have drawn the line in the sand, and said, “Do not cross.” God has always done this. Israel’s worship parameters takes up four books of our Bible. Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, Saul, David, Uzza, Uzziah, Jereboam, Solomon were not shooting in the dark when it came to worship. They had detailed instructions. God has always prescribed how He wants to be worshipped. To innovate, omit, or otherwise tinker with God’s prescriptions was the beginning of false worship. God took it seriously then, and He takes it seriously now. 

The New Testament church is not Israel, therefore we do not follow the books of Moses for our prescribed worship. Instead, while regarding all of Scripture as authoritative, we look to the New Testament to guide us in the areas of church polity, regulation and worship. The church was begun when the New Covenant was inaugurated, therefore, the New Testament (or Covenant) guides our understanding of what God requires from His New Covenant people when they worship.  Whatever we may think about these prescribed elements, they are not ours to omit, tinker with or otherwise alter. To do so is no different than the sins of Nadab and Abihu or Uzziah. 

The Regulative Principle or Rule of Prescription states that we must worship God with the elements He has prescribed. If He has not called for it, we do not do it. If He has called for it, we have no business omitting it. 

So, it is hard to explain drama presentations, skits, films, strong-man demonstrations, comedians, magic shows, puppet shows, barking revivals, motorcycle demonstrations, flag-waving, dance, banner-waving, drama monologues, slain in the Spirit demonstrations and the like as worship elements according to the New Testament. Yet they are performed every Sunday in churches across the world. 

It is equally hard to explain older innovations like priests, a New Testament ‘altar’, the Lord’s Supper as a ‘sacrifice’, transubstantiation, incense burning, veneration of saints, prayers to Mary or other saints, as worship elements according to the New Testament. An ancient innovation is still an innovation.  

If God does not regard correct identity as a pass-mark when it comes to worship, but fails you if you omit, add to or abuse His prescribed elements, then we have no choice. We must rigorously apply the Rule of Prescription to our private and corporate worship. To fail to do so is to risk two things: the wrath of God, and apostasy – by turning from the true God to worship one of our own imaginations.

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Conserving Biblical Worship – 2

February 2, 2009

When you live in an egotistical age, it is hard to convince people that what they give to God sincerely may not be acceptable to Him. When we are drunk with a sense of our own value, we imagine that God must simply melt at the sight of His child’s scribble-drawing, knowing how sincere the amateurish effort was.

Unfortunately for us, Scripture shatters this pleasantly self-satisfied view. While teaching that God receives children and widow’s mites (which, by the way, was all she could give), it equally teaches that God rejects a lot of worship.

Start with Cain. We aren’t even told why God was not pleased with Cain’s offering, whether it was the lack of blood or Cain’s lack of faith. What is clear is that God did not respect his offering. Merely offering was not enough. Think of Aaron and Israel making a symbol of Yahweh out of gold, declaring “Tomorrow is a feast day unto Yahweh!”(Ex 32:5). God suggested to Moses that an appropriate response to this kind of worship would be to annihilate the entire nation. Dedicating your false worship to Yahweh is not enough. A little while later, Aaron’s own sons decide to innovate when it comes to worship, and God strikes these two ‘worship leaders’ dead (Lev 10:1-2).   Performing your false worship in the sanctuary as consecrated priests does not impress God. During David’s reign, we see his new-and-improved method of carrying the Ark backfiring miserably, resulting in the death of a priest who aided and abetted this worship innovation. King Jereboam, who had the chance to make the ten tribes of Israel great under God, chose to create a new priesthood, and two new worship ‘venues’. The ten northern tribes never again had a king who worshipped Yahweh alone. Every king of Judah who kept the [pagan] high places as worship centres was marked down for doing so. Uzziah the king decided to fulfill the role of priest, and lived as a leper for the rest of his life as punishment. The priests in Malachi’s day were given to offering God what was defiled and rejected, but saw no problem with it. Ananias and Sapphira thought it was fine to make bold worship claims and not back them up with reality, but the Holy Spirit disagreed. The Corinthians thought it was fine to gorge themselves on the Lord’s Supper, but their dead and sick compatriots proved God thought otherwise. The Bible’s last book has God warning the churches in Asia Minor about their false worship.    

Does God accept all worship simply because it is offered in His direction? No.

Does God accept worship simply because one of His dedicated servants does the offering? No.

Does God accept worship simply because it serves a pragmatic purpose, like drawing people or making the worship more accessible or convenient? No.

Sincerity, pragmatism, dedication do not transform false worship into acceptable worship. In other words, there is worship which pleases God and worship that does not. I really believe that if modern Christians could grasp this point, half the battle would be won. For lurking at the back of most people’s minds is the idea that God is like a nursery-school teacher who fawns over every scribble and blotch of paint that Mikey and Mindy throw on the paper. Some logical disconnect combined with the egotism of our age thinks that God’s grace means He cares little about the form of worship, only the sincerity of the heart, and is simply thrilled if we bat an eyelash in His direction.

Let us be clear. God does have patience with ignorance and naivete when it comes to worship. But ignorance is not a long-term excuse. We are commanded to get wisdom, with all our getting. Children, the naive and untaught can offer partial truths in worship, but immature and untrained people cannot. Their subjective, parochial and naive worship cannot properly represent the right affections for worshipping God, the true capacities of the regenerated human spirit for worship, and the excellence and perfection found in heaven.

God does accept what is simple – He accepted the Israelite’s birds if he could not bring an animal. However, simplicity is not the same thing as superficiality or shallowness. To offer what is simple can please God, to offer what is superficial is to insult Him. God accepted birds; He did not accept diseased animals. 

God is pleased with some worship. God is not pleased with it all. This is the starting point for us all. If we know that God does not automatically accept worship, it will at least begin to create in us carefulness, thoughtfulness, and caution in coming to God. We will exercise judgement, reflection and serious planning as we approach God in worship. Nothing short of impudence and arrogance would push aside the testimony of Scripture regarding God’s response to false worship, and assume that ‘being under grace’ means that it is open season on offering anything and everything to God.