The cover of a recent book proclaimed “Sample extracts from outstanding Christian books”. So I read the extract from one of these writers on the subject of worship. There was one statement that I could say ‘amen’ to: “The one element that is essential for Christian worship is Jesus Christ”. That at least was commendable––but there any commendation must cease. The extract was of some ten pages and the ‘outstanding Christian writer’s whole thrust was that worship is for the satisfaction of man. He likens the “act of worship” to the preparation of a meal to be offered to the “congregation for their enjoyment”. “The crucial thing”, says he, “is that people are fed. How they are fed is less important”. This writer claims that “There are no ‘norms’ in worship, no objective standards that are laid down in Scripture. Instead, leaders of worship make their own choices”. Though he writes on worship, it is sadly man and not God that this writer has in view––tellingly, God is not even mentioned in the extract!
I turn now to One who never wrote a single book, but who, on account of who He is, is uniquely qualified to speak on the subject of worship. Speaking to the Samaritan woman at Sychar’s well, the Lord declared that “God [is] a spirit and they who worship him must worship [him] in spirit and truth” (John 4: 24). How do statements like “leaders of worship make their own choices” or “There are no ‘norms’ in worship” square with His words? The Son of God says that they who worship God must worship in spirit and in truth. Note that word “must”. It is not “should”, or “ought to”, or “can”. The word is “must”. There is no leeway offered, no option given, no room allowed for variation. No, there is nothing but a clear authoritative demand given by the Son of God Himself: Those who worship God must worship in spirit and in truth. Now whatever may be the meaning of these words “in spirit and in truth”, let the full force of that word “must” sink into the soul, for by so doing you will get a hold of the first and most fundamental maxim of worship: It is God who decides how He is to be worshipped and not man.
This lesson is taught right at the very beginning of the divine revelation (Gen. 4). Abel approached God in God’s way (Heb. 11: 4). Cain came his own way––“the way of Cain” (Jude 11). Cain approached in the way that he thought best, for “there is a way that seemeth right unto a man” (Prov. 14: 12), but it was not a way pleasing to God. I have no doubt that he brought his very best, and that he had toiled long and hard––for a ground that was marked by “thorns and thistles” (Gen. 3: 18) would demand much back–breaking work in order to yield fruit. Yet the fact remains that what seems right to man may not be acceptable to God. Consequent on sin coming into the world, God refuses to be approached except on the basis of the death of another. Cain completely disregarded this. Instead of bringing that which spoke of Christ’s death, he brought an offering from that which God had cursed (Gen. 3: 17), and was rejected. He presumed to approach God in the way he saw fit, wilfully ignoring the fact that it is God and not man who decides how He is to be worshipped. Yet how many there are today who are in “the way of Cain”! No doubt they would greatly resent being so described, but it is the true position of the multitudes of professors who presume to approach God in worship with a bloodless offering. There is no true worship apart from genuine faith in the Son of God as the one who died in my stead (see Gal. 2: 20)––where I have identified myself with His offering (see Lev. 4: 29).
Perhaps the most graphic account given in the Scriptures of the folly of man determining his way of approaching God in worship is given in Lev. 10: 1–7. There not only was the offering rejected, but the offerers swept away in judgement as well. Nadab and Abihu, priests of God, approach Him to worship, their censers filled with fire and incense, and yet are mercilessly cut down by a fire that comes “from before Jehovah” (v2). Awful and solemn scene! So why was it? Why this ferocious response from God? After all, Nadab and Abihu were not strangers (see Num. 16: 40), but true sons of Aaron. They had passed through all the inaugural ceremonies of the priestly office, and had stood before Jehovah cleansed by blood and clothed in their priestly garments. The censer, the fire, and the incense were all part of the divine service (see Lev. 16: 13). Yet they were devoured by the fire of God! Their sin, for sin it was, was to present “strange fire” to Jehovah. So what made this fire “strange” in God’s eyes? (For clearly it was not strange to them.) Its strangeness to God lay in the fact that it was that “which he had not commanded them” (Lev. 10: 1). They approached God in their way, man’s way––“the way of Cain”. Thus “they died before Jehovah” (v2). As these things are written for our instruction (Rom. 15: 4), it cannot be too often stressed: It is God and God alone who decides how man is to approach Him in worship. The fact that the sin of Nadab and Abihu is not said to have been in doing what God had forbidden, but simply in what “he had not commanded” only serves to show how seriously God regards the wilful introduction of our own ideas into the realm where everything must be in complete surrender to His Word. Aaron’s sons were well aware of the prescribed way by which God was to be approached, yet had the effrontery to come by a way of their own choosing. Today there is a similar unholy boldness. Man decides what is suited for the worship of God and all kinds of innovations are introduced which God has not commanded.
Among these innovations is the widespread notion of a Christian “place of worship”. Now where in the NT do we find such a thing? People refer to buildings as “churches” but the Church in Scripture is always made of “living stones” (1 Pet. 2: 5), not bricks and mortar. The early Christians were characterised by meeting in houses (Acts 2: 2; Rom. 16: 5; 1 Cor. 16: 19; Col. 4: 15), and the idea of a “consecrated building” is an invention of man. In John 4, the Samaritan woman raises this matter of a “place of worship”: “Our fathers worshipped in this mountain, and ye say that in Jerusalem is the place where one must worship” (v20). Now the Jews rightly regarded the Temple in Jerusalem as the place where God had put His name (2 Kings 21: 4), whilst the Samaritans argued for the rival location of Mount Gerizim. The woman wanted to know which location this prophet out of Judea thought right. By His answer the Lord reveals that with the coming of Christianity the location of worship, previously so important, has become irrelevant: “[the] hour is coming when ye shall neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem worship the Father” (John 4: 21). The reason for this radical change can be summed up thus: There has been a change in name and therefore there is a change in approach.
Let me illustrate this principle. With the Patriarchs, the name of relationship that God took with them was “Almighty God”, but in relation to Israel, the name of relationship was “Jehovah”. Hence the word to Moses was “I am Jehovah. And I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, as the Almighty God, but by my name Jehovah I was not made known to them” (Ex. 6: 2, 3). Now the change of name brought about a change of approach to God in worship. Abraham knew no intermediary priesthood; Israel had a whole tribe. Abraham’s worship was individual; Israel’s was collective. Abraham knew nothing of a tabernacle or temple, music or system of offerings. The Patriarchs had no fixed “place of worship” but built altars as they moved from place to place. Israel’s worship was centred in the tabernacle and temple. Now the coming of Christianity has brought about another change in the name of relationship––no longer “Jehovah” but “Father” (Incidentally, not, as some allege, “Father, Son and Holy Spirit”). So the apostle says “yet to us [there is] one God, the Father” (1 Cor. 8: 6). Along with this change of name comes a change in the worship. Thus the “true worshippers” in Christianity recognise no priestly caste, no sanctified buildings, and no gorgeous ritual. That was worship in truth in its day, but the hour “now is” (John 4: 23), and the name and worship have changed. To go back to the Jewish system of worship (which is what Christendom has done with its clerical hierarchy, its altars and its feasts), is to set aside what is taught so forcibly in the Hebrew epistle, namely that the way man is to approach God has been radically changed, being based on “better promises” (Heb. 8: 6) and a better sacrifice (see Heb. 9: 23). As Christians, we have “not come to [the mount] that might be touched and was all on fire” but to “[the] assembly of the firstborn [who are] registered in heaven” (Heb. 12: 18, 23). Thus in John 4 the Lord speaks of both of a change in name and a change in the worship: “ But [the] hour is coming and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth; for also the Father seeks such as his worshippers” (John 4: 23). The second great maxim of worship can thus be summed as that man’s approach to God must be in accord with the way in which He has been pleased to make Himself known.
Now the two features that must mark the new form of worship introduced by the Lord are “spirit” and “truth”, but what exactly did He mean by this? The background to the incident in John 4 provides the answer. The Samaritan woman spoke to Him of two existing models of worship: “Our fathers worshipped in this mountain, and ye say that in Jerusalem is the place where one must worship (v20).” By His answer the Lord shows that neither the Samaritan nor the Jewish form of worship was now acceptable to God. Indeed the Samaritan worship had never been acceptable. No doubt they were zealous in their devotion, but their worship was based on a false system: “Ye worship ye know not what; we” (the Lord here speaks as a Jew) “worship what we know, for salvation is of the Jews” (v22). Spiritually, Judaism might be virtually bankrupt, but that did not alter the fact that it was founded on truth. The Samaritan worship did not have this fundamental basis––it was not worship in truth. It might be carried out with a good conscience, but that was no grounds for God to accept it. The woman speaks of “Our fathers”, but worshipping God as our fathers have done before us is not a guarantee that we are worshipping in the right way. Not once does she speak of God’s will in the matter. “Ye say that in Jerusalem is the place where one must worship” (v20). With her, as with many today, it was the opinion of men that she thought of. God had said nothing about “this mountain”, but then it is, in the woman’s eyes, merely between “Our fathers” and the Jews.
Samaria’s mountain was indeed a false centre, but if in Jerusalem worship was offered in truth, it was, it has to be said, only ceremonial in character. Doubtless many entered in spirit into the deep significance that lay behind the rituals, but that did not alter the fact that the worship was one of forms rather than in spirit. The Mosaic ritual was worship in truth, because God had set it on, but it was not worship in spirit. The Lord sweeps all away as having fulfilled its purpose, and brings in what is far better and higher: “But [the] hour is coming and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth; for also the Father seeks such as his worshippers” (v23). Forms and ceremonies God gave to Israel, but that is not what we have been given. We do not have a single hymn that was in use in apostolic days. We do not even know the words with which the Lord gave thanks at the institution of His Supper. Nothing of this has been handed down to us in the Word––and for a very sound reason. It is to preserve us from slipping back into mere ritualism. How easy it is to go through the procedure of worship in a very orthodox fashion without a single breath of life in the whole performance! Indeed how many have gone right back to OT forms and moulded Christian worship in conformity to them. How different is Paul’s description of authentic Christianity: “For we are the circumcision, who worship by [the] Spirit of God, and boast in Christ Jesus, and do not trust in flesh” (Phil. 3: 3). Yet it is very possible to mistake orthodoxy for spirituality, and to lapse into what is really of the flesh. How we all need to search our hearts here! Hymns may be given out for sentimental reasons, prayers prepared before hand to impress, and songs sung lustily for no other reason than enthusiasm. This is not worship. Worship is “in spirit”. We may say all the right things and do all the right things, yet in the Lord’s eyes be as those that have a name to live, but are dead (see Rev. 3: 1). We may retain the outward appearance of priests and the phraseology of worship, and, after all, be void of godly reality and power in our souls! May we be kept very watchful then, for we know only a little of our fearful capabilities for evil until we are brought into circumstances to develop them.
Let us not be false worshippers but “true worshippers” (John 4: 23)! False worship is that which is not in accord with what God has revealed. It is composed of a variety of fleshly thoughts and feelings, worked upon by external things. It goes in for imposing ceremonies, sensuous rituals, and fine music. It plays on the emotions and works up excitement. A frenzied atmosphere, a whipped–up audience and a “worship–leader” with stage charisma––these are the elements of false worship, and are diametrically opposed to the simple worship of the inner sanctuary, with its burning coals, and pure incense. Yet in looking at Christendom, can we not see numerous altars smoking with impure fire and impure incense? Are there not many a Nadab and Abihu––true priests as they were––coming before God in “the way of Cain”? Do we not see the most unholy materials consumed upon many a censer, the smoke of which goes up as an insult rather than a sweet savour to God? How many have thought that what entertains man may at the same time be suited homage to God? Is it worship where the eye is upon the singer or the heart is occupied with the splendour of the oratory? Is this the leading of the Holy Spirit? When Aaron entered the holiest of all on the Day of Atonement, there was only one thing there and that was the Ark. True worship is not when the heart is engaged with man at all, but with God and God alone.
The “outstanding Christian writer” has made himself conspicuous, not by his grasp of the subject of worship, but by his deplorable ignorance. Sadly he has not only misled himself, but is in a position to mislead others. May we therefore not heed these “commandments of men” (Mark 7: 7), but rather cling to the living and abiding Word of God. Above all may our eyes be kept on Christ, and our worship pure!