Course: Essentials of Worship
Lecture: Key Passages
I would like to consider the contribution to our understanding of worship that is made in a number of key passages, so let’s do that next. Just a brief summary of some passages and then we will look at implications for designing and leading worship experiences in the church. Key passages that I would want to add to our discussion of biblical worship would include the following.
The Ten Commandments (the Decalogue)
First, I think that it is absolutely critical to any discussion of the biblical doctrines of worship to look at the Ten Commandments. This surprises a lot of people; maybe because Evangelicals do not really know the Ten Commandments very well anymore in North America. We used to, but we really do not know those very well anymore. Perhaps, because we look at the Ten Commandments as old and part of the law and we live under the gospel and under the leadership of the Spirit. We are not exactly sure how the Ten Commandments can be of great help to us.
But the Ten Commandments, or Decalogue, as it is also called, found in Exodus 20 and said again completely in Deuteronomy 5, really do provide foundational guidance for worship and ethics for loving God and loving neighbor. The commandments have much to say about worship.
First of all, they are given in a context of worship. Israel has been delivered from Egypt, a mighty act of salvation, they are being led out of Egypt, they camp at Mount Sinai and there they encounter God. God forms them as a people; they worship Him there and God gives these commandments. It takes place in a worship environment, a very stirring story all by itself of revelation and response, but I’m thinking particularly of the first half of the Ten Commandments or the first few commandments, one through four in particular.
By one, I will include what sometimes is called the preamble to the commandments. In my mind, the first commandment would rightly be, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me.”
Usually we think of that phrase itself, “You shall have no other Gods before me,” as the first commandment. Calvin actually put the preamble and that prohibition against other gods together and called it the first commandment. Some Jews number it that way as well. I think it is important to do so, because it reminds us very much again of the Deuteronomy 6:4-5 pattern. 6:4, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one,” that is revelation. Verse 5, this is response, “You shall love the Lord your God with heart, soul, and strength.”
In the beginning of the Decalogue we get the same idea. Here is revelation, “Who am I? I am the Lord your God. What have I done? I’ve rescued you out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. What must you do? You must have no other gods before me.” Revelation and response, powerfully packed in there. We are reminded, before God requires anything of us, or anything of Israel, in this case, and by implication of us today, before requiring anything in the commandments, God reminds us of what He has done for us.
Before He requires any work from us, He reminds us of the mighty work He has done for us. He has rescued us. From a Christian prospective, we have not been rescued from slavery to Egypt, but from slavery to sin by the mighty redeeming work of Jesus. In our worship, again, we are reminded that God is the subject of our worship; God is the initiator. We are not the subjects; we are not the initiators; we are participants in this experience by grace.
So even the commandments, which we normally just pass under the heading of law, are actually grounded in grace. God has rescued Israel and God has rescued us. Then we walk through the commandments beyond there, and each of them speaks to us about how to worship God. How do I love and worship God? By making sure that nothing is of greater importance in my life than Him. Nothing comes before Him, a biblical principle that is repeated over and over again throughout the Bible. Nothing takes first place in my life but God alone. This is self-examination for myself as an individual, but also again for congregations. Congregations can become idolatress in this way as well.
The second commandant: How do we worship God? We worship Him in spirit and in truth. Not by making up God out of our own imaginations and crafting some form of God but worshipping God as he truly is and worshipping Him in Spirit.
How do we worship God? We worship Him by making sure that His name is ever holy on our lips or, as we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “hallowed be thy name.” The third commandment: You shall not use the name of the Lord in vain.
How do we worship God? We rest in the love of God, the grace of God, the mercies of God, the salvation of God; we rest in His presence, we set aside times for intentionality in His presence — the Sabbath commandment.
All of these commandments, of course, are worthy of much deeper meditation. Sadly, the church does not meditate on the commandments as much as we ought to, but the Scriptures themselves remind us of the great wisdom gained by meditating on the commands of God. I think certainly one through four directly speak to the issues of worship, but we do not have to stop there.
Five through ten speak to worship as well. Five reminds us that God has established authorities. “Honor your father and mother,” the commandment says. We learn that submission is a critical part of worship. Six through ten remind us that basic principle of loving our neighbor as ourselves is fundamental to worship because what is the worship God is requiring? Ultimately it is justice and mercy as we have seen, and the humble walk with God.
So, that’s the commandments with that two-fold balance on love of God, commandments one through four, and love of neighbor, commandments six through ten. The parent commandment right in the middle as a hinge commandment pointing us in both directions; powerfully speak to the whole matter of worship.
A second biblical passage that we could turn to, a kind of second worship manual, would be the book of Leviticus. In the Book of Leviticus God provides Israel with detailed instructions for worship, very minute details. Through these details we can see, on the one hand, just the utter holiness of God, and on the other hand, the amazing grace of God that He has provided a means for worship to sinners such as ourselves so that we can approach a holy God.
Leviticus magnifies the holiness of God, and that has a result of magnifying, for Christians especially, the grace of God. When we come to Jesus and hear His cry on the cross, “It is finished,” He is not saying that the holiness of God has been put aside in favor of mercy, but that the mercy of God has made a way for us into the holy place of God.
We might tie the book of Leviticus to a third biblical passage, the book of Hebrews. In particular, Hebrews chapters 9 and 10 where we find that Jesus, through His great work as our High Priest and His atoning sacrifice, has given us access to God in a new and living way.
The God we worship is, just as described in the Old Testament, still and ever inapproachably holy. But, Christ has ushered in the age of His kingdom and, through His death and resurrection, He has made communion with the holy God possible to all who come to God through the blood of Jesus. So, Christ is, in the truest sense, our worship leader. Having offered the one acceptable sacrifice, that is Himself, and now leading us into God’s very presence. Hebrews 9 and 10, but in many respects the whole book, speaks to this.
For further thinking about this beautiful aspect of Christ our worship leader, and our participation with Christ in worship, I would recommend to you a little book by James B. Torrance called Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace. Torrance defines worship as, “our participation, through the Holy Spirit, in the Son’s communion with the Father.” A rich and evocative definition of worship, and wonderfully unpacked in that little book by Torrance, especially wrestling with ideas from the Book of Hebrews.
Another key New Testament passage for worship is John 4:1-26, Jesus and the woman of Samaria. Just a brief glimpse at this passage now, but obviously it presents itself as related to worship because of these lines in verse 23 and 24 where we read, “The hour is coming and now is when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for these are the kind of worshipers God seeks, the Father seeks. God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth.”
There is so much in this passage that we could think together about, but just a few points. First of all, is the whole idea of worship in spirit and in truth. Variously interpreted, but I think at a minimum we can see that worship must be spiritual, not primarily physically bounded or bounded in any local way as though worship is something that I do at a certain place or I do at a certain time.
The context points us this way. The woman’s question, John 4:19, “’Sir, I see you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, Mount Gerizim in Samaria, you Jews say the right place to worship is Jerusalem.’” Who is right; where can I find God?
And Jesus’ answer is, “Neither is right. God is Spirit and those who worship Him must worship Him spiritually.” I think that is carried out through the power of the Holy Spirit, and done in spiritual ways. It is not a physical or physically bounded act, primarily; it is a spiritual act.
In verse 23, “The hour is coming and already is.” Jesus is telling us that, not only is the truth that God is Spirit going to continue to be true, but Jesus is speaking of the age that was about to be introduced, when God would pour out His Holy Spirit upon those who believe in Christ. And, because of the ministry of the Holy Spirit in our lives, wherever we are, we are the temple of the Holy Spirit; a temple that will not be limited to Jerusalem or Gerizim in any sense anymore. We are the temple of the Spirit of God.
Individually that is true, 1 Corinthians 6, and corporately that is true, 1 Corinthians 3. When we come together, we are built together as the temple of the living God.
Spiritually we worship God and we worship Him according to truth. Again, this takes us back to the whole idea of revelation. Not God as we imagine Him to be or want Him to be, but God as He has revealed Himself to be and truly is. In John 4:22 when Jesus corrects the woman’s misunderstanding about worship, it is evident that her misunderstanding about worship is rooted in a misunderstanding about God. “You Samaritans,” he says, “you worship what you do not know. We, Jews, worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.”
So, we have this idea of the need to worship according to truth, not according the dictates of our imagination. Remember what God said to Moses in Exodus 3, when, among his many complaints and protestations about why he could not be the one to lead Israel out of Egypt, Moses protested, “But God, I don’t even know your name and they are going to ask me about it and what am I going to tell them?” God said, “I AM who I AM, tell them I AM has sent you.”
I have often thought about how interesting it is that God did not say to Moses, “I am whatever you think I am,” or “I am whatever you want me to be,” but “I am who I am.” How unlike our contemporary culture where we like to make up our own visions of God — you know, God of the month club or the vision of Jesus that we personally affirm. But no, God is who He is whether we like it or not, and we must worship God according to truth.
We have all of that in John 4, but just as striking to me is this line in verse 23, “These are the kinds of worshipers God seeks,” God is seeking. For all of our talk about seeker services and seeker sensitive worship and seeker driven worship today, I think we need to step back and consider again who the real seeker is when it comes to worship. It seems to me that the evidence suggests God Himself is the real seeker.
In fact, I think that is why we find Jesus having to go through Samaria, as John 4:4 says. Because the Father is seeking worshipers for Himself and this woman and many in her community were going to be among those worshipers. Ultimately again, we have said that it is God who initiates worship, not us. God ultimately is the real seeker, not us. He is seeking worshipers and worshipers of a particular type — worshipers who will worship Him 24/7 with all of their beings, all of their life.
Another worship manual that we should call attention to is the book of Psalms. In the Psalms we find yet another kind of worship manual, a little different than the manual that we find for holiness worship in Leviticus. In the Psalms it is not a prescriptive manual like Leviticus, but a descriptive manual, a collection of the worship expressions of the people.
Especially striking to me from the Psalms is the wide range of emotions that are employed in the rightful worship of God, that range from deep lament to exuberant praise. God is to be worshiped, again, with our whole being, mind, body, spirit, all on display in the Psalms. Honest, powerful, the broad range of the Psalms speaks to us about what is appropriate to bring before God in worship.
Praise, absolutely, but also lamentation, also spiritual warfare, even our doubt and despair brought before God. Consider a psalm like Psalm 88, which starts in despair and ends in utter darkness. And yet, it is all directed toward God, who understands these things and accepts such a prayer from the heart of a worshiper.
One last passage for our consideration now, and that is the book of Revelation. Revelation would be a final worship manual for us. We do not have time to probe it sufficiently here, but just to make this point. In the book of Revelation we get a marvelous glimpse into the worship of God that reaches way into the eternal future.
We note that our themes in worship in the book of Revelation will focus finally on the redeeming work of Christ, who is the Lamb of God, who purchased for Himself and for God an innumerable throng of persons, people from every nation and tribe. We also see that worship is fixed on the final triumphs of God over all that sets itself in opposition to His purposes.
These themes ring out from the book of Revelation: Christocentric worship, salvation wonderfully accomplished by Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, who purchased for God people from every nation, tribe, and tongue. God reigns forever and ever; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, triune God, forever praised and magnified. God is victorious; God is triumphant in the end, a beautiful picture of the worship that we are called to.
The songs of praise themselves throughout the book of Revelation are rich and have enhanced Christian worship through the centuries. May they continue to do so as we get a taste of the glory even now.
These manuals of worship — Leviticus, Psalms, Hebrews, Revelation, John 4, the Decalogue — all greatly enhance our understanding of the Bible doctrine of worship.