Back – way back – in my seminary days, I had a classmate whose name was also Bob. He was one of the most open, guileless men I have ever known. He and I were taking a theology class, and the topic was ecclesiology – that’s a five-dollar word for the doctrine of the church. Various approaches to understanding the church were presented, but no one position was singled out as the “right” view. This was a new experience for this class. After the professor had finished his presentation, he gave time for us to ask questions, and my friend Bob had one:
“Dr. Jones,2 when we studied Christology, you presented several different views and then you taught the “correct view.” The same was true for Pneumatology3 and Soteriology.4 Now, when we get to the doctrine of the church, you teach it ‘cafeteria style.’ I don’t understand.”
The professor was a kind and gracious man. He recognized that Bob’s question was sincere and not just an attempt to engage in debate. He responded by pointing out that the seminary’s large student body did not come from one denominational background, but from a diversity of the denominations and traditions. This diversity was the reason for his decision not to commit to any one particular viewpoint.
I respect that professor, but I’m not satisfied with his answer. Among all the options, is there no right way to “serve church”? Are we free to serve church “cafeteria style” – any way that promises to be successful? Are we free to come to biblical texts which define or describe the way a church functions and conclude, “That was just the way they did it then, but there are many other ways that are just as good or better”? We certainly don’t deal with salvation that way. Even doctrines which are not “fundamentals of the faith” (such as views of the ends times – eschatology) are taught with conviction, and even with dogmatism. Why this ambivalence about ecclesiology?
In the late 1960’s, Paul Anka adapted a song specifically for Frank Sinatra,5 the title of which should be familiar to most of us: “I Did It My Way.” From all appearances, it would seem that Anka believed that this song not only fit Sinatra, but also the culture of that day. In this regard, our culture has not changed. In 1974, Burger King capitalized on the “do it your way” theme by commencing an advertising campaign with the slogan, “Have it your way.”6
A number of churches also seem to have adopted this same theme, attracting folks by giving potential attendees the impression that they can “experience church their way.” That wasn’t the way the church in Jerusalem operated. Is the gathering of the church the place where unbelievers should feel comfortable and at home? It wasn’t that way in the New Testament. Immediately following the account of the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira for lying to the church (and thus to the Holy Spirit), we read:
11 Great fear gripped the whole church and all who heard about these things. 12 Now many miraculous signs and wonders came about among the people through the hands of the apostles. By common consent they were all meeting together in Solomon’s Portico. 13 None of the rest dared to join them, but the people held them in high honor. 14 More and more believers in the Lord were added to their number, crowds of both men and women (Acts 5:11-14).7
So the question we are seeking to answer in this message is this: “Does it matter to God how we serve church, or are we free to do church as we see fit?” Are there boundaries or limits that we dare not violate by the way we “serve church”? How serious an offense is it if we ignore or set aside the teachings of Scripture which instruct us as to how we serve church? To find the answer to these questions, we will consider texts from both the Old and the New Testaments. We will begin in the Old Testament with Israel’s errors in handling the Ark of the Covenant. Then we will turn to the New Testament, concentrating on what we learn about abuses in the church from the Book of 1 Corinthians. The point I am trying to make from both sets of texts is that God takes our worship very seriously, and when we fail to do so, we are headed for trouble.
You have probably already discerned that I believe how we serve church is important to God. This is consistent with the fact that the Scriptures speak clearly to us as to how we go about “doing church.” The purposes of this entire series may be summarized as follows:
(1) To identify the teaching of the Scriptures (primarily the New Testament) which govern how we are to “serve church.”
(2) To see how commonly accepted church practices compare with the teaching of the New Testament pertaining to the church.
(3) To explain how and why the church has departed from the teaching of the New Testament.
(4) To explain how and why we have purposed to “serve church” at Community Bible Chapel. 8
Having set forth the goal of this series as well as the purpose of this message, let us begin this lesson by considering Israel’s failures in relation to the ark of the covenant in the Old Testament.
There are numerous opportunities in the Old Testament to observe the consequences of “freestyle” (or “have it your way”) religion. We can see it in Israel’s worship of the golden calf, where many died on account of their sin (Exodus 32). Later, when Nadab and Abihu offered strange fire, they were struck dead (by fire from the Lord, Leviticus 10:1-3). When Moses struck the rock in anger, he was forbidden to enter the Promised Land because of his irreverence (Numbers 20:1-3). False prophets were to be put to death for seeking to turn the Israelites from worshipping God (Deuteronomy 13). Jeroboam faced divine judgment for establishing a counterfeit religion in Israel (1 Kings 12:25—13:10).
Having noted some instances of Israel’s “freestyle religion,” let us turn our attention to Israel and the Ark of the Covenant. You will recall that in Exodus 25, God gave Moses very detailed instructions regarding the plans for crafting the Ark of the Covenant, a magnificent chest made of acacia wood overlaid with gold. The lid was the mercy-seat, with two cherubim leaning over it facing each other. Inside the ark were placed the two stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written. Also contained inside were Aaron’s rod and a sample of the manna which sustained the Israelites in the wilderness. When it was being transported, the ark was covered with cloth and animal skins, so that no one could look upon it.9 It could only be transported by the priests, who carried the ark by means of two poles that were inserted through rings that were attached to it. When the ark was stationary, it was placed in the most holy place in the tabernacle, and later in the temple. Once a year, the high priest would enter the holy of holies where the ark was kept to make atonement for the sins of the people.10
The ark was carried in the wilderness after Mount Sinai and led the Israelites through the Jordan River and into the Promised Land under Joshua. I’d like to take up the story of the ark in 1 Samuel 4:
1 Samuel revealed the word of the Lord to all Israel. Then the Israelites went out to fight the Philistines. They camped at Ebenezer, and the Philistines camped at Aphek. 2 The Philistines arranged their forces to fight Israel. As the battle spread out, Israel was defeated by the Philistines, who killed about four thousand men in the battle line in the field. 3 When the army came back to the camp, the elders of Israel said, “Why did the Lord let us be defeated today by the Philistines? Let’s take with us the ark of the covenant of the Lord from Shiloh. When it is with us, it will save us from the hand of our enemies. 4 So the army sent to Shiloh, and they took from there the ark of the covenant of the Lord of hosts who sits between the cherubim. Now the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phineas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God. 5 When the ark of the covenant of the Lord arrived at the camp, all Israel shouted so loudly that the ground shook. 6 When the Philistines heard the sound of the shout, they said, “What is this loud shout in the camp of the Hebrews?” Then they realized that the ark of the Lord had arrived at the camp. 7 The Philistines were scared because they thought that gods had come to the camp. They said, “Too bad for us! We’ve never seen anything like this! 8 Too bad for us! Who can deliver us from the hand of these mighty gods? These are the gods who struck the Egyptians with all sorts of plagues in the desert! 9 Be strong and act like men, you Philistines, or else you will wind up serving the Hebrews the way they have served you! Act like men and fight!” 10 So the Philistines fought. Israel was defeated; they all ran home. The slaughter was very great; thirty thousand foot soldiers fell in battle. 11 The ark of God was taken, and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phineas, were killed. 12 On that day a Benjaminite ran from the battle lines and came to Shiloh. His clothes were torn and dirt was on his head. 13 When he arrived in Shiloh, Eli was sitting in his chair watching by the side of the road, for he was very worried about the ark of God. As the man entered the city to give his report, the whole city cried out. 14 When Eli heard the outcry, he said, “What is this commotion?” The man quickly came and told Eli. 15 Now Eli was ninety-eight years old and his eyes looked straight ahead; he was unable to see. 16 The man said to Eli, “I am the one who came from the battle lines! Just today I fled from the battle lines!” Eli asked, “How did things go, my son?” 17 The messenger replied, “Israel has fled from the Philistines! The army has suffered a great defeat! Your two sons, Hophni and Phineas, are dead! The ark of God has been captured!” 18 When he mentioned the ark of God, Eli fell backward from his chair beside the gate. He broke his neck and died, for he was old and heavy. He had judged Israel for forty years. 19 His daughter-in-law, the wife of Phineas, was pregnant and close to giving birth. When she heard that the ark of God was captured and that her father-in-law and her husband were dead, she doubled over and gave birth. But her labor pains were too much for her. 20 As she was dying, the women who were there with her said, “Don’t be afraid! You have given birth to a son!” But she did not reply or pay any attention. 21 She named the boy Ichabod, saying, “The glory has departed from Israel,” referring to the capture of the ark of God and the deaths of her father-in-law and her husband. 22 She said, “The glory has departed from Israel, because the ark of God has been captured” (1 Samuel 4:1-22, emphasis mine).
The first sentence of chapter 4 is interesting, especially in the light of what we have just been told in chapter 3:
Samuel continued to grow, and the Lord was with him. None of his prophecies fell to the ground unfulfilled (1 Samuel 3:19).
Samuel was “the Word of the Lord” to Israel (1 Samuel 3:19), and his word “came to all Israel” (1 Samuel 4:1). And yet, Samuel disappears in the text until chapter 7. It would seem that the Israelites got themselves into trouble by acting apart from God’s Word as revealed by Samuel, His prophet. And so we are informed that the Israelites engaged the Philistines in battle. As the fighting intensified, the Israelites suffered defeat, losing approximately 4,000 soldiers. Treating the ark like a magic artifact, the elders of Israel decided to take it into battle with them against the Philistines. As a result, an additional 30,000 Israelite soldiers died. Eli’s two sons, who accompanied the ark, died as well. When news of this disaster reached Eli, he fell backward and broke his neck, joining his sons in death. The ark was taken away as plunder by the Philistines. It was the widow of Phineas who put it well, “The glory has departed from Israel” (1 Samuel 4:21).
First Samuel 5 provides us with a humorous account of how God showed Himself greater than the Philistine gods. Ashdod was the first Philistine to gain possession of the Ark of the Covenant. It was where their god, Dagon, was kept in his “house” (temple?). They placed the ark in Dagon’s temple as a trophy from the spoils of war. What an insult this appeared to be, to Israel and to their God. But later, they find their “god” on his face before the ark. They prop Dagon up, only to find him the next day with his head and hands severed. How appropriate:
15 The nations’ idols are made of silver and gold,
they are man-made.
16 They have mouths,
but cannot speak,
eyes, but cannot see,
17 and ears, but cannot hear.
Indeed, they cannot breathe.
18 Those who make them will end up like them,
as will everyone who trusts in them (Psalm 135:15-18).
God is not yet finished displaying His supremacy to the Philistines. Not only was Dagon left broken before the ark, God sent a humiliating malady to the Philistines. The NET Bible speaks of this as having “sores.” Other translations call these “tumors.” Marginal notes indicate that they may have been hemorrhoids. Whatever the affliction was, the Philistines did not want it, and as a result, they did not want the ark, which they had identified as the source of their problems. The Philistine leaders met and decided to “share the wealth” with the city of Gath. When the same judgments fell on the people of Gath, the ark was sent on to Ekron, where the citizens were far from eager to receive it. The decision was reached that the ark should be returned to Israel. The only question was, “How?”
First, they determined to send some form of guilt offering:
1 When the ark of the Lord had been in the land of the Philistines for seven months, 2 the Philistines called the priests and the omen readers, saying, “What should we do with the ark of the Lord? Advise us as to how we should send it back to its place.” 3 They replied, “If you are going to send the ark of the God of Israel back, don’t send it away empty. Be sure to return it with a guilt offering. Then you will be healed, and you will understand why his hand is not removed from you” (1 Samuel 6:1-3).
Second, they wanted to convince themselves that all their troubles were actually from the hand of Israel’s God, and so they devised this test:
7 So now go and make a new cart. Get two cows that have calves and that have never had a yoke placed on them. Harness the cows to the cart and take their calves from them back to their stalls. 8 Then take the ark of the Lord and place it on the cart, and put in a chest beside it the gold objects you are sending to him as a guilt offering. You should then send it on its way. 9 But keep an eye on it. If it should go up by the way of its own border to Beth Shemesh, then he has brought this great calamity on us. But if that is not the case, then we will know that it was not his hand that struck us; rather, it just happened to us by accident.” 10 So the men did as instructed. They took two cows that had calves and harnessed them to a cart; they also removed their calves to their stalls. 11 They put the ark of the Lord on the cart, along with the chest, the gold mice, and the images of the sores. 12 Then the cows went directly on the road to Beth Shemesh. They went along, mooing as they went; they turned neither to the right nor to the left. The leaders of the Philistines were walking along behind them all the way to the border of Beth Shemesh (1 Samuel 6:7-12, emphasis mine).
The ark was placed on a new cart drawn by two cows that had just been separated from their calves. Contrary to their nature, the two cows immediately left their offspring and headed straight down the road for Beth Shemesh in Israel. When the ark arrived at Beth Shemesh, the Israelites who were working in the wheat fields saw it and rejoiced. They split the wood of the cart and offered up the cows as a burnt offering. So far, so good. The Levites took down the ark and the box with the guilt offering and placed them near the big stone where the ark had come to rest. The Philistines looked on from a distance as the joyful citizens of Beth Shemesh offered their sacrifice. But there was a problem:
19 But the Lord struck down some of the people of Beth Shemesh because they had looked into the ark of the Lord; he struck down 50,070 of the men. The people grieved because the Lord had struck the people with a hard blow. 20 The residents of Beth Shemesh asked, “Who is able to stand before the Lord, this holy God? To whom will the ark go up from here?” 21 So they sent messengers to the residents of Kiriath Jearim, saying, “The Philistines have returned the ark of the Lord. Come down here and take it back home with you” (1 Samuel 6:19-21, emphasis mine).
Looking into the ark was a most serious offense, resulting in the death of over 50,000 of the men of Beth Shemesh. Those who survived asked the right question: “Who is able to stand before the LORD, this holy God?” It was a hard way to come to terms with the holiness of God, but the Israelites came to understand that one must not regard as common that which God has made holy. And so they, much like the Philistine lords had done, sent the ark on to another town.
The ark is taken to Kiriath-jearim, to the house of Abinadab, where it remains for 20 years (1 Samuel 7:2). Samuel (who reappears in chapter 7) then calls Israel to repentance at Mizpah, where they renew their covenant (1 Samuel 7:3-4). Samuel promised that God would deliver them in battle when they forsook their idols and returned to the Lord (1 Samuel 7:3-6). God then gave Israel a great victory over the Philistines at Mizpah, just as Samuel had promised (1 Samuel 7:7-11). Samuel raised an Ebenezer11 (1 Samuel 7:12), and as a result of Israelite military victories, the Philistines returned those cities they had captured from Israel (1 Samuel 7:14). The ark, however, seems to have been neglected throughout the reign of Saul:
1 David consulted with his military officers, including those who led groups of a thousand and those who led groups of a hundred. 2 David said to the whole Israelite assembly, “If you so desire and the Lord our God approves, let’s spread the word to our brothers who remain in all the regions of Israel, and to the priests and Levites in their cities, so they may join us. 3 Let’s move the ark of our God back here, for we did not seek his will throughout Saul’s reign” (1 Chronicles 13:1-3, emphasis mine).12
Later, when David sought to bring the ark to Jerusalem, trouble arose once again regarding the ark.
1 David again assembled all the best men in Israel, thirty thousand in number. 2 David and all the men who were with him traveled to Baalah in Judah to bring up from there the ark of God which is called by the name of the Lord of hosts, who sits enthroned between the cherubim that are on it. 3 They loaded the ark of God on a new cart and carried it from the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were guiding the new cart. 4 They brought it with the ark of God up from the house of Abinadab on the hill. Ahio was walking in front of the ark, 5 while David and all Israel were energetically celebrating before the Lord, singing and playing various stringed instruments, tambourines, rattles, and cymbals. 6 When they arrived at the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out and grabbed hold of the ark of God, because the oxen stumbled. 7 The Lord was so furious with Uzzah, he killed him on the spot for his negligence.13 He died right there beside the ark of God. 8 David was angry because the Lord attacked Uzzah; so he called that place Perez Uzzah, which remains its name to this very day. 9 David was afraid of the Lord that day and said, “How will the ark of the Lord ever come to me?” 10 So David was no longer willing to bring the ark of the Lord to be with him in the City of David. David left it in the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite. 11 The ark of the Lord remained in the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite for three months. The Lord blessed Obed-Edom and all his family (2 Samuel 6:1-11, emphasis mine).
Although the ark was neglected during the reign of Saul, David wanted to bring it to Jerusalem. Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were the ones who took charge of transporting the ark to Jerusalem. What is noteworthy is that they determined to do so by placing the ark on a new cart drawn by oxen. Even though the ark had been returned to Israel a good many years earlier by the Philistines, Uzzah and Ahio were attempting to move the ark in virtually the same manner that was devised by the Philistines (who knew nothing of God’s instructions concerning the ark). It is troubling to see them imitating the pagan Philistines, rather than following the instructions God had given through Moses. This is yet another indication of Israel’s disregard for the Law of Moses.
The outcome was tragic, for one of the oxen stumbled, and it appeared to Uzzah that the cart might overturn and the ark would be thrown out, so he instinctively reached out to steady the ark. But when Uzzah touched the ark, God struck him dead. David’s first response was anger – God had rained on his parade. But then David’s anger rightly turned to fear. He wondered how the ark could ever be brought to him in Jerusalem. And so the ark of the Lord remained in the house of Obed-Edom for three months.
We need to pause here to consider for a moment just who this man, “Obed-Edom,” was. Twice he is identified as “Obed-Edomthe Gittite.”
There was another battle with the Philistines in which Elhanan son of Jair the Bethlehemite killed the brother of Goliath the Gittite, whose spear had a shaft as big as the crossbeam of a weaver’s loom (1 Chronicles 20:5, emphasis mine).
A Gittite is a person from Gath, the Philistine city that was Goliath’s home town. The Philistines lacked reverence for the God of Israel, and for His ark. Likewise, the Israelites of Beth Shemesh did not show due reverence to God, or to His ark. David and the Israelites (including Uzzah) lacked reverence as well, which cost Uzzah his life. And now it is a Philistine, Obed-Edom, who rightly reverences God, deals appropriately with the ark, and is blessed by God, along with his family. I find this most interesting.
When David heard that God had blessed the family of Obed-Edom, he was encouraged to try once again to bring the ark to Jerusalem.
12 David was told, “The Lord has blessed the family of Obed-Edom and everything he owns because of the ark of God.” So David went and joyfully brought the ark of God from the house of Obed-Edom to the City of David. 13 Those who carried the ark of the Lord took six steps and then David sacrificed an ox and a fatling calf. 14 Now David, wearing a linen ephod, was dancing with all his strength before the Lord. 15 David and all Israel were bringing up the ark of the Lord, shouting and blowing trumpets (2 Samuel 6:12-15, emphasis mine).
This text in 2 Samuel gives us an account of this joyful procession, led by David, making their way to Jerusalem. If we do not pay attention to details, we might miss the fact that the ark was now being carried (verse 13), rather than being hauled in an ox cart. The parallel account in 1 Chronicles informs us that David had figured out why Uzzah had been struck dead.
1 David constructed buildings in the City of David; he then prepared a place for the ark of God and pitched a tent for it. 2 Then David said, “Only the Levites may carry the ark of God, for the Lord chose them to carry the ark of the Lord and to serve before him perpetually. 3 David assembled all Israel at Jerusalem to bring the ark of the Lord up to the place he had prepared for it (1 Chronicles 15:3, emphasis mine).
During those three months following the first futile effort to transport the ark to Jerusalem, David must have done his homework. No doubt he came across these instructions in the Book of Numbers:
15 “When Aaron and his sons have finished covering the sanctuary and all the furnishings of the sanctuary, when the camp is ready to journey, then the Kohathites will come to carry them; but they must not touch any holy thing, or they will die. These are the responsibilities of the Kohathites with the tent of meeting. 16 “The appointed responsibility of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest is for the oil for the light, and the spiced incense, and the daily grain offering, and the anointing oil; he also has the appointed responsibility over all the tabernacle with all that is in it, over the sanctuary and over all its furnishings.” 17 Then the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron: 18 “Do not allow the tribe of the families of the Kohathites to be cut off from among the Levites; 19 but in order that they will live and not die when they approach the most holy things, do this for them: Aaron and his sons will go in and appoint each man to his service and his responsibility. 20 But the Kohathites are not to go in to watch while the holy things are being covered, or they will die” (Numbers 4:15-20, emphasis mine).
I suspect that many of us would have been tempted to respond as David did when the Lord struck Uzzah dead for attempting to prevent damage to the ark. Didn’t God realize that David was seeking to relocate the ark so as to give it the prominence it deserved? Weren’t David’s intentions honorable? And weren’t Uzzah’s intentions honorable as well? Then why did God respond with such severity? Because God is holy, He takes men’s worship seriously. As we have already read, the ark was more than just a symbol of God’s presence:
David and all the men who were with him traveled to Baalah in Judah to bring up from there the ark of God which is called by the name of the Lord of hosts, who sits enthroned between the cherubim that are on it (2 Samuel 6:2).
The ark was God’s dwelling place. Normally, the ark would have been hidden within the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle, and likewise in the temple. David and the Levites have not only handled the ark as God had directed, but more importantly they have come to reverence God, “who sits enthroned between the cherubim.”
Few would question anything that has been said regarding the practice of Israel in worshipping God in the Old Testament. But most everyone is inclined to think that when we come to the New Testament (aka the “New Covenant”), there are fewer directives, and the consequences are less severe, if they exist at all. Some may conclude that while God was “strict” in the Old Testament, He is more permissive in the New. Are the New Testament directives concerning the church (or anything else for that matter) merely suggestive? The incident with Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 should serve notice that one dare not be casual about one’s conduct in the church. The New Testament does have much to teach us concerning the church, but for this lesson we will restrict ourselves to the Book of 1 Corinthians. What does 1 Corinthians have to teach us about the church, and how does this compare with what we have seen in the Old Testament concerning the ark?
We all know that the church at Corinth was hardly a model church. Paul begins by calling attention to the divisions which existed in the church, divisions which seem to be rooted in allegiance to a particular teacher or leader:
11 For members of Chloe’s household have made it clear to me, my brothers and sisters, that there are quarrels among you. 12 Now I mean this, that each of you is saying, “I am with Paul,” or “I am with Apollos,” or “I am with Cephas,” or “I am with Christ”14 (1 Corinthians 1:11-12).
It seems to be the sophisticated, self-glorifying message of certain teachers and their manipulative methods which have enticed some to become followers of men, rather than disciples of Jesus. Paul’s methods and his message were too “simple” and unsophisticated for those in Corinth who thought themselves to be “wise”:
1 When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come with superior eloquence or wisdom as I proclaimed the testimony of God. 2 For I decided to be concerned about nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. 3 And I was with you in weakness and in fear and with much trembling. 4 My conversation and my preaching were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 so that your faith would not be based on human wisdom but on the power of God (1 Corinthians 2:1-5).
The verses which follow in chapter 2 speak of the essential role of the Holy Spirit in making the truth of God known to men, whose natural minds cannot grasp spiritual truth. But then in chapter 3, Paul returns to the divisions that were man-centered with these amazing words:
10 According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master-builder I laid a foundation, but someone else builds on it. And each one must be careful how he builds. 11 For no one can lay any foundation other than what is being laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 If anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw, 13 each builder’s work will be plainly seen, for the Day will make it clear, because it will be revealed by fire. And the fire will test what kind of work each has done. 14 If what someone has built survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If someone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss. He himself will be saved, but only as through fire. 16 Do you not know that you15 are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you? 17 If someone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, which is what you are (1 Corinthians 3:10-17, emphasis mine).
What an amazing truth: the church is God’s temple, God’s dwelling place in this present age. This is a truth which is affirmed elsewhere in the New Testament:
And what mutual agreement does the temple of God have with idols? For we are the temple of the living God, just as God said, “I will live in them and will walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people” (2 Corinthians 6:16, emphasis mine).
14 For he is our peace, the one who made both groups into one and who destroyed the middle wall of partition, the hostility, 15 when he nullified in his flesh the law of commandments in decrees. He did this to create in himself one new man out of two, thus making peace, 16 and to reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by which the hostility has been killed. 17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near, 18 so that through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer foreigners and noncitizens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of God’s household, 20 because you have been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, 22 in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:14-22, emphasis mine).
In 1 Corinthians 6:16-20, Paul appeals to the Corinthian Christians as individuals. He instructs the Corinthians that they cannot engage in sexual immorality because every Christian – individually – is a temple of the Holy Spirit. But in this exhortation in 1 Corinthians 3, Paul speaks of the church corporately as the temple of God. In chapter 3, Paul is cautioning those who build on his foundation – the foundation he (and the other apostles) laid. In 1 Corinthians, Paul seemed to give these divisive teachers the benefit of the doubt, but they are called false apostles and messengers of Satan in 2 Corinthians 11. And these men (and women?) are propagating error regarding the church, its constitution (the Word of God), and its function. He warns all who “build” to build rightly, warning that they (we) will give account. And if we do not take this strongly enough, he concludes by saying that anyone who does damage to God’s temple will be destroyed by God (1 Corinthians 3:17).
These verses in 1 Corinthians 3 are foundational and fundamental to our understanding of the church. Yes, thank God, we live under the New Covenant, rather than the Old, but this does not mean that we are free to “serve church” any way we please. Because it is so important in God’s program, we must “serve church” according to the directives God has given us, largely through Paul.
In 1 Corinthians 5, we are given a glimpse of the health of the church at Corinth, much of which is a result, I believe, of the “ministry” of these Scripture-twisting teachers. A man is living with his father’s wife, and yet he is embraced warmly by the church. While the pagan unbelieving Corinthians (noted for their immorality) are shocked by this conduct, the church is actually proud of their treatment of this immoral member. From afar, Paul personally invokes church discipline on this man and urges the Corinthian saints to follow his example by removing this man from their fellowship. Neither Paul nor the Corinthian believers have any responsibility for disciplining unbelievers – only those who profess to know Jesus as Savior, but whose lifestyle denies it. He likens the sinful member to a lump of leaven which is corrupting the church (the dough). In the days immediately following the sacrifice of the Passover lamb, the Israelites were to eat only unleavened bread. Purification by the Passover lamb required the commencement of a purification process by those who were participants in that sacrificial meal. Those who have been purified by the shed blood of Jesus, the true Passover Lamb, are required to live a life of purity.16
In 1 Corinthians 8-10, Paul deals with the issue of meats offered to idols. In chapter 8, Paul introduces us to a piece of this “new wisdom” that the false teachers had brought into the church. They reasoned that they could eat meats offered to idols (something clearly forbidden by the Jerusalem Council)17 because there is only one true God, and thus idols don’t really represent anything. Paul only momentarily leaves this faulty logic unchallenged, and instead approaches the issue from the standpoint of the church, rather than just the (self-seeking) individual. He reminds the Corinthians that not all of the Corinthian saints have this sense of freedom. The “weaker” brother, seeing his “stronger” brother eat such meats, may be encouraged to follow his example, and thus to sin. Our personal lives are not as private as we may claim, because we impact others. I cannot do anything I please, even if it were a legitimate right (which eating idol meats was not!), because I am responsible for my brother. The individualistic thinking of Paul’s day was wrong then, just as it is today.
Paul forcefully ends his argument against eating idol meat powerfully in chapter 10. He chooses to dwell on that period of time when the Israelites failed so miserably in the wilderness. The sins to which Paul refers are remarkably similar to those found in the Corinthian church: immorality, gluttony, grumbling and rebellion against God’s appointed authorities. Closely associated with these sins was the sin of idolatry:
6 These things happened as examples for us, so that we will not crave evil things as they did. 7 So do not be idolaters, as some of them were. As it is written,” The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” 8 And let us not be immoral, as some of them were, and twenty-three thousand died in a single day. 9 And let us not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by snakes. 10 And do not complain, as some of them did, and were killed by the destroying angel. 11 These things happened to them as examples and were written for our instruction, on whom the ends of the ages have come (1 Corinthians 10:6-11, emphasis mine).
The very same things which kept nearly all of those who left Egypt with Moses from entering the Promised Land could also be found in the church at Corinth. Paul urged the members of the Corinthian church to learn from Israel’s failures, reminding these saints that failures such as these led to divine judgment.
In 1 Corinthians 10:14-22, Paul teaches that one’s membership in the church prohibits their participation in sacrifices to pagan idols. All believers are members in Christ’s body, the church. We symbolize this when we partake of communion. We are one “loaf.” When we partake of communion, we proclaim our identification with Christ and His sacrifice. By participating in the heathen idol worship ceremonies, we proclaim our identification with demons. We cannot be participants with demons and with our Lord. Thus, eating idol meats (and, in some cases, doing so while participating in the heathen ritual) is not permissible. The guiding principle regarding true Christian liberties is not whether it is technically permissible, but whether it is beneficial (edifying), to the individual and to the church.
It is my understanding that Paul’s description of what was taking place at the weekly gathering of the saints at Corinth (chapter 11) is influenced greatly by the conduct of those who participated in the heathen sacrifices to idols.18 The divisions to which Paul has referred earlier in this epistle become evident when the church gathers. So did their self-indulgence. When the fleshly Corinthians gathered together, it was not really to celebrate and proclaim the Lord’s death; it was to gorge themselves with food and drink.
20 Now when you come together at the same place, you are not really eating the Lord’s Supper. 21 For when it is time to eat, everyone proceeds with his own supper. One is hungry and another becomes drunk. 22 Do you not have houses so that you can eat and drink? Or are you trying to show contempt for the church of God by shaming those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I praise you? I will not praise you for this! (1 Corinthians 11:20-22)
The highlight of their weekly gathering was the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, and yet they had profaned it to the point where it may have been observed in a manner very much like the heathen rituals they had once performed (and which some, it would seem, still attended). When I was in college, I worked for a catering company. There were times when we would cater a dinner where some of the more elite of the city would attend. I cannot tell you how disgusting it was to see normally dignified people behaving shamefully because they were drunk. That is what Paul is describing here. The most solemn and sacred moment of worship was more like a drunken brawl.
This manner of celebrating the Lord’s Supper was no less an act of irreverence than Uzzah’s irreverence in reaching out to steady the ark, or Moses’ irreverence in striking the rock, or the irreverence of Nadab and Abihu in offering strange fire. And the consequences were no less severe: some of the Corinthian saints were sick, and others had died. God takes irreverence seriously, whether it is Israel’s irreverence in Old Testament times, or irreverence in the church at Corinth (or today).
So how does this serve to set the stage for our study about the New Testament church? Let me suggest some of the lessons which I believe we are to learn from our study.
Approaching a holy God with irreverence and disregard for His Word can be hazardous to one’s health. We can see this throughout the Old Testament. God had regard for Abel, and for his sacrifice, but not for Cain (Genesis 4:1-5ff.). Even godly men like Moses and David learned the hard way that one dare not approach a holy God in a manner that violates His character and His commands. It would be all too easy to assume that God dealt severely with those who were irreverent in the Old Testament, but did not do so in the New. The deaths of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5, and the sickness and death of saints at Corinth (1 Corinthians 11), should be sobering warnings to us that we dare not be too casual about how we “do church.” In our next lesson, we will look at “doing church” from a much more positive perspective, but let us begin by recognizing that we dare not be irreverent in how we conduct ourselves in the church and as a church.
Ignorance is no excuse for our irreverence, or for failing to obey God’s commands related to the church. Acts of irreverence are most often deliberate acts of disobedience, but this is not always the case. I don’t see Uzzah grasping the ark as being willful disobedience, nor David’s initial neglect. But what does seem clear is that there was an ignorance of the Scriptures in regard to Israel’s worship. God did not count ignorance as an excuse for disobedience. When David considered the cause of Uzzah’s death, he found the answer in the Word. They did not transport the ark as the law instructed.
Surely this is true for saints today. The New Testament Scriptures provide us with all we need to know about ministry and worship that pleases God. In some cases, it is ignorance of the Scriptures that gets us into trouble. In other cases, it is setting these Scriptures and their instructions aside, as relevant only to that church, to that time, to that culture. Ignorance is no excuse for disobedience.
Sincerity does not justify disobedience.I have no doubt that Uzzah was sincere in his efforts to steady the ark, or that David was sincere in seeking to bring the ark to Jerusalem. But sincerity is no excuse for disobedience. Many people today are sincere in their efforts to “do church,” but sincerity alone is not enough.
Emergencies are no excuse for disobedience.
5 For the battle with Israel the Philistines had amassed 3,000 chariots, 6,000 horsemen, and an army as numerous as the sand on the seashore. They went up and camped at Micmash, east of Beth Aven. 6 The men of Israel realized they had a problem because their army was hard pressed. So the army hid in caves, thickets, cliffs, strongholds, and cisterns. 7 Some of the Hebrews crossed over the Jordan River to the land of Gad and Gilead. But Saul stayed at Gilgal; the entire army that was with him was terrified. 8 He waited for seven days, the time period indicated by Samuel. But Samuel did not come to Gilgal, and the army began to abandon Saul. 9 So Saul said, “Bring me the burnt offering and the peace offerings.” Then he offered a burnt offering. 10 Just when he had finished offering the burnt offering, Samuel appeared on the scene. Saul went out to meet him and to greet him. 11 But Samuel said, “What have you done?” Saul replied, “When I saw that the army had started to abandon me and that you didn’t come at the appointed time and that the Philistines had assembled at Micmash, 12 I thought, ‘Now the Philistines will come down on me at Gilgal and I have not sought the Lord’s favor.’ So I felt obligated to offer the burnt offering.” 13 Then Samuel said to Saul, “You have made a foolish choice! You have not obeyed the commandment that the Lord your God gave you. Had you done that, the Lord would have established your kingdom over Israel forever! 14 But now your kingdom will not continue! The Lord has sought out for himself a man who is loyal to him and the Lord has appointed him to be leader over his people, for you have not obeyed what the Lord commanded you” (1 Samuel 13:5-14).
King Saul was instructed to wait for Samuel, who would offer a burnt offering before the Israelite army engaged the Philistines in war. Samuel did not arrive when Saul expected, and some of his men began to desert. Saul felt that this crisis was an emergency, and in his mind, this was justification for him to offer the sacrifice himself. Saul would lose his kingdom on account of this disobedience. Emergencies are no excuse for disobedience – even when it appeared that the ark might topple over when the oxen stumbled. And by the way, we should recall that the emergency Uzzah dealt with was caused by neglect and disobedience. Had they transported the ark as God had instructed, there would have been no crisis.
Neither enthusiasm nor excitement are a valid substitute for obedience to God’s Word.There are some who seem to measure their religious experiences by their level of excitement or enthusiasm. But David’s excitement was misguided and deceptive as he enthusiastically celebrated while the ark was being transported on that ox cart:
4 They brought it with the ark of God up from the house of Abinadab on the hill. Ahio was walking in front of the ark, 5 while David and all Israel were energetically celebrating before the Lord, singing and playing various stringed instruments, tambourines, rattles, and cymbals (2 Samuel 6:4-5, emphasis mine).
There is nothing wrong with enthusiasm in worship or in our service in church. But there are some who seem to feel that all enthusiastic, joyful activity must be of God. In 2 Samuel 6, we see enthusiastic celebration (verses 4-5) when the ark was being transported by ox cart, and then we see how quickly this enthusiasm turned to disappointment and even anger. Later in this same chapter, we see David celebrating with exuberance when the ark is being returned as God had instructed. It is possible that our enthusiasm and excitement may be misguided. Thus, excitement alone is not proof of piety, reverence, or obedience. Let us joyfully and enthusiastically worship and serve our God, but let it be in obedience to what He has commanded us.
I think we can safely conclude that God does not intend for us to “have it our way” when it comes to worshipping Him or “doing church.” We know that God gave very specific instructions in matters related to the ark, the tabernacle (and later, the temple), offering sacrifices, and observing certain holy days. I believe that we can see from 1 Corinthians that God takes our irreverence and disobedience seriously. Let it suffice for the moment to say that God has given us rather clear instruction as to how we are to “do church.” Just where God has drawn the lines is a subject for another message, but when we disregard these lines, there are serious consequences.
Foundational to all that we do as Christians (including “serving church”) is a proper view of the holiness of God, and thus having a deep sense of reverence which prompts us to know God’s Word and to obey it. I am convinced that here is where true worship must begin – with a solemn sense of the holiness of the God whom we worship, and to whom we wish to draw near.
1 In the year of King Uzziah’s death, I saw the sovereign master seated on a high, elevated throne. The hem of his robe filled the temple. 2 Seraphs stood over him; each one had six wings. With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and they used the remaining two to fly. 3 They called out to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord who commands armies! His majestic splendor fills the entire earth!” 4 The sound of their voices shook the door frames, and the temple was filled with smoke. 5 I said, “Too bad for me! I am destroyed, for my lips are contaminated by sin, and I live among people whose lips are contaminated by sin. My eyes have seen the king, the Lord who commands armies.” 6 But then one of the seraphs flew toward me. In his hand was a hot coal he had taken from the altar with tongs. 7 He touched my mouth with it and said, “Look, this coal has touched your lips. Your evil is removed; your sin is forgiven” (Isaiah 6:1-7).
John, the beloved disciple, who leaned upon Jesus’ breast, and who lived in the closest of fellowship with Him during His earthly ministry (see 1 John 1:1-3), is also the one who fell at the feet of the glorified Christ as though he were a dead man (Revelation 1:17). Yes, God took on human flesh at the incarnation of Jesus, and we are encouraged to “draw near,” but let us never forget how holy He is, and let us not be casual about the way in which we go about “serving church.” It is not in counting heads or taking polls that we discern how we should “serve church,” but by taking heed to God’s Word. This is where our focus will be as we pursue this study on the New Testament church.
1 Copyright © 2008 by Robert L. Deffinbaugh. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 1 in the series, Can We Serve Church Cafeteria Style?, prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on January 20, 2008. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit.
2 A pseudonym.
3 The doctrine of the Holy Spirit.
4 The doctrine of salvation.
7 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.
8 Community Bible Chapel, located in Richardson, Texas. I have been associated with CBC for over 30 years.
11 A stone to commemorate God’s help in defeating the Philistines.
13“Negligence” (NET Bible) is not my preference among several possible translations. The KJV, NKJV, and ESV render “error.” I prefer“irreverence” (CSB, NAU; NIV: “irreverent act”). Uzzah was “negligent” in the sense that he (like everyone else) failed to transport the ark as God had instructed in the law. But it was his zeal to secure the ark that led to his death. I think that “irreverence” or “disdain” best conveys Uzzah’s failure.
14 It is important to understand that Paul is not actually identifying the individuals who are dividing the church. The trouble makers are not Paul, Apollos, or Peter, and it certainly is not the Lord Jesus. As Paul tells the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 4:6, he is speaking figuratively by using his name and that of Apollos. By the time we reach 2 Corinthians 11, we know for certain that these are false teachers, whom Paul calls “false apostles” and “servants of Satan.”
15 A study note in the NET Bible reads: “You are God's temple refers here to the church, since the pronoun you is plural in the Greek text. (In 6:19 the same imagery is used in a different context to refer to the individual believer.)” Thus, the church is the temple of God.
18 In this lesson, I’m going to pass by 1 Corinthians 11:1-16, which pertain to the role of women in the church. This is a subject in itself – one which I will address later in this series. But I am inclined to think that the misconduct of women in the church at Corinth was probably heavily influenced by the conduct of the women in their heathen celebrations.