Hffding, in one of his books, tells of a Danish Protestant church in which the worshipers, passing down the aisle, always turned and bowed towards a blank white space on the side wall. No valid reason for this practice could be given, save that it was the custom of the local church-goers to bow in that direction. No other and better reason was forthcoming until a thorough restoration of the interior of the fabric discovered beneath the whitewash on the walls a pre-Reformation mural painting of the Virgin Mary. The Catholic custom of obeisance to the Virgin had survived three hundred years of obliterating Protestant whitewash.15
There is a great lesson for us to learn from this story when it comes to the doctrine of worship (and many others). Some of the practices of the evangelical church which are presumed to be biblical are simply the carry-over of past traditions which have no biblical support, and have been sanctified by a little Protestant whitewash. For example, while Protestant churches espouse the principle of the priesthood of every believer, the conduct of worship has been carefully confined to a small group called the clergy. The Roman Catholic church failed to see a distinction between Old Testament and New Testament principles of worship and therefore perpetuated the Old Testament priestly system. After the Reformation, the Protestant church only partially returned to the New Testament principle of the priesthood of every believer and whitewashed the Old Testament priesthood by calling it the clergy.
The lesson for us is that we must examine every facet of our doctrine and practice to see if we are truly following the New Testament or simply perpetuating some ancient or medieval error. In this lesson we shall re-examine the doctrine of worship. First we will endeavor to demonstrate distinctions in the practice of New Testament worship from that of other dispensations. Then we shall define principles for worship in this present age, and finally discuss the practice of these principles of worship in the gathering of the New Testament church.
In the Scriptures we have only incidental references to worship before the giving of the Law. From these few instances we can suggest that the primary emphasis was upon an individual relationship to God (Genesis 4:3-4; 8:20; 12:7-8; 22:5; Job 1:5). We may also suggest that the father acted as the priest for his household (Genesis 8:20; 22:1-19; Job 1:5). There was no central place of worship prescribed, with the worshipers offering sacrifices on altars which they built (Genesis 8:20; 12:7-8; 22:9). Besides the offering of sacrifices, worship in this period was characterized by the expression of thanks to God (Genesis 24:26, 48, 52; Exodus 4:31; 12:27). There were no stipulated times of worship.
Under the Law, worship was much more minutely prescribed and regulated.17 A Levitical priesthood was instituted, with Aaron’s family designated as those who could offer sacrifices (Exodus 28:1). Aaron, as the high priest, could enter the holiest place of the Tabernacle once a year (Leviticus 16). The place of worship was centralized, first in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple (Exodus 20:24; Deuteronomy 12:5, 11; 14:23). In addition to the daily sacrifices offered morning and evening (Exodus 29:38-42), there were five specified offerings: the burnt, meal, peace, sin, and trespass offerings (Leviticus 1-7). Although there was no specified time given for these five offerings, Israel was given a calendar of seven special feasts: Passover, unleavened bread, first fruits, Pentecost, trumpets, day of atonement, and tabernacles.
In the millennial kingdom, the Levitical priesthood will be restored, with the unfaithful line of priests (Ezekiel 44:10-14) replaced by the faithful sons of Zadok (Ezekiel 44:15-27). Worship will be centered around the magnificent temple described by Ezekiel (chapters 40-43). The five Levitical offerings will be reinstituted (Ezekiel 40:39; 42:13; 43:18-27; 45:13-20; 46:12); however, the Prince will offer these sacrifices for the nation (Ezekiel 45:17). These sacrifices will serve as a memorial, much like the Lord’s Table does for Christians today.18 Some of the feast days will also be observed (Ezekiel 45:21-25). Worship will not be restricted to the nation Israel, but will include all nations (Zechariah 14:16).
In short, worship in the Millennium will be somewhat of a restoration of the worship under the Law, except that Israel’s Prince will be present and the observances will no longer be anticipatory, but rather, memorials. Jerusalem and the Temple will be the center of worship, with Christ reigning as King and Priest, the object of worship.
From what we can glean in the book of Revelation, heaven will be an unparalleled opportunity for ceaseless and untainted worship. There will be no offering of sacrifices, but rather constant expressions of praise to God. Worship will be conducted in the presence of God before the throne (Revelation 4:2-11; 5:8-14; 7:11-12; 11:16; 19:4). There are no specific times of worship, but rather one continual time of praise and adoration (Revelation 4:8; 7:15). There is a temple described during this period (Revelation 3:12; 7:15; 11:19, etc.).
In the eternal state we see what is in essence a continuation of that which will have taken place in heaven. There is one notable exception, however, and this is that we are told there is no longer any temple:
And I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God, the Almighty, and the Lamb, are its temple (Revelation 21:22).
Here all the symbols and types are cast aside in the presence of Him who is the realization of all they anticipated. Here worship centers forever on God Himself.
Against the background of worship as practiced in other ages, we turn our attention to the distinctives of worship in this age of Grace. In this age, there is no human intermediary between men and God; rather every believer in Christ is a priest (1 Peter 2:5, 9). Jesus Christ is the great High Priest (Hebrews 10:21). There is no central earthly place of worship, nor is there an appointed calendar of sacred feasts or religious observances. In contrast to the age of Law, there are no carefully prescribed rituals, and the only sacrifices are ‘spiritual sacrifices’ (Romans 12:1; 15:26; 2 Corinthians 8:4; 9:13; Philippians 4:18; Hebrews 13:15-16; 1 Peter 2:5). Worship in the present age most closely resembles that which will occur in heaven, and sharply differs from that prescribed by the Law. Those who fail to appreciate this sharp distinction between worship in this age and worship under the Law inevitably tend toward worship which violates the Scriptures.
We should be able to discern that if worship is to be pleasing to God, it must be in keeping with principles set down for its observance in this age. Nowhere are these principles set down more clearly than in John’s account of our Lord’s conversation with the Samaritan woman in John chapter 4. As a Samaritan,19 this woman believed that the central place where God was to be worshiped was on Mount Gerizim (John 4:20). Although she, as a Samaritan, looked for the coming Messiah, she worshiped in considerable ignorance for the Samaritans rejected all the Old Testament books save those books of Moses, called the Pentateuch. Even these Scriptures were altered to conform to the Samaritan preoccupation with Mount Gerizim. In the light of her Samaritan misconceptions, our Lord reveals to this woman the essential principles of worship in this Age.
The clear implication of our Lord’s conversation with this woman was that her worship was not acceptable before God. She worshiped in ignorance and not according to truth. Her worship was not essentially spiritual. The purpose of our Lord’s conversation with her was to lead her to true worship of Himself.
We know of other instances where false worship was condemned. Paul corrected the erroneous worship of the Athenians (Acts 17:16-31) and taught that false worship was the basis for man’s eternal condemnation (Romans 1:25). The Old Testament prophets continually rebuked the nation of Israel for turning from true worship. In our times, men seem to feel that the only qualification for worship is that it be sincere, but much sincere worship is unacceptable to God, as we shall soon see.
Though men may seek religious expression, no one seeks after God (Romans 3:10f). The words of our Lord to the Samaritan woman indicate that it is the Father who actively seeks true worshipers (John 4:23). When we turn back to the first verses of this account, we learn that our Lord made it a point to pass through Samaria (4:4). Our Lord was seeking this woman and her fellow countrymen to be His worshipers.
God has initiated our worship of Himself in several ways. First, He has revealed Himself to us in human flesh, in the person of Jesus Christ. When men recognized Him as God’s Messiah, they worshiped Him (e.g. John 9:35-38). Secondly, He has accomplished redemption through the work of Jesus Christ. The sin which alienated us from God has been paid for by the death of Christ. Finally, He has given us the written word which instructs us in true worship.
As we have seen from Romans 11:36, all things are “of Him and through Him and unto Him.” Just as God has initiated worship, so He continues to enable us to worship through the agency of the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:26; Philippians 3:3).
To put it in a slightly different form, all acceptable worship is God-centered. Worship is rightly focused on the Father. God was worshiped through the Son while He was on the earth. In ancient times, God forbade the use of images or idols because they could not begin to adequately represent God to men. But Jesus Christ is the full representation of God to men; He is the express image, the perfect likeness of the Father (Colossians 1:15). Our Lord could say that those who had seen the Son, had seen the Father (John 14:9).
Worship is God-centered in another sense as well. Worship centers around God and His perfection, and His desire for praise and adoration. All too often we try to modernize worship, to update it and make it more meaningful and relevant to us. Now, of course, worship should be ‘relevant and meaningful’ to us, but we must see that worship is first and foremost for God’s sake rather than our own. We have placed far too much emphasis upon what God will do for us rather than upon our duty of devotion to God.
Here we find one of the very practical aspects of what has been called Calvinism. In its simplest form, Calvinism stresses the sovereignty of God over all things, including our eternal salvation. For those who in ignorance espouse Arminianism, true worship would be far more difficult, I would imagine, for they never view God as being in complete and uninterrupted control of things. Calvinism is God-centered and rightly so. No one should be a better worshiper of God than a true Calvinist. Those Arminians who are true worshipers of God (and there are many) are simply inconsistent in their theology at this point.
When our Lord told the Samaritan woman, “ALL those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (vs. 24), He did not intend us to put a capital “s” in spirit. The Samaritan woman, as did many Jews, thought that worship was essentially a matter of externals. She was preoccupied with a central place of worship: “this mountain” (verse 20). The Jews thought of worship in terms of sacrifices, rituals, observances and holy days. The essence of true worship is internal (in spirit) not external. This is necessitated by the nature of God Himself. God is a spirit being; thus, we must worship consistent with His nature.
Israel’s worship under the Law consisted of many ceremonies and rituals, but even then God was concerned with what went on in the spirit of those who worshiped. Over and over again the outward forms and motions of worship were condemned by the prophets (Isaiah 1:10-17; 29:13; Matthew 15:8-9; Mark 7:6-7). This is why an unbeliever can never worship God; his spirit has never been quickened. He is dead in his trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1).
Even today there is so much emphasis on externals. The sight of stained-glass windows and magnificent cathedrals, the stirring sound of massive choirs and expensive organs, the eloquent oratory of the preacher, the dignity of liturgy and so on.
Let us not become preoccupied with these externals, but rather with Communion with God in our spirits, as the Holy Spirit works to communicate between our spirit and God’s (1 Corinthians 2:10ff.).
As countless others, the Samaritan woman worshiped in ignorance; she worshiped “what she knew not” (vs. 22). Acceptable worship can never be that which we deem best; it must be a response to the divine self-disclosure of God. Our Lord Jesus personified God’s truth (John 14:6) and so men could worship Him in truth. If our worship today is not firmly based on the truth of God revealed in the Scriptures, it is ignorant worship, unacceptable to God.
One of the striking contrasts between the worship of our age and that under the Law is the freedom which we are given. When we seek to find the word ‘worship’ in the epistles, we rarely find it. This is not because it is nowhere to be found, but because worship was so integral a part of the life of the church it was almost assumed. We find worship in the epistles wherever we find the fundamental ingredients of worship. It is this freedom in worship which our Lord communicated to the woman at the well, but a freedom restricted to what was revealed as truth.
We do ourselves a great disservice when we think of worship only in stereotyped terms. But we also would be in error in assuming that spontaneity is spirituality. C. S. Lewis put his finger on the distractiveness of novelty when he wrote:
Novelty, simply as such, can have only an entertainment value. And they don’t go to church to be entertained. They go to use the service, or, if you prefer, to enact it. Every service is a structure of acts and words through which we receive a sacrament, or repent, or supplicate, or adore. And it enables us to do those things best—if you like, it ‘works’ best—when, through long familiarity, we don’t have to think about it. … The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God.
But every novelty presents this. It fixes our attention on the service itself; and thinking about worship is a different thing from worshipping. …
… Novelty may fix our attention not even on the service but on the celebrant. You know what I mean. Try as one may to exclude it, the question “What on earth is he up to now?” will intrude. It lays one’s devotion waste. There is really some excuse for the man who said, “I wish they’d remember that the charge to Peter was “Feed my sheep, not try experiments on my rats, or even, Teach my performing dogs new tricks.”20
Novelty, or we may say spontaneity, seems to have been the problem with the worship of the Corinthians. This is why Paul had to remind them that orderliness was next to godliness (1 Corinthians 14:40). We must, in worship, maintain the balance between freedom and frenzy, between cold ritualism and reckless spontaneity.
By way of reminder, let me reiterate the principle that worship is our highest calling. In the Larger Catechism we are told “Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully enjoy Him forever.” Worship is the occupation of eternity.
In a time when we are encouraged to work for God, let us be reminded that our highest calling is to be worshipers of God and then to be workers. Never let your work for Him come before your worship of Him.
Some have said that men can be so heavenly minded they are of no earthly good. This can never be the case with worship, for we are of no earthly good until we have become pre-occupied with worshiping Him. That true worship will always bear the fruit of service.
Within the broad principles laid down in the New Testament there is a great freedom in the expression of worship at the church meeting. We do not see elaborate or detailed liturgy or structure. We find no stained glass conceptions of what worship must be. There is no appointed place of worship and the only appointed time of worship is that of the weekly remembrance of the Lord commonly referred to as Communion or the Lord’s Table. Our Lord commanded us, “do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19).
We know from the early chapters of the book of Acts that initially the Christians observed the Lord’s Table daily (Acts 2:42, 46). Apparently, this practice did not continue indefinitely but settled down to a weekly remembrance at the church meeting (cf. Acts 20:7). From early church writers it is evident that the Lord’s Table was considered central in their worship.21 Later church history continues to support the high regard in which the Lord’s Table was held.22
It was not until the middle ages that the observance of the Lord’s Table became encrusted with Roman Catholic tradition. The Lord’s Table was no longer regarded as a simple remembrance of the person and work of Jesus Christ once for all and His accomplishment of our salvation on the cross. Instead, the doctrine of the perpetual sacrifice developed. It was believed that there was a daily repetition of the work of Christ on Calvary, with the priest offering the work of Christ to God in the elements of the bread and wine.
The Reformers totally rejected the Roman Catholic error, emphasizing a restitution of the vernacular in worship, encouraging greater participation on the part of the people, and introducing the singing of hymns. The Scriptures were translated into the language of the people and the masses were exhorted to study the Word of God for themselves. Direct access to God without the mediation of the church was taught and there was a renewed emphasis on preaching.
While resisting the errors of the Roman Catholic Church, the Reformers did not waver in their appreciation of the remembrance of the Lord’s Table. Both Luther and Calvin emphasized the need for frequent remembrance of the Lord.23
In spite of the high view of the Lord’s Table by the Reformers, it has most often not held the central place which it had formerly. Why has the Communion service declined and the preaching service seemingly taken its place? Let me suggest several possibilities.
First, we have never totally shaken the idea of a priesthood which is solely authorized to serve Communion. In the New Testament, every male believer-priest was given the privilege of serving the elements. Although the Roman Catholic concept of the priesthood has been rejected by Protestantism, nevertheless, it is somehow thought that some member of the clergy must ‘administer the sacraments.’ Consequently, the Lord’s Supper is thought to be more the domain of the clergy than of the masses.
We should not think that the priesthood of every believer has been snatched from the grasp of reluctant laymen, for in most instances this privilege has been forfeited by default. The Christian ‘laymen’ have not lived up to their responsibilities and would far rather hire someone to take over their priestly duties than to assume the responsibility themselves.
Second, I would suggest that declining understanding of the doctrine of worship has led to a corresponding lack of appreciation for the Lord’s Table. In addition to this, there has been an increasing emphasis upon relevance and emotional gratification. This has led to more emphasis on the sermon because it is thought to be ‘more relevant to me and my needs.’ In short, we have become more self-centered in our ‘worship’ than God-centered.
Third, some have insisted that a regular weekly remembrance of the Lord makes the event less significant because it happens so frequently. To hold Communion less frequently makes it an event of more moment, we are told. First of all, this view gives too little weight to the command of our Lord ‘to be doing this in remembrance of Him.’ This is the force of the present imperative which our Lord employed in Luke 22:19. Strangely enough, I have never heard anyone suggest the same kind of practice with respect to the physical relationship between a man and his wife. It is not the frequency or lack of frequency of the Lord’s Table which makes it significant, but how we view the meaning of the event.
One who is older and wiser than I has suggested that the Lord’s Table is a pretty accurate barometer of our own spirituality. If we are lackadaisical about attending and participating, it probably speaks more of our own spiritual deficit than of the celebration itself. If we have come prepared to praise and worship our Redeemer, we will find the meeting a great delight.
May God help us to worship Him in spirit and truth.
17 “Blackwood finds that worship under the law displayed five outstanding characteristics. First, everything was prescribed in a precise manner. Second, the element of sacrifice was prominent. The third, fourth, and fifth characteristic features are the prominence of the priest, of the place of worship, and the program of sabbaths, appointed feasts, and year of jubilee.” Andrew W. Blackwood, The Fine Art of Public Worship, pp. 33-35, quoted by Bitner, pp. 40-41.
18 “But what is the meaning and the purpose of these animal sacrifices? The answer is quite simple. While the sacrifices Israel brought once had a prospective meaning, the sacrifices brought in the millennial temple have a retrospective meaning. When during this age God’s people worship in the appointed way at His table, with the bread and wine as the memorial of His love, it is a retrospect. We look back to the Cross. We show forth His death. … The resumed sacrifices will be the memorial of the Cross and the whole wonderful story of the redemption for Israel and the nations of the earth, during the kingdom reign of Christ.” Arno C. Gaebelein, The Prophet Ezekiel, p. 312, quoted by Bitner, p. 44.
“But we, after we have thus washed him who has been convinced and has assented to our teaching, bring him to the place where those who are called brethren are assembled, in order that we may offer hearty prayers in common for ourselves and for the baptized (illuminated) person, and for all others in every place, that we may be counted worthy, now that we have learned the truth, by our works also to be found good citizens and keepers of the commandments, so that we may be saved with an everlasting salvation. Having ended the prayers, we salute one another with a kiss. There is then brought to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he taking them gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands. And when he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their assent by saying Amen.” Justin Martyr, “The First Apology of Justin,” chapter LXVII, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, I, 186, as quoted by Bitner, pp. 57-58.
22 “Except in very recent times and among some branches of Protestant Christendom, observance of the Supper has always been the paramount act of Christian worship. Through the long centuries details have changed, theological conceptions have altered, rituals have been developed and disappeared, abuses have arisen, superstitions have gathered, conflicts have been engendered, wars have been fought—all concerning this rite. … All this should not blind us to the fact that it is the central importance of this Act of Worship, that has made men so keenly and even bitterly zealous concerning it.” S. Arthur Devan, Ascent to Zion, pp. 41-42, as quoted by Robert Orville Bitner, The Doctrine of Worship, pp. 58-59.
23 “Luther held that the Lord’s Supper ought ‘to be celebrated daily throughout Christendom.’ This was in 1520; later he consented to have it celebrated only on Sundays; but it was always central in his thought. Calvin insisted that ‘The Lord’s Supper should be celebrated in Christian congregations once a week at the very least.’ Neither of these men had the faintest idea of replacing sacramental worship by a preaching service. What they desired was to replace the non-communicating Eucharist of the mass, by a celebration of the Lord’s Supper with sermon and actual Communion by the people.” S. Arthur Devan, Ascent to Zion, pp. 41-42, as quoted by Bitner, p. 60.