Chapter 1 – The Essence of Worship
Reformed Christians seek a biblical definition of worship. Worship in the New Covenant will of course center on the truths of the gospel found in the New Testament. However, worship is initially addressed in the Old Testament. Some shrink from this information, knowing that worship has changed dramatically, but ignorance of the Old Testament is misguided. Although Israel’s worship was different from ours, they worshiped the same unchanging God. Their worship contained illustrations of truths which have only become clear since Christ, and we can learn much about worship by looking to both testaments.
Of course many Old Covenant rituals have subsequently been abolished. Blood sacrifices pointed to the redeeming work of Christ and now are obsolete. To learn from Old Covenant worship we must look beyond the outward rituals. The Old Testament leads to the same essential understanding of worship’s function as the New: Worship is a meeting with God.
Old Covenant Worship
Israel came to worship in order to converse with God. Of course they understood then what we know today, that God is not contained in a building or a tent. They did not imagine that when the Cloud of Glory descended over the Ark that God was “in” the tabernacle in the sense that you and I are “in” our homes. They understood that the ever-present God was manifesting His presence in a special way in order to meet with them.
Meeting with God was the essence of worship. God was praised, Israel confessed sin and received forgiveness, and they spoke to God and listened as He responded. To this end God did something amazing at the temple: He made Himself (somewhat) accessible. The Old Testament is full of references to the inaccessibility of God. Sinful men could not enter His presence and live. Consider the physical barriers and stern warnings which separated Israel from God at Mt. Sinai! (Exodus 19:12-13, 24-29) To worship, it was necessary that God make Himself known to Israel in a manner which would be safe for them.
But wait a minute! If you are familiar with Old Testament worship you know of the walls and veils – various barriers surrounding the Holiest Place. You understand that non-priests could not go into the presence of God; when they tried, they were killed! Only the priest could enter the temple, and only the high priest could enter the Holiest Place – just once a year after elaborate rituals of preparation. If worship is meeting with God, why did God erect barriers? Israel came to meet with God but encountered a closed door and a locked gate.
These barriers represented Israel’s sin and need of forgiveness. A sinful man must not stroll casually into the presence of a perfectly holy God! Sinners needed a priest to represent them. The priest essentially worshiped on behalf of the people – meeting with God for them. Since he, too, was a sinner, he had to do so according to the cleansing rituals prescribed in the law.
Israelites worshiped as one body through the representation of their priest. The priest entered on their behalf and spoke with God. He confessed sin for all, and received from God the promise of forgiveness for all. Priests and Levites praised God on behalf of all, and the Word of God was communicated to all Israel by the Levites. Theirs was a representational worship.
Worship has changed dramatically. Blood sacrifice is not required since Christ became the one sacrifice for all time for sins. This has introduced a radical shift in the activities of worship. More has changed than merely the central element of worship, though not everything has changed.
We no longer require an earthly priest, for we have a “Great High Priest” in the person of Jesus Christ. (Hebrews 4:14) He now represents us before God the Father. By His priesthood He has brought us much closer to God. He has made His whole people into a “royal priesthood,” (I Peter 2:9) who through Him may enter into the presence of God and worship directly. No longer must we worship through a representative; as redeemed sinners whose guilt is covered by a finished sacrifice, we come to worship and find an unlocked gate and an open door!
When we worship God we converse directly with Him. This is the great advantage of New Testament worship. We have confidence to enter the holy places because Christ has died. (Hebrews 10:19) Our worship is still a conversation, but it is no longer representational, or at least not in the same way. The New Testament speaks of Christ representing us in worship and of our worshiping directly. The solution to this paradox is the divine nature of Christ. We worship God through the representation of God the Son; thus we worship directly through our Divine Priest.
The Wonder and Awe of Worship
In the Old Testament there could be little question that the worship of God was both an awesome opportunity and a fearful responsibility. The rituals of the Old Covenant, particularly the barriers between the worshipers and the manifestation of God’s presence, constantly reminded the people that they were sinners and that God was condescending to meet with them at all, even through their representative priest.
Today we worship with much greater freedom. Every believer who comes in faith enters into the presence of God and communicates with him. Everyone participates spiritually in the prayers which are offered, and everyone sings praise to the Lord. Each ear hears the words of the living God as they are read from Scripture, and the Holy Spirit gives light to each faithful heart to discern the truth of the Word in preaching.
In truth, what happens in worship today is even more amazing than what happened in the Old Testament. Christ has through His sacrifice opened for us an entrance into God’s presence! Sadly, with the loss of the outward rituals of the Old Testament, many have lost sight of the wonder and awe of what we do in worship. Worship is not a practice to be entered into lightly, nor is it an activity to be casually dismissed. Rather, worshippers must remind themselves of the great event which takes place each time they assemble together.
When Sunday rolls around and God’s people meet for worship, you have the opportunity, as a redeemed sinner trusting in Christ as your Great High Priest, to join with your brethren and go into God’s presence. There is nothing special about the place in which you do so, but God has promised nonetheless to meet with you there. There you will speak to Him, and, far more important, He will speak to you.