The Worship Priority
Chapter 4 – Commandments for Worship
So far we have been defining worship. Now for particulars: what are we to do in worship? Many shrug this off as immaterial. Does it really matter how we worship God, or is sincerity enough?
The familiar response to this question runs as follows: God loves us, therefore He loves whatever we do (provide it doesn’t hurt anyone, of course). He loves our worship when it is heartfelt, much like any father would love a picture drawn by his kindergartener. Therefore we have a relational reason to assume that God is pleased by whatever worship we offer.
This answer collapses before the scriptural evidence. God often expresses extreme displeasure with the worship of His people. Isaiah 1 is a prime example of this. Note the strong words in verse 11: “I have had enough…I do not delight!” Some will say that God was displeased because their worship was not sincere or because of other sins. God said otherwise. In verse 12 He explains His anger: “When you come to appear before me, who has required of you this trampling of my courts?”
Israel had brought a form of worship before God which He did not require. There can be no question: God tells us how to worship.
In fact, worship has always been the priority of God’s law. The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17) are divided into two sections: the first four addressing our relationship to God while the last six our relationship with one another. Remember, though, what our duty to God is: we are to worship Him. Unsurprisingly, the first four commandments all define what worship is meant to be.
The Recipient of Worship
In the First Commandment God specifies who is to receive worship. He identifies Himself in three ways. First, He is the LORD, literally “Yahweh.” He uses the name He had earlier told Moses and by which He had been identified to the Israelites. He is the only God who is in a world of false gods who are not. His Being cannot be defined by limitations, for He always is, and He is everywhere. Secondly, He identifies Himself relationally. He is their God. He is the God who has entered into a covenant with His people, and they owe Him their worship. Finally, He identifies Himself historically as the God who redeemed them from slavery.
God then absolutely and finally claims all worship for Himself. Israel, which lives “before Him,” must worship no other gods. This rule may seem obsolete; Baal is long gone from the earth. However, we still live in a day when many worship “god” as they imagine Him, not the God revealed in Scripture. Many ignore the blasphemous Catholic worship of men and women from the past and cannot see why this requires our separation from Rome. Evangelical Christians are urged to join in interfaith fellowship and prayer with those who pray to a variety of false gods. We still need this first defining rule of worship: worship is to be offered to the God of Scripture alone.
The Manner of Worship
Having made it crystal clear that worship is to be offered to Himself alone, God proceeded in the Second Commandment to forbid the use of any idols in worship. Readers today may struggle to understand this. The Bible subsequently contrasts idols (false gods) with the One True God. The Second Commandment appears redundant. Doesn’t the First Commandment already forbid worshiping idols?
The Second Commandment was aimed at another evil – the assumption that the one true God could be worshiped in the same manner as Egyptian gods. Egyptians were more sophisticated thinkers than some of the ancients; they understood that they had made their idols, which consequently had no power in themselves. They used idols as representative objects through which the gods were worshiped. God forbade such a practice toward Himself in the second commandment.
Sadly, the Israelites broke this commandment very quickly. The golden calf was not a false god, but a forbidden representation of “the God who had brought (them) out of Egypt.” (Exodus 32:4) God expressly forbade all attempts to reveal His nature through artistry. He knew that any idol or picture would fail to represent Him as He truly is. Only in His own words could God be revealed.
This is strikingly relevant today! Not only are artistic renderings of God commonplace among Evangelicals, men assume that God can be revealed through their own imaginations. Worship has become largely detached from the Scripture, the only place where God is revealed. It is of paramount importance that our worship is according to the Word of God, both in its content and its manner.The Tone of Worship
In the Third Commandment God addresses the proper handling of His Name. Even if we only worship the LORD and refrain from making idols it is necessary to address Him properly. The commandment obviously forbids swearing an oath in God’s Name which subsequently is not honored. We are never to use His Name in a haphazard, meaningless fashion. God must be treated at all times with deep reverence.
It is intriguing to note that while God encourages joy throughout the Bible, in His law He commanded reverence. The demand for reverence underlies all that the Bible subsequently says about rejoicing in worship. Worship is to be joyful, but never flippant; glad, but never silly. It need hardly be mentioned how important this principle is in every age, particularly in our own.The Day of Worship
The final rule God gives in the Commandments regarding worship specifies a day which is to belong to Him. The Fourth Commandment is often thought of as a regulation concerning work and our need of rest, but this ignores a significant phrase. God said, “the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God.” The day is set aside as belonging to Him. The intent of the Sabbath was never that the Israelites sit in their tents waiting for a new week to begin. Rather, they were to devote the day to God in worship. Worship is serious work; to do it rightly requires time.
It is not surprising that in an age when most Christians question the applicability of this commandment, worship has been deemphasized. Once, Christians said that the only part of the Sabbath which still applied was the requirement to worship on Sunday. Now that too is seen as a traditional hold-over from a bygone era. Saturday night worship has expanded from Catholicism into Evangelical circles. Now Protestants, too, can have all day Sunday to themselves! This has resulted in exactly what God knew that it would: worship has become a side dish for Christians rather than the main course of life. It is just another item to check off the schedule each week.
The idea that we can worship God in a manner of our own choosing has been disastrous for the modern church. We desperately need to learn again that worship is a divine priority, and that God has told us exactly how this priority is to be met. The church must reform its worship, making certain to follow the biblical directives, or the god whom we meet in worship will no longer be the true God of Scripture.