The Second Commandment

Chapter 10 – The Problem with Symbolism

In the last chapter we considered the regular elements of New Testament worship. Churches listen as God speaks through the reading and preaching of His Word, and they respond to Him with songs and prayers. The New Testament vision of worship is not of mysterious ceremony, but of relatively simple conversation. It is plain and direct rather than dark and symbolic.

Some long for deeper symbolism in worship. They are convinced that mysterious ritual will convey deeper truth than simple, forthright proclamation. Mysterious worship takes many forms. Some want preaching to revolve around endless anecdotes, convinced that parables are really the way to arrive at an understanding of God. Others want the service itself to be a parable, consisting mainly of rituals that hint at truth rather than express it openly.

Any experienced preacher could warn of the perils of symbolism. Listeners long for illustrations which excite the imagination, but all too often illustrations take over. Have you ever told your friends a great illustration you heard in church, only to find yourself unable to explain what point was being made? Most illustrations can be twisted to mean more than the preacher originally intended. Such has regularly been the case with the parables of Jesus. It is ultimately unsurprising to discover that He used parables not to help his hearers to understand, but to prevent them from doing so. (Mark 4:11-12)

The New Testament church has been commanded to proclaim the good news of Christ openly. It is no longer a mystery to be hidden. Consequently, both preaching and worship are meant to be clear and comprehensible. We should not be surprised, then, that New Testament worship uses relatively little symbolism. Rather, worship is clear, direct and simple.

Types and Shadows
It was not always so. Old Covenant worshippers were inundated with metaphor and symbolism. The fullness of the gospel was not revealed; rather its substance was intimated by the seemingly endless ritual of worship. Christ Himself was pictured in the animals brought for sacrifice; His atoning work was pictured in the altar; His priestly service was pictured by the men who made the offering. All of these things were “shadows of the heavenly things.” (Hebrews 8:5) Just as a shadow gives a vague sense of the solid object which it imitates, so the rituals of Old Testament worship gave some vague sense of the God who is in heaven.

However, it was never God’s intent for men to always worship him in this vague, symbolic fashion. These symbols were also “a shadow of the good things to come.” (Hebrews 10:1) It was always God’s intent to give a fuller revelation of the truth behind the illustrations. He has now done so, for “the substance belongs to Christ.” (Colossians 2:17) He is the One to whom those shadows pointed, and since He has now been revealed, mystical ritual has been replaced with clear, direct preaching.

Superior Worship
I recently spoke on this very idea, and I proposed the following illustration. No doubt many of the fathers in our church like to have pictures of their families in their workplace. A man may have a framed photograph of his wife and children at his desk. During the day he glances at it and smiles. It reminds him of the people whom he loves, and in their absence he treasures it. But what would we think of a man who packed that framed picture in his briefcase at the end of the day and brought it home so that he could set it by his place at the dinner table? Then, with his real wife and real children gathered around, he could gaze on their picture and be reminded of how much he loves them!

(I must confess: I worried, as I always do, that many of the children in church who giggled at that idea may not have understood the point I was making. Thus always with illustrations!) When Christians long for mystery and ritual in worship, they choose the framed photograph. This was quite correct before Christ came, but today, when the gospel has been wonderfully and vividly proclaimed, it is silly. One suspects that the wonder of the gospel is too much for men – it blinds them, so they would shade it behind elaborate rituals. They would hint at the light rather than shine it directly into men’s hearts. After all, parables can mean whatever we wish, especially when they are unaccompanied by direct teaching which unfolds their mystery.

The Foolishness of Preaching
In I Corinthians 1:22 Paul expressed the ongoing challenge of the fleshly expectations set upon preachers. Jews and Greeks alike wanted something deep and mysterious. One group wanted an astonishing, inexplicable miracle; the other longed for deep, inscrutable philosophy. Neither was satisfied by Paul’s preaching, which seemed mere foolishness. Such “folly” was actually the simple exposition of God’s saving work in the atoning death of Christ. Paul preached the cross in a straightforward, simple manner that children could understand, and the “wise” of this world asked, “Is that all?”

Today’s church still craves symbolism. I once toured a chapel full of “symbols” intended to lead worshippers to spiritual truth. Though on a Baptist campus, it was indistinguishable from the Catholic sanctuary after which it was patterned. At the end of the day, unbiblical attempts to symbolize the truth only satisfy the fleshly appetites of those who demand signs and wisdom. We see churches filled with images, with technological brilliance, with liturgical complexity, and with endless artistic and dramatic “hints” at the gospel. This has been called a great “revolution” in worship. It is, instead, what the Puritans would have called it: “Popish trash.”

Perhaps the most freeing aspect of New Testament worship is its simplicity. We sing and pray, we read and preach, and we are done. There is no side-show, no drama, nothing to attract news cameras. The church is not challenged to outdo itself week after week.

In fact, Christ has only established two symbolic rituals which occasionally interrupt the straightforward communication between God and His church. These rites are carefully explained in Scripture so that, rightly administered, they do not confuse the church at all, but contribute to our understanding of Christ’s saving work. In the next chapter we will consider the nature of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper – the only ritual observances which Christ has ordained as part of the worship of the New Testament church.

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