The Final Part of a four-part series. That which is “dead” is inert, inoperative, and lifeless.
The expression “Dead Worship” doesn’t occur in the New Testament. However, from a careful reading of the N.T. text, one soon realises that when the form (or should I say, lack of form) of worship in Apostolic Christianity is compared with that which pertains to Churches today, the word “dead” is frequently applicable to the modern setting. I should like to start this number by quoting from two sources from a century ago.
“For St. Paul and the members of the early Christian brotherhood the whole of life was a continual worship, and the one great feature of that worship was prayer.” (W.Warde Fowler, 1911)
“The only worship that our Lord expressly required was private worship, as when He warned His disciples against the Pharisaic ostentation of praying ‘in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets,’ and bade them enter into their ‘inner chamber’ and pray to their ‘Father which is in secret.’ (Matt.6:6) . . . .
The incident of the woman of Samaria contains His most significant utterance on the subject of worship, in which He denies the peculiar efficacy of sacred places, (Jerusalem claimed by the Jews, Gerizim by the Samaritans) and affirms that, for the future, worship must be ‘in spirit’ i.e.internal, not merely in external functions, and ‘in truth’, i.e. in accordance with the nature of God and our true relations with Him as at once ‘Spirit’ and ‘Father’. That this teaching influenced the Church, rendering the dedication of buildings superfluous, is apparent from Justin Martyr’s answer toRusticus (c165 AD) who had enquired, ‘Where do you assemble?’ Justin said, ‘Where each one chooses . . . because the God of the Christians is not circumscribed by place, but being invisible, fills heaven and earth, and everywhere is worshipped and glorified by the faithful.’ . . . . There were no buildings for Christian worship before the end of the 2nd century. (See Schaff, Ante-Nicene Christianity, i., p.199) St. Paul frequently refers to the church in a house. (Rom.16:5, 1 Cor.16:19, Col.4:15) . . . . The proceedings of the best known Church – that at Corinth – suggest that there was no settled order for the conduct of public worship in the Apostolic Churches. . . Paul lays down no rules beyond that of mutual deference, (1 Cor.14:30) nor is anything approaching a rubric, except that of the Lord’s Supper, to be found in the N.T., or in any primitive Church writing, earlier than the Didache. . . . [The usual Greek word for worship,] PROSKUNEO, refers to the physical act of prostration, and as rendering great honour, is all that can be meant. . . . There is no indication of saint-worship or of the adoration of the Virgin Mary in the N.T., nor do we there meet with the distinction between the adoration due to God alone, and the lower form of prayer to saints observed from the time of Augustine. And Paul himself rebukes the worship of angels. (Col.2:18)” (Selection taken from W.F.Adeney’s article on Worship in the full edition of Hastings’ Bible Dictionary. 1900)
Our own comments on this subject may best be presented by looking at Exodus 20:24-26, just after the giving of the 10 commandments. “An altar of earth shall you make unto me, and shall sacrifice thereon your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen: in all places where I record my name, I will come unto you and bless you. And if you will make me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stone, for if you lift up your tool upon it, you have polluted it. Neither shall you go up by steps to my altar, that your nakedness be not discovered thereon.”
How important is this symbolism. Notice that the Lord said it was HIS altar, not ours. “If you will build ME an altar.””You shall not go up by steps to MY altar.” Burnt offerings were praise offerings, and peace offerings were thanksgiving offerings. Neither of them were sin offerings. Hence they represented aspects of worship. The ‘sweet smelling savours’ would rise acceptably to the Lord when performed according to His instructions (in Lev. 1 & 3).
In this passage we are shown two laws. We may call them the ‘laws of the altar’, and we need to understand what God was saying by these laws. But first of all, let us be sure that we understand what the ‘altar’ is. Many churches still have an altar. In point of fact, this is now quite unnecessary. The altar in the O.T. was the PLACE where sacrificial worship was offered. Wherever the children of God now meet together for worship, is the equivalent of the altar. What then are these ‘laws of the altar’?
1. NO HUMAN WORKMANSHIP WAS ALLOWED. No tools were to be used in fashioning the stones. Only those rocks which could be found lying around were allowed in the building of the altar. Why was this? Because those who looked at the altar had to be conscious of GOD ALONE, and not the workmanship and the beautification of man. In the true worship of God, we may only take those things which belong to the Lord for the offering up of acceptable praise. Our eyes should not be aware of man’s work, but of God’s mercy and goodness.
Distractions abound in many places of Christian worship. There is often much for the eye to see that plainly points to the workmanship of man. Church buildings are often constructed to give the appearance of ecclesiastical beauty. On entry, one may pause to wonder at the time, patience, and extraordinary skills of the craftsmen. But in respect of worship, it is disallowed by this first law. God says that it is ‘polluted’. This is a strong word, and we may be offended by it, especially if we have an ‘ eye for beauty’ in the great cathedrals of the world. But the DIVINE ORDERS are far more important than human evaluation. Does a blind man offer less praise to God in a cathedral than one who sees man’s splendour? Clearly the Bible favours the blind man’s worship MORE than that of the one who sees, for he is not distracted by man’s workmanship. To disobey the law, and beautify our churches, is classed as POLLUTION. Polluted worship, rather than being a ‘sweet smelling savour,’ is more in the nature of a stink. We should not be doing it.
If we are to have a church building what then should it be like? Clearly we are not advocating that which is UGLY. This would be just as much a distraction. The natural stones that were gathered for the altar were primarily FUNCTIONAL in their purpose. The eye was focussed upon its USE. Hence a church building should be FUNCTIONAL, of simple design, and restful interior decoration. Seating, a table, and a lectern, are the basic necessities.
So much for the eyes; what about the ears? All Christian worship includes the singing of hymns and choruses. Paul said in Eph.5:18 “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.” Notice how Paul complies exactly with the spirit of this first law of the altar. He says that the singing should be FROM THE HEART, and it should be DIRECTED TOWARDS THE LORD. This should cause us to ask ourselves just how much of our own worship is FROM THE MOUTH, and directed TOWARDS THE CONGREGATION! And in these innovative days, we are surrounded by musical instruments by the score, coupled to electronic gadgetry, together with choirs and soloists for the enjoyment of the congregation. We should stop and ask ourselves whether we do these things for the glory of God, and if so, does it comply with the first ‘law of the altar’ .God will not accept man’s workmanship in worship.
Let no one say that we decry the singing of praises to God, even with the use of instruments, but rather that we shall have a season of heart searching first to discover our real MOTIVES for all that we do, and determine whether or not it complies with God’s laws. Worship is not for SELF-GRATIFICATION but for DIVINE SATISFACTION. We dare not do things our own way. In the flesh we cannot please God, and we cannot know what pleases God. Only by the revelation of the Holy Spirit can we truly discern what pleases God. And the Holy Spirit reveals the mind of God to us through the Holy Bible.
What then constitutes worship? First of all, the words of our hymns must be addressed TO God, and not ABOUT God. Quite the majority of Christian hymns and choruses are hymns of fellowship, and we are at liberty to sing them and enjoy them ourselves. But few are aware of this fact. Pastors and leaders should instruct their flocks to differentiate between fellowship hymns and worship hymns. At a suitable juncture in a service it might be announced, “Brethren, we have enjoyed singing our songs of fellowship. Now it is time for us to focus our attention entirely on the Lord Himself in corporate worship. The words of the next hymn are addressed to God Himself. Let us sing them reverently, with all due gravity, and from the heart, bearing in mind the great privilege we have in being able to approach the Throne of God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Let us remember the words of the Psalmist who said, ‘Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness; tremble before Him, all the earth’ and ‘Come let us worship and bow down and kneel before the Lord our Maker.'” (Psalm 29:2, 96:6, and 95:6)
2. STEPS TO THE ALTAR ARE FORBIDDEN. This law is quite distinct from the first law. The man who ascends steps to an altar is said to ‘expose his nakedness’. What does this mean? It is a Hebrew expression describing the fallen condition of man born in Adam. So then, the first law reveals that which ‘pollutes the divine’ and the second law reveals that which ‘exposes the human’.
In the passage quoted from Exodus 20, we read the words, “I will come unto you and bless you”. Herein is the key. The Lord comes down to us. We cannot in any sense rise to meet him. We do not possess any latent righteousness, whereby we can ascend towards the Lord to meet Him at some point midway. Always, and at all times, we must seek the divine condescension of God’s presence. To use a modern expression, man must always stay ‘at grass roots level’. The Lord Jesus then promises that where two or three are thus gathered in His name, He will be in the midst.
In Lev.1 & 3, where the regulations concerning the burnt offering and peace offering are given, after the sacrificial animal is slain, the priest took the blood and dashed it upon the altar, ‘to make atonement’ for the offerer. Only then could he be considered ‘suitably attired’ to bring gifts of praise and thanksgiving to the Lord. Symbolically, this means that today none of us can approach the Lord and bring Him praise and thanksgiving, unless we first of all accept the cleansing of the precious blood of Christ. In practice, this means that believers should come together for worship, and first of all gather around His table to break bread and drink wine in thankful remembrance of Calvary. When the Lord sees this, we become ‘accepted in the Beloved’, and divine satisfaction results. Our subsequent act of corporate worship will be pleasing to the Lord. He will ‘come to us and bless us‘ and the ministry of His Holy Spirit will be manifest in our midst. Truly these things ‘are written for our learning’. God has shown us His way. We dare not formulate another way.
(As an aside here, the MANNER in which we break bread should comply with the first law of the altar. There is no place for sung eucharists, special anthems, and long prayers. It is most improper to do more than the Lord did Himself at the last supper. Our purpose is not to make a ‘service’ out of the act of remembrance, but simply to say “Thank you” to the Lord Jesus. Our Lord gave thanks, broke the bread, stated its significance, and passed it round to share. Likewise with the cup. Afterwards they sang a hymn. Anything additional is superfluous, and pollutes our worship.)
So much then for the “laws of the altar”. What about this Greek word PROSKUNEO? Adeney was correct when he spoke about “physical prostration.” Throughout the Bible we meet examples of where someone falls down before man or God, as a way of accepting his own inferiority, and complying with the need for reverence and fear of the one thus worshipped. When David wrote Psalm 72, it was all about his son Solomon. In verse 11 he said, “all kings shall fall down before him. All nations shall serve him.” And so it came to pass. But long before his day Joseph was elevated to second place in the kingdom of Pharaoh, and as his chariot passed, the cry went forth, “Bow the knee!” (Gen.41:43)
It would not be wholly exact to say that men “worshipped” their superiors. A more fitting word would be “paid homage”, as with the foreign kings who appeared before the Infant Jesus. Even today, if we were privileged to meet the Queen, men will bow, and ladies curtsey. It is symbolic, but if we fail to do it we give offence, and insult her majesty. The Lord Jesus said to the overcomers of the Philadelphian Church, “I will make those of Satan’s synagogue to come and worship [i.e. pay homage] at your feet.” The Lord certainly didn’t authorise “worship” in the sense that is only allowed towards God Himself. The Apostle John twice fell foul of this in Revelation (19:10, 22:8) and was rebuked. “See you do it not. I am a fellowservant like you.” Cornelius “fell down at Peter’s feet and worshipped him.” Peter soon pulled him to his feet, saying that he was just another human being like himself.
In what form does “physical prostration” take place? Wherever it is mentioned throughout the pages of Scripture it is the same. “Falling on his face”, “bowing the knee”, “falling down”, are three expressions found. Never do we findfalling backwards, as is the custom these days in many Toronto-style assemblies. Isaiah had the word for that. He said that such people “falling backwards will be taken and snared.” (Isa.28:13) In Revelation 7:11, 11:16, and 19:4 we read that angels, the 24 elders, and the Living Ones all fall on their faces before the Lamb. When Elijah prayed for rain, “he bowed himself down upon the earth, and put his face between his knees.” (1 Kings 18:42)
There may be times when we prostrate ourselves literally. I can remember such an occasion, and why it happened. But for the most part I feel that the true prostration God is looking for as a continual act is the prostration of our heart. This He sees and accepts. All other genuflexions and bowing in church buildings is superfluous. Kneeling to pray is, of course, always acceptable.
Let us say in summing up that forms of worship that do not comply with the two “laws of the altar”, and are not performed “in spirit and in truth”, may be classed as dead worship. We have a serious duty to analyse the forms of worship in our churches, and throw out everything that does not meet with the Master’s approval. But know that He will have His way with all mankind in the ages to come, when “every knee shall bow, and every tongue confessthat Jesus Christ is Lord.” (Phil.2:10, Rom.14:11, Eph.3:14, from Isa.45:23)
“Till we cast our crowns before Thee, lost in wonder, love, and praise.”