The Biblical Foundations and Divine Orders of Worship
Rom.15:4 “Whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we, through patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope.” 1 Cor.10:11. “All these things happened to them as types, and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages is come.”
These quotations from the writings of the Apostle Paul set the seal upon the value of the Old Testament for ALL CHRISTIANS. We cannot do without it. Indeed, we cannot properly evaluate the N.T. without recourse to the O.T. And in no area of study is this more obvious than in the subject of WORSHIP. All the manifold instructions in the Pentateuch about the Tabernacle relate to worship of one kind or another. And even though our Saviour has ‘completed’ much of this legislation by His death on the cross, (i.e. those areas relating to blood sacrifice) we are still left with much to learn from the symbolism. In this article we shall draw from Moses’ writings to establish the principles of divine worship.
Let us start with 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 meet together for worship, is now 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.
What then should a church building be like? Clearly we are not advocating that which is UGLY. This would be just as much of 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.)
Consider the building of steps to an altar. Did we not have the most impious example of all time in the Tower of Babel? Babylonian Ziggurats all had small places of worship at the top. In Nimrod’s hyperbole, ‘its top reached to the heavens.’ It was man’s way of flying in the face of God’s laws. He was elevating self, aspiring to rise, showing everyone that there was a means of ‘self improvement’ whereby God would the more readily accept us. Nimrod was in fact repeating Satan’s first lie –‘You shall be as God’. But what did God do about Babel? He came down to inspect, and said, ‘This they begin to do, and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.’ The Lord frustrated their plans and scattered them. And what of today’s worship in the churches? Do we not find that man is frequently ‘polluting the divine’ and ‘exposing his own nakedness’? Many may object to this assessment, saying that they can remember with joy many most beautiful and moving services they have attended: But was there any ‘divine satisfaction’? Or was it merely ‘human satisfaction’?
We do not say that worship has to be cold and clinical, and lacking in emotion. That is not the point. We are saying that we should be careful to assess the ORIGIN of what happens in worship. Is the ‘beautiful feeling’ or the ‘deeply moving experience’ a result of the work of God’s Holy Spirit in the meeting, or is it merely a human sentiment resulting from what the eye sees and ear hears? If we fail to distinguish between these two, we shall be evermore perpetuating a false attitude of worship before God. Once we have distinguished between the FLESH and the SPIRIT, we then have the duty to act in accordance with this knowledge, and teach others likewise. But know this – it will not be a popular teaching, for the flesh of man craves satisfaction.
In addition to these two ‘laws of the altar’ the Bible has other words of instruction for us about worship. Let us cast our net wider.
When Jesus was speaking to the woman at the well in Samaria, (John 4:21) He said, “Neither in this mountain nor inJerusalem.” Hitherto, worship had been ordained “in all places where I record my name.” This we read in Exodus 20. But our Lord showed that a change was about to take place. ANYWHERE on the earth man would be able to worship God. And He continued by showing the conditions for worship. “The hour comes and now is when the TRUE WORSHIPPERS will worship the Father in SPIRIT and in TRUTH. For the Father seeks such to worship Him. GOD IS SPIRIT, and those who worship Him MUST worship IN SPIRIT AND IN TRUTH.”
What does this mean in practice? Consider an ordinary radio set. It is designed to receive radio signals, invisible signals, through the air. By its very nature, through construction, it can ONLY receive information this way. It will not receive speech, nor listen to records, nor will it work if attached to the telephone. It can only receive radio waves. This may be a poor illustration, but perhaps it will help in measure. Jesus said that GOD IS SPIRIT. By His very nature, His ‘intrinsic substance’, He is SPIRIT. Hence he can only receive worship IN THE SPIRIT. No worship that proceeds from the fleshly Adamic nature of man can reach Him. Like the radio set, it will just not react at all. If we were but to appreciate this important truth, we should save ourselves so much human wasted energy, by trying to organise services of worship of our own design. On another occasion Jesus amplified this truth when He said, “It is the Spirit that quickens (i.e., enlivens); THE FLESH PROFITS NOTHING.” (John 6:63)
We must not fall into the trap of thinking that SPIRITUAL WORSHIP belongs exclusively to the N.T. era. In the O.T. days, all worship had to be spiritual as well. The regulations for worship found in Leviticus were given by a SPIRITUAL GOD for a redeemed people, and their obedience to His ‘laws of worship’ would constitute SPIRITUAL worship. We have said it before and must say it again – if we do things IN GOD’S WAY, according to His revealed will, then it is acceptable in His sight, but if we try to render to God that which comes from our own design and making, He cannot accept it.
This is by no means a new truth. But we believe that in our days it has become a LOST truth. Let us see what John Calvin, the reformer, had to say about it.
“God shows that He would have His people contented with the one rule that He prescribes without the admixture of any of their own imaginations; and again, He denounces the vanity of whatever men invent for themselves, and however pleasing any human scheme may appear to them, He still repudiates and condemns it. And this is still more clearly expressed in the last word, when He says that men ‘go a whoring’ whenever they are governed by their own counsels. This declaration is deserving of our especial observation, for whilst they have much self-satisfaction who worship God according to their own will, and whilst they account their zeal to be very good and very right, they do nothing else but pollute themselves by spiritual adultery. For what by the world is considered to be the holiest devotion, God with His own mouth pronounces to be fornication.” (Commentary on the Book of Numbers, at 15:38)
In Paul’s writings in the N.T., he clearly shows that he understood this principle, and to the Philippians said, “We are the circumcision, who worship God in the spirit – – and have no confidence in the flesh.” (3:3)
So exacting was the Lord in O.T. days, that if any member of the priesthood should misrepresent Him before the people, he was liable to the death sentence. Nadab and Abihu were cases in point. They offered ‘strange fire’ (Lev.1O:1) and the Lord slew them. Likewise, no priest was allowed on duty if he had been imbibing alcohol (Lev.10:9). It may loosen men’s tongues and remove natural reserve, (things which might seem acceptable in the sight of man) but in the sight of God it relates to the emancipation of the ‘flesh’ alone and is therefore disallowed.
How important it is for us to wait for the ‘divine fire’ of God’s Holy Spirit to fall upon us in worship, rather than to manufacture a counterfeit atmosphere by the activities of the flesh. It is not always easy to distinguish between these things, but 0 how necessary it is for us to learn. Christians should always be striving to become spiritual rather than fleshly, and with the help of the Holy Spirit this is eminently possible. But it does mean that we should desire this end result, and cooperate with the Lord to get where He would have us to be. Remember Nadab and Abihu. God has not changed since their day. What does He think of our worship today? We must pause and consider.
In Exodus 30:9 God said to Moses, “Aaron must not offer strange incense.” In verse 34 we find the exact formula for making the Holy Incense, and it was forbidden for anyone other than the Priests to make it. Here again we are presented with two laws, and they are the laws of the incense, representing the laws of prayer in worship. The Psalmist said (141:2)“Let my prayer be set forth as incense.” And in Rev.8:3 the angel was seen to be offering the prayers of all saints upon the altar before the throne, with much incense.
Assembly prayer is an integral part of worship. It must conform to God’s laws, otherwise it is merely a work of the flesh and ‘profits nothing’. Many prayers are said in churches; many words are used; many things are asked of God, but of all these there are but few that conform to His laws. Let us pause again, and see the wisdom revealed in Ecclesiastes 5:1-2. “Guard your steps when you go to the House of God; to draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools; for they do not know that they are doing evil. Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven, and you upon earth; therefore let your words be few.” No further comment is needed. These words speak eloquently for themselves.
We said earlier that there is no longer any special place where God’s name rests. Jesus told the woman at the well that things were on the point of changing in respect of this. The same can be said of the priesthood. These days we have no further need of a priesthood, for as Peter declared (1 P.2:5) “You are a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.” Every believer therefore has a priestly ministry of prayer. He should therefore learn the ‘ingredients’ of prayer, even as the Levites had to learn the formula for the incense. Only then can their prayers be effectual before God. ‘Strange prayer’, like ‘strange incense’ and ‘strange fire ‘ are an abomination to the Lord. Let no one say, ‘O, it does not matter. God knows all our weaknesses. He will accept anything we say.” Truly God is very merciful to our weaknesses and our ignorance, but expects us to learn as we grow in faith. That which may be overlooked in private prayer by a merciful God will not be treated so lightly when uttered in the assembly, because in the assembly there are people of all spiritual ages, there to learn. Those who constantly air their spirituality in great flowing speeches before the throne of grace do despite to the very Spirit who seeks entrance in the assembly.
The O.T. laws of prayer do not allow us any liberties. Sloppy attitudes, lack of gravity, foolish talking and jesting, all these encourage unwarranted familiarity with a holy God. The fear (i.e. true reverence) of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Let us remember that it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God. (Heb.10:31) May all our worship become spiritual, and conform to God’s laws. For truly God seeks our praise, our thanksgiving, and our prayer. Truly does the Father seek such to worship Him, in spirit and in truth. Shall we not learn to delight in those things that God delights in, and with Paul, have ‘ no confidence in the flesh’?
In this article we have set forth certain principles, and not elaborated on them a great deal. This has been our purpose. Too many words cause us to become tired. Once the point of God’s worship laws is appreciated, the sincere believer will waste no time in finding out how they apply to his or her life. And then the Holy Spirit will delight in making known the greater riches of God in the meeting place. These notes are not intended to create a new legalism, or bind God’s children in knots. Rather are they intended to open up a little understood area of the Christian life.