History may prove that much of today's emphasis on worship is actually a matter of following the current fad. One problem with that approach is that worship practices change so fast that it is a challenge for congregations to keep up with one another. What is on the cutting edge in worship practices today is out of style tomorrow. More significantly, when churches appeal to people by offering the latest in music, drama, and worship, they must constantly keep coming up with something new. Imperfect human nature demands it.
A much better approach is simply to live by the doctrine of worship found in Scripture. Practicing it releases people from the hassle of struggling always to keep up with the latest fad. It decreases the amount of friction caused by disagreements in the congregation over the proper style of worship. Church worship should assist believers in learning to worship together anywhere. After all, as Charles Spurgeon reminds the believer about eternal worship, "You cannot sing that heavenly anthem alone because, however well you can sing by yourself, that is not the way you will have to sing in heaven; there you will have to sing in harmony with all the bloodwashed hosts." Both Old and New Testaments contain guidance in the sphere of public worship.
The Pentateuch, as the first five books of the Old Testament are called, established the fact that the Lord wants His worship to be conducted in an orderly manner. Yet, the historical books declare that God is not pleased with ritualism in worship. This theme continues in the poetical and prophetical books. These emphases appear contradictory on the surface, but a careful study of the Old Testament will reconcile the two.
Each of the five books in the Pentateuch makes a distinctive contribution to the doctrine of worship in the Bible. Their concepts on the subject are universal in nature. Although believers no longer worship following the specific pattern of Judaism, the basic principles of worship there remain relevant. The Bible is one Book, not two. No wall exists between Malachi and Matthew on the subject of worship. Scripture reveals only one God, not two. He did not change His mind on the matter of worship between the two testaments. The basic guidance He gave on public worship in the first remains true for all times and in all cultures. The host of the redeemed will still follow it throughout eternity.
The Book of Genesis speaks only of private and family worship. Believers must wait until they come to the Book of Exodus to find the Bible's first instruction on public worship. The Lord did not institute corporate worship until Israel was at the base of Mt. Sinai following the exodus.
Cain and Abel worshiped separately and privately, rather than together. How did they learn about the existence of God and that His creatures should engage in acts of worship to Him? Did they possess that knowledge intuitively? Did Jehovah reveal Himself to them personally and give them instruction on worship? Did their parents teach them? In regard to that last possibility, Matthew Henry observes that "the church of God has generally, by a pious charity, taken it for granted that God gave them repentance and faith in the promised seed, that he instructed them in the mystery of sacrificing, that they instructed their children in it."
The Bible's greatest lesson on worship comes from studying the episode of the worship of Cain and Abel. Why did God accept the sacrifice of the one and reject the other? What made Abel's a "more excellent" sacrifice? Their offerings can be compared as to kind; Abel presented one of blood while Cain's was a bloodless one. The quality of the sacrifice of each may also be significant. Cain brought to the Lord the common fruit of the ground while Abel gave Him the firstborn, the best of his flock. The major difference between the two, however, concerns the attitude of their hearts in worship. Heb. 11:4 declares plainly, "By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did." The truth that God accepts worship only when it contains faith is central in the Bible, appearing in all of its pages from Genesis to Revelation.
As indicated above, family worship also had its beginning in Genesis. The Patriarchs led family worship during the early days of the history of man, both before and after the Flood. Noah took the lead in worship as the first thing his family did at the end of the Deluge. The Bible says, "Then Noah built an altar to the LORD and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it" (Gen. 8:22). That pattern remained true through the period. One of the coveted benefits of being the firstborn son was to preside over family and clan worship after the death of the father.
Family worship dominates through the first half of the Book of Exodus. Israel worshiped through the ritual of the Passover in the early pages of the book. It was celebrated initially as a family affair. Jehovah's instruction when instituting the feast contained that element. He told Moses, "Tell the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each man is to take a lamb for his family, one for each household" (Exod. 12:3).
It is not until Exodus chapter 20 that the Lord provides for public worship in Israel. There He begins giving detailed instructions as to provisions for public worship concerning the tabernacle, priesthood, and sacrifices. The New Testament contains so many references to all of this that today's believer can hardly worship biblically without a knowledge of it.
Of course, one must beware of attempting to restore tabernacle worship in today's world. The New Testament shows that, while principles from that source still have application in Christian worship, most of its details have been replaced by something much better. For example, one must take care in using the floor plan of the tabernacle to form a pattern for an order of service for today.
Some worship leaders use that floor plan as their model and emphasize dealing with sin, as if they were at the altar of burnt offerings, as the first thing in the order of any service. After that comes a focus on purification as at the laver. Only then can one enter the Holy Place to have fellowship with the Lord, as at the table of show-bread, and to have prayer, as with the offering of incense on its altar. Then, as the golden candlesticks provided light, the believer finds enlightenment in reading of the Bible. Finally, the worshiper may enter the Holy of Holies where the glory of God rests over the Ark of the Covenant.
While there may be some helpful application in all of this, believers may elaborate too much on what happened in the worship at the tabernacle. They may, for example, begin by sharply distinguishing between thanksgiving, praise, and worship without real biblical support. Scripture uses the terms much more interchangeably than some think. Figuratively speaking, they feel that in the Outer Court phase of the order of service, believers must begin with thanksgiving. As they approach the Holy Place, they shift to praise. Then in the Most Holy Place as they enter the manifest presence of God, they finally worship. This, then, leads to the use of fast music at the beginning and gradually slows to more "worshipful" numbers at the end, making that the most sacred part of the meeting.
This misplaced emphasis on Old Testament patterns can easily ignore the fact that believers have already dealt with the basic sin question at the moment of salvation. Why, then, do they need to feel guilty all over again with confessions and repentance at the beginning of every service? Certainly, they do not need to wait until they have gone through all of the Old Testament steps before they can enter the presence of God. They must not forget that the veil in the Temple was rent at Calvary, and now they can come immediately into the Most Holy Place! Furthermore, there are circumstances at times in the lives of believers that render fast songs inappropriate at any point in a service. At others times slow ones are contrary to the spirit of things. What must be avoided, then, is the tendency toward falling into a ritual in worship by the misplaced notion that the Old Testament provides a basis for it.
While the Book of Exodus begins giving instruction on public worship, the Book of Leviticus becomes Judaism's Manual of Worship. The book devotes its first seven chapters to specifying a sacrifice for every worshiper for every situation. Its detailing of five categories of offerings gives procedures for burnt, grain, peace, trespass, and sin offerings. Interestingly, as David Peterson remarks, the burnt offering was totally consumed on the altar, and the Hebrew word for that procedure serves as the source for modern Hebrew references to the Holocaust. Leviticus also provides a calendar of worship in chapter 23, including directions for daily, weekly, monthly, and annual worship.
Of course, the New Testament shows that today's believers are no longer bound to follow Israel's annual worship calendar. Paul clarifies that in addressing the Colossians. To them he writes, "Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ" (Col. 2:16-17).
Nevertheless, valuable universal principles appear in the way the Lord outlined a schedule for worship in Israel. Believers still need to worship daily, as they generally do in private and family devotions. Certainly they also need to gather with other believers in a holy convocation weekly, as Jehovah instructed His people to do so long ago. In addition, they profit much from special assemblies, perhaps involving fellow believers from more than just a single local congregation, on a monthly basis. Finally, there is much profit in conducting nationwide meetings, possibly on an annual schedule. In Israel some of these covered an eight-day period, as with the Feast of Tabernacles. Congregations as well as denominational groups find that the Lord provides blessings in these special meetings which worshipers may not receive in the more frequent local services they attend.
The Book of Numbers shows failure in public worship coupled with moral decline in Israel. That decline had its beginning with the ministers of the nation. To illustrate, the sacred record contains no reference to Israel's having celebrated the Passover between Numbers 9:1-14, during the second year of its wilderness journeys, and Joshua 5:10-11, when its people stood ready to take Jericho thirty-nine years later. The same period passed without the nation's circumcising its male citizens (Josh. 5:7). With such a decline in public obedience to the Lord, it is little wonder that there was a corresponding moral decline in the nation. The people constantly complained against their leaders and Jehovah Himself. The book contains the account of a series of eight periods of such murmurings. Paul recounts much of this, along with the punishment from the Lord in each case, and then declares, "These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us" (1 Cor. 10:11). The message of the Book of Numbers, therefore, serves as an encouragement to maintain public worship diligently for the benefit of the people of God today.
The Book of Deuteronomy tells of efforts to revive public worship among the Israelites. Moses attempts to do this in a series of three messages, which fill almost all the pages of the composition. In those messages he recounts all of the instructions about worship found in earlier books of the Pentateuch. Indeed, the very title, Deuteronomy, which comes into the English from the Greek, means literally "second law." The repetition is for the sake of the second generation in Israel who had not heard the original teachings on worship given to their now deceased fathers.
While there is repetition in it, the book serves also as an important supplement to Exodus and Numbers. It adds to and further explains much of what has gone before. Its supplements contain some changes in the Law, in order to fit the new circumstances of a nation that in the past has lived as nomads and now is about to live a settled life in a permanent land.
The lesson of Deuteronomy, then, is twofold. From it, church leaders learn the importance of constant efforts to revive public worship. They also see the necessity of adapting the message of the Gospel to changing circumstances.
The rest of the Old Testament emphasizes that believers must resist ritualistic tendencies in worship. The historical books begin the warning. For example, the prophet Samuel sought to correct Saul's misconception that worship of Jehovah is basically a matter of following prescribed ritual. The king had offered a sacrifice while in the act of disobeying the Lord. The prophet declared, "Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the LORD? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams. For rebellion is like the sin of divination, and arrogance like the evil of idolatry" (1 Sam. 15:22-23).
The poetical books continue the teaching of Samuel. By this time David had learned the lesson the prophet had shared with the king. Before Jehovah he declared, "You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise (Ps. 51:16-17).
This is but one of the themes of worship in the Old Testament that carried over into the New. A more obvious one is the emphasis on congregational singing in the worship of God. Ralph Martin observes: "The Church was cradled in Judaism, and borrowed many of the forms of worship from the Temple and synagogue. Antiphonal singing goes back to the pre-exilic period of Jewish history. Many of the Psalms were intended to be sung in the congregational worship of the Temple. The data from the post-exilic age indicate a well-ordered arrangement for responsive singing between two choirs of musicians."
The prophetic books declare the message of Samuel loudest of all. Jehovah speaks through Isaiah saying:
"The multitude of your sacrifices--what are they to me?" says the LORD. "I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations--I cannot bear your evil assemblies. Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts my soul hates. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen." (Isa. 1:11-15)
Amos joins Isaiah in the same kind of extended condemnation of ritualistic worship (5:21-24). So does Malachi (1:6-14).
The Old Testament leaves one, then, with the question, "Why does God give highly prescribed ritual in the Pentateuch and then spend the rest of the Bible condemning ritualism?" After all, the Lord severely punished anyone who deviated the slightest from the prescribed ritual, including Nadab and Abihu, sons of the High Priest (Lev. 10:1-7). In answer, first, observe that it is not ritual that the Lord rejects, but "ritualism." One may conclude that God desires that His people worship in an orderly manner. It appears that some think the less order they have, the more Pentecostal they are. Also, it is likely that Jehovah's prescribed order was intended to safeguard the worship of the Lord from the infiltration of elements of paganism.
At the same time, it seems clear that God wants us to find meaning in worship, not just to practice ritual. Thus, one may safely conclude that He meant to teach elementary spiritual truths to Israel by the ritual which He established. Most obvious of all the reasons for His establishing a form of worship containing ritual was that He intended the sacrifices to point to the offering of the Lamb that was to come. An obvious intent of the Book of Hebrews was to stress that truth.
In summary, the Pentateuch establishes the fact that the Lord desires for His worship to be conducted in an orderly manner. Yet, the historical books declare that God is not pleased with ritualism in worship. This theme continues in the poetical and prophetical books. These emphases appear contradictory on the surface, but a careful study of the Old Testament reconciles the two and reveals that God purposely instituted ritual but opposed the human tendency toward ritualism.
Henry, Matthew. Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible. Vol. 6. New York: Fleming H. Revell, n. d.
Martin, Ralph P. Worship in the Early Church. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1964.
Peterson, David. Engaging with God: A Biblical Theology of Worship. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1992.
Spurgeon, Charles H. "The Blessing of Public Worship." In Classic Sermons on Worship, ed. Warren W. Wiersbe. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1988.