If you make me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stones, for if you wield your tool on it you profane it.
We really do not get how significant is the holiness of God. We assume that God is like us. We assume that, if a person does his or her best, that’s all God wants. We assume that a person who gives a good solid try gets a pass from God and whatever they were trying to do would be acceptable.
But look at the verse above from Exodus 20. God let Israel know, in no uncertain terms, that their best efforts were not things that made things acceptable to him. God said that, if the people of Israel wanted to build an altar for them out of stone, they could not use tools on the stone. Why? If they were to touch the stone with their tools, shaping the stone with their best efforts, they would actually profane the stone and the altar.
What am I taking from this? I’m not saying that you should not put forth effort in worship or try to please God. Not at all. What I am saying is that we see here that our best efforts, on their own, do not make a thing acceptable. Sincerity is not the measure of holiness. God is clear that his law, his word, his holiness is the measure. We need to do things that please him as he has commanded.
This understanding has an impact on how we worship and how we live in general. When we worship God, we need to be careful to do so “in response to God’s gracious revelation of himself and in accordance with his will” as Dr. Daniel Block used to tell me in seminary. Remember, the 2 sons of Aaron who tried to get creative in worship found their best, most sincere efforts met with fire from the altar and not with acceptance from God. God has the right to determine what he will accept in worship. We do not have the right to tell him what he should accept.
Similarly, in daily life, our obedience to God must be obedience based on his word and not on our own ideas. Often people have very sincere, very thoughtful, very emotional opinions about what God should or should not accept as proper human behavior. But I think that the verse above in Exodus reminds us that we do not get to set what ought to be right and wrong behavior. Right behavior is revealed to us in Scripture, not the result of our best reasoning. Yes, sometimes we will have to use prayer, the guidance of the Spirit, the Scripture, and our best reasoning to try to rightly apply first century principles to 21st century technology and situations, but this is not the same thing as being creative about what should be right and wrong.
Now, if I were to leave things with only Exodus 20, we would find ourselves in a very difficult place. None of us live up to this perfect standard. Isn’t this the whole point of why we love the gospel so? God made a way for us to please him. He did not make a way for us to please him by us creatively applying our best efforts. Instead, the way to please God is to admit that we do not please him on our own. The way to please God is to fall on our knees and come to Jesus for mercy. Then God will apply Jesus’ perfection, his pleasing of the Father, to our account so that when God looks at our lives, he sees us as just as pleasing to him as Jesus. Then, under the grace of Christ, the authority of Scripture and the filling of the Spirit, we can obey God in a way that pleases him for his glory and our joy.