Do Not Copy the World

In Deuteronomy 12, the Lord uses Moses to speak to his people about how they are to worship him when they enter into the promised land. Notice, both at the beginning and the end of this chapter, how clear the Lord is about the fact that the people of Israel are not to learn their practices of worship from the land’s inhabitants and their practices.

Deuteronomy 12:1-4 – 1 “These are the statutes and rules that you shall be careful to do in the land that the Lord, the God of your fathers, has given you to possess, all the days that you live on the earth. 2 You shall surely destroy all the places where the nations whom you shall dispossess served their gods, on the high mountains and on the hills and under every green tree. 3 You shall tear down their altars and dash in pieces their pillars and burn their Asherim with fire. You shall chop down the carved images of their gods and destroy their name out of that place. 4 You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way.

Deuteronomy 12:29-31 – 29 “When the Lord your God cuts off before you the nations whom you go in to dispossess, and you dispossess them and dwell in their land, 30 take care that you be not ensnared to follow them, after they have been destroyed before you, and that you do not inquire about their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods?—that I also may do the same.’ 31 You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way, for every abominable thing that the Lord hates they have done for their gods, for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods.

When you read through the Old Testament, especially the books of the Kings and Chronicles, you will often find references to a king as good or bad. Part of the reference includes whether or not the king kept or destroyed the high places. That might sound a little odd to you, but a look at this section makes it clearer. The high places were places where Canaanites would worship their false gods. And for some reason, the people of Israel were tempted to mimic the acts of the Canaanites, either to worship the evil and false gods of Canaan or to try to incorporate those practices into the worship of the Lord.

The verses between these two sections tell the people of Israel what God requires of them in worship. He instructs them about things like sacrifice, offerings, tithes, and the place of worship. It is a simple look at important principles for Old Testament worship. And, as I mentioned, bookended around those instructions is that the worship of the Lord is not to be influenced by the practices of the world.

God then closes this section with a thought we need to keep.

Deuteronomy 12:32 – “Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take from it.

This chapter is about worship. God says to do what he commands. He says to do so carefully. And he says not to add to it or take from it.

Now, we are a people in the 21st century. We are New Testament Christians. Does any of this apply? For sure, we can find some principles. God’s word is to govern how God’s people worship. We are foolish if we add to his word, bringing into our worship things God did not command. We are especially foolish if our practices mimic the world. Israel was not to look at the high places and try to incorporate their elements into the worship of the Lord. WE too need to be very careful not to try to learn our practice of worship from the lost world. The lost world knows a great deal about manipulating human emotion and working us into a frenzy. The lost world knows nothing about the true worship of the living God.

Does this mean I am opposing the use of modern instruments or equipment? No. But I would suggest that we be careful to do, in our services of worship, the things God’s word has actually commanded. I also would suggest that we be careful to avoid adding to the biblical formula for worship, as we have no ability or right to improve upon what the Lord has commanded his people to do.

Strange Fire and Obedience

I want you to think back to the Garden of Eden. There, Adam and Eve rebelled against the Lord when they ate the fruit of a particular tree. That act brought the curse of God on the world. That act brought death and destruction. That act introduced sin to humanity.

What was the big problem? Was the fall of man in the garden about the particular fruit? Was God particularly angry at the loss of a fruit that he treasured? I really do not think that is the core issue. Instead, the issue is one of obedience and authority. Adam and Eve knew the command of God, decided their way was better, and rebelled.

We see a similar type of rebellion in Leviticus, a rebellion that caused the death of Nadab and Abihu, sons of Aaron.

Leviticus 10:1-3 – 1 Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them. 2 And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. 3 Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord has said: ‘Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’” And Aaron held his peace.

On this particular day, the presence of God was noticeable at the tabernacle. It was a glorious sight. The people were awestruck. And Nadab and Abihu got so excited that they offered unauthorized fire, another translation says “strange fire,” before the Lord. And Nadab and Abihu died for their hubris.

What was the problem? Was a particular kind of fire, a particular kind of incense, a particular smell that offensive? Or, as I suggested in the account of the garden, is the issue here one of obedience? Look at the words of God. The Lord does not say, “That kind of fire really offends me.” Instead, God tells the people through Moses, “Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.” God saw that, in this instance, the sons of Aaron did not treat him as holy.

What does it mean that God is holy? In this instance, the issue is one of treating God as far greater, higher, above and beyond us. Nadab and Abihu acted as if God were like them, just another guy. Nadab and Abihu thought that their idea of what fire to offer was just as good as what God had commanded. They assumed that their ideas were equally valid as those of God. They did not glorify God. They did not sanctify God. They did not treat him as holy by meticulously obeying his commands for how he would be worshipped.

Consider now our world. The God we worship is the same God who flashed forth fire to consume Nadab and Abihu because those men did not treat him as holy. Do we? When your church gathers to worship, are you careful to do what the Lord has commanded. Many a church has introduced things to the service of worship that have nothing to do with the commands of God. I’m not here discussing equipment or instrumentation, lighting or visual design. But there are many churches that include practices of things that God has not commanded. Or, even worse, there are many who participate in practices that the Lord has forbidden.

We should be thankful that, because of the grace of the Lord Jesus, we are not experiencing what Nadab and Abihu experienced. We should be grateful to God that many of us have not been consumed by the holy wrath of God for approaching him in a way inconsistent with treating him as holy. And we should be driven to worship the Lord in loving obedience to his word.

With all that said, the New Testament does not tell us exactly how to order the worship service. We see a great deal of instruction about how sacrifices were made in the Old Testament. WE see God setting up things that point to Christ with great detail. But in the New Testament, we have fewer step-by-step directions. WE know that we are to pray, to sing, to read the word, to preach, to participate in ordinances like Lord’s Supper, to give, and to do all this to the glory of God and in a spirit of love and fellowship. WE also know that things are forbidden. God has said who is allowed to teach and who is not allowed to teach. God has warned against the fleshly indulgences of the world and the temptation to bring them into his worship.

So, let me simply call us to be careful. We gather as the family of God. Thus, familial love, joy, kindness, and caring are all part of our gatherings. We gather to worship the Holy One, and thus what we do must be fully in keeping with his commands. WE dare not violate his commands and treat him as less than holy, pretending our ways are superior to his. We dare not hijack the purpose of the service of worship, making it more about connecting to those who do not know the Lord than about honoring the Lord we are supposed to be there to worship.

Nadab and Abihu died because they failed to treat the Lord and his ways as holy. Adam and Eve fell when they refused to treat the simple command of God as holy. Jesus died to pay for the sins of people who have, in their past, refused to treat God as holy. May we, in our services of worship, be sure that we treat the Lord and his commands as holy.

Exactly as I Show You

AT Mount Sinai, the Lord spoke to his people and gave them his commands. After God gave an initial summary of the law—more would come—the Lord also instructed Moses on the building of the tabernacle. This structure would be a portable place of worship, a traveling temple, where the Lord would allow his presence to dwell in the midst of the people.

When God gave this instruction, he was clear that the people were to build in exact accord with his specification.

Exodus 25:9 – Exactly as I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle, and of all its furniture, so you shall make it.

There is nothing confusing here. God said to the people that they are to fashion and erect the tabernacle exactly as he said. This is no surprise to us. If we have read Exodus before, we expect it and we keep on reading.

But wait a moment. Let’s use this to challenge a modern kind of thinking. How do you feel about God telling the people exactly how to build the tabernacle? Are you OK with that? Do you feel like God has the right to tell the people what to build? How dare he do so?

Why does God not just say to Moses to build a tabernacle, if he wants, to whatever specifications he wants and to offer worship however he wants? I think we know. God is the one who tells the people how to worship him. God is the one who tells the people how they may approach him. God is the one who makes provision so that the people’s sin may be covered and their lives spared from his fiery judgment. God is God, and he will deliver his standards. HE will not be told by sinful man how he must be followed or worshipped.

The funny thing is, when it comes to the Old Testament, when it comes to the tabernacle, I do not hear people saying that this is unfair of God. I do not hear people demanding that God explain himself. People, in general, are not accusing God of wronging people by demanding that the tabernacle be built to a particular design. We tend to suggest that God has every right to tell the people of Israel what pleases him instead of him shifting his pleasure to match their creative whim.

Where do people find themselves offended when God makes his standards known? I’ll offer two examples. One is in modern worship. Another is in salvation itself.

Today, Christians are often taken aback when people dare suggest that what mankind may do in a service of worship is in any way limited. How dare we say that only a man can preach the sermon? Why would we assume that things like sermons, sacraments, prayer, giving, Scripture reading, and song are what worship should include? How can we be so old-fashioned and limiting? The answer should be that we look to the command of God and attempt to build our services of worship in accord with the design shown us in Scripture. Yes, some churches will feel more ceremonial and formal than others. Some churches will use different instrumentation and musical style. But, if we are to honor the Lord in accord with his word, we need to do the things that he commands. And we would be wise to be very careful about bringing into the services things that are not commanded in his word.

How about the issue of salvation? Some folks are deeply offended that God is so restrictive about how people approach him for life and forgiveness. Many of these same people are not offended in the least that God commanded the tabernacle look a particular way. Ask yourself why this is. I would suggest that the reason they are offended by the exclusivity of Christ but are not offended by the exclusivity of the tabernacle design is because they think that human salvation is far more important than the tabernacle.

For sure, the salvation of our souls is important. But we would be incorrect if we assumed that our souls are more important than God’s glory. God is the Almighty. He is the Creator. HE is the Lord over all the universe. Everything that exists in the universe exists for the honor of the Lord. Our salvation, if we are saved, is to the glory of God as it depicts God’s wonderful love and mercy. The judgment of God poured out on those who reject him is to the glory of God as it depicts his perfect and holy justice.

If we say that it is fine for God to tell people how to shape the tabernacle, but it is not fine for God to tell people that there is one way and only one way of salvation, we have very much missed who God is in comparison to who we are. God is the Lord. HE will do all that he pleases. He has every right to tell us how he must be approached. HE has every right to tell us what is acceptable worship. He had every right to tell Israel what the tabernacle should look like. He has every right to tell you, no matter who you think you are, what your life should look like. Like the people of old, approach God in accord with his commands. If you seek to worship, do so in accord with the commands of holy Scripture. IF you seek salvation, come seeking God’s grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone for the glory of God alone.

God is Different Than People Think

You know why Scripture is such a gift? You could never know God without his revealing himself in his word. If God does not tell us what he is like, if we do not pay attention, we will totally have the wrong image in our minds as to who god is, what he does, and what he requires.

I Thought of this in a read through Exodus 19-20. In that passage, the text around the original giving of the Ten Commandments, God makes some restrictions on the people that do not sound like what many around you think God is like.

Why do I say this? In our world, most people think that God is open to any sincere attempt to worship him. People assume that God is open to all expressions of human religion so long as those expressions do not attack other humans. But look at God’s words and God’s standards for the people near the mountain. In two places, we will see something important.

Exodus 19:21-22 – 21 And the Lord said to Moses, “Go down and warn the people, lest they break through to the Lord to look and many of them perish. 22 Also let the priests who come near to the Lord consecrate themselves, lest the Lord break out against them.”

As God prepared to speak to Moses from the Mountain, he gave two significant restrictions. The people could not approach or touch the mountain while God’s presence was upon it. And the priests could not experience this day without a holy consecration. Either group who disobeyed the commands of God here would die. God himself would kill people for disobedience.

But that does not sound like the modern understanding of God put forth by so many people. And at this point we have to ask, is our picture of god from God’s revelation or from our own minds? God is holy. God may not be approached by sinful man. And God will destroy those who violate his holy standards and remain without his forgiveness.

Exodus 20:25 – 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.

Here God points out that the people of Israel were not free to make just any kind of altar for worship. If they were to fashion a stone altar with their tools, their touching of the altar would defile it. God was clear that his worship was to be holy. God is clear that he sets the standards as to what is acceptable and unacceptable worship.

The simple thought that I want us to take away from these passages is that God is holy. God is not what the modern American believes. God will judge people. God will judge based on his own standards. God will not bend to our will and our standards. God is not OK with just any old action we want to take. God will tell us how he is to be worshipped.

And in both passages, we see that God is clear that sinful mankind cannot approach him. If we wish to avoid God’s judgment, we must find ourselves under his grace. We are sinners who need to be forgiven. We need to have God apply to us the perfect righteousness of Christ. If we do not have God’s forgiving grace and the imputed righteousness of Jesus, anything we would do that could be considered worship will only serve to bring us under God’s judgment.

So, what do we take away? First, you need Jesus. Ask him to forgive you and cleanse you before the Lord. Surrender to him and be saved by his grace through faith. Then, realize that God has a high and holy standard that is far more dangerous than anything you have ever imagined. Submit to his holy word in order to live and worship in a way that pleases the Lord.

Would You Have Gone?

In Matthew 2, we read about the wise men who came to Jerusalem looking for the newborn King of the Jews. These men from the east had seen a new star in the sky and knew that this was a sign that the promised one from God had been born. They went to Jerusalem, as one would assume a king to be born in the capital city.

You probably know the story pretty well. After all, it is told around Christmas time on a regular basis. If you know the story, you know that Herod asked the Jewish priests and scribes around him where the Christ was to be born, and they were easily able to quote for him a Scripture that promised the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Then Herod sent the wise men to Bethlehem to find the child.

Matthew 2:9-11 — 9 After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.

The wise men left Herod, found the

Christ, and worshipped him. This is a good and right response. When you become aware of the Lord, the right move is to worship.

Sometimes when I think about this passage, I actually find myself thinking about those whose actions are not mentioned. I think about the priests and scribes. To be fair, they may have been generally kept out of the loop and asked only a data question without any context. But I wonder. I wonder if the religious men around Herod knew that the wise men from the east were present. I wonder if they knew that these men were claiming to have seen a star. I wonder if they knew that Herod was sending the wise men to fish out the location of the newborn King.

What I know for sure is that these priests did not go. It seems like they had the data, but they did nothing with it. Knowing Scripture as well as they did, the priests should have recognized that it was time for the Christ to arrive. They should have known that the Messiah would be born around their generation. There was enough information available for these men to know that God had broken into history in a fantastic way.

If my gut guess is right, if the scholars knew about the wise men and the star and the promises of Scripture, then something very sad takes place in this passage. They knew the Christ had come. They knew the star had shone. They knew men were sent to find the baby. And they went back to their books, back to their lives, back to their temple, and did nothing with the news they had heard. They were told enough to know that God had broken into history and sent his promised one, and they were not concerned about it.

Like I said, this is a surmise on my part. It could be that the scholars were only asked the question without getting any info. If so, I cannot blame them for remaining in Jerusalem, as they had no info to go on. But I’m still convicted by the possibility. I’m convicted by the notion that a man could know that God is with us, that Christ is near, and stay home instead of going to worship the Savior.

Surmises aside, do you think you would have gone? If you knew where Jesus was, would you have dropped everything to run to Bethlehem just so you could bow down before the young Jesus? Would you have risked the danger of Herod’s wrath to catch a glimpse of God with us? I hope so.

Now, if you would have taken a significant risk to get where Jesus is, to see him, to bow before him, to worship him, does that show in your life today? After all, Jesus is with us. The Spirit of the Lord is with us. God’s people gather on a weekly basis to worship the same Jesus. God’s people shape our lives differently because of the finished work and presence of Jesus.

Ask yourself, “Does my life look more like the scholars or the wise men?” Do you have a lot of knowledge that leaves you unmoved? Or does what you know from the word of God call you to take note, get up, and act?

Christians, may you and I be a people who are not mere receptacles of knowledge. May the knowledge we have of the word of God and the claims of Christ change our lives. May it lead us to value worship greatly. May it lead us to change, deep and lasting change. May it lead us to not be able to sit still. May we never be able to neglect worshipping the Savior.

Hardship and Worship

In the book of Joel, the people of Judah are suffering. The prophet blends into his telling of the nation’s hardships a few different images. There has been a locust plague that has laid waste to the land. There has been drought and food shortage. And, there is also the horror of the army from the north who are threatening the survival of the nation.

As I was reading through this text, something struck me. It has to do with one of the first problems that the Lord lists as a result of the destruction faced in the land.

Joel 1:9 and 13

9 The grain offering and the drink offering are cut off
from the house of the Lord.
The priests mourn,
the ministers of the Lord.
13 Put on sackcloth and lament, O priests;
wail, O ministers of the altar.
Go in, pass the night in sackcloth,
O ministers of my God!
Because grain offering and drink offering
are withheld from the house of your God.

The land is desolate. The people are suffering. On the one hand, Joel calls on the drunkards of Judah to weep at their loss of wine. But on the other, what stands out to me, is that Joel calls on the priests to mourn over the lack of offerings available to give to the worship of God.

Then, in chapter 2, God calls the nation to repentance. In that call, God suggests that, if they repent, he will restore them. And in that restoration, we again see that restoring their ability to worship him is at the center. The healing of the land will lead to the people’s ability of again offering to the Lord their produce.

Joel 2:12-14

12 “Yet even now,” declares the Lord,
“return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
13 and rend your hearts and not your garments.”
Return to the Lord your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love;
and he relents over disaster.
14 Who knows whether he will not turn and relent,
and leave a blessing behind him,
a grain offering and a drink offering
for the Lord your God?

I wonder, when we hurt, do we consider more than our own physical loss? Do we see that the worship of our God is still of utmost priority? Would we, were we to lose all our physical resources and financial stability mourn, not merely what we personally lack, but what we cannot give to the glory of God?

I do not have a great deal of clear, particular, concrete application here. But I think it is worth noticing that the Lord, in his explanation of what is wrong in Judah, points out that the judgment that they have brought upon themselves has robbed them of the ability to worship the Lord as he should be worshipped. The hardship that the people face is not simply personal or even national. The hardship they face impacts their response to God.

Here, I think, we can give thanks to God for the gospel. Christ has fulfilled all righteousness for us. No grain offering is necessary for us to please the Lord. Our ability to worship is not impacted by our material wealth.

At the same time, we should have hearts that are so God-focused that, when we lack in life, we think about how even this is connected to our spiritual lives. We should not become so self-minded that we forget that all that we have and all that we are belongs to the Lord our God.

Let Your Words Be Few

Here is an interesting bit of counsel from Solomon on our attitude when we approach the Lord to worship.

Ecclesiastes 5:1-3 – 1 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. 2 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 are on earth. Therefore let your words be few. 3 For a dream comes with much business, and a fool’s voice with many words.

Solomon cautions people to guard themselves as they approach the place of worship. He reminds them that God is in heaven, indicating that God is high and holy. In comparison, we are, well, not. And this distinction should cause us to be careful in what we say and what we do, especially as worship is involved.

Of course,

Solomon is writing here under an Old
Testament economy. Worship in this context has much to do with presenting right sacrifice before the Lord. And it would be utter folly for a sinful man to go to the temple and confidently assert what God must accept from him as an offering. There is no room for us to be brash in our dealings with God.

So, in a direct line of application, the king is warning people not to think they can tell God what must happen for God to accept them. This is still true today. There are many people who believe that they can determine exactly what God ought to do with them and their lives. They believe that they can sit in judgment over the ways of god. But man will never set the parameters by which God deals with him. This is God’s work and God’s alone. God has said that there is only one way to salvation, by his grace through faith in Christ alone. God has made it clear that trusting in Jesus in such a way that brings us to repentance is our only path to being accepted. We do not work to earn salvation, it is faith alone. But that faith is a life-changing faith.

I would suggest, however, that this also applies to worship in our modern context. We must first understand that, in Christ, we may approach God with freedom and confidence (Eph. 3:12). We must grasp that God grants to us the righteousness of Christ (2 Cor 5:21). And so we do not approach the Lord in worship fearing that we will not be welcomed. We have, after all, been given the right to be called children of god because of Jesus (John 1:12-13).

But I think this passage can remind us that, even in Christ, we ought to approach the worship of God with genuine reverence and humility. God is still God in heaven. He is still greater than us to an infinite degree. And we should be far quicker to listen to his word than we are to go into worship telling God what we will give him. We should follow
Scripture. We should, when it comes to new ideas, let our words be few. We should reverently and joyfully, with solemnity and with celebration, bring honor to the name of our God in the ways that God has clearly said honor him.

So, consider these thoughts when you next go to worship. Approach God in God’s way. Come to him first in faith and repentance, believing in Jesus and yielding your life to him. And come to him in humility with joy, knowing that God has shown us how he is to be worshipped. Come to sing, pray, and listen to the word. Come to participate in Lord’s Supper and take part in genuine, Christian fellowship. Come to honor God.