The Worship of God

More articles in this collection from past issues of the Presbyterian Standard are available online here.

Worship in the Old Testament (1): Principles

by Rev. Moshe Radcliffe

This is the first of what is intended to be an occasional series on this general theme. In an initial article, the author highlights some fundamental biblical principles which are to direct our worship of Almighty God.

This article was published in the Presbyterian Standard, Issue No. 3, July-September 1996.

T RUE worship to be acceptable to God must have its origin from Him. David by the Holy Spirit declared that God bears him the testimony, firstly, that God must choose the person in order that he might be able to approach Him to worship Him; secondly, God chooses the person in Christ; and thirdly, God chooses how we are to worship Him. This is clearly revealed in the early pages of Holy Scripture: "Blessed is the man whom thou choosest, and causest to approach unto thee" (Psa. 65:4).

First, we read that God chooses the person. This is clearly revealed in the difference that was between Cain and Abel. We read: "…The Lord had respect to Abel and his offering" (Gen. 4:4). God first accepted Abel; He had chosen him from all eternity and called him at His appointed time. This was the reason that he was taught of God to offer up the firstling of his flock, as a better sacrifice than that of his brother Cain. It was God's unmerited grace that He had chosen Abel, for we do not read that there was anything about his lifestyle to warrant us to believe that he was a better man than Cain. It was the Lord's unmerited grace that He revealed to him the need of a bloody sacrifice as the true type of the death of our blessed Lord Jesus Christ. It was God's gracious gift that enabled Abel to have faith, "looking unto Jesus" (Heb. 11:4,6; 12:2). Without such revelation he would have remained as ignorant as Cain. In the same way also God had chosen Noah: "But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord" (Gen. 6:8), and in the next verse God bears him the testimony that he was a just and perfect man. The only way that we must understand this, is that it was God's gracious election that separated him and enabled him to live a righteous life in the midst of a world growing in evil. God further commanded him to build an ark and gather two of every unclean animal and seven of the clean ones (Gen 7:2). One of the clean beasts Noah offered up as a burnt offering to the Lord. Because he did so at the Lord's command the Lord smelled it as a sweet savour. This was also true of the patriarchs. God chose Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and this election enabled them to worship God acceptably and with godly fear. This is why the Scriptures bear them witness that they built altars and called upon the name of the Lord.

Here we see that from the very beginning man learned to call upon the name of the Lord (Gen. 4:26) and that he did so on the basis of God's election and in the very way God had revealed Himself.

When we look at the worship of the people of Israel we read that once again it was the Lord who not only took the initiative but also gave them the clear principles of worship. He left nothing unrevealed (Exod. 25). "Speak unto the children of Israel…and let them make me a sanctuary; that I may dwell among them". The Lord had made a deliberate choice of that People. He reminded them that it was all of grace; "The Lord did not set his love upon you, nor choose you, because ye were more in number than any other people…But because the Lord loved you, and because he would keep the oath which he had sworn to your fathers." (Deut. 7:7,8). It was because of this gratuitous choice that the Lord now revealed to them His sacred Worship. He told them that all the other nations would have their bounds set by the people of Israel (Deut. 32:8). This was a promise of the future conversion of the Gentiles to Christ. By setting their bounds by the people of Israel, He revealed that He alone has the right to regulate how He must be worshipped.

It is important that we understand from this the cursed way of sinners like ourselves even attempting to approach God without being chosen by Him. This does not mean that we do not have a duty to seek God. It does not mean that we can sit back and say to ourselves, "I will wait till God gives me an indication that He has chosen me." God tells us in Isa. 55:6, "Seek ye the Lord while he may be found." Every attempt is sure to be a complete failure. No-one can approach Him without first having been chosen by Him. This is the vanity of the unbelieving world that they think that they can. Even in Christian circles people presume to draw near to God and offer Him a worship that He has never sanctioned and think that because they mean well that their holy God will accept it. The Scriptures make it abundantly clear, that in order that our worship be acceptable to the living Jehovah we must be chosen by Him.

This was the truth of which the Apostle Paul was writing to the Ephesians, when he reminded them by the Holy Spirit, that it was the gracious choice and adoption by the Father in the Lord Jesus Christ that had given them a living hope. He told them that God had made known to them the mystery of His will according to His good pleasure. Among other things He revealed to them and the Church of God how they are to worship Him (Acts 20:28; Eph. 1:7ff.).

God is a holy God and therefore it is impossible for sinful creatures like ourselves to presume to approach Him. Sin has made us blind and senseless. His choice of a sinner always includes the preparation by Him in giving a new heart and renewing a right spirit within him, to worship Him aright (Psa. 51:10).

The second feature of true worship is that it is impossible to approach God without being accepted in the Beloved. Original sin has utterly ruined us and separated us from God. Original sin has made us to be hated by God (Psa. 11:5). It is therefore the sinner's great sin that he will not pray, God is not in all his thoughts (Psa. 10:4). We must learn the shame of our own nakedness which disqualifies us in approaching unto our holy God (Gen. 3:10; Rev. 3:17,18). After our first parents ate the forbidden fruit they knew that they were naked and hid themselves from the presence of God. Even the aprons of fig leaves that they made for themselves still left them naked and they knew it. This was their first but failed attempt to worship God. In His grace God made them coats of skins to reveal to them that the only way to make them fit to worship their God was that they must be covered by the coats of Christ's righteousness, or better still, by the Righteous Christ Himself. The beast that was slain in order to cover their nakedness was slain by the Father Himself to let them know that when Christ died He died personally at the hand of the Father (Zech. 13:7). When our blessed Lord died He did not die of the crucifixion. He died on the cross by His own will because He gave up the ghost (Luke 23:46). God looks on His beloved Son and accepts us in HIM. He is the only covering provided that the shame of our nakedness will not appear in the sight of our Holy God (Eph. 1:6ff.).

It is sad how the world is deceived in this approaching the Almighty God without Christ. Even professing persons often make this mistake. It is their arrogant hope to think that they can offer prayer to Almighty God without coming to God in the Name of our blessed Lord. This is why paganism and all the other religions are false, and their adherents, although they think that they are praying, really do not pray at all. The sad truth is that they are worshipping Satan. It is not merely closing our prayers with a phrase like "through Jesus Christ…" as though our blessed Lord were no more than a relay station, but all effective prayer must be in Christ. We need to be covered with Him, for the Father only hears Him and us as we are in Him and covered like Adam and Eve with the Righteous Christ. David prayed "....look upon the face of thine anointed (or 'thy Christ')" (Psa. 84:9). It was as though he was saying, "do not look upon me, because I am vile: look upon my Covering; look upon Thy Darling Son, and hear me in Him." Jonah like David before him cried out of the fish's belly "…yet will I look again toward thy holy temple" (Jon. 2:4). He knew that there was the mercy seat, that there was the sprinkled blood, that there was the Lord Christ Himself. He was not only the hearer of his cry but the One in whom he alone could approach God. God had covered him with Christ, and this gave him great boldness even in the most unpromising circumstances. We know that God heard him and brought him out of the fish's belly.

The third lesson that God reveals to us is that He has chosen the only way in which a sinner can approach to God. Men are never slow in contending against this and they have gone to a lost eternity. This is the mark of the devil's seed, and the mark of the beast is 666! (Rev. 13:18). The counterfeit may be good in the sight of other sinners but it always falls short of God's perfection. God's perfect number is 777 - Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Right from the beginning Cain learned his master's - Satan's - suggestion to offer to God a counterfeit worship. He did not wait to be called by God, he did not offer up a bloody sacrifice, he listened to Satan rather than to God and offered the fruit of the ground. He expected that God would be pleased with him because he meant well. However, he learned that God had rejected both him and his offering. God did speak to him and told him that the sin offering, a lamb, which was a type of the Lord Christ was right at his door (Gen. 4:7). (The word "sin" can mean either sin or sin-offering. This is one of the shorthands that we often find in the Bible, and in this case both are true.) All that he had to do was to open the door and take hold of the offering and offer it to God. There was a warning, however, in these words. Cain was warned of the power of sin and that sin was lying at his door to devour and destroy him (Heb. 2:2). He would not listen and being given over to a reprobate mind and filled with all unrighteousness, envy and hatefulness of God (Rom. 1:28ff.), he went out and murdered his brother (Gen. 4:8; Rev. 13:16ff.).

Abel was different. God having chosen him and revealed his true worship to him, he offered up a bloody sacrifice and had this testimony, that he was righteous (Heb. 11:4). His faith was in the Lord Jesus Christ and he looked to Him alone for the forgiveness of sin and his justification (Heb. 12:2).

This was the case of the children of Israel. After delivering them from their bondage in Egypt, the Lord brought them to Mount Sinai to give them the Ten Commandments. At that time He also gave them His precise instruction to build Him a Tabernacle. To make absolutely sure that there will be no departure from His instruction and to emphasise that it was His worship and that it was His Tabernacle, He gave Moses a pattern of the things he should set up. Nothing was left to the children of Israel's imagination of how to improvise anything for themselves (Exod. 25:9). This was repeated when King David instructed Solomon to build the Temple. God left nothing to chance and gave David the pattern of the Temple (1 Chr. 28:19).

This is very important because we learn that it is God's prerogative not only to demand of His elect to worship Him, but the way we are to worship Him. It is true that the Lord Jesus Christ is the "brightness of His Father's glory" (Heb. 1:3) and that He has opened up the way for sinners everywhere to draw near to the Father through Him (Heb. 10:22), but this does not mean that we have the right to implement our own worship to serve Him. He is still the unknowable God until He reveals Himself to us and therefore He must show us His worship and the things that please Him. This was the significance of the Tabernacle - and later the Temple - worship for the people of Israel. God did not improvise any other worship when they lost their Temple and went away into captivity into Babylon, because He could not be worshipped in any other way. This was David's thirst when he was shut out from the Tabernacle (Psa. 42:3,4). In the Tabernacle worship our God has laid down the principles of worship. He has revealed to us that as true worship is His, He alone has the right to tell us how we may worship Him and what He will accept.