Worship is at the heart of Christian faith and of the life of the Church. When we read the Old Testament and understand the detail manner in which God legislates the rules and regulations for how He is to be worshipped by His people, then we will get a taste of how serious God takes the worship of Him. Throughout the Old Testament we see that just plain worship or any kind of worship is not necessarily pleasing to God. There are times that God is angry with offerings and behavioral patterns and the actions of His people and He says “I despise your feasts, I hate your solemn assemblies, and your offerings have become offensive in my nostrils, take away your songs (Amos 5:21-23), “I have had enough burnt offerings; I take no pleasure in the blood of bulls and rams. When you come before me who requires these worthless offerings, I hate your festivals and assemblies (Isaiah 1:11-15)”, and there are times God completely rejects the outward religious observance of the people of Israel.

The Canon of Marcion the heretic

The early church went through a great crisis concerning biblical continuity. This crisis centered on a man named Marcion, who was a heretic of all time. Marcion taught that the God of the New Testament is not the same God who reveals in the Old Testament. He said, the God of the Old Testament was a ruthless, wrathful, bloodthirsty evil God, whereas, the benevolent, loving Father revealed by Jesus in the New Testament is the true God. In order to convey his doctrine, Marcion altered Scripture and produced a censored, edited, version of the New Testament. He was the first scholar to offer a formal canon of the New Testament to the church in AD 140. However, it was radically reduced in scope from the New Testament that we know today. The church responded to the Marcion heresy, and began to formalize the Canon of Scripture that we have today. In that process, the church affirmed the Doctrine of God’s Immutability that His character does not change from generation to generation, from time to time. In other words, the church said that there is continuity from the Old Testament to the New Testament in at least one aspect: God Himself.

Worship in Old Testament

The concept of worship embodied in the Latin word Latria (from the Greek λατρεία) is found very early in the Old Testament and throughout the history of the Jews. It referred to the practices of worship in the religious life of Israel. There were three basic components of this concept of Latria in the Jewish nation. They were the offering of praise to God, the offering of prayer to God, and the offering of sacrifice to God. The scarifies offered as an outward sign of a heart that filled with awe, reverence and respect towards God. The scarifies that God is looking for is the sacrifices of praise. Giving adoration to God and honoring Him is the central element of Worship in the Bible.

We behave as if nothing God said on the subject of worship in the Old Testament applies today. If we are to come back to the foundation, if we are to please God in our worship, does it not make sense to ask whether there has ever been a time when the unchanging God Himself revealed the kind of worship that was pleasing to Him? – R. C. Sproul

All Scripture is inspired by God. This does not mean that God dictated every word. However, if there ever was a time when God dictated revelation, it was in those passages in the Pentateuch. He spoke word for word, precept upon precept, chapter after chapter how He wanted Old Testament worship to be conducted. He told the Israelites how the tabernacle was to be built -the pattern of the tabernacle as well as the pattern of all its furnishings. He dictated micro details how to build the ark, table and lamp-stand -width, height, depth, inside and outside overlay, materials to be used with exact quantities. He gave detailed instructions for the ephod and the garments of the priests. He laid down specific laws governing the behavior of the priests and the people in and around the sanctuary. He outlined the services, incense to be used, the offerings, and the festivals. In other words, God took great pain to be very specific about the form of worship in Israel. That gives us all the more reason to study the Biblical roots of worship and distinguish those elements of worship that have been prescribed for us by God himself.

Yes, there is discontinuity from the Old to the New Testament. We do not have a temple now. The curtain of the Holy of Holies has been torn apart. There are no more sacrifices, no more altars and no more priests as a special order to offer sacrifices. That era has ended at the cross. But there is continuity, too. Still, we are to bring an offering to God. We are to respond to the gospel with a living sacrifice. We can discern principles in the patterns of worship that God revealed to His people in the Old Testament, and those principles should inform the patterns of our worship today.

Theology of Worship

The Book of Exodus portrays the story of God sending a deliverer named Moses to free His people from their bondage out of the Land of Egypt. The purpose of redeeming Israelites is clear in God’s own words: “Let my people go, so that they may worship me” (Exodus 4:23, 7:16, 8:1, 9:1, 10:3). Exodus lays the foundation theology in which God reveals His names, His attributes, His redemption, His law and how He is to be worshipped. After the covenant at Sinai, God establishes His administration over Israel as the King. The book concludes with an elaborated discussion of theology of Worship. It gives the direction of building the tabernacle. Its meaning and function, points to the chief end of man: “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever” (Westminster Shorter Catechism). Now, we come to the 3rd book of the Bible, Leviticus; and it concerns mainly the service of worship at the tabernacle. It gives the law and regulation for worship which was conducted by the priests who were the sons of Aaron and the Levites.

Worshiping with Strange Fire

In Ch. 8 we read the consecration of Aaron and His Sons. They went through an extensive purification process and training, and God had set them apart, anointing them for priestly service. God had given them precise detail, instructions and commands during their ordination. Then, these two newly consecrated young priests set out on their new priestly duties, to perform the very first worship service as described in Leviticus 9. They ventured to offer Incense with strange Fire, a different Fire that God had not prescribed. Upon that the wrath of God broke out upon them, and slew them both in the Sanctuary in-front of all the people, in the prime of their life.

This was the speech of Moses to his brother Aaron, endeavoring to quiet and comfort his heart after the death of his sons, Nadab and Abihu, at the hand of God. V3 – “This is what the Lord has said: ‘By those who come near Me I will be treated as holy, And before all the people I will be honored.'” Then the scripture says, “Aaron held his peace”. What could he say? Fight back? God had spoken; they had disobeyed; God’s judgment fell; end of the discussion! Not only God silenced the mouth of Aaron, but also He silenced the possible reactions related to His judgment by his other sons Eleazar and Ithamar. God not even allowed Aaron and his sons to morn for the deceased. “Do not let the hair of your heads hang loose, and do not tear your clothes, lest you die, and wrath come upon all the congregation” (v6). God told them that they should learn the difference between Holy and Profane, the difference between secular and sacred.

Mixing the Profane and Sacred in Worship

Worship is an area that Satan has infiltrated to deceive the majority of churches into thinking that they are worshipping God in spirit and truth, when in fact God is rejecting their worship because they are mixing the profane and sacred, the worldly with the holy, in their “worship”. Satan has deceived them into thinking that they can worship God anyway they like. So what has Satan done? He has deceived the churches into thinking that it is ok to bring any styles of music into church to worship God, blasting out beats and rhythms with empty words. He has convinced the churches into thinking that we need to entertain the people, rather than simply preaching and teaching the truth of God’s Word. But the Bible clearly shows that God does not accept all forms of worship offered to Him. He is a holy God and one that rightly demands Godly fear and complete reverence in our worship to Him. “God is greatly to be feared in the assembly of the saints, And to be held in reverence by all those around Him” (Psalm 89:7).

For many bible-believing churches have been inflicted with severe pragmatism they sort out to fast, result-driven methods ignoring the clear teaching of the Word. They are so focused on “how can we bring more people in”, that they are accepting more and more worldly forms of entertainment to make “church” more acceptable to those outside the faith. If you read Acts ch.5 then you see how God put a block on unbelievers and hypocrites coming in to His church. Early church grew leaps and bounds in the face of many signs and wonders, and people were attracting in thousands. The sudden execution of Ananias and Sapphira caused a great fear in the land. How many, do you think, have decided not to go to apostles’ meetings from the next Sunday? A simple act of disobedience is enough to bring about divine execution. The church should be a frightening place because it is fearsome for a sinful man to come into the presence of a Holy God. The Lord desires the purity of His church, perfecting holiness in the fear of God (2 Corinthians 7:1). The trend today is to remove the fear of the Lord, to replace the Biblical precepts with business philosophies. Biblical principles are being taken over by the personal experience and church growth research. The low view of God has brought many troubles upon us.

A recurring theme in the Old Testament is that the people of Israel continually got this worship thing wrong and fell into idolatry. God summarized their condition in Jer.2:13 – “My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” Read through the Books of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, and you will discover the people were very religious. They worshipped God the way they thought they were supposed to and they also took things into their own hands. Once the fire came down from heaven in mercy to consume sacrifices, now a fiery judgment comes from heaven on those offering profane sacrifices.

Worship Worthy Of God

We worship a holy God, an all-consuming fire (Deuteronomy 4:24), therefore our worship of Him is to be pure and holy and is not to be mixed with the common profane things of the world. We must not think that God will accept all forms of worship, because those in the Bible who did that very thing were rejected by God or even destroyed instantly. Nadab and Abihu, at the very first day of their priestly duties were stuck down before the congregation. Perhaps, they read the latest edition of ‘Church Growth Methodology’ and found the way to improve on the ceremonies of worship that God in His sovereign authority had commanded them. The reward for their experiment of worship was sudden execution. When Moses said to Aaron those words, we can read in between those lines… “Anyone who comes near to me, this is not a time or place to bring your experiments. This is not a time or place for your talent shows. This is not a time or place for a boot camp. I have not ordained the worship of me for the entertainment of people. But I will be regarded as Holy by anybody comes near me!”

SEVEN Lessons from the Leviticus encounter:

  • God commands worship, therefore the Word of God must govern worship.
  • In matters of worship, God is concerned about little matters.
  • God does not turn a blind to children of devout parents in matters of worship.
  • Those who enter public places, especially places to worship of God, need to have the fear of God much upon them and exercise caution.
  • Though God does not always express His will fully in express terms, He still expects us to gather His will from His Word by using our reasoning skills.
  • God is very quick with some in the ways of his judgments, He is patient towards others.
  • God expects us to discern His will, and having a God-fearing disposition and wisdom will promote caution in seeking to understand it.

Concluding remarks

We know we have a friend in Jesus, and He invites us to call Him friend. We know that we are justified, we have now peace with God, and we have access in to His presence. And we know that we are invited to come to His presence boldly (Hebrews 4:16; 10:19), but that invitation to come boldly is never an invitation to come arrogantly or carelessly or cavalier manner. The great I AM is a jealous God who guards His glory zealously.

Probably no text in the Bible reveals the passion of God for his own glory more clearly and bluntly as Isaiah 48:9-11 where God says, “For my name’s sake I defer my anger, for the sake of my praise I restrain it for you, that I may not cut you off. Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tried you in the furnace of affliction. For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for how should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another.”

Additional Reading / Reference:

Gospel Worship – Jeremiah Burroughs
A Consuming Fire: Holiness, Wrath, and Justice – R. C. Sproul
How Then Shall We Worship – R. C. Sproul
Worship by the Book, By Mark Ashton R. Kent Hughes Timothy Keller (Editor: D. A. Carson)
Regulative principle of Worship by Dr. Derek Thomas
The Freedom of the Regulative Principle, TGC, Kevin DeYoung
Welcome to a Reformed Church: A Guide for Pilgrims by Daniel R. Hyde
The Regulative Principle of Worship by Dr. Ligon Duncan
Regulative and Normative Principles by Paul Washer
Is There a Regulative Principle of Worship? by Dr. Sam Waldron President, Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary and professor of Systematic Theology