The True Worship of God:
Acceptable Worship

by Rev. Sterling Durgy

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In our time, traditional Christian worship is being rejected, worship is being re-defined, and new forms of worship are being instituted in many churches. Many organizations and individuals today have dedicated themselves to changing the way Christians worship throughout the world. Perhaps this should not surprise us. Worship has often been a point of contention. The first murder in human history took place because Cain was jealous of Abel when Abel's worship, but not Cain's, was acceptable to God. Jesus' conversation with the woman at the well in John 4, Paul's letters to the Corinthians and the Colossians, and the letter to the Hebrews, all address conflicts concerning the proper place of worship in Christian life and community.

Worship is a central part of the life of every Christian. Christian worship distinguishes the faith of Christians from all other faiths. It is important, then, for Christians to carefully consider how they worship God. There will always be some differences in worship styles among Christians due to differences in the cultures and personalities of the worshippers. There are also some changes in worship over time. This isn't necessarily evil. To the extent that this represents the universal nature of God's redemptive love, this represents the strength of the Gospel. Nevertheless, every Christian who truly worships God will conform to principles taught and exhibited in Scripture and exemplified in those reverent towards Christ throughout the ages.

In our consideration of worship, our perspective must be clearly Christian. We worship the God of the Old Testament. But while there are certainly Old Testament Scriptures that are extremely important in helping us understand the true nature of worship, as Christians we build upon and go beyond this foundation to worship God in a uniquely Christian manner.

Acceptable Worship

The first mention of worship in the Bible comes in the fourth chapter of Genesis, which relates how trouble developed between the first brothers: Cain and Abel. Scripture does not provide all of the details we might like to have about what happened then. For instance, was the occasion at which the two brothers made their offering the Sabbath, was it a yearly offering, or was it some other kind of ceremony? Adam and Eve were probably also involved, but we are not told how. Why was Cain's sacrifice unacceptable when Abel's was? We might expect that animal sacrifice of Abel, typifying the sacrifice of Christ, the promised Deliverer, might be more acceptable to God (Genesis 3:14-15, 21), and it seems likely that this was a part of the problem with Cain's offering (Hebrews 9:22). It would be difficult to find an example, elsewhere in Genesis, of a sacrifice that did not include animals. But we also know that both animal and cereal sacrifices were acceptable to God under the Mosaic Law, and the Scripture indicates that the offering was unacceptable, not necessarily incomplete. Further, in what manner did God show that Abel's sacrifice was acceptable and Cain's was not?

However, this lack of information about some details only places greater emphasis upon the things that are made clear. First and most importantly, this Scripture makes plain that it is God, not man, who determines what is acceptable worship. The person who approaches worship to please himself rather than God has completely failed. Worship is an activity involving two beings: a creature and a Creator. Whatever it was that Cain lacked in worship was well known to him if it is not entirely clear to us. God reminded Cain that if Cain did well, Cain's offering would also be well-received.

We know that part of Cain's problem was his attitude. The author of Hebrews describes it as a lack of faith (Hebrews 11:4). Evidently, Abel placed faith in the sacrifice that God said would be acceptable where Cain did not. Perhaps Cain's jealousy of his younger brother began before the time of sacrifice, and Cain refused to purchase animal sacrifices from his brother. In any case, after Cain's conversation with God, where God encouraged Cain to do well, Cain was still more motivated by jealousy toward his brother than by any desire to please God. It was the failure to recognize God as a living Person and Sovereign that underlaid and preceded Cain's murder of Abel. If Cain had held proper reverence for God, the problem with his brother would have evaporated. At the very least it would not have led to murder.

On more than one occasion, God instructed Abraham how to approach Him (Genesis 15:8ff., 22:1ff.). From the burning bush to meeting God at Sinai, Moses was given instructions by God as to how Moses and the people were to approach Him. Much of the Mosaic Law was devoted to worship. Moses was given a highly detailed and specific plan for Hebrew worship. This plan included an elaborate tabernacle and the furniture to go with it, the choice, dress, and duties of a priesthood, the establishment of holidays and rituals, which sacrifices were acceptable under which circumstances, and the precise manner in which sacrifices were to be made.

Once again, there were those who insisted on substituting their own worship for that instituted by God. While Moses is receiving the Law on Mount Sinai, the people make themselves a golden calf and begin worshipping it instead of the true God (Exodus 32:1ff.). Moses had those who would not repent of this slain - about 3,000 Israelites. Aaron, who had actually made the golden calf at the bidding of the people, later spoke against Moses with their sister Miriam, claiming that they were as much representatives of God as Moses (Numbers 12:1ff.). God called the three before the tabernacle and made His choice of Moses clear, punishing Miriam for seven days. Later, under Korah, two-hundred fifty of Israel's leaders defied Moses, saying that they had every bit as much right to approach God as Moses and Aaron (Numbers 16:1ff.). The ground opened up and swallowed the leaders of the rebellion and their families, while fire consumed the others who presumed to offer worship not sanctioned by God. In addition, all tribal leaders had given their rods to Moses, who had placed them in Tabernacle. Aaron's rod budded to indicate God's blessing upon his priesthood. This rod was placed inside the Tabernacle and later inside the ark of the covenant as an abiding testimony to Israel of how God wanted to be approached (Hebrews 9:3-4). The very next day, the people of Israel gathered together against Moses for this, and God sent a plague upon the people to punish them!

This same Law that demanded the complete obedience of the people to the form of worship established by God Himself also relates these words, "I will raise up a prophet for among your countrymen like you (Moses), and I will put My words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. And it shall come about that whoever will not listen to My words which he shall speak in My name, I Myself will require it of him" (Deuteronomy 18:15, 18-19). These words point to Christ. The most important truth in Christian worship is that God has chosen that every person must come to Him through Jesus Christ. "For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus" (I Timothy 2:1).

Much of the book of Hebrews describes how the work of Christ is superior to the worship practiced at the Hebrew Temple. The author of Hebrews also reminds us of the meeting between God and the Israelites at Mount Sinai after the exodus from Egypt. At that time, God gave an impressive display of His power to demonstrate that He was truly God. Mount Sinai was surrounded in a cloud of darkness from which there was fire, thunder and lightning, the sound of a great trumpet, and a great voice with which God spoke to the people. All of this was so terrifying that the people kept their distance and asked not to be brought before God (Exodus 20:18-19, Deuteronomy 4:9ff.). However, the author of Hebrews says, Christians come before God and the realities of the Kingdom of God far more fully than any of those in the Old Testament (Hebrews 12:18-29, 13:10-12). In view of this, he writes, "since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire" (Hebrews 13:28-29). The word translated "service" here describes all manner of reverent service to God, but strongly carries the connotation of spiritual service. This service includes formal worship in addition to the activities of daily life done in such a manner as to please and honor God. The author of Hebrews wants us to know that now that we have, through Christ, come before God in the fullest sense possible, we should be even more careful about the worship that we offer God. In particular, it should be worship that is characterized by "reverence and awe."

The concept of "acceptable worship" is important in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. In the tenth chapter, Paul writes to correct the manner in which the Corinthians celebrated the Lord's supper. In Corinth, a fellowship meal was followed by a celebration of the Lord's Supper. Unfortunately, some of the Corinthians turned the meal into an opportunity for self-indulgence - eating or drinking too much. This made a mockery of the entire service. If an outsider walked in, what the outsider witnessed could easily have been a pagan gathering honoring a pagan idol. There will always be something of man in worship, for it is a creature giving worship to his Creator. But when worship revolves around human self-indulgence, it cannot be acceptable to God because it does not truly recognize who God is or the sacrifice Christ made for us.

Soon after Paul discusses this matter, while still in a discussion of acceptable Christian worship, Paul writes to the Corinthians, "When I was a child, I used to speak as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things . . . Brethren, do not be children in your thinking, yet in evil be babes, but in your thinking be mature" (I Corinthians 13:11, 14:20). Selfishness is childishness. It is unacceptable in worship because it moves the focus of our attention away from God. It is important for us to keep this in mind as we consider the manner in which we offer worship to our Creator and Savior.

First printed in The American Night Watch Newsletter, Volume IV, Part 5, May 1996.

Copyright 1999 Sterling M. Durgy. All Rights Reserved.

The American Night Watch is a trademark of the Christian ministry of Sterling M. Durgy.

Scriptures taken from the New American Standard Bible, Copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968,1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977 by the Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

Permission is granted to reprint this article as long as the copyright is included, this statement is included, and the article is not sold to the recipients.

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This page was last updated October 22, 1999.