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True worship

March 2005 | by John Thornbury

Requirements for worship

‘When you come to appear before me, who has required this from your hand, to trample my courts? Bring no more futile sacrifices. Incense is an abomination to me. The New Moons, the Sabbaths, and the calling of assemblies — I cannot endure iniquity and the sacred meeting’ (Isaiah 1:12-13).

Looking at the context here we find a people who thought they were worshipping God. They appear before God (v.12). They bring sacrifices (v.13). They observed days (v.13). They pray (v.15).

Yet clearly the Lord was not pleased with the religious exercises of these Israelites in Isaiah’s day. ‘To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices?’ the Lord asks. He says that when they spread out their hands (in worship) he will hide his eyes from them; though they ‘make many prayers’ he will not hear them (v.15).

His rejection of their religious exercises reminds us that everything that passes for worship is not pleasing to God. Clearly, therefore, we need to study carefully what Scripture says about true worship — what is required of those who would be accepted by God.

Here are some requirements for worship which are clearly delineated in the Scriptures.

Worship demands faith

Firstly, true worship requires faith. Those who comes to God must believe that he is, and that he rewards those who diligently seek him (Hebrews 11:6).

The text speaks of coming to God and seeking God. To ‘come to God’ is an expression, often used in the Bible, to express the soul’s approach to deity for the purpose of worship and service.

To ‘diligently seek’ God means that the worshipper will seek a relationship with God and to know what it is to please him. He will attempt to make contact with God through prayer and will study carefully God’s written revelation — which in turn will lead him to Christ.

But obviously no one is going to seek God unless they are convinced that God ‘is’ — that God exists. This is the easiest part. There are many reasons to believe in a supreme deity.

Reason, conscience and common sense demand that there be a Creator. That is why the Bible never seeks to ‘prove’ the existence of God. It is taken for granted that the universe is not an accident. The Bible begins with the forthright statement — no formal proof, just a witness — that God made the universe.

But Hebrews 11:6 says that to approach God one must not only believe that he is but also that he is a ‘rewarder’ of those who seek him diligently. This is not, of course, a reward of merit, but of God’s faithfulness in responding to those to come to him aright.

Worship requires reconciliation

The Scriptures teach that man’s sin has caused estrangement between God and humanity. This alienation began in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve listened to Satan and turned away from God.

The first couple were driven from God’s presence with a ‘flaming sword’ — a symbol of God’s displeasure and the barrier between the creature and the Creator.

But throughout the Old Testament we find human beings coming to God and finding fellowship with him at altars where sacrifices were made. This is true, for example, of Noah and Abraham (Genesis 8:20; 12:7-8).

The national worship of Israel, established under Moses, also featured daily and annual ritualistic sacrifices. On these ancient altars the blood of animals was shed and, in a figure, God met with his people there.

The New Testament reveals that all these Old Testament sacrifices prefigured the atoning work of Jesus Christ — through which alone human beings may find acceptance with God.

Paul teaches that God set forth his Son Jesus as a ‘propitiation’ (Romans 3:25) through which men can be forgiven, and that God was in Christ at Calvary ‘reconciling the world to himself’ (2 Corinthians 5:18). The word ‘propitiation’ means that God is appeased or ‘satisfied’ for sin through Jesus’ atonement.

It was the life-giving, redemptive sacrifice of Christ on Calvary that ‘bridged the gap’, so to speak, between a holy God and sinful man. When a sinner comes to Jesus repenting of his sin and accepting this sacrifice for himself, he is reconciled to God. In other words, the enmity between the sinner and God is removed through the blood of Jesus, and in no other way.

Worship calls for sincerity

Why did God not accept the religious exercises described by Isaiah? Why were the prayers, sacrifices and observances of these ancient Israelites not pleasing to God? One reasons is that they were offered in a formal and superficial manner.

This is brought out clearly in Isaiah 29:13: ‘these people draw near with their mouths and honor me with their lips, but have removed their hearts far from me’. Honouring God with the lips but not with the heart is a graphic and powerful description of hypocritical service — mere formal religion without genuine heart-felt devotion.

Jesus applied Isaiah’s indictment to the temple devotees of his own day: ‘Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you saying…’ (Matthew 15:7). These scribes, Pharisees and elders had descended both physically and spiritually from the people rebuked by Isaiah and they followed the same pattern of disobedience.

The empty, formal, but essentially carnal religious exercises of the spiritual leaders of Israel persisted throughout the nation’s history until God brought down the whole legal Mosaic system by the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in A. D. 70.

Form without love

The problem addressed by Isaiah’s scathing words, and repeated during his time on earth by the same sovereign Saviour who gave them, never really goes away in any generation. How many millions flock to religious services, dutifully going through the motions of religious worship without any real love to God or submission to his word?

Any number of things can induce people to take up a religious profession — a guilty conscience, a desire to appear righteous before their neighbours, or even mercenary motivations.

Jesus said to the Samaritan woman that the true God, who is a Spirit, seeks people to worship him in spirit and truth. ‘Truth’ refers no doubt to the right theological and doctrinal understanding which circumscribes true service to God.

‘Spirit’ refers to the motive and driving energy which inspires and compels people to adore deity. It must be sincere and ‘from the heart’, spiritual worship based on true love and devotion.

Worship requires moral reformation

When the ancient priests of Israel came into the presence of God they were required to wash with water before making their offerings (Exodus 30:19-20). Failure to do so was a capital offence.

True believers, reconciled to God through the sacrifice of Christ, should also come before their Lord with a sincere desire for sanctified lives and moral reform. To worship God means to part with sin, through repentance, confession and faith in Christ’s blood.

Ancient Israel, to which we have often referred in this study, provides a striking illustration of failure to cleanse hearts and lives.

Speaking for God, Isaiah cries out, ‘Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean. Put away the evil of your doings from before my eyes. Cease to do evil. Learn to do justice. Seek justice; rebuke the oppressor; defend the fatherless; plead for the widow’ (Isaiah 1:16-17).

Accepted by grace

If cleansing from sin is a condition, one may well ask how poor sinners — defiled by their thoughts, words and actions — can ever find admittance into the presence of God. The fact is, of course, that our acceptance with God is based ultimately on his grace bestowed through the mediation of Christ, who alone is perfectly holy.

But the God who forgives us all our sins is also committed to transforming us through the power of his Holy Spirit. The Corinthian Christians, surrounded as they were by the pagan customs and practices of their neighbours, were commanded by Paul to cleanse themselves ‘from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God’ (2 Corinthians 7:1). Perfect righteousness belongs to God alone, but transformation from evil is an integral part of God’s plan for his people.

The psalmist asks, ‘Who may ascend into the hill of the Lord, or who can stand in his holy place?’ The answer comes back strong and clear: ‘He who has clean hands and pure heart, who has not lifted up his soul to an idol nor sworn deceitfully’ (Psalm 24:3-4).

Certainly there can be no fellowship between God and those who cling to and practise the sins of the flesh and of the spirit — sins that distinguish the unsaved people of this world from the true people of God.

To be continued