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Chapter 3

The Way of Worship

In the first chapter, we examined the biblical doctrine of redemption, and we saw that both Roman Catholics and evangelicals have departed from the scriptural understanding of the Protestant Reformation. In this chapter we will examine scriptural principles of worship, and use them to measure the worship practices of both Rome and present-day evangelicalism.

Biblical Teaching on Worship

It was a glorious day in ancient Israel. The tabernacle had recently been built according to the divine blueprint given to Moses by the Lord (Ex. 25:8-9). Aaron and his sons were consecrated to their priestly vocation, and they offered the prescribed sacrifices unto God (Lev. 8-9). The "glory of the Lord appeared unto all the people." Fire came out from the Lord and lit the offering on the altar, consuming the sacrifice, "which when all the people saw, they shouted, and fell on their faces" (Lev. 9:23-24). We can only imagine the mixture of awe, wonder, and joy which the people experienced on this holy and festive occasion.

Moments later, the scene changed dramatically, as a terrible judgment fell upon Nadab and Abihu. In the midst of their activities, "there went out fire from the Lord, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord" (Lev. 10:2).

What had they done, to provoke the anger of the Lord? The biblical narrative tells us simply that they "offered strange fire before the Lord, which he commanded them not" (Lev. 10:1).

Nadab and Abihu had not done something which was expressly forbidden. No, they merely added a bit of "strange fire" which the Lord had not commanded. The judgment which came upon them stands as a perpetual testimony against those who presume to worship God by means which lack divine warrant. It is a solemn warning: "the Lord spake, saying, I will be sanctified in them that come nigh me, and before all the people I will be glorified" (Lev. 10:3).

God's displeasure with synthetic worship is expressed throughout scripture. In order to gain a better understanding of scriptural principles of worship, we will make a further examination of precepts and examples from the Bible.

Biblical Precepts

In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses exhorts the children of Israel to keep the law of God. In chapter 12, he reviews scriptural precepts pertaining to worship.

The Lord forbids his people to imitate pagan ways of worship; the Israelites were commanded to eradicate the remnants of corrupt worship from their midst. They were commanded to destroy "all the places" wherein the heathen served their gods. They were instructed to purge the land of all the implements associated with false worship: "Ye shall overthrow their altars, and break their pillars, and burn their groves with fire; and ye shall hew down the graven images of their gods." Even the terminology of corrupt worship was to be erased: "Destroy the names of them out of that place" (Deut. 12:2-3).

To the modern mind, this may sound strangely intolerant. But the Lord warned his people against the danger of imitating the worship practices of the pagans: "Ye shall not do so unto the Lord your God." The chapter concludes with a further warning against imitating heathen worship. "Take heed to thyself that thou be not snared by following them, after that they be destroyed from before thee; and that thou inquire not after their gods, saying, How did these nations serve their gods? even so will I do likewise. Thou shalt not do so unto the Lord thy God. What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it" (Deut. 12:30-32; cf. 4:2).

The sufficiency and authority of scripture are brought to bear upon the content of our worship. This is the meaning of the scriptural law of worship: all forms of worship must have express scriptural warrant, if they are to be admitted as legitimate means of worship.[1] The biblical pattern of worship needs no supplements of human devising; indeed, such man-made innovations are a snare ­ the very seed of idolatry.

When we consider the fallen nature of mankind, we see why the biblical precepts of wor ship are necessary. Since the fall of Adam, the nature of man has been thoroughly corrupt. This inherent corruption drives men away from God: "There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God" (Rom. 3:11). Thus, the native tendency of mankind is to pollute the worship of God, exchanging the truth of God for a lie, worshipping and serving created things rather than the Creator (Rom. 1:25).

Just as men are incapable of forging a method for their own salvation, so they are incapable of devising proper means to worship and serve God. Therefore, the only proper way to worship God is through the means established by the Lord himself.

Worship in the Wilderness

During the wilderness wanderings, the Israelites had to be schooled in proper principles of worship. Their native tendency toward corrupt worship was shown early, while they waited for Moses to return from Mt. Sinai. Growing restless, Aaron and the people constructed a golden calf to serve as a visible symbol of deity.

Virtually all expositors decry the action of the Israelites as idolatry. What is often over looked, however, is the manner in which the Israelites justified their action. They did not view the calf as a newly-created deity; rather, they made the calf as a testimony of their divine deliverance from Egypt. The calf-image evoked a sense of the strength displayed in their deliverance. "These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt. And when Aaron saw it, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation, and said, Tomorrow is a feast to the Lord" (Ex. 32:4-5).

In other words, the Israelites did not claim to worship new deities ­ that would be blatant idolatry. No, they intended the calf to serve as a symbol of deity; and Aaron seeks to honor the sacred name of the Lord through this monstrous invention.[2]

Now, when Moses returned, he did not regard this matter lightly. He did not employ the tactic which Papists have used for centuries (and which evangelical churchmen presently en dorse), simply cautioning the Israelites not to worship false gods, noting that the image itself was not a deity, and then allowing the image to remain strictly as a symbol. Moses "took the calf which they had made, and burnt it in the fire, and ground it to powder, and strawed it upon the water, and made the children of Israel drink of it. And Moses said unto Aaron, What did this people unto thee, that thou hast brought so great a sin upon them?" (Ex. 32:20-21).

This sin had transpired while Moses was receiving the ten commandments on the mountain. And the decalogue forbids not only the worship of false Gods, but it also condemns the worship of the true God by unsanctioned methods.

The Scriptural Law of Worship

The first commandment declares, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me" (Ex. 20:3). It is plain that the Lord God is the only proper recipient of worship.

The second commandment continues the focus on worship by telling us how God is to be worshipped. It does so in a negative sense, by forbidding us to worship God with human inventions. "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image" (Ex. 20:4).

A graven image is not merely a statue of a false deity. If that were the case, the second commandment would be redundant of the first. Instead, the second commandment plainly forbids making or revering physical or artistic representations of the true God.

When the Lord revealed himself to the Israelites, he did so by means of his word ­ not by physical images to be imitated or embellished. Therefore, he warned them: "Take ye therefore good heed unto yourselves; for ye saw no manner of similitude on the day that the Lord spake unto you in Horeb out of the midst of the fire: lest ye corrupt yourselves, and make you a graven image, the similitude of any figure," etc. (Deut. 4:15-16).[3]

The apostle Paul instructed the Athenians, "We ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man's device" (Acts 17:29). Any attempt to represent God by human devices is an insult to the Lord. His pronouncement is clear: "I am the Lord: that is my name: and my glory will I not give to another, neither my praise to graven images" (Isa. 42:8).

The prohibition expressed in the second commandment reaches beyond what we might call an image, in the strictest sense of the term. In its broader scope, this commandment really forbids the use of all man-made devices in worship. It directs us to a basic concept: that the only acceptable way of worshipping God is to render homage to him according to the instructions given in his word. Any deviation from his word by adopting humanly-devised forms of worship is, de facto, a violation of the scriptural law of worship.

In other words, all religious ceremonies and institutions must have clear scriptural warrant, if they are to be admitted as valid expressions of worship. This concept has sometimes been called the regulative principle of worship. It is merely an application of the sola scriptura rule of Protestant theology.

Temple Worship

The designation of a central place of worship did not occur until the Israelites conquered and settled the land of Canaan. A central site for public worship had been anticipated since the time of Moses (Deut. 12:11; cf. 12:5, 14); but it did not reach fulfillment until the reign of David. During David's rule, the ark of the covenant was moved to Jerusalem, thereby establishing the city as the center for the sacrificial ordinances of the Levitical priesthood. Even so, the entire program of worship, from the tabernacle to the temple, was directed by divine revelation.

Tabernacle worship was structured according to the divine blueprint. The Israelites were instructed: "Let them make me a sanctuary; that I may dwell among them. According to all that I shew thee, after the pattern of all the instruments thereof, even so shall ye make it." Descriptions of the tabernacle furnishings reiterated that all things had to be made according to the God-given pattern (Ex. 25:8-9; cf. 25:40; 27:8; Num. 8:4; Acts 7:44; Heb. 8:5).

Later, David provided Solomon with the plan for constructing the temple: "David gave to Solomon his son the pattern of the porch, and of the houses thereof and the pattern of all that he had by the spirit also for the courses of the priests and the Levites. All this, said David, the Lord made me understand in writing by his hand upon me, even all the works of this pattern" (1 Chron. 28:11-13, 19). Nothing was left for improvising; everything was ordered by the divine pattern for worship.

Solomon built the temple according to the heavenly blueprints left by David, and Jerusalem remained the seat of public worship for the entire kingdom of Israel.

After the death of Solomon, the kingdom became divided and the people slid into corruption and apostasy. The northern tribes swiftly embraced false worship, and never recovered from their apostasy. Within the kingdom of Judah, there were several seasons of reformation, amidst other waves of idolatry. The key to understanding the history of the Israelites it to note the critical connection between the worship of the people, and God's dealings with them in relation to their worship.

The Apostasy of the Northern Kingdom

When the northern tribes seceded, Jeroboam took a pragmatic approach to worship in the northern kingdom, devising a "local" program of worship suited to his own purposes (1 Kings 12:28-33). Jeroboam's actions were wholly revolutionary. He established a new center for worship, new means for worship, and a new priesthood. It was not so much that Jeroboam encouraged his people to worship other deities, but that he devised new methods which displaced the biblical means of worship; Jeroboam's offense was akin to Aaron's sin in making the original golden calf.

Subsequent kings in the north, such as Ahab, blatantly embraced the worship of Baal. Later, when Jehu ruled the northern kingdom, he exterminated the house of Ahab, and repudiated the Baalism of his predecessors. Yet for all his zeal, Jehu retained the "sins of Jeroboam, which made Israel to sin" (2 Kings 10:29-31).

The reign of Jehu indicates that the guilt of Israel came not merely from idolatry, in the narrow sense of the term: that is, the worship of false deities. Jehu eradicated the worship of other deities and claimed to worship the Lord, but he clung to the unhallowed methods of worship instituted by Jeroboam. Thus, Israel was charged with corrupt worship for attempting to worship the true God, the Lord, with unsanctioned means.

The comparison here between Jeroboam and Jehu again illustrates that Jeroboam's original crime was in establishing alternative forms of worship from those enjoined in the Mosaic law. Jeroboam's initial action took Israel to the slippery slope of corrupt worship. From there, the nation frequently degenerated into further idolatry by worshipping false gods as well. Therefore, let it be noted that the first step on the path of idolatry is taken when men presume to worship the Lord through means and measures not ordained in the word of God.

The kings of northern Israel were idolaters; the apostasy of the nation was thorough; and so the Lord destroyed the northern kingdom. A chilling account is provided in 2 Kings 17:4ff., with a summary judgment in verses 20-24 of that same chapter.

The 17th chapter of 2 Kings also explains the origin of the mongrel religion of the Samaritans. After the Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, the Assyrian king deported the Israelites; he then used the land of Israel as a relocation center for Babylonians and other displaced persons (2 Kings 17:24-41). These heathen refugees "feared not the Lord: therefore the Lord sent lions among them, which slew some of them" (2 Kings 17:25).

Alarmed by this development, the king of Assyria sent back an Israelite priest to instruct the people how to serve the Lord. The people then professed to worship the Lord God, but they attempted to render service to the Lord by resorting to their customary idolatry, employing their own devices and priesthood. "So they feared the Lord, and made unto themselves of the lowest of them priests of the high places, which sacrificed for them in the houses of the high places. They feared the Lord, and served their own gods, after the manner of the nations whom they carried away from thence. So these nations feared the Lord, and served their graven images, both their children, and their children's children: as did their fathers, so do they unto this day" (2 Kings 17:32-33, 41).

The technical term for such a religious admixture is syncretism. For centuries it has been the modus operandi of Roman Catholicism. Sadly this Samaritan approach to worship is only too prominent among professing Protestants and in the church growth movement among contempo rary "evangelicals." The trends in popular culture and the deviant worship of the pluralistic masses are adopted as a way to make worship "relevant" and appealing to modern society.

The Kingdom of Judah

After the separation of the northern tribes, the kingdom of Judah often embraced corrupt worship, beginning with the reign of Rehoboam: "Judah did evil in the sight of the Lord, and they provoked him to jealousy with their sins which they had committed, above all that their fathers had done. For they also built them high places, and images, and groves, on every high hill, and under every green tree. And there were also sodomites in the land: and they did according to all the abominations of the nations which the Lord cast out before the children of Israel" (1 Kings 14:22-24).[4]

When Asa became king in Judah, he instituted reform. In the scriptural account of his reign, he is commended for removing corrupt worship. "Asa did that which was good and right in the eyes of the Lord his God: for he took away the altars of the strange gods, and the high places, and brake down the images, and cut down the groves: and commanded Judah to seek the Lord God of their fathers, and to do the law and the commandment. Also he took away out of all the cities of Judah the high places and the images: and the kingdom was quiet before him" (2 Chron. 15:2-5; cf. 1 Kings 15:12-19).

Among the later kings there were both good and evil rulers. What is striking about the biblical narratives is that kings are consistently measured by their approach to worship. Those rulers who made an effort to restore biblical worship are commended; those kings who resorted to idolatry (or tolerated corrupt worship) are criticized.

During the reign of godly King Jehoshaphat, the people manifested an attachment to corrupt worship, in spite of efforts by the king to reform the land. "The people had not prepared their hearts unto the God of their fathers." Many resorted to sites of corrupt worship, "for the people offered and burnt incense in the high places," and these high places were not taken away (2 Chron. 20:33; 1 Kings 22:43; 2 Chron. 20:33).

Corrupt worship reveals a serious problem of the heart. In conducting unsanctioned worship, the people showed that their hearts were not right with God, regardless of what their professed motives might have been.

In subsequent generations, the kingdom of Judah degenerated into further idolatry and Baal worship. "They left the house of the Lord of their fathers, and served groves and idols: and wrath came upon Judah and Jerusalem for this their trespass" (2 Chron. 24:18).

Could anything be clearer? The Lord detests corrupt worship and he punishes this sin.

Hezekiah was a good king, and he issued a call for national repentance; he also established a program of reform (2 Kings 18:5-6; 2 Chron. 30).

The passover was restored. Moreover, the people "arose and took away the altars that were in Jerusalem, and all the altars for incense took they away, and cast them into the brook Kidron all Israel that were present went out to the cities of Judah, and brake the images in pieces, and cut down the groves, and threw down the high places and the altars out of all Judah and Benjamin, in Ephraim also and Manasseh, until they had utterly destroyed them all" (2 Chron. 30:14; 31:1).

Under Hezekiah's leadership, we see two aspects of reform united: the positive work of restoring the biblical pattern of worship, and the negative work of removing the elements of unscriptural worship. Both aspects are essential components of thorough reform.

As a negative facet of reform, Hezekiah "brake the images, and cut down the groves, and brake in pieces the brasen serpent that Moses had made: for unto those days the children of Israel did burn incense to it: and he called it Nehushtan [ a piece of brass]" (2 Chron. 18:4).

The destruction of the brasen serpent is an extremely important event, for it demonstrates the far-reaching scope of genuine reform. The brasen serpent was originally made at the command of God. It had not, however, been designated as an implement for use in the ordinary worship of the Lord. Therefore, because the brasen serpent had been superstitiously abused, it was necessary to destroy it.

Contemporary readers may find it difficult to comprehend this deed. It is easier to discern why Hezekiah led the people to destroy the high places, images, and groves dedicated to unsanctioned worship. But, truly, the brasen serpent was a hallowed symbol of God's former deliverance of the Israelites. Why destroy it? Why not simply caution the people against the abuse of a traditional symbol?

Hezekiah was wiser than both Papists and our modern evangelical churchmen, who would, no doubt, follow a more "moderate" course. The king realized that the serpent had become a snare; it fostered superstition. And Hezekiah knew that this superstition ­ this corruption of worship ­ was sufficient to provoke the wrath of God. Far better to dispense with a sacred relic, than leave it as a temptation for present and future generations.

As noted, the brasen serpent was included in no part of the ordinary worship of God. By comparison, the passover was an integral part of the stated worship of God; therefore the passover was renewed and restored. But since the serpent had no sanctioned role in the stated worship of God, it was better to remove it altogether.

After Hezekiah's rule the nation again drifted into apostasy. The last reforming king was Josiah.[5] In addition to purging the kingdom of corrupt worship, the young king directed repairs of the house of the Lord (2 Chron. 34-35; 2 Kings 22). After Josiah's death, the kingdom of Judah passed again into apostasy. The nation then fell to the Babylonians, and the Jewish people were carried away into exile.

Eventually, the Jews were permitted to return to their homeland and commence rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem. They were careful to restore the temple and its services according to the scriptural pattern (Ezra 3:10). When the construction was complete, "they set the priests in their divisions, and the Levites in their courses, for the service of God, which is at Jerusalem; as it is written in the book of Moses" (Ezra 6:18). Moreover, the passover was restored (Ezra 3:10; 6:18, 20-22).

Christ's Teaching on Worship

Christ reinforces the Old Testament commandments which restrict the object of worship to the Lord God alone. When assaulted by the suggestion to worship Satan, Jesus replied, "Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve" (Matt. 4:10).

The 15th chapter of Matthew records a different kind of conflict between Christ and corrupt worship ­ the confrontation between Christ and Jewish religious leaders of his day. In consider ing this passage, we should recall that the scribes and the Pharisees were not heathen idolaters. They did not worship Baal, nor did they bow before the state god, Caesar. They did not make graven images, adhering to the strict letter of the law. They had a high regard for the temple in Jerusalem, which they knew to be the prescribed place for the public ordinances. But was their religion scriptural?

No. The scribes and Pharisees held to the traditions of their fathers so zealously, that their traditional practices had, in many respects superceded the precepts of the Old Testament (Matt. 15:2). Hence, the apostle Paul later refers to this traditionalism as "the Jews' religion," indicating that apostate Judaism is not the religion of the Bible (Gal. 1:13-14).

A conflict was created, because these Jews sought to supplement the biblical precepts with practices of their own devising. Jesus rebukes them for substituting man-made duties in the place of God-given responsibilities. "Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition?" (Matt. 15:3).

The Saviour then exposes the method of subterfuge the Pharisees had invented in order to cover their negligence. They had cloaked corrupt practices by claiming a high regard for the temple, the focal point of public worship. Yet, their argument was merely a pretence for neglecting family duties prescribed in the law.

As a result, the divine verdict was against them: "This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. But in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men" (Matt. 15:8-9; cf. Isa. 29:13).

Here Christ draws a connection between the religious service performed by these men, and the worship which they offer. Their worship was eclipsed by the spurious religious traditions which they annexed to it.

This rebuke clearly condemns the notion that mankind (or the church as an institution) has the right to institute new modes of worship and religious service. If men assert the right to invent new forms of religious piety, they are usurping the authority which belongs to God alone. Christ is the King of the church, the only lawgiver.

The Pharisees paid lip service to God. We know they made long prayers, fasted twice a week, and arranged financial bequests to the temple. As formalists, they were exceedingly concerned about outward conformity to man-made regulations. At first, we might not link their practices to "public worship," since many of these activities were conducted outside the temple and synagogue services. Yet, their traditional observances are accounted by Christ a measure of their worship. And their worship is declared to be vain.

The Essence of True Worship

Christ describes the essence of true worship during his conversation with the woman at the well (John 4:5-26). During the conversation, the woman propounds to Jesus the preeminent religious controversy which existed between the Jews and the Samaritans.

Specifically, the dispute was over where to worship. Now, it is true that God had prescribed Jerusalem as the place for public ordinances ­ although that would soon change. Outwardly, as regards the place for public ordinances, the Jews were right. God had prescribed a pattern of worship which was focused upon Jerusalem. This divine pattern was designed as a witness for all mankind, regarding the right way of salvation. "Salvation is of the Jews" (John 4:22), for "unto them were committed the oracles of God" (Rom. 3:22). In this sense, the Jews worshipped what they knew: that is, they adhered to the knowledge of the law as it pertained to the place for divine ordinances. (Herein we are again directed to the importance of revealed religion, as given in the law.) The Samaritans had abandoned the law, and forged their own mongrel religion (2 Kings 17).

In another manner, Jesus reiterates the importance of God's appointment in religion. A great change was about to occur, respecting the outward ordinances of worship. At whose direction? Not by man's appointment, but by the appointment of God. He alone is the lawgiver. None may tamper with the pattern which he has established; yet it is his divine prerogative to make alterations in conformity with his purposes.

Jesus next summarizes the essence of true worship, which includes the inseparable union of both piety and knowledge. True worshippers shall worship God "in spirit and in the truth." The worship of true worshippers is characterized in this manner, as an outworking of God's saving grace. God's sovereignty in salvation extends not only to the manner in which the elect are saved, but also to the purposes for which they are redeemed. One essential design in the salvation of the elect is that they shall worship in spirit and truth: "for the Father seeketh such to worship him" (John 4:23).

The language is repeated in imperative form. It is language similar to other imperatives in the teaching of Christ, such as the statement recorded in the previous chapter of John's gospel: "Ye must be born again." The true worshippers " shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth. They that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth" (John 3:7; 4:23-24).

True worship must be "in spirit." It involves the inner man, demanding sincerity and love. Worship includes more than the mere outward forms of devotion. Many times God has pronounced a curse against persons wedded to empty forms of religion. The unbelieving Jews had hearts far from the Lord, even though they were in the right place for external ordinances. True worship must flow from hearts of sincerity and love toward God our Saviour.

Likewise, genuine worship must be "in truth." That is, our worship must be in conformity to God's written revelation. There is, indeed, an outward measure for our worship. In the present day, it is common to hear comments that the "heart" is all that matters: a mistaken concept that sincerity of motive and fervent emotion are the substance of genuine worship. But Christ does not confine the essence of worship to worship in spirit; he adds the measure of truth. Acceptable worship is more than the gushy effervescence of a fervent heart. Without truth, such fervor is an offense before God; it is zeal, "but not according to knowledge" (Rom. 10:2). [6]

Christ's statements imply a solemn warning. By his reference to "true worshippers" (John 4:23), we may perceive a distinction which sets them apart from other worshippers. In other words, there is a class of worshippers who are false in their worship. Therefore, we must examine our own worship carefully, that we may discern to which class we belong.

The New Era Following the Death of Christ

As Christ indicated to the woman at the well, a great change was occurring; it would render the dispute between Samaritans and Jews obsolete. When Christ died upon the cross, he exclaimed, "It is finished" (John 19:30), and the veil of the temple was torn in two "from the top to the bottom" (Matt. 27:51). This event marked the fulfillment of the Levitical ordinances of the Old Testament. Formerly, "the priests went always into the first tabernacle, accomplishing the service of God" (Heb. 9:6, 24; cf. Heb. 8:2). Now "Christ is not entered into the holy places made with hands which are the figures of the true; but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us." The earthly tabernacle (and temple) had always been a mere "example and shadow of heavenly things" (Heb. 8:5; 10:1; Col. 2:17). Now that the substance is manifest in Christ, the types and shadows give way to reality.

Through his priestly offering on the cross, Jesus "by himself purged our sins" and "sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high" (Heb. 1:3). Having been declared "a priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec," Christ rendered the Levitical priesthood obsolete (Heb. 5:6).

This discussion is important on two counts: it shows the obsolescence of the older, ceremonial forms of worship along with the Levitical priesthood, and it indicates the end of sacrifice for sin.

With "the priesthood being changed" (Heb. 7:12), and the temple ceremonies having ful filled their purpose, Jerusalem is no longer the fixed locale for the preeminent expressions of public worship. With the Old Testament ceremonies gone, what remains?

Apostolic Practice and Teaching

Although temple worship has reached its conclusion, several ordinary elements of worship continue. These are practices of piety which always had been found beyond the precincts of the temple ­ in private worship, family worship, and the synagogues ­ practices such as prayer, the reading of scripture, and biblical instruction.

We are told that the church "continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking bread and prayers" (Acts 2:42). As Christ's commissioned messengers, the apostles arranged things according to divine directives. They had been ordered to "observe all things whatsoever" Christ commanded (Matt. 28:20). The church still was not permitted to worship and serve God according to human wisdom or man-made devices. Therefore, the apostles' doctrine was not something invented by the apostles; it was simply the doctrine of Christ ­ the doctrine of the holy scriptures.

Under the direction of the apostles, the reading and exposition of the scriptures were regular activities in the public assemblies of the church. These practices were ancient, "for Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day" (Acts 15:21; cf. 2 Cor. 3:15).

Since the apostles were Christ's appointed messengers, apostolic epistles were also read publicly as part of the canon of scripture. Paul commands, "I charge you by the Lord that this epistle be read unto all the holy brethren" (1 Thess. 5:27). "And when this epistle is read among you, cause that it be read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and that ye likewise read the epistle from Laodicea" (Col. 4:16).

Closely tied to the reading of the scriptures was the practice of expounding the word by public preaching and teaching. Jesus routinely expounded the word of God within assemblies for public worship: "Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom" (Matt. 9:35). Thus it is not surprising to see the apostles adopting the same course: "And daily in the temple, and in every house, they ceased not to teach and preach Jesus Christ" (Acts 5:42). Later, Paul and Barnabas abode in Antioch, "teaching and preaching the word of the Lord, with many others also" (Acts 15:35). Before Paul departed from Troas, "upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them" (Acts 20:7).

Preaching was obviously a regular part of public worship. Hence the apostolic aspirations, "I am ready to preach the gospel to you that are at Rome also" (Rom. 1:15), and the apostolic admonitions: "Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine" (2 Tim. 4:2).


The reference in Acts 2:42 to fellowship points to an important truth. Although temple worship has been discontinued, that does not mean that religious duties are now limited to private and family exercises. There yet remains a role for congregational worship and public ordinances. The public exercises of worship are no longer centered around a particular location (Jerusalem); nevertheless, corporate obligations are extensive among the people of God. For this reason, we find an apostolic admonition to provoke one another "unto love and to good works: not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is" (Heb. 10:24-25).

Wherever the gospel was received, gathered congregations were formed and organized (cf. Acts 14:21-23). It is in the context of the congregation assembled corporately that we find many expressions of public worship and service. Therefore we see why it was mentioned as an important factor that the early Christians continued steadfastly in apostolic fellowship. Corporate worship is the highest public expression of adoration rendered unto God.[7]

The Sacraments

Although the ceremonies of the temple have reached their fulfillment, the church is not left without any outward signs or seals of God's covenant. Rather, the Lord's Supper and baptism serve as a visible word to compliment the word preached.

The Lord's Supper was instituted by Jesus on the night before his crucifixion. It was a commanded ordinance; the language is plain: "Take, eat. Drink ye." "This do in remembrance of me" (Matt. 26:26; Luke 22:19-20; cf. Mark 14:22-23).

That these actions were meant to be an ongoing observance, is clear from both the words of the Saviour, and the apostolic commentary provided in 1 Cor. 11: 23-26: "For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, that the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread: and when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me. For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do show the Lord's death till he come."

The divine warrant for baptism should be unquestioned, since it is embedded in the words of the Great Commission. "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen." (Matt. 28:19-20). Numerous baptisms are recorded throughout the book of Acts.

The sacraments are outward signs and symbols; through them, the gospel is preached through divinely-ordained "pictures" of redemption. "Though fewer in number, and administered with more simplicity, and less outward glory" than the old ordinances, the New Testament sacraments hold forth Christ "in more fulness, evidence, and spiritual efficacy, to all nations, both Jews and Gentiles."[8] The Old Testament ordinances prefigured (in a typical manner) the Messiah who was yet to come; whereas the New Testament ordinances declare the work of Christ who has already come and conquered sin and death.

Since these signs are ordained by God, it should be clear that it is a monstrous presumption for anyone to add new sacraments, or to supplement the two sacraments of Christ with other "images" of human devising.[9] Yet, throughout history, men have often corrupted the church with liturgical "aids to worship" and new ecclesiastical ordinances. Others have embellished the sacraments by imposing a superstitious manner of observing them ­ such as Romish baptismal rites or Anglican liturgical forms. These deviations are an insult to Christ, because they imply a deficiency in the scriptures, as though the sacraments of Christ are insufficient as signs and seals, and therefore require humanly-devised supplements to increase their effectiveness.


Prayer is a basic element of worship, whether public or private. Throughout the Old Testament, prayer was freely offered in a variety of settings beyond the boundaries of the temple. Therefore, we should not be surprised to see Christians constantly resorting to prayer within congregational meetings. There are numerous examples of congregational prayer in the book of Acts (Acts 4:24-31; 6:6-7; 12:5; 13:3; 14:23; 16:13; 16:25; 20:36; 21:5). Apostolic injunctions repeatedly enjoin prayer (Phil. 4:6; Col. 4:2; 1Thess. 5:17; 5:25; 2 Thess. 3:1; 1 Tim. 2:1-2, 8).

Other Practices of Worship

Based upon Acts 2:42, we have briefly noted several basic elements of public worship found in the New Testament: the reading and preaching of the word of God, the sacraments, and prayer. Readers may wonder ­ beyond the subjects mentioned in Acts 2 ­ are there additional elements of worship which continue from the Old Testament, or which have been instituted by Christ or the apostles?

From other passages of scripture, we learn that psalm-singing was a regular practice within the Christian church (1 Cor. 14:26; Matt. 26:30; Mark 14:26; Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). The Bible additionally provides a warrant for fasting, as well as special times of thanksgiving.[10]

Apostolic Warning

We cannot conclude our discussion of the New Testament without looking at Paul's warning to the Colossians. The apostle warns them not to be beguiled by religious ordinances which are merely "the commandments and doctrines of men" (Col. 2:18-22). He cautions that such ordinances "have indeed a shew of wisdom in will worship, and humility, and neglecting of the body, not in any honour to the satisfying of the flesh."

The religious ordinances in question impose a burden upon those who practice them, requiring a degree of "humility, and neglecting of the body." This kind of religious discipline might seem commendable, but it is only a show.

A key to understanding the root problem with these ordinances is in the expression "will worship," which is somewhat cryptic to modern readers. The Greek term here might be rendered "voluntary worship" or "arbitrary worship."[11] The gist is that these ordinances are forms of worship or religious service chosen by man (according to the will of man), not means chosen by God.

This is the essence of corrupt worship, when men seek to establish their own forms of religious service. We might call it free-will worship, since the advocates of man-made worship are claiming that men possess the right (or freedom) to institute acceptable means to worship God.

This passage was cited frequently by the Reformers in their struggles against the corrupt worship and burdensome ordinances of Roman Catholicism. The passage was again employed by Scottish Protestants and English Puritans to repel the impositions of the Anglican liturgy. Indeed, Paul's warning furnishes a sweeping indictment against all humanly-imposed forms of worship and religious ordinances.

In the twentieth century, many people act as though idolatry is a remote possibility. Yet, when we understand that the biblical condemnation of corrupt worship extends to all man-made forms or worship, we see the need of the apostolic admonition, "Little children, keep yourselves from idols (1 John 5:21)."


Based upon the teaching of scripture, we derive the following truths respecting worship:

1. God is the only proper recipient of worship.

2. Mankind must worship the Lord only according to the means prescribed by God.

3. It is sinful to amend or alter the worship prescribed by God in his word.

4. There is no longer a central place for worship. The temple ordinances have reached fulfillment.

5. The sacrificial ordinances have reached their conclusion; the finished work of Christ means that sacrificial ordinances are no longer to be conducted as part of stated public worship.

6. There is therefore no need for a new sacrificial priesthood.

7. The ordinary elements of worship now include: prayer, the reading, preaching, and hearing of God's word; singing of psalms; and the right administration of the sacraments ­ as well as occasional appointments of fasting and thanksgiving.

The Worship of Rome

The centerpiece of Romish worship, the Mass, is blatant idolatry. Rome holds to the doctrine of transubstantiation, contending that the bread and wine are transformed into the actual body and blood of Christ. The Mass is believed to be an actual sacrifice, possessing propitiatory merits. The elements of bread and wine are uplifted, where they may be adored (worshipped) by the assembled congregation. The people share only in the wafer, for the cup is withheld from the laity. This "sacrifice" of the Mass, with its ceremonial priesthood, is utter blasphemy against the finished priestly work of Christ. The Mass is a gross corruption of the Lord's Supper.

Romish edifices for worship are filled with graven images: pictures and statues made to depict the Lord, Mary, the apostles and the saints. Rome claims that these images serve a didactic purpose, and that the images may properly be venerated. Moreover, popish religious orders and merchants peddle a multitude of religious artifacts which promote superstition among the people.

Rome has expanded from two to seven the number of sacraments, and added a multitude of ecclesiastical rites, including clerical attire, the ecclesiastical year, and symbolic rituals for hosts of religious observations. The word of God is crowded out by liturgy, images, and ritual. Additionally, like the Pharisees, Rome has a multitude of religious ordinances which stand as a symbol of her false piety. Imposed clerical celibacy is a prime example of an ecclesiastical ordinance which contravenes biblical doctrine.

Repeated and regular attendance at the Mass and other Romish rituals is patent disobedience to the scriptural commands for Christians to avoid idolatry. Anyone who knowingly retains a connection with this Romish worship cannot maintain a credible profession of faith, for the Bible says: "What agreement hath the temple of God with idols? Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you." (2 Cor. 6:16-17).

The issue of Rome's idolatry was at the heart of the Reformation. "For [John] Calvin the worship of the medieval church had become 'gross idolatry.' The issue of idolatry was for him as serious as the issue of works-righteousness in justification. Both represented a pandering to human proclivities, rather than desiring to please and obey God. Calvin insists that no unity can exist in worship with idolaters."[12]

The Worship of Evangelicalism

While evangelicals do not celebrate the Mass (not yet, at least), many take comfort in a relative comparison with Rome, noting that their worship is not as degenerate as the idolatry of the Mass. But relative comparisons are not to be the measure of true religion. The Bible condemns any form of man-made worship as a species of idolatry; and evangelical churches are full of synthetic worship. The latest fads include lavish musical performances, drama, puppet shows, films, sacred dance, and heretical hymns ­ to name but a few infractions. Much as with Rome, the word of God is crowded out, in this case by entertainment, multi-media presentations, and false teaching.

Evangelical edifices and instructional materials are filled with graven images of the Lord. In recent years, many evangelicals have promoted "missionary" activities through the use of the Jesus film, which is available in multiple languages. Evangelicals claim that these images serve a didactic purpose, especially for teaching children and evangelizing the unlearned. Their argument is merely a modern paraphrase of the old popish claim that images serve well as "books for the laity."[13] On the contrary, "faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God" (Rom. 10:17).

Readers are invited to take a stroll through a typical evangelical bookstore. The shelves are filled with religious trinkets and paraphernalia which rival popish merchants, and may even exceed them for sheer tackiness.

There is also a disturbing trend among evangelicals to be fascinated with Romish ritual and liturgy. This trend is not isolated to "high-church" communions, such as the Anglican and "orthodox" churches which were never thoroughly reformed. Rather, some "Protestant" churches have begun adopting the trappings of Romish rites and liturgy: ministers don priestly gowns and begin introducing elements of liturgical worship. Churches post crosses in prominent places within their buildings, and begin following the ecclesiastical year of Rome.

Biblical psalm-singing is noticeably absent throughout evangelicalism. Instead, contemporary evangelicals seem to relish sentimental ditties and heretical hymns. Many who never sing the psalms will unite in singing "Faith of Our Fathers," oblivious to the fact that the hymn's author composed it as a testimony of his own conversion to Rome! [14] Perhaps it is fitting, since these modern evangelical choristers are on a parallel pilgrimage.

Evangelicals have also mutilated the sacraments. Whereas Rome corrupts the Lord's Supper and withholds the cup from the laity, many evangelical congregations dispense neither element to the people. In some cases, the biblical elements of the Lord's supper have been replaced by grape juice and crackers (or coffee cake). The idea that a local congregation has the right to change the elements given by the Lord is every bit as pernicious as Rome's doctrine of church power. It makes little difference whether divine authority is usurped by a priestly hierarchy (Rome) or a localized democracy (evangelicalism); in either case it is an arrogant presumption against the sola scriptura rule of biblical religion.

In the previous chapter we mentioned the altar call in connection with spurious evangelism. The altar call also impacts the doctrine of worship because it functions as a sacrament ­ as a public "sign and seal" of grace. Like Rome, evangelicals have man-made religious ordinances which stand as symbols of false piety and worship.[15]


Both Rome and modern evangelicalism share an underlying assumption that the church has power to innovate in worship. A contrast exists in outward practices because Rome's innovations flow from centuries of accumulated traditions; whereas evangelicals often discard tradition in favour of "contemporary" practices in worship. At root, however, both groups share the assumption that men have the right to supplement the biblical means of worship.

As we have examined the subject of worship, we have noted many similarities between Rome and evangelicals. It is a startling to realize how the worship of God has been corrupted by both evangelicals and Roman Catholics together.

Footnotes on Chapter 3

1. "The acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in holy scripture" (Westminster Confession, 21:1).

2. Even the Anglican author, J.I. Packer, explains this incident as an attempt by Aaron to worship the Lord (not other gods) ­ an attempt using unlawful means. "Aaron made a golden calf (that is, a bull-image). It was meant as a visible symbol of Jehovah, the mighty God who brought Israel out of Egypt. No doubt the image was thought to honor Him, as being a fitting symbol of His great strength. But it is not hard to see that such a symbol in fact insults Him: for what idea of His moral character, His righteousness, goodness, and patience, could one gather from looking at a statue of Him as a bull? Thus Aaron's image hid Jehovah's glory. In a similar way, the pathos of the crucifix obscures the glory of Christ, for it hides the fact of His deity, His victory on the cross, and His present kingdom. It displays His human weakness, but it conceals His divine strength; it depicts the reality of His pain, but keeps out of our sight the reality of His joy and His power. In both cases, the symbol is unworthy most of all because of what it fails to display. And so are all other visible representations of Deity." Knowing God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1973), pp. 40-41.

3. Readers should note that Roman Catholics and Lutherans divide the ten commandments dif ferently than ordinary Protestants. Papists and Lutherans combine the first two commandments into one, thus subsuming the second command as a mere appendix to the first. They divide the tenth commandment into two commands prohibiting different kinds of covetousness. Thus, they still maintain ten in number, but the effects on their doctrine of worship is devastating.

In practice, many modern Protestants have unwittingly adopted this same viewpoint. The second commandment is expounded as a mere expansion of the first, and restricted in application only to false deities and open homage to images. As a result, they admit images into churches, ostensibly for didactic purposes. This modern interpretation is contrary to the Protestant confessions of the Reformation. See Heidelberg Catechism #96-98, Westminster Confession, 21:2-3; Westminster Larger Catechism, #107-109.

4. Today, many Roman Catholics and evangelicals decry the sins of abortion and homosexuality as manifestations of our nation's corruptions (which they are); but these contemporary moralists are generally silent about the heinous sin of corrupt worship.

5. He purged "Judah and Jerusalem from the high places, and the groves, and the carved images, and the molten images. And they brake down the altars of Baalim in his presence; and the images, that were on high above them, he cut down; and the groves, and the carved images, and the molten images, he brake in pieces, and made dust of them, and strewed it upon the graves of them that had sacrificed unto them. And he burnt the bones of the priests upon their altars, and cleansed Judah and Jerusalem. And so did he in the cities of Manasseh, and Ephraim, and Simeon, even unto Naphtali, with their mattocks round about. And when he had broken down the altars and the groves, and had beaten the graven images into powder, and cut down all the idols throughout all the land of Israel, he returned to Jerusalem" (2Chron. 34:3-7; cf. 2 Kings 23:4-14, 24).

6. This defective view of worship may be linked to the tendency among evangelicals to define themselves subjectively (in terms of similar religious experiences), apart from objective commitments (in terms of biblical truth).

7. A puritan writer, David Clarkson, explores this theme in a provocative sermon, "Public Worship to be Preferred Before Private," based upon Psalm 87:2: "The Lord loveth the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob." See The Practical Works of David Clarkson (1865; rpt. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1988), vol. 3, pp. 187-209.

8. Westminster Confession of Faith, 7:6.

9. Among evangelicals, we have often heard it argued that we need "pictures of Jesus" to instruct children and other unlearned people. If individuals sense the need for visible representations of divine truth, we suggest they study the lawful administration of the sacraments. In baptism and the Lord's Supper (rightly observed) they will find divinely-ordained, outward representations of the essential truths of redemption.

10. In the New Testament narratives, there are several examples of temporary aspects of worship ­ practices which were suited to the transitional era of the apostles. Elsewhere, I have noted reasons why such apostolic "signs and wonders" were never expected to be permanent elements of worship. See Kevin Reed, Biblical Worship (Dallas: Presbyterian Heritage, 1995) , pp. 75-80.

11. In the Greek New Testament, ethelothreeskia ­ The Geneva Bible translates the term as "voluntary religion," with a note explaining it as "such as men have chosen according to their own fantasy." Tyndale renders it "chosen holiness."

12. W. Robert Godfrey"What Really Caused the Great Divide?" in John Armstrong, ed., Roman Catholicism: Evangelicals Analyze What Divides and Unites Us (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), p. 72. Godfrey makes several references to Calvin's tract on The Necessity of Reforming the Church (1544); a new edition of this important work by Calvin has been reprinted recently by Protestant Heritage Press, P. O. Box 180922, Dallas, Texas 75218. For an important study respecting the reformers' views on worship, see: Carlos M. N. Eire, War Against the Idols: The Reformation of Worship from Erasmus to Calvin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986). Eire demonstrates that the reformers' struggle against idolatry was a central facet of the Protestant Reformation.

13. But may not images be tolerated in the churches, as books to the laity? No: for we must not pretend to be wiser than God, who will have his people taught, not by dumb images, but by the lively preaching of his word" (2Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet. 1:19; Jer. 10:1. etc.; Hab. 2:19-19). Heidelberg Catechism #98.

14. Frederick W. Faber was ordained in the Church of England in 1842. Under the influence of John Henry Newman, he entered the Roman Catholic church in 1846. Three years later, Faber published a book, Jesus and Mary; or Catholic Hymns for Singing and Reading. The third stanza of this hymn is often altered in evangelical hymnals; the original text reads:

     Faith of our fathers! Mary's prayers
           Shall win our country back to thee;
      And through the truth that comes from God,
           England shall then indeed be free.
      Faith of our fathers, holy faith!
           We would be true to thee till death.

Cited from: William Jensen Reynolds, Hymns of Our Faith (Nashville: Broadman, 1964), pp. 43, 289.

15. Another example, which has waned in popularity in the broader evangelical community, is the way some fundamentalists measure a man's piety by whether he totally abstains from all alco holic beverages.

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Copyright ©1995 by Kevin Reed