Foundations: No.76 Spring 2019

A Biblical Theology of Worship

The task of Biblical Theology is to chart the unfolding history of redemption by following the contours of God’s progressive revelation in Scripture. It is primarily about God, secondarily about salvation, but ultimately about worship as man’s supreme response to God. If we are to formulate a theology of worship in terms of its place in a systematised schema of God’s truth revealed, then it must be rooted in Biblical Theology. This is fundamental to all loci and sub-loci of theology proper.

A summary glance at the landscape of the divine self-revelation tells us far more than we might at first imagine. The Bible begins with God, ends with God and has God as its central focus throughout. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that everything else we encounter in its pages is presented either directly or inferentially as relating to God as well. Every atom of the created order owes its existence to God. Every detail in the unfolding history of the cosmos is under his control and woven into his eternal decree. And the telos of all things lies with God alone. The God of the Bible has tied his reputation to the work of his hands in creation, providence and most of all in his gracious work of salvation. It was his intent from the very beginning that he should be glorified through all of his works – even in his final judgment of the wicked.

It is hardly surprising, then, that as the apostle Paul explores these themes in light of the gospel in Romans, he explodes into spontaneous doxology with the words:

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!
“Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counsellor?”
“Who has ever given to God,
that God should repay him?”
For from him and through him and to him are all things.
To him be the glory forever! Amen
(Rom 11:33-36).

Our goal in what follows is to delve more deeply into the significance of pre- and post-fall Eden with regard to God’s unique intention for humanity to be a worshipping species and follow it through the progress of God’s self-revelation in Scripture – not only as the Creator God, but also as Redeemer – through to the fullness and consummation of this revelation in the new heavens and the new earth.

I. Eden: a Prototypical Temple?

Detailed discussion of the proposition that the Garden of Eden is God’s prototypical earthly sanctuary is relatively recent in the history of Biblical Theology, but it has gained widespread acceptance amongst scholars.[1] That said, Geerhardus Vos alluded to the idea when he described the principle of life being “sacramentally symbolised by the tree of life”. He elaborated by saying,

The tree of life stands in the midst of the garden. The garden is “the garden of God”, not in the first instance an abode for man as such, but specifically a place of reception of man into fellowship with God in God’s own dwelling place. The God-centred character of religion finds its first, but already fundamental, expression in this arrangement [cp. Gen 2:8; Ezek 28:13, 16]. The correctness of this is verified by the recurrence of this piece of symbolism in eschatological form at the end of history, where there can be no doubt concerning the principle of paradise being the habitation of God, where he dwells in order to make man dwell with himself.[2]

Vos went on to develop this with reference to the Prophets, Psalms and the book of Revelation. Despite his relatively limited treatment of this interpretation of Eden, it indicates that the idea of Eden’s being a temple is by no means novel in the field of biblical studies.

The key contributions to the corpus of study on this issue have been extensively summarised by Richard Davidson.[3] He cites no less than 23 scholars – including T. Desmond Alexander, G. K. Beale, William J. Dumbrell and Meredith G. Kline – as a “representative list” of the “scores of biblical scholars” who have supplied the evidence to support this conclusion concerning Eden.[4] It is worth summarising some of Davidson’s key observations to appreciate the weight of this argument and recognise its foundational relevance to the theology of worship that unfolds in Scripture with the flow of salvation history.

In his words, “The most explicit indicator that the Garden of Eden is considered a sanctuary/temple, is the occurrence of the term ‘Eden’ (‘eden, which probably means “land of bliss, happy land”) and its identification as a garden (gan; Gen 2:8), viewed in comparison with identical terminology in Ezekiel 28[5]. In Ezek 28:13 the same two crucial words found in Gen 2:8 are used together again: the Covering Cherub is described as being ‘in Eden [‘eden], the Garden [gan] of God’ while he was yet perfect.”[6] Davidson convincingly argues that this must be a reference to the heavenly original because “the Covering Cherub was there before he sinned, before he was expelled from heaven”.[7] Therefore, what is being described in relation to the earthly pre-fall Eden should rightly be regarded as the counterpart to the heavenly original. “Before the rise of the sin problem in the universe, the heavenly sanctuary served as a place of assembly where unfallen beings gathered to worship and serve their Maker.”[8]

Davidson builds on this premise by highlighting twelve details in the way Eden is described which are in turn echoed in relation to the Tabernacle and Temple in the Old Testament and how these “sanctuary” themes are treated in the New. These recurring motifs are: eastward orientation, divine “planting”, a “garden/park/paradise” with plants and animals from the natural world, the “tree of life” and the menorah, “In the midst” terminology, a flowing river, the mountain of God, precious metals of the sanctuary, “building” from a “side”, priestly ministry, the tripartite (or four-part) structure (with spheres of ascending holiness) and wafting mist and incense.[9]

In his survey of the Genesis record, Davidson moves from pre-fall characteristics of the garden to what pertained post-fall. He notes the reference to God’s “walking around” the garden (Gen 3:8) and links it to its technical usage for God’s presence in the sanctuary (Lev 26:12; 2 Sam 7:6-7).[10] He points to the “divine trial judgment” that ensued when God confronted Adam and Eve in the garden-sanctuary, pointing out that the sanctuary – earthly, but ultimately heavenly – is the setting for subsequent legal proceedings (Deut 19:15-21; Dan 7:9-10; 8:14; Rev 14:6-7). This in turn leads him to highlight God’s gracious answer to his own judgment in the form of the atoning sacrifice that was necessary to “cover” the first pair and let them live.[11]

The essential continuity between the pre- and post-fall epochs is highlighted by the connection between “the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1) and God’s saying through Isaiah, “Heaven is my throne, and earth is my footstool” (Isa 66:1-2).[12] In other words, the realities at the heart of worship have always been located ultimately in the heavenly realm; but their earthly counterparts are designed to mirror them from within the created order.

The extensive research into what pertained in Eden and its biblically revealed connections – not just to later expressions of the temple theme running through the Bible, but also to its heavenly counterpart – have profound implications for how we formulate a theology of worship proper. The depth and detail of what God reveals in the headwaters of the divine self-disclosure feeds into the very fabric of our self-understanding as God’s image-bearers, as well as to how we see our place and purpose in his world.

Michael Morales develops this thought in detail on two fronts:[13] The first, in relation to God’s purpose in constituting humanity in Adam “in his image and likeness”, was that “humanity [should] dwell in the divine Presence”.[14] The second is that the Sabbath day plays a critical role in what this means.[15] Citing Abraham Heschel, he describes it as “Last in creation, first in intention, the end of creation of heaven and earth” indicating that “the Sabbath is the telos of creation”.[16] Linking this to the role of the Sabbath he says,

The seventh day is not only the first to be blessed, and the only day mentioned three times, but it is also the first object ever to be set apart as holy by God. Moreover, the seventh day is the only object of sanctification in the entire book of Genesis; “he sanctified/made it holy” is the book’s only verbal use of the root qds. As the first, mid and final days [of creation] each relate to time, the account’s movement builds toward this sanctification: the reality of one day established by the creation of “evening and morning”, the ability to appoint times for annual cultic festivals established by the heavenly “lamps”, day seven’s consecration of the cultic day, the weekly Sabbath.[17]

This foundational significance of the Sabbath plays through, not merely into the unfolding theology of worship in Old Testament times, but also – given the organic as well as progressive nature of salvation history – into the New Covenant epoch. It belongs to the very fabric of God’s original intention in the pre-fall creation and, therefore, should be expected to find expression in his new creation and ultimately in the eschaton.

The very fact that humanity – collectively, as much as individually – has been constituted imago dei (Gen 1:26-31) is the supreme expression of our being designed to honour God. The detail of what we do in worship must flow out of the essence of how we as human beings have been made in the first place.

The Reformers were deeply conscious of this, as witnessed by John Calvin in his tract, The Necessity of Reforming the Church,[18] in which he sets out the two main reasons for the Reformation. The first was “a knowledge of the mode in which God is truly worshipped” and the second, “… of the source from which salvation is to be obtained”.[19] This priority of worship over salvation (as the means to its restoration) is reflected in later expressions of the Reformed faith, not least in the first Question and Answer of the Westminster Shorter Catechism: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever”. The Reformers and their successors recognised the roots of worship as lying in the pre-fall realm of Eden.

Jonathan Gibson has explored this more fully in his essay, “Worship: On Earth as it is in Heaven”.[20] Again, seeking to demonstrate that the roots of Reformation worship lie in a deep appreciation of the worship of Eden, he links worship to its inherent idea of “liturgy” [leitourgia]. Gibson builds on the reflections of biblical theologians in part to explain what lay behind some of the great liturgies of the Reformation and post-Reformation eras; but also to inform a new generation of worshippers that there is, and always has been, far more to worship than has often been acknowledged or appreciated. In so doing he provides convincing grounds for seeing that the inherent theological logic that shapes and controls the content and flow of worship has its roots in pre-fall Eden. We can trace this thread of revelation into what unfolds post-fall and in all that follows.

II. East of Eden to the Abrahamic Covenant

Adam’s fall changed everything. The created order which, to that point, had known nothing but God’s good word of “all very good” (Gen 1:31) now hears the divine anathema pronounced, not merely on Adam as the federal head of a nascent humanity, but as God’s vicegerent over the earth. The very fact that, immediately after his act of rebellion, Adam along with his wife “hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden” (Gen 3:8) indicates that the unique relationship with God – which was essential to his ability to truly worship God – was broken in that instant. God had warned as much (Gen 2:17): Adam did not act in ignorance. He knew in advance what the consequences would entail.

There was a moment for our first parents, in light of God’s words of judgment, when they must have wondered if this was the end for them. However, as Norman Shepherd stated in his Prolegomena classes, “the very fact that Adam lived to hear God’s words of judgment indicated that he is a God of grace”.[21] Adam had been estranged from God, but had not been abandoned by him. Although the essence of his existence as God’s image-bearer and worship-bringer was impaired, it had not been obliterated. God’s purpose from that point on was to restore.

Adam did not have to wait long to see the beginnings of this gracious restoration. The fig leaves hastily arranged by the first pair in a vain attempt to conceal their exposure before God were replaced by the skins of animals that God himself provided (Gen 3:21). Since their true “nakedness” was not merely physical, but moral and spiritual, God’s provision was salvific and sacramental. The privilege of worship granted uniquely to humanity – but forfeited by its head and representative – was mercifully reinstated by the very God against whom he had sinned.

Though so greatly provoked, God graciously revealed the first steps in the wonderful covenant of redemption (Gen 3:15, 21). To the man and the woman, he restored something of their original ability to respond to and worship God – but now in connection with sacrifice.[22]

Worship had a future, but in a different format than if the fall had not occurred.

We encounter this immediately in the account of Cain and Abel (Gen 4:1-16). Although this episode is almost invariably remembered as the record of the first fratricide, what is easily overlooked is the fact it happened in the context of worship. The two brothers were presenting an “offering” [minkhah] to God. The issue at the heart of their fatal dispute was the fact God accepted Abel’s offering, but not his brother’s (Gen 4:4-5). However, there is something deeper at stake. In terms of what it says about worship, Allen P. Ross writes, “the use of Levitical terminology stresses that Israel’s ritual preserves much of what had been there from the beginning”.[23] This is further confirmed by the presence and role of the cherubim bearing flaming swords stationed at the eastern entrance to “guard the way to the tree of life” (Gen 3:24). The inference behind the sacrificial activities of Adam’s children was their being a conscious act of worship towards the God who alone could be their Saviour and thus was worthy of their praise and thanksgiving.

A key marker in God’s unfolding revelation of worship-as-it-was-meant-to-be is found in the statement linked to the birth of Enosh, the son of Seth: “At that time men began to call on the name of the LORD” (Gen 4:24). The semantic range of the Hebrew verb qara is wide – it includes “call, call out, cry out, proclaim, read aloud, name or summon”.[24] In his discussion of how best to interpret the verb in this and related contexts in Genesis, Allen P. Ross helpfully argues for its pointing to an act of “proclamation” as opposed to merely “invocation” in light of God’s use of it in relation to himself on Mount Sinai (Exod 33:19; 34:5-8). There – speaking out of the glory-cloud – “Yahweh himself came down to meet with Moses on the mountain, and as Yahweh passed by he made proclamation of Yahweh by name”.[25] Calvin echoes this thought in his comment on Genesis 4:26: “In the verb ‘to call upon’ there is a synecdoche, for it embraces generally the whole worship of God”.[26]

If this is a correct interpretation of what it means to “call upon the name of the LORD” it shows how the declarative element of worship that was present in Eden continues with fresh significance as the means of publicly proclaiming the attributes [“Name”] of the LORD in the post-Edenic world.

The importance of this becomes clear as we follow the trajectory of the race that had sunk so deeply into sin that God responded with a cataclysmic flood (Gen 6:1-9.17). Despite the symbolic fresh start granted to the world through Noah and his family, the new incipient race is all too soon plunged afresh into sinful patterns of behaviour with their concomitant consequences (Gen 9:18-29). So too the “generations” of Shem, Ham and Japheth (Gen 10:1) ultimately lead to Babel: the express effort on the part of fallen humanity to rob God of the honour that is his alone (Gen 11:1-9).

The theme of worship is never far from the surface in the timeframe between Adam’s expulsion from Eden and God’s scattering of the nations after Babel. It appears on two levels. On the one hand there is a perversion of worship-as-it-was-meant-to-be by those who follow in the line of Cain. But, on the other hand, there is preservation and cultivation of this worship through those belonging to the line of Seth. Their “proclamation” of the name of LORD by means of publicly professed faith and publicly presented praise provided a constant testimony before their fellow human beings to the God they were choosing to reject.

III. Patriarchal Worship

When we are introduced to Abram in the sixth major section of Genesis, “the generations of Terah” (Gen 11:27), we begin to get a fuller picture of Yahweh worship as it develops in response to God’s unfolding revelation of himself.

The key element of sacrifice – instituted by God in the garden, seen in the primitive expression of worship with Cain and Abel and displayed by Noah in his worshipful act after God’s deliverance from the flood (Gen 8:20) – continues to be a central feature in the worship of the patriarch. In his case, however, we are given a fuller picture as to the context and significance of sacrifice. We notice, for example, that “building an altar” (Gen 12:7-8; 13:18; 22:9) becomes synonymous with sacrifice. Roland de Vaux says of this, “The altar is an essential element in a sanctuary; and in the stories about the patriarchs, the phrase, ‘setting up an altar’ means, in effect, founding a sanctuary.”[27] Also, the act of setting up an altar increasingly becomes linked to locations where God has revealed himself to his people, notably at Shechem, Bethel, Hebron and the region of Moriah (Gen 12:6-7; 13:18; 22:9).

Allen Ross helpfully points out that the action of building these altars was not some superstitious response on Abram’s part to his encounters with God. He had very real beliefs about God that were augmented and strengthened through God’s self-revelation, which, in turn, served to inform the patriarch’s acts of worship. He notes, in particular, that Abraham believed that Yahweh was “the living God, the sovereign God, the righteous Judge, the gracious God and the faithful God”.[28]

With this in mind and in light of what we have already noted about what it meant to “call upon the name of the LORD”, when the patriarch did this in conjunction with building altars and offering sacrifice (Gen 12:8; 13:4; 21:33), he was not merely calling upon God for his aid; he was declaring God to be worthy of praise as well as trust. We should also note in relation to this that, contrary to the objections raised by certain scholars that God was not known as “Yahweh” prior to the incident of the burning bush (Exod 3:13-15, cf. 6:2-3), there is abundant evidence from the text of Genesis that this was not the case.[29] In that sense, as the revelation of Yahweh was unfolding – not least as the God who has chosen from the beginning to bind himself to his people by a solemn covenant relationship – first of all in pre-fall Eden in the Covenant of Works (see e.g. Gen 2:17)[30] and thereafter in successive gracious administrations (Gen 9:8-17; 12:1-3 cf. 15:9-21, 17:1-27) – so the worship of Yahweh was being progressively deepened and enriched.

Despite the 430 years of Israel’s bondage in Egypt, on which Scripture is largely silent and during which it may be assumed that Israel’s worship of the LORD had gone into decline (Exod 2:24-25), there clearly was still a remnant of the faithful (Exod 1:17). We see this especially in how God makes himself known to Moses and the way in which Moses responds. God identifies himself as “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob” (Exod 3:6). More than this, as God tells Moses of the purpose behind his promised deliverance of his people from slavery, it is that they might “worship God on this mountain [Horeb]” (Exod 3:12).[31] As Hattori points out, “the covenant community was clearly conscious of being a people called to worship their ancestral God”.[32]

Worship during the patriarchal period also gives us a glimpse of its essential components. We have already mentioned the significance of holy places where God made himself known to his people and their response of proclaiming his “Name” – that is, the fullness of what he had revealed himself to be. We must also note, however, the posture of worship: notably to “bow down” or “prostrate” oneself before God (see, e.g., Gen 22:5; 24:26, 48, 52).[33]

Ross also identifies solemn oaths, tithes, intercessory prayer, the covenantal rite [sacrament] of circumcision, commemorative thanksgiving and burial with faith, as worshipful responses to the God who had bound himself by covenant to the patriarchs.[34] Significantly, however, he adds “celebrating redemption” as a vital element of worship.[35] He highlights in particular the “Song of Moses” (Exod 15:1-21) as Israel’s spontaneous, but nevertheless theologically occasioned and informed, response to God’s great deliverance. As Ross points out, the “remarkably developed” form of this hymn would suggest that it might have already existed in some form in a corpus of sung praise among the Israelites.

Tying together what we have noted from this era in Israel’s history, although religion was by no means exclusive to the early Israelites, through his covenant of grace God had bound himself uniquely to them as his people. In so doing, he had bound them to a form of worship that he alone would order and direct. Therefore, in the progress of redemptive history, the foundations and key components of God-honouring, covenant worship were already being put in place.

IV. From Sinai to Solomon

The events that took place on and around Sinai at the beginning of the Exodus constituted a defining moment, not only in the history of Israel as a nation, but also in the history of God’s people through the ages. As a watershed moment in salvation history it formalised and crystallised what God had been revealing to his people up to this point. At the same time it paved the way for the forms and institutions of worship that would define and distinguish Israel in the Promised Land. Significantly, the foundation upon which this next stage of Israel’s history rested was the decisive deliverance God’s people had experienced from bondage in Egypt into a new life that would lead to a new Eden.

In his study of Leviticus, Michael Morales explores this in depth. He is careful to point out the importance of what he calls “the narrative context of Leviticus”. This he identifies as “the arc of Genesis 1 to Exodus 40”, which he summarises under the title, “Longing for Eden”.[36] It is the inverse parabola of “Paradise Lost” to the anticipation of “Paradise Regained” – at least in prototypical form.

The two key elements of his argument are that humanity was “created to dwell in God’s house”[37] and that the plotline of the Pentateuch charts the “deepening exile from the presence of God”,[38] both of which are reflected in the parallels between the cosmos and the Tabernacle. Humanity, which was intended to exist for and to express God’s glory, fell from this high privilege and calling through Adam’s disobedience. But, in the “seed of the woman”, God had promised restoration. Ever since that great rebellion and subsequent expulsion from God’s garden-home, the human heart has longed – wittingly or otherwise – for a return to that blessed state.

Morales goes on to trace this “arc” of longing through the Exodus narrative – via Israel’s “redemption” through the waters, their being brought to the mountain of God and then, through the tabernacle, restored to life in fellowship with God.[39] Against this background Morales opens up the structure and content of Leviticus to demonstrate how the God-instituted patterns of sacrifice and worship, the laws governing “clean” and “unclean”, the pivotal significance of the Day of Atonement and the layout and furnishings of the tabernacle itself all combine to provide a typological portrayal of God’s provision for his people’s deepest need. In a visible/tangible form – appropriate to this stage of divine revelation (Gal 3:24) – God pictured not only what his great salvation would entail, but also to where it would lead: restored union and communion with God himself. Morales ends his analysis of Leviticus by demonstrating how it ultimately leads from the earthly replica of God’s dwelling place to the heavenly reality: through Christ and by the gift of the Holy Spirit.[40]

When it comes to seeing the contribution made by Numbers and Deuteronomy to the unfolding revelation of worship in the Pentateuch, Yoshiaki Hattori points out that “no noteworthy description of [religious] activities is preserved in the book of Numbers” and that the same is largely true for Deuteronomy.[41] He does, however, qualify this statement by referencing “the well-known ‘Shema’ (Deut 6:4)” which, he argues, “could be adopted as a creed for our corporate worship”.[42] He summarises the contribution these two books make to augment our understanding of worship by saying, “Much of Numbers and Deuteronomy can be viewed as the setting forth of the conditions and times in which God’s people did, or more commonly did not, worship God aright”.[43] This said, Moses’ declaration regarding Israel’s entry into the Promised Land that God himself would choose “the place” which would serve “as a dwelling for his Name” (Deut 12:11) – a thread that feeds through temple to church (Eph 2:19-22; 1 Pet 2:4-10) and ultimately to its consummation in the New Jerusalem (Rev 21:22) – provides an early keynote as to what the sanctuary was intended to represent.

Allen P. Ross homes in on the tabernacle and its associated furnishings, rituals, personnel and calendar to demonstrate that, from Sinai onwards, this (along with its successor, the temple) would literally dominate the landscape of Israel’s worship. Importantly, he points out that this provision and arrangement originated neither with Moses, nor the people, but with God.[44] And, despite the physicality and temporality of these structures for praise, the Israelites were well aware that they were merely pointers to the greater heavenly archetype.

It would be impossible to consider the place and function of the tabernacle at the heart of Israel’s worship post-Sinai without some comment on its architecture, its layout and its furnishings in terms of their theological significance. These have received considerable attention from a variety of hermeneutical frameworks but have been helpfully summarised by Ross,[45] especially so because he links his observations to the pinnacle of divine revelation in Christ and the way the book of Hebrews in particular interprets these Old Testament phenomena in light of his Person, Offices and Work.

With regard to the God-given pattern and purpose of this structure and its controlling regulations, he indicates that the combination of beauty and holiness wrapped up in them is intended to demonstrate the beauty and sanctity of God himself and what is entailed in his worship.[46] The joy of worshipful communion with God in his dwelling place is never reckless, but a solemn rejoicing. This note carries through into what we see in Christ, not only as the object of worship, but also as the archetypal and representative worshipper, the man Christ Jesus. Furthermore, through him, this shows how the people of God in the New Covenant era are to approach God “with reverence and awe” in holy adoration (Heb 12:28-29).

In his survey of the parts of the tabernacle, its sacrificial ritual and its “qualified worship leaders”, Ross not only describes what God had instituted in such detail, but the underlying theology of worship woven into the divine instructions.[47] The space devoted to the tabernacle and its associated officers, rituals and calendar are not only meant to be analeptic, pointing back to Eden, but also proleptic, pointing forward to Christ and the eternal Eden he came to restore. The theology that underpins what may on the surface seem to be merely practical details is anything but a curiosity from Israel’s ancient past; it has huge significance for the worship of the church through the ages. There is arguably nowhere in Scripture where the theological “logic” of worship (which is so often absent from “worship” in churches today) is more graphically set out than in the tabernacle and later replicated in the temple.

With regard to this theological “logic”, we cannot help but note how the place of sacrifice looms large on its horizons from the precursors to the tabernacle and temple in the days of the patriarchs, through to their fulfilment in Christ. There can be no worship without atonement (in all its dimensions) and the reconciliation it secures. The climax of this is seen in the meaning-laden “sign” that coincided with the moment of Christ’s death on the cross: the tearing of the veil in the temple (Matt 27:51). This not only lies at the heart of the gospel, but also at the heart of worship. Even in the world to come, the focus of worship will be the “Lamb… in the centre of the throne” (Rev 5:6-14).

Despite the high-water mark of what happened at Sinai, the spiritual history of God’s people between Sinai and Solomon is largely depressing. At the very same time as God was taking his self-revelation to new heights at the summit of the mountain through Moses, at the base of the mountain his people were inciting Aaron to lead them into idolatry with the golden calf (Exod 32:1-35). So also, throughout the conquest of the land under Joshua, and more so throughout the long period of the Judges, Israel’s worship suffered repeatedly from a downward spiritual gravitational pull. The worship of the Baals and Ashtoreths either displaced the worship of Yahweh, or else were syncretised with it. Although these portions of Holy Scripture can make for disheartening reading, in a very poignant way they confront every reader with the sober truth Paul spells out as the prelude to the gospel (Rom 1:21-25): The ugly truth at the heart of the human problem has to do with the deepest inclinations of the human heart, not only in its natural state, but also as a recurring malaise among God’s professing people in the church.

When we grasp this, far from driving us away from worship because of our all too frequent failure, it should instead draw us to Christ in and through whom alone we are qualified to worship and by whose Spirit we are enabled to do so. In a strange way this was true also for those whose failure in worship is charted through the spiritual “Dark Ages” in the days of the Judges right through to the subsequent monarchy. Israel’s own failure, along with that of their leaders, only served to highlight the importance of the Messianic hope that runs all the way through the Bible – even in its most ominous chapters.

The record of the era of the Kings of Israel begins at the end of the era of the Judges. Although Eli, the priest in charge of Shiloh at that time, was a godly man, his two sons, who also served, were corrupt. The main focus of the narrative shifts at this point to Samuel. He becomes the next “link in the chain” of the unfolding history of redemption who will bring God’s purpose, briefly via Saul, to the king who was “the man after God’s own heart”, David.

The fact that God entered covenant with David in very specific terms (2 Sam 7:1-17) indicated that God’s purpose in and through this particular king was larger than the man himself. Through his kingly office and all God chose to accomplish through him he would shine the spotlight forward in history to the descendant born into his line whose lineage was ultimately from God himself.

In terms of how the thread of “worship” is woven into this period of Israel’s history and this stage of divine revelation, the key development is the building of the temple. David deeply desired to construct it, but this task was entrusted to his son and heir to the throne, Solomon.

Before passing from David and his contribution to God’s unfolding revelation of worship-as-it-should-be, a few observations should be made. Hattori remarks, “Perhaps [David’s] greatest bequest to the worshipping people of God is the body of psalms that reflect the astonishing diversity of his experiences – all tied to the knowledge of God”.[48] More than this, “David was a man who praised God with his whole being… utilised various musical instruments for praising God with his people… organised the Lord’s service…” as well as delegating worship duties to different groups of people all paving the way for the temple Solomon would eventually build.[49]

Ross devotes three entire chapters to the nature and place of sung praise in connection with this.[50] The first relates to “A Place for Praise” in which he links the location for worship with the pattern for praise taken up and developed in the New Testament by the apostles. The second addresses music, choirs and congregational singing. And the third takes up the question of the psalms in worship. Of the latter he notes, “The church could use the Psalter much more effectively than it does”.[51]

Once again, the strand of the biblical theological thread relating to worship at this point goes far beyond the Old Testament. In each of these areas Ross shows how they are all connected to the New Covenant epoch and demand serious consideration by the church of the present time. This is true not least in respect of the place of the psalms in public praise, especially so because of the way in which they lead us to Christ. He is not only the object of their revelation and adoration; he is also their subject in that he is the Singer of the Psalms par excellence. And the fact he repeatedly reaches for their language at critical moments in his earthly life – notably on the cross (Pss 22:1; 31:6) – indicates that their place in worship is much deeper than is often appreciated.

When it comes to the contribution under Solomon to God’s unfolding revelation of worship, it is easy to focus on the temple itself as the structure he erected to God’s glory, but that would be to miss its wider dimensions. Hattori captures this succinctly:

The construction of the Temple marks a decisive step in the development of Israelite worship. On the one hand this marks the culmination of the sacrificial system set out at Sinai, the concretisation of the laws and regulations often carried out more in breach than in faithfulness. It puts all faithful corporate worship into the centre – Jerusalem, Mount Zion, the city where God meets with his people. On the other hand, it sets up the dynamics that lead to the division of the kingdom, and ultimately to the exile and the razing of the Temple.[52]

However, as he goes on to point out, there is more in view than the physical aspect of this edifice. In his survey of the dedication of the temple in 1 Kings 8, Hattori sets out what he describes as “Solomon’s theology of the Temple” – or even “Solomon’s theology of worship”.[53] In this context he highlights the overt pre-eminence given to the Torah – “God’s word, his verbal self-disclosure, his law, was the essential element of the Temple”.[54] In all of this Solomon acknowledged that the material structure and visible/tangible expressions of worship attached to it could in no sense comprehend all that God is: “But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built” (1 Kgs 8:27). However, the seal of divine approval on all that was put in place that day was dramatically displayed as the Shekinah glory of Yahweh descended upon it and filled the sanctuary (1 Kgs 8:10-11).

One other detail to emphasise in this context – which is more to the fore in the Chronicler’s record of these events (2 Chr 5:2-7.22) – is the overtly covenantal character of the worship bound up with this place. It is seen especially in Solomon’s prayer of dedication (2 Chr 6:14-42) and God’s answer (2 Chr 7:12-22). The closing verses of the prayer constitute a plea for God’s blessing on the sanctuary which echoes the Aaronic blessing of Numbers (Num 6:33) and God’s answer to his prayer is unequivocally in the affirmative (2 Chr 14:15-16). God’s benediction on the sanctuary provides his seal of approval on all the temple is at this stage of redemptive history, anticipating how it would be fulfilled when Christ, the true temple, ultimately appeared.

The hopes of Israel were raised with the dedication of Solomon’s temple and God’s manifest response to the occasion. The golden age in Israel’s history ushered in by his father, David, seemed to be on the cusp of even greater glory. But, tragically and ironically, the very king whom God used to take his people to new heights in worship would be the catalyst for taking the desecration of Israel’s worship to new lows. Through his multiple marriages to wives from pagan nations Solomon was instrumental in introducing pagan worship among his people. The full denouement of this would be seen in the division of the kingdom after Solomon’s death and its impact upon worship as the heart of Israel. Whereas the Southern Kingdom maintained Jerusalem as the centre of Yahweh worship under Rehoboam, Jeroboam led the Israelites ever further into syncretistic worship in the Northern Kingdom. His setting up of the two golden calves in Bethel and Dan as, “your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt” (1 Kgs 12:28-33) was an ominous sign of the worship trajectory on which he would lead them.

It was during this period that the “high places” of Israel which, up until the time of Solomon had often been associated with faithful expressions of worship, were “more and more becoming the site of idolatry for the Israelites”, with the expression eventually becoming “almost a synonym for idolatry”.[55] The role of the prophets in relation to worship would very much come to the fore at this time.

V. Worship under Prophetic Cross-Examination

The description of tabernacle and temple worship in the historical books of the Old Testament is interspersed with and paralleled by a wider perspective through the prophets. We see it initially in the role of Samuel the “seer [prophet]” (1 Sam 9:9) from the time of his call while still under the tutelage of Eli in the sanctuary (1 Sam 3:1-4:1). God’s very first revelatory word to and through the boy Samuel was one of critical appraisal of the worship of Israel at that time and a warning of its consequences.

Indeed, from that point onwards, this would be a key feature of God’s word to his people through the prophets. Raymond B. Dillard described them as “God’s covenant barristers”,[56] basing this description on Micah’s charge against Israel as being “God’s case [rib]” (Mic 6:2) against his people, in response to their corruption of worship (Mic 6:6-8). It should be no surprise, therefore, to discover that the burden of the prophetic critique of God’s covenant community is directed against their worship.

Allen P. Ross picks up on this covenantal backdrop to the prophetic critique of Israel’s worship by spelling out the “covenant qualifications for worshippers”. He summarises these requirements as their being “faithful believers” who not only profess, but also proclaim their faith – by their works as well as by their words. In this sense they are also “confessing believers” who “follow after holiness” and are “spiritually motivated”.[57] The prophetic challenge to the worship of Israel (in both Kingdoms) always rested on what God had already revealed and stipulated.

Ross further roots this in the character of God himself. He, the LORD, declares that his name is “Jealous” (Exod 34:14) – signifying “God’s passionate intensity to protect what rightfully belongs to him. He would confront any threat to his relationship with his people.”[58] Although, as we have already noted, such spiritual defection from Yahweh was nothing new, the role of the prophets in directing God’s word against it takes on distinct proportions from the days of Elijah and Elisha onwards.

This becomes particularly apparent in the roles of the Major Prophets, Isaiah and Jeremiah, as a prelude the Assyrian conquest of the Northern Kingdom and the subsequent exile of Judah under Nebuchadnezzar. God’s declaration through Isaiah scathingly exposes the heart of the issue in relation to worship: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men” (Isa 29:13).[59]

Ezekiel takes up the same theme from within the exilic community. He does so from the outset by means of the vision of God’s transcendent glory in the opening chapter of his prophecy (Ezek 1:1-28). Then, against this backdrop of the divine reality, he shows how God’s people – notably their leaders – had debased the worship of God through their idolatry and misconduct in the temple. The vision of God’s glory departing from the temple (Ezek 10:1-22) – with all its echoes of the opening scene in this prophecy – could hardly have been more stark and ominous for those to whom it was first revealed. It would have seemed to them as though the worship of Israel had finally imploded.

Of course, this was not the case. The same prophet, whom God had used to show the exiles the reason for their banishment, would also be used to reveal the restoration of worship – in a limited sense when they were brought back to the land, but ultimately in the temple in its perfection.[60]

Allen addresses another aspect of corrupt worship as exposed by the prophets, namely, worship that is defiled through hypocrisy. He identifies the seriousness of this distortion in that it does not merely impact the sanctuary, but also “every aspect of society”.[61] Citing J. N. Oswalt he says, “the breakdown of morality and ethics and the neglect of social justice… is the result of refusing to entrust oneself to the sovereign, loving and just God”.[62] He goes on to say, “The whole orientation of pagan worship was for personal gain, not to serve the Lord; and without submission to the sovereign God at the core of their worship, there was no compelling reason to keep the laws. Thus, disobedience to the Word of God results from weak and corrupted worship.”[63]

Allen also notes how this prophetic challenge is woven into the Psalms as the canonical expression of worship for the Old Covenant epoch.[64] The words of David in his best-known penitential psalm express this thought most eloquently: “…the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Ps 51:17).

Allen goes on to point out,

This is a growing problem in the church today. It is not that the church is idolatrous (for the most part), but it has been influenced by the attitudes and practices of the prevailing culture. With little or no emphasis on the sovereignty of God as Creator and Lord, or on the authority of his Word, worship is weakened and covenant responsibilities are ignored.[65]

The linkage between worship and life that runs throughout the prophetic books is nothing more than a continuation of what we have noted regarding worship from the earliest stages of divine revelation. Formal expressions of worship can never be divorced from the everyday realities of life. Only as we are exposed to the glorious objective reality of God in his self-revelation are we constantly challenged to conform subjectively to him and to his standard of righteousness.

VI. Anticipating a New Order in a New Epoch

So far as can be discerned, it was during the exile and in its aftermath for those Jews who chose to remain dispersed among the nations, that Jewish worship began to adapt to non-Jewish settings. Notably, with the Jerusalem temple in ruins, new foci for worship began to emerge. It is widely believed that synagogue worship originated during this time, possibly under the direction of Ezekiel.[66]

Significantly, Israel’s restoration to the land included specific provision on the part of Cyrus for the restoration of temple worship (Ezra 1:1-4). Nevertheless, the eventually completed temple, finished under the prophetic leadership of Haggai, seemed a pale reflection of the glory of the Solomonic original (Hag 2:3). Yet God is able to declare through his prophet, “I will shake all nations, and the desired of all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory” (Hag 2:7). Once again God was pointing beyond mere appearances to his ultimate purpose that would be realised through Christ.[67]

The restoration under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah would culminate with a religious celebration that was manifestly word-centred (Neh 9:1-38). This act of worship, as well as the covenant renewal that was part of it, was another defining moment in the spiritual history of God’s people. However, it was not a stand-alone event. Through his pastoral leadership, Nehemiah sought to reinforce this renewal under God in every sphere of Israel’s life as a nation.

In terms of the progress of God’s written revelation, the restoration under Ezra and Nehemiah marks the beginning of a hiatus in divine revelation. The “gap” between the end of Malachi and the beginning of Matthew represents some 400 years of silence on God’s part. This did not mean that his already-given word did not continue to be “living and active” (Heb 4:12), but it did mean that the worship of that era received no fresh light from God to shape and direct it. This being the case, it is interesting how the worship of Israel evolved during that time.

Allen P. Ross charts these developments from the destruction of the temple through to the religious scene into which Jesus stepped during his earthly life and ministry. As Ross points out, the razing of the temple was a body-blow to the worshipping community. This was the epicentre of their devotion to God and, not surprisingly, between the successive waves of deportation into exile, some semblance of worship continued in the ruins of the sanctuary.[68] However, even for those who had been scattered to Egypt and elsewhere, as well as for those who were carried off to Babylon, not only did they maintain their Jewish identity, many also sought to carry on some form of their God-given religion. We catch glimpses of this in Lamentations and Daniel as well as in the Psalms.

As noted above, the synagogue increasingly became the functional centre of worship for God’s covenant people from the exile onwards. Once again Ross gathers the data available on this transition and seeks to summarise it.[69] His overview provides helpful insights into the central place of the Hebrew Bible in synagogue worship, its organisation in terms of leadership, its location and fabric within the community. He highlights in particular the inclusion of prayers and benedictions in their services and various examples of liturgy that shaped them.

In parallel with this, he surveys what he describes as the “sectarian worship” that evolved among the Samaritans and through the influence of the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes among the Jews.[70] In the Gospels we see this to be the worship milieu into which Jesus steps from his upbringing in Nazareth through to the climax of his earthly ministry in Jerusalem. Concluding his survey of this long period of Israel’s religious history, Ross notes that the threats to worship were largely no longer from the outside through pagan influence but, rather, from the inside and the distortions of God’s law introduced through the various sects.

In all of this, God was preparing the way for the dawning of a new epoch in redemptive history. Despite the swirling influences of the various groupings of that time and the confusion they generated, there was still a faithful remnant. We meet a cluster of them in the Gospels, notably Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, Joseph, Simeon and Anna – all of whom were closely involved with the incarnation of Christ. They represented many others who, like Simeon, were “waiting for the consolation of Israel” (Luke 2:25).

This preparation for the dawning of God’s new day would be intensified on multiple levels by John the Baptist. The focus of his ministry was in part “a baptism of repentance and forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3), but also to herald the coming of the Lord in saving might (Luke 3:4-6). The epoch of promise was about to give way to that of deliverance.

In this context, Jesus’ role in progressing God’s revelation with regard to worship was in large part transitional. He stood at the interface between the two great redemptive epochs.

On the one hand, he exposed and opposed all that was false and corrupt in Israel’s worship at that time. The most vehement denunciations during his ministry are not directed against the sexually profane or other kinds of sinner we might expect; instead, it is against representatives of the religious establishment of the day who were guilty of all manner of hypocrisy. The main foil for much of the Sermon on the Mount is the misuse and ignoring of the Hebrew Scriptures by those who were ostensibly their guardians (Matt 5:1-7.29). Indeed, it is not without significance that Matthew’s Gospel, traditionally seen as written for a Jewish audience, has an entire chapter devoted to the “woes” Jesus pronounced against the teachers of the law and Pharisees (Matt 23:1-39).

The cutting edge of Jesus’ teaching and actions on this front is seen in his challenge to the Jews, “[you] destroy this temple and I will raise it again in three days” (John 2:19) reinforced by his dramatic cleansing of the temple during Passion week (Matt 21:12-17). In the unfolding purpose of God, the heart of covenant worship was set for radical overhaul.

The other aspect to Jesus’ place and role during this transitional phase was to highlight the continuity within God’s unfolding purpose.[71] Whereas, through him, the forms and structures of Old Covenant worship would soon be fulfilled and end; the essence of what they represented would continue and indeed intensify. The very fact that the “New” Covenant promised by Jeremiah would also be “better” (Heb 8:6) indicates that worship for New Covenant believers would be taken to fresh heights through the revelation of Christ. So, although the outward forms of Old Covenant worship (the structures, furnishings, offices and ordinances of that epoch) that anticipated God’s promised Saviour/salvation would end with the completion of Christ’s work, the underlying realities to which they pointed would continue.

The key practical implication of this for the worshipping community of the New Covenant epoch is that the church cannot ignore Old Covenant worship as disconnected, or somehow irrelevant to us. The concluding pronouncement of Hebrews 11 makes this clear: “…that only together with us would they [the Old Covenant faithful] be made perfect” (Heb 11:40).

VII. In Spirit and in Truth

Without question, one of the most significant elements in Jesus’ overt teaching on worship appears in a most unlikely setting: his conversation with the woman at the well in Samaria (John 4:1-26). Although some may view this narrowly as a conversation about salvation, it actually turned on the question of what makes worship pleasing and acceptable to God.

The conversation began at the most ordinary level – Jesus requesting a drink of water (John 4:7) – but reached its climax in the question of what constitutes true worship (John 4:19-20). For the Samaritan woman, her focus was on the issue of location – Mt Gerizim, as the Samaritans believed, or Jerusalem according to the Jews. But Jesus’ response took God’s revelation of worship to a whole new level. He states definitively that true worship is bound up with salvation – specifically as being “from the Jews” (John 4:22). God-honouring worship is inseparably tied to the God-given salvation promised through Israel.

He then speaks of “a time” that “is coming and has now come” when this promise would be fulfilled (John 4:23). There is something epochal about this marker. It speaks of a time “when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks”. The interpretation of “spirit and truth” has been a matter of debate. Does it refer to the worshipper – worshipping “with heart and mind engaged” – or to God as the enabler of worship: by his Holy Spirit under the direction of his Word? Given John’s propensity for double entendre, there is good reason to think both are in view. Jesus presses this home with the assertion, “God is spirit and those who worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24).

What is clear is that Jesus not only reaffirms the underlying truth of worship as revealed in the Old Testament – it too was to be “in spirit and in truth” – but also declares that his coming marks the dawn of the new of age of worship as God meant it to be in this world.

This assertion is intimately bound up with everything else expressed in Jesus’ conversation with the woman up until this point. His request for ordinary “water” was the segue into her (and everyone’s) deepest need for extraordinary “living water” (John 4:10) – water that “will become a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14). Since, as Jesus reveals later in this Gospel, the essence of “eternal life” is that people may “know you [the Father] and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3), this is the wellspring of worship that is real and which really pleases God.

Much of the quest for “authentic worship” in churches today has focused on the subjective introspection on the part of would-be worshippers. But such a focus, ironically, could hardly be more counter-productive. The more a person becomes inward-looking, the more disillusioned he or she becomes over what lurks within. Only as we are turned out from ourselves by the saving knowledge of God are we lifted up into the liberating joy of adoration for the God who is not only our Maker, but also our great Redeemer.

VIII. The Evolution of New Covenant Worship

In a very real sense the New Covenant epoch began with the moment of the incarnation in the virginal conception. In that instant, “the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us” (John 1:4). John’s choice of word to describe that single point in history (which would ultimately define everything for eternity) is, of course, bound up with worship in all its dimensions.

Nevertheless, the full significance and glory of that miraculous moment was to remain largely veiled and hidden for the best part of three decades. It was only in the Upper Room, on the eve of his crucifixion, that Jesus formally announced the inauguration of this new epoch in salvation history. He did so as he instituted the Lord’s Supper with the inclusion of the words, “This cup is the New Covenant in my blood…” (Luke 22:20). He was pointing to the cross and how, by his becoming the true paschal Lamb, he would make full atonement for the sins of all his people through the ages. With his cry from the cross, “It is accomplished!” (John 19:30), the “Day of the LORD” foretold by the prophets had finally begun.

The fact too that, during the Last Supper, Jesus said he would not “drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it anew with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matt 26:29), was yet another pointer to the imminent dawn of a new epoch in God’s plan of redemption. Post-Calvary and through the Holy Supper Christ would indeed commune with his people sacramentally “anew” in the New Covenant kingdom ushered in through his saving work.

The place and purpose of the communion meal is revealed in Scripture as having a vital place in the worship of the church. As Robert Letham points out, the terminology used in the New Testament to describe it brings out its multi-faceted significance. The Supper is presented as “the breaking of bread” (Acts 2:42; 20:7), “the Lord’s table” (1 Cor 10:21), the “Lord’s Supper” (1 Cor 11:20), “participation” or “communion” (1 Cor 10:16-17), “thanksgiving” [eucharisteo] (Mt 26:26-27; Mk 14:22-23; Lk 22:17-19; 1 Cor 11:23-24), a “memorial” (1 Cor 11:24), a “proclamation” (1 Cor 11:26).[72] Each one of these descriptors ties the Supper into the very heart of worship in its richest form. Indeed, if John’s record of the interaction between Jesus and the crowds after the “Bread of Life” discourse is understood as being a proleptic glimpse of the significance of Communion (John 6:43-59), then we begin to grasp just how deeply this sacrament informs, enables and declares the church’s worship in Christ.

The book of Acts provides us with limited glimpses of the church at worship in its early days after Pentecost. Luke identifies “the apostles” teaching… the fellowship… the breaking of bread and… prayer” and the fact the early believers “devoted themselves” to these things (Acts 2:42) as the core components of the newly constituted worshipping community. To this he adds “giving” (Acts 2:45), “singing” and “praising God” (Act 2:46-47). The fact these early Christians did not immediately break their ties with either the temple (Acts 2:46; 3:1) or synagogue (Acts 9:20) indicates at the very least that they saw this “new” epoch, into which they had been brought through Christ, as the extension and fulfilment of the “old” which was always meant to lead the Jews to Christ. In that sense the liturgical forms of synagogue worship played some part in shaping the worship of the embryonic New Testament church.[73]

Interestingly, the New Testament does not provide precise detail on what public worship looked like in given settings, nor does it provide a set liturgy that all churches were expected to follow. This in no sense meant that worship was a “free for all” to be determined according to the preference of either the people or the presiding pastor. Since the “Bible” of the church in New Testament times was the Hebrew Bible – taught in light of its fulfilment in Christ by the apostles – its theology of worship would in itself establish uniformity of essence within the diversity of expressions of God’s praise.

There is, however, one particular detail in relation to worship in the New Testament church that requires closer inspection. It relates to the question of what it meant for New Testament Christians to “worship”.

One answer to this question that has gained widespread acceptance in recent times is that of seeing congregational worship, in the words of David Peterson, “as a particular expression of the total life response that is the worship of the new covenant”.[74] His view of worship is not new – he builds on similar thoughts expressed earlier by, among others, I. Howard Marshall.[75] However it does represent an expansion of what had been mooted before.

Peterson expresses his view in summary form by saying,

Throughout the Bible, acceptable worship means approaching or engaging with God on the terms that he proposes and in the manner that he makes possible. It involves honouring, serving and respecting him, abandoning any loyalty or devotion that hinders an exclusive relationship with him. Although some of Scripture’s terms for worship may refer to specific gestures of homage, rituals or priestly ministrations, worship is more fundamentally faith expressing itself in obedience and adoration. Consequently, in both Testaments it is often shown to be a personal and moral fellowship with God relevant to every sphere of life.[76]

He builds his case in part by a biblical theological survey of worship in the Old Testament, but more extensively on what the New Testament says on this theme. He rightly points out that true worship in the Bible is never a mere activity – it is deeply bound up with an expression of new life. However, where his views depart from those that have had more widespread acceptance in the history of interpretation is in his thesis that the primary purpose of the church’s gathering is for mutual edification.[77]

In many respects Peterson is right in what he says about worship expressed existentially in the life of the saints both individually and corporately as the church; there is nothing new in this. It was clearly evident in the Old Testament’s instruction concerning worship and it is carried through with greater intensity into the New. What is in question, however, is the balance of Peterson’s argument. Despite his own protestation, “To put the focus on edification is not to suggest that the church service is the one area of the Christian life where we do not worship God!”[78] this is precisely the impression he creates (and why it seems he feels the need to defend it).

The constraint of space precludes the depth of critique Peterson’s view deserves. Nevertheless, several observations may help to offer other important perspectives on his evaluation of the biblical data.

In the first place, as already noted and as Peterson himself argues, the Bible always presents worship as having two dimensions: that which is expressed in the life of God’s people and that which they articulate in specific acts of worship. In both cases “worship” is both an individual and a corporate activity. Any act of worship that is not an extension of a redeemed and consecrated life is false worship (Isa 29:13). The issue, however, is which of these is the supreme expression of praise? The answer has to be those formal acts of worship in which God is given the undivided attention and adoration he alone deserves. We see this in the glimpses of worship in heaven throughout Scripture. For example, in the Old Testament, we see the vision of God’s glory in the temple (Isa 6:1-4) and, in the New, worship in heaven itself (Rev 4:1-11; 5:11-14; 7:9-12; 19:1-10) that the act of worship is the highest expression of praise to God in all his glory.

Secondly, not least in light of what has been argued from the outset in this paper, the worship of God’s people on earth is intended to be a reflection of the great heavenly reality. The life of God’s people under the Old Covenant was literally shaped, through the Sabbath principle, by the high points of worship designed to express and punctuate the God-ordained rhythm of life woven into what it means to be his image and likeness.

Thirdly, Peterson fails to recognise the weight given to the formal expressions of worship found in the New Testament. This comes out notably in Paul’s instruction to the Corinthians in relation to public worship. He states explicitly that an unbeliever who is present when God’s people meet for worship will “fall down and worship God” (1 Cor 4:25) in response to the sense of God’s presence on the occasion. Another example of this is seen in Hebrews with the author’s exhortation to “not give up meeting together” (Heb 10:25). He gives this injunction not merely because of the need for mutual edification (which is stated) but, as he goes on to write, because when God’s people come together in this way, they have come “to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God… to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven, you have come to God, the Judge of all men, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Heb 12:22-24).

The closing words of this section bring what is in view into sharp focus: “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb 12:28-29). All eyes are on God and all hearts are devoted to him to the exclusion of everyone and everything else.

There is nothing “ordinary” about gathering to worship the triune God. Quite the opposite; such occasions are intended to lift us up into the heavenly realms in a unique way allowing us a glimpse and a taste of the glory of the world to come. One day, as Revelation makes clear, faith will give way to sight and the imperfection of even the best expressions of worship on earth to the perfect worship ushered in when Christ comes to “make all things new” (Rev 21:5).

IX. In Christ Alone

The heart and highpoint of biblical theology is Jesus Christ himself. As he made clear on the Emmaus road, he is the central theme of Scripture and he is the apex of the divine revelation. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). In this pivotal statement, the divine word and divine worship are ineffably conjoined and converge in one word: “glory”!

Too often, however, the church has failed to grasp just how much is bound up with the glory of God expressed both in and through Christ. This is true especially in terms of how the church has frequently embraced an inadequate understanding of Christ’s high priestly and mediatorial role on behalf of his people. It is an understanding that fails to appreciate the rich Christology that took the Early Church some four centuries to crystallise in the catholic creeds. When this happens, Christ is effectively marginalised in worship.

In his book, The Glory of God and the Transfiguration of Christ, former Archbishop A. Michael Ramsey has this to say,

The perfect act of worship is seen only in the Son of Man. By him alone there is made a perfect acknowledgement upon earth of the glory of God and the perfect response to it. On the one hand the prophetic revelation of God is summed up in him as he is himself the glory of which the prophets, all unknowing, spake (cf. John 12:41). On the other hand the ancient sacrifices are fulfilled in him as he, priest and victim, makes the rational offering of his will in Gethsemane and on the cross. In Christ the praise of God, the wonder before God, the thirst for God, the zeal for God’s righteousness, which fill the pages of the Psalter, find pure and flawless utterance. And in him, its perfect expression; for the sinless Christ made before God that perfect acknowledgement of man’s sin which man cannot make for himself.[79]

Far from being some esoteric truth, as Ramsey goes on to point out, this crucial aspect of Christ’s Person and Work lies at the very heart, not just of the church’s very existence but, supremely, of its worship:

In the ascended Christ there exists our human nature [italics mine] rendering to the Father the glory man was created to render... In union with its heavenly Lord, the church on earth worships, looking back to what he did once on Calvary and looking up to what he now is with the Father. It is a worship in and through Christ… If it be called a worship of glorifying, it is so because it is through Christ who glorifies the Father: “wherefore through him is the Amen, unto the glory of God through us” (2 Cor 1:20). [80]

Thomas F. Torrance explores the significance of this at length in his chapter, “The Mind of Christ in Worship: The Problem of Apollinarianism in the Liturgy”.[81] His main focus is the church’s need to appreciate the significance of Christ’s genuinely having “a human mind”[82]contra the Apollinarian error. He shows this notably in his prayer in Gethsemane (Matt 26:36-46; Mark 14:32-42; Luke 21:40-44), where Jesus really wrestles with his Father in prayer in the full genuineness of his human nature. This he did in his people’s place and on their behalf. As Torrance goes on to argue, when this is denied (or not fully appreciated), “…the Church’s worship of God in the name of Jesus Christ… is damaged.”[83]

It is at this point, more than any other, we realise that Biblical Theology is never a stand-alone discipline. It is inextricably bound, not just to the exegetical and hermeneutical principles on which it rests; it must go on to inform and be informed by the historical and systematic conclusions into which it feeds. Only with this balance can it safely inform the practical theology of the church, with all this entails for the worship and well-being of God’s people. Then, and then alone, will it lead not just to the church’s being the body which exists “for the praise of [God’s] glory” (Eph 1:13); but, also, to “declare the praises of him who called [it] out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Pet 2:9). And all of this can only be, through Jesus Christ alone, Soli Deo Gloria!

 

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