Saturday, 19 April 2008

How to worship the Lord unacceptably

How to worship the Lord unacceptably: four examples of falling short.

1. The sacrifice of Cain (Genesis 4:1-16) : God looks at the heart

I have heard many sermons in which it has been said that Cain's sacrifice was unacceptable because he should have offered a blood sacrifice – Abel offered a lamb, which was a “more excellent” sacrifice (c.f. Hebrews 11:4). I may be wrong, but whilst the overall teaching is good, I cannot see this in the text itself. The text emphasises that Cain himself was unacceptable to God (v4-5, 7). God looks first at the offerer, and then at the offering (Haggai 2:10-14). Cain's received his rejection not with godly repentance, but with anger (v5), showing that his worship had always been for his own, not for the Lord's, benefit and that God had been right to reject him. The great lesson from Cain's sacrifice is that “the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks on the outward appearance but God looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).

2. The strange fire of Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10) : Worship is for the glory of God

Nadab and Abihu the sons of Aaron were very greatly privileged. They had been included with the elders of Israel (Exodus 24:1-11), and appointed as the first priests of the Old Covenant. They (Leviticus 9) had assisted at the sacrifices offered at the inauguration of the covenant, and seen fire come out from the Lord to consume those sacrifices. Leviticus 10:1 gives the stark statement that they brought an offering “which [the LORD] commanded them not”, and in verse 3 Moses gives the hard-hitting explanation: “I will be sanctified in them that come nigh me, and before all the people I will be glorified.” Worship is primarily for the glory and honour of God, who is a sovereign and awesomely holy God. Worship of such a glorious being can only be acceptable when offered according to his prescription. The second commandment (Exodus 20:4-6) forbids us to innovate in worship, according to our own ideas of God and what we find pleasing to think of in relation to him. God is honoured when we draw near when we come in the way that he has commanded, and no other.

3. Worship according to the doctrines of men: The pharisees (Mark 7:1-23)

The Pharisees were offended, because Jesus' disciples broke the traditions of the elders because they failed to wash their hands before eating after being in public. In their minds, this tradition was equivalent to God's word: it came from the elders, and was necessary (they thought) to guard against the danger of unknowingly becoming unclean through contact with an unclean person in public. This tradition had the appearance of honouring God, but did not. Firstly, it was not performed from a heart-felt desire for God's glory – it was outward only. Secondly, the commandment was ultimately man-made: God had not given it, and so slavishly obeying it honoured man, not God. The Pharisees dishonoured God by finding clever ways to subvert the obvious meaning of the commands which he had given, such as to honour one's parents (v9-13). God's laws about cleanness were not given to glorify man and dishonour God in this way; they were given to remind people of the true uncleanness which comes continually out of our hearts.

4. Wrong all the way down: The woman of Samaria (John 4:1-26): New Covenant worship

In this passage the Lord Jesus corrected many fundamental errors in the woman's thinking. One is that, when she thought of worship, she thought the main issue was over the correct place. It was true that there was a right and wrong place under the Old Covenant; and in fact she had the wrong one – as a Samaritan, her worship was ignorant (verse 22). However, a more fundamental error was that she had not understood the nature of the New Covenant that the Messiah was now bringing in, where worship would not be tied to a place at all. The defining characteristics of acceptable New Covenant worship are that it is offered through the Holy Spirit and it is according to truth: which means that it is offered by converted people who believe the gospel about Jesus and are obedient to his commands. In the three examples above, the result was death: jealous Cain killed Abel, a righteously jealous God killed Nadab and Abihu, the Pharisees killed the Lord Jesus. In this example, the Lord graciously opened the eyes of the woman, and the result was life to her and to her village (v39-42).

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