I’ve heard all sorts of claims regarding worship:
- “The worship in that church just isn’t my style.”
- “The ___ part of their worship is too distracting.”
- “I can worship God anytime, anywhere.”
- “In fact, why do I even need to go to a church to worship God?”
There are definitely truths to each of these statements. We can worship and glorify God alone or in community, formally or informally. Local churches vary in terms of style and content, and different styles appeal to different individuals. The logical conclusion that many Christians have drawn in the past few decades is that there should be “a church for everyone, and for everyone a church.” The big issue with this mentality is that church and the worship of God is reduced to a consumer item. If you don’t like the old hymns, try our 11am contemporary service! If you don’t like the Presbyterian brand of God-worship, try the Anglican! If you don’t like big church communities, try a house church! This is what happens when we try to solve issues in the church using culture instead of the Bible.
You may now be thinking “Okay, Mr Smartypants, what clever rebuke are you going to throw at us about biblical worship?” Why, I never thought you’d ask!
Biblical worship is, first and foremost, not a human thing. All the worship that goes on in the Bible is inspired by God (either directly or indirectly). For the main communal acts of worship, worship on earth is realized following the pattern of heavenly worship. In the book of Exodus, chapters 25 through 31, Moses receives highly detailed instructions from God regarding how exactly to worship Him: the physical structures of the tent (and later the Temple), the arrangement of altars and lampstands, the animals to sacrifice, the order of ministers to do the sacrificing, the rituals for carrying out all this worship… a whole complicated package deal. This is liturgy – the work/service of the people to honor God. And on more than one occasion, it is explicitly stated that this earthly liturgy is modeled on the heavenly liturgy. This is also affirmed in the New Testament in the books of Hebrews and Acts.
As we translate this Old Covenant liturgy into the New Covenant, we must remember (as always) the words of Christ: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” So instead of throwing out the Old Covenant liturgy and starting afresh, we ought to seek how to appropriate the old worship into a Christian Gospel-centered context. It turns out that’s exactly what the Early Church did.
The book of Hebrews has a particular focus on how this works. The topic starts with describing the priesthood of Christ and its relation to the ancient priest-king Melchizedek. Then it goes back to argue that the Old Covenant worship was a foreshadowing and preparation for the New Covenant worship. The argument especially hinges on that fact that if the Old Covenant liturgy was based on the heavenly liturgy, then the New Covenant liturgy is even closer to the heavenly pattern. Therefore, we’re encouraged to persevere in the new worship and not go back to the old (let alone forget about it entirely).
And thus we reach the reason I entitled this blog post the way I did – Christian worship is part of a huge epic spanning all of time and creation! It’s no longer a shadow of the heavenly worship liturgy, but a direct participation in it, thanks to the fact that our High Priest is actually in heaven now in the presence of God the Father! Too often our modern conception of worship has driven us in the opposite direction – a webisode mentality – where we think of worship as a spontaneous grassroots thing originating from us and lifting up to God “as incense,” forgetting that incense in OT worship was intentionally offered before a particular altar in the context of a particular worship service; it’s not just a pretty image, it’s a exemplary reference to the liturgy.
And what’s also really cool about our New Testament liturgy of worship is that we have more revelations of what the heavenly liturgy looks like. The book of Revelation is peppered with clips of heavenly worship! Some of it is a repeat of OT revelations, like the hymn “Holy Holy Holy” but other hymns and images and visions fill out the picture even more.
All that to say, yes, you and I can still worship and glorify God anytime, anywhere. But that is not the “heart” of worship, so to speak.
The heart of Christian worship, is our Great High Priest, Jesus Christ, interceding for us to the Father. He began this giant worship liturgy on the night before he was betrayed: Jesus transformed the Passover into the New Testament memorial sacrifice (hence a “remembrance“), and then proceeded to offer himself as the paschal (or sacrificial) lamb. Then he ascended into heaven, the true Holy of Holies, to offer his shed blood to the Father. Our very salvation is brought about through what is essentially an act of worship that Jesus carries out on our behalf! It should be no surprise, then, that Christians have historically taken Jesus’ words literally when he said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” For it’s his body and blood that he commands us to receive and eat in the transformed Passover liturgy, which he then proceeded to offer to the Father as the final and complete sacrifice for sins.
To put it simply, our salvation is grounded in worshiping God correctly, with Jesus as our High Priest, participating in his sacrifice and partaking of his sacrificial meal. That’s what Communion is about!
And it’s because of that Communion that we are able to worship and glorify God anytime and anywhere individually or communally. As Jesus said, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” We abide in Christ first by worshiping with him and receiving his body and blood, thus remaining in Communion with him. Only then we are enabled to glorify him in our lives and private acts of worship, because we have first participated in the New Covenant worship liturgy that brings us into participation in the heavenly liturgy.
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh,and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. – Hebrews 10:19-25
(Thanks to this excellent article for inspiring me to write this.)