Gospel Worship: Is it About Form or Function?

Saturday, February 04, 2006


Ever stopped to consider just how much we've got it made as New Testament Christians. A short comparison of life for the saint before the cross as opposed to after the cross makes for an interesting devotional study one week.

First, before the cross, worship was about form. It is to take place through specifically appointed persons, during specifically appointed times, and at specifically appointed places. These appointed persons had to wear specific clothing, use specific utensils and instruments, and perform their duties in a specific fashion. The specific times and places of worship are clearly spelled out in the law.

After the cross, worship is about function. Jesus taught the woman at the well in John 4 that true worship is not about where we worship but how. It is not about this mountain or that mountain - about this building or that building, contemporary music or traditional music, regulative or normative principles of worship, pews or chairs, suits and ties or jeans and sandals, hymnbooks or video screens, 10:00 am or 9:30 am services, morning and evening services or just morning services, prayer meetings or bible studies on wednesday nights, offering before or after the sermon, King James or New International Version Bibles. In the NT church, worship is to be in spirit and truth, plain and simple. Worship is with the right heart attitude and the right doctrine. The Samaritan woman had neither. She worshiped the wrong God with the wrong heart attitude. Like the Jews, she too was so focused on form, she missed the point. NT worship is about function. OT worship was about form. OT worship was about specificity. NT worship is about spirituality. Don't miss the point here and think I'm saying something I'm not. I'm speaking in general categories here, of course.

Second, before the cross worship was about human mediation. Worship happened through priests. Worship music happened through skilled musician priests. Worship teaching happened through scribes and teachers. If any ordinary Israelite stepped into the wrong area of the temple, his life came to an abrupt end. There were appointed persons to intercede between God and man, and man was never to overstep his boundaries.

After the cross, all believers are priests. We are a royal priesthood, in fact (1 Pet. 2:9). Jesus has interceded for us once and for all (1 Tim. 2:5), and now there is no fear of overstepping any boundaries. We can come boldly to the throne of God to get the help we need (Heb. 4:16). Now we all sing to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (Eph. 5:19). And we are all to teach, encourage, exhort, and edify one another, preaching the praises of him who called us out of darkness (1 Pet. 2:9).

Third, before the cross worship was about animals and plants sacrifices. A whole lot of animals were killed and butchered to worship God. Worship was a bloody exercise in the OT. And a whole lot of plants were grown, dug up, and carried to be burned in an altar in order to worship God.

After the cross, we are the living sacrifices God requires to be offered up to him in worship. This only makes sense (Rom. 12:1). And we offer to him now the "sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge His name" (Heb. 13:15). Now we give the sacrifices of our resources to the Lord to provide for others (Phil. 4:18).

The cross changed worship for us. The NT teaches us that, "Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God" (Eph. 5:2). "He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself" (Heb. 7:27). Jesus is the only, the final, the complete, the perfect, and the ultimate sacrifice of worship to the Lord.

In Christ, form in worship seems to disappear. That is why we read little if any about form in worship, except any which may be inferred from the observance of the Lord's Supper. And the form which some suppose exist in the instructions given to the operation of the church in the pastoral epistles is really more about function - about the heart and our character and conformity to Christ - than it is about form.

I think that if it is not possible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sin (Heb. 10:4), then the wider emphasis of Hebrews and the gospel is that it is not possible that any form we offer to God will be acceptable to Him. Jesus is the consummation of all OT forms. He is the final realization of all OT forms which were only foreshadows of Him who was to come. In Him, specificity and form in worship are defined, consummated, finalized, and offered to God on our behalf.

The 'therefore' is found at this point. When we believe that a specific form in worship adds to the pleasure it gives to God we are dead wrong. And I mean "dead" wrong because that kind of worship does not embrace Christ as the end-all-be-all of our worship. Those who look to their form in worship as a means of pleasing God will sadly find themselves where the unbelieving Jews of Christ's time did. Hell is place for anyone who pursues anything other than Jesus Christ. And "anything other than Jesus Christ" would include all the forms and formulas we add to our worship in hopes God will be more pleased with it, and in arrogance that our form is somehow better than the one the church down the street uses.

Let's stop at nothing to shake off these inherent tendencies to want to latch on to something other than the person and work of Christ in our worship. It is natural to feel that our tradition - that is, the way we were raised in church, if we were raised at all in that environment - is the best way to approach God.

But God cannot be approached with a suit and tie. He cannot be approached in blue jeans and sandals. He cannot be approached with contemporary music or traditional music. Your favorite Bible version carves no special path to His throne. How much money you give and what programs or ministries to which we designate our gifts does not make God more impressed with our worship. He is not a pagan god who is appeased with such nonsensical superstitions.

Our God, the God of OT and NT, is a God who desires specificity and perfection. Don't miss this point: our God desires form....He desires perfect form in worship. But don't miss this point either: We can't bring it to Him and we could never hope to follow it perfectly! But His Son Jesus did. And He has satisfied the Father's desire and demand for perfection in form. And through Jesus God's desire and demand for us now function. That is, we are simply to function and live and behave and love and give and sing and think and do whatever we do out of praise to God for the sacrifice of worship Jesus offers in our behalf!

Getting all wrapped up and bent out of shape then about all the other 'stuff' just plain obscures the Savior like gray clouds hiding the sun. In our local churches and homes today, we have clouded our worship with the dark clouds of form - with Jesus plus other stuff. And it's no wonder so many churches split over the dumbest stuff....because dark clouds always bring a storm. Let's put away our love for form, embrace the function God calls us to, watch the dark storm clouds over our churches disappear, and then bask in the sunshine of God's mercy and grace and love in Jesus' person and work for us. It is the only way we will ever hope to see the local church, the home, and the heart rescued from the very things Jesus died to rescue us from.

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