Going to Church for the First Time Leviticus 9:1-24


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Leviticus 9:1-24

The instructions for worship in the sanctuary have been delivered by the Lord through Moses. The priests have been ordained. Now, finally, worship is to begin.

Text Comment

v.1       The eighth day would be the day following the seven days of the ordination ceremony narrated in the previous chapter.

The priests and the people (represented by their elders) were present for the service.

v.4       The offerings were presented in the same order as in the previous chapter: sin offering first; then the burnt offering with its grain offering; and finally the peace or fellowship offering with its grain offering, that is, including the bread to go with the meat for the feast that concluded the peace offering.

v.6       Again stress falls on the obedience of Moses and Aaron. “Worship has always been an act of obedience,” because God’s people are summoned to come before him and to offer worship according to his will. [Ross, 221]

v.7       From this point Moses steps back and Aaron takes his place as the superintendent of the sacrificial worship.

v.8       The first offering was for Aaron himself. Even after all the offerings of the previous week the priest who was to make sacrifices for the people had to be purified himself. A calf was offered rather than a bull. (cf. 4:3). Perhaps this was because of the special occasion, the calf being a delicacy fit for a king and they were asking their King to be present with them. [Sklar, 151] The other difference from the ordinary ritual of the sin or purification offering is that the blood was put on the horns of the altar rather than on the horns of the incense altar in the Holy Place, the first room of the sanctuary proper. Precisely why the change is unclear.

v.11     That is the regulations for the sin or purification offering were scrupulously followed.

v.17     The phrase “burnt offering of the morning” is puzzling and no explanation is entirely satisfactory. After this, as we have already read, a burnt offering would be offered first thing every morning. But presumably that didn’t happen on this very first day of public worship at the sanctuary. Perhaps it is simply the name that came to be attached to the first burnt offering of the day, which this happened to be. [cf. Levine, 57]

v.22     The blessing of the people or what we call the benediction at the end of every service of worship was the specific responsibility of the priests (Numbers 6:24-26). Some, including our own Jay Sklar of Covenant Seminary, understand this to be a prayer for God’s blessing. Others, the majority of commentators, see it as a performative act, a dispensing of God’s blessing on the people. I certainly favor the latter understanding for a number of reasons but not least the fact that in prayer the raising of the hands is to God, but here a point is made of the fact that Aaron lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them. Later we will read that the priests blessed the people, not, I think, a likely way of saying that they prayed that the Lord would bless the people. As one scholar puts it, “The high-priestly blessing took the form of an oracle [that is, a word from God] for the high priest…announc[ed] that all was well between them and the Lord.” [Ross, 219, 224] This act is akin to the patriarchs who blessed their sons and, if you remember, could not take the blessing back once it had been given. It was a deed done, in other words. [Ross, 224] As Charles Simeon, the great Cambridge preacher, expressed his own conviction:

“I fell that in pronouncing [the benediction] I do not do it as a mere finale, but that I am actually dispensing peace from God and at God’s command. I know not the individuals to whom my benediction is a blessing; but I know that I am the appointed instrument by whom God is conveying the blessing to those who are able to receive it.” [In Moule, Charles Simeon, 85-86]

I think that’s right. We read that Aaron stepped down from the altar. The altar itself was approximately four and a half feet high, that is four and a half feet off the ground, and would have been surrounded by a platform that made it easier for the priests to arrange the meat on the fire.

v.23     Precisely why Moses and Aaron went into the Holy Place is not said but it seems very likely that they went into the sanctuary to pray for the Lord’s acceptance of the sacrifices and for some demonstration of his pleasure and his presence. The Holy Place was a place of prayer. That was where the incense offering was made and incense was an embodied form of prayer. The priest was responsible for intercession, for praying on behalf of the people as well as for offering the sacrifices themselves.

If we can go by other instances of the same phenomenon, what the people saw was a fiery cloud descending upon the sanctuary, indicating in this dramatic way that the Lord was present, had received the offerings given to him, and stood ready to bless his people.

v.24     Then fire came forth to consume the offerings still burning on the altar. The phrase “from before the Lord” suggests that the fire came from the tent, which is the impression we are left with also in 10:2 regarding the fire that consumed Nadab and Abihu. [Levine, 58] The people’s response, both joyful and fearful, was spontaneous and heartfelt.

We can only imagine how Aaron and the other priests looked forward to this day, perhaps with a mixture of anticipation and some fear. They had been set apart as priests sometime before this. They knew they were going to have the responsibility for the worship of the sanctuary. No doubt they had eagerly watched the progress of the construction of the tabernacle, its furnishings, and especially the Ark of the Covenant. They were probably each one fitted for the vestments they would wear while ministering in the sanctuary. See them standing in some tent while a seamstress took their measurements, then later trying on the completed vestments to make sure that they fit. We don’t know how much time had elapsed between the time Yahweh gave his instructions to Moses concerning the various sacrifices and the beginning of worship, but no doubt Aaron and the other priests had gone over their respective duties with a fine tooth comb. See them in a meeting with Moses going over how everything was going to be done, who would do what and when and so on. And, of course, there was so much else to determine that had not been part of the instructions that Yahweh himself had delivered. How would they enter the sanctuary: in a procession? to music? Where was everyone to stand during the various ceremonies, who was going to do what, where and on what furniture would the feasts of the peace offering be eaten, who was going to clean up afterward, who was going to take the hide out to the clean place to have it burned up, and on and on?

Knowing human nature as we do and so much having been left to the priests to decide, I have no doubt that over time, as one high priest succeeded another, changes would have been introduced into the routine and people who came to the sanctuary to offer sacrifice would immediately notice that, while the sacrifices were offered in the same way as before, other features of the service were different from the last time they had been there. That is, there were features that remained constant and others that were altered from time to time. Then when the temple was built the worship of the tabernacle was carried over into the much larger sanctuary and other changes had to be introduced as many more people and animals were involved, much more water had to be employed to keep everything clean, and so on. But this was as it must always be. The fact is, if you were somehow to be transported by a time-machine to some early Christian worship service, say in Dura-Europos, in present day Syria, where a third century Christian sanctuary, perhaps the earliest ever to be found has been excavated, and if you arrived at the very moment the Sunday service was beginning, you would have no difficulty recognizing what that service was, what these people were doing there, however different in some ways it might be from what you are used to today. There is the permanent, the fixed dimension of Christian worship, and the changeable dimension that differs from place to place and time to time.

No one at the time imagined that the Lord’s glory would be visibly present every time the people worshipped at the sanctuary. There had been sacrifices and prayers offered throughout the previous week and the glory of God had not descended and fire had not gone out from the Lord to consume the sacrifices on the altar. The glory cloud also descended upon the temple at its dedication during the reign of Solomon (1 Kings 8:10), but ordinarily there were no outward manifestations of the presence of God in the sanctuary worship of Israel than there are in our worship today. Generations of God’s people came and went and never saw a glory cloud as this favored generation and that in Solomon’s day were given to see. What the glory cloud was intended to demonstrate was both the nature of God’s presence and that God’s presence would always attend the faithful worship of his people even when they could not see his glory.

Did you notice how again and again throughout the chapter we are told that this worship was offered in the prospect of the Lord appearing to the people? We read in v. 4 that they were to do what they did, “for today the Lord will appear to you.” Again in v. 6 we read that they were to obey the instructions given so that “the glory of the Lord may appear to you.” And then in v. 23 we read that the glory of the Lord did appear to the people. What is more, in v. 5 we read that the congregation stood before the Lord. That is, they believed in his presence as they worshipped, before it was made manifest with the glory cloud. It is when his people believe in his presence that they experience that presence.

And, of course, that is hardly only the perspective of the Old Testament. The tax collector in the temple in the Lord’s parable cried out to the Lord, believing him to be there to hear and answer his prayer. Jesus himself promised that where two or three were gathered in his name he would be there in the middle of them. When the Lord’s Supper was instituted the specific promise was that they would there partake of the body and blood of the Lord Jesus, that is, he would be there with them in his body and his blood, what Paul would later call our participation in the body of Christ (1 Cor. 10:16). The Gospel of Matthew ends as it began, with the promise of God’s presence. In 1:23 we read that Jesus was given the name Immanuel, God with us, by the angel when announcing the Lord’s birth to Joseph. And in the very last verse of the Gospel the Lord himself promises his presence, to his disciples: “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Now, to be sure, the Lord is present with his people at all times. We know that. We are, as Brother Lawrence famously put it, always to practice the presence of God. But as we have often said, worship is a concentration of life and it is so in this way too. The divine presence is concentrated, as it always was before, in the worship of God’s people, in the sanctuary, where the priests are superintending the people’s approach to God. It was so in a visible, dramatic way in the ancient epoch. The sanctuary contained the Ark of the Covenant which was the throne of God on earth. And throughout the psalms we read of believers going to the sanctuary to meet with the Lord, to behold him, to seek his blessing. There was a very real sense in which — omnipresent as God may be — he was especially there in the sanctuary. Some have attempted to argue that while this was so in the OT, it is no longer in the New. The saints in the ancient epoch had to go to the sanctuary to be with the Lord, but he is with us everywhere and always. But that won’t do. The saints of the ancient church knew very well that the Lord was with them wherever they went. That was a promise the Lord made to his people often enough in the ancient scriptures and the Psalms bear eloquent witness to how confidently they believed that promise.

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”

“The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade on your right hand.”

“But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge.”

“The Lord is near to all who call upon him, to all who call upon him in truth.”

They knew the presence of God at all times. But then as now the divine presence was concentrated in Lord’s Day worship. And it is the same for us today as the New Testament itself makes clear.

That first Easter Sunday and the next, when the Lord appeared to his disciples in the upper room in Jerusalem, we are given a picture of the church gathered with her Lord on the Lord’s Day, as she would be on every Lord’s Day to come until the end of the age. That is why the Lord only appeared those first two times on the Lord’s Day. They would not see him subsequently, but he would be there by the Holy Spirit to receive their praise, to hear their prayers, to offer himself to them in the Lord’s Supper, and to speak to them through his messengers. This was the conviction expressed in the terminology of worship employed in the New Testament. They were bowing down (one typical term for worship in the NT) before the Lord and they were serving him (another such term) as servants in his sanctuary. The apostle Paul even urges Christians to worship in such a way that the unbeliever who finds himself in their worship services will fall on his face, worship God, and “declare that God is really among you (1 Cor. 14:25).” He reminds us in another place that angels are present at our services of worship; if angels how much more the Lord himself! [Cf. R.P. Martin, Worship in the Early Church, 10-12; J.J. von Allmen, Worship: Its Theology and Practice, 26-30] We are taught that Christians can pray at any time and be confident of being heard by the Lord. But we are also taught that the prayers that Christians pray together have a special power and efficacy.

Just as David acknowledged in Psalm 63 that the Lord was with him in the wilderness when he was being chased by King Saul, his soul still fainted for the courts of the Lord because it was in the sanctuary that he had beheld the power and the glory of the Lord. And in the same way, Martin Luther admitted, as countless Christians have after him, “At home in my own house there is no warmth or vigor in me, but in the church when the multitude is gathered together, a fire is kindled in my heart, and it breaks its way through.” [Cited in Rayburn, O Come Let Us Worship, 30] There again is the fire that comes out of the sanctuary of God!

And so it has been understood by worshipping Christians ever since. At the beginning of their worship they invoke the Lord’s presence, they stand and kneel because they are in his presence, they receive absolution of their sins by the Lord himself through his minister, they believe him to be present in the Lord’s Supper, both the host and the meal, they understand the Lord himself to be speaking through his Word when it is preached, and they receive his word of blessing in the benediction. Through long ages the church has argued not about whether the Lord was present –they were in agreement about that — but about how he was present. Have you noticed this in your experience of worship? The church always speaks directly to the Lord in the conviction that he is present to hear what she says.

This is a fabulously important conviction for Christians to have when you think about it. And the more you think about it the more important it becomes. It is the universal experience of Christian believers even if they forget about it far too much of the time. My father, in his book on worship recollects:

“I can testify personally that some of the richest experiences of my life took place when I was a combat chaplain in the United States Army with … men, infantrymen and artillerymen, gathered together in the open air during a lull in battle which afforded them an opportunity to assemble themselves in the name of the Lord. It was his presence that made those times so sweet. His presence is always a gift of his love.” [O Come, 30-31]

What is so significant about this is the fact that most of the world knows nothing of this conviction of the presence of God or this experience of the presence of God. To the unbeliever, the one who does not know God, life is defined by the absence of God, not his presence. However and to what extent he or she may ever realize this or reflect on it, God is not a presence in his or her life. Since Christ left the world, God is now unrecognized and unknown to the largest part of humanity. His love, his truth, his wisdom are unknown but so is first the experience of his presence. They do not think as they are going through a day, “God is here!” All along the way, however, there have been those, there has been a great company of those who have lived in the reality of God’s presence.

And that is one reason why Christian worship is so important and why it ought to be done in the strictest obedience to God’s commands and with the greatest effort to make it as beautiful, as sincere, as powerful as it can be made. This worship is the primary public witness to the world that God in fact has made his presence known to a very large number of human beings. As the tabernacle and then the temple were the great signs of God’s presence with his people — centers of public worship as they were — so the worshipping church remains today the temple of God and when it gathers for worship it is the great sign of the Lord’s presence in the world.

When I was growing up the worship services of our churches were traditional more than biblical; conventional more than intentional. If you sat in the balcony and looked over the assembled congregation at worship it would not, I think, have occurred to you to think that those people actually believed that they were in the very presence of Almighty God. They didn’t stand before him except maybe to stretch; they didn’t kneel before him. There was little that was done that would have helped anyone to believe that the church had assembled before the Lord in anticipation of his being present with them. For most of those people the Sunday services of their church, whether or not they ever reflected on this, were more meetings with one another for spiritual edification than they were meetings with God or an audience with him. Thankfully, there has been a great renewal of interest in Christian worship in our time and great changes have been introduced to the practice of worship in our churches. Many of the defects of that traditional service have been corrected. But you know and I know that it remains a great challenge for us to preserve that sense of coram Deo, of being in the very presence of God, in our Lord’s Day worship.

If only we could see him. If only we could see the glory cloud and see the fire come out to consume the sacrifices on the altar. If only we could see that but once in our lives, we think, how different our attitudes would be when we came to church and how expectant we would be when we addressed the Lord together as a congregation. He is here! But it is not to be. We must believe in his presence and that is a much more difficult thing. But these historical events are intended to help us do just that. Once, actually twice, the glory of God did descend upon the people of God at worship and at times chosen precisely to teach us that God’s presence could always be counted on by his people when they gathered for worship.

So another reason for the importance of public worship is that we ourselves, as Christians, may live in the experience of God’s presence. It is hard to live by faith in a God you cannot see, whose voice you cannot hear, whose touch you cannot feel. But in worship the veil is drawn back and faith sees and hears and feels the Lord in a way so real that uncounted Christians throughout the ages have had no doubt that they encountered the Lord. I have had that experience, I have it to some degree virtually every Lord’s Day; I am sure many of you do as well.

As we were reminded last weekend and Lord’s Day, worship creates and preserves a culture, a way of life. And the way of life that it is designed to preserve is that way of life shaped by, dominated by, controlled by the presence of the living God.

The Russian Primary Chronicle is a 12th century chronicle of the Slavic peoples who lived in the vicinity of Kiev. And one of the stories it contains tells how it was that Prince Vladimir, at that time still a pagan, chose to adopt the Orthodox form of Christianity. According to that account, desiring to discover the true religion, he sent emissaries to the various nations to search for it. They visited the Muslim Bulgars who lived along the Volga, but noticed that there was no joy among them. Then they visited Germany and Rome to the west, and, though the worship they found there was more satisfactory, it was not beautiful. Finally they travelled to Constantinople where they attended the liturgy — that is the Sunday service — of the great church of the Holy Wisdom. In their report to Prince Vladimir they wrote:

“We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendor or beauty anywhere upon earth. We cannot describe it to you; only this we know, that God dwells there among men, and that their service surpasses the worship of all other places. For we cannot forget that beauty.” [Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church, 269]

Whatever we may think of the Orthodox way of worship, surely that is a beautiful and helpful way for us to think about our worship and about ourselves at worship Lord’s Day by Lord’s Day. We want to worship before God as these long ago saints did that first day of public worship in the tabernacle. We want to stand before God in the expectation of his presence being made manifest to us. And if we worship in that way, the way we would if we could see the glory cloud,  the way of fear and of joy, of reverence and of love, of gratitude and of commitment, we would experience more often than we do, the presence of the Lord in its power and effect. It was Charles Simeon, who knew a great deal about the worship of the church, who once said in a sermon,

“The finest sight short of heaven would be a whole congregation using the prayers of the liturgy in the true spirit of them.” [In H.E. Hopkins, Charles Simeon, 42-43]

By “prayers” the great Anglican meant everything we do in worship together on the Lord’s Day: the prayers themselves that we offer with the full engagement of our minds and will; the hymns we sing as beautifully and heartily as we can; the sermon we listen to with rapt interest and with full intention to believe and obey; our participation in the Lord’s Supper with gratitude and with the expectation that eating the body and blood of our Savior Jesus Christ will be a great blessing to us; and on and on throughout the service. Think of how you would worship if only you could see the glory of God above and all around you. Think of how you would worship if you could see fire from heaven coming down to earth. Think of that and then worship in the confidence that God is as surely present with us of a Lord’s Day in the services of this church as he ever was with the Israelites that long ago day in the tabernacle.

And what a witness to others such worship must be looking over a congregation who obviously know they are in the presence of God and are acting like it, speaking like it, singing like it, praying like it! They will say no one would behave as these people do were they not actually in the presence of God! Let us pray that first we ourselves and then that others joining us at worship, believers and unbelievers alike, will be convinced, even against their own will, that Almighty God is here and lives among us.