Worship From the Whole Bible


Acts 21:17-26

We are reading in one of the famous “we” sections of the Book of Acts, one of those sections in which the author, Dr. Luke, was present and an eyewitness of the events. On a number of occasions in Acts you suddenly move from the third person to the first person and the appearance of the pronoun “we” is an indication that the history being recorded was history that Luke participated in himself or of which he was an eyewitness.

In our series on the church’s Sunday worship service we have considered both the tremendous importance of this worship – its power to shape our persons, our thinking, our emotions, and our aspirations – and the nature of this worship as conversation with God, the kind of conversation that is the essential ingredient in any healthy and fruitful relationship between persons.

Today we move on to consider another fundamental issue bearing on the church’s public worship and on virtually every decision that will be made about what that worship is to contain and how it is to be offered to God. I am speaking of the question of the authority of the Bible in regard to
such questions. In the minds of many Christians today there is only a vague sense that the Bible has something to say about how we are to conduct our Lord’s Day services. They would be hard pressed to explain how decisions about that worship ought to be made. And, for many of them, key to that lack of a biblical theology of worship would be their assumption that the first 39 books of the Bible, what we call the Old Testament, and all the instructions regarding worship that we find there are out-of-date, obsolete, or passé. Thinking that the NT has little to say about worship, apart from some very general principles, and assuming that we have been left free to chart our own course, they do not look to the Bible to find specific answers to the many questions that inevitably arise about how the church ought to worship God.

And it is that prejudice against the liturgical instruction we find in the OT, for surely there is much more of it there than in the NT, that I want to address this morning. And to that end I have chosen my text this morning.

Paul had returned to Jerusalem from what we typically refer to as his third missionary journey. He had brought with him representatives of a number of his largely Gentile churches and they had brought with them a substantial gift of money for the poor in the Jerusalem church. Paul’s idea was that such a demonstration of love and unity would strengthen the bond between Jew and Gentile Christians, a bond that had been strained by some differences of opinion and much more so by some unauthorized teachers who had caused trouble in the Gentile churches by insisting that Gentiles ought to be required to live like Jews when they became Christians.

The reunion between Paul and the leaders of the Jerusalem church was predictably happy and the Christians in the Jerusalem church were delighted to meet the Gentile brothers and, no doubt, were greatly touched by the gift they brought. The Jewish church had been growing rapidly at the same time the gospel had been making great inroads among the Gentiles of the Greco-Roman world. And among those thousands of Jewish converts were many who retained with their new Christian faith a great zeal for the law, by which is meant a great zeal for the traditional forms of Jewish piety, especially the Saturday Sabbath, circumcision, and the distinction between clean and unclean foods.

That in itself was not a problem, but there was a fly in the ointment. Some trouble-makers were spreading rumors about Paul, in particular that he was teaching Jewish Christians in the churches of Asia Minor and Greece to forsake the customs of Jewish piety. These godly men in Jerusalem had no doubt that Gentile Christians were free to continue to live as Gentiles when they became followers of Christ. Gentile believers didn’t need to circumcise their children or observe Jewish food laws or keep the Saturday Sabbath. That had been decided long before to everyone’s satisfaction, no matter the trouble-makers who had agitated against that decision.

But it concerned them to hear rumors were abroad that Paul was undermining Jewish Christian loyalty to the established forms of Jewish piety. It is a fascinating question, actually, whether men such as James, the brother of the Lord and at this time the acknowledged leader of the Jerusalem church, felt that it was actually necessary that Jews continue to observe the historic forms of Jewish piety – the Saturday Sabbath, circumcision, and the like – or, as is perhaps more likely, they simply felt it was prudent not to create unnecessary offense, as would happen if large numbers of Jews, when becoming Christians, seemed to be abandoning their Jewish identity. After all, the Lord had told Peter straightaway that he did not any longer have to observe the dietary regulations, the distinction between clean and unclean foods. The Lord had as much told Peter that he was free to eat that first ham on rye. You can read about that in Acts chapter 10. And all that followed a remark by the Lord himself in Mark 7 that seemed to portend an end to such dietary regulations.

Whatever may have been their James’ viewpoint on such questions, he and the other leaders of the church in Jerusalem knew a good way to put the rumors to rest. And they certainly knew these were rumors only. What was being alleged was in fact false. It was never a part of Paul’s teaching to disabuse Jewish Christians of their Jewishness. On this same third missionary journey, Paul himself had himself taken a Nazirite vow, a practice of typically Jewish piety. In all the ways he could, living outside of the Holy Land as he was and moving among Gentiles as he did, Paul lived as a Jew.

So here is what the leaders of the Jerusalem church proposed that Paul should do. There happened to be at that moment four men in the church in Jerusalem who were coming to the end of the period of their Nazirite vow. The termination of that vow was accompanied by the offering of sacrifices of lambs and bread at the temple. You can read of those regulations in Numbers 6:13-20. It was suggested that Paul pay the expenses of those sacrifices, not an inconsiderable sum, and participate with these men in the sacrificial rituals that would complete their vows, acts that would indicate in a very public way that Paul was still a practicing Jew. We read in v. 26 that Paul also purified himself with these other men a week before the sacrifices were to be offered. Not enough is known of Jewish practice in the period to know precisely why Paul needed to be purified with these men or what that purification entailed, but the important fact is that Paul happily participated in the temple ritual of Judaism with these fellow Jewish Christians. Later in Acts (24:17) Paul says again that he had come to Jerusalem to present sacrifices in the temple.

Now, the fact is, as I have confirmed many times over the years, most evangelical Christians, readers of the Bible as they may be, have not noticed the fact that Paul participated in temple worship some 30 years after the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. They don’t imagine that Paul would ever have done that. In their view there would have been something wrong in doing that. The worship of the temple was supposed to be obsolete, out-of-date. Christ had replaced it with his death on the cross. Sacrifices were out because the sacrifice had been offered to God. Temple worship would have been inappropriate for a Christian at that time; so they think. But that was plainly not Paul’s view nor the view of other Jewish Christians of the time. There was nothing anti-evangelical in the worship of the temple, nothing contrary to the spirit of the gospel. Indeed, Paul would certainly have said that only a Christian Jew could possibly understand the meaning of the temple sacrifices and only a Christian Jew could offer them with true faith. The worship of the temple, in any case, as Paul’s actions demonstrated, was fully and authentically Christian worship and always had been, however many Jews may have failed to realize this.

And what this means for us today is simply this: the worship of the OT, the regulation of which consumes so many pages of the OT, is not some obsolete ritual that was based on some out-of-date spiritual situation. However the forms of worship may have changed since the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70, its principles are the same as they have always been. Moses can teach us a great deal about the worship of God! And Moses must, because much of the liturgical regulation of the Bible is found in the first 39 books of the Bible, especially in the early books of the Bible, and is not repeated in the NT because it had been so thoroughly described in the ancient scriptures.

In the same way as the Sabbath, following the Lord’s resurrection, has been moved from the seventh day of the week to the first day of the week but the nature and meaning of the day remains the same; in the same way as circumcision has been replaced by baptism, but the meaning and purpose of the two rites remains the same, so while the forms of worship are in some ways different in the new epoch, the nature and principles of that worship remain the same. What do we find in the OT instructions regarding the worship of God’s people? We find a stress laid on the engagement of the heart, on the participation of God’s people in his worship, on the singing of hymns, on the hearing of God’s Word, on the sharing together of a sacramental meal, on public prayer, on the benediction as a conclusion to worship, and so on. All of this is fundamental to the teaching of worship in the first 39 books of the Bible. We can find all of this in the NT as well, but it is often more assumed than explicitly stated. Assumed because the OT has made it all obvious. If you want to learn about worship, the simple fact is you need to study the Old Testament because that is where most of the Bible’s teaching about worship is to be found. Nothing surprising about that. Most of the Bible’s teaching regarding a number of very important truths is found primarily in its first 39 books: the nature of God is an OT doctrine, the promise of God to be our God and the God of our children; the nature of biblical wisdom (which is, by the way, a hugely important piece of the teaching of the Bible), the purpose and function of the sacraments, the nature of atonement by sacrifice, and on and on. These things are primarily taught to us in the Word of God in the first 39 books of the Bible.

This fact is simply the inevitable implication of the Bible’s teaching that the gospel of grace has always been the same, the spiritual world in which God’s people have lived has always been the same – Moses preached the same Gospel as Paul did – that the Christian life has always been the same – read 1 Cor. 10 or Hebrews 11 – and that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was as active in the history of his people, as both their redeemer and their king, before the incarnation as he is active among them after it. But if we take these facts to heart, they have immense implications for our Sunday worship.

If Christians draw their doctrine and practice of worship from the entirety of Holy Scripture, they may very well continue to differ in some respects in their understanding and practice, but there will be a number of fundamental principles that they will share, and there will be substantial agreement as to what ought to be included in the worship of God and how it ought to be offered to him by the church on the Lord’s Day. It is a fact that the NT says much less about the church’s Lord’s Day worship than the OT does; its teaching of the proper practice of worship is much less comprehensive. That could be because the Lord no longer cares how we worship except that it be sincere and heart‑felt and conform to certain general standards which make it Christian. Or, it could be that the NT says less about worship, as it says less about many things, because that teaching had already been comprehensively given and did not need to be repeated in detail. Biblically minded Christians are bound by their principles to think the latter.

Let me give you some examples of the difference it makes to order our worship according to the teaching of the entire Bible, according to the assumption that the worship of God’s people in the ancient epoch was in its substance the same as it ought to be now, because faith was the same, the gospel was the same, the Savior was the same, the Christian life was the same, the work of the Holy Spirit in the individual believer was the same in that long ago time as those things are now. After all, worship is the effulgence, the overflow, the expression of our relationship with God by faith, and nothing could be clearer in the NT than that this faith and this relationship with God has been the same since God first began calling sinners to new life through faith in him. Abraham is our Father, Jesus and Paul say, as much as he is the father of the Jews. Our fathers, Paul says to a largely Gentile church, came out of Egypt at the exodus. We are the circumcision he says to another church of Gentile Christians. We are the Israel of God! The first 39 books of the Bible are our Bible, our Word of God.

So, let me give you some examples of the difference it makes to apply the unity of the Bible to the nature of Christian worship. It could be that there is no NT Psalter – no book of Psalms in the NT – because God thinks that post‑Pentecost Christians don’t need to have a hymnal provided for them – being so spiritually superior to their spiritual ancestors; they can do better on their own – or it could be that God thought that the Psalter he had already put in the Bible was adequate as a standard for the sung praise of the church for as long as the world endures. The unity of the Bible obliges us to think that the latter reason is the real reason. We don’t need two Psalters; one is enough. By the way, as with so many other things about which Christians disagree, our differences here are more apparent than real. The fact is all Christians, whatever their principles, whatever their view of the relationship between the so-called OT and the NT act as if the Psalter had been written for them! They sing the psalms, they pray the psalms, they weep the psalms because they realize instinctively that the faith, hope, and love expressed in them is Christian faith, hope, and love; their faith, hope, and love. No matter that many of them were written a thousand years before the Son of God took flesh and dwelt among us, suffered and died for us, and rose again from the dead, they are an expression of our faith and life.

Or, take another example, the order of events in a worship service. The new liturgy of the American evangelical church is composed of three parts: twenty minutes or more of singing songs, one after another; an offering; and a sermon. Perhaps somewhere there is a prayer. In a liturgy so Spartan, with such few parts, there is no discernible significance to the order in which things are done. You might as well put the sermon first and the singing last. Singing is done first because it warms people up. The offering is taken because the church needs money. Even in services that are avowedly seeker-friendly – that is, they are supposedly put on for the sake of the unbelievers they hope will come – there is always an offering. Whether it is right to ask unbelievers to pay to hear the gospel is another question for another time. But the idea of an order to the service, a motion or movement from beginning to end, is largely foreign to American evangelicals in largest part because those who superintend those services of worship have not paid attention to the Bible’s main instruction in the formation of a worship service, and they haven’t paid attention to that instruction because most of it is found in the OT.

In my upbringing the service was frequently described by both ministers and people as “preliminaries and the sermon.” That way of speaking actually goes back into the 19th century. Obviously it is not necessary to spend too much time with “preliminaries” and ministers didn’t. The so-called “worship service” was, in fact, all about the sermon. It wasn’t as bad with us as in some places in 19th and 20th century evangelicalism where the sermon was so much the point of the service that people would drift in throughout the preliminaries. All they had to be there for was the sermon and so long as they were in the pews before the preacher began to preach all was well. [Bebbington, The Dominance of Evangelicalism, 91] But it was close to that in our churches. All the ministers had to do in the churches in which I was raised was change the hymn numbers, the Scripture lesson, and the sermon title and the bulletin was ready for Sunday. The service before the sermon was a jumble of elements in no discernible order. It was not a conversation with God, the sort of conversation you might expect to begin in one place and end in another.

It is this disregard for the importance of what is done in the worship of God and the order in which it is done, the logic of the service, that has led to the commonly pejorative use of the words "liturgy" and "liturgical" in many evangelical and even Reformed circles. When many Christians say that their churches aren’t liturgical they think they are paying them a compliment! This is a mistake in more ways than one. Every church service is a liturgy, if it has various elements in some arrangement. That is what a liturgy is. Liturgical churches are the churches that have thought about those elements and their proper order. Non‑liturgical churches are those that have not. It is no complement to say that a church is a non‑liturgical church. It is the same thing as saying it is a church that gives little thought to how it worships God.

As some of you know, my father began to care more and more about the church’s worship as he grew older and this was reflected in his work. He wrote a book on the subject of the church’s Sunday worship later in his life as a seminary professor, a book that treated the principles according to which the church should practice its conversation with the Almighty on the Lord’s Day. Speaking of the term “liturgy”, I will never forget one summer Sunday morning in Colorado. We were worshipping with a small village church in a tourist town an hour from our cabin. The minister, a fine PCA fellow, always began the service by asking visitors to introduce themselves. As most visitors to Colorado in the summer come from either Oklahoma or Texas there were always a few jokes for Okies and Texans. The next item was the offering and he told a joke about that. He pointed up at a light above the pulpit that was burned out and reminded the congregation that they needed to give generously as the needed to replace their light bulbs. The next item was a hymn, but that morning the minister said, “Now, we were going to sing this hymn, but I’m going to break the liturgy at this point, and do this other thing.” My father leaned over to me in the pew and said, “Never in all the history of Christendom has the word ‘liturgy’ been used with such abandon!” Only in America, as they say, would jokes about Texans and burned out light bulbs be regarded as parts of the liturgy! But a complete misunderstanding of “liturgy” is actually characteristic of American evangelical life.

Liturgy in its historic sense is the sequence of actions that make up the church’s worship, the repeated ritual of the Lord’s Day service. It is the means by which an entire congregation, made up of many separate, individual human beings can together, can have this special conversation with God, that the church as a congregation of priests can make the offering of itself to God. Liturgy is the content and the order of that content in the church’s worship of God.

Order is hugely important in life and in the Christian faith! Order can determine the meaning of an act virtually all by itself. It can determine the goodness or the badness of something. It changes the nature of obedience, it changes the nature of salvation altogether and of our justification entirely if our obedience is put before our justification or is put after it as Paul is careful to do. Do we obey first, in order to be right with God? Or do we obey after because we have been made right with God by faith in Christ. The order is what distinguishes legalism from Christianity. First justification, first pardon, then obedience. Or take another example. It changes the meaning of sex altogether whether that act comes before or after marriage. The world complains that one is going to do both so what difference does it make which comes first. But the fact is sex before marriage is the order of death; sex after marriage is the order of life. It is the order that defines the act and makes the difference. And so in the church’s public worship. It makes a huge difference to the nature and meaning of the specific elements of worship in which order they come. Where does the reading of the law of God come in worship? Where is the confession of our sins to be put in the liturgy?

So it is in the Bible. In your reading of Leviticus you will have noticed the scrupulous care for the order of events in the sacrificial ritual. Put your hands on the animal’s head while you are confessing your sins, and then kill it, and you have one religion: evangelical biblical Christianity. Kill the animal and then put your hands on it and you have another religion entirely: ancient Near Eastern paganism. In the latter case the worshipper is simply identifying himself as the giver of the gift and hopes to get something in return from his gods. In the former case, the animal is dying in the place of the sinner, a picture of the sacrifice that the Son of God would make when he gave his life for sinners to pay the penalty of their sins.  

Or take the undoubtedly paradigmatic vision of God in the temple which was granted to Isaiah:  Isaiah saw the Lord, high and lifted up. He saw the angels of God covering their faces before the Lord and heard them calling out, “Holy, Holy, Holy.” And what did he do next? Did Isaiah say, “Here am I, Lord, send me”? No; that is a proper thing to say, but not yet. First, Isaiah fell to his knees and then to his face before God and he said, “Woe, woe is me. I am undone. For I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell among a people of unclean lips, for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts.” After that confession on Isaiah’s part, the angel of the Lord brought a coal from the altar and touched it to the prophet’s lips, a wonderful image of cleansing from sin. Only then did the Lord inquire, “Who will go for us?” And only then did Isaiah say, “Here am I, send me.” No one is fit for God’s service who has not first been forgiven of his sins and who has not first experienced the grace and mercy of the Lord. Take anything, anyone of those elements out of the order in which each is found in Isaiah 6 and you profoundly betray the Lord and the gospel and the Christian life. Well so with worship and the liturgy of the Lord’s Day. Week after week the nature of the gospel is reinforced in the deep structures of the hearts and minds of God’s people through the proper elements of divine worship in the proper order, a gospel order, a recapitulation of the gospel every time the church gathers before her Lord and Savior, a going over again of the same wonderful ground and by that same repetition of the gospel in the order of its parts we drive it into the very structure of the thinking of our children. We can never get past talking with the Lord about our sin and his grace, about our need and his provision of that need, about our lives as offerings of thanksgiving to him and about his willingness to help us live as Christians ought to live. We ought to go over that ground and be refreshed in that truth and be reminded of that divine grace every time we gather of a Lord’s Day. We live from these truths that every week’s worship is designed to renew in our hearts. And, truth be told, if we didn’t get the gospel, our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, the nature of our lives as the expression of love to Christ and gratitude to God, the force of his truth regarding his saving work on our behalf and the life to which he has summoned us; I say, if we didn’t go over all of that carefully and powerfully, on the Lord’s Day, those magnificent realities that are supposed to control our thinking and feeling every moment of every day would grow weaker and weaker and weaker.

The Bible never lays out a liturgy for all Christian worship to follow. There is actually something surprising about that I think. But nowhere in the Word of God, OT or NT, are we given the outline of a proper worship service. Start with this, then do this, then this, then this, go all the way down to this and finish here. We might have expected such a thing to be found in the Bible, but it is not. There is generous room for freedom here as there is everywhere else in the Christian life, and thoughtful, biblically minded and serious Christians who agree in large part about Sunday worship have differed and will differ with regard to details. That is as it should be, it seems to me. The precise contours of Christian worship will be shaped by many things: one’s culture, one’s language, one’s musical tradition, one’s theological tradition perhaps most of all. But, that measure of liturgical freedom granted to worshippers notwithstanding, the Bible seems very clearly to teach that the proper elements of worship in a proper order is essential to right worship. What those elements are and the nature of a proper liturgical order are both taught more in the OT than the New, but so what? The teaching is timeless as most of the teaching of the Bible is. In fact the very distinction between old and new Scriptures is not a distinction the Bible itself recognizes. When Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:16 “All Scripture is God breathed and profitable for training in righteous.” he is talking about we today call the OT! [2 Timothy 3:16]

And when one interrogates the entire Bible about worship one learns a great many important and valuable things he or she would not know if confined to the last 27 books of the Bible. We will consider a number of those things in the weeks to come. Paul had no doubt that he was worshipping Christ in the Jerusalem temple even though his worship there was worship such as it had been for the past 1500 years, since the time of Moses himself. It is in part the facts that our worship is so old and that it has been offered by so many generations of believers in so many languages and in so many parts of the world that make it so potent to shape our lives and so pleasing to the God who inhabits eternity. As we move on into this great subject, let us commit ourselves to be fully biblical and to revere all the Bible’s teaching wherever we may find it in God’s holy book.

I want a worship service and I hope you do as well that Moses and David and Isaiah and Miriam and Deborah and Hannah would immediately recognize as their own, They would, of course, understand the necessary changes that would be made seeing that the consummation of the ages had come, but as for the rest – sung praise, offered prayer, confession of sin and absolution given, offerings, the Word of God, the sacramental meal, the benediction, and all of that in a gospel, a covenantal order – they would find themselves in altogether familiar territory and could immediately participate with us with full hearts and active minds. That is the worship we are after isn’t it; the worship we are taught and shown in the Word of God.

Let me leave you with this. Archbishop William Temple, a believing Archbishop of Canterbury in the 1940s, once defined the church’s worship on the Lord’s Day this way:

“Worship is the submission of all of my nature to God. It is the quickening of conscience by his holiness, nourishment of mind by his truth, purifying of imagination by his beauty, opening of the heart to his love, and submission of will to his purpose. All this gathered up in adoration is the greatest expression of which we are capable.”

He was urging us to see our worship together as the summit of our ordinary lives, as gathering up and drawing together all the greatest capacities of our lives and devoting them to God. Put this way, surely any earnest Christian wants that kind of worship on the Lord’s Day. He or she wants it to be organized and offered in the best way possible, not only for the glory of God, but for the fulfillment of our own humanity. For the greatest things and the most important things in life, and our worship together is certainly one of those things, we always need the Word of God, all of it, from beginning to end.