Worship: The Ultimate Priority

Worship: The Ultimate Priority

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by John MacArthur

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Nothing is more important than worship.

It is the theme of Scripture, the theme of eternity, and the theme of redemptive history— to worship the true and living and glorious God is the purpose of all creation. So why do we treat it as only what is sung or played in church on Sunday morning?

Pastor John MacArthur leads you through

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Nothing is more important than worship.

It is the theme of Scripture, the theme of eternity, and the theme of redemptive history— to worship the true and living and glorious God is the purpose of all creation. So why do we treat it as only what is sung or played in church on Sunday morning?

Pastor John MacArthur leads you through Scripture texts about true worship. You will learn that worship is any essential expression of service rendered unto God by a soul that loves and extols Him for who He is. Worship is the nonstop role of believers, not merely part of a church service.

So get ready to alter your priorities, aiming higher than entertaining worshipers on Sunday mornings. Worship shows that your ultimate priority must always be to worship the true and living God, with a radically different type of living.

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By John MacArthur

Moody Publishers

Copyright © 2012 JOHN MACARTHUR
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8024-0215-8

Chapter One

What the World Needs Now

IN 1977, MARIA RUBIO OF LAKE ARTHUR, New Mexico, was assembling a burrito when she noticed that the skillet marks on one of her tortillas resembled the face of Jesus. Excited, she showed it to her husband and neighbors, and they all agreed that there was a face etched on the tortilla and that it truly bore a resemblance to the familiar iconic Roman Catholic images of Jesus.

So she went to her priest to have the tortilla blessed. She testified that the tortilla had changed her life, and Mr. Rubio agreed that she had been a more peaceful, happy, submissive wife since the tortilla had arrived. The priest, not accustomed to blessing tortillas, was somewhat reluctant but agreed to do it.

Mrs. Rubio took the tortilla home, put it in a shadow-box flame with piles of cotton to make it look like it was floating on clouds. Mr. Rubio built a special altar for it to rest on. They put the whole thing in a wooden utility shack in the backyard and opened the little shrine to visitors. Within a few months, more than eight thousand people came to the Shrine of the Jesus of the Tortilla, and all of them agreed that the face in the burn marks on the tortilla was the face of Jesus—except for one reporter who said he thought it looked like Leon Spinks, world heavyweight boxing champion at the time. (Spinks was famously unattractive because he was missing most of his front teeth.)

Within two years, more than 35,000 people visited the shrine. For twenty-eight years pilgrims kept coming to see the Holy Tortilla. Over time, the burn marks faded and the image was hard to make out, but people still wanted to worship at the shrine.

Then in 2005, Mrs. Rubio's granddaughter took the tortilla to school for show-and-tell. Someone accidentally dropped it and it shattered. Mrs. Rubio kept the shadow-box, now with only fragments of the shattered tortilla floating on the cotton clouds, but no one seemed interested any more and the Rubio family finally closed the deteriorating shrine.

I remember when I first read about the tortilla apparition. It seemed like a bizarre, one-of-a-kind throwback to medieval superstition. But in the years since, I've grown accustomed to hearing similar stories. People have claimed to see images of Jesus in the toppings on a pizza, in scorch-patterns on a piece of toast, in oil spots on a garage floor, in the brown blotches on a banana, in tree-ring formations, in a misshapen Cheeto, in the rusty buildup next to a leaky bathtub, in the burn marks on a grilled-cheese sandwich, in water-stains on a wall, in countless other tortillas, and in too many other odd and out-of-the-way places to enumerate. Such stories turn up on the internet at least monthly. Invariably, people flock to see and worship the apparitions.

It seems incredible that so many people would treat objects like burnt tortillas, misshapen Cheetos, and rust stains as objects of veneration. But the sad truth is that such a distorted concept of worship is actually easier to find nowadays than authentic worship based on sound, biblical principles. Tragically, although the Bible is clear about how and whom and when we are to worship, little genuine worship takes place throughout most of the world today.

I have often thought that worship must be one of the most misunderstood doctrines in all the Scriptures. That is spiritually debilitating, because worship is at the center of everything Scripture commands of us. In other words, if you are not a true worshiper, everything else in your life will be spiritually out of sync. Conversely, nothing will accelerate your spiritual growth and sanctification than gaining a right understanding of true worship.


The theme of worship dominates the Bible. In Genesis, we discover that the fall came when Adam failed to worship God by obeying the one command God gave. In Revelation we learn that all of history culminates in an eternal worshiping community in the presence of a loving God. From the beginning in Genesis all the way through to the consummation in Revelation, the doctrine of worship is woven into the warp and woof of the biblical text.

Jesus quoted Deuteronomy 6:4–5 and called it the greatest commandment: "Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength" (Mark 12:29-30). That is a call for worship, and by identifying it as the foremost of all God's commandments, He was emphatically affirming worship as the universal first priority.

Exodus 20 records the giving of the Ten Commandments. The very first of those commandments calls for and regulates worship:

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God. [vv. 2–5]

In the Old Testament, worship covered all of life; it was supposed to be a continual preoccupation for the people of God. For example, the Tabernacle was designed and laid out to emphasize the priority of worship. The description of its details require seven chapters—243 verses—in Leviticus. Yet only 31 verses in Genesis are devoted to the creation of the world.

The Tabernacle was designed only for worship. It was the place where God met His people. To use it for anything but worship would have been considered the grossest blasphemy. In the Tabernacle there were no seats. The Israelites didn't go there to sit and be ministered to, and they certainly didn't go there for entertainment. They went there to worship God and serve Him. If they had a meeting for any other purpose, they had it somewhere else.

The arrangement of the camp suggests that worship was central to all other activity. The Tabernacle was at the hub of the camp. Immediately next to it were the priests who led in the worship. A little farther out from the Tabernacle were the Levites, who were involved in service. Beyond that were the various tribes, each one facing toward the center, the place of worship.

All the political, social, and religious activity in Israel revolved around the law. Critical to the law was the list of ceremonial offerings described in Leviticus 1–7, all of which were acts of worship. The first offering on the list is the burnt offering, which was unique because it was completely consumed—offered totally to God. No part was shared either by the priests or by the offerer, as in other offerings.

Thus the burnt offering was the most significant illustration of worship. In fact, the altar on which all the offerings were given was known as the altar of the burnt offering. Whenever the offerings are referred to in Scripture, the burnt offering appears at the beginning of the list, because when anyone comes to God he is to come first of all in an act of worship, where everything is given to God. That is how the law of God graphically reinforced worship as the supreme priority in the life of Israel.

Moses' law spelled out exactly how the implements used in the worship services were to be made. For example, Exodus 30:34–36 gives a prescription for incense. Incense is symbolic of worship in the Scriptures, because its fragrance rises into the air as true worship rises to God. Verses 37–38 sound a warning about the incense:

The incense which you shall make, you shall not make in the same proportions for yourselves; it shall be holy to you for the Lord. Whoever shall make any like it, to use as perfume, shall be cut off from his people.

In effect, God was saying, "Here is a recipe for a special perfume, emblematic of worship. This perfume is to be a unique and holy perfume. If anyone dares to make this perfume for himself, just to smell better, I will kill him."

Clearly, there is something so unique, so holy about worship that it is set utterly apart from anything else in the human dimension. No one may take from God that which He has devised for His own glory !

But that perfume symbolizes something much more significant than any compound of inert ingredients: you and me. Our lives are to be like that perfume—holy, acceptable, fragrant—ascending to God as a sweet-smelling odor (see Romans 12:1 and 2 Corinthians 2:15). The person who uses his life for any purpose other than worship—no matter how noble that purpose may seem—is guilty of a grave sin. It is the same sin as that of an Israelite who misused the holy incense—a sin so serious that under the law it was punishable by death.


God repeatedly judged those who failed to worship Him properly. When the people of Israel made and worshiped a golden calf, God mercifully mitigated His initial righteous reaction, which would have been the utter destruction of the nation. Instead, He slaughtered only three thousand of them (Exodus 32:7–28). That act of judgment stands as a graphic illustration of how God feels about false worship.

Leviticus 10 describes the ordination to the priesthood of Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron the high priest. They had waited all through the years of their childhood and youth to become priests, being groomed and trained and prepared for the priesthood. Now they were to be ordained.

But in their first real function as priests, they offered "strange fire." The exact nature of their infraction is not spelled out. The Hebrew expression speaks of "unauthorized fire." Perhaps they offered a foreign type of incense (Exodus 30:9). Perhaps they made the offering after having imbibed wine (cf. Leviticus 10:8–9). In any event, they did not do what was prescribed to be done as priests leading the people in worship. They acted independently of the revelation of God regarding proper worship, and God instantly killed both of them.

It was a sad day. After anticipating all their lives that they would lead the people in worship, they forfeited it all with one false move the first day. They were young men, excited, filled with eagerness—well-meaning zeal, perhaps. But they disobeyed, and they were struck dead on the spot.

King Saul was guilty of a similar sin. In 1 Samuel 13:8-14, we read,

He waited seven days, according to the appointed time set by Samuel, but Samuel did not come to Gilgal; and the people were scattering from him. So Saul said, "Bring to me the burnt offering and the peace offerings)' And he offered the burnt offering. As soon as he finished offering the burnt offering, behold, Samuel came; and Saul went out to meet him and to greet him. But Samuel said, "What have you done?" And Saul said, "Because I saw that the people were scattering from me, and that you did not come within the appointed days, and that the Philistines were assembling at Michmash, therefore I said, 'Now the Philistines will come down against me at Gilgal, and I have not asked the favor of the Lord) So I forced myself and offered the burnt offering." Samuel said to Saul, "You have acted foolishly; you have not kept the commandment of the Lord your God, which He commanded you, for now the Lord would have established your kingdom over Israel forever. But now your kingdom shall not endure. The Lord has sought out for Himself a man after His own heart, and the Lord has appointed him as ruler over His people, because you have not kept what the Lord commanded you."

Saul decided to usurp the role of a priest. He departed from God's prescribed method of worship, and it cost him and his descendants the throne.

One of the most telling accounts in the Old Testament is the story of how Uzzah lost his life. Uzzah was apparently a Kohathite. The Kohathites had one task, and that was to transport the Ark of the Covenant. One of the basic principles they learned was never to touch the ark. It was supposed to be carried by poles pushed through rings, and the Kohathites transported it on their shoulders in a manner explicitly prescribed in Numbers 4:5–6. Verse 15 says that it was to be covered carefully "so that they will not touch the holy objects and die."

That was God's method. Second Samuel 6:3, 6–7 describes Uzzah's method:

They placed the ark of God on a new cart that they might bring it from the house of Abinadab which was on the hill; and Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were leading the new cart.... But when they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out toward the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen nearly upset it. And the anger of the Lord burned against Uzzah, and God struck him down there for his irreverence; and he died there by the ark of God.

Uzzah, in disobedience to the divinely ordained method, was allowing the Ark to be transported on a cart. It was "a new cart" suggesting that the men transporting the ark had some sense of the holiness of their task. They didn't just throw it on an old hay wagon. But neither did they perform their task as God had expressly commanded. So as the cart bumped along the road, it almost overturned. Uzzah, trained all his life to protect the Ark of the covenant, reached out to stop it from falling off the cart. He touched it, and God slew him on the spot.

Uzzah was surely well-intentioned. It may seem as if he were only trying to do his job by protecting the Ark, but he was malfunctioning. He was endeavoring to carry out a responsibility before God in a way that was not in accord with the revelation God had given. He may have seen his act as one of worship, an attempt to preserve the holiness of God, but he defiled the Ark by the touch of his hand, and it cost him his life.

All these incidents teach us that God will not accept deviant worship. Some would insist that any kind of sincere worship is acceptable to God, but that is simply not true. The Bible clearly teaches that those who offer self-styled worship are unacceptable to God, regardless of their good intentions. No matter how pure our motivation may seem or how sincere we are in our attempt, if we fail to worship God as He has commanded, He cannot bless us.


Scripture suggests at least four categories of deviant worship. One is the worship of false gods. There is no other God but the God of the Bible, and He is a jealous God who will not tolerate the worship of another. In Isaiah 48:11, God says; "My glory I will not give to another." That is an echo of Isaiah 42:8: "I am the Lord, that is My name; I will not give My glory to another, nor My praise to graven images." Exodus 34:14 says, "You shall not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God."

Yet most of the world worships false gods. Romans 1:21 indicts all of humanity for this tendency. Speaking of the entire human race in its fallen, lost condition, Paul writes, "Even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks"

Paul then outlines the history of our race's descent into deeper and more wicked forms of false worship. It's significant that the very essence of human depravity as Paul describes it is bound up in false worship—beginning with a refusal to worship God as we ought. Those who turn away from the true God invariably make their own idols to worship—and that leads inexorably to more and more overtly wicked expressions of false religion. Paul sums it up in the fewest possible words: "Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures" (vv. 22-23).

Verse 24 then tells the bitter consequences of worshiping false gods: "Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them." Verse 26 says, "God gave them over to degrading passions." Verse 28 adds, "God gave them over to a depraved mind."


Excerpted from WORSHIP by John MacArthur Copyright © 2012 by JOHN MACARTHUR. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Worship: The Ultimate Priority 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
JohnP51 More than 1 year ago
This is an excellent book on both what worship is and how we should worship. Pastor MacArthur lays it out plainly and backed up by scripture.