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The Ultimate Priority
By John MacArthur
Moody PublishersCopyright © 1983 The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago
All rights reserved.
What the World Needs Now
A few years ago the Chicago Tribune reported the story of a New Mexico woman who was frying tortillas when she noticed that the skillet burns 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 Jesus.
So the woman went to her priest to have the tortilla blessed. She testified that the tortilla had changed her life, and her husband 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.
The woman took the tortilla home, put it in a glass case with piles of cotton to make it look like it was floating on clouds, built a special altar for it, 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 former heavyweight boxing champion Leon Spinks).
It seems incredible that so many people would worship a tortilla, but such a distorted concept of worship is not really unusual in contemporary society. Tragically, although the Bible is clear about how and whom and when we are to worship, little genuine worship takes place today. In fact, worship is one of the most misunderstood doctrines in all the Scriptures, and that is spiritually debilitating, because an understanding of worship is vital to any full application of Scripture.
Worship in the Bible
The concept of worship dominates the Bible. In Genesis, we discover that the Fall came when man failed to worship God. 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 it affirms worship as the universal 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 the focus of the people of God. For example, the Tabernacle was designed and laid out to emphasize the priority ofworship. The description of its details requires seven chapters—243 verses—in Exodus, 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, and 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 attend a service, and they didn't go there for entertainment. They went there to worship God. 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 in the center, and 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 all the tribes, facing toward the center, the place of worship.
All the political, social, and religious activity in Israel revolved around the law, and 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.
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 all is given to God. Thus God reinforced worship as the priority.
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:
And the incense which you shall make, you shall not make in the same proportions for yourselves; it shall be most holy to you. Whoever shall make any like it, to use as perfume, shall be cut off from his people.
God says, "Here is a recipe for a special perfume, emblematic of worship. This perfume is to be a unique and holy perfume. And 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 utterly apart from anything else in the human dimension. No man may take from God that which He has designed for Himself!
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.
When Worship is Wrong
God repeatedly judged those who failed to worship Him properly. When the people of Israel worshiped the golden calf, God mercifully mitigated His initial righteous reaction, which would have been the utter destruction of the nation, and only slaughtered thousands of them. It 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 prepared and designed and trained for the priesthood, and now they were to be ordained.
But in their first real function as priests, they offered "strange fire." 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 instantly God killed both of them.
It was a sad day. After anticipating all their lives leading the people in worship, they forfeited it all with one false move the first day. They were young men, excited, well-meaning, perhaps. But they disobeyed, and they were 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. And it came about as soon as he finished offering the burnt offering, that 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." And 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 a 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 ultimately cost his descendants the throne.
Uzzah was 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 carried by poles pushed through rings, and transported 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 may not touch the holy objects and die."
That was God's method. Second Samuel 6 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. [v. 3]
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. [vv. 6-7]
Uzzah, in disobedience to the divinely ordained method, was allowing the Ark to be transported on a cart, albeit a new cart. 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.
It may seem as if Uzzah were only trying to do his job, but he was malfunctioning. He was endeavoring to carry out a responsibility before God in a way that did not fit 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.
God will not accept deviant worship. Some would insist that any kind of sincere worship is acceptable to God, but that is 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 attempts, if we fail to worship God according to His revelation, He cannot bless us.
Four Kinds of Unacceptable Worship
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 will I not give to another." Exodus 34:14 says, "You shall not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God."
Yet the world worships false gods. Romans 1:21 indicts all of mankind: "Even though they knew God," Paul wrote, speaking of the human race, "they did not honor Him as God, or give thanks." In fact, when they refused to worship God, they began to make images. They "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" (v. 23).
They refused to worship God, turning instead to false gods, and that is unacceptable. Verse 24 tells the consequences of worshiping a false god: "God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity." Verse 26 says, "God gave them over to degrading passions." Verse 28 adds, "God gave them over to a depraved mind."
The result of their improper worship was that God simply gave them over to their sin and its consequences. Can you think of anything worse? Their sin increasingly became the dominating factor in their lives, and ultimately, in Romans 1:32—2:1, we learn that they faced judgment without any excuses.
Everyone worships—even an atheist. He worships himself. When men reject God they worship false gods. That, of course, is what God forbade in the first commandment.
False gods may be either material objects or mythical, supernatural beings. Material gods may be worshiped even without the conscious thought that they are deities. Job 31:24-28 says.
If I have put my confidence in gold,
And called fine gold my trust,
If I have gloated because my wealth was great,
And because my hand had secured so much;
If I have looked at the sun when it shone,
Or the moon going in splendor,
And my heart became secretly enticed,
And my hand threw a kiss from my mouth,
That too would have been an iniquity calling for judgment,
For I would have denied God above.
That describes a man who refuses the inclination to worship his material wealth. If you worship what you possess, if you center your life on yourself, your possessions, or even your needs, you have denied God.
Habakkuk 1:16 describes the false worship of the Chaldeans: "The Chaldeans bring all of them [the righteous] up with a hook, drag them away with their net, and gather them together in their fishing net. Therefore, they rejoice and are glad. Therefore, they offer a sacrifice to their net, and burn incense to their fishing net." "Their net" was their military might, and the god they worshiped was armed power—a false god.
Some formulate supernatural gods, supposed deities. That, too, is unacceptable. First Corinthians 10:20 says that things sacrificed to idols are really sacrificed unto demons. Therefore, if men worship false beings, they are actually worshiping the demons that impersonate those false gods.
Acts 17:29 contains a marvelous observation by Paul. "Being then the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man." We are made in God's image, and we are not silver, stone, or wood. How could we think that our Creator would be such?
A second kind of unacceptable worship is the worship of the true God in a wrong form. Exodus 32:7-9 records God's response when the Israelites made a golden calf to worship:
Then the Lord spoke to Moses, "Go down at once, for your people, whom you brought up from the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves. They have quickly turned aside from the way which I commanded them. They have made for themselves a molten calf, and have worshiped it, and have sacrificed unto it, and said, 'This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!'"
When the Israelites constructed the molten calf, they were worshiping the true God, but they had reduced Him to an image.
Years later, as recorded in Deuteronomy 4:14-19, Moses said to the assembled Israelites,
And the Lord commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and judgments, that you might perform them in the land where you are going over to possess it. So watch yourself carefully, since you did not see any form on the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb from the midst of the fire. Lest you act corruptly and make a graven image for yourselves in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the sky, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water below the earth. And beware, lest you lift up your eyes to heaven and see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, and be drawn away and worship them and serve them, those which the Lord your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven.
In other words, when God revealed Himself to the Israelites, He was not represented in any visible form. There was no tangible representation of God—and that is true of God throughout the Scriptures. Why? Because God does not wish to be reduced to any image.
If you think of God as an old man with a beard sitting in a chair—that's unacceptable. Idolatry does not begin with a sculptor's hammer, it begins with the mind. When we think of God, what should we visualize? Absolutely nothing. No visual conception of God could properly represent His eternal glory. That may be why God is described as light. It is not possible to make a statue of light.
A third kind of deviant worship is the worship of the true God in a self-styled manner. As we have seen, Nadab and Abihu, Saul, and Uzzah were all guilty of worshiping God in their own way without regard to His revelation. That is false worship just as surely as worshiping a stone idol is false worship, and God does not accept it.
The Pharisees tried to worship the true God with a self-styled system, and Jesus told them, "You yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition" (Matthew 15:3). Their worship was an abomination.
A far more subtle kind of false worship than any of the three we have mentioned is the worship of the true God in the right way, with a wrong attitude.
If we eliminate all false gods, all images of the true God, and all self-styled modes of worship, our worship will still be unacceptable if the heart attitude is not right. Perhaps you don't worship false gods or images of the true God. And maybe you are not guilty of inventing your own way to worship. But do you worship with the right attitude? If not, your worship is unacceptable to God.
Is your whole heart in worship? When it comes time to give, do you give the best of all you have? Is your inner being filled with awe and reverence? Not many can answer those questions in the affirmative.
Excerpted from The Ultimate Priority by John MacArthur. Copyright © 1983 The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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