Does God care how we worship him on Sunday morning? Does it really matter what we do or don’t do? Isn’t the only thing that matters is that people are experiencing God, learning about God, enjoying church, and enjoying one another’s company? The answer to these questions depends on two things. First, one’s understanding of the purpose of the Sunday morning corporate gathering of the saints (aka, church). Second, one’s understanding of God—who he is, what he is like, and what he demands of us.
Very often, many think the purpose of the Sunday morning worship service is to draw people in and expose them to God. ‘Certainly, we want them to learn something about God, but primarily we want them to have a God experience. ‘We want them to feel loved by God and loved by the church in the hopes they continue to come back.’ This sort of thinking is driven by a consumer mentality, that church is about us, about having our felt needs met, about making my kids happy and, hopefully, exposing them to God. However, church is not primarily about us—church is about God. It’s about the worship of God. It’s about honoring and glorifying God in all that we do on Sunday morning. And if it is done correctly, we will have a God experience--a biblical God experience—where our deepest and greatest needs will be met, where our kids may not be entirely happy, but will definitely be exposed to the majestic, magnificent, blazing glory of God’s goodness and grace. In the end, church is not primarily about us. This is because humans were created for the purpose of worshipping God. God did not create Adam and Eve because he was lonely or because he needed anything from them or us. God created Adam and Eve because he desired to have a creation—to have creatures—who would worship him and exalt his glory. Adam and Eve were created to worship God but they blew it by worshipping the creation rather than the Creator. That this is the reason humans were created is evident from many passages in the Bible. First, this is seen in the first two commandments of the Decalogue (Exodus 20). Commandment one: “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.” Commandment two: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image,…You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God,…” We are to have no other gods before the one true God nor bow down and worship any carved image because we were created to worship the Creator, not the creature or creation. In John 4, to the woman at the well, Jesus says this: “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him” (v.23). God is seeking people to worship him. This is because human beings, by nature and because of sin, do not naturally worship God. We naturally worship ourselves and the pleasures of this world. Regarding the worship of God, the apostle Paul will write: “For from him [God] and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Rom. 11:36). All things have been created by God for him and to him for his glory! We see similar language in Revelation 4:11. “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power,…” Why is God worthy of our worship and glory and honor? Notice: “for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.” Thus, human beings were created, first and foremost, to worship God.
Secondly, too often Christians have a wrong view of God and who he is and what he is like. There is this genuinely held belief that so long as we have the best intentions, so long as our desire is to please God, to worship God, and to know him, then it doesn’t matter how we approach him or how we worship him. God will simply extend grace and overlook our ignorance performed with good intentions. However, Nadab and Abihu found out the hard way that that is not true. In Leviticus 10 we are told the story of Aaron’s two sons, Nadab and Abihu, who were considered priests of God, Aaron being the high priest. And in this story we are told that Nadab and Abihu “each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the LORD, which he had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD” (vv.1-2). The question is this: what was their offense? At least four to speak of. First, in chapter nine God prescribes how the priests are to approach God and worship him. They did not follow what God had prescribed. Second, there is nothing in the Torah that permits for anyone other than the high priest to place fire in his censer and present it before the Lord. Even then the high priest could only do this once per year during the Day of Atonement. Third, it is clear they neither consulted with Aaron or Moses regarding what they were about to do and how they were going to do it. Thus, this was a blatant disregard of their God-ordained leadership. Fourth, because of the way the text reads, it is likely they did not prepare the fire for the censor in the way God prescribes in Exodus 30:34-38. Thus, their offense? They attempted to worship God in a way which God “had not commanded them”—in a way which he had not prescribed. Their best intentions mattered not.
Another person who found out the hard way that good intentions matter not to God is Uzzah. You remember Uzzah, right? He’s the guy in 2 Samuel 6 who, as the Ark of the Covenant is being moved to Jerusalem on an ox cart, the oxen begin to stumble and the Ark begins to slide off the cart, sure to be destroyed or at least significantly damaged, so Uzzah does what anyone would do. He reached out his hand and stopped the ark from sliding off the cart. “And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Uzzah, and God struck him down there because of his error, and he died there beside the ark of God” (2 Sam. 6:7). Why? Uzzah was trying to do the right thing. He had the best intentions. His heart was in the right place. But God had commanded that no one was ever permitted to touch the Ark of God. But maybe Uzzah just wasn’t familiar with Number 4:15. He was acting in ignorance! Surely, God should have extended grace in light of Uzzah’s best intentions! However, when it comes to God and how we approach God and how we worship God, the message of scripture is clear—we come to God on his terms or we suffer the consequences. This is because when we approach God, we are approaching the King; we are approaching the Creator of the universe; we are approaching the God who thundered from atop Mt. Sinai and who parted the Red Sea. We best approach him and enter into his presence with fear and trembling, not willy nilly as though we are approaching our buddy, our pal, our homie. This is not to say God is not our friend. This is not to say Jesus is not our friend and our brother. He is. But long before he saved us and became our friend and brother, he eternally existed as the King of kings and Lord of lords. Jesus is first and foremost the King…who graciously chose to become our friend and brother.
But does all this still matter for the NT church? Now that Christ has fulfilled the Law and the Temple and sacrificial system are no more, isn’t God more concerned with our hearts than with external conformity to the law? Doesn’t Jesus just want us to love him? He does. And Jesus defines love for himself in this way: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). Love for God expresses itself in terms of obedience to his commands. The apostle John firmly understood this. “And by this we know that we have come to know him [Jesus], if we keep his commandments. Whoever says ‘I know him’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him,…” (1 Jn. 2:3-4). Love for Christ expresses itself in terms of obedience to his commands. Thus, if we love God, if we love Christ, then we should desire to approach him and worship him in the way he has prescribed, the way in he has commanded. Thus, what does the Bible say about worship?
In Deuteronomy 12 we read this: “When the LORD your God cuts off before you the nations whom you go in to dispossess, and you dispossess them and dwell in their land, take care that you be not ensnared to follow them, after they have been destroyed before you, and that you do not inquire about their gods, saying, 'How did these nations serve their gods?—that I also may do the same.' You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way,…” (vv.29-31). God tells the Israelites that when he brings them into the promised land and displaces the nations who are there, they are not to borrow worship practices from the surrounding nations and incorporate them into the worship of God. The Israelites are not to ask, ‘What worked for them? And maybe that will work for us.’ Then God says in the very next verse, “Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take from it” (Deut. 12:32). When it comes to the worship of God, not only are Christians not to borrow from the surrounding culture, we are to be careful to do all that God has commanded us to do—we “shall not add to it or take from it.”
Of course, this is the OT. Does the NT have anything to say about how we worship God, about how we approach God? In 1 Cor. 4:6 Paul says this: “I have applied all these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brothers, that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written, ...” There is some debate about what Paul means by “what is written.” As Paul is writing this letter, the NT does not exist but is in the process of being written. Thus, Paul may be referring to the OT. It may also be that he is referring to this letter, 1 Corinthians, and the letter which was written to the church before this letter (1 Cor 5:9). Either way, Paul has made clear that when it comes to the Christian life, which includes how we conduct church, worship, and how we approach God, we should “not go beyond what is written.” When we read Duet. 12:29-32 in light of 1 Cor. 4:6, it becomes clear that God commands that his people worship him in a way that has been prescribed by scripture, in a way that has been regulated by scripture. Thus, this view that I am arguing has come to be known theologically as the Regulative Principle of Worship. That is, that scripture alone should be the sole authority for regulating how we approach and worship God, that churches should not borrow from other churches, from the prevailing culture, or from the consumer mentality that is pervasive within evangelicalism. To be clear, worship is more than just the music played or the songs sung, worship is everything from the music to the songs to the prayers to the reading and expositing of God’s word to the partaking of the Lord’s Supper and the closing benediction. It matters to God how we worship and approach him during the Sunday morning worship service. Thus, if we love God, it should matter to us as well.