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New Covenant Worship
Often, when we think of worship, we focus on its form. Are the old hymns better or the new choruses? Should worship be formal and reverent, or should it be unfettered and lively? Which instruments should we use if any at all? In this article we will not attempt to answer any of these questions. My hope is that we will be able to look beyond form and study worship from a new covenant perspective. Jesus to the Samaritan woman at the well:
“Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews. But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:21-24)
It is helpful to remember the context of Jesus’ statement when trying to ascertain its meaning. The woman at the well was a Samaritan. The Jews did not consider the Samaritans to be full blooded descendants of Abraham. The folks in Samaria had intermarried with pagans and thus were racially impure. Moreover, the Jews and Samaritans had various doctrinal disputes. The most notable was over who had the real temple of God.
The Jews in Jerusalem traced the history of their temple back to David and Solomon. The Samaritans thought they did even better. They worshipped on Mount Gerizim. Their tradition said it was the very mountain upon which Adam first sacrificed.
The heart of this conflict ran very deep. Remember the old covenant temple was the house of God. By saying they had the correct temple, each side was saying God lived with them and favored them over their neighbor. The resulting animosity was so great that the Jews had little to do with the Samaritans.
When the woman at the well perceived Jesus was a prophet, she thought she had encountered a golden opportunity. At last this immense conflict could be settled! Jesus’ answer was certainly unexpected. He said that the day was coming when the question of who had the right mountain would be irrelevant. What could possibly bring such a dramatic shift in mindset? The answer is fulfillment. The day was coming and was already present when old covenant worship would find fulfillment. That day would bring worship in spirit and truth.
To understand this fulfillment it is helpful to understand the ancient mindset concerning worship. We as 21st century Christians associate worship with things such as singing hymns and choruses of praise. However, in the ancient world worship was more closely associated with sacrifice. In fact, some scholars say that worship in that day was sacrifice.
No place is this more evident than the first century temple in Jerusalem. The temple was the central place of worship for the Jews, and the heartbeat of the daily routines of the temple was sacrifice.
The different sacrifices practiced in the temple are too numerous to examine in detail. However, let us attempt a simplification in hopes of understanding the types and shadows represented in the temple services. Alfred Edersheim in his book “The Temple its Ministry and Services” describes three major types of sacrifice. There were offerings for sin and trespasses, the burnt or gift offering, and the peace offering. Let us examine each and its fulfillment in turn.
Sin and trespass offerings always came first in the temple’s order of worship. Trespass offerings were for individual sins. The sin offering was for the whole person. Sin offerings were often given for the whole nation at the time of the major feasts.
It is easy to see the fulfillment of such offerings for sin and how such fulfillment would end the debate over which mountain was the true place for sacrifice.
”For Christ has not entered the holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us; not that He should offer Himself often, as the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood of another—He then would have had to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now, once at the end of the ages, He has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.” (Hebrews 9:24-26)
The old covenant sin and trespass offerings did not stop sin from occurring. However, they took away sin’s power to bring wrath. Before Christ the sin and trespass offerings were thought to avert physical wrath from the people. It allowed Yahweh’s continence to shine upon the people in the form of physical prosperity and a secure land in which to dwell. Christ’s sacrifice, which fulfilled the sin offering, broke the power of sin to keep us from dwelling in God’s presence and from knowing heavenly blessing and treasure.
While we as Christians can never offer the sacrifice for sin, part of worship is participating in its benefits. We may come to God mindful of our shortcomings and failures. Yet, if we leave with such a consciousness, we have not truly worshipped. In worship Who Jesus is and what He has done supersedes who we are and what we have done. Thus, we leave worship with a righteousness consciousness.
Moreover, Jesus’ once and for all offering for sin eliminated the need for any further sin or trespass offerings. This is why in the first century the temple and the entire old covenant system of types and shadows was waning and ready to pass away as the Parousia approached.
It is important to note that God allowed the Law and its system of sacrifices to remain in the interim period but only as a tutor to lead to Christ, for the Law pointed to Christ. Those who were in true obedience to the Law were coming to Christ and the fulfillment of old covenant worship. It is ironic that those who refused to leave behind their trust in the shadow were in disobedience to the Law in spite of their zeal for its letter. The truth had come. It was time to let go of the shadow.
The second major type of offering was the burnt or gift offering. It followed the sin offering and wholly depended on the acceptance of the first. This offering was entirely consumed by fire, and it represented being given or surrendered to the Lord.
”I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service.” (Romans 12:1)
In Romans 12 we see that believers were to present themselves as a living offering to God as their spiritual service of worship. Paul is not clear on which type of offering he meant. Some suggest that he was speaking of a firstfruits type of offering. Others, the burnt or gift offering. In a sense the first century believers fulfilled both the gift offering and the first fruits offering.
“For our God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:29)
The firstfruits offering was not subject to the fire of God. It was a gift offered to God to ensure that the rest of the harvest would follow (See James 1:18). Through participation in Christ, who Himself fulfilled the firstfruits role, the firstfruits believers escaped the fire of judgment that consumed the old covenant world. As the type suggests, their resurrection came first, then the rest of the harvest followed.
Yet, while the first century believers escaped the fire of God’s wrath, they went through the fire in a purifying sense. As John the Baptist promised, they were baptized both with the Holy Spirit and with fire. (Matt. 3:11).
“In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ….” (I Peter 1:6-7)
Thus, all that was of the fleshly old covenant world was consumed so that which was of faith remained. We see this process in the life of Paul. Recall his words in Philippians three.
“For we are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit, rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh, though I also might have confidence in the flesh. If anyone else thinks he may have confidence in the flesh, I more so: circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.
But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith….” (Phil 3:3-10)
Paul suffered the loss of his own righteousness that he might gain the righteousness that comes through faith in Christ. Paul speaks of his co-death with Christ as spiritual reality, yet it also had a practical working out in the loss of all things.
We can see this reality in Jesus’ call to take up one’s cross and follow Him.
”Then He said to them all, ‘If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and is himself destroyed or lost? For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words, of him the Son of Man will be ashamed when He comes in His own glory, and in His Father’s, and of the holy angels. But I tell you truly, there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the kingdom of God.’” (Luke 9:23-27)
Jesus’ exhortation was to lose one’s life (soul) through Him or lose it in the judgment of God at the end of the age. Being crucified with Christ was a one time event, yet it was worked out daily in believer’s lives, and often not apart from suffering.
We see a very beautiful picture of the burnt offering in the story of Elijah at Mount Carmel. As we recall the people met to determine who was the true God, Yahweh or Baal. After the prophets of Baal failed to summon fire from heaven, Elijah, at the hour of the evening offering (A burnt offering), erected an altar to God made of twelve stones representing the twelve tribes of Israel. He then placed a bull upon the altar which no doubt represented Christ who was given for us.
God was not just showing off when He sent fire from heaven and consumed not only the offering but also the altar made of twelve stones. This was a type of Israel’s death along with Christ. Through the death of Christ the first century believers were made to die to the world which itself would be consumed by fire at the judgment. After the burnt offering was complete, the rain came. Even the appearance of the rain seemed to typify the resurrection. First there was the cloud the size of a man’s hand (the firstfruits) then came the heavy rain (general resurrection).
Considering the reality of eschatological fulfillment, one must ask does God still want the gift offering? Certainly, we still have the privilege of giving ourselves to God. In fact, this is the heart of worship. We are to receive God and to be given to God. The fullness of worship does not occur until both of these are accomplished. The glory of who Jesus is and what He has done must supersede who we are and what we have done. Moreover, it remains true that the life given to God is without a doubt consumed by God. Yet, in a very real sense the only service of worship that remains is the third type of sacrifice, the peace offering.
The peace offering was the most joyous sacrifice of all. Actually, it was more of a meal than a sacrifice. Unlike the other two offerings, the peace offering did not accomplish anything. Rather, it was a celebration of completion. The sin offering and the gift offering were accomplished. What remained was blessed fellowship with the Lord.
During the peace offering the animal given was divided up and eaten by both the priesthood who represented God and the worshippers. Thus, it was akin to sitting down to a meal with God.
We see the meal with God imagery throughout the scriptures. For example, in Revelation 3:20:
“Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.”
To the Jews this passage was no doubt reminiscent of the peace offering. In Jesus’ words we see the Lord’s desire that we partake of the peace offering with Him. Worship is answering God’s desire that we sup with Him.
The old covenant temple was a house of worship. It was considered the place where heaven and earth met and became one. The infinite touched the finite in the most holy place. Through Christ we have become the place of worship. We are the place where the Infinite Creator and the finite creation meet and become one. Worship is the celebration of our union with Christ. This is where worship should take us. At times worship is solemn. However, it always should end in a celebration of our fellowship with God. Indeed, I believe most of the Christian life should be a celebration of who Jesus is and what He has done for us. The fulfilled view can help give back this celebration to the people of God. No longer is the peace offering a future hope. All is fulfilled. In the words of our dear brother David Embury, “Christianity is not a battle but a banquet.”
Considering these things, it is easy to see how fulfilled worship ended the war between the Samaritans and the Jews. Likewise, fulfilled worship also brings peace between us and our neighbor.
”Now it happened, as Jesus sat at the table in the house, that behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Him and His disciples. And when the Pharisees saw it, they said to His disciples, ‘Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ When Jesus heard that, He said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.’” (Matt. 9:10-13)
Here Jesus quotes a famous passage from the book of Micah. God desires mercy and not sacrifice. Remember sacrifice was a great part of worship in that day. Was Jesus telling the Pharisees that God no longer wanted worship? Was He foretelling the end of the sacrificial system? I believe Jesus was speaking of neither, rather he spoke of the nature of worship. It was not a means to earn God’s favor, rather it was participation in the mercy of God. In this we see one difference between worship in the flesh and worship in the spirit.
Consider the Passover lamb. Every year at the Passover feast thousands of families would bring their Passover lamb to the temple. Josephus records that so many lambs were offered that it took thousands of priests to serve the temple. Many of the Pharisees no doubt thought their keeping this feast made them right with God. Consequently, they looked down upon those who did not keep the tradition. What they missed was that each and every Passover lamb that died did not point to their deeds but to the deeds of Another, Christ our Passover lamb. Their obedience did not bring God’s mercy, rather it was Christ’s obedience that brought favor. Participation in the Passover was participation in the mercy of God. It displayed the fact that mercy was a gift given even to the tax collectors of the day. When the Pharisee’s sacrifices became self-righteousness, mercy disappeared.
Likewise, those in our day who believe their form of worship is superior to their brother’s do not understand the nature of worship. It still does not earn us God’s mercy and kindness, rather it is participation in these things together. Therefore, worship is an expression of God’s love for us and our love for Him, but such communion cannot exist apart from love for our brother. It must include recognition of God’s mercy not only for ourselves but also for our neighbor.
In these things we see the heart of worship in spirit and truth. It has nothing to do with style or form. It is about receiving from God through Christ and being given to God through Christ and thus entering into the fullness of fellowship with God and with our neighbor.