Cleansing the Temple
It is tempting in this day of trouble to think that God is like we are (Ps. 50:21): content to receive the meager scraps of worship that men are willing to give him. We do not expect too much in the way of man’s honoring of God with the worship he commands in his word. To question what constitutes worship that pleases him and what distinguishes true from false worship seems a quaint question, more for the shady cloisters than the battlefield. Discussion of this subject among Christians is hardly worth risking further rupture within the household of faith, especially since the evil one seems to be laying siege to the church’s gates.
The forces of infidelity have grown strong again under the careless slumbers of the watchmen. If they issue a cry, it is more to rally the troops in defense of family values or other social causes than to defend the honor of Yahweh in his temple. But can the family or society long survive if God goes not forth with our armies? Will he go forth with them if every man does what is right in his own eyes when it comes to his worship?
Churches are on every corner, with clever names and new offerings. There is a constant stream of Christian literature. Very little attention, however, is given to what matters most to God – the gates of Zion. This is his dwelling place. If she is not cleansed and ordered by his word, then it is sheer presumption and arrogance to try to clean up the slums of the city of man. And yet, preachers, for the most part, hesitate to address what should be a pressing concern to every child of God. Is the worship we offer the Lord pleasing to him? What about the heart with which we worship him? Are we provoking him to jealousy by failing to render unto him the glory due unto his name, which is to be learned not from consulting popular opinion or our sentiments but from his word alone?
Those familiar with church history know of her past worship wars. They were of long duration, in East and West, pre- and post-Reformation. These wars were good and necessary. They exercised the Bride of Christ upon a most pertinent question, one vital to her peace, purity, and strength. How should God be worshipped? That sincere Christians and some insincere ones gave different answers to this question is not nearly as important in our present context as is the fact that they asked it. They asked it when the nations around them were fighting, political intrigues were rampant, and in some instances infidel invasion threatened the survival of their civilization. In the early missionaries’ battles against pagan idolatry, in the more settled church’s conflicts about images, and in the Reformation’s insistence upon the sole authority of the Bible in matters of worship, these debates and questions raged while much of the rest of the world was burning. Still, the church recognized that if our worship is not pleasing to God, little else will be.
To believe this, we must rise above our earth-bound perspective and endeavor to see life from God’s perspective. Had he not given us his word, it would be audacious to suggest this. Since we have the law and the testimony, we must give heed to it “as unto a light that shines in a dark place” (2 Pet. 1:19). In its light, we are confronted with the alarming truth that what “men highly esteem is an abomination in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15). All the lies and lusts of the world, the pride and arrogance of graspers for power, the movements and intrigues of the city of man, and the physical world itself are temporal. They will pass away. God will fold them up like an old piece of clothing. He who does God’s will abides forever. A central aspect of his revealed will is that we worship him in sincerity and truth. He is looking for those to worship him in this way (John 4:23). Let this sink deeply into our hearts. Pure and whole-hearted worship and worshippers are what God is seeking. The things men highly esteem are an abomination to him.
Yet, in our man-centeredness, God’s judgment of our worship is often the last consideration, when it should be first. He reveals himself as God who is covenantally near in mercy and grace, while at the same time jealous for his purity and our exclusive love. The second commandment forever codifies God’s jealous zeal for his worship and man’s humble submission to God’s word as central to biblical worship. Against those who think the coming of Christ opens the door for us to worship God in whatever we think fitting or conducive to evangelistic ends we hope to achieve, the New Testament clearly teaches the same worship doctrine as the Old.
In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, in the midst of his warnings against their abuses surrounding the Lord’s Supper, he asks this compelling question: “Do we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he” (1 Cor. 10:22)? How were the Corinthians provoking him, inciting him to anger? They came to his holy meal with impure, worldly lives. They observed his supper with class distinctions within the body. Their observance of the Lord’s Supper had become a non-observance (1 Cor. 11:20). God did not accept it as a legitimate expression of worship or bless their partaking. In a few instances, members of the congregation died as a direct result of this wickedness. From this, Paul likens their idolatry – not worshipping a different God but worshipping God in a way he had not commanded – and its deadly consequences to Israel’s.
Thus, fear of provoking God to jealousy is as much a concern of the faithful New Testament worship as its Old Testament predecessor. There is no greater evidence of the impiety of our day or more certain explanation for the individual believer’s slowness to “pursue holiness in the fear of God” than our indifference to the danger of provoking him to jealousy. The positive side of his jealousy is that he would want us at all! That he, the HOLY, HOLY, HOLY God would want our worship and our adoration! His covenant demands our “clean hands and pure heart” (Ps. 15:2). It is because he is near and loves us that worldliness on our part provokes his jealousy. He has betrothed us to himself, and one of the main ways we keep our vow to him is pure worship and pure lives. We must worship him with undivided hearts that hate the world of sin, zealously endeavor to forsake it, and seek to be his holy people.
This is part of what our Savior meant by worshipping God in “spirit and truth.” Whether or not “spirit” should be capitalized, the import is the same. To worship God in spirit requires that our hearts are right with him. A right heart is the fruit of the Spirit’s renewing and sanctifying presence and power in our lives, so that we walk in his fellowship and submit to his guidance of our lives through the word. Sin, non-repented of sin, unforsaken sin is thus one of the leading impediments to worship. If we wonder that Christian worship sometimes seems spiritless, or that our own hearts are so cold when it comes to worshipping God, or that there is not more joy and power and peace in worshipping God, let us look to the condition of our hearts. Are we walking with him, loving him, meditating upon his word? Are we calling upon his name? Are we at peace within our families? With one another in the body of Christ? “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me” (Ps. 66:18). Iniquity is regarded not by the simple fact that we are sinners but when we are not hating and fighting against our sins, pleading with God for grace to forsake them, and denying ourselves in the power of our Savior. God cannot be worshipped if he is “near in our mouth but far from our reins” (Jer. 12:2; Isa. 29:13). “Why do you call me Lord, but do not the things that I say” (Luke 6:46)?
Along with the condition of our hearts, truth is paramount for acceptable worship (John 4:23-24). Our worship must be guided by God’s will alone. Who are we to offer him worship that is appealing to us but has no sanction from his word? This is the real issue in the modern church. Truth is fallen in the streets. What counts is not what God has said but how I feel. This is the reason that nouveau worship trends sweep the church with increasing regularity. Church leaders try to appeal to the feelings of worshippers, both churched and unchurched, without regard for God’s truth. Sincere, reverent, and jubilant feelings are critical for worship that pleases God, but our feelings must be governed by God’s word. We must be enthused for what pleases God, joyful in what he teaches us and what he does for us each day. We must have our mind transformed by having our minds renewed through his word (Rom. 12:1-2). Then, God’s holy temple will be cleansed. His goings will be great in the sanctuary again. The kings of the earth will pass by quickly and tremble. They will confess, “God is in this place” (1 Cor. 14:25).