Believing Worship: Authentic Worship, Part 1

“And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” Hebrews 11:6

What do you think of when you hear the word “authentic?” I know it brings to my mind something that is genuine. It is the real deal. It is not fake or phony or misleading. For the next few weeks, we will investigate what it means to authentically worship God.

Our verse from Hebrews 11:6 speaks of drawing near to God. This is at the heart of worshiping God and we know from our previous stops on this journey, that drawing near to God is only possible through the sacrifice and blood of Jesus Christ (see Only Through Jesus: God-Centered Worship, Part 3). Drawing near requires something other than what we can bring through ourselves or our own works. It requires the holiness of God which is only bestowed on those who believe and trust in the sacrifice of Christ for their salvation. Apart from Christ, there is no provision for our sins. Apart from Christ, there is no drawing near to God. Therefore, apart from Christ, there is no genuine worship.

Worship that comes from faith is worship that believes or trusts in the God of the universe. It is worship that is built on the foundation of Christ, the Lamb of God. It is worship that believes that it is God Who provides and rewards those who seek Him. It is grounded in the trust that God is Who He says He is and that He will do what He has said He will do.

The worship of our world is not based on such a foundation. It is worship that is based on our own goodness or what we bring to God. We earn His favor or earn our way into heaven by our good works. It is the belief, or faith, that we can, or have to, do this ourselves. If we had but a mere glance of the holiness of God, we would know this is impossible and those assumptions and aspirations would be shattered (Isaiah 6:1-7).

“All who make idols are nothing, and the things they treasure are worthless. Those who would speak up for them are blind; they are ignorant, to their own shame.” (Isaiah 44:9).

The full passage from Isaiah 44:9-20 speaks of a man who uses wood to build things and to use for fuel for a fire to cook his food. Then, with the same wood, he carves out a god and falls down and worships it. The prophet Isaiah exposes the ridiculous nature of this action. The man has made something with his own hands and now he is worshiping it. At least we are much more intelligent and sophisticated now. We would never do this ourselves, right?

Any worship brought before God which is not based on the truth of the truth of Who God is and on and through the sacrifice of Christ is idol worship. Our world is full of people who go through hourly, daily, weekly, and annual rituals as part of their worship to their gods. Even within the church, I fear that much of our activities could fall in that same category. If our actions or service are grounded in the intention that we are earning God’s favor or salvation, this is worship that is not based on faith. Or it is a faulty faith based on our ability to please a holy God on our own.

Authentic worship is worship that is grounded in the character of God. It is based on the realization that the Creator of the universe is Who He says He is and that He will do what He says He will do. It is based on the knowledge that we could never please a God so holy and that only through the blood of Christ can we ever come into His presence. Authentic worship is believing faith. It is trusting faith. It is worship that rests in and rejoices in the amazing love of God, through Christ. We, who have no right to come before God, have been provided entrance into His throne room. And as we come to Him, through faith, we come with confidence as the very children of the Most High God.

When I hear someone say that heaven sounds like it will be a boring place because all we will do is worship God, it is clear to me that they really have no understanding of Who God is in relation to who we are. Do any of us, really? When we finally get to behold God in His glory, I think there will be no other response but to worship Him. When we understand more clearly the depths and depravity from which we have been saved, worship will be the only natural and eternal response.

God has revealed His glory and character through the universe He created, through His Word, and through Jesus Christ, the holy Lamb of God. Let us draw near to Him in faith, not based on what we have to offer, but based on His glorious provision for us. Let us believe and trust in His unfailing love and promises. For He is holy and He is good and His love endures forever. May His work in us produce lives of worship which glorify Him.

Together for His glory…

The Gathering of the Church: Worship in Spirit and Truth, Part 5

“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. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” John 4:23-24

Jesus emphasizes in John 4:21 that the worship of God is not tied to a specific location or rituals. True worship is an inward experience through which our hearts and minds engage with the Lord of the universe. Therefore, we can worship the Lord at any time and in any place. We can draw near to God at all times. This is a wonderful gift. Yet, in response to this truth, many people over the years have also diminished the importance of gathering together as the church. They dismiss the importance of the church, or “organized religion,” or just say that they “worship God in their own way.”

However, Scripture strongly emphasizes the importance and role of the church in the life of a follower of Christ. I think it is impossible to defend a stance that says we do not need to gather together as the church (Hebrews 10:24-25). So, my focus here will not be on defending the need to meet as the church. I will turn my attention to how Jesus’ call to worship in spirit and truth should impact our corporate worship services.

When we come together for corporate worship, everything that we do should be grounded in the Word of God. Our goal should be to provide the means through which we can apprehend the truth of God. Every segment of the service should be intentionally focused on exalting the person and work of Christ. Our focus should be directed to the wonder and glory of God and how he is working in and through our lives and the life of our church. And as we grasp the truth of God, through the work of the Holy Spirit, our heart and minds are drawn to express joy in our Christ, our Rock and our Redeemer. Therefore, we also provide ways of expressing and responding to the truth of God as we worship together as a congregation.

This is why our pastor spends multiple hours each week, carefully studying and preparing to teach God’s Word. It is God’s truth which inspires genuine worship. Flashy presentations or speeches on motivational topics may pump up people’s emotions temporarily, but they will have no long-lasting effects of inspiring godly worship and obedience. It will produce a congregation that relies on quick fixes and who have a shallow, powerless faith. We need the truth of God to transform our lives and to teach, correct, train, and equip us for the work God has called us to do (2 Timothy 3:14-17; 1 Corinthians 2:1-5).

For this same reason, there should be great care given to the selection of songs for worship services. We want to sing songs that declare the greatness of Who God is and what He has done. They should be God-centered and biblically-based (Colossians 3:16-17). Songs that only work up feelings of emotion, but contain little or no truth, do not inspire true worship. They inspire emotional experiences that do not last. There are many “worship songs” that even contain unclear or inaccurate theology. This can lead people into doctrinal error or confusion. I want songs which will reinforce the truth of God’s Word and are clear and strong in their content. Music can be a very impactful medium. It can be used to create emotional responses and even manipulate feelings. I don’t want people to leave a service with a tune in their head. I want them to leave with God’s truth in their hearts and minds.

The desire to worship in spirit and in truth is why we spend time teaching, singing, listening to testimonies, praying, reading scripture, celebrating baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and all the other things that we do in our services. We want to provide opportunities to experience and hear God’s truth and how He is impacting lives. We want to provide opportunities to express the godly passions that well up within us when we are confronted with that truth and the glories of God and His powerful presence. Our duty is to magnify and to glorify God. It is our calling as worship leaders.

That is also why I stress to worship or music teams that they are not to view themselves only as musicians and singers. The worship service is not just an outlet for them to use their gifts. As a part of the team, they are called to lead God’s people in worship. They are the lead worshipers. As a part of the worship team, their top priority is to be a worshiper, not a musician. They need to be seeking God and coming hungry for more of Him. This is also why I think it is essential for worship team members to be believers. Someone who is not a follower of Christ cannot lead others in the worship of Christ.

As we worship together, a call is being issued to those who come hungry for God. Our goal should be to provide them with an atmosphere and opportunity to experience the joy and satisfaction of worshiping the Almighty God in spirit and in truth. It should be our desire to experience the powerful presence of God in our midst. As a result, anyone that would join us on Sunday for worship, even if they are not a believer or seeking God, might also be confronted with the truth and presence of the living God. My hope is that no one would able to leave a worship service without saying, “God was surely in this place” (1 Corinthians 14:25).

This should be the result of our worship services as we are obedient to God and truly seek to worship Him in spirit and in truth. As we proclaim the truth of the gospel of Christ, magnifying the person and works of our God, this truth should inspire worship in our hearts. As we gather as the people of God, our services should be grounded in truth, with opportunities for responding together and engaging in worship with our God. Let us continue to draw near to God together.

Together for His glory…

Beyond Obligation and Infatuation: Worship in Spirit and Truth, Part 4

“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. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” John 4:23-24

Jesus clearly states that those who worship God must worship Him both in spirit and truth. Previously, I have discussed aspects of each individually. Today, I would like to begin to look at how these two work together because I believe that if both are not present, our worship is not what God has intended for us.

There will always be a struggle of leaning too heavily in one direction or another. People who know me are aware that I place a very heavy emphasis on truth in worship. This is true. Both Scripture and personal experience have taught me that this is essential. However, as I look closely at my life, I find that I vacillate back and forth between two extremes, with occasional stops in some sort of balanced area.

It is very easy for me to get lost in the details. I know what I need to do, most of the time. I know what my obligations are as follower of Christ, husband, father, pastor, employee, etc. I have certain things that I know I need to do every day. And I do them. This includes my spiritual life. I read the Word. I try to pray. I listen to music that focuses on the gospel. I try to live in obedience to what I think is God’s will. However, I find that there is, at times, little devotion or delight in the process of carrying out these daily duties. I am attempting to live out God’s truth, but something is missing.

Then, maybe I swing to the other extreme. I am looking for something that shows me the purpose in what I am doing. Or maybe I am looking for some demonstration of God’s love or purpose for me. Am I following God’s path for my life? Why do I feel so far away from You God? How long will this situation go on? Why will you not give me some sign that shows me I am not drifting in a boat without a sail or paddle? Why can’t I hear Your voice? Why do other people seem to hear You and know exactly where You are taking them? Why can’t I have what they have?  Oh God, please empower me to be the man I need to be! Give me Your strength and wisdom! Show me You are there! As so the conversation goes.

Two different ways of living. Both include aspects that can be present in a godly, balanced Christian life. Living in obedience and wanting to experience the presence of God are great pursuits. However, lived in exclusion of each other, we become unbalanced and I think we miss God’s best for our lives. The first can lead to a life of obligation or duty.  The second, can lead to a life of infatuation and disenchantment.

A life lived solely out of obligation and duty has little or no devotion. It does not move beyond the task or principles to the Person behind the principles. We live our lives, fulfilling our responsibilities, and our relationship with God gets lost in the details. The law of God and the works He has called us to do were not meant to exist apart from our relationship to Him. The coming of Christ, our Immanuel, was for the purpose of uniting us with our Creator, breaking forever the curse of sin. Our God is with us.

The life of infatuation rarely goes below the surface or the immediate. We are looking for experiences or signs that make us feel close to God or prove that He is with us. When the fruit and direction from God are apparent and overflowing, we are on a roll. We are running with God. When things don’t go well or God seems to have gone on vacation, we become disheartened or bored with spiritual things. Even worse, we can feel that God has abandoned us. We don’t move beyond the gifts or benefits to the Giver of the gifts. God wants to grow and build our lives and show us the depth of Who He is and what He has done, but we are grasping for temporary things. Again, Christ is lost in our pursuit.

“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing (John 15:4-5).” “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God (Colossians 3:16).”

Truth is foundational to worship that is in spirit and truth. As we learn from the Word of God, that truth produces wisdom and knowledge in our lives of Who God really is. We better understand ourselves and our utter hopelessness apart from Christ. The Holy Spirit enlightens our heart and minds to understand the wonders of Who God is and what He has done for us in Christ. As we fill our minds with the Word of God, He works in us to transform our minds and lives into the image of His Son.

As God’s truth sinks down into our hearts, the flame of worship is ignited by the Holy Spirit.  The expression of our hearts, in response to the wonders of God and His works, is an essential part of biblical worship.  We worship God in spirit, and this response is grounded on the truth of God as revealed in His Word. As our relationship with God grows and deepens, we respond to Him in love, rather than mere duty or obligation. We are no longer trying to produce fruit through our own good works. God is producing the fruit in us, by the power of His Spirit.

The binding together of worship in spirit and truth together produces a treasuring of Christ. As we seek to know God better through His Word, our knowledge of Him increases, and so we grow in love for Him. This in turn, should propel us to seek to know Him more, and so the journey continues. We sink our roots deeper and deeper into Christ and our lives become saturated with Him. He truly becomes our treasure, our First Love. God works in and through us to do His will and to spread the gospel of Christ. Our worship is not based on obligation or pursuing experiences, but it is rooted in truth and producing a life that pursues after Him. What a glorious gift God has given to us. We may come to Him and know Him through Christ.

What greater aspiration could we have? Though this life will be filled with struggles and our relationship with God will have its ups and downs, God will not forsake us. He calls us to draw near to Him, in Christ. It is this life’s great pursuit. Through it, God will transform our lives and use us for the great glory of His holy name.

Together for His glory…

Where is My Heart? Worship in Spirit and Truth, Part 3

“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. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” John 4:23-24

For some of us, a focus on truth may not be difficult. Especially for those of us who have legalistic tendencies. We see the importance of Scripture and its essential part in our lives and in the life of the church. We know the importance of sound doctrine and that the Word of God is foundational for enriching, correcting, transforming, and equipping us for godly living (2 Timothy 3:16).

However, worshiping in spirit is just as important. When Jesus says that true worshipers must worship in spirit and truth, He is saying something that is very important for the people of His day and for ours. If you look at the religions of the world (and many Christian churches), you see a very heavy emphasis on the performance of rituals. There are certain things that are done on a daily, weekly, or annual basis in order for fulfill the obligations of their religion or faith. Rituals take different shapes and forms. Regardless of what they look like or what they involve, the question is whether those performing them are truly worshiping. I believe this is at the heart of what Jesus in saying.

Performing ritual religious ceremonies, as an end in themselves, is not true worship. The people of Jesus’ day were steeped in religious ritual. Groups like the Pharisees went to great lengths to demonstrate that they were fulfilling the law of God, down to the miniscule detail. However, the law had been given by God as a means of bringing glory to His Holy Name and to show the people their desperate need for Him. But many had taken the law and turned it into a meaningless ritual and a means of demonstrating their own righteousness. They were going through the motions and their hearts were far from God. Jesus proclaimed this as He echoed the words of the prophet Isaiah. “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” (Matthew 15:8-9; Isaiah 29:13)

Essentially, there is nothing wrong with rituals in the Christian faith. The problem arises when the action or ritual performance becomes the focus or an end in itself. The God to Whom the act was supposed to draw us is primarily forgotten or just given lip service. When we are just performing religious activities or saying religious sounding words, with no heart inclination toward God and no inner working of the Holy Spirit, this is not worship that is acceptable to God. God is not fooled.

As I read through the Old Testament, I am continually amazed (and saddened) and the repeated rebellion and lack of faithfulness of God’s people. I keep thinking, “What is wrong with these people?” And yet, are we so different from them? Do we conduct ourselves differently when we gather as the church then when we are at home or work? How often do we come to Sunday morning service, mouth the words to songs, sort of listen to the sermon, or perform other rituals or acts of service without much thought or inclination toward God? Whether our expressions are reserved (sitting/standing in quiet reverence) or more demonstrative (dancing, clapping, raising hands), outward expression can be a complete façade. When we leave, we think that we have fulfilled our obligation to God or filled our God quota for the week. Worse, we leave never having desired or experienced the presence of God in worship. We have done our duty. How does God view this? Have we impressed Him?

I find this a regular struggle for me. I am supposed to be one of the “worship leaders,” but it is very easy to get lost in the details of leading the service. I am focused on making sure everything is organized and comes together correctly. The music team, sound and video all have to be coordinated and prepared. My transitions have to be relevant and delivered clearly (and hopefully without stuttering). In the midst of my focus on these things, where is God? What is mind and heart focused on? Am I focused on making sure everything goes off as planned, with each item checked off? Or am I more concerned that my heart is right before God and that I passionately desire for Him to transform my life and the lives of those who are in attendance? Planning and organization are important, but where is my heart in the process? If my heart is not set on pursuing and hearing from God, my outward actions are merely an act.

When we approach worship in this manner, it is simply a religious exercise that does fool God. Throughout Scripture, the pages are full of God’s rejection of outward acts done by those whose hearts are far from Him. He is not glorified and, in the end, we are cheating ourselves. We are robbing ourselves of the joy that is to be experienced in worshiping God, through His truth and the power of the Spirit. This is the joy that comes when are satisfied in Him above all things – when we cherish Christ above all things. We don’t come to God to fulfill our regular obligation. We come to be filled with the fullness of God in Christ. We come, knowing that we are desperate, apart from our salvation through the sacrifice of Christ, and that knowing Christ is the greatest pursuit to which we can give our lives.

Worship in spirit is an inward response to the God of the universe. It is initiated and empowered by the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. As God moves in our hearts and minds, we respond in worship. This is when the outward expression is genuine, whether it involves ritual activities or not. Our actions become a reflection of the heart’s desire for God and the working of Christ in our lives. It is not merely an outward performance to try to impress people or God. It reflects a true desire to know and worship God.

Next time, I will address how worshiping in truth and worshiping in spirit work together. Until then, I pray that we will all draw near to our God, through Christ. May we pursue lives that reflect the words in Psalm 73:25-26. “Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”

Together for His glory…

Truth Matters: Worship in Spirit and Truth, Part 2

“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. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” John 4:23-24

When it comes to worship, biblical truth and doctrine are foundational. This is where we must always begin. Worship apart from truth puts us in the place of basing our worship and our relationship with God on our own wisdom, experience, emotions, or traditions.

In John 4, Jesus is carrying on a conversation with a Samaritan woman. When the conversation became too probing or personal for the woman, she changed the subject to a dispute about the proper place for worship. Jesus addresses her attempted diversion by informing her that her approach to worship is flawed. In John 4:22, Jesus says to the woman, “You Samaritans worship what you do not know.”

There is much that goes into this statement and to understand it, you have to understand the relationship between the Samaritans and the Jews. I will not go into all the details, but, in brief, the Samaritans were descendants from the Jewish people who were left behind when the nation of Israel was taken into exile. Over the years, those who remained were intermarried with people outside the nation of Israel. They set up their own places of worship and rejected most of the Old Testament, except for their own version of the first five books. Therefore, Jesus is stating that her knowledge of God and real worship was lacking. She was focused on the wrong thing. And she was focused on the “where” of worship and had completely lost sight of the “Who” of worship.

Sound, biblical knowledge of the gospel and Who God is, is absolutely essential in worship. And where does this knowledge come from? It comes from the Word of God. Yes, God does reveal Himself to us through His creation – He displays His majestic power and glory in all that we see, down to the microscopic level. Because of this, anyone who does not believe is without excuse (Romans 1:18-32).

Nevertheless, the Word of God is indispensable. It is within the pages of Scripture that we see the character and attributes of God marvelously revealed through His mighty works and law. We see the prophecy of the coming Christ. In these pages, we have the gospel, which proclaims the greatness of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, Who took upon Himself the sin of the world, that we could be redeemed and brought into the glorious kingdom of God. This truth is the rock upon which we stand. It is the anchor that holds us in the storm. It is what fuels biblical worship and living. “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:1-2) “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” (Colossians 3:16)

As an integral part of our spiritual worship, we are commanded to renew our minds. We do this through the transforming power of the Word of God. If we want to be true worshipers of God, we must be grounded in God-centered, Christ-centered truth. There is no exception. God’s Word in me establishes the foundation for worship. It puts my focus on the God of truth. Otherwise, I am left to imagine or create a god that may have little or no basis in reality – a god in my own image. And that is idolatry. If my worship, experience, or life contradicts the truth of God, I need to change. Otherwise, I will not be drawing near to God. I will be led away in error or self-deception. I will be worshiping some other god or, maybe, just worshiping myself and my own desires.

God reveals Himself to us. He desires for us to know Him better. As we seek and draw near to Him, He will help us grow in our knowledge of Him, through Christ. And we will discover, over and over, the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ (Philippians 3:8).

Together for His glory…

God is Testing Us: Worship in Spirit and Truth, Part 1

“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. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” John 4:23-24

As I have mentioned before, I am not an expert on the subject of worship. I am not sure there is anyone who really is. I am like a man who stands on the shore and studies the ocean. At best, I have waded in up to my ankles. The vast expanse of Who God is and what it means to truly worship Him goes far beyond my ankle-deep knowledge and experience.

What I teach and share is based on what I have learned from Scripture, the works of many godly individuals, and my years of seeking to apply these principles in my life and the life of the church. Yet, it is limited by my knowledge and comprehension and flawed by my own sinfulness. That is why it is always critical to test what you hear from me or anyone else by what God reveals to us in His Word.

A few years ago, I started listening to an Bible on my phone while I drive to work or exercise. I have found this to be a profitable addition to my study of the Word. There are some drawbacks. First, if I am tired, I am not always completely coherent. Second, the recitation moves pretty fast. Third, my mind wanders. So, I can miss things. But it is meant to be a supplement to my study of Scripture, not a replacement. However, because I can listen to large sections at a time, it does provide me with a broad overview of how God works both in the life of His people and in the world.

I am currently in the Old Testament.  As I listen, I am reminded of several things. God is serious about His holiness, His law, and obedience. The human race, including the people of God, is incredibly stubborn and rebellious and sinful. Even when we outwardly practice rituals or “religion,” our hearts are often far from God. God is a righteous judge and He is always right when He judges. He is extremely patient in His dealings with us. Every one of us deserves the judgment and wrath of God. God is a merciful and forgiving God. We are without excuse if we do not receive His gift of salvation.

In Deuteronomy 13:1-6, it speaks of prophets or dreamers of dreams who give signs and wonders which come true. These prophets, in turn, then instructed the people to serve other gods. In other words, these prophets are either deceivers or once-servants who have been led astray and are now false prophets or teachers. So, God says that even though the prophet’s signs or prophesies came true, the people are not to listen to them. This seems pretty straightforward and obvious to me. But then, verse 3 really grabbed my attention. It says that God is using these prophets to test whether the people really love the Lord with all of their heart and soul.

Through the years, I have seen many teachers, churches, or ministries that are proclaiming a new “truth” or “experience” related to worship or Christian living. Writing books, speaking on TV, or traveling around the country to offer or seek out some new work of God. At times, I have been such a seeker. Unfortunately, in reality, I doubt that most of these have much to do with worship or God. Some people who pursue these are just experience worshipers – they want the latest and greatest worship or God “experience.” Some are just desperate to find something beyond the drudgery of the ritual or dead orthodoxy they have experienced in “religion.”

I have also seen and heard many who lay heavy burdens of guilt and obligation on others in the name of God. These are the self-righteous who legalistically impose such obligations on others which, in the end, they neither have the intention or ability to comply with themselves. I have found myself to be prone to being an inflictor of such man-made obligations and rules. Many of the rituals engaged in weekly by church attendees could very well fall under this umbrella of efforts to earn God’s favor by our obedience or performance.

In the end, for all of us, these things, and how we approach God in worship each day, test the true state of our hearts. As the passage in Deuteronomy tells us, God uses these to determine whether we really love Him.

In the passage in John 4, Jesus says that the kinds of worshipers that the Father is seeking are those that worship Him in spirit and truth.  If this is the case, then it is very important that we try to understand what that means. Worship is an inward, spiritual experience and expression of the heart, ignited by and carried along by the Holy Spirit. Apart from the Spirit of God, there is no true worship of God. At the same time, worship is a response to truth about God and is shaped by truth about God. Worship should be an expression of the entire life of the believer and a pursuit after the living God, not a mere performance of religious rituals or obligations.

Worshiping in spirit and truth. As we go through the next couple of weeks, we will dig a little deeper into each of these and to see how they relate to one another. I hope and pray that it will be a fruitful venture for all of us. I pray that when God tests us, it will reveal hearts that love Him. By His grace and strength, may it be so.

Together for His glory…

The Self-Centered God: God-Centered Worship, Part 4

“For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.” (Romans 11:36) In the past couple of weeks, I have addressed what it means that all things are from God and through God. Today, I will attempt to unpack what it means that all things are to Him.

In my years of being in worship ministry, I have heard numerous descriptions and analogies of what takes place in the worship of God: giving to God; offering ourselves to God; reflecting His glory; we are fulfilling the command to worship; we are performing for the audience of One; bringing glory to God. And there are many more. These ideas can be helpful as we think through how we should worship God.

When we think of something being “to” someone, we often think of giving or offering something to them, whether it is a gift or something that we owe to them. However, when we try to apply this to God, we need to be cautious because there are aspects related to bringing or giving that may apply to us as humans, but cannot apply to God. The earlier verses in Romans 11:33-35 make it clear that we cannot give counsel or gifts to God that either increase His knowledge or possessions. All wisdom and knowledge are His. The earth and the universe are His. He lacks nothing. So, our worship does not add anything to God. Anything we bring to God is already His.

So, what is the purpose of our worship? Scripture is full of commands to worship the Lord, bring offerings, and even offer ourselves as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1-2). There has to be a reason that we worship, other than just requiring us to do this act out of obedience. And there is.

God’s purpose for worship, and all of life, is His glory. Everything, including our lives, exists for the purpose of bringing glory to God. All things are to Him. When creates, it is for His glory. When He reveals Himself to us, it is for His glory. When He provides for us, it is for His glory. When He saves, it is for His glory. When He judges, it is for His glory. When he raises up or brings down individuals, groups, or nations, it is for His glory. When Christ came, suffered, and bore the penalty for all sin, it was for His glory. When Christ rose, it was for His glory. When Christ returns, it will be for His glory. All things exist to bring glory to the Almighty God. And He will not give or share His glory with anyone or anything (Isaiah 48:9-11).

All things are to Him. All things are for Him. All things were created and intended by God to bring glory to God. For many of us, this is hard to swallow. This seems highly self-centered. That is because it is. For us, it would be sin. For God, it is perfectly acceptable. In fact, it is the most loving thing He can do for His creation.

Where is the highest joy found? Our highest joy is found in God through Christ. Any other person, possession, or aspiration will fall short of bringing the joy that can be found in Christ. Therefore, the greatest thing that God can do for us is to glorify Himself and the work He has done. As we see the indescribable wonders of Who He is and heights and depths to which He has gone to purchase our salvation, what greater joy could be found in anything else in life?

God is jealous for His glory. He is also jealous for His people. He knows that anything less than His glory is robbing us of our greatest joy. Therefore, as we come to God in worship and as we conduct our times of worship together, we should give serious consideration to where we place our focus. Worship is for the purpose of glorifying God. When the focus shifts from God and His works to the abilities, performances, or preferences of the leaders or those in attendance, we are seeking to share or steal God’s glory, whether that is our specific intent or not. We should always be mindful of why we are doing something – are we seeking to glorify God or are we just serving and glorifying ourselves?

When my focus becomes being noticed or recognized for anything that I am doing in the worship service or the ministry of the church, I am stealing God’s glory. When I am pressing hard on some issue, I need to seriously ask myself whether this glorifies God or am I just trying to get my own way. Pride and selfishness can be deadly in relationships. It has destroyed many families and churches. God abhors it when it comes to His glory, His church, and His people. As I look back over the years, distant and recent, I wonder how many times I have glorified myself instead of my glorious Savior. As we live our lives and work together in the church, it is important to keep the glory of God before us at all times.

Thankfully, God is gracious. He is forgiving. His mercies are new every morning. He holds His glory up as a wonderful aspiration. As followers of Christ, we have the awesome privilege of declaring the glory of God in the gospel of Jesus Christ. We testify to what God has done in our lives through Christ. We get to make God look great! That is what it means to glorify someone. It does not mean that we make Him look bigger than He is. It does not mean that we have anything to add to Who He is or what He has done. We just get to reflect His wonderful work in our lives, as He transforms us into the image of Christ.

We glorify God when we find our greatest joy and treasure in Him. It is why we were created. God knows there is nothing else in life that can bring us this kind of satisfaction. That is why He glorifies Himself. Everything else is a cheap substitute and robs us of the peace and joy of God. It can be ours throughout life’s journeys, joys, and trials. Though we will stumble and fall, He will pick us up and sustain us. As we draw near and glorify Him, He will feed and serve us, providing for our every need. He will teach and strengthen us, giving us a deeper understanding of Who is. And we, in turn, will glorify Him. And so it continues, as God continues to show us that He is our all in all, and that there can be no greater joy than knowing Him in Christ.

Together for His glory…

Only Through Jesus: God-Centered Worship, Part 3

“For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.” Romans 11:36

All things are through Him. This truth encompasses so many aspects of life that it would be impossible to address them sufficiently in this format. For our purpose here, though, this would seem to mean that worship would also only be possible as enabled through God. This may seem odd to us, since most of us have always viewed worship as something we offer to God – it is from us to God. We give our praises and offerings to the Lord. We do this in response to Who God is and what God has done for us. Scripture commands us to worship God. Therefore, as a follower of Christ, worship is to be a part of our obedience and our relationship with God.

So, how is it that our worship is through God? As I have discussed in previous posts, anything we have or give to God already belongs to God. Our very lives are created and sustained by the power of His Word and through His love and care. There is nothing that we are and there is nothing we possess that is not from God. It all belongs to Him. He can give it or take it away at any time. In this sense, everything exists and is only possible through Him. That would include our worship.

However, I would like to focus on something that is essential to worship, but which we either forget or do not fully comprehend. How often have we heard or used phrases like the following?

  • ‘We really entered into God’s presence today.”
  • “That song really brought me into God’s presence.”
  • “The Spirit was really present this morning.”
  • “I did not sense the presence of the Lord today.”
  • “We invite the Spirit (or Christ) to join us today.”

I understand, for the most part, the meaning behind these statements. Yet, if you look at these statements, and others like them, you will notice a common theme – us. All of them flow from a foundation that there is something that we do, something that someone else does, an event, the atmosphere, a performance, or some other activity which brings us into the presence of God or brings God into our midst.

The teaching of the Word is essential. Music and singing are wonderful. Prayers are meaningful. Testimonies reveal the work of God in our lives. Communion is a great time of reflection and remembrance. I could go on, listing many other things we do in worship, but none of these things bring us into the presence of God. There is only one thing, or I should say, one person, who brings us into God’s presence.

The Holy of Holies, or Most Holy Place, was the place in the Temple which was only entered once a year and, then, only by the high priest in Israel. When he entered, he came with blood for the purpose of atonement for his sin and the sin of the nation. The Holy of Holies was the place where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. It was the place of the special manifestation of God’s presence in Israel. No one was to come into this place except the high priest. The penalty for violation was death. The Old Testament is full of God’s commands regarding this aspect of Israel’s worship. Anything I could provide here would be an oversimplification. Needless to say, entrance into God’s presence was rare and restricted. God is holy. We are not. The unholy cannot appear before the holy God.

In the book of Hebrews, God’s unbelievable gift is detailed for us by what was accomplished through the work of Christ. Chapters 9 and 10 describe the work of Christ in paying the penalty for our sin and what resulted from His actions. Reading this should blow our minds, if we truly understand the gravity of what was done on our behalf. When Jesus died, it says he entered the holy places. Not in the earthly temple, which is only a copy, but in the heavenly temple. He came with blood, but not the blood of animals. He came with His own blood. He did not come to continue the old covenant, but to fulfill it and become the mediator of a new covenant. He entered the heavenly temple, in the presence of God Himself, to appear on our behalf. He presented the sacrifice of Himself, once and for all, never to be repeated, to put away sin, forever. Hebrews 9:11-28

“Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.” Hebrews 10:19-23

Jesus, alone, brings us into the presence of God. No other human being, place, performance, or event brings us into the presence of God. Only Jesus brings us there, through His own blood, sacrificed for our sin. If we have received Christ, we have direct access to the throne room, the heavenly temple. We don’t invite God into our presence. How can the God Who is present everywhere be invited anywhere? We have been granted access through Christ, alone.

In reality, this takes the pressure off of us. Cleansed by the blood of Christ, we are clothed in His righteousness. In worship, we just need to draw near to God. And we can do so with confidence and assurance because we are not paving the way with our righteousness or performance. The debt is paid and the way has been paved through Christ. So, the singing was bad this week – draw near! I did not like the sermon – draw near! The sound system is feeding back, again – draw near! I don’t like this song – draw near! I yelled at my wife or kids before the service – draw near! I am so fearful in my circumstances – draw near! I am struggling to believe God – draw near! I fell into sin, again – draw near! Draw near!

God is inviting us to draw near and He says we can do this with confidence. Coming into the presence of God has nothing to do with our righteousness, our performance, our surroundings, or our circumstance. It has everything to do with Jesus Christ, our great High Priest. As believers, we are in God’s presence, seated in heavenly places, through the work of Christ (Ephesians 2:4-7). The next time you pray, come to a worship service, or just live your everyday life, just remember that you don’t have to invite, obtain, or find the presence of God. If you are a follower of Christ, you are in His presence. Jesus has provided our access into the very throne room of God. The Father is calling. Let us draw near and worship Him.

Together for His glory…

Giving Us Himself: God-Centered Worship, Part 2

“For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.” (Romans 11:36)  Continuing with where we left off last week, we are exploring what it means to have God-centered worship. Let’s jump in.

All things are from God. The apostle Paul states this clearly in the passage above. This is a simple statement that many followers of Christ would agree with, for, of course, God is our creator. He has created and given us all things. He provides for our needs, etc. However, when it comes to worship and acknowledging the work of God, I think it goes far beyond what most of us have in mind. Or maybe I should say, the way we practically live this out.

“The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” (Acts 17:24-25)

God is our sustainer. God is the constant maintainer of all existence in the universe. He is at all times aware of everything – whether large or microscopic, audible or inaudible, visible or invisible. He is at all times holding all things together and making them exist (Colossians 1:17). If God removes his hand or “blinks”, we stop breathing. The universe dissolves or unravels. Nothing can exist or continue to exist apart from God’s will.

God is sovereign over all. There is nothing that slips through His fingers and happens behind His back or catches Him off guard. He rules the universe with perfect wisdom and knowledge. There is nothing that He does not know. No person or thing exists apart from His will. He uses everything to accomplish His will in the universe and in the lives of every person. Masterfully, He weaves the tapestry of our lives, using all things together for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28). He takes the tragedy and devastation caused by sin and somehow creates beauty and restoration in the lives of those He created and sustains. And He bore the entire penalty for that sin and devastation through Jesus Christ. Our very lives and salvation are a gift of His love and grace.

God is a giver. He is the Giver. When we worship, there is nothing we bring that was not first given to us. There is nothing that we bring that we even own, whether it is money, talent, or praise. We are simply returning to God what is His in the first place. All that we have and all that we are belongs to God. When we give our lives to Him and receive His gift of salvation, we come because we have been drawn by God (John 6:44). We cannot earn our salvation through any work or effort of our own – it is the gift of God (Ephesians 2:8-9). Even the works that we do for Christ and the kingdom are prepared in advance by God (Ephesians 2:10). When we love God or others, it is because He first loved us (1 John 4:19). When we serve, we are offering back the talents and spiritual gifts He has given to us.

Therefore, much like the analogy I used last week, when we offer anything to God, we are actually giving back to Him what He already owns. As Paul said in Acts 17:24-25, God needs nothing. We cannot give Him anything that would increase what He owns. We cannot say anything to Him or do anything for Him that increases His worth or value. We worship a God that is self-sufficient and lacking nothing. So, why do we worship? What can we possibly say or do that is of any worth or value to God?

Oh, my friends, in our self-sufficient and self-focused world, we have lost the simplicity and wonder of what God has for us. We have allowed what we offer to God in worship to become an end in itself, when God has something so much greater for us. What God wants to give us in worship is Himself. It was never about what we bring to Him. As God has revealed Himself throughout the ages, this life was never intended to produce a group of adherents to a pile of rules and regulations. It was intended to produce wonder and delight. It was for the purpose of finding delight in the only One Who can satisfy the hunger and thirst of our souls.

Our offerings to Him were intended to be a response to the wonder of Who God is and what He has done in Jesus Christ. Obedience was meant to magnify the holiness of God and protect us from the ravages of our own sinful nature so that we could enjoy the wonder of fellowship with God. As we come to Him and offer ourselves, He pours out even more of Himself for us to see. When we sink our roots into His Word, we gain greater insight into what has been done for us in Christ. As we trust Him in our victories and battles and sorrows of life, God meets us. He gives and gives and gives. He works in us to transform us into the image of His Son. God is waiting to give us the greatest gift – Himself. May we come to Him and drink deeply.

Together for His glory…

It Begins and Ends with Him: God-Centered Worship, Part 1

“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?’  For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.” Romans 11:33-36

When our kids were younger, we would occasionally help them buy Christmas gifts for each other. We would also help them by gifts for my wife and me. Other years, there were a lot of homemade gifts. The kids did not work and so they, of course, did not have money of their own to buy gifts or the materials to make gifts. My wife would go with them to buy gifts for me and each other. I would take them to buy gifts for her. The kids enjoyed this, I think. They were able to pick out something special for each other or for us, even though they really had no resources of their own to do so.

As we progress on this journey together, I will be discussing several foundational principles which I feel are essential to worship that is biblical. These ideas do not originate with me. For one, I would hope that principles for biblical worship would be, well, biblical – grounded in Scripture. That would seem to make sense. In addition, I have had the privilege of listening to and reading the works of godly people through the years. As they search the Scriptures and seek God’s wisdom, these wise individuals have helped me grow in my understanding of worship. Or, as the case may be, grow in my understanding of how much I don’t really know. Either way, I don’t claim that these will be my original concepts or ideas on worship. I just hope to faithfully share what God has taught me.

One of the foundational principles for biblical worship is that it is to be God-centered. This may seem obvious. In theory, yes, this may be true. However, I think if we evaluated our lives of worship, we would often find that it is more self-centered than God-centered. If we consider all of the attention and money focused on preferences related to styles of worship, worship marketing, and catering worship services to appeal to certain demographics or target audiences, it would seem that God and the gospel can get lost in there somewhere. I am not saying that styles or target audiences are unimportant issues, but they are not foundational. They come further down the line in importance and should flow from a solid foundation of worship built on biblical principles.

In the story I shared at the beginning, I provided an analogy of a God-centered approach. My children were given the opportunity to buy a Christmas gift for me. However, they were using my money to buy me a gift. They received from me in order to give back to me. It was through the resources I had provided for them that they were able to offer something to me. So, in the end, they were giving something to me that was already mine. It had never really been theirs in the first place. Yet, in the process, they were able to experience the joy of sharing and giving because of the resources I had provided to them.

Romans 11:36 is a great snapshot of this God-centered worship. From Him: He is our great provider. He is the creator of all things. All power and wisdom come from Him. All that we have belongs to God. He gives to us according to our needs. Through Him: He is the sovereign God. He is our refuge and sustainer. Christ is author and finisher of our faith. He is our mediator before the Father. He enables us to serve and worship Him. To Him: He alone is deserving of glory and praise. He is the recipient our praise and we reflect His glory back to Him through our worship.

In other words, our life of worship begins with God, is enabled by God, and is for God. He provides all that we need in order to know and worship Him. He makes our worship possible through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As believers, we come into His presence clothed in the righteousness of Christ. He quenches our spiritual hunger and thirst. He enables us to find in Him the greatest joy available in the universe – knowing Christ. As we go through the next few weeks, I will expand on these to try and help us get a better picture of what this means in our lives and worship. For now, let us remember that if our focus in worship is on what we can produce, that is all we will get. If our focus is on God and what He offers to us, we will receive from Him a greater and lasting joy.

“Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory.” 1 Peter 1:8

Together for His glory…