Old Testament Wanderings: Worship, Personal Choice, and Vanity

In my last class, I picked up 6 Ways The Old Testament Speaks Today by Alec Motyer. It was meant as a book the student could read and review for extra credit. I fully intended, though I had no need ultimately, to do the extra credit. But, my failure to plan my time then means I have a great book now that I can use devotionally for a much more leisurely paced venture.

Each of the main chapters addresses a particular “voice” in the Old Testament. They begin with a summary of the idea, then 6 days of bible readings and discussion, plus more readings in the back of the book for deeper digging. I had already completed the first two chapters, “The Voice of History” and “The Voice of Religion”, so now I’m tackling chapter 3, “The Voice of Worship”.

I’ve loved Motyer’s manner so far, but the first day’s Bible reading for “worship” really captured my attention. Motyer sends the reader to Genesis 4:1-15, the account of Cain and Able. I must admit that when I think of dwelling on worship in the Old Testament, my mind doesn’t (or didn’t) race to this story in Genesis 4. As Motyer notes, this story “is one of the many places where we really wish the Bible gave us more information.” (p.67)

Motyer briefly walks the reader through some options for understanding the naming of Cain and the implications of God’s words to Cain in verses 6 and 7. There is a brief consideration of the type of Cain’s offering, finally turning to the “disposition of the offerer”, the fact that unlike Cain, Abel appears to go out of his way to offer the best portions.

Which brings me to the following:

If we are at all moving along the right lines (and at least it all concurs with what we learn throughout the Bible), then as a basic rule, worship must rest on, and be obedient to, a previously revealed will of God. We are not free to be self-pleasing. Worship is not an area in which personal choice and what we might find “helpful” are in order. As Calvin remarks on Matthew 15:9, “True religion must be conformable to the will of God as its unerring standard.” Jesus was, if anything, sharper: worship that is no more than a human device is “vain” (Matt. 15:9). This was the pit into which Cain fell, where arrogance, pride, and sinful animosity bound him and turned him into a brother-hating murderer (1 John 3:11-15). And indeed, we need to keep our traditions of worship constantly under review, with ceaseless reformation and adjustment according to the Word of God, lest our coming together be condemnation rather than a blessing.

6 Ways the Old Testamant Speaks Today, pp.67-68

This hit me pretty hard this morning. In what ways might I turn away from proper worship? Is it devotion to a particular style? The demand for a certain level of performance or execution? A desire to cling to tried-and-true patterns, or the warmth of nostalgia? Or maybe a persistent search for the new, different or unique. It brings up a lot of questions!

Is worship about what “works”? It was for Cain. He gave what he had, without thought for God’s former provision. Is worship simply a filler in our services, or potentially worse, clever religious marketing? Is it there to please a certain crowd, draw a certain audience, to create the right image, to check a box? Or is it there to set the mood, to create an emotional response, to cover up the transition from one part of our corporate gathering to another?

Does worship say more about us than about God? Are we focused on Him or are we looking for an outlet for our religious fervor? Is our worship aimed at humbling ourselves before God? Paul deals with this as he addresses the Corinthians. Rather than proper worship in loving community, they have perverted the Lord’s supper by their selfish carousing, taking on the role of Cain in this murderous drama. Paul does not mince words.

Finally, how do I – how do we – respond to distractions? Is a child in service – our own or another’s – a distraction that “ruins” worship? If worship doesn’t measure up to our expectations, do we respond with frustration, irritability or hurt feelings? What if the band or singers makes a mistake, or a couple mistakes, or can’t seem to get it together? How is our worship affected? Where is our focus?

Motyer has got right to the point in this first offering. Worship starts by asking what God wants, how to best please him. And our efforts to make worship in our own image stink of the grave.

How Flawed and Insufficient Your Love Is

I’ve now started into my next book, as I had mentioned in the last post. Chapter 2 of Discipling is titled “Oriented Towards Others”. A number of passages are addressed as Dever talks about the biblical pattern we experience in Jesus through the gospels, as well as the example Paul provides. But the one that stood out for me was Colossians 1:28-29. He looks at it through the lens of two different word pairs.

The first pair is “toil” and “struggling”, reflecting on the need to engage, to work hard to see the gospel take root. Discipleship doesn’t just happen. It takes conscious effort, fueled by the work God is doing in us. The second pair was “proclaim” and “present”. Here, while he is usually not making any pastoral-specific points, he does make a detour, and I am glad he did:

A Brief Word to Pastors

If you are a pastor or are considering the pastoral ministry, you should think long and hard about this passage [Col 1:28-29]. Notice that the ministry involves both fully proclaiming the Word of God and working to present the people of God mature before him.

This requires utter selflessness on our part. There is much that is good about being a pastor, but, given the sinfulness in both church members and pastors, there is also much that’s tough. Pastor, you will toil and struggle out of love for the members of your congregation, and they sometimes will respond by explaining how flawed and insufficient your love is.

Ultimately therefore, your toil and labor cannot root in your love for them or their love for you. It must root in your love for Christ, his love for you, and his love for them. He has purchased them with his blood. And you mean to present them to him. It is for him that you do it all.

Discipling, pp.32-33

He ends the chapter returning to the need for all Christians to be disciplers, each of us one who “proclaims now so that he might present later.”

Beyond what I found to be a well-aimed reminder, I thought this chapter was well timed, as well. The overlap between Colossians 1:28-29 and Ephesians 1:1-14, which our men’s group studied this morning, made me pause for a moment. God be praised for seeing fit to shower us with his grace at the right time, to call us into the work of developing biblical maturity in those we have been connected with through the Spirit.

How Membership Is The Same Everywhere

In the final chapter of “Church Membership”, Leeman discusses how locale and context affects church membership. In light of all that is going on in Afghanistan of late, but also the experience of churches in China and some parts of Africa, and increasingly here, this chapter reflecting on what membership looks like under different societal and political forces is helpful. It bears out the flexibility and wisdom Leeman brings, rather than a rigid set of rules.

And as discussions of viruses and vaccines continue to dominate our lives, this section hits home:

Now, Satan uses different devices in different locations to undermine Christ’s kingdom. A favorite device in the West is cultural Christianity. The American brand of cultural Christianity results from well-intending adults handing out the candy of cheap grace to five-year olds and twenty-five year olds alike. You ask them if they want to be with mommy and daddy in heaven or pressure them into walking an aisle. The point is, you play on their fears, emotions, or appetites in order to get quick, unconsidered professions of faith. Then you immediately affirm those professions. The European state-church brand, on the other hand, is much more civilized. Cheap grace comes with a birth certificate.

The genius of this device in both locations is that it allows Satan to inoculate their hosts against real Christianity. It’s nearly impossible to share the gospel with a cultural Christian because he already gives lip service to it. “Yes, I believe that.” But there’s no repentance. He merely baptizes a slightly sanitized version of his old self into Christianity.

Church Membership, pp. 122-23

Before getting into what membership looks like in those locales experiencing more pervasive and physical persecution, he makes the point that “cultural Christianity…fools churches into thinking that they don’t live in enemy territory.” (p.123) It should be enough to remind us of James 4:4: You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.

The local church exists to show off God’s glory and mercy. Leeman is on solid ground when he remarks that, “the local church protects the gospel from all kinds of attack by taking great care in who it receives as a member. Every church must ask the basic questions: Who do you say that Jesus is? Are you sure you’re really ready to take up your cross and give yourself to identifying with him and his body?” (p.124)

A persecuted church may not have a physical membership role, and may not even vote on incoming members, but you can trust every member knows who is “with them”, who is a part of the body, who is set apart as a disciple and who is not. In a world of easy membership with no responsibility, and little to no accountability, I think churches are wise to put extra effort on the front end, to ensure that the resulting body is actually Christ’s body. Not a perfect or sinless one, but one that lives and proclaims the gospel by being set apart for God’s work.


On Submitting to the Local Church

I’ve been reading and listening to a lot of Jonathan Leeman over the last few days, and I’m definitely benefiting from his skill in teaching. I’ve read him writing in a more academic tone, and loved it. Pleasant to find he can write equally well in a style that is more down-to-earth.

I’m almost done with Church Membership, in the 9Marks series, and I would definitely recommend it for every Christian. This is a quick and easy read to situate the believer as a citizen of a kingdom and a member of a body, striking at both the structural and the organic nature of the church in the life of a believer.

Chapter 6, “How Does a Christian Submit to a Church? (Being a Member)”, stands out powerfully. Beginning with yet another image, another metaphor, for the body of believers – stars in the night sky (see Philippians 2:12-16) – he moves on to eight practical ways to submit to the local church. I can hardly quote it all, but as just a taste, Leeman offers the following. Christians can submit to the local church:

  • Publicly – “…by which I mean formally or officially…Jesus publicly identified himself with his church. We should publicly identify with him and his people as well…” (p.95)
  • Physically/Geographically – “Now, let me raise the stakes a little. If you can, ‘consider others better than yourselves’ and ‘look to the interests of others’ by living geographically close to the church…it’s easier to invite people to one’s house for dinner, to watch one another’s children while running errands, to pick up bread or milk at the store for one another.” (p.96) Better yet, “Did Jesus submit himself physically and geographically for our good? He left heaven!” (p.97)
  • Socially – “Christian friends are surely valuable inside or outside the same local church. But friends within a local church will be formed by the same ministry of the Word, giving them the opportunity to extend that ministry more carefully into one another’s lives throughout the week.” (p.98)
  • Affectionately – “He commands us to rejoice with the brother who gets a big job promotion and all the money and prestige that comes with it. Can we? He commands the thirty-year-old single woman who longs for marriage to rejoice with the twenty-two-year-old woman when she marries. Can she? Can the poor man mourn with the rich man when he loses his job? Saying yes to these questions – rather than saying yes to ‘selfish ambition and vain conceit’ – requires something more than sentiment. It requires a heart to be altered by the gospel and the Spirit.” (p.99)
  • Financially – “This will look different from context to context. But however it’s done, Christians should look for ways to fulfil biblical commands like these…” (p.99)
  • Vocationally – “I know men and women in secular employment who, for the sake of serving in their local churches, have turned down promotions and more money, who have moved from larger, more reputable firms to smaller ones, who have refused to move to another city…because he or she knew that it would have hindered the ability to care for the church and family.” (p.100)
  • Ethically – “…Christians should look to the church for ethical instruction, counsel, accountability, and discipline in matters that are addressed in God’s Word.” (p.101)
  • Spiritually – “By this I mean three specific things: First, this community is where we should seek to exercise our spiritual gifts…Second, the local church is the community where Christians should build one another up in the faith through God’s Word…Third, it’s the people for whom we should intercede regularly in our prayers.” (p.102)

As you can hopefully see, Leeman offers spiritual wisdom that grounds the believer in reality. Being a Christian, and thus being a member of a local church, is more than just words, more than just “ideal”. It has real implications for how we live our lives together before a watching world. It calls us to consider how our actions impact one another, how our decisions represent Jesus and the gospel proclamation in our communities.

As a final quote, wrapping up the chapter:

Truth be told, people are not afraid to submit. They just want to submit to beauty, like the valiant hero who submits himself to rescuing the damsel in distress.

What’s unexpected about Christianity is that its hero doesn’t risk all for the damsel but for what the Bible likens to a harlot. Then he calls everyone that he saves to submit themselves to this same harlot – the bride still being made ready, the church.

Now submitting to ugliness does scare people. And that’s what submitting to the local church can be. Churches are filled with other sinners whose visions of glory contradict our own. But this is how Christ loved us: “Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34 ESV)

Christ’s love wonderfully transforms the ugly into the beautiful (see Eph. 5:22-31). Our love for one another should do the same thing – help the ugly become beautiful.

Who can love in this way? Only the ones whose eyes have been opened and whose hearts have been freed from the slavery of loving this world: “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36 ESV)

Church Membership, pp.102-3