No topic is more important than pure worship, since God’s glory is the ultimate end of our being, and nothing therefore could eclipse this in our ministry before God. He calls us by his Word to serve him in this way, the way of pure worship, and by that I mean nothing more or less than worship that is completely according to God’s will. There is a fundamental conformity to God’s will which is required for worship to be true worship at all, but we wish to promote the reformation even of true worship so that it becomes more and more pure, growing ever greater in conformity to God’s revealed will, and so that in the particulars of what it is, what it contains, what it lacks, how it is conducted, and in everything about it, we are more and more pleasing to God himself, we glorify his name the most, and we become better prepared to assume our places in that worship of the age to come, already begun in this age by the grace of Christ and the gospel.
With pure worship as the ultimate priority, the following propositions follow from the biblical doctrine and from reason. First, the devil desires nothing more than to corrupt our worship by the introduction of elements not contained in God’s Word or contrary to it, and we must be able to recognize this when it happens. This concern occupies our first address on “The Corruption of Worship.” Second, indispensable for pure worship is an appreciation of its standard for judgment and for reformation, and that standard is God’s Word alone. This will be our focus in the second address on “The Standard of Worship,” to be delivered in two pulpit sessions. Third, the church must be moved by God’s call to reform what is amiss and to remain ever vigilant against even the slightest corruption of worship. This call will come to us especially in the third message, “The Inspiration of Worship.”
And so let us now begin to consider, “The Corruption of Worship.” My thesis is simple. God desires pure worship, but man offers corrupt worship.
First, GOD DESIRES PURE WORSHIP
God is transcendent, absolutely supreme over all his creatures. Before creation came into being, God and God alone always existed. By his sovereign fiat and potent Word he called into existence everything and everyone else. Both God’s work of creation and his continuing works of Providence, that is, his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving, and governing all his creatures, and all their actions, are realities because of his pleasure and for the sake of his own glory. God does not exist for his creatures, but we exist for him. His absolute supremacy exalts his will over ours. His desires are paramount, and his revealed will is far, far above our wishes, whatever they may be. What pleases him, and not necessarily what pleases ourselves or anyone else, must be the rule of our lives. Further, our submission to and delight in God’s revealed will must be most apparent and conspicuous whenever we engage in his sacred worship.
Indeed, this devotion to God, this whole-hearted deliberate intention to please God and to carry out his commandments to the letter, is the mark of true worshippers and the reason Christ died for his elect. “He died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again” (2 Cor 5.15). Apart from redemption through Christ’s death, and on account of sin, all of us are found to be lawless ones and men-pleasers, ultimately because this is how we please ourselves ever since we became so depraved as to worship the one whose image we see in the mirror. This is how the apostle describes us all before conversion. But Christ died for us to raise us up out of this spiritual grave, and to make us walk again in spiritual life, that “henceforth,” that is, from now on, we should live “unto him who died for us, and rose again,” even our Lord Jesus Christ. To live to Christ is to worship him as supreme, even as our Lord and our God. This involves loving and trusting Christ so much and so sincerely, that pleasing him, and doing his will, while spurning all other lords, including our own tyrannical selves, really is, functionally, our ultimate priority.
This is tantamount to saying that God desires pure worship from us—worship that is clean, unmixed, free from what vitiates, weakens, and pollutes, worship that includes everything it should, and excludes anything and everything which does not properly belong to it. We have compelling biblical justification to make this astounding assertion: the entire divine redeeming work is directed toward the end of a great host of people who will render this pure worship to God for all eternity.
Once this idea grips your very soul, you can discover that this is the Bible’s grand theme—the glory of God, highlighted supremely in the redemption of his creatures, and most particularly of elect sinners, whom the Lord transforms into the church triumphant, to respond with grateful enthusiasm in eternal praises.
Surely the locus classicus of Scripture on true worship is found in John 4, verses 19-24. In this familiar dialogue between Jesus and a Samaritan woman at a well, we read:
19 The woman saith unto him, Sir, I perceive that thou art a prophet. 20 Our fathers worshipped in this mountain; and ye say, that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship. 21 Jesus saith unto her, Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father. 22 Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews. 23 But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. 24 God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.
Here Jesus announces several very important spiritual truths.
1. True Worshippers
First, he sets forth the very idea of “true worshippers” (verse 23). The whole earth was populated with worshipers of various sorts, but the worship offered by nearly everyone was unacceptable to God because it was not what Jesus here calls “true.” The word in the original conveys the sense of pertaining to what something should be, genuine not phony, and sincere not superficial. The original word for “worshippers” has, first, a literal sense. It means to kiss the hand, to bow like one who falls upon his knees and touches the ground with his forehead as an expression of profound reverence. Then, figuratively and derivatively, it came to mean, simply, to revere. Jesus conveys the notion of people who possess a true and deep reverence for God, and whose conduct demonstrates it.
2. Their Presence and Growing Number
Second, Jesus announces that such true worshippers are already present during his earthly lifetime, and that the number of them would multiply dramatically. “The hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship” (verse 23). For one thing, the Archetypal Worshipper was standing right in front of the woman at the well. Jesus testified of himself, “I do always those things that please” my heavenly Father (John 8.29). His whole soul, his every thought, word, and deed, and his entire life, was but the offering up of praise, thanksgiving, and a sacrifice to the glory of God. But he had more than that in mind when he said the hour now is when true worshippers shall worship. Already he was saving sinners and remaking them in his own image in their spiritual life. The number of his disciples was growing, those already changed into true worshippers, whose worship was becoming increasingly pure. That is because Jesus Christ had come into the world from heaven to become the Redeemer of countless immoral idolaters by his death, burial, resurrection, and ascension, and then to pour out the Holy Spirit upon the day of Pentecost, powerfully calling into this sacred service of true worship many thousands of people from that day till this, until that host becomes a great multitude which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, standing before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palms in their hands, and crying with a loud voice, “Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb” (Rev 7.9-10). This is the glorious church Jesus had in mind when he announced, “The hour is coming, when the true worshippers shall worship.”
3. Worship of God the Father
Third, Jesus announces God the Father as the object of worship (verse 23). And note well that our Lord here emphasizes the Fatherhood of God. God will be worshipped as Father in his relationship to his Son, because true worship is Trinitarian. God will be worshipped as Father with appreciation of his gracious and faithful character, because true worship is not just trembling fear but grateful adoration. God will be worshipped as Father in relation to his people, because true worship is offered by God’s children who are especially beloved of him and have his image renewed in them, and thus they have an affinity for God’s excellent nature.
4. Worship in Spirit and in Truth
Fourth, Jesus announces that true worship is “in spirit and in truth,” a phrase that appears twice, in verses 23 and 24. This is an extremely rich expression of vast significance which includes the following ideas in my judgment. “In spirit” connotes worship that is offered in a spiritual manner, as opposed to the carnal, physical, and outward manner associated with the divinely-appointed Old Covenant worship with its elaborate tabernacle/temple and associated objects and rituals. The immediate context alludes to these, as the question of the proper location for worship was being discussed, whether it should be offered in “this mountain” or “in Jerusalem” (verse 20). We are not suggesting that no true worshippers lived before Jesus, for many before him had worshipped truly, even within Israel, but Israel as a whole had completely failed to prove herself a “true worshipper.” The New Covenant worship overspreading the world would be, in contrast with the Old Covenant, simple and unadorned, first arising from the heart of man by the internal operation of the Holy Spirit. This worship “in spirit” is also required by the reality that “God is Spirit” (verse 24); that is, his nature is wholly unlike idols, and he therefore must be worshipped differently than idols are worshipped. As Jesus’ servant Paul would preach years later,
24 God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; 25 Neither is worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things (Acts 17.24-25).
That true worship would be “in truth” raises a contrast with the corrupt and ignorant “will-worship” (Col 2.23) offered by their “fathers” in “this mountain” of Samaria. The term “will-worship” may have been coined by Paul, since no earlier examples have been found, and in context it probably means worship that was made up according to the pleasure of the worshippers, that is, invented by men (Calvin, in loc.). Worship that is “in truth” is rather in accord with God’s revelation in his Word and his Son Jesus Christ. Thus, true worship is that which arises from revelation-based knowledge, and it is corrupted and polluted by the intrusion of outside elements, no matter what their alternative source might be.
Still, the phrase “in spirit and in truth” is not setting forth two distinct traits but describing in tandem true Christian worship. D. A. Carson has written that this “in spirit and in truth” kind of worship is “essentially God-centered, made possible by the gift of the Holy Spirit, and in personal knowledge of and conformity to God’s Word-made-flesh, the one who is God’s truth, the faithful exposition and fulfillment of God and his saving purpose” (in loc.). So worship in spirit and in truth is, essentially, pure worship.
5. The Father’s Desire for True Worshippers
Fifth and finally, Jesus announces that “the Father seeks such [true worshippers] to worship him.” This testifies both to the initiating grace of God that seeks the lost sinners enslaved to false and corrupt worship, and to the inherent worthiness of God that wisely and justly desires his own glorification. God originally created man as true worshipper, but we corrupted his worship, and thereby corrupted ourselves. Now may his name be forever praised, because instead of repudiating man irrevocably, God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit act in concert to recreate a host of true worshippers from the human wreckage caused by sin—all for the display of his glory, the ultimate worthy end of creation in the first place.
My brethren, who, upon reading this Bible, can doubt that God desires true and pure worship? When we evaluate worship in this world, our controlling considerations must be these. Is this what God desires, only what he desires, and all that he desires? We should not even begin to ask questions such as, “Do I like it?,” or “Do they like it?,” or “Will it draw a large crowd?,” or, “Will this expand our influence?,” or a thousand other typical considerations people are raising in the modern debates about the substance and form of worship. People driven by these questions are self-condemned, proving that they do not understand even the first principles of true worship revealed in Holy Scripture!
Unless and until pleasing God alone is our deep, foundational, unshakeable conviction that actually controls our approach to worship, we cannot possibly be expected to arrive at anything like pure worship in the outcome, because many and powerful forces, both within us, among us, and around us in the world, militate against pure worship. The world, the flesh, and the devil are against it, and from what I and many others have observed, this triple-threat has made deep inroads even among Christians and churches known as evangelical, Reformed, and Reformed Baptist, where worship is often and obviously corrupted grossly.
I remain utterly convinced that differences right here account for much, and perhaps most, of the current contention in the so-called worship wars. One side refuses to budge from pleasing God, and the other is fundamentally idolatrous. It finally resolves into a cosmic conflict over whom to worship—God, or the creature.
The second part of our simple thesis is,
MAN OFFERS CORRUPT WORSHIP
One way of looking at the whole sweep of the biblical drama is that it amounts to the loss of pure worship in Eden by man’s sin, and the progressive restoration of pure worship by God’s grace, to be fully realized in the eternal Paradise of the new creation. Ever since Adam’s sin, fallen man has offered corrupt worship. Biblical examples of corrupt worship are legion, but we would mention a few important ones.
The first example I would mention is found as early as Genesis 4, where the Lord gives his verdict that Cain did not “do well” in worship (Gen 4.7). When the New Testament speaks of this event in Hebrews 11.4, it says that God rejected Cain and his sacrifice as being inferior to Abel and his sacrifice which was offered by faith. We gather from this that Abel was a believer, and that Abel’s offering was the fruit of his obedient faith in what God had said, apparently, about how he wanted to be worshipped. Cain was not a believer like Abel and Cain did not trust God like Abel in the very act of worship. To go very much beyond this in our commentary would be to indulge unwarranted speculation, but this much is clear. Only believers like Abel can offer worship that is acceptable to God, and only worship that looks to his revealed will for direction is acceptable to God. Acceptable worship recognizes God’s trustworthy character and right to rule us in all we do.
Another especially noteworthy example of corrupt worship is found in the account of Israel at the base of Mount Sinai while Moses was receiving the law from God. These who had just been delivered from Egyptian bondage by God’s almighty power grew impatient waiting for Moses to come back down to them and to lead them in worship according to God’s direction, and so they worshipped a golden calf, fashioned with graving tool by Aaron, no less (Exod 32). God described the result in verses 7 and 8.
7 And the Lord said unto Moses, Go, get thee down; for thy people, which thou broughtest out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves: 8 They have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them: they have made them a molten calf, and have worshipped it, and have sacrificed thereunto, and said, These be thy gods, O Israel, which have brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.
In the phrase, they “have corrupted themselves,” the translators have added “themselves” which is indicated by italics print in the Authorized Version. A good alternative rendering is, “hath done corruptly” (YLT), or perhaps, “have corrupted the worship,” as the stress in verse eight is upon the unauthorized and man-made nature of their actions, how that they “turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them,” that is, the way of worship, and how that they “have made them a molten calf,” a fabrication according to man’s will with no direction whatsoever from the true and living God that such a thing should be made, or how it should be made, and so forth, as was about to be given concerning the worship associated with the tabernacle. This terrible example from Israel’s early history may have inspired Jeroboam centuries later, the first king of the Northern Kingdom, as we shall see.
The third example, hugely significant for this topic, and which I would only mention in passing here, leaving it for later, is the example of Nadab and Abihu found in Leviticus chapter ten. We read there that they “offered strange fire before the Lord, which he commanded them not” (verse 1), and that “there went out fire from the Lord, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord” (verse 2)—a most instructive act of Providence that serves as a timeless warning about the danger of corrupt worship in the presence of God Most Holy.
I would offer one more example of corrupt worship before addressing the primary one to receive our fullest attention. Remember for a moment the case of Micah the Ephraimite in Judges 17. Shockingly, within the land of Israel, in his house of gods, this man made one of his sons a priest during a time of great apostasy when “every man did that which was right in his own eyes” (verses 5-6). There was so much spiritually wrong with Micah and his practice of religion we hardly know where to begin, but it is most offensive to God because it was a corruption of his worship by one who was supposed to be in the holy covenant with him.
Now let us weigh well a particularly notorious Old Testament example of corrupt worship, that of Jeroboam, the North’s first king, found in 1 Kings 12.25-33. First we would read the biblical account, and then expound it with points of contact and application for today.
25 Then Jeroboam built Shechem in mount Ephraim, and dwelt therein; and went out from thence, and built Penuel. 26 And Jeroboam said in his heart, Now shall the kingdom return to the house of David: 27 If this people go up to do sacrifice in the house of the Lord at Jerusalem, then shall the heart of this people turn again unto their lord, even unto Rehoboam king of Judah, and they shall kill me, and go again to Rehoboam king of Judah. 28 Whereupon the king took counsel, and made two calves of gold, and said unto them, It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem: behold thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt. 29 And he set the one in Bethel, and the other put he in Dan. 30 And this thing became a sin: for the people went to worship before the one, even unto Dan. 31 And he made an house of high places, and made priests of the lowest of the people, which were not of the sons of Levi. 32 And Jeroboam ordained a feast in the eighth month, on the fifteenth day of the month, like unto the feast that is in Judah, and he offered upon the altar. So did he in Bethel, sacrificing unto the calves that he had made: and he placed in Bethel the priests of the high places which he had made. 33 So he offered upon the altar which he had made in Bethel the fifteenth day of the eighth month, even in the month which he had devised of his own heart; and ordained a feast unto the children of Israel: and he offered upon the altar, and burnt incense.
I want to draw three weighty points about corrupt worship from this passage, and press them home upon your conscience. First . . .
1. Corrupt Worship Arises from Misplaced Priorities
Consider well how this is illustrated in verses 26 and 27:
26 And Jeroboam said in his heart, Now shall the kingdom return to the house of David: 27 If this people go up to do sacrifice in the house of the Lord at Jerusalem, then shall the heart of this people turn again unto their lord, even unto Rehoboam king of Judah, and they shall kill me, and go again to Rehoboam king of Judah.
The inspired text lets us into Jeroboam’s mind so we can see the motives behind what he was about to do. His priorities were selfish. His thinking about worship began in the wrong place. “How can this help me?,” he asked. His whole perspective was so obviously man-centered, and so his purpose was to influence others so that they would behave in a way that would be for his personal benefit, he believed, although he could have argued that he had in mind a larger and more noble agenda. The faithful narrative here exposes his natural desire for self-preservation, for he worries that “they shall kill me,” but even this cannot justify any deviation from God’s revealed will in worship. Jeroboam also subjugated worship to what he considered a more important goal to be realized, which was political. He reasoned this way: “If I let the people worship God’s way, then their political loyalties will return to Rehoboam king of Judah, and clearly that will not do.”
We should pay special attention to the fact that the chronicler under the infallible guidance of the Holy Spirit writes pejoratively in stressing these features of Jeroboam’s thoughts. Without any further explanation, it should be perfectly obvious to the reader, just from the way it is told, that these worship innovations were evil in the eyes of the Lord.
And alas! Jeroboam’s policy of corrupt worship was so unnecessary, and only came because he failed to trust God’s promise of blessing upon a faithful and obedient royal administration. Earlier in this account, we read that the Lord had said to Jeroboam that he was destined to become king of ten tribes of Israel,
And it shall be, if thou wilt hearken unto all that I command thee, and wilt walk in my ways, and do that is right in my sight, to keep my statutes and my commandments, as David my servant did; that I will be with thee, and build thee a sure house, as I built for David, and will give Israel unto thee (1 Kgs 11.38).
Matthew Henry observes in his commentary, “A practical disbelief of God’s all-sufficiency is at the bottom of all our treacherous departures from him.” We add, there was no good reason whatsoever to depart from the ultimate priority of God’s glory, and there never is. Further, forsaking this great priority had the most disastrous consequences, and it always does. The irony of all this is that pragmatism doesn’t work.
My fellow pastors, we see essentially the same policy being practiced today, do we not? It is not hard at all to find self-promoting preachers who will do nearly anything to get attention, wealth, and fame. All the time we hear pleas that if we would see the churches blessed, we must pander to consumer demands for the form and style of church ministry. This is supposedly necessary and justified for reaching “unchurched Harry and Mary,” a phrase now common because of a best-selling book on church growth. Market trends and community surveys are supposed to be the sources of direction to church leaders. That would be fine if we were setting up a chain of restaurants or deciding where to build a shopping center, but this is God’s holy worship we are talking about! All attempts to apply a business model to this and to “market the church,” as they say without blushing, are utterly profane! Sacrilege, I say! This stinks to high heaven!
Surely you too have observed much talk about “your best life now” with concern about eternity and heaven and hell either ignored, ridiculed, or twisted into a call to be good stewards of the environment with a promise that eventually, we will all experience heaven anyway, because, after all, love wins. I don’t think I need to prove this with primary sources when I say that there have been widespread calls for ecumenical compromise, for example, with the so-called Roman Catholic “Church,” so that we will be able to act as “co-belligerents” for the social and political good of fighting abortion, pornography, the normalization of homosexuality, and other evils of our generation.
Now brethren, please listen to me. Of course we rejoice whenever preachers survive persecution, when good churches grow large without compromising truth and righteousness, when Christians enjoy earthly blessings, and when social evils recede, but these good things can never become more important to us than pure worship, or else it will be corrupted, and that is the greatest catastrophe of all! Corrupt worship, because it impugns God’s glory, is worse than martyrdom, worse than small churches, worse than poverty, and worse than unbelievers showing their true colors in public. The wise words of a famous old fundamentalist preacher come to mind: “Never sacrifice the permanent on the altar of the immediate.” Bob Jones, Sr., used to bellow this from the pulpit, and we offer a hearty, “Amen!” Never forget this. Corrupt worship arises from misplaced priorities.
Second, consider this . . .
2. Corrupt Worship Flourishes When Convenience Replaces Conviction
The next two verses show this, verses 28 and 29.
28 Whereupon the king took counsel, and made two calves of gold, and said unto them, It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem: behold thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt. 29 And he set the one in Bethel, and the other put he in Dan.
Jeroboam “took counsel” from ungodly men. We know this from the policy he put into action evidently as a result of this counsel. If Jeroboam had been like the blessed man of the first psalm, he would not have walked in the counsel of the ungodly, but rather he would have had his delight in the law of the Lord, meditating in it day and night, and then Jeroboam would have been like a flourishing tree, and whatsoever he did would have prospered (Psa 1.1-3). Godly people look to Scripture alone for direction in all things spiritual and moral. This does not preclude receiving counsel through others, but they must be godly ones through whom God’s counsel comes, always pointing us to the Scriptures for knowing God’s will.
Jeroboam “made two calves of gold,” expressly violating God’s law, for example, in the first and second of the Ten Commandments (Exod 20.1-6). Jeroboam lacked any intention to keep the law of Yahweh. Yet he associated these idols with Yahweh as having led Israel out of Egypt! Jeroboam’s religion was a parasite to pure worship, feeding off of it, borrowing from it here and there cafeteria-style for a veneer of legitimacy, all while destroying it in the process.
With his infernal plan in mind and shiny calf idols for show, Jeroboam then made his sales pitch to the people of the north. “It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem.” It is too burdensome for you. It is irksome and completely unnecessary. I have provided for you a far cheaper and easier alternative to that expensive routine of annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem, bringing your tithes and offerings. What is this but to debase God as unworthy of our all? Cheap religion is a bad bargain because it is not worth the paper it is printed on; it is a worthless currency that leads to eternal bankruptcy. It is the rotting corpse of spiritual death all dressed up for church, and a stench in God’s nostrils.
Modern manifestations of “convenient Christianity” abound. We have read of drive-through prayer windows in church buildings, and the electronic church takes the place of real church for very many professing Christians, whether through radio or television or the Internet. Some have chosen spiritually weak churches mainly because they were only a few minutes’ drive from their home, even though a much better church was within their reach. King David condemns them by his testimony of refusing to offer “unto the Lord my God that which doth cost me nothing” (2 Sam 24.24).
There is a slightly different way in which the phrase about it being “too much for you to go up to Jerusalem” might be translated. The ESV renders it, “You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough,” and this seems to cast aspersions on the practice simply because of its antiquity. If that sense is correct, then Jeroboam is saying, in effect, “We have a new way to worship that improves the old. We believe in creativity in worship, and you are really going to like our fresh, up-to-date take on the old-time religion.” Do I need to cite evidence for this policy in action today? Churches unashamedly advertise “contemporary worship,” which, according to the dictionary, is just another way of saying modern worship. Now friends, the right way of worshipping God must be a very, very old way, because God’s people have long been worshipping him the right way. It is easy to make the case for historic and traditional worship. We are not the first generation to have the Bible with a serious, Spirit-led, earnest resolve to do things God’s way. Pure worship is ancient and, we might even say, timeless. We could just as easily have “contemporary water” as contemporary worship! Everyone worships in his own day and time, and the true worshippers stand in the old paths, where is the good way, and they walk in it, and find rest for their souls (Jer 6.16).
I admit I do not have very much first-hand experience with this corrupt, “contemporary worship,” so I have had to resort to reading about it being practiced in other places. One proponent speaking openly on his website says that he is “still a happy customer” of contemporary worship. Yes, that’s the way he puts it. He argues for it because it “reaches people faster” than traditional worship, and because it supposedly “reaches different people” than traditional worship does. He freely admits that “much of this has to do with music,” and admits that people’s “taste” in music is an important factor to be considered. Finally, as if this were the ultimate justification for it, he admits in a damning statement, “I just like contemporary worship” (www.joshhunt.com/contemp.html). The problem is not just that God may not like it, but that this counselor of how to worship God does not even seem to take God’s will into consideration at all! Has Jeroboam risen from the dead? It sure seems that he has, and somebody has even figured out a way to clone him, because I see Jeroboams everywhere! Corrupt worship flourishes when convenience replaces conviction.
Thirdly and finally . . .
3. Corrupt Worship Multiplies Manmade Religious Innovations
This truth is illustrated in the last four verses of our text.
30 And this thing became a sin: for the people went to worship before the one, even unto Dan. 31 And he made an house of high places, and made priests of the lowest of the people, which were not of the sons of Levi. 32 And Jeroboam ordained a feast in the eighth month, on the fifteenth day of the month, like unto the feast that is in Judah, and he offered upon the altar. So did he in Bethel, sacrificing unto the calves that he had made: and he placed in Bethel the priests of the high places which he had made. 33 So he offered upon the altar which he had made in Bethel the fifteenth day of the eighth month, even in the month which he had devised of his own heart; and ordained a feast unto the children of Israel: and he offered upon the altar, and burnt incense.
We see from this that once Jeroboam forsook the anchor of Scripture from his ship of policy, he took liberty to sail into all kinds of unchartered waters, introducing new measures and religious innovations at his own whim. And the record here says “this thing became a sin”—a great sin indeed, a pervasive sin, and a sin that persisted through many generations. To a large degree his innovations displaced the remnants of pure worship, as the legitimate Levitical priests fled into the southern region of Judah (2 Chron 11.13-14). Future evil kings of the north were condemned by God because they walked in the infamous way of wicked Jeroboam, and in his sin wherewith he made Israel to sin (see 1 Kgs 15.34; 16.2, 19, 26; 21.22; 22.52; 2 Kgs 3.3; 10.29, and many similar passages). All this led to the utter disaster of the Assyrian captivity of 722 b.c., not to mention the fate of all these same corrupt worshippers now suffering eternal vengeance.
Consider some of the specific new measures made up by Jeroboam. “He . . . made temples on high places” (ESV), presumably at least at Dan and Bethel, but instead of praiseworthy zeal, these were many “altars to sin” (Hos 8.11). What many count as “success” under the policy of church growth pragmatism is just the multiplication and enlargement of offenses before God.
Jeroboam also “made priests of the lowest of the people, which were not of the sons of Levi,” who were the only ones God authorized to be priests. Corrupt worship always tramples biblical qualifications for leaders of worship. Today we have seen women pastors and homosexual bishops, but these egregious examples of flouting biblical qualifications is the same kind of sin practiced by those who ordain unqualified men to elderships, men who are not exemplary husbands and fathers, and men who lack the biblical and theological knowledge and the intellectual skills required to preach the gospel accurately and to refute the heretics. Better to have no pastors than men without a divine call who lack the necessary qualifications for doing the work of ministry!
Jeroboam also “ordained a feast in the eighth month . . . like unto the feast that is in Judah,” that is, the one which was ordained by God. Even so, corrupt worship ever since has invented many supposedly “holy days” not in Scripture, like Advent, Christmastide, Palm Sunday, Ash Wednesday, Holy Thursday, Easter Sunday, Pentecost, Ascension, many feasts of the saints—all without a shred of evidence that God commands these for his worship. The only holy day Scripture sets forth that binds our conscience today is the weekly Lord’s Day, also known as the Christian Sabbath, and yet this is under attack in many quarters, especially by professing Christians, who are often quite enthusiastic for the manmade “holy days.”
With his own hands, Jeroboam also “offered upon the altar.” This is mentioned three times in verses 32 and 33 for emphasis. This was a heinous presumption and an especially a bad example coming from a king without God’s command to do this. Even good King Uzziah was not spared an immediate judgment of leprosy when he dared to burn incense on the Lord’s altar (2 Chron 26.16-20).
The final nail in the coffin of Jeroboam’s corrupt worship appears in the comment here that the special time in his liturgical calendar was “even in the month which he had devised of his own heart.” This gets to the root of corrupt worship, because it lays bare Jeroboam’s self-idolatry. He did not look to God for guidance, because worshiping God was not his purpose. He did not aim to glorify God in his actions, because self-glory was first on the agenda. Pure worship is directed toward God alone and it is directed by God alone, because the very submission implicit in pure worship is in itself an essential part of that worship, and therefore absolutely essential in a proper relationship with God. The origin of a worship practice is a test of its legitimacy. We should always be asking, “Does this arise out of Scripture, or from mere human desire? Is this revealed by God, or fabricated by man? If any part of our worship exists just because of human desire and is crafted by human device, it is corrupting our worship. Everything we do in worship should be traceable to God’s revealed will.
Let me offer a closing word of more specific application. I hope you will agree with this statement from Affirmation 2010, a consensus document published last year in association with The Bible League Trust of Great Britain, which says we should reject the spirit prevailing in many churches, with its tendency to turn worship into nothing more than worldly entertainment. It [should] grieve us that, in God’s house, ministers so often choose to dress casually and conduct themselves in an undignified manner, as it also [should] grieve us that congregations are prone to follow their bad examples, becoming cavalier about God and his holiness and behaving in a most unworthy and unseemly manner. [We should grieve that] the reverence and awe of God have tragically all but disappeared in our day. . . . [We should] reject the introduction into solemn public worship of . . . drama, mime, puppetry, art, dance, comedy, [and] pop-music (with its music groups and instrumentalists). . . . We [should] deprecate so-called “Contemporary Christian worship,” believing its innovations to be dishonoring to God, contrary to Scripture (as “will worship”), and harmful to the testimony of Christ’s professing Church. . . . [We should deny that just] anyone may undertake public ministry in the church, even as we reject the idea that women may lead any part of divine worship or preach to the gathered church. [And we should recognize that] God has appointed preaching as the proper way to make known his truth to this needy world [end quote].
God desires pure worship, but man offers corrupt worship. Let us recognize any sin in us and resolve to reform toward pure worship for the glory of God. Amen.
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