By: Stephen McAlpine
I’ve taken the opportunity during an extended, and gloriously sunny, beachside holiday to plough through the Pentateuch.
Genesis was a riveting read, as was most of Exodus.
Then we get a bit bogged down. Lots and lots of worship ordinands. And don’t let me catch you boiling a young goat in its mother’s milk. The command not to is in Exodus twice, and Deuteronomy once. Okay we get it! By that stage I’m ready to grab the kayak and go lie on the beach for a while.
Theories abound surrounding that particular prohibition, ranging from the ickiness of doing that to a baby goat, to the speculation that such a practice was a pagan one grounded in a fertility cult.
Still, nothing better than sitting on a verandah overlooking a crystal clear ocean and ticking off the list of meals you are definitely not going to eat while on holidays, if ever.
But it’s striking how complicated the worship requirements are. I mean, who even knew there was a long lobe on the liver that was supposed to be burned during a variety of offerings?
And what’s that about not putting honey on the altar? And never mind leavened bread, you can’t even replicate the perfume mix used on the altar of incense for your own personal use. You risk being cut off from God and his people.
It’s readings like that – and large, extended, convoluted readings like that – that put Christian people off reading the Torah. And perhaps it confirms what some, such as gleeful atheist Peter Fitzsimons calls, the “gibberish” nature of the Bible. And if not “gibberish”, definitely giblet-ish, given how many entrails get hauled off to different places.
But to dismiss it as such is to miss the central point of where the Bible is headed. And as we read these passages in light of the cross of Jesus, and in light of Jesus’ own assertion that the Law and the Prophets were both fulfilled by him, and completed in him, here’s what we must conclude:
Jesus takes the worry out of worship
Why is worship a worry? Well, it’s not hard to see as you read the Pentateuch that if the Holy God of Israel is to dwell in the midst of His people, then somehow there’s going to have to be a complicated process by which they don’t get toasted. They are, after all, not holy as he is holy, despite the command in Leviticus to be so.
They can’t just approach God casually, and the worship system has all sorts of checks and balances. It makes the security systems that Tom Cruise hacks in most of his movies, look like cheap bicycle locks.
The worship system is not designed to keep God safe and clean from those grubby people, but to keep those grubby people safe from the God of whom a very glimpse would make you melt like the Nazi bloke in Indiana Jones who opens the ark of the covenant. Eyeballs dropping all over the place.
There would be a certain nervousness to the priests. Have I got this right? Did we do this the right way? Did I burn the bits I was supposed to? Did I carry outside the camp those bits I was commanded to? And what if I have sinned unintentionally and don’t know it? Everything is a carefully calibrated set of checks and balances.
But of course, God being just a bit more like us that not, He’ll overlook the odd slip up, right? Wrong. This is what we read when, after a long and exhaustive list of what the priests cannot do, and what they should do, two of Aaron’s sons get it wrong in Leviticus 10:
Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, contrary to his command. 2 So fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. 3 Moses then said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord spoke of when he said:
“‘Among those who approach me
I will be proved holy;
in the sight of all the people
I will be honored.’”
Whoops. Seems like God is pretty strict about this sort of stuff. There’s a lot of worry when it comes to the worship of the God of Israel. We start to realise that He sets the boundaries for how He is to be approached. The common reframe in this worship package set up is that “Moses did all that the LORD had commanded.” It’s said again and again and again. There’s no occasion where God asks:
“Well Moses, what do you think? How should the people approach me? After all it’s a much more modern age than when you were back in Egypt.”
There’s no leeway. No wiggle room. No ifs. No buts. There’s a lot of worry in worship when you are permitted to worship the true and living God, and have Him dwell in your midst like Israel did. Get it right? Blessing! Get it wrong? Toast!
Which makes the worship package of the New Testament all the more breathtaking. And what we find is that the worship package of the New Testament is not a set of rituals and complex sacrifices, but a person. Jesus is our worship package. The whole kit and caboodle. And as such Jesus takes the worry out of worship.
It’s striking that in the book of Hebrews, the writer tells us that there is no time to go into the details of the Jewish worship rites that the writer claims have been fulfilled completely by Jesus. In fact the writer airily waves their hand and says:
‘But we cannot discuss these things in detail now. ‘(Heb 9:5)
That’s a huge shift. We can’t discuss these things in detail right now? Why ever not? Look what happened when we got it wrong in the past!
But that’s the point. The Hebrews writer is saying that with the coming of Jesus, every part of the worship package has been completed in absolute perfection by a priest who never had to offer a sacrifice for his own sins, and who will never be succeeded in his role because he will never die.
We approach “the throne of grace in time of need” with no fear, and with all confidence. It is not our obedient form of worship that gives us this sweet access, it is Jesus’ obedient form of worship on our behalf, one that included a completely obedient life.
I reckon we often don’t get this. And I certainly know that in church we can create all sorts of ways for ourselves of not getting this. And that in turn creates an insecurity within us, that somehow our correct worship is the manner in which we access God’s presence.
So I’ve seen a flyer for a worship conference that stated confidently:
“Our worship is our access to the very throne room of God”
This is not theologically correct. It is Jesus’ worship that is our access to the very throne room of God.
This is not salvifically correct. If all it takes for us to access God’s throne room directly is the way that we offer our worship, then our sin must not be so bad. Our worship must be capable of atoning for it to the level that God grants us access without any other requirement.
It is also not pastorally helpful. Why? Because it keeps us on edge all of the time. It means we can oscillate between fear and pride. Perhaps our personal worship that day, or our corporate worship one Sunday, was absolutely top drawer. The band was amazing, the singers took us into a place of emotion we had never been before. We felt like we accessed God’s throne room. All well and good.
But what if we felt awful? What if the music sucked? What if we were distracted or angry or just plain tired? Has our access to God’s throne room been jeopardised?
Absolutely not. The point of the worship package in the Old Testament Pentateuch is that it points forward to the complete worship package of the Lord Jesus, who is better than Moses, and is, as Hebrews states, “the owner of the house” that is being built. So let’s do what Hebrews tells us to do, and “approach the throne of grace in time of need”, not because our worship is good enough for God, but because Jesus’ worship was, is, and will always be, good enough for God.
He’s the same consuming fire (Hebrews tells us as much). Still the same holy God who calls us to be holy, (Hebrews again!). But with one, HUUUGE difference:
Jesus takes the worry out of worship.
About the Author: Stephen has been reading, writing and reflecting ever since he can remember. He is the lead pastor of Providence Church Midland, and in his writing dabbles in a number of fields, notably theology and culture. Stephen and his family live in Perth’s eastern suburbs, where his wife Jill runs a clinical psychology practice.