The word “worship” conjures up all sort of images, experiences, and ideas in our minds. For some of us, the idea of worship takes us back to previous experiences in church. We think about prior worship services we have experienced. This might include the different styles of worship we’ve encountered, including the singing of hymns with a piano and organ or the singing of new, contemporary worship songs with a praise band. Each of our experiences are different and culturally defined. If you go somewhere else in the world, you might experience a very different worship service.
The same can be said for the early Israelites. In our previous post, we discussed the importance of the tabernacle and how it was the home of God’s presence. Because God’s presence dwelt in the tabernacle, it became the center of worship for the people of Israel. However, their worship certainly looked different from ours today. When we think about worship, we must not get caught up in what it looks like. Rather, we should focus on the purpose of worship. The English word “worship” comes from the old English word “weorþscipe,” meaning “denoting the worthiness of an individual to receive special honor in accordance with that worth.1
Worshipping the God Among Many Gods
Above all, the most foundational element to the Israelites’ worship was the focus of their worship. In Exodus 20, God gives the Ten Commandments to Israel, and of the Ten Commandments, the first four all relate to the worship of God. In particular, God commands the people of Israel to worship him alone (Exodus 20:3) and not make an image to represent God (Exodus 20:4). In Exodus 32, we get a brief glimpse of God’s attitude toward Israel when they break these commandments. In this episode, the Israelites choose to make a golden calf representing God. God’s reaction is noted: “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath my burn hot against them and I may consume them” (Exodus 32:9-10). Above all, for Israel, worship was to be centered around the One who deserved worship.
That’s Not How We Do It
Worship for the Israelites centered around the tabernacle and the sacrificial system, much of which can be found in Leviticus 1-7. “The purpose of the sacrifices and offerings within the sanctuary system, therefore, was to provide a means of approaching the Lord in his place of manifest presence in Israel and to maintain that presence by preserving the purity and holiness of the sanctuary.”2 Ultimately the people of Israel would bring sacrifices to the tabernacle, where the priests would then offer sacrifices to the Lord on behalf of the people. These sacrifices were brought for several reasons, two primary reasons being to atone for sin and worship God. While the people were not allowed to participate in carrying out the sacrifice, God provided an opportunity for them to participate in worship. Thus, when the people came to offer their sacrifices to the priests at the tabernacle, they were worshipping the Lord. While different from the way we worship today, the purpose of the Israelites worship was still to bestow honor and glory to God.
Jesus Changed Everything
Just as the tabernacle was the center of worship for Israel in the desert, the temple would later become the center of worship in the Promised Land. In John 4, we read of an encounter Jesus had with a Samaritan woman. While controversial in its day, Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan was even more controversial for what he says. In John 4:21-24, Jesus declares,
Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 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.
The coming of Jesus changed everything, including worship. This Samaritan woman was confused because she thought Jesus was interested in debating where they should worship. The Jews said Jerusalem at the temple and the Samaritans said at Mt. Gerizim. Jesus says, “neither!” “The question of the correct place to worship would soon be irrelevant, for the times were about to change. Worship would no longer be localized in a sacred place."3 Instead of location, Jesus says worship will be centered around spirit and truth, meaning by the Holy Spirit. Just as the presence of God moved from the tabernacle to the indwelling of the Spirit in believers, so too does worship move from the tabernacle (or temple) to those indwelt by the Holy Spirit. The Israelites were blessed because they were given the opportunity to worship the Lord at the tabernacle. Today, you and I are even more blessed because we are offered the opportunity to worship the Lord through his Spirit, not confined to any particular location. Because we are Spirit-filled people, today may each of us participate in worshipping our Lord in both Spirit and truth.
1E. F. Harrison, “Worship,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd ed., ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 1300.
2R. E. Averbeck, “Sacrifices and Offerings,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch, ed. T. Desmond Alexander and David W. Baker (Downers Grove: IVP, 2003), 706.
3Colin G. Kruse, John in The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 133.