I'm probably the world's worst gift-giver. I'm notorious for goofing up. I err because I'm not sensitive and don't pay attention to what people like. You may ask, "What does that have to do with worship?" If you really want to please your wife, you give your wife something she wants. Who knows best what she wants other than your wife? Likewise, that's the way we should understand worship. God desires praise, honor and adoration. If we want to give God proper worship, we must give Him what He wants. In order to give God the worship He desires, we need to be sure of what He wants - and God tells us. In Deuteronomy 12, Moses explained to Israel how God wants to be worshiped.
Controversies over the regulative principle of worship, found in the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 21, often arise in seminary classrooms. The regulative principle basically means that worship ought to be regulated by the way God says He wants to be worshiped. If you want to worship God in a way He accepts, then do it in the way He tells you, and not in any other way. That is the burden of Deuteronomy 12.
Let's go back to the gift-giving example. If you always knew exactly what your wife wanted, and you got it for her, wouldn't she be pleased? A perfect God always knows what He wants. A gracious God doesn't require us to speculate about what He wants; He tells us.
I remember another man who also messed up in giving gifts. One time he gave his wife some tools. He liked tools and thought they would help her. He bought her tools that pleased him. My wife kindly told me never, never to do that for her.
We can see how dangerous it is to give gifts more suited to ourselves than to the recipient. When we buy something we want rather than something our loved one wants, we get in trouble. The same principle prevails in the worship of God. If we base our worship solely on what we want, how can we be sure we are doing what God wants? Worship is for God, not us. We benefit, but our pleasure is not the purpose of worship. Moses took pains to explain this principle - "do not add to or subtract from what God tells you to do in worship" (Deuteronomy 12:32).
There have always been dangers in allowing worship to be overly influenced by the surrounding culture. Moses warned the Israelites to be careful not to allow worship patterns around them to direct their worship. In our day we must be careful that we don't allow the circumstances around us to direct our worship.
A TIMELESS MISCONCEPTION
Today, some will tell you that a certain approach to worship will attract a big audience. They will show why the approach attracts large audiences. That's not much different from what the Israelites faced. Everybody around them knew how to bring rain. They knew how to make crops grow. If you wanted fertile crops, then you went to the Asherah pole - a symbol of fertility. If you didn't have children, you worshiped the Asherah. "We went up the hill, worshiped our god, and it rained," the people claimed. Or, "We had no children in our household, then we worshiped at the Asherah pole, and now we have children."
Those comments sound like the ones from those who tell what kinds of worship make the church grow. But look at what Moses said to do to those places on the hills, to Asherah poles, to the spreading trees. He said to destroy completely all the places on the high mountains, and on the hills, and under every spreading tree where the nations Israel was dispossessing worshiped their gods. He said to break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, burn their Asherah poles, cut down the idols of their gods, and wipe out their names from those places (Deuteronomy 12:2,3).
God said through Moses that He doesn't want worship that is attractive to the people. He wants worship that is attractive to Him - Yahweh, the Lord our God, who brought the Israelites out of Egypt.
Moses demanded that the Israelites rid themselves of these things so they wouldn't be tempted to worship like the Canaanites. It's explicit in verse 4: "You must not worship the Lord your God in their way." No questions. No adjustments. No fine print. It's all clear. He says don't do it their way. It is illegitimate. It is wrong. It is not the worship the Lord your God desires.
Moses added that they were to worship God at the place of His choosing. He says in verse 5 that they were to seek the place the Lord their God would choose to put His name. In verse 11, he reiterated that they were to offer their tithes, their offerings, the firstborn of their flocks, and the firstfruits of their labors and their fields. All these things were to be brought before God at a particular place.
This was new to the Israelites. They had been wanderers. They always knew where to worship God because in the center of their camp was the tabernacle. In the land God was giving them, they had to decide where it would be legitimate to use required forms of worship. God said to go to the place He told them.
Moses made the point again and again - God wants to be worshiped His way. If God said to worship Him at Shiloh, they were to worship Him at Shiloh. If God said to worship Him at Jerusalem, they were to worship Him at Jerusalem.
THE DEMAND FOR COMMUNITY
God not only demands worship at the place He chooses, but He also demands communal worship. Worship isn't something you do by yourself. If you're like I am when sitting in a worship service, you struggle with your relationship to other people because you want to connect with God directly. The Lord says worship ought to be communal - to include your families (v. 7).
He repeats the same thing in verse 12: "Rejoice before the Lord your God; you and your sons and daughters, your menservants and your maidservants, and the Levites from your town who have no inheritance of their own." Communal worship is hard for us in our individualistic world. However, we need to rid ourselves of the notion that worship is a bunch of individuals getting together and worshiping individually.
Oftentimes we're better at achieving community at football games than at worship services. For example, you can't enjoy football in the same way when you watch it in your living room on the idiot box. At a football game, the crowd plays a significant role in your engagement. The same is true in worship. Remember, the people with you also profess their love for the Lord Jesus Christ. When you hear other voices singing in worship, be encouraged. Note Paul's approaches to communal worship in Philippians 5:19, 20 and Colossians 3: 15-17.
Also, our worship must be joyful, as Deuteronomy 12:7 makes clear. Moses told the Israelites that in the presence of the Lord their God, they and their families should eat and should rejoice in everything they put their hands to. Verse 18 also says to rejoice before the Lord.
We could translate rejoice as "celebrate." You're supposed to come before God corporately - as families and as a community - and celebrate all that God is and has done. It's like how you feel when you come to your surprise birthday party and everybody there is excited.
Worship requires a mood of joy and celebration. We're sinful people who deserve God's wrath and curse, but God welcomes us into His presence. He seeks people who will worship Him in spirit and truth. The Almighty God who has redeemed our souls from hell says, Come. Sing to me. Be with me. The maker of heaven and earth says, Come into My presence and celebrate.
God is the recipient of our honor and praise. We are the participants. He is the audience. Community and joy should characterize true worship. God tells us we can't take away from what He commands, nor add to it.
Worship is what God wants from us, and from Israel. The Lord who brought them out of Egypt, out of bondage, wanted worship. He saved His people so they could worship. The same is true for believers in the New Testament era. The Savior of our souls, Jesus Christ, who came upon this earth and gave His blood for our sins, tells us what He wants - honor and praise and adoration. Worship is our destiny, and we should do it in a way that pleases our Savior.
I want to do that. Don't you? With every fiber of my being, I want to give Jesus the worship He desires. I can think of no better reason for worshiping God according to His Word than to give my Lord Jesus what He wants.
Reformed Quarterly, Volume 22, Number 1-2