True Worship or Vain Duty

This is the the sixth message in a series on worship. We are getting near the end of the series – my hope is that after this week we will spend two more weeks on this topic, and what I hope to do is pull together from the six or so messages some practical application, implications for us when we think about worship, whether it is individually as we worship through life wherever we are, wherever we go, whatever we’re doing, or corporately as we worship together as a church. This morning we are going to look at another topic of worship. If you would like to turn with me to Hebrews 12, we will primarily look at verse 28 but I’ll begin reading in verse 25.

25 See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. 26 At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” 27 This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. 28 Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, 29 for our God is a consuming fire. (Hebrews 12:25-29)

We’re starting in the middle of a book and at the end of a chapter, and that makes it difficult at times with the lack of background. Verse 28 begins with the word “therefore.” With this we understand that the writer is referencing what was before this verse. The “therefore” is a signal that what is about to follow should be a response to what preceded it. In chapter 12 the writer is describing a glorious kingdom that cannot be shaken, cannot be moved, a kingdom that will not succumb to what every other kingdom will succumb to. All others will fail, kingdoms will fail, they will fall, except for one. There is a kingdom that cannot be shaken, it cannot be brought down, it will not suffer defeat. It will not be like any other in that it will endure forever.

The writer explains this then says, “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.”

As we continue this morning in our study on worship, remember that last week we looked mainly at worship from the heart, we talked about worship and our hearts. We talked about potential distractions to worship as I shared with you some of my personal struggles in that area, and how we can all get so easily sidetracked when it comes to worship. I’ve had many of you come to me since last week describing what it is that so easily sidetracks you in worship. It’s not the same for all of us, but it’s a struggle we all must deal with. When we get sidetracked something happens: we miss out on genuine worship. That happens sometimes because of a greater desire to place ourselves and our preferences at the center of all things instead of bowing to the Lord, keeping Him at the center of our lives. We have a tendency to lift ourselves up as those who want what we want. We may do this instead of going after something that is so much greater, that is, basking in the glory of God and resting in His grace that keeps us in this salvation and satisfies our greatest needs.

I made the statement last week that I believe there are really only two possibilities when it comes to worship: we either worship God or we worship ourselves. It’s really that simple, I think. I don’t know what it was like for you to hear that, maybe you spent some time thinking about that over the week, but for me it has been a hard thing to take. But it is true. Either I worship God or I try to become God. I worship Him in genuine submission or I compete with Him for His throne. Two choices: we worship God or we worship ourselves.

The writer of Hebrews says it very simply: because of who God is and what He has done for us we should be grateful to Him and offer to Him acceptable worship with reverence and awe. He’s saying, “Be thankful and worship in an acceptable way, with reverence and awe.” By saying “acceptable worship,” he is indicating that there must be some worship or forms of worship that are not acceptable to God.

We have spent some time already looking at examples of worship, talking about our hearts in worship, hindrances to worship, and trying to define worship, but we have not really spent too much time yet on examples of worship that are not acceptable to God from the Scriptures. I think this is important as we try to come to a more full understanding of what worship is. What is acceptable worship? And negatively, what is worship that is not acceptable? In a sense we have discussed unacceptable worship, that is when we worship objects other than God, that is clearly not acceptable worship. But what about worship that seems at least outwardly to be correct? Worship that is designed, orchestrated by us or others, to be true worship in that it follows certain traditions of worship, it looks outwardly like what we think worship should? Where are the lines of distinction of acceptable worship and unacceptable worship? I think it’s important for us to think about that if we want to worship in a way that is pleasing to God. So I want us to go to a couple of places in God’s Word and look at examples of unacceptable worship of God and try to understand why it is unacceptable.

18 Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord! Why would you have the day of the Lord? It is darkness, and not light, 19 as if a man fled from a lion, and a bear met him, or went into the house and leaned his hand against the wall, and a serpent bit him. 20 Is not the day of the Lord darkness, and not light, and gloom with no brightness in it? 21 “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. 22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them. 23 Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. 24 But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:18-24)

This prophet Amos is a farmer, an uneducated man called by God to deliver a very important message to a very rebellious people. In many cases the people didn’t know they were rebellious, didn’t want to admit they were rebellious. They were looking forward to the day of the Lord, and the prophet’s telling them, “I’m not so sure it’s something you ought to look forward to, if you don’t look at your own hearts.” But these people did not seem to consider themselves all that rebellious. It’s not like they were a totally secular society that ignored religion, they weren’t that. They were not atheists who would stand up and openly declare, “There is no God.” They were not openly hostile to religion, in fact much of what they did revolved around religion and religious practices. They were doing much of what God had commanded them to do. Their practices were consistent in many ways with what God had asked them to do. There was this outward picture, a visible expression of worship in their congregation, in their gatherings, in their feasts.

It’s interesting as Blake read this morning from Revelation 4, you see a picture of worship there. I’m not so sure that if we could stand back and observe those in Amos’ day, and we get that view into heaven, that we could discern all that much difference – yes it’s heaven, it’s more glorious, I know there will be some differences, but my point is that when we looked upon what God saw and what Amos is talking about in their worship, it would look like worship, it would have the appearance of worship, it was designed to be worship. I mean look what they were doing: they were celebrating religious holidays with feasts and assemblies, they were giving grain and burnt offerings from what they had, they were offering fattened animals that they had prepared for the Lord, they were filling the air with music, their voices, song, and with instruments. These would look like a committed people, wouldn’t they? A people serious about their faith, their religion, and their God. And with all this going on, what is God’s response? He says, “I hate, I despise your feasts.” That’s pretty strong. “I take no delight in your solemn assemblies…I will not accept your offerings.” He even says that He will not even “look upon them.” He says “take away from me the noise of your songs” and to “the melody of your harps I will not listen.” The Lord’s rejection of their religious activity could not be more clear. God rejected every aspect of their worship. They were inundating Him with their efforts at outward religion when what He wanted was their hearts, leading to obedience of righteousness and justice.

They were celebrating religious holidays with feasts and assemblies, assembling together in the name of God. They were bringing offerings to the Lord, burnt offerings, grain offerings, peace offerings of fattened animals. They were openly giving to the Lord from their riches. They were also filling the air with song, with melody from their harps, raising their voices together in the name of God. If we were to walk in on such a celebration we may be really impressed by it all. The obedience, the giving, the participation, the time taken to put this all together, and the sacrifices of time. It looks like worship and it sounds like worship, but what was the Lord’s assessment? Whatever worship is that is acceptable to God, this was not it. Outward forms of religion are not the same thing as worship.

Revelation 2 – The Lord speaking to the church at Ephesus. I think we see something similar here. Starting in verse 2: “I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary.” So far so good. A busy church full of people who seem very committed to God. Then He says in verse 4…”But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first.”

Chapter 3 – The church in Sardis. Beginning in verse 1: “And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: ‘The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. ‘I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent.’” They had a reputation of being “alive,” that is how they looked. They had many works, the Lord said “I know your works,” but the Lord saw it differently and declared, “You are not alive, you are dead.”

These are examples of unacceptable worship, the kind of worship that has an outward appearance, but upon close examination by the Lord who sees the heart it is not true spiritual worship. There is something lacking in each of these examples. 

In Amos, if we were to read the chapters leading up to God’s disgust with their religious practice of a faux worship, we would find a people who were living for themselves and in direct disobedience to God. That’s what their normal day-to-day life looked like, very much disobedient to God from their heart. There was no love for God. In the example of the church in Ephesus we find a people who were hard workers, very dedicated workers, but they were not loving the Lord. In the example of the church in Sardis we see that they too were hard workers, religious people, they had a reputation for that, but they, the Lord says, were dead. Outward form but inwardly, in the heart, they were dead. Nothing was being done from a heart that was alive toward God. We see in every case an outward obedience with a heart lacking of love for God.

Last week I made a statement that there is this vital link between worship and the heart. That is true, and we see that even today in these passages. I want this morning to add to that and say this: there is also a vital link between worship and an obedient heart. If we are going to worship God in a way that is acceptable to Him, then we must concern ourselves with living lives in obedience to Him. We have to consider whether or not our hearts and our minds, whether we are desirous of living obediently as God has directed us to live. I am talking about worship and obedience. I want us to bring these two things of worship and obedience together. Should worship, or must worship, be partnered with obedience?

Now I have to say that many become uncomfortable even using “worship” and “obedience” in the same sentence, at least in our culture today, in many church cultures today. In our culture, in the mainstream Christian culture, “worship” is sort of “in,” it’s sort of popular. Obedience on the other hand is sort of “out.” Worship can be very cool in some circles; obedience is old school. Worship is fun, enjoyable, engaging; obedience is boring, a drag. Worship is very freeing, and we may think of obedience as suffocating. Good worship draws people; talk of obedience may drive them away. Worship is user friendly, seeker friendly, while obedience sounds very unfriendly. We may not see worship and obedience as friendly to one another, joining together, but I think biblically they not only go hand in hand, but one is essential to the other. They’re essential to one another. But here is the thing: I’m not talking about obedience in simply its outward form – we see that in Amos, don’t we? And in the churches at Ephesus and Sardis – but of obedience flowing from a heart that loves God.

Outward alone is not so good. We see that strong language from the Lord about the “worship” in Amos’ day. We see God’s disgust, we see that in Revelation, it is not outward forms that pleases God. And I think we see this from our Hebrews passage on worship.

28 Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, 29 for our God is a consuming fire. (Hebrews 12:28-29)

When the writer speaks of acceptable worship he continues saying that it is with “reverence and awe.” How do we worship in reverence and in awe?

“Reverence” would be a people bowing in humble submission, in deep respect to the One they most highly prize. That comes from the heart. Bowing to Him in all things, at all times, deeply moved by Him in our inner being. This reverence in worship is to be present always, and it removes any sense of superiority of our ideas or anything that is opposed to what we understand God desires. Reverence puts us properly under God, in submission to Him. If present, it leads us to a strong desire to live for him in the ways he has prescribed. Living for Him, living to please Him, this comes from a reverence for Him. Worship goes hand in had with living in obedience to God.

“Awe” is much like reverence, but with an added dimension of fear and wonder toward God. Reverence may be our heart bowing low ready to obey, and awe is like the “Whoa!” part, the “Wow, this is God I’m worshiping!” In awe of that, stunned by that, of being in the presence of the almighty God. And this would be to such a degree that again we are driven to, out of a love and reverence and awe, led to love Him and show obedience toward Him.

It is what we saw in Isaiah 6 as the Lord met Isaiah and called upon him to serve. Isaiah stood stunned by the presence of the Lord, and by the Lord’s gracious act of removing his guilt. His response was obedience. Not out of duty, but out of reverence and awe. The wise men in Matthew after receiving revelation from God, instruction from God, they acted by obedience in reverence and awe, bowing before Jesus, giving Him gifts, risking their lives as they chose to shun the king. 

This reverence and awe is what was missing with the Jews in Amos’ day. They worked with outward forms, but in their obedience they lacked. In Revelation, the church in Ephesus and Sardis, where was this awesome view of God and love for Him? That’s what was missing. It was absent, their worship was incomplete. We cannot walk in this life as Christians and claim to worship in any form pleasing to God if we are not also living in deep reverence and awe of God.

As pointed out a few weeks ago from Romans 12, the word here for “worship,” the original word can also mean “service.” Worship and service go hand in hand. It is active, it is moving, it requires response in our minds and sometimes in our outward acts. So if you are looking at the NASB it says: “Therefore, since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service.” So again, what does it mean that our worship or service be “acceptable” and that it be with “reverence and awe”? It is a bowing down of our hearts and minds in reverence, stunned by His presence, in awe of who He is, leading to a living out of His commands in obedience. It is a life walk, a direction lived in a way that is pleasing to the Lord.

Can we live however we want to live outside of these walls, then come here on a Sunday morning and really worship? I don’t think so.

I want to close with a final thought. I have heard the term “acceptable worship” used by many people primarily in one sense. I have primarily heard it said regarding what we do together corporately on a Sunday morning. Something like, “we can’t worship (corporately on a Sunday morning) in any way we please, we are only free to worship in a way that is acceptable to God.” So “acceptable worship,” that phrase or idea has been used, I think most often, to regulate what happens on a Sunday morning in a church service. Like, “We can’t do this or do that because that would not be acceptable to God.” I don’t think we see the phrases in the Bible discussing what is acceptable worship primarily talking about a church worship service. Contextually I don’t think that’s what we see. But they are instructing us regarding where are hearts are with God always.

Regarding a worship service, I think we all walk in here with hearts of worship or we don’t, and that the form of our worship is not as important as the hearts we bring into it. Do you agree with that? I think that is the emphasis in the Bible. I think that’s what the Scripture teaches us. In fact I don’t know that there is much we can do to even bring about worship or make worship happen if one is not inclined to worship or prepared to worship. What we maybe should do is urge repentance if we’ve gotten here with hearts not prepared for worship. Or perhaps we can cry out to God corporately that He will lead us, by His grace lead us to worship, even if our hearts have been far from Him during the week. Come to Him crying out to Him, that we may worship in reverence and awe, ask Him to take us there, cry out to Him that we may worship Him. Bring truth to our minds through reading of the Word, through testimony, through sound lyrics in the songs we sing, and pray that we will truly worship in Spirit and in truth. Ask God to convict us when we are shallow, and to lead us to love Him deeply. Ask Him to convict us if we are holding out, holding on to outward forms, if that’s our main concern. Or if we are simply trying to live in obedience absent reverence and awe of God. We can pray, “O Lord, please keep me from outward works and forms that are really just ways to build myself up and may have little to do with worshiping and serving you. Help us Lord to be worshipers, here and wherever we go.”

And here is the great thing: if we are God’s children through Christ, by faith in Christ, if we are Christians and belong to Him, then He has made it possible for us to worship, really worship in Spirit and in truth! He wants that for you. He desires that. He is not holding you back. We can come to Him and ask Him for what we know He desires, a prayer of faith. He will work in us. He will lead us to worship Him in ways that perhaps we have never done before. We can pray in confidence the prayer of faith. He is about changing hearts and changing minds. And it is with the same power with which He raised Jesus from the dead that He works in us. We can be worshipers of God.

28 Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, 29 for our God is a consuming fire. (Hebrews 12:28-29)