Old Testament Laws: The Object of Worship

The law given to ancient Israel was designed to last only until Christ came, and it should not be confused with the law of Christ given to the church. The Christian Sabbath is not a day of the week, but our eternal rest in Jesus Christ. In this article, we will look at aspects of the purpose and content of Christian worship.

Worship in the Old Testament

No human activity has greater relevance and meaning than that of the worship of God. There is much to learn about how we can worship more effectively today by looking at how the people of God have worshiped in the past.

The Old Testament is a treasure trove of instruction about God and worship. It is primarily from the Old Testament that we learn what we know about this invisible Being we call God. In the Old Testament we learn that God is unapproachable by anything or anyone unclean, or anyone tainted by sin. In order for the people of Israel to come into the presence of God, they had to undergo careful and detailed rituals of sacrifice and cleansing from sin.

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In the Old Testament, we learn about God’s holiness, his absolute perfection and complete “otherness” from all created things. God is revealed as so bright that he must “clothe” himself with dark clouds in order for the Israelites not to be destroyed by his mere presence on Mount Sinai.

Free and faithful

In the Old Testament we learn that God comes and goes in the affairs of humans as he pleases, not as humans decide. We learn that God is the architect and maker of all that is, and that everything has its being and continued existence only in him.

We learn that God is not manipulated by rituals, magic, sacrifices or incantations like the gods of the nations around Israel. We learn that God is completely and eternally faithful, that he loves his people with a steadfast love, and that he makes promises and keeps his word. We learn that nothing can keep God from doing what he decides to do. And we learn that God’s purpose is to save and redeem broken men and women, to heal the weak, to lift up the weary.

We learn that God cares about and is intimately involved in every detail of his created universe. We learn that even though sin is catastrophically destructive to human beings, God does not forget his work, and he acts to save and repair and set humans right so they can be restored to him.

We learn that humans are helpless without God, that everything humans do is possible only because God allows them to have their own way. We learn that God wants people to love him and obey him because that is how they can have and achieve everything for which their souls truly long and become everything they were created to be.

We learn that God prizes and values the people he has made, and that it grieves God’s heart to see people destroying themselves and others by their evil deeds and their evil hearts. Above all, we learn that God decided long ago that at the right time he would act powerfully and decisively, in accord with his covenant faithfulness, to redeem and heal humans from their sin and rebellion.

Israel learns to worship

The people of Israel were given precise instructions about how they must go about worship of the one true God. These instructions were designed to teach the Israelites that God is completely unlike the gods of Egypt and completely unlike all the gods they would encounter in the nations around them or in the lands they would possess.

As they followed God’s instructions for worship, the Israelites learned that God is perfect and holy, that he is good and faithful, that he is never deceived or tricked, that he knows everything, and that impurity cannot even come into his presence. They learned that he is subject to nothing and nobody, that all things are subject to him, and that he is to be worshiped on his own terms.

They also learned that God is personal, and that there are degrees of intimacy humans can have with him. The tabernacle, and the temple that replaced it, had an outer court, an inner court, the holy place and finally, the most intimate place of all, the holy of holies. No one was permitted to come that close to God except the high priest, and even then only once a year, and only after intensive purification rites.

Through this elaborate system of worship, Israel learned that God is absolutely holy, and that it is impossible for a person to come to God unless God makes it possible. They also learned that the most intimate relationship with God is possible only through the high priest, who represents the people before God and must be as ritually pure as possible.

When the Israelites left Egypt, their concepts about divinity were heavily influenced by the Egyptians and the other nations of the region. There was much to learn. The table at the end of this article illustrates a number of aspects of the education about himself that God revealed to Israel and preserved through them for the world in the Old Testament.

Worship in the New Testament

In the New Testament, something completely new happened. Yet even in its stark newness, what God did in Christ was nevertheless in complete harmony with everything he had done before. Just as the Israelites learned that only one person, the high priest whom God appointed to represent the people, could come into the most intimate presence of God, so Christians learn that only by being identified with Jesus Christ, God’s own Son, can they come into the presence of God.

Jesus is our High Priest. He represents us before God. In him only can we come into intimate fellowship with God. That is the meaning of the Lord’s Supper—a profound object lesson of our identification, or unity, with the sinless Son of God, our perfect and eternal High Priest.

Jesus is everything to us and for us. He is our perfect High Priest; through him we can come into intimate personal fellowship with God. He is our perfect Prophet, who declares to our innermost being the perfect and certain Word of God.

He is our perfect sacrificial Lamb, whose slaughter purifies completely our sins and our consciences so that we can enter into the “holy of holies” with him. He is our perfect King, who rules us in perfect righteousness, wisdom, justice and mercy. He is our perfect Teacher, who instructs us perfectly in the ways of God.

Barrier destroyed

When Mark recorded in his Gospel that the veil in the temple was torn from top to bottom, he was recording much more than the mere tearing of a piece of cloth. The veil was the curtain that separated the holy place in the temple from the holy of holies. When Jesus died, the barrier between God and humans was destroyed. In Jesus, and in Jesus alone, humans may now enter freely into the “holy of holies,” that is, into the most intimate communion with God that is possible for redeemed humans (see Hebrews 9 and 10; Mark 15:38).

In the New Testament, worship is no longer defined by the regulations of the old covenant. That is not because those regulations were faulty. It is because those regulations had served their purpose. Through the rituals and regulations of temple-centered worship, God taught the Israelites, and through the Israelites the world, who he is and how humans can be restored to their original purpose and standing with him.

World prepared

In the fullness of time, Paul writes, God sent his Son, born of a woman (Galatians 4:4). Think of that! God sent his own divine Son to become one of us, so that through him, the perfect, sinless sacrificial Lamb, we might be cleansed of our sinfulness and brought into harmony and communion with God.

God had prepared the world for this time of all times. Through the people of Israel and his covenant with them, God had prepared a lineage through which his Son would be born. He had also prepared the context, through Israel’s worship of him, necessary for the world to understand who Jesus was.

Had there been no promises to Abraham, no Israel and no Exodus, no covenant, no priesthood and no prescribed worship form, no captivity, no Davidic royal lineage and no messianic promise, then there would have been no context in which the world could rightly understand who God was, who Jesus was, and how Jesus’ death and resurrection could be the salvation of the world (see box).

Note: The church is the new Israel in Jesus Christ, the dynamic continuation of the Old Testament people of God, a new community of faith without national or racial walls, transformed and empowered for God’s service by the Holy Spirit. Peter expressed the Christian understanding of the church as the people of God in 1 Peter 2:9-10: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were no people but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy” (New Revised Standard Version).


God acts, the people respond

When Christians come together in worship, they are responding to the grace and power of God in their individual and corporate lives. God acts; the people respond. This is the essence of Christian worship: the response of the people of God to what God has done.

This response—the corporate worship of the people of God—involves some form. The people gather at particular places and particular times and participate in worship in particular ways. Through this means, the people of God respond to God together in humility—to his holy majesty and righteousness, his power and glory, his grace and mercy, and his great acts of salvation.

They recall what God has done, take joy in what he is doing, and look forward to what he will yet do. They rehearse, re-enact, participate, proclaim and celebrate. They listen to his Word. They confess, repent and intercede. They praise, rejoice and give thanks.

The Israelites were given a temporary form or system of worship appropriate to the content of that worship. That form, described in the law of Moses, enabled the Israelites to respond in worship to the miraculous things God had done for them—saving them from Egypt, bringing them into the Promised Land and making them his own people. That form of worship was to last until Jesus came, and then to fade.

Then, just as God had planned from the very beginning (Ephesians 3:9), through Jesus Christ he did something amazingly new and transcendent, both for Israel and for all peoples everywhere. As a result, the worship practices of God’s people demanded a new response to the new thing God had done.

A new act demands a new response

Just as Isaiah had prophesied, at the fullness of time God did a new thing (Isaiah 43:19)—he sent his Son. The response of the people of God to this new thing is a fitting new response. A new response to a new thing demands new worship content — content that must be carried out in appropriately new forms. In other words, the new wine of the gospel of Jesus Christ is to be placed into new wineskins, new containers or structures (Matthew 9:17).

Old covenant worship forms have been fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Jesus brought something new to the worship of God. Since worship is the response of God’s people to his mighty acts of salvation and grace, the content and form of worship is a direct reflection of the fundamental beliefs of God’s people.

Jesus summarized the essence of Christian belief in Luke 24:44-48:

He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”

Likewise, Paul recorded the heart of the Christian faith in his letter to the church at Corinth: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve” (1 Corinthians 15:3-5).

New content, new form

A comparison of the biblical creeds of the people of God under the old and the new covenants illustrates the passing of the old and the arrival of the new. The old covenant people of God remembered and celebrated the great power and grace of God displayed in their miraculous deliverance from slavery in Egypt and gift of the land promised to the patriarchs.

The new covenant people of God, on the other hand, remember and celebrate the great power and grace of God displayed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He is the defining point of our salvation. The content and form of our worship reflects our belief that through confidence in Jesus, all peoples everywhere can be delivered from slavery to sin and given entrance into the new life of the kingdom of God.

Israelite worship was for ancient Israel. It lasted till Christ came. Now God’s people worship in new forms reflecting their response to new content—the transcendent new thing God has done in Jesus Christ. Table 2 below compares biblical creeds of the old and new covenants.

New festivals for new Exodus

Christian worship involves new festivals because it celebrates the new Exodus, an Exodus from slavery to sin for all humanity, not the old Exodus, which was an Exodus from slavery in Egypt for the people of Israel. In worship, the people of God do not merely look back to a historical event. Through worship, we enter into the essence of our faith—the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We gather before God in Jesus’ name. We rehearse the gospel story. We submit to God’s Word, repent of our sins, rejoice in our Savior and give him thanks.

When Christians worship, what God did in Christ is brought into our collective “here and now” experience as his people gather in his name. This rehearsal of the gospel story unites us with and renews us in God’s miraculous saving work in Christ. Regardless of when Christians choose to gather, the real issue is whether their celebration becomes a genuine rehearsal of the gospel story.

In summary, Christian worship is entering into, or participating in, the gospel; it is not entering into the Israelite Exodus. The worship pattern given to ancient Israel was for them, given specifically to them so they could properly respond in worship and celebration for what God had done for them at the Red Sea, in the wilderness and in the Promised Land.

Christian worship, on the other hand, is Spirit-guided and is not found in a written code (John 4:24), just as the law of Christ is rooted in the Spirit and not in a written code. Christian worship specifically responds to the gospel—the surprising and amazing new thing, planned from the very beginning, which God did in the fullness of time in Jesus Christ for the salvation of all the people of the earth.

In this chapter we have seen that worship is our response to the gracious acts of God on our behalf. Israelite worship was designed to help Israel respond in worship to their miraculous deliverance from slavery in Egypt and the gift of the Promised Land. Christian worship has transcended Israelite worship, and is designed to help Christians respond to God’s supreme and conclusive act of human deliverance from sin and death through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ on behalf of all who believe the gospel.

In the next chapter we will look at the biblical events that shaped the new “wineskins,” or basic forms, into which the new “wine,” or content, of Christian worship was poured.

Author: J. Michael Feazell


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