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Acceptable Worship

Genesis 4:3-5 - So it came about in the course of time that Cain brought an offering to the Lord of the fruit of the ground. 4And Abel, on his part also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and for his offering; 5but for Cain and for his offering He had no regard. So Cain became very angry and his face was downcast.

Leviticus 10:1-2 - Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took their censers, and after putting fire in them, took incense and offered strange fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them. 2And fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord.

2 Chronicles 26:16 - But when Uzziah became strong, his heart was so proud that he acted corruptly, and he was unfaithful to the Lord his God, for he entered the temple of the Lord to burn incense on the altar of incense.

John 4:23-24 - But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. 24God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.

Do you worship God, or do you just know some things about God? The Bible teaches that God is looking for worshipers. What an amazing fact! That the God who created and controls the vast universe should be actively seeking out people on planet earth to worship Him is truly an incredible thought. However, the Scripture further teaches that God is not looking for just any worshipers or any expression of worship. John 4:23­24 informs us that true worshipers of God must worship the Father in spirit and truth. This is the only kind of worship which qualifies as acceptable worship of the true God.

Before we expand on the meaning of "spirit and truth" worship which is acceptable to God, let us talk briefly about worship that is not acceptable to God. There are several examples of unacceptable worship in the Old Testament. The worship of false gods was obviously unacceptable. We are referring here to the worship of the true God but worship which was offered in ways that were unacceptable. The first example is the unacceptable worship of Cain in Genesis 4. Cain's worship was unacceptable because he brought the wrong offering. Evidently God had communicated that acceptable worship was to be by means of sacrifice, because Hebrews 11 states that Abel's worship was by faith. Cain decided to bring an offering of his own choosing--and then was extremely angry when God wouldn't accept it! According to Jude 11 there are people today who "have gone the way of Cain." Their worship is unacceptable because, like Cain, they insist on bringing offerings of their own choice. Offering our own good works to God as a means of our salvation is an example of bringing the wrong offering to the Lord. This is unacceptable worship--regardless of how noble or sacrificial or religious those good deeds or actions may be.

In Leviticus 10 we read of Nadab and Abihu who had offered "strange fire before the Lord." As a result, the Scripture says that they "died before the Lord." Their worship was unacceptable because of wrong procedure. They either used fire that was from the wrong altar or they burned incense at the wrong time or in the wrong place or they did something else that was out of line with God's prescribed procedure of worship. Well, so what? Is God so narrow that He won't accept worship that is out of line with His set standards? That's right! This does not mean, however, that there can be no variety in our worship of God! Just as Old Testament believers had freedom within the restrictions that God had set up, so believers today have freedom of worship within limits. As long as our worship is Christ-centered and Christ-focused, there is considerable freedom in procedure. For example, God does not restrict the forms and instruments for our music or whether we sit, stand or kneel when we sing or pray. He does not define the time or length or schedule of our worship services. Whether it be individual or corporate worship, there is room for considerable variety in our worship. But worship that is not Christ-centered is "strange fire." It is unacceptable worship. The worship of Unitarians or Jehovah Witnesses, for example, is unacceptable to God because the doctrines of these groups deny the Deity of Christ. They thus dishonor the very One who must be the focus of our worship.

Uzziah was one of the good kings of Judah. But Uzziah's worship in 2 Chronicles 26 was unacceptable because he assumed the wrong role. Uzziah went into the Temple and offered incense before the Lord. According to the Law, only priests were allowed to enter the Temple, and Uzziah was not a priest. Even though he was the King of Judah, he usurped the God-given role of a priest and his worship was unacceptable. Uzziah's motives were probably not evil but he was judged severely because, as king, he should have known better. Assuming a role that is not God-given is just as serious today as it was in Uzziah's day. The creation of roles which are extra-biblical does not receive God's stamp of approval. 1 Peter 3:5 tells us that all Christians, as "a holy priesthood, should offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God." Making distinctions between clergy and laity in the offering of worship is not implied in the New Testament. Drawing dividing lines in the "holy priesthood" (which includes all believers) is as serious a mistake as the sin of well-intentioned Uzziah.

Acceptable worship before God today has three characteristics, according to what the Lord Jesus said in John 4:23-24. First of all, we should recognize and enjoy the Father-child relationship. "An hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father..." (v23). The concept of God as our personal Father was not revealed in the Old Testament, although God did reveal Himself as Father in the sense of the Creator and Preserver of His people, Israel. (See Malachi 2:10, for example.) With the coming of the Lord Jesus, however, the intimate relationship that is possible between God and the believer of any nationality was revealed and established. What a position and privilege we have as the children of God! Do we recognize and enjoy this relationship with our heavenly Father? True worshipers do. To visualize God as impersonal and distant is not a characteristic of acceptable worship. Let us work at realizing and recognizing the intimate personal presence of our heavenly Father. We can bring great joy to our Father by being the kind of worshipers He is looking for!

A second characteristic of worship which is acceptable to God is worship that is "in spirit." This worship is not limited by certain selected locations or by outward forms and ceremonies or by material aids to worship. Does this mean that for acceptable worship to take place, we must do away with church buildings and stained glass windows and organs and liturgies? No, but it does mean that true worship should not depend on these "helps" and should certainly not be defined by them. True worship is simply the acknowledgment of who God is and what God does. It is a response made by God's people and addressed to God Himself. The lives of all Christians should be characterized by true worship, every day and in every situation! Because God is spirit (v24), true worship must be in the sphere of the spirit. In the context of the conversation with the Samaritan woman, Jesus put the inner sphere of the spirit in contrast with the external geographical locations of Jerusalem, where the Jews worshiped in accordance with the Law, and Mount Gerizim, where the Samaritans worshiped according to their traditions (vs21-22). With the coming of Christ and His sending of the Holy Spirit to indwell the hearts of believers, the focus of true worship would be the hearts of believers located anywhere in the world. It is important to notice, however, that although "in spirit" worship is from the heart, it is not characterized merely by emotional feelings. "In spirit" worship is characterized by actions, thoughts, attitudes and desires of hearts that have been made alive by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Is your worship of God "in spirit"--every day and everywhere?

Finally, acceptable worship unto God must be "in truth." That is, it must be in accordance with what God has revealed to be truth. False worship is not only worship of false gods. It can actually be worship of the true God that is offered in ways that are out of line with the truth of God's revealed Word. It doesn't matter how sincere one is! If worship is not "in truth", sincere worship is just as unacceptable as insincere worship. Remember our Old Testament examples. They were all seeking to worship the true God and they were all sincere, but they offered up unacceptable worship because it was not done "in truth." The Samaritan woman of John 4 came from a community of sincere worshipers. The Samaritans were not hedonistic pagans. They were sincere religious people who had the Scriptures which Moses had written. They were seeking to follow the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But their worship on Mount Gerizim included a number of unscriptural additions! The Lord Jesus said that the Samaritans didn't know what they worshiped (v22), because their worship was not in accordance with the revelation of God's truth! Is our worship of God "in truth?" Is it in line with the truth that God has presented in Scripture?

Obviously, "in truth" worship must be Christ-focused because He is the Truth--the ultimate revelation of God to man. To worship in truth further involves a thankful response to God that is scripturally intelligent. To thank the Father for dying for our sins, for example, is not intelligent worship because God the Father did not die on the cross. Jesus, God the Son, died for our sins. To praise the Lord Jesus for becoming Man at the great sacrificial cost of giving up some of His Deity is not "in truth" worship--no matter how emotional or spiritually "high" the worshiper becomes. The eternal Son of God did not cease being God in any way when He took on humanity at Bethlehem. Of course God looks at the motives of our hearts and can overlook our ignorant theological shortcomings as we are growing in the faith, but this does not take away from the fact that acceptable worship should be characterized by intelligent "in truth" worship, and we should strive to become more familiar with the Word of God so we will be able to worship "in truth."

God is overjoyed when we lift up our loving, grateful worship to Him. He is actively looking for worshipers. And He is seeking people who will worship Him as Father in spirit and in truth. We should ask ourselves, "Do I qualify as a true worshiper?"
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