The Heart of Worship (2): Content
Content is at the heart of worship. It is a sad thing to hear people in worship mindlessly repeat things. Most worship services will differ little from the chanting and frenzied episodes of oriental mysticism or African ‘spirit-ism’. Peter Masters of the Metropolitan Tabernacle writes, ‘If I am asked to define worship in one word, I would say “words”.’ Almost always in scripture when we see people in worship, we read words like, ‘They sang to the Lord saying…’. That is to say, the music carried content, it never was an end but a means to an end, and that end is content. The one who is engaged in true worship is always saying something. I use the word ‘say’ to mean logical, coherent speech which intends to pass on a message. It is never to be supposed that the piano, guitar and all sorts of inanimate instruments can worship the Lord. Scripture says, ‘Let everything that has breathe praise the Lord’ (Psalm 150:6). In the New Testament we are urged to sing to one another and to the Lord (Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19). Take note of the need to consciously address one another while we sing. It cannot be mindless repetition, or frenzied gyration which takes one to a trance in which one is lost to all sensibilities and therefore fails in ‘speaking to one another’ (Col 3:16).
But the question lingers: ‘Are people not saying something when they say anything in worship?’ This brings us to what I might call the content of content. One might say one or two things endlessly in singing, and such a one might also contend that such is their content.
Logical, Reasonable, and Coherent
The worshiper, in considering the matter of content, must satisfy himself that the content of worship is logical, that it stands to reason to the average person. Take the illustration of a choir selected to perform before the President of the Republic. In supposedly heaping praises on the President, the choir chooses to repeat his name like this ‘Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta, Uhuru Muigai Kenyattaaaaaaa….Uhuru Muigai Kenyataa….Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta. We love you, we love you, we love you. Uhuru Muigai we love you.’ They go back on that chorus again and again. You see no right thinking choir seeking to please the President will do that. It is expected that there will be logic to that music. It must be reasonable and it must also be coherent. It is sad that our great God is treated quite often to this unreasonable, illogical and incoherent sort of worship.
Christ warned his people against babbling and vain repetition: ‘And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words’ (Matthew 6:7).
The preacher warned against having too many words before the Lord (Ecclesiastes 5:2). Rather, Hebrews tells us to be fearful in the presence of God, for our God is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29). The Lord Christ said, ‘Those who worship Him must worship Him in Spirit and in Truth’ (John 4:24). You are not forced to worship God, but if you do, there is an imperative laid on you, you must do so not only in Spirit but in Truth. At the heart of worship is Truth, the word of God is Truth. The worshiper must say something true and they must say something intelligent. I mean that the worship he offers must say something true about God and the truth they say about God must be intelligible. Those two attributes inform the content of worship, and content of worship is the heart of worship.
An Important Shift Between the Testaments
I often hear people press the argument of 2 Timothy 3:16, ‘All scripture is breathed by God…,’ to insist on what is basically an Old Testament expression of worship as instructive for the New Testament person. They fail to see the discernible shift which is so conspicuous between the Testaments as regarding the matter of worship. It is part of the inspired record that people brought animal sacrifice before the Lord in the Old Testament. But it is equally true that In the New Testament we no longer see people drag these animals to offer before God. There has been a shift.
I think that as you read the Old Testament and come to the New Testament you will see this shift also as regards worship. In the Old Testament you will discern that worship said true things about God in the realm of His attributes. It praised God for His attributes like mercy, love, justice and things like that. The manifestations of God were in response to physical situations which had spiritual implications in the coming age. C.H. Spurgeon contrasted the Testaments in these words: ‘The covenant of prosperity versus the covenant of adversity.’ What Spurgeon was suggesting is the stark distinctions you see between those two dispensations. Any student of theology will tell you the difference between the type and antitype, the promise in the Old Testament and the fulfillment in the New. The Old used physical types like deliverance from actual physical enemies to speak of a future deliverance from a more deadly enemy of a spiritual nature. It is extremely vital to grasp this organic shift if we shall properly set the New Testament worship in its distinctive and proper context.
The shift we are referring to has respect to two basic aspects:
Firstly, the shift happened with regard to the type meeting its antitype. In the same manner that such things as animal sacrifice, have its antitype in the person and accomplishment of Christ Jesus, so also the content of worship (considered as types, namely the physical blessings of God to his people) met their antitype in the spiritual blessings accruing from what Christ has purchased for His people. If the argument holds, as I think it should, that the New Testament community of the redeemed is the spiritual fulfillment of Israel of the Old, then it must equally hold true that the spiritual blessedness of the New Testament church is the antitype or fulfillment of the physical blessedness of physical Israel. By reason of this parallel, and staying true to its consequential implications, it follows that if the content of worship in the Old Testament drew from their physical blessedness, then the content of worship in the New must similarly draw from our spiritual blessedness.
The Old Testament worship celebrated those attributes of God which in redemptive history pointed further into the future to what God in the exercise of those attributes will do in the person and work of the Messiah (I Peter 1:11). God has not changed, He never changes, nor have His attributes changed. What has changed however is the application and implications of those attributes. What I am saying therefore is that worship in the New Testament celebrates those truths as they have been realized in Christ and His work of redemption. This has become the content of the New Testament worship. To use a bit of technical language, worship in the New Testament is firmly Christological and soteriological. It is centered on the Person and work of Christ.
Secondly, the shift has happened not just with the content of worship, but also with respect to the place of worship. I do not merely mean temples and buildings in the Old Testament but the whole domicile of worship having shifted from physical expressions (dance, clap and such), instrumentation (in their varied types) to more internal expressions. In short we are saying worship in the Old Testament is based heavily around physical expressions, while in the New Testament the emphasis shifts to internal motions.
This shift in what I call the domicile of worship is best captured by our Savior’s words to the woman of Samaria in John 4:23. The Lord says the time is coming and now is when true worshipers would worship God not on some mountain or some physical temple, but ‘in Spirit and in Truth.’ In Spirit may mean aided by the Holy Spirit or that which is done in the heart or even both (as I suppose is most likely). The point is nevertheless inescapable, worship in the New Testament has little to do with external expressions and more to do with internal motions. It is this shift which accounts for almost zero citation of musical instruments in the New Testament worship, notwithstanding that such is very dominant in the Old order. This is not a comment on the validity or otherwise on the use of musical instruments in New Testament worship. It is however an invitation to make that observation as a moderating factor in our expression of worship in the New Testament.
So whatever our views of worship are, whether we allow musical instruments or not, whether we allow certain expressions or generally shun them, we must never ignore those four Biblical realities surrounding the matter of worship discussed this far. Whatever we bring to and in worship must carry (1) the stamp of God’s authorization, (2) the necessity of logical, reasonable and coherent content, (3) the content of that content being Christ and his work of redemption and then (4) the obvious shift in the expression and domicile of worship.
These Principles Were Evident in the Practice of the New Testament Community
The first church which the Holy Spirit constitutes in the New Testament is heard in their new gift of supernatural utterance, ‘declaring the mighty works of God’ (Acts 2:11), most probably a reference to the great things just accomplished by Jesus Christ in the preceding few days, crowned by that dramatic resurrection from the dead. Peter, in chapter 3, expounds at length the works God had done through Christ. Again in Acts 4, when they gather after the persecution of the Sanhedrin, the prayer is thoroughly Christological and Soteriological. In Acts 10, Peter, addressing the gathering of the gentiles in the house of Cornelius, expounds the great works of God in Christ Jesus. This is the pattern which is picked up and carried on throughout the New Testament record.
We scarcely need to flog this horse any further, seeing it is already dead, but let us reiterate that one will struggle to see musical instruments anywhere in the gathering of the New Testament community. The apostolic teaching and practice, both in the record of Acts and the precepts they propound in the epistles are loudly silent on any instrumentation or shouting in God’s worship. Contrary to the common way of worship in our day, reason and sobriety is urged in worship (I Corinthians 14:15, Matthew 6:9). It is quite instructive that in the New Testament worship is not only for the glory of God but also for the edification of His people. When we especially speak in music and melody, we are urged to make sure we are ‘addressing one another’ (Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16).The whole discussion in 1 Corinthians 12-14, though in the context of spiritual gifts and their use, is nevertheless on addressing the function of public worship and the refrain and conclusion is order and mutual edification (14:40).
Here is the Sum of All Matters
The content of New Testament worship is redemption in Christ. It does not center on temporal benefits God may have given or is expected to give. Felt needs do not form the integral part of New Testament worship. Survey the New Testament record and you will undoubtedly find this to be true.
To the regenerate heart in which resides the heart of worship, Christ our Savior is the Truth to be said in worship. He is the living word which informs and animates the heart of worship. To do otherwise or less than this is to denigrate true worship. Christ earns His rightful place at the heart of worship not merely by divine decree which has time and again said to the Son of God, ‘Thy throne O God is forever’ (Hebrews 1:8), but also by the way of redemption through humiliation, so it is declared, ‘God hath highly exalted Him and given Him a name that is above all names…’ (Philippians 2:6-11).
One More Critical Point
It is easy to discern a regenerate man from one still in the flesh by observing the content of his worship. A heart of stone, one not touched by divine grace, notwithstanding its religious pretensions, will plead physical blessings and rejoice over the fat of the land. By this they reveal who they truly are — children of this world. This is what Jesus says: ‘From the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks’ (Matthew 12:14). If what comes out of your mouth is always this and that physical blessing, wealth, bodily healing and such felt needs, you show the true state of your heart, a heart attached to the world and its things. This is truly why the present scourge of the Faith movement is disastrous to Biblical worship.
But a heart touched by grace despises the fleeting pleasures of this world. They love not the world nor the things of the world (I John 2:15). They are transfixed with beauties unbeknownst to this natural realm. They are those who declare plainly that they are strangers and pilgrims in search of a better country (Hebrews 11:13-16). Someone said that God gives the inferior temporal ‘blessings’ to others, but to His beloved children, He reserves the superior blessings, the eternal sort of blessings. God’s bona fide child knows the difference and he or she speaks accordingly in worship.
Jesus accuses the Jews of His day: ‘These people worship me with their mouths, but their hearts are so far away from me’ (Matthew 15:8). This charge may be true for many who fancy themselves worshipers of God. May our hearts be brought near, may we come to the true heart of worship, where it is all about Jesus. This can only happen if and when we are genuinely and efficaciously touched by divine grace and born again. With a new heart and new appetites we may then worship God in conformity with the New Testament shift — in Spirit and in Truth.
Elly Achok serves alongside other elders at Gospel Missions Agency Church, Kenya. He is also Principal of Wisdom Training Centre Schools of Theology and Ministry in Kenya. Elly has a passion for the Reformed Faith and the recovery of the authentic gospel in Kenya and Africa.