“Oh come, let us worship and bow down; Let us kneel before the LORD our Maker.”
The impulse to discover and worship something greater than ourselves is embedded in the human nature. It’s apparent in this psalm that King David was inclined in this way, and so also is the rest of the human race. Essentially every culture of every age has had at its core some kind of religious tradition whereby they venerate the supernatural powers of the universe. These religious rituals are all very different and the objects of their worship hardly ever the same, yet there is undeniably a common compulsion to seek and serve the supernal.
The Origin of Religion
The presence of a religious inclination pervading all people is no evolutionary accident. The Scriptures explain that the desire to pursue the supernatural is imbued by God himself. The Gentiles never received the written laws of God as did the Jews; however, some of them still faithfully performed the works of the law. How so? Paul explains in Romans 2:14-15: “When Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves, who show the work of the law written in their hearts…”
God is like nothing else in the natural world but still somehow we know him and know we want to serve him. This intuition is written in our collective human conscience but also in the creation. Romans 1:20: “For since the creation of the world [God’s] invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead…” In fact, the presence of God is so apparent that those choosing not to worship him as God are, according to the same passage, “without excuse”.
The impulse to worship is natural, but without divine intervention our knowhow on worship is at best incomplete. Our inherent knowledge of God and godliness will direct us towards the divine, but it will not prevent from perverting the true nature of true worship. Religious motivation without biblical education is the root of pagan worship. In Romans 1:21-25 the Apostle Paul explains: “Although they knew God [that is, the Gentiles], they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23 and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man–and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things. 24 Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, 25 who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.” For these Gentiles, the result of unguided religious fervor was idolatry and paganism. Rather than worshipping the Creator they worshipped the created. Rather than pursuing God in holiness and humility they believed that by mutilating their bodies and gratifying themselves they might also gratify their gods.
In Acts 17 Paul approaches a group of Greek idolaters and points out more problems of pagan worship. Even if they had known the true God, Paul explains that their worship was not the kind of worship that God desires. Acts 17:24: “God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands.” God is not glorified by buildings and temples. No matter how magnificent, his greatness does not dwell in physical structures nor is he worshipped by them. Acts 17:25: “Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things.” God is not worshipped (or served) by the work of our hands. He is not served by inventions of the human mind or by the creations of our physical labors (like idols and instruments). Paul was teaching these pagans the same thing that Jesus taught the Samaritan women at the well. John 4:23-24: “But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. 24 God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” True worshippers approach God on God’s terms, setting aside any preconceptions and seeking to serve the Lord in spirit and in truth.
The errors of these idolaters are clear: 1) They worshipped only with instinct and not with knowledge, 2) Their worship was designed to please themselves not God, and 3) They believed that any worship was good worship.
Unfortunately, the errors of these pagans did not die with idolatry. Some Christians today still attempt to worship God instinctively, without consulting the Bible’s instructions on worship. Some Christians today still believe that if they feel good about their worship God must also be pleased with their worship. Some Christians today still believe that worship can be whatever we want it to be and that whatever way we choose is glorifying to God. Do we want to worship God like pagan’s worshipped their idols?
The New Testament Scriptures speak clearly about the nature of Christian worship and how it should differ from that of the Jews, idolaters, and surrounding religious influences. The Church in Galatia is one example of a community of Christians chastised for attempting to approach God by some means other than the ways of worship defined for Christians. Paul says in his letter to the Galatians, “I testify again to every man who becomes circumcised that he is a debtor to keep the whole law. 4 You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace” (Galatians 5:3-4). The assumption among the Galatians was that God’s grace could be accessed through the worship and sacraments of the Old Testament law, namely, circumcision. According to Paul, such a supposition is so opposed to the basic tenants of the gospel that one attempting to approach God in this way actually severs himself from God. When the Savior died on the cross the Law of Moses died with him (Colossians 2:14) and Jesus Christ became the only avenue to the God. Worship through Christ is fruitful only as it reflects the means of worship described in the New Testament scriptures.
How is this issue infecting churches today? Like the Jews and Greeks, many modern Christian denominations have a habit of supplementing the biblical pattern of worship with more progressive and stimulating styles of worship. Rather than embracing the simplicity in the New Testament way of worship, churches digress to the old patterns in paganism and the Mosaic Law using instrumental music, ornamental priestly vestures, incense, and other practices omitted from the New Covenant. Like Paul explains, such practices were “a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ” (Colossians2:17). No measure of enthusiasm can justify illegitimate worship. God must be approached on God’s terms.
So how do you worship? Do you worship like the pagans and Judaizers with instruments and incense, or do you following the commands of Hebrews 13:15 offering “the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name”? Do you worship him only in church assemblies, or at all times do you “present your [body] a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God”? (Romans 12:1) Do you worship only God, or do you follow the pattern of the pagans and worship angels and others as well? (Colossians 2:18) And most importantly, do you worship God with what he desires or with what you desire?
I look forward to your comments and questions.
I am a member of the Riverside Road Church of Christ in Ozark, MO, where I share the responsibility of teaching and preaching with several other men. In my secular work, I am a professor at Cox College in Springfield, MO, in the department of radiologic sciences and imaging.