One of the key themes in the Old Testament, and really all of Scripture, is worship. It is useless to read of who God is and what He has done, is doing, or will do, if it does not lead us to worship.
Beginning in the book of Genesis, worship is central as the God WHO creates reveals that He is worthy of worship, and then that this same God has determined HOW He will be worshiped by His creation. Adam and Eve’s failure in the Garden was primarily a failure of proper worship. In Genesis 2, Adam was instructed to “work” and “keep” the Garden, both words in the Hebrew conveying the priestly functions of “minister” and “guard” (see Num. 3:7-8). A priest, as we know, was given charge to mediate the worship of God.
Fast Forward some 2500+ years, to the infant stages in Israel’s history, and again we see the centrality of worship (Exodus 32:1-6). As Moses ascended Mt. Sinai to receive the Law of God, including regulations for worship, the people had given themselves over to the folly of will-worship. Here, the principle offender is Aaron, who leads the people into this false system of man-made worship. Aaron’s construction of the golden calf was bad enough, but he went a step further in declaring that this lifeless idol was the god who had delivered Israel from Egypt, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” Ex. 32:4 Not satisfied with the violation of the newly minted First, Second , and Third Commandments, Aaron next instituted an unsanctioned day and feast, accompanied by sacrifices, to this graven image. As would be expected, this unapproved worship provoked the wrath of God.
Fast forward again, around 400-500 years later, to a time when the nation of Israel was fracturing into two kingdoms, the North – called Israel, with its capital in Samaria, and the South – called Judah, with its capital and original center of worship remaining in Jerusalem. In the North, comprised of 10 Israelite tribes (excluding Judah and Benjamin), Jeroboam is made king and almost immediately constitutes unsanctioned, man-made worship (see 1 Kings 12:19-33). Echoing the scene described above from Exodus, Jeroboam fashions golden calves to prevent the Northern Kingdom from turning, “back to the house of David” by rightfully sacrificing at the temple, as God had commanded.
“‘You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.’ And he set one in Bethel, and the other he put in Dan.” 1 Kings 12:28
Jeroboam, following in the footsteps of Aaron, created a worship of his own to replace that which God had ordained. “He also made temples on high places and appointed priests from among all the people, who were not of the Levites. And Jeroboam appointed a feast on the fifteenth day of the eighth month like the feast that was in Judah, and he offered sacrifices on the altar.” 1 Kings 12:31-32
This scene of Jeroboam’s own folly of will-worship is perhaps best summarized by the statement, “that he had devised in his own heart.” Jeroboam set the course for decades of idolatrous worship in Israel. Collectively, their failure to repent and turn from Jeroboam’s folly eventually led to their exile and ultimately their destruction. Their exile was the punishment of a failure to worship God as He had commanded.
“21 When he had torn Israel from the house of David, they made Jeroboam the son of Nebat king. And Jeroboam drove Israel from following the Lord and made them commit great sin. 22 The people of Israel walked in all the sins that Jeroboam did. They did not depart from them, 23 until the Lord removed Israel out of his sight, as he had spoken by all his servants the prophets. So Israel was exiled from their own land to Assyria until this day.” 2 Kings 17:21-23
Bringing this theme of worship to the New Testament, in Colossians 2:23, the King James Version translates the Greek word ethelothreskia (e-the-lo-thra-ske’-ä) as “will-worship.” According to Thayer’s lexicon, this word is defined as, “worship which one devises and prescribes for himself, contrary to the contents and nature of the faith which ought to be directed to Christ”. This definition describes perfectly the examples shown above where will-worship was imposed upon the worship that God had commanded. While Colossians has little to do with golden calves and worship on high places, nevertheless, it is concerned with worship, specifically false, man-made worship.
In Colossians 2, we read of 4 specific warnings regarding worship, before the Apostle arrives at his concluding statement against “will-worship”. The first occurs in 2:4 and warns of the dangers and influence of human wisdom. Next, in 2:8, we read that believers, Colossae in particularly, should be on guard against the influence and practices of human tradition. Third, in 2:16 the Apostle reaches a summary point, therefore, and exhorts believers to guard against human opinion. Finally, in 2:18, he warns against the dangerous influence of human experience. Each of these four warnings apply specifically to the context of worship, or perhaps more accurately when believers gather together. Just like for Colossae they are warnings for us to guard against these influences in our own gatherings.
It’s often easy to see that God regulated His worship in the Old Testament, specifically through the giving of the law. It’s therefore no surprise to read of the consequences that God levied against those who profess to be His people when they violated his commands for worship. However, sometimes when we arrive at the New Testament, we are guilty of forgetting that this same God continues to take His worship seriously. Everything that we do must be regulated by the Word of God, otherwise, we will fall prey to human wisdom, human tradition, human opinion, and/or, human experience.
Will God’s wrath against will-worship be provoked any less today than it was in the days of Aaron or Jeroboam?
Lest we be quick to dismiss this, let us be reminded that this letter with warnings for the Colossians was to be shared with the church at Laodicea (see Colossians 4:16; 2:1), the same Laodicea of the strongest warning given by our Lord in Revelation 3:14-22. Clearly then, God’s concern for right worship has not waned one iota.
Though a topic for another day, the Apostle concludes his section on worship in his letter to Colossae with a positive command for when believer’s gather
“16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Colossians 3:16-17