The Folly of Will Worship

 

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

 

 

A Snippet of the Radical Reformation

 

In the last decade or so there has been a resurgence of what is traditionally known as reformed theology.  Defining this can be a bit tricky.  Some, perhaps most, simply conclude that reformed theology is defined by the doctrines of grace, i.e. total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints.  Others however, hold that this is just the beginning and that to be truly called reformed includes so much more, beginning with holding to one of the historic confessions of faith, i.e. Westminster Confession of Faith or the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith.  This has led to splintering within the movement into at least two groups (and probably more), the “Neo-Reformed” and the historic or confessional reformed.

Regardless of which camp one finds themselves, my fear is that both groups are subject to ignorance of historical theology.  By that I mean that they embrace the tradition of the Reformers without understanding what it is that they were doing, including both what they did right AND what they did wrong.  When this happens, the Reformation is skewed and takes on mythological characteristics, while Reformers, such as Martin Luther, become cartoonish super heroes.  To begin to understand the Reformation, one must understand the term sacralism as well as the relationship between church and state.  Additional terms to reckon with would be: the definition of a magisterial reformer (hint: it doesn’t mean majestic),  the Radical Reformation and its “Reformers”, and the Anabaptist movement, which has been unfairly labeled a wholesale heretical movement.

A good start for unpacking this history is The Reformers and their Stepchildren, by Leonard Verduin, who because of his own emphasis on the error of sacralism and its trappings has been called a revisionist and accused of being historically biased.  This seems to be an unfair assessment and an uncharitable reading of his material.

In the video below, Dr. James White provides a brief glimpse into this alternate, or we might say ignored, view of Reformation history as he stands at the “prison” site of  Fritz Erbe, who was placed in a deep hole for refusing to baptize his children from 1540 until his death in 1548.  His total imprisonment lasted more than 15 years, again the crime was refusing to baptize his infant children.

The site of his dungeon imprisonment?

Wartburg Castle.

The same Wartburg Castle where 10 years earlier Martin Luther was given refuge from the persecution of the Roman Catholic Church.  The same Wartburg Castle where Luther translated the Scriptures into German.  Think about this for a moment and let it revise your own understanding of the Reformation.

As White points out, the translation of the Scriptures by Luther into the modern vernacular happened just a few yards from where Erbe was tortured and left to rot in a deep dark hole.  Erbe read and applied these same Scriptures.  Yet here we have self-professing Christians who were willing to imprison and torture another self-professing Christian simply because he refused to baptize (and rightly so) his children.  This is the danger of sacralism and it is shear ignorance to think that its effects are not among us today.  The Reformation certainly had positive effects, namely its break from the Roman Catholic Church.  However, the Protestant divorce from the RCC only led to an unholy affair with the State, and the State, as we know, wields the sword.  In one sense, it was out of the frying pan and into the fire for the “church”.  Erbe’s story is only the tip of the iceberg of the torture and persecution that professing believers faced at the hands of other professing believers for simply standing up for their beliefs of the Scriptures.

HT: The Voice of One Crying in the Wilderness

Of Right Eyes and Right Hands

 

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell. Matthew 5:27-30

In the passage cited above, our context is the opening chapter of what is commonly referred to as the Sermon on the Mount.  Here, our Lord is instructing His disciples (the Twelve; see verse 1) by correcting the faulty teaching of the Jewish religious leaders concerning the law.  To this, He adds several points of interpretation and application of the Law of God.  It’s important to understand that Jesus is neither changing the law, nor is He reinterpreting it, as some have asserted.  He is, however, restating the law and providing much needed clarification to the original meaning and intentions behind the law as opposed to the erroneous teachings of the law by the Scribes and Pharisees.  Their focus on external (Matt. 23:26) deeds had created a culture of legalism.  Jesus’ exposition exposes these errors and provides for us a clear understanding of how the law is to be applied.  Additionally, we must note that in His exposition on the law, our Lord is not abolishing the Law, rather He fulfills and upholds (see vs. 5:17-20).

His first point of explanation concerns murder and while the physical act is certainly in view (6th Commandment), the spirit of the law indicates that anger in the heart towards a brother is worthy of equal judgment in the eyes of God.  Despite so many thinking that Christ has added or reinterpreted the law, His explanation is precisely what the law teaches.  The 10th Commandment, Exodus 20:17, states, “You shall not covet….”  One cannot covet by external actions; instead this is an act purely motivated by sinful desires of the heart and should’ve clued the religious leaders to the “heart” of the law.

Moving to the next section of the sermon, we arrive at our passage cited above, where our Lord turns His attention towards adultery, with a specific application of lust.  Here we see the 7th Commandment in view, as Jesus applies it directly to the heart and the intentions of men.  Just as the act of physical adultery is worthy of punishment in the eyes of God for violating His law, so too is adultery of the heart, or lustful intentions of the heart.  The error of the Jewish religious leaders was to strictly interpret this commandment to apply only to the married (adultery) and then only to the physical act.  In viewing this in such a strict manner, it actually created a liberal application and opened the avenue for unbridled fornication.

Within the same passage, we have what might be summarized as The Principle of Elimination.  It’s an extreme illustration of how to deal with those members that offend, presumably as it relates to lust (remember the context).  The first offending member is the right eye.  With the eye, we are told that should it offend, or lead the rest of the body into sin, eliminate it by plucking it out.  Clearly this is meant to imply that the eye is the window or the avenue through which objects of lust enter.  By plucking it out, the avenue for this access is eliminated.

Next, the right hand.  Should it offend, or act out in sin, eliminate it by cutting it off.  The implication here may be broad, but certainly it includes any physical manifestation of lustful intentions that the hand (or actions) might bring about.  In order to avoid this, Jesus says the offending member should be cut off.  Each instance of elimination is summarized with the following statement, “For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.”  In summary, should gangrene (sin) infect the hand, cut it off before it spreads to the rest of the body.

While it’s important to understand that Jesus isn’t instructing his disciples, or by extension those who read His words today, to run home and begin plucking out their eyes and cutting off their hands, we needn’t dismiss the seriousness and extremeness of this language.  Given our Lord’s previous words, that both murder and adultery are matters of the heart and not just physical actions, we know restraint should be exercised before we go plucking eyes and sawing off hands.  This was the error of Jews, Origen, and many of those who enlisted in the ranks of the monastery, each of whom engaged in some form of self-flagellation.

However, if we consider that Jesus’s focus is on the heart, what do we make of this figurative language that focuses on the physical body, i.e. offending members?

First, we shouldn’t neuter the passage of its shocking implications.  Jesus is being extreme for the purpose of saving our souls at the expense of our bodies, that point should not be missed.  Aside from actually maiming our bodies, which would still leave an active and sinful heart, I do think that there is a principle of elimination at work here, as we previously mentioned.  This principle states that if something is causing us to sin, we should radically eliminate it, stopping short of physical harm to ourselves or others.  Yes, this still leaves a heart whose desires need changed, but it also removes opportunities to feed the flesh and opportunities to act out desires of the flesh.

In Romans 13:14 we read, “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”  This idea of provision here refers to plans, accommodations, etc.  It is these avenues or opportunities for sin that I’m suggesting our Lord has in mind for us to eliminate, i.e. to cut off.  Meanwhile there is work to be done, heart work, and that work is not completed by removing temptations or opportunities to sin from our lives.  That work is completed by the ongoing sanctification of the Holy Spirit to purify the heart, change desires, and set a course of passionate pursuit for the Almighty God.

It is with Him that we must plead for our hearts to change; that the Lord would, “create in us a clean heart” Psalm 51:10; that He would continue to work in us, “both to will and to work and to do His good pleasure” Philippians 2:13; that “He who began a good would bring it to completion” Philippians 1:6.

What avenues in your life need radically eliminated?  This may look different for each person, but if there are specific areas that are causing you to sin or be tempted to sin, don’t wait.  Cut. them. off.

Then seek the Lord pleading for Him to continue to purify and cleanse your heart of idols.

Soli Deo Gloria