Genuine Worship

When is the last time you read through Malachi, the short book at the end of the Old Testament? If it has been a while, or if you have not pondered what Malachi’s prophecy is really all about and how it applies to Christians today as well, let me encourage you to read it, meditate on it and examine your heart and life in its light. I trust that this will serve as an introduction to what Malachi is getting at in those four chapters.

Malachi begins with an emphasis on the greatness of God as seen in His love for His people. The people, however, question that love. When God says, in verse 2, “I have loved you,” that indicates that He had loved them in the past and He still loved them now. The people, incredibly, asked, “How have you loved us?” When the Israelites questioned His love for them, God reminded them that He chose their forefather Jacob and his descendants–not Esau and his descendants–to be His servant-people. The Israelites’ faith, however, had given way to doubt and skepticism. They were ignoring God’s commands. They were neglecting worship or they were offering unacceptable sacrifices when they did go to the temple.

Now let me ask you, how often do we question God’s love today when we face hardships? This is the “what have you done for me lately?” attitude.

The priests were the first to be accused of abandoning God. God said, through Malachi, that they despised His name. They did not give Him the respect He deserved. They did not even act in the way that a good child or servant would act toward a father or master. A faithful son honors his father, but the priests were not honoring their heavenly Father. A faithful servant has reverent respect for his master, but the priests despised the name of the Lord.

Beginning in verse 7, God points to the defiled food they were offering on the altar to Him—-food they never would have offered their governor. These actions reveal an attitude of contempt toward God and they dishonor His greatness and holiness. By bringing lame, blind and sick animals to the priests to be offered to God, the people were revealing exactly how much God mattered to them. In Leviticus 22, God declared that the sacrificial animals were to be perfect, not sick or deficient in any way. Yet the people were bringing inferior animals—-the ones that were leftover or rejected and for which they had no other use-—and thinking that would be sufficient. Really this is mocking God! And the priests were just as bad, because they had the nerve to ask for God’s favor on those sacrifices!

What are we expressing about our love for God if we do not give Him our best? Sadly, many who profess Christianity today are the same way. They give God their leftovers-—whatever is easy or convenient or painless or superfluous. After all of their bills are paid and they have done all the things they want to do, if there is some money left over they might give God some. If there is nothing else going on on Sunday morning that they would rather do they might go to church. This is not what God deserves, expects or requires. Instead, we are to honor God and His greatness by offering Him the very best of our time, energy, talent, service and resources. The quality of our offerings will reveal the intent of our heart, and that is what God cares about and wants-—our hearts. God does not need our money, our time, our talents or anything else we could possibly give Him. And God is not really concerned with the quantity of our gifts. This is what Jesus was teaching His followers in the case of the widow’s mite.

In Luke 21:1-4, Jesus said, “these”—-the rich, who were putting in exponentially more money than the widow put in-—were giving out of their abundance. In other words, what they were giving did not cost them anything. There was no sacrifice involved. The widow, on the other hand, gave all that she had, which demonstrates two important things. First, her love for God exceeded everything else in her life; He was the most important thing to her. Second, she trusted that God would provide for her needs. Too often our temptation is to think of the expenses we have, all the things we need to do, and rationalize that if we give God a tithe, or more, then we will not have what we need to meet our obligations. The widow demonstrated that she trusted God. Now does this mean that we should all give everything that we have to the Lord? When I get my next paycheck should I sign the entire thing over to the church? No. There is such a thing as being foolish and prevailing upon God—-testing Him, really—-and that is a sin, too.

In Malachi 1:12, after declaring that His name would be exalted in the sacrifices of sincere believers in the future, God told the Israelites that they were profaning His name through their attitudes toward the required temple sacrifices. To profane something means to treat it as insignificant. God is holy; to treat Him as insignificant demonstrates contempt and extreme arrogance. The people were scorning the sacrifices, treating them as contemptible. They did not see any need to follow God’s instructions or to bring anything special for their offerings. They believed that offering any animal was fine as long as they offered one. They went beyond that, though, and even expressed doubts about the validity or need for the entire sacrificial system. The people either no longer believed in the system or they were so far from God that they did not even care. When God said to them that they were treating the process as a nuisance He uses a word that basically meant “a whole lot of trouble for nothing.” The people were just going through the motions; they had no conviction about what they were doing. Their heart was not in it. They were completing an activity purely out of habit. It was an empty ritual to them.

This will probably remind you of Genesis 4 when Cain and Abel brought their sacrifices to God. Abel brought what God required. Cain, however, did his own thing, thinking that should be good enough. It tells us that for Cain’s offering God had no regard, and that should be a lesson to us, as well.

Now in chapter 2, verses 1-9, God announced that He was turning from the people and bringing His curse on them. Not only were the people mocking God through their sacrifices, they were not honoring Him in their lives. They were marrying pagan wives and husbands who worshiped idols. Verse 1 reveals that the priests’ actions demonstrated contempt for God, for His temple and the entire sacrificial system. So God says, in verse 2, that He is going to curse them. Verse 8 tells us that they had turned away from God and what He had prescribed for them. We addressed much of this already in chapter 1. Now in verses 10-12, Malachi turns from addressing the priests to addressing the people. God called them to live honorable lives, fulfilling obligations to one another-—especially in their marriage relationships. The ESV uses the word “faithlessly” in verses 10 and following but the KJV and HCSB and some others use the word “treacherously.” That word occurs five times on verses 10-16 and its root meaning is “to cover” or “to act covertly.” The idea is acting falsely or deceitfully and trying to get away with it.

Verse 11 tells us that a detestable thing has been done. That is a strong word, meaning disgusting or loathsome. What had the people done? They had profaned the sanctuary of God by marrying daughters of a foreign God who worshiped pagan deities. When they came into the temple their presence defiled the temple. They were unclean. Even some of the priests were marrying unbelievers according to Ezra 9. Early in their history the Israelites had been instructed to marry within their own nation of worshipers because God wanted them to be uniquely His, not worshiping any other gods. God, through Malachi, was condemning marriages of Jews to idolaters or those outside of the Jewish faith, and the reason was purely to maintain religious purity. This had nothing to do with race or nationality. This was all about the relationship with God. This is akin to the New Testament instruction in 2 Corinthians 6 not to be unequally yoked with unbelievers. This is an important reminder of the necessity in choosing carefully ones spouse and of living a faithful and committed marriage. Later in this chapter it talks about husbands who were divorcing their wives so they could marry younger, pagan wives.

In an earlier post I addressed the topic of integrity in worship. That is the same thing here. God is telling the people that they cannot say they love Him and worship or live the way they are living. James 2:14 asks what good it is to say we have faith if we do not have works that demonstrate that faith. That is what Malachi is getting at here. The people of Jerusalem may have said they had faith, but they were not living it out. Their worship was ritualistic and hollow. Their lives were not demonstrating a sincere faith or even that they cared about how God wanted them to live. God is not interested in our professions. Neither is He interested in our hollow “acts of worship.” What He is interested in, what He wants, is our hearts. When our hearts are right with Him, our worship will automatically result. A heart that is right with God cannot help but worship Him.

The heart of worship

The music used in church worship services is a topic on which almost every Christian has an opinion, and the odds are pretty good that if you were to poll almost any group of Christians you would find a range of opinions and even convictions about what kinds of music should be used, what instruments should be used, how the music should be led and by whom, how loud the music should be, whether or not hymn books should be used or PowerPoint slides… The list of areas of possible contention is quite lengthy and certainly not exhausted here.

This is a topic I have thought about before, and one on which I certainly have my own opinions, but it is also one that I have been thinking about more lately. The CD player in my car died a while back, so any music in the car now comes via radio. Particularly when my children are in the car, that usually means a station that plays exclusively contemporary Christian music (because that is the station my kids want). While I appreciate some of the contemporary Christian music the station plays, I certainly do not like all of it. As with most radio stations, this one tends to play a relatively small number of songs over and over again. Beyond that, though, some of the songs make me feel almost anything but worshipful–like irritated, aggravated, agitated, frustrated… You get the idea. Some of them, in fact, are not at all what I would even consider “music.” But I digress…

Recently, as we were driving somewhere and this station was on, my wife looked at me, recognizing that I was not particularly fond of the selection airing at the moment, and asked, “Do you ever wonder what the worship in heaven will be like? Do you think we will all be surprised?” My wife generally shares my taste in Christian music, so she was not chiding me; rather, she was gently prompting me to consider whether or not I was allowing my own opinions and tastes to cloud my thinking or even to cause me to be judgmental. (I actually have no idea if any of that was her intention, but that was what struck me as I thought about it. I suppose I will find out if that is what she had in mind after she reads this!)

My thinking on this subject was stoked further as I was reading the preface to Douglas Bond’s book, The Poetic Wonder of Isaac Watts. Watts was an eighteenth-century hymn writer in England who wroye powerful hymns that are fmailiar to many Christians who grew up in church, most notably “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” Bond was making the point that the Church needs the “voice” of Watts in our worship services today. He first referenced the relative lack of depth in many contemporary lyrics, commenting this way on his experience in a worship service he had attended: “Try as I might, I could find little in the various lyrics that required any degree of thought about anything.” Bond went on, however, to explain that even when the words of Watts’ most famous hymn had been sung in a service he was attending, he was not at all moved, despite the fact that “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” had previously caused “the gospel of grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone [to become] irrevocably real” to him. What was different this time, then? Here is Bond’s explanation…

[T]here were many elements in that worship that distracted me from taking the words on my lips and into my heart as my own and singing them. The swaying worship leaders and all the paraphernalia of the indie-rock band filled the stage, and the volume was cranked up so loud that I was eventually forced to take my seven-year-old out of the place, his hands clamped tightly over his ears. I watched rather than sang because in this kind of entertainment venue, it matters little whether the congregation participates in the singing. It’s fine if they do, of course, but it makes no difference to what one hears. The emotive vocal reflections and the pinched facial contortions of the well-meaning worhsip leader are difficult for most of us to emulate, and the occasional unexpected repetition of lines or addition of improvised lyrics leaves one singing something other than what the worship leader is singing. Not to worry, no one will hear you anyway.

I agree wholheartedly with Bond. As a result of my recent pondering about the worship we will experience in heaven, though, I caught myself, and had to admit that some people–difficult though it is for me to fathom–may be perfectly capable of focusing their attention on the Lord and worhsipping Him in the midst of the loud and unpredicatble style of music being used. And maybe, just maybe, God likes that kind of music on occasion, too. Scripture assures us that He is a God of order, so I cannot believe that He enjoys it when the music devolves in a cacophony of chaos. Most importantly, though, what I will always agree with Bond about, is that God is not pleased by a show loosely disguised as worship. Bond used the term “entertainment venue,” and when what purports to be a worship service becomes more a show, with the focus on the leader(s) of the music, the lights, the volume, the choreography or gyrations of the guitarists and drummers and singers, God is not pleased nor honored. Quite simply, bottom line, if the focus is on anything other than God, He is not pleased. We could debate the particulars of that. For example, could one of the worship leaders be focused on God even if he or she does not come across that way to me? Or could one of the audience members be focused on God even if the worship leader is not? The answer to both questions is certainly yes, meaning that we cannot judge anyone else in any worship service. God, we must recall, looks at the heart, not at the external.

I still have my own thoughts about what is and is not appropriate in a worship service, you no doubt do too, and I am sure neither of us is likely to change that anytime soon. Yet I do not think that is really what matters. What we need to concern ourselves with is the focus of our own hearts…because that is exactly what God is concerned with, too.

Beware Appearances (Part 2)

Yesterday I looked at the danger of focusing on image enhancement at the church level, a concern raised by John MacArthur in a February Tabletalk article and by Sophia Lee in a December WORLD article. Today I want to address the danger of focusing on image at the personal level.

MacArthur writes, “Worst of all, this attitude is pervasive at the individual level. Far too many Christians live as if a pretense of righteousness were as good as the real thing.”

He goes on to point out that this was the major error of the Pharisees. So true is this, in fact, that the very words “Pharisee” or “pharisaical” are now used to describe someone who is far more concerned with the external than the internal. defines “pharisaical” this way: “practicing or advocating strict observance of external forms and ceremonies of religion or conduct without regard to the spirit; self-righteous; hypocritical.” Hypocrite is probably one of the most common synonyms for Pharisee in any contemporary vernacular. Not exactly anything to aspire to!

The Pharisees’ problem was that they had mastered the art of making, interpreting, creatively bending and then living by the rules. So hung up on rules were they that they greatly added to the Ten Commandments God gave Moses and generated lists of hundreds of rules. So hung up on rules were they that they condemned Jesus for healing someone on the Sabbath, condemned His disciples for grinding grain on the Sabbath when they plucked a few heads of grain with their hands while walking through a field. So hung up on rules were the Pharisees that they completely missed–indeed even denied–that Jesus was the Messiah because He did not fit their idea of what/who the Messiah should/would be.

MacArthur writes, “The Pharisees’ teaching placed so much emphasis on external appearances that it was commonly believed that evil thoughts were not really sinful as long as they did not become acts. The Pharisees and their followers became utterly preoccupied with appearing righteous.” Jesus, of course, turned that manner of thinking on its head, making clear that hating someone or lusting after someone is no different than murder or adultery. In other words, thoughts matter just as much as actions! No wonder the Pharisees hated Jesus; He challenged their entire religious system and made clear that all their rule-keeping was for naught.

Few, if any, of us have the same fastidious attention to countless rules that the Pharisees did. That does not mean at all, though, that we are not just as hung up on external appearances. How comfortable we can get carrying our Bibles to church every Sunday and bowing our heads before every meal, deluding ourselves into thinking that surely means we’re doing pretty good. God doesn’t look at that stuff, though; He is far more concerned with our hearts. He made it clear way back when Samuel was anointing a king for Israel that man looks at appearances but God looks at the heart.

What we do matters; do not take anything I am saying here to mean otherwise. James, of course, makes it crystal clear that our faith must be demonstrated by our works. But faith must precede works. The Pharisees saw no need for faith; works was their means to salvation. So we should carry our Bibles and go to church on Sunday, we should tithe and give offerings, we should show love and mercy in our interactions with others, but all of those things must flow out of a heart transformed by the realization that none of that will get us to heaven or earn us anything. We must also grasp that none of those things negate any “secret” sins of the heart and mind. No one else may see or no about them but God does, and He cares about them. They matter to Him.

In MacArthur’s words, the central lesson underscored by Jesus was this: “External appearance is not what matters most.” Let us not forget that.