There is a danger, of course, in a title like this, “How to Worship God,” that danger being pride–that I or anyone else should presume to tell others how to worship God. That danger is eliminated, however, when we let God tell us how to worship him–and he has, in his Word. To remove myself from danger, then, the following is a look at a single verse in that Word that says much about how we are to worship God.
That verse is found in the New Testament, but before looking at that verse, it is good to get a sense of how important this issue is to God. It is so important, in fact, that the Old Testament has some examples of extreme punishment from God on those who did not worship him properly.
“Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, contrary to his command. So fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord” (Lev. 10:1,2 NIV).
Death. That is certainly a pretty extreme danger for worshipping God in a wrong way. But, some might be saying, that is the Old Testament. It is different in the New. Oh, really? Remember Ananias and his wife Sapphira? They defiled their act of worshipping God with their offerings by lying to the Holy Spirit–and for this, they too were slain by God (Acts 5:1-11).
Then there is this sobering statement, also from the New Testament, regarding partaking of the Lord’s Supper or Communion:
“Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died” (1 Cor. 11:27-30 NIV).
So what does this mean? If we err in the way we worship God, will he kill us? Well, obviously it is possible, but there is also this from the Old Testament, a time often thought to be stricter and harsher in laws and regulations for worship. Yet in this example, those that did not worship God in strict accordance with those rules were forgiven, not killed.
“Since many in the crowd had not consecrated themselves, the Levites had to kill the Passover lambs for all those who were not ceremonially clean and could not consecrate their lambs to the Lord. Although most of the many people who came from Ephraim, Manasseh, Issachar and Zebulun had not purified themselves, yet they ate the Passover, contrary to what was written. But Hezekiah prayed for them, saying, ‘May the Lord, who is good, pardon everyone who sets his heart on seeking God–the Lord, the God of his fathers–even if he is not clean according to the rules of the sanctuary.’ And the Lord heard Hezekiah and healed the people” (2 Chr 30:17-20 NIV).
So we see that it is one’s heart before God that matters to him, not the external way in which we go about worshipping him. None of the people in the first two incidents had a right heart before God. Aaron’s sons took it upon themselves to offer incense before God contrary to what God had specifically commanded. They were in defiant disobedience, hardly the state of a heart in true worship. Ananias and Sapphira also had a wrong heart, thinking that they could fool God and conceiving him as someone not perceptive enough to know what was in a person’s heart, thus lowering God to human status and demeaning his name. Neither they nor Aaron’s sons had the prerequisite heart for true and acceptable worship of God, which is a heart of awe and reverence for him. But the Israelite worshippers of old did have such a heart for worshipping God, thus obeying the commandment of Scripture:
“Worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:28 NIV).
Both of the parties in the first two incidents felt the fire of God come down upon them and consume them. God is very serious about how he is worshipped. It is literally a matter of life and death. Let us, then, be sure that our own hearts are humble before God in reverence and awe as we now examine that promised verse wherein God tells us how to worship him:
“It is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh” (Ph. 3:3 NIV).
The first thing we notice is that Paul speaks of those who are in Christ as being the true circumcision, that is, those who put no confidence in the flesh. Circumcision is a physical removal of flesh from the body. God chose this act to symbolize the removal of our fleshly nature when we come to him in Christ. We who are in Christ have had our fleshly or sinful human nature cut away by our union into Christ. “Our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin” (Rom. 6:6 NIV). Therefore, “Sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace” (Rom. 6:16 NIV).
That is, we no longer are compelled to sin, slaves to our sinful desires; they have been cut away from cut away from us; we are free from having to sin any more. That is the glorious message of Romans six.
One of the ways our flesh can make us sin is in regard to worshipping God. Yes, even such a spiritual thing as the worship of God is not immune to the influence of the flesh, as is seen in the two examples given previously. But Paul says that we who are in Christ don’t do that. We have been circumcised; that fleshly way of worshipping God has been cut away from the body of Christ, the church. We no longer seek to worship our God the way many religions in this world worship theirs, with many rules and regulations and fleshly acts required by their gods for worship. All such worldly religious ceremonies are, in reality, mere exercises in human effort; they glorify what man can do instead of what God has done.
But this verse says that we who are in Jesus glory in him, not ourselves. We glory in what Jesus did for us and know that we can do nothing but humbly bow before him and offer our worship to God through Jesus and what he has done for us. He is our glory and God is pleased with worship that is offered in this manner.
“And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased'” (Mt. 3:17 NIV).
When we worship God in and through his Son Jesus, God is pleased with our worship because he is pleased with his Son. Notice also that this verse mentions love. Once again, it is the heart that matters to God, not external ceremonies thought up by the fleshly heart and mind of man. This is a truth that man seems to have a hard time learning, not only those in the false religions of the world but even God’s own people. This can be seen in God’s reprimand of his people for following his rules for worship to the letter but without corresponding love for him in their hearts:
“Hear, O my people, and I will speak, O Israel, and I will testify against you: I am God, your God. I do not rebuke you for your sacrifices or your burnt offerings, which are ever before me.
“I have no need of a bull from your stall or of goats from your pens, for every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird in the mountains, and the creatures of the field are mine. If I were hungry I would not tell you, for the world is mine, and all that is in it. Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats?
“Sacrifice thank offerings to God, fulfill your vows to the Most High”(Ps. 50:7-14 NIV).
God rebukes those who outwardly offer him the required sacrifices but inwardly withhold their love from him, just as Ananias and Sapphira withheld part of their money from him. Do they really think he needs animals to eat? Is not their conception of God far too human? But if those kind of sacrifices are rejected by him, what does he really want? He plainly tells them (and us): He wants our thanks and to fulfill our vows to live our lives in such a way that he is glorified before the world’s watching eyes. Yes, we say we love him in our worship services on Sunday morning, but how long does this love last? even to the next morning?
“What can I do with you . . . ? What can I do with you. . . ? Your love is like the morning mist, like the early dew that disappears. Therefore I cut you in pieces with my prophets, I killed you with the words of my mouth; my judgments flashed like lightning upon you. For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hos. 6:4-6 NIV).
If we do not offer God worship that flows from a heart of love for him, if we have not cut our heart, had it trimmed and circumcised from its fleshy nature through Christ, then God will do some other cutting, cut us to pieces with his prophets, judge us with his fire as he did Aaron’s sons. Once again, the matter of how we worship God is no small matter but truly one of life and death.
Now, all of what has been said so far might seem to be too fierce and harsh and make a potential worshipper of God shy away from even attempting to worship him. After all, if God is that serious about this matter and people have even died from doing it wrongly, maybe it’s better not even to approach God for worship.
There is some truth in this attitude, for if we do not have a right heart and spirit when coming before God to worship him, that wrong heart and attitude is an offense to God, and he compares that to paying one’s obligations to a human ruler:
“‘With such offerings from your hands, will he accept you?’–says the Lord Almighty. ‘Oh, that one of you would shut the temple doors, so that you would not light useless fires on my altar! I am not pleased with you,’ says the Lord Almighty, ‘and I will accept no offering from your hands'” (Mal. 1:9,10 NIV).
We should be fearful of offering wrong worship, yes, but the answer is not therefore to eliminate worship but to eliminate the wrong spirit that makes that worship wrong. And to receive that right spirit, we need to look to God. For God himself says, “I will make him draw near, and he shall approach me, for who would dare of himself to approach me?’ declares the Lord” (Jer 30:21 ESV).
Notice that even though God warns against daring to approach him on our own, he says in the same sentence that he himself will draw potential worshippers to himself. That is the secret to true worship of God. We must do it out of love for him, not out of rote following of certain worship ceremonies, but also knowing that even this love for God comes from him, not ourselves. “We love because he first loved us” (1 Jn. 4:19 NIV).
It all begins and ends with God, and true and acceptable worship of God is a matter of the heart and love and spirit. That is why our foundational verse, Philippians 3:3, says that we who truly worship God do so by the Spirit of God.
That is one of the reasons God gives his Holy Spirit to us in Christ and puts that Spirit in us, so that we can worship him without fear.
“He will give you another Counselor to be with you forever–the Spirit of truth. . . . He lives with you and will be in you” (Jn. 14:16,17 NIV).
Only as we are in Christ can we acceptably worship God, because only in Christ do we receive the Holy Spirit to worship a holy God.
“Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth” (Jn. 4:23,24 NIV).
Our spirit resides in the deepest part of our being, and our spirit thus reveals what is really in our heart and who we really are. A spirit of love for God is evidenced by surrendering that heart, which is our real self, to Jesus as Lord. That spirit then desires to worship God not just in a Sunday service or a ceremony but at all times and in all ways, in our whole life, in every thought, word and deed. It is our life or soul or heart that God wants in worship of him. He wants us.
When Paul wrote the Corinthians concerning their relationship, he wanted them to know that he was not after them for the money they could give to him. No, he wanted something far more than mere money: “What I want is not your possessions but you” (2 Cor. 12:4 NIV).
Paul knew that the heart of the matter of anything connected with our relationship with God is the heart itself, just as it is for meaningful human relationships. Therefore, he was looking for a heart-to-heart relationship with them, and would be satisfied with nothing less. The same goes for God and our worship of him. He wants us, our heart, and will be satisfied with nothing less. And the only way we can offer a heart of worship of God to him is through Jesus Christ. Our heart must be joined with his, for God is satisfied only with that which comes through and in his Son. Therefore the only way to offer true and acceptable worship of God is to be in his Son Jesus Christ, who gives us the Holy Spirit, who enables us to live lives in full devotion to Jesus, lives that are a living sacrifice of worship to God.
“Offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God–this is your spiritual act of worship” (Rom. 12:1 NIV).
That is true and acceptable worship of God. It is not a momentary, religious ceremony that passes when the moment is gone, but a whole life of surrender to God, moment by moment, every moment: a living sacrifice. That is much harder to offer to God because it requires total surrender and submission of every moment of one’s life, as opposed to a momentary, one-time offering of money or time or any lesser thing than one’s very soul and life.
It is far harder and far more precious to God that I be this ongoing, living sacrifice of my being to him in love than to offer a one-time, lesser sacrifice, even the outwardly seemingly ultimate sacrifice of death:
“If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing” (1 Cor. 13:3 NIV).
More important and precious than a dead sacrifice is to be a living sacrifice of love to God in Christ, by the enabling power of the Holy Spirit. That is acceptable worship of God.