And if you make Me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stone; for if you use your tool on it, you have profaned it. (Exodus 20: 25)
Looking at worship through the Old Testament and into the New Testament provides a fascinating study of what God really wants. It’s important, though, to keep it in perspective, and to remember that the Old Testament Law was never separated from God’s instructions on worship. In the same way, the Word cannot be separated from worship today – Jesus told us that He did not come to replace the Law but to fulfill it. In other words, He came to provide the only way that we could ever meet the conditions of the law, which is through His blood, the eternal perfect sacrifice.
We shouldn’t confuse things here. Christians are no longer under law but under grace, but the law has not been done away with. To anyone not saved, or redeemed from the law by His blood, the Law still applies. The covenant of grace only has relevance because the Law exists. Without the Law, we would have no need of either grace or mercy, and outside of Christ the Law continues to operate.
Having clarified that, today’s verse, though a ‘run on’ from the Law – the Ten Commandments – has interesting and very pertinent application. Keep in mind that, at this point, God had not yet inhabited the Ark of the Covenant with His Shekinah glory. These instructions are given prior to God’s permanent presence in the Ark, so they apply to worship prior to the tabernacle in the wilderness, and the later temples at Jerusalem, the building of which had to be according to God’s explicit instructions to create a fitting temple to house His present glory.
So why then, is an ‘outdated’ instruction of such relevance? Because it contains a gem of truth that still applies to acceptable worship, even today. Another point worth considering as a background to explain this truth is the strict instructions with regard to cleansing and preparation that the high priest was required to perform prior to approaching the Holy of Holies. Remember that the priest stood as an intercessor before God on behalf of the people. As such, he had to wash away not only the world – literally as well as figuratively – but also self. He entered the Holy of Holies not as himself but as a spiritual persona, the type of Christ. Self had not place.
That is the crux of this verse, and it’s still the heart of worship today. Just before this verse, God commands that they build His altar of earth – the most basic of all natural substances, and one which does not lend itself to fancy workmanship. But keep in mind that God fashioned man from soil. The message is clear – it is God who transforms the altar into something holy.
So why, then, did He go on to say that, if they used stone, they were not to take a tool to it but to use uncut, or natural, stone? Once again, the issue of self emerges. Remember the commandment to make no graven images? Carving, shaping for creating an altar using stonemasonry of any kind provided the opportunity for man to impose self onto the altar. Any artist will tell us that a part of them goes into every piece they create. We’re human. That’s what we do. God was essentially protecting them from imposing their own thoughts, desires and ideas into the process of worship.
And that is the lesson that is still so relevant to all believers today. Peter reminds us that we are living stones, but that we are being built up – not that we are building ourselves up. We are simply the raw material, but it is God that is building the house according to whatever shape He desires. It’s about keeping self out of worship, rather than worship out of self. We are instruments of worship, but it is God who decides the when, how and why of it.
This is critically relevant today, when so many churches are turning worship into an ‘extravaganza,’ a kind of performance to attract membership and keep them feeling ‘blessed.’ Worship isn’t about us at all. It’s about God, who He is, and what He desires. Self has not place, unless it’s in total surrender. We should never measure worship as being how it made us feel. The hard truth is that, when we come to that place, it has become a kind of idolatry – we do it because it’s gratifying.
Yes, fellowship with God emerges from and is part of worship, but this may often engender a response that isn’t popular – repentance, humility, awe and a holy fear of the Lord. These may be life-changing and have enormous impact, but they’re seldom ‘wonderful’ or ‘feel good.’ I’m not suggesting that we should emerge from worship with long faces and super-spiritual depression, but I am saying that true worship does not always result in self-gratification. It’s a far deeper spiritual experience, not an emotional one, and much of the expectation of what worship should deliver falls squarely into the fleshly area.
When we worship, let us do so in Spirit and in Truth. If it should bring us to our knees, then let us rejoice that His love is such that He responds with grace to show us things, teach us things, bring us to repentance or convict us where we need it. Such communion with God is truly precious, because this is what engenders real faith and enduring growth. The joy of the Lord is a deep, abiding celebration of who and what He is, not how we feel. The peace that passes all understanding is born not of polished performance but of real, one on one, communion, and sometimes even of being totally stripped of all self, pretence and expectations in order to fully give ourselves to the purpose for which we were created.
To worship is to lay down everything that we are, everything we could be, everything we desire and to surrender self utterly to Him who shapes the stones by His mighty yet gentle hand.
Father, forgive us for the times that self gets in the way. Help us to become those living stones You need, and to surrender to Your work in us so that we might, together, become a living house of worship and praise to Your glory.