True worship under grace enables intimacy with God, but is conditional. It still requires an altar and a sacrifice, a life set apart and consecrated to God.
An altar of earth you shall make for Me, and you shall sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen. In every place where I record My name I will come to you, and I will bless you. (Exodus 20:24)
This Old Testament instruction on worship opens a wonderful understanding of just what happens when we worship. While we aren’t required to follow the Old Testament Law in terms of actual altars and sacrifices, they are there to teach us. In this case, it’s a remarkable truth that is all too often missed completely. It concerns the intimacy involved in a relationship with God based on true worship. It’s a poignant promise that underpins our new life in Him.
The Old Testament principles of true worship.
Too many believers gloss over the Old Testament, glibly regarding it as the ‘past’ and the New Testament as our ‘glorious present.’ While this is true on level, and we are redeemed from the Law by Christ, the Old Testament is still powerfully relevant. It provides the foundation principles and illustrates every single aspect of our new life in Christ. Everything in its pages adds detail, example, and practical pointers to enable us to understand the principles on which God interacts with His people. Grace is undoubtedly the ‘mark’ of the new covenant. But without understanding the lessons in Old Testament worship, we can never fully grasp or live in the absolute grace embodied in learning to live lives of true worship.
The practical activity of worship has changed dramatically between the Old Testament and the New. Unfortunately, there are those who would prefer to hold onto the old principles of ritual and method of structured Old Testament worship. At the same time, the extreme is also true. There are those who ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater.’ By completely writing off these principles as archaic and no longer relevant, they lose the full dimension of grace present in New Testament true worship. We must examine what God taught His people then, because it contains the foundation principles of what He has given us now. Without that understanding, true worship is not possible, even in our dispensation of grace.
The altar in true worship.
Right from the beginning, the altar featured prominently in Old Testament worship. It was dedicated or set aside as the place of sacrifice – the place of true worship. Beginning with the first altar of earth, we see the altar ‘grow’ as God’s relationship with His people grew. It moves from a simple earthen altar in the wilderness – from Abel through Abraham and those who followed until the Exodus – to a more detailed structure. Throughout the Old Testament, we see men like Elijah raising altars to God when need arose. While all these may have varied in look and structure, they shared critical principles that still apply in true worship.
Firstly, they we raised in obedience to the commands of God. They represented a commitment to worshiping Him according to His prescribed requirements. People never added their own decorations or embellishments. From the beginning, God instructed that the altar contain no man-conceived marks or shaping. They were required to be pure and set aside for the sole purpose of sacrificing to God. Never ever did an altar double as some other more practical object in daily life. It had only one purpose – a pure and holy place on which to make the necessary sacrifices required by God. It was the centre of true worship of a holy God.
The alter in New Testament true worship.
This principle remains absolutely true and utterly unchanged. God’s altar remains the centre of worship, and He still requires that it be kept pure, holy, and set apart for Him. Unless we abide by these requirements, we simply cannot claim true worship. The difference, however, is that our New Testament altar has nothing at all to do with the often elaborate altars still found – and built – in modern churches. Grace has done away with need for a physical altar, but not the principles it embodied in the Old Testament as an example that is still relevant today.
The New Testament altar is far more personal, because it’s our heart. Each of us, at the point of new birth, are required to raise up an altar to God. When we ‘give Him our hearts,’ to quote a popular expression, we raise up a temple. God still requires that it remain pure, holy, and set apart for Him. He still demands that it contain no personal embellishments. It still has a single purpose – a place of sacrifice in our acceptable true worship to God. While the nature of sacrifice has changed, along with the ‘placement’ of the altar, the commands of God have not. It’s also enormously significant that the first altar was of clay and the last altar is also. Man, who is now the living altar, was shaped from the earth. That’s a profound and thought provoking truth.
The sacrifices in Old Testament true worship.
When I read through the seemingly endless lists of ‘acceptable’ sacrifices and their purpose, I give thanks that I’m not required to live that way. God provided very detailed instructions that dictated true worship. Every sacrifice had a particular purpose, a particular method, and applied in a particular situation. One sacrifice couldn’t ‘double’ for another. Each was separate and individual, and each required a ‘perfect’ sacrifice – the best, without blemish, and which, inevitably carried a cost for the person making the offering. The first thing we need to take hold of, therefore, is that the sacrifice was an ‘investment’ in true worship for the worshiper. It required commitment and carried a price.
The second important principle is that Old Testament sacrifice could only be made by the High Priest. His was an intercessory ordained by God. He was appointed and anointed by God to act on behalf of the people, and was required to keep himself pure and set apart for this purpose. His life essentially belonged to God, who then used it on behalf of the people. The implied responsibility is enormous, and we should therefore look long and hard at this if we want to understand our new role in true worship. It involved no ‘feel-good’ interaction. Rather, it was demanded complete commitment on a level few believers have yet to fully grasp.
The sacrifice in New Testament true worship.
We can and should give thanks daily for the incredible grace that we no longer have to fulfil the long list of sacrifices and laws contained in the Old Testament. At the same time, however, we cannot afford to ignore the truth that true worship still requires acceptable sacrifice. This is the point of confusion for many, who cling to the beautiful simplicity of the truth that Jesus was and always will be the one-and-only perfect sacrifice. There is no denying this. In the same way, we cannot deny that Christ is also our great High Priest and eternal intercessor. These lie at the very heart of our faith.
But we, as followers of Christ, have a particular – or, rather, a peculiar – role in true worship. We are required to live as examples of Jesus. In other words, we are to live His life and ministry here on earth as living testimony. Just as Jesus embodied a total commitment to true worship by being both High Priest and sacrifice, we must do the same. He set aside His life, not only to intercede but as the perfect sacrifice. Our altar is our heart. Our sacrifice is our life. This dual role is critical to understanding true New Testament Worship. We have become, in Christ, priests, sacrifices, and altars.
The altar and sacrifice in true worship under grace.
Matthew 22:37-40 provides a beautiful and powerful understanding of this: Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” It’s also our reminder that Christ came not to do away with the Law but to fulfil it. These two ‘new commandments’ epitomise the principles of true worship by including both altar and sacrifice. They also encapsulate the principles of every single law and commandment contained in the Old Testament.
By obeying the first, we raise ourselves up as the altar – holy, pure, and set apart for God. Our hearts are set on Him alone, dedicated to loving Him and worshiping Him. We devote ourselves to making sure that our altar heart contains nothing of self or the world. When the world sees our heart, it sees a holy altar to a living God, consecrated to His service. By obeying the second, we daily mirror Christ’s perfect sacrifice. Of course, we can and never will be perfect. But by devoting ourselves as living sacrifices, we lay down self so that others can see what Jesus did for us. Just as Christ came into the world to manifest the Father, so we live in the world to manifest the Father by reflecting the Son. Our sacrifice includes loving others, embodying the truth of ‘greater love’ even unto death. These are the Old Testament principles that are, today, empowered by true worship under grace.
God’s name and true worship today.
We see this grace released by looking at the second half of today’s verse, which involves God’s name. What a powerful revelation of grace that is tragically overlooked. What God is actually saying is that whenever an altar was raised up, dedicated to true worship, and kept pure and holy for His purposes, He claimed it as His. He did this by ‘recording’ His name. In other words, He ‘wrote’ His name on every single altar dedicated to Him. This is a dynamic principle of true worship that still applies. God hasn’t changed. Grace doesn’t do away with the old but empowers it in the new. We grasp this awesome truth when we consider that we call ourselves ‘Christians.’ We bear the name of Christ. God’s altars are called by His name.
It carries an equally awesome responsibility, however. It requires our commitment and dedication, being set apart for God’s purposes, and keeping ourselves pure and holy. If we claim the name, we must keep our side of the covenant. Where God records His name, it’s agreement. It’s covenant, and His is written in blood. This fundamental Old Testament principle of true worship has not and will never change. While we have the incredible, indescribable grace that enables us to draw near in acceptable worship, the new covenant is signed by the blood of the lamb. Yes, we have grace, but we also have a higher covenant that bears the name of God and written in the blood of our perfect sacrifice, God Himself.
True worship is a reciprocal relationship.
I recently spotted a very dangerous teaching that true worship was reciprocal. The preacher was literally saying that when we draw near to God in true worship, He responds with worship. This appalling travesty is a twisting of a beautiful truth to appeal to man’s pride. A holy God can never – not even marginally – ‘worship’ an unholy creation. Our true worship does, however, establish a reciprocal relationship, one which is clearly revealed in today’s verse. We worship and God responds by recording His name and releasing His blessings.
God’s response is, however, conditional. ‘Grace’ has somehow become a mistaken assumption that God is ‘unconditional’ in His love for us and His interaction with us – a very dangerous deception. Today’s verse is a case in point. Only when we fulfil the principles required in true worship will He then respond. We have to first raise the altar, keep it pure and set apart, and make the living sacrifice. Then, and only then, will He honours it with His name and release His blessings. We cannot claim the name and expect the blessings without first doing our part.
Presumptive worship is not true worship.
It’s a very dangerous place to assume things about God and His relationship with us. The very foundation of our intimacy with Him is our worship. We were created for His glory – to worship Him – and are required, even under grace, to live that daily. Unless we are prepared to set ourselves apart as living altars and lay ourselves down as living sacrifices in true worship, we cannot presume that God will do His part. Essentially, presumptive worship – which expects from God without first giving what He requires – puts us in the place, literally, of ‘taking His name in vain.’ It’s a mockery of the holy name of a Holy God. We’re claiming something we have no right to use.
We cannot use His immeasurable grace to excuse our presumptive worship. Grace is intended to empower our worship. It is the supernatural power, through Christ’s death and resurrection and His life in us, to live true worship. God, in His mercy, gives us everything we need to worship as we are created and called to do. We must never allow grace and mercy to make us lose sight of the truth that He is, first and foremost, holy, or that He will never allow Himself to be mocked. We may glibly claim His name, but He will not honour it. God will never write His name on an unconsecrated altar of self-gratification.
True worship is what we live, not what we do.
The principles of living temples – altars – and living sacrifices are still the foundations of true worship. As New Testament worshipers, we must live according to these principles, just as the Old Testament worshipers had to live according to the Law. The difference between the two is grace and the dynamic intimacy of a God who now dwells in His living temples. He not only records His name in us but He lives in us to enable and empower us to deeper intimacy.
When we give ourselves completely in true worship, we enter into God Himself through Christ. We are connected, inseparable, and identified with Him. This intimacy is the greatest blessing we could ever hope for. But God is immeasurably good, beyond anything we deserve. If we worship Him on pure altar hearts with our lives as daily sacrifices, His blessings will abound. Where God is, there is the blessing also.
Gracious Father, forgive us where we have strayed from the truth of true worship. Thank You for Your patience and mercy, and that You reveal to us the right way and guide us towards Your truth. Grant us the grace, each day, to raise up to You the pure altars of our lives and to sacrifice self to Your glory. Empower us to worship as we are called to do, and to make true worship to desire and pursuit of our hearts and lives.