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Drawing Near to God as the Essence of Worship

In order to grasp the essence of Christian worship, we must start in the beginning. Creation provides the foundation for understanding not only the nature of God and mankind but also the substance of their relationship in worship. God, the sovereign Initiator, publicly revealed himself through what he made. The creation itself displays his nature and glory (Ps 10:1; Rom 1:20–23), but he revealed himself in a unique way by creating Adam and Eve in his own image (Gen 1:26–27). Thus God’s self-revelation provides the fundamental basis for worship.

Yet God created Adam and Even not simply to be a revelation of himself; he created them in order to nurture a relationship with them, to dwell with them in perfect communion. In order to do this, God created the Garden of Eden (Gen 2:8) as a sanctuary in which he could walk with Adam and Eve (Gen 3:8).

Humankind’s purpose in this sanctuary was to “work it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). Hebrew scholars note that the underlying terms in this statement mean far more than a gardener’s task, a fact which the absence of thorns and weeds at this juncture in human history makes clear. For example, Allen Ross notes that the first verb, avid, is “used frequently for spiritual service, specifically serving the Lord (Deut 4:19) and for the duties of the Levites (see Num 3:7–8; 4:23–24, 26).” Likewise with the second verb, shamar, “its religious use is that of observing spiritual duties or keeping the commandments (Lev 18:5).” With this in mind, Ross observes:

In places where these two verbs are found together, they often refer to the duties of the Levites (cf. Num 3:7–8; 8:26; 18:5–6), keeping the laws of God (especially in the sanctuary service) and offering spiritual service in the form of the sacrifices and all the related duties—serving the Lord, safeguarding his commands, and guarding the sanctuary from the intrusion of anything profane or evil.[1]

Thus basic ideas about the nature and function of what would later become formal, corporate worship were established in the Creation event: God reveals himself through his creation and places Adam and Eve in the sanctuary of the garden where he dwells with them and walks with them in communion as they serve him and keep his commandments. This relationship between God and man does not exist for its own sake, but rather it brings glory to the Creator (Isa 43:6–7). As the image-bearers walk with him and obey his commands, they evidence a complete satisfaction and trust in him, thus giving him ultimate praise.

Adam and Eve’s fall into sin—their disobedience of God’s commandments—was essentially failure to express complete dependence and satisfaction in their Creator and bring him glory, and thus it was a failure to worship him acceptably. This broke the communion they enjoyed with God and propelled them from the sanctuary of his presence. After they sinned, and they heard God walking in the garden, “the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God” (Gen 3:8)—they recognized their unworthiness to walk with him. Their sin created a separation between them and their Creator, and they were forced to leave the sanctuary (Gen 3:23–24), never again able to draw as near to the presence of God.

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Yet before God drove them from the garden, he initiated a solution to the broken communion. First, he enacted a covenant with them wherein he promised redemption (Gen 3:15). Then, he pictured that redemption through atonement by slaying an animal and covering Adam and Eve’s guilt with its skin (Gen 3:21). This atonement restored the broken relationship and once again enabled communion with God, although now limited. Timothy M. Pierce provides a helpful explanation of how “atonement” is directly connected to restoring communion with God:

The English word “atonement” originated in the sixteenth century. It was not borrowed from another language, but was created in order to express an idea for which no word existed. The combination of the words “at-one-ment” expressed the idea of reconciliation whereby not just agreement was achieved, but essential unity was acquired.[2]

Thus in the Creation/Fall event each of the essential elements of worship appear in seed form: (1) God reveals himself and initiates a relationship with his people; (2) God forms the boundaries of the relationship with his commandments; (3) the nature of worship consists in this relationship of communion between man and his Creator; (4) this worship takes place in the sanctuary of God’s presence; (5) failure to obey the commandments of God prohibits communion with him; (6) God provides atonement whereby man is once again enabled to walk in communion with him.

These elements persist throughout Scripture even as their external manifestations become at times more complex and specific. The Exodus of Israel and the establishment of the Mosaic Law in a sense codify these elements that had been established at Creation. Once again, God was the initiator of the contact through his self-revelation in the burning bush (Exod 3:1–2). The purpose of this meeting was to reestablish a relationship between God and his people (Exod 3:7–8), but sin prevented Moses from fully drawing near to God’s presence—God commanded him, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Exod 3:5).

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God accomplished his people’s deliverance from bondage through atonement in the Passover event (Exod 12:1–32). He led them out of Egypt with his own presence in the form of pillars of cloud and fire (Exod 13:21–22) to the foot of Mt. Sinai, where he revealed himself to them (Exod 19:9), “all the congregation drew near and stood before the Lord” (Lev 9:5), and God spoke to them “face to face” (Deut 5:4). Because of the sinfulness of the people, however, God placed clear limits on how closely the people could draw near to him (Exod 19:12–13, 21–25), Moses alone serving as a mediator between the people and God (Exod 24:2).

God’s instructions concerning the construction of the tabernacle also reveal a visualization of the worship elements that had been instituted at Creation. This structure served as a sanctuary for God’s presence (“And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst,” Exod 25:8)—drawing near to the tabernacle was to draw near to the very presence of God himself, and each piece of furniture within the tabernacle symbolized both the presence of God and the relationship of communion that he desired with his people. The table of acacia wood (Exod 25:23–30) signified such communion with God since in the ancient Near East dining with someone portrayed complete fellowship with that person.[3] Likewise, the golden lampstand (Exod 25:31–39) represented the presence of God in two possible ways: first, it reminded the people of the light that God created and thus symbolized his presence.[4] Second, Carol Meyers suggests that the lampstand also symbolized the tree of life, harkening back to the garden sanctuary and further reminding the people of communion in God’s sanctuary.[5] The altar of incense (Exod 30:1–5) represented the intercessory prayers of God’s people (Ps 141:2; Rev 8:3–5) and thus also emphasized dialogue in relationship with him. Finally, the Ark of the Covenant (Exod 25:10–22) was the center of God’s presence (“There will I meet with you,” Exod 25:22).

Yet once again, because of the guilt of the people, barriers prevented them from drawing fully near to communion with God in his presence. The curtain surrounding the outer court prevented unlawful approach to God’s presence (Exod 27:9–19). Only appointed priests entered the tabernacle itself (Exod 30:7–10; Lev 24–25). Finally, God commanded that a veil be hung separating the Holy Place from the Most Holy, the chamber holding the ark and the very presence of God (Exod 26:33). Only the High Priest was permitted to enter that place, and only once a year on the Day of Atonement (Lev 16:1–19; cf. Heb 9:7). Thus God initiated a system of sacrifices in order to provide atonement and at least partial and temporary access to his presence (Lev 1–9).

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However, what the tabernacle also reveals is that these essential worship elements were not simply instituted at Creation, but are in fact representations of the essence of the worship in Heaven itself. God gives Moses the pattern (Exod 25:8–9; 25:40; 27:8; Num 8:4; cf. Acts 7:44), and this is a pattern of “heavenly things” (Heb 8:2, 5; cf. Heb 9:11, 23–24). In other words, the idea of worship visualized at Creation and in the tabernacle (and later, the temple) is modeled after the eternal essence of heavenly worship. This means that the worship construct observed at Creation and illustrated through the Mosaic system reveals the essence of worship: (1) God reveals himself and initiates a relationship with his people; (2) God forms the boundaries of the relationship with his commandments; (3) the nature of worship consists in this relationship of communion between man and his Creator; (4) this worship takes place in the sanctuary of God’s presence; (5) failure to obey the commandments of God prohibits communion with him; (6) God provides atonement whereby man is once again enabled to walk in communion with him.

[1] Allen Ross, Recalling the Hope of Glory: Biblical Worship from the Garden to the New Creation (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2006), 105–6.

[2] Timothy M. Pierce, Enthroned on Our Praise: An Old Testament Theology of Worship (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2008), 75n105.

[3] Allen P. Ross, Holiness to the Lord: A Guide to the Exposition of the Book of Leviticus (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 30.

[4] John I. Durham, Exodus (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1987), 362–63.

[5] Carol L. Meyers, The Tabernacle Menorah: A Synthetic Study of a Symbol from the Biblical Cult (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press LLC, 2003), 96, 118–19, 133.

from By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture.

Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is Chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Cutlure, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and three children.

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