Because the Bible tells us that we must worship God acceptably (Hebrews 12:28), there is by necessity the possibility of worshipping God in an unacceptable, or faulty, way. Faulty worship occurs in different ways. Worship can be faulty because of a lack of heart in the worship, because it is focused on the wrong object, or because it is not done in the way which God prescribes.
One more way of faulty worship is given to us in Deuteronomy 12. Here, God gives Israel instructions for future worship in the Promised Land. In addition to the danger of heartless worship, godless worship, and improper worship, there is also this fourth danger of worldly worship, which is worshipping God in a manner that reflects the wisdom and ways of the world around us.
In a nutshell, we are not to worship God according to how the world worships their false gods.
The first seven verses of Deuteronomy 12 tell us that our mindset in worship should be different. For instance, we cannot be oblivious to the fact that the world seeks to influence our worship. God gave these instructions to His people prior to their entering the Promised Land. While they had sent 12 spies into the land 40 years earlier, they really hadn’t spent time there since. They had been wandering in the wilderness. However, this did not mean that the people of Israel were ignorant of the pagan ways of worship. They had observed various cultic practices while in Egypt. They had also been led into idolatrous practices by Balaam earlier in Numbers 25. Left to themselves, the people had a propensity for falling into wicked, heathen ways of worship. God sought to curb those propensities by issuing these commands. He tells them to completely destroy all of the religious memorabilia of the heathen people. Later, God would also tell Joshua to wipe out the people of Canaan. Why would God do this? This was necessary in order to preserve the purity of His people.
Here in Deuteronomy 12 God told Israel to destroy all the places of worship, the high places, the places on the hills, and the green trees used in the worship practices of the false gods. These places were all believed by the people to be places to go in order to get closer to their deities. They were to destroy their altars and pillars, burn their Asherim poles with fire, chop down all their graven images, and wipe out all memory of the people and their gods. This was a complete cleansing of all the worldly tools of worship. Why take such drastic measures? God knew that His people are easily influenced to revert back to the kind of worship that the world uses. They needed to realize that the heathen mindset of worship was not what they were to possess. They didn’t need some kind of great sensory way to worship God, find the highest places, or invent special ways to worship God. They were not to be influenced by the world’s mindset of worship.
We as God’s people have historically underestimated the power of the influence of the world around us. As Christians, we have greatly failed in our appraisal of how much of the world’s mindset and ways have influenced our lives and worship of God. God warns us in this text to not be oblivious to the world’s influence with its glitz, glamour, emotionalism, and experientialism.
In many of today’s Christian churches, the methodology of worship matters little; it is only the heart that matters, which means everything else is up for grabs. In holding this mindset, the door is open to worldly methodologies in preaching style, musical styles, attire, and more. While the world worships their gods in certain ways, with certain mindsets, and even in certain places, God’s people are to be different; they have always been called to be distinctly different. Our minds must not adopt the way of thinking that the world gives us with regards to worship. We must be utterly biblical in our approach to worship. God makes the issue perfectly clear: you will not worship me in that way (v4). We must beware, lest we are influenced by those methodologies, and even adopt them into our own worship practices, either personally, or corporately.
Therefore, not only must our mindset in worship be different, but our manner of worship must be different, too. We must not worship the world’s idols. God specifically mentions the pagan altars, pillars, and Asherim (groves), as well as other carved images. They had various other gods and deities, all of whom were to be avoided. This point may seem obvious, yet it is one which God makes unmistakably clear to His people.
We must also not worship in the world’s ways. The end of the chapter tells us of another aspect of this worldly worship: how it is done. Verses 29-32 describe another warning from God to the people not to be snared into the world’s way of worshipping God. They were not to ask the question, “How did these nations serve their gods?” and then do the same in their worship of Jehovah. God makes a statement in verse 31 which he made earlier in verse 4, “you shall not worship the Lord your God in that way.” This is an important pronouncement of God, being used as somewhat bookends in the chapter to highlight its significance.
God is not to be worshipped in the manner in which the heathen worship their false gods. There were things that were done which were distinctly used for the purposes of heathen worship. One that is mentioned specifically in v31 is the practice of child sacrifice. This was a wicked thing, but a practice that was done by the heathen. God is holy, completely set apart from sin and sinful practices. He is not to be worshipped in just any way that we think is okay, including the heathen ways, but in the manner in which He says.
For the Israelites, their manner of worship was not to be in line with the heathen people whom they were commanded to utterly destroy. They were to worship God according to how He told them. They were not to conform themselves to the worship practices of the world, but instead to be transformed by God’s renewing of their minds. Isn’t that exactly what Romans 12:1-2 teaches us as New Testament believers? What was true for Old Testament Israel is still true for the New Testament church. Our reasonable service of worship is to be done in a manner that does not conform to the lost world around us, but is distinctly different from that. This not only includes our times of corporate worship, but also our private worship of God. If all of life is worship, then all of our lives must be lived in such a way that is distinctly set apart for God.
What is also interesting about this warning that God gives is that the people of Israel did not always heed God’s warning. In Joshua’s farewell speech (Joshua in 24:14) he tells them to put away the gods of their fathers which they served in Egypt, and serve God. They still struggled with idolatry. This struggle continued through the period of the judges and kings, right up to the Exile, but why?
While many things could be said, let me offer a few suggestions.
First, the people simply disobeyed God’s commands. When the people entered the Promised Land, they did not utterly destroy all the heathen from that place, and cleanse the land of their heathen practices. Even after God’s clear commands, they disobeyed and faced great difficulty. Like them, our disobedience leads to further difficulty and faulty worship.
Another reason is due to the failure of parents. Judges 2:10 tells us that the generation that lived to see God’s dealings in the wilderness died, and the next generation did not know God, nor the works which he had done for Israel. They then forsook the Lord, and served Baal and other gods and worshipped them. As parents it is very important that we instruct our children in the words and ways of God. We must be theologians who can put God on exhibit for our children to see and therefore worship. We must instruct them in biblical truth, godly living, and proper worship. This role cannot be delegated to any church or school. It is our responsibility.
A third reason is due to wicked leadership. You see this many times during the reigns of the kings, as some kings did evil in God’s sight by following false gods, worshipping God in the high places, and even participating in child sacrifice. They were idolaters, attempting to worship God according to the world’s manner of worship rather than how He commanded them.
In conclusion, everyone in our world worships something or someone. They worship those gods in various ways, in various places, and with various mindsets. It is imperative that God’s people seek to worship God in the manner in which He desires, rather than according to how the world would dictate. Unfortunately, though, the world’s influence has infected God’s people in many areas of daily living, and church life, to the point that there is often very little, if any, distinction between us and the world.
It is time that we as God’s people, as Christians, Christ-followers, stop being oblivious to the influence of the world and their worship philosophies and practices. It is time that we think properly and have a biblical mindset regarding all of life and worship. It is time that we stop idolizing what the world idolizes. It is time that we stop worshipping our God in the same ways that the world worships theirs.
We must love what God loves, hate what God hates, and value what God values. It is not a matter of taste or preference, but a matter of properly worshipping our holy and righteous God.
“Wherefore we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may (worship) God acceptably with reverence and godly fear: for our God is a consuming fire.” – Hebrews 12:28-29 (emphasis added)