“In the beginning, God.”
With those opening words of the book of Genesis, we find the very foundation for all biblical religion. God’s self-existence, creative power, and divine providence over all things provides the basis for a Christian worldview and theology, which should flow into how Christians worship (cultus) and, indeed, the entirety of how they live (culture).
As Christians, we might be tempted to bypass the Old Testament as we seek to understand the relationship between what we believe and how we worship, but that would be a grave mistake. The historical record, poetry, and prophecy contained in the OT were “written for our instruction,” Paul said (Rom 15:4, 1 Cor 10:11). Although, as we will see, the coming of Christ does fundamentally changed some aspects of how we relate to God as his people, the core and essence of biblical Christianity finds its center in the worldview and theology of the Old Testament. Therefore, careful study of worship in these ancient books will help us as Christians to properly shape our theology and practice of worship in a way that is founded upon transcendent principles.
Creation is the very basis of and foundation for worship. The central principle of biblical worship is the fact that it is God-initiated and based upon his self-revelation. God’s speaking the world into existence was in its very essence an act to create worship. God created the universe ex nihilo through his spoken word for the express purpose of displaying his own glory (Psalm 19:1), and he created Adam in his image in order that Adam might witness that glory and respond in worship. God’s chief end is to glorify himself, and he calls all people everywhere to fulfill their purpose in life of doing the same (Isaiah 43:6-7).
Yet this desire to be worshiped did not stop with speaking the world into existence; creation certainly displays the glory of God, but creation alone is not enough to reveal the God to be worshiped. Adam would not have known whom he was to worship except that God said something to him. God revealed himself to Adam and told him of his purpose in Genesis 2:15: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” The phrase “work it and keep it” seems to imply that man’s purpose was to garden, yet the work of gardening would not have been necessary prior to the Fall. Rather, the two verbs in this phrase have a deeper significance. The first verb is avid, which, according to Allen Ross, 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).”1 The second verb is shamar; and Ross notes that “its religious use is that of observing spiritual duties or keeping the commands (Lev. 18:5).”2 He explains,
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.3
God placed Adam in the Garden of Eden—the perfect sanctuary of God—to literally “worship and obey.” This purpose for humankind is expressed elsewhere in Scripture (e.g., Isaiah 43:7). God created Adam and Even in order that they might serve as priests in his holy sanctuary.
What did this worship entail? Several clues give us early indication of what worship is all about. The early chapters of Genesis demonstrate the nature of the relationship between God and his image-bearers in the Garden. Each day God “walked” with them in the cool of the garden (Gen 3:8). The garden God had made for Adam and Eve served as a sanctuary where God was present with his people. His desire was to fellowship with them, to commune with them, not as equals, but as the Creator with his creation. Notably, the verb for “walked” in Genesis 3:8 is used later to describe God’s presence in the sanctuary (Lev 26:12, 2 Sam 7:6–7). This idea of communion with God in his sanctuary as revealed by him distills the essence of worship as it is developed through the entirety of Scripture.
But this notion of communion with God was not of the casual nature of two equal friends. Father, this communion with God was on his terms. He set specific boundaries and limits to what that communion would entail, and disobedience of his instructions would result in death—separation from this communion in his very presence. In other words, this communion was covenantal in nature; it was a formal relationship between God and his people in which both parties had a part to play, God as creator and provider, and humankind as servant with particular commands to obey. This formal relationship does not diminish the personal essence of communion with God, any more than a formal wedding covenant prevents intimacy between husband and wife. Nevertheless, communion with God was instituted by and regulated by God such that he received ultimate glory and his people would receive the greatest good.
But, of course, Adam and Eve disobeyed. Their sin broke the perfect communion they had enjoyed with him in his holy sanctuary, and thus God expelled them from his presence, placing cherubim with a flaming sword to guard entrance into God’s presence (Gen 3:24). Before he did, however, God himself provided the solution to that broken communion. By slaying an innocent animal and covering Adam and Eve’s nakedness with the animal’s skin, God was already picturing the means by which he would restore the broken communion. He made a promise to Adam and Eve in the form of a protoevangelium—a “pre-gospel” in Genesis 3:15 when he promised the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heal.” In this way, two key elements of worship that would be developed later appear in the creation/fall narrative, namely, atonement and covenant.
Thus all the elements that later describe biblical worship are already available to us in these early pages of Scripture: worship entails drawing near to communion with God himself in his holy sanctuary. This communion is on his terms and it is initiated by his revelation to his people. Sin breaks this communion, however, and erects barriers that prevent people from drawing near to God’s presence. God responds to this terrible situation by establishing a unilateral covenant with his people and providing atonement by which they can draw near to (for now) imperfect fellowship with him.