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Improper Worship

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series

"Faulty Worship"

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Faulty worship is not often a topic of discussion in today’s Christianity. Many Christians seem to think that God is only concerned that our hearts are sincere in our worship of Him. However, from a biblical perspective, that is just not correct. Don’t misunderstand me; God is concerned about the heart of worship. Isaiah 1 makes that very clear. A person can go through the motions of right worship practices without a right heart in worship, and God will not accept it.

Making sure that we are worshipping the right object is also of utmost importance. Jeremiah 7 proclaims that truth to us. We cannot go through life as practicing idolaters and expect God to believe that we are worshipping Him on Sundays at church. We must be thoroughly monotheistic and theocentric in our worship.

But what about how we worship? If our hearts are sincere and if we are seeking to truly worship God, does it matter to God how we do it? So many times people proclaim 1 Samuel 16:7 to be the final statement in this matter, that “God sees the heart” in our worship and that is all that matters. But is it? If a person’s heart is apparently devoted, or sincere, but his actions are not proper, will God accept that worship? That is the question that Leviticus 10 (among other texts) answers for us.

Leviticus 8 and 9 are all preliminary to the event at the beginning of chapter 10. In those chapters God gave specific instructions to Moses regarding the tabernacle worship. There are at least ten times in chapters 8-9 that we are told that God commanded Moses regarding certain aspects of worship. Chapter 9 describes the inauguration of Aaron and his sons in the priesthood responsibilities in the tabernacle, doing what God commanded.

This would have been a time of great celebration when the tabernacle worship was officially begun. Aaron and his sons were involved in sacrifices, each one doing his part, according as God commanded through Moses. Verses 23-24 of chapter 9 recount the response of what took place. God’s glory appeared to the people, consuming the altar with fire from heaven. God’s people shouted and fell on their faces in worship of God.

However, this glorious and celebratory scene would quickly change.

After being closely involved in the offerings by Aaron in chapter 9, Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, took their censers and put fire in them, laid incense on them, and offered them to the Lord. The text, though, tells us that something was very different about this offering compared to those of chapter 9. Verse 1 says it was “unauthorized fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them.” The previous chapters make it repeatedly clear that everything was done as God commanded. However, this offering was not commanded by God.

God’s response to this offering was strikingly similar in nature to that of chapter 9, but with a completely different meaning. Fire once again descended from God, but this time it consumed Nadab and Abihu rather than the offering. Whereas before it was a fire of acceptance, this was now a fire of judgment and disapproval.

So what was the problem with this offering? The censer, fire, and incense were not wrong in and of themselves; they were all appropriately used in the sacrificial system at later times. Some have thought that they got the fire from the wrong place, or that they offered this at the wrong time of day, but the text doesn’t say either of those two things. The significance of the text lies in the phrase “which he had not commanded them.”

Were the brothers offering this fire to the right God? Yes they were. Were they offering it with the right heart motive and sincerity? We are left to assume that they were, for nothing in the text leads us to believe otherwise. The fact that they were doing something not commanded by God is the issue here. They were worshipping the right God, with the right heart, but in the wrong way.

This story is of great significance for 21st century believers. First, we see that innovation in worship is not acceptable to God. These brothers were doing something that was not commanded by God in worship. They were seeking to be innovative and add to what God had already laid out as proper worship. But God was not interested in their innovation.

Another point of significance is that God’s holiness and glory are of supreme importance in worship. In each of these events of fire, there are mentions of God’s glory. Leviticus 9:23 states, “and the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people.” Then in Leviticus 10:3 we read, “before all the people I will be glorified.” God’s glory is at stake when it comes to worship. He alone will be glorified as the exclusive object of worship, the subject of worship, and the prescriber of worship. His holiness is also linked with His glory. In each case, the fire of God speaks of His holiness, for “our God is a consuming fire” (Heb 12:28).

A third point of significance is that God honors proper worship, but rejects improper worship. This principle is seen here and in multiple instances throughout the Old and New Testaments. The Scriptures clearly teach us that God rejects improper activities of worship, even if the heart is sincere. God rejects worship done out of a wrong heart. God rejects worship that is not given to Him. God rejects worship that is not done in the right way. How we worship is just as important as who we worship and why we worship. We must worship the right God with the right heart and in the right way. All three components are important.

The implications for us today are obvious. Our worship, both privately, and publicly, must be done in such a way that is pleasing to God, not only done with a right heart. Because they are rooted in the timeless truth of God’s Word, these principles cross generational lines, cultural lines, and geographical lines.

This scene at the beginning of the age of the tabernacle worship stands as a stark warning from God regarding the serious nature of faulty worship. A New Testament example is similar, in Acts 5, where we are told of Ananias and Sapphira. There, they lied against the Spirit of God in an act of worship at the beginning of the church age, and God struck them dead as well, serving as a warning for all.

One of the foundational truths of worship is that worship is not about us, but it is all about God. He alone deserves our exclusive worship, done with the right heart and in the right way. It is not a matter of what we get out of worship, nor is it a matter of how we feel after the worship service. The real question is “was God honored by our worship today?”

God is not looking for worship innovators, but for people who will worship Him in the manner in which He has prescribed in His Word. This text in Leviticus is written for our learning and admonition and is profitable to teach us not only what is right, but what isn’t right. It encourages us to evaluate our own worship to God and continue on a path of true worship.

Worshipping the right God with the right heart is important, but it must also be done in the right way, according to the teaching of His Word.

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About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies 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 Culture, 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 four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.