Worship in the World
In 1977, Maria Rubio of Lake Arthur, New Mexico, was assembling a burrito when she noticed that the skillet marks on one of her tortillas resembled the face of Jesus. Excited, she showed it to her husband and neighbors, and they all agreed that there was a face etched on the tortilla and that it truly bore a resemblance to the familiar iconic, Roman Catholic images of Jesus.
So Mrs. Rubio went to her priest to have the tortilla blessed. She testified that the tortilla had changed her life, and her husband agreed that she had been a more peaceful, happy, submissive wife since the tortilla had arrived. The priest, not accustomed to blessing tortillas, was somewhat reluctant but agreed to do it.
Mrs. Rubio took the tortilla home and put it in a glass case with piles of cotton to make it look like it was floating on clouds. Mr. Rubio built a special altar for it. They even put the whole thing in a wooden utility shack in the backyard and opened the little shrine to visitors. Within a few months, more than eight thousand people came to the Shrine of the Jesus of the Tortilla, and all of them agreed that the face in the burn marks on the tortilla was the face of Jesus—except for one reporter who said he thought it looked like former heavyweight boxing champion Leon Spinks.
I remember when I first read about the tortilla apparition. It seemed like a bizarre, one-of-a-kind throwback to medieval superstition. But in the years since, I’ve grown accustomed to hearing similar stories. Such accounts turn up on the Internet almost monthly. And invariably, people flock to see and worship the apparitions.
It seems incredible that so many people would treat objects like burnt tortillas, misshapen Cheetos, and rust stains as objects of veneration. But the sad truth is that such a distorted concept of worship is as easy to find nowadays as authentic worship based on biblical principles. Tragically, although the Bible is clear about whom and how and when we are to worship, little genuine worship takes place throughout most of the world today.
That is a spiritually debilitating reality because worship is at the center of everything Scripture commands of us. If you are not a true worshiper, everything else in your life will be spiritually out of sync. Conversely, nothing will accelerate your spiritual growth and sanctification more than gaining a right understanding of true worship.
With that in mind, let’s see how Scripture describes true worship.
Worship in the Bible
The theme of worship dominates the Bible. In Genesis, we discover that the Fall came when Adam failed to worship God by obeying His one command. In Revelation we learn that all of history culminates in an eternal worshiping community in the presence of a loving God. From the beginning in Genesis all the way through to the consummation in Revelation, the doctrine of worship is woven into the warp and woof of the biblical text.
Jesus quoted Deuteronomy 6:4–5 and called it the greatest commandment: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:29–30). That is a call for worship, and it affirms worship as the universal first priority.
Exodus 20 records the giving of the Ten Commandments. The very first of those commandments calls for and regulates worship:
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God. (vv. 2–5)
In the Old Testament, worship was supposed to be a preoccupation for God’s people. For example, the Tabernacle was designed and laid out to emphasize the priority of worship. The description of its details requires seven chapters—two hundred and fourty-three verses—in Exodus, yet only thirty-one verses in Genesis are devoted to the creation of the world.
The Tabernacle was designed only for worship. It was the place where God met His people. To use it for anything but worship would have been considered the grossest blasphemy. In the Tabernacle there were no seats because the Israelites didn’t go there to be passive observers, and they certainly didn’t go there to be entertained. They went there to worship God and to serve Him. If they had a meeting for any other purpose, they had it somewhere else.
The arrangement of the camp suggests that worship was central to all other activity. The Tabernacle was in the hub of the camp. Immediately next to it were the priests who led in the worship. A little farther out from the Tabernacle were the Levites, who were involved in service. Beyond that were all the tribes, facing toward the center, the place of worship.
All the political, social, and religious activity in Israel revolved around the law. Critical to the law was the list of ceremonial offerings described in Leviticus 1–7, all of which were acts of worship. The first offering on the list is the burnt offering, which was unique because it was completely consumed—offered totally to God. No part was shared either by the priests or by the offerer, as in other offerings.
The burnt offering was the most significant illustration of worship. In fact, the altar on which all the offerings were given was known as the altar of the burnt offering. Whenever the offerings are referred to in Scripture, the burnt offering appears at the beginning of the list because when anyone comes to God, he is to come first of all in an act of worship, where everything is given to God. That is how the law of God graphically reinforced worship as the supreme priority in the life of Israel.
Moses’s law even spelled out exactly how the implements used in the worship services were to be made. For example, Exodus 30:34–36 gives a prescription for incense. Incense is symbolic of worship in the Scriptures because its fragrance rises into the air, as true worship rises to God. Verses 37–38 sound a warning about the incense:
The incense which you shall make, you shall not make in the same proportions for yourselves; it shall be holy to you for the Lord. Whoever shall make any like it, to use as perfume, shall be cut off from his people.
In effect, God was saying, “Here is a recipe for a special perfume, emblematic of worship. This perfume is to be a unique and holy perfume. And if anyone dares to make this perfume for himself, just to smell better, I will kill him.”
Clearly, there is something so unique, so holy about worship that it is utterly apart from anything else in the human dimension. No man may take from God that which He has devised for His own glory!
But that perfume was significant as much more than a mere compound of inert ingredients: it symbolizes you and me. Our lives are to be like that perfume—holy, acceptable, fragrant—ascending to God as a sweet-smelling odor (see Romans 12:1 and 2 Corinthians 2:15). The person who uses his life for any purpose other than worship—no matter how noble that purpose may seem—is guilty of grave sin. It is the same sin as that of an Israelite who misused the holy incense—a sin so serious that under the law it merited death.
In the next post, we’ll look at some biblical examples of people who disobeyed God’s demands for holy worship and reaped the deadly consequences.
(Adapted from Worship: The Ultimate Priority)