I want to talk about acceptable worship. But before we get to the text of John 4 and Jesus’ discussion about worship with the Samaritan woman at the well, I want to back up much earlier in the revelation of God and begin thinking about what acceptable worship is from a starting point in Exodus chapter 20. Exodus chapter 20, verse 7, among the Ten Commandments is this commandment: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain.” That is a very serious command. Anyone who violates that command will be punished.
“Do not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” That’s obviously the negative side, that’s the prohibition. But later on in what is often called the second law, the book of Deuteronomy, we read this in chapter 6 and verses 4-6: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. These words I am commanding you today, they shall be on your heart.” Now there’s the positive side.
The negative, “Do not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” The positive, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.” To love the Lord that way would preclude you taking His name in vain. This is foundational in our relationship to God. We are to have no other god but the true God. That’s the part of the Ten Commandments in which we are first introduced to God’s law. We are not to make any graven image or any representation of Him. And we are not to take His name in vain.
But just exactly what does that mean? We need to know what it means, because to be honest with you, we’ve all done it. What does it say when God promises to bring punishment for those who take His name in vain? Pretty serious, so we need to look at it. His name Yahweh appears seven thousand times in the Old Testament. We have it on our lips a lot; we use the name of God frequently. But are we in danger of taking that name in vain?
Here are some ways that that is done. First, anyone who curses God or blasphemes His name has obviously violated that command. Listen to Leviticus 24:15-16. “If anyone curses his God, then he shall bear his sin. Moreover, the one who blasphemes the name of the Lord shall surely be put to death…stone him. The alien as well as the native, when he blasphemes the Name, shall be put to death.”
So, one obvious way you take the name of the Lord in vain is by blaspheming that name. Now what does that mean? Since God is, as we heard this morning in that beautiful anthem played for us, “Holy, Holy, Holy,” anything that assaults the holiness of God, anything spoken about God that in any sense assumes that He is evil is to curse God or blaspheme God. To think of God as evil would be to think of God as unfaithful, unloving, unwise, lacking compassion, lacking mercy, lacking power; anything said against the glory of God, any accusation that God is in some ways flawed.
And you do remember, in the garden of Eden it was Satan who convinced Eve that God was evil. “He doesn’t want you to eat because He doesn’t want you to be like Him. He’s jealous in a sinful way.” That was blaspheming God. To accuse God of any form of evil or anything less than the absolute holy nature which He possesses is to take His name in vain.
Secondly – this is pretty common – we take the name of the Lord in vain when we falsely swear by His name. And that is to say when you are telling a lie but you want people to think you’re telling the truth, so you bring the name of God to validate it. “I swear to God.” That’s using His name in vain. That’s bringing His holy name in to somehow convince people that your lie is true. That’s using the holy name of God for evil purposes. Leviticus 19:12 says, “You shall not swear falsely by My name, so as to profane the name of the Lord; I am the Lord.”
There’s a third way that God’s name is taken in vain – and I’m just giving you some samples; there are many more. You take the Lord’s name in vain when you say you speak for Him and you do not; when you say you have heard from the Lord and you speak for the Lord and that is not true. You literally are using the holy name of God to validate your deception.
If you look with me at Jeremiah 23; it’s a little more extended passage, so I want to read it to you. Jeremiah chapter 23. There were prophets in Israel who were constantly claiming to speak for God, and they lied. They, in verse 14 of Jeremiah 23, are identified as “prophets of Jerusalem who have done a horrible thing: committing of adultery, walking in falsehood, strengthening the hands of evildoers.” They were wicked prophets.
But come down to verse 15. Listen to what the Lord said: “‘Therefore thus says the LORD of hosts concerning the prophets, “Behold, I am going to feed them wormwood and make them drink poisonous water, for from the prophets of Jerusalem pollution has gone forth into all the land.” Thus says the Lord of hosts, “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who are prophesying to you. They are leading you into futility; they speak a vision of their own imagination, not from the mouth of the Lord.”’”—for example—“‘“They keep saying to those who despise Me, ‘The Lord has said, “You will have peace;”’ and as for everyone who walks in the stubbornness of his own heart, they say, ‘Calamity will not come on you.’ But who has stood in the council of the LORD, that he should see and hear His word? Who has given heed to His word and listened? Behold, the storm of the Lord has gone forth in wrath, even a whirling tempest; it will swirl down on the head of the wicked. The anger of the Lord will not turn back until He has performed and carried out the purposes of His heart; in the last days you will clearly understand it. I did not send these prophets, but they ran. I did not speak to them, but they prophesied. If they had stood in My council, then they would have announced My words to My people, and would have turned them back from their evil way and from the evil of their deeds.”’”
Lying prophets who claim to speak for God take His name in vain. That is ubiquitous, isn’t it? That is everywhere today. People saying, “The Lord told me this. The Lord told me that. The Lord spoke to me to tell you this.” If you’re ever in a meeting where somebody stands up and says, “The Lord told me this, and now I’m telling you,” go out the backdoor as fast as you can; you’re in the presence of a liar. But this is so common.
Whenever you stand up in a pulpit and you say, “I’m going to speak to you the word of the Lord,” it’d better be the Word of the Lord. “Stop being so many teachers,” James said, “because theirs is a greater condemnation.”
But there’s another way in which the Lord’s name is taken in vain, and that is through worship that diminishes His glory, through worship that diminishes His glory. If you go back into the Old Testament, particularly the book of Leviticus, you find the Lord gave instruction for how worship was to be carried on in the tabernacle with the people of God. And He ordained priests, the sons of Aaron, to lead worship, and He gave prescriptions as to what was to be a part of that worship.
And then in Leviticus 22, verse 1-3, we read this: “Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Tell Aaron and his sons to be careful with the holy things of the sons of Israel, which they dedicate to Me, so as not to profane My holy name; I am the Lord. That person shall be cut off.’” God says, “Moses, tell Aaron your brother to tell the priests to be careful with the holy things. If you’re not careful with the holy things you will be guilty of profaning My name; and that person should be destroyed.”
You might think it was a wonderful opportunity to be a priest, but it was deadly serious. Deviation from prescriptions that God had laid out would bring about death. We see that in the Old Testament. Priests were literally executed by God on the spot for offering strange fire, some profane deviation from the prescribed forms of worship. “Warn Aaron and his sons who will lead the worship to follow the prescriptions laid out in Scripture to be careful with the holy things, so as not to profane My holy name.”
In the first chapter of Isaiah, this is also the issue. You can turn to it and I’ll read you a few verses there. First chapter of Isaiah. Isaiah is writing the revelation of God to, as he says in verse 4, “A sinful nation, a people weighed down with iniquity, offspring of evildoers, sons who act corruptly, who have abandoned the Lord, despised the Holy One of Israel and turned away from Him.” That is the people that Israel had become and to whom Isaiah wrote.
But look what he writes, starting down in verse 11: “‘What are your multiplied sacrifices to Me?’ says the Lord. ‘I’ve had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed cattle. I take no pleasure in the blood of bulls, lambs or goats. When you come to appear before Me, who requires of you this trampling of My courts? Bring your worthless offerings no longer, incense is an abomination to Me. New moon and sabbath, the calling of assemblies—I cannot endure iniquity and the solemn assembly. I hate your new moon festivals and your appointed feasts, they have become a burden to Me; I am weary of bearing them. So when you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide My eyes from you; yes, even though you multiply prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are covered with blood.’”
Now the Lord says, “I hate all these things that you’re doing,” which He Himself prescribed. These are things God ordered for the people of Israel to do: offerings, and sacrifices, and festivals, and new moons, and Sabbath. And God says, “I hate it all. I hate it all.”
Verse 16, He says, “‘Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from My sight. Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, reprove the ruthless, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.’” Then this: “‘Come now, and let us reason together,’ says the Lord, ‘though your sins are as scarlet, they will be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they will be like wool. If you consent and obey, you will eat the best of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword.’ Truly, the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
This is a terrifying judgment on worship, false-hearted worship. To the priests, God says, “Be careful how you handle worship; it could cost you your life.” And it did for some. Isaiah says, “God’s not interested in your sacrifices or your festivals because your hearts are not washed.” The carnal handling of worship, people whose hearts are not washed, worshiping God is unacceptable worship. In Amos chapter 5, God says through the prophet, “Stop your songs; your hearts aren’t right. Stop your songs; I don’t want to hear them; your hearts aren’t right.”
You could worship the Lord in vain by deviating from His prescribed forms of worship. You can worship the Lord in vain by having an unclean heart, a sinful heart. As it was said of Israel, “With their lips they honor Me, but their heart is far from Me.”
What does “in vain” mean when we read, “Don’t take the name of the Lord in vain”? What does “in vain” mean? “In vain” has the notion of nothing. You could say it this way: it would be to cheapen God’s holy name or to empty God’s name of glory. Any form of worship, any form of worship that comes from an impure heart, any form of worship that is connected to the kingdom of darkness, any form of worship that is self-centered, self-indulgent, frivolous, shallow, hypocritical is taking the Lord’s name in vain. It is emptying God of His glory. Don’t empty His name of any glory. Don’t think of Him or speak of Him or sing of Him in any way that empties glory that belongs to His name.
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. The knowledge of the holy is understanding.” That’s foundational. If you’re going to fear the Lord you have to know the Lord. And when you know the Lord and you understand the glory of His name, you want to worship Him in a way that does not empty that name of any glory that He is due.
Worship is very serious. Worship is actually dangerous. Shouldn’t be confused for man-centered entertainment. Shouldn’t be confused for some kind of emotional experience. It certainly shouldn’t be confused with some external, mechanical ceremony. Anyone who robs God’s glory, “My glory,” He said, “I will not give to another.” Anyone who diminishes or robs or empties God of any glory in any expression of worship has taken His name in vain, is not guiltless, has sinned a serious sin.
In Psalm 24 – it’s good that we look at Psalm 24 as we kind of introduce our thoughts with regard to worship: “The earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains, the world, and those who dwell in it. For He has founded it upon the seas and established it upon the rivers.” Now here’s a statement regarding worship: “Who may ascend into the hill of the Lord? Who can come to worship the Lord? Who may stand in His holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, he who has not lifted up his soul to falsehood and has not sworn deceitfully. He shall receive a blessing from the Lord and righteousness from the God of his salvation. This is the generation of those who seek Him, who seek Your face—even Jacob.” Worship can be a dangerous thing if you don’t come with clean hands and a pure heart.
Obviously we’re all aware in the contemporary church there’s a frivolity and a superficiality in worship. And much, much so-called worship is really designed at the lowest possible level of comprehension; it’s almost childish. You don’t want to be rushing into the presence of the Lord unless you know whose presence you’re in. When Isaiah found himself in the presence of the Lord, he said, “I’m an unclean man of unclean lips. Woe is me.” Why did you say that, Isaiah? “Because I’ve seen the Lord.”
What is missing in contemporary worship is a vision of God. Until you have a full understanding of the nature of God and the glory of God and the greatness of God and the majesty of God, you really don’t know whose presence you’re rushing into.
We understand from what the Scripture says very clearly that we are all to bow to the Lord. We are under His sovereignty. We’re reminded of that in Psalm – a lot of psalms, but I was thinking of Psalm 95, which we all ought to remember. “O Come let us sing for joy to the Lord.” That’s right. That’s what we’re called to do. “Let us shout joyfully to the rock of our salvation. Let us come before His presence with thanksgiving, let us shout joyfully to Him with psalms. For the Lord is a great God and a great King above all gods, in whose hands are the depths of the earth, the peaks of the mountains are His also. The sea is His, for it was He who made it, and His hands formed the dry land.” And then this: “Come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker. For He is our God, and we are the people of His pasture and the sheep of His hand.”
When you come before the Lord, you bow down. Worship is bowing down before the Lord. Philippians 2:9-10, “One day every knee will bow, every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” As believers, worship is a bowing experience. We come into the presence of the Lord and we’re called to have a clean, pure heart, clean hands, which means both on the inward and the outward behavior. We are walking in obedience to the Lord. We come to give honor and glory to Him. And in the process of that, we do not think of Him as less than He is. We would never want to curse His name. We would never want to speak of His name and use it for the affirmation of a lie. We would never want to say, “The Lord has said,” when He hasn’t said. And we never would want to diminish worship, emptying God of His glory. I guess, in a sense, you could say worship is just not serious enough because people aren’t serious enough about the glory of God. Anyone who cheapens, empties, diminishes His name by shallow, superficial, loveless, empty, self-centered, indulgent expressions takes His name in vain.
The Heidelberg Catechism, written back in 1563, said, “We must see the holy name of God only with fear and reverence so that we may rightly confess Him, call on Him, and praise Him in all our words and works. We must see the holy name of God only with fear and reverence. We don’t live in a reverent culture, do we? It’s far too casual, and it treats God in far too casual a manner as well. We take our Lord’s name in vain and we think less of Him than is true of Him. When we know less of Him than we ought to know, we are then bound to give Him less praise than He deserves.
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Wisdom starts when you fear the Lord. And then immediately, Proverbs 9:10, “The knowledge of the Holy is understanding.” If you want to fear the Lord you have to know Him. So worship should reflect the will of God and the glory of God.
In Matthew chapter 15 – if you want to look at it for a moment – Matthew chapter 15, our Lord is talking with Pharisees and scribes. And down in verse 7 He says to them, “You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you” – and then He quotes in verse 8 from Isaiah 29 – “‘This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me’”; so, verse 9, “‘In vain do they worship Me.’” It’s empty worship when your heart is far from where your lips are. It’s easy to sing the songs. It’s easy to get caught up in the beauty of the music. But if your heart isn’t right you are taking the name of the Lord in vain.
I don’t know that you think about that. Probably most people would say, “Well, if I’m in church I’m doing what I should do.” You can be in church and be in spiritual danger. You can be in worship and be in spiritual danger because your lips are offering honor to God but your heart isn’t. It’s always the heart.
David says in Psalm 86, “Unite my heart.” What does he mean by that? “Give me one great love. Give me one great affection.” What would that be? “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind.” “Give me one great love. Unite my heart. Let me not be divided. Let me not be distracted.”
Now I want you to look at one other passage and that’s Romans chapter 12, and it’s a familiar one. And this, by the way, is just kind of an introduction to what we’ll look at next Lord’s Day when we look more closely at John 4.
Romans chapter 12, verse 1, very familiar. “Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God,” – based upon all the mercies of God which have been outlined in the previous eleven chapters, all the wonders and glories of salvation, based upon all of that, here’s what you’re to do – “present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.” So what is “worship”? It is presenting myself as a living and holy sacrifice acceptable to God. It’s all about self-sacrifice. And how is that done? Verse 2: “Do not be conformed to this world.” There are a lot of people who want to talk about worship and design it so that it’s conformed to the world. They want unconverted, unregenerate people to join in worship. That is folly.
The only way that we can offer spiritual service of worship to God that is acceptable is having presented our bodies a living and holy sacrifice, and not just our bodies, but verse 2, “having been transformed by the renewing of our minds.” Again, it’s the whole person conformed not to the world, but the end of verse 2, “that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” So worship is, first of all, presenting myself, body and mind, to God as a spiritual act of worship, and then that worship follows what God wills.
What does God will in worship? Does God have a will for how we worship? Clearly it’s laid out in Scripture. We’re told when we gather together in fellowship we are to hear the Word read. “Till I come,” Paul says to Timothy, “read the Scripture, and then explain the Scripture.” That’s a dominating reality. “Speak to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.” Offering prayer, that’s another part. Our Lord said, “Until I come, gather around My Table” - have Communion. Those are all expressions of worship.
The Lord has given us exactly the details for how we are to worship. We are to come together, our hearts having been cleansed, come together in a repentant attitude, come together ready to fellowship with the saints, ready to lift our voice in praise and song and thanksgiving. We are to come together collectively to pray, and we are to hear the Word of God taught.
The Reformers were so convinced of the prescription that God had laid down that they developed what was called the regulative principle. The regulative principle simply meant that we are to worship in a way regulated by divine revelation. We can’t create a service because we think unbelievers would like it or even believers would like it, but we regulate the service based on what God has revealed. Here’s from John Calvin, a very short but very clear comment. “God disapproves of all modes of worship not explicitly sanctioned in Scripture.” “God disapproves of all modes of worship not explicitly sanctioned in Scripture.” That wasn’t his opinion; that was the result of his understanding of God.
God had prescriptions for the worship in the Old Testament, warned the sons of Aaron, “Do not deviate from these prescriptions.” God has designed the way He wants to be worshiped, and we can’t offer spiritual sacrifices of worship according to the will of God unless our bodies are offered as a living sacrifice and our minds have been renewed by the Word of God.
So I will say this: the most important contributor to effective worship is the Scripture, because if we’re supposed to worship according to the will of God, we have to go to the Scripture to find out what the will of God is, prove that, and that’s essentially the definition of how we worship, which then leads me to say expository preaching is the key to effective worship, to God being honored, to God’s will being done. I’ve been asked through the years, not so much anymore, but in the early years, “How can your congregation worship when you preach so long?” And in my mind I’m saying, “How can your congregation worship when you preach so short?” because what informs worship is truth, the knowledge of the holy. The most important thing that happens in the church with regard to worship is that the mind is being transformed, being renewed by the Word of God. Acceptable worship is a product of understanding the Word of God, which then means you know God and His will and you can offer Him acceptable worship.
The history of the church – I mean, we know this – has always been marked by formal worship, external, superficial, ceremonial kinds of things that are empty and void of God and His glory and offered by loveless hearts. We all know that kind of religion, even forms of Christianity. But in our contemporary time it’s more likely that churches are infatuated not with formal religion, but with informal religion, which can be nothing more than external, emotional, superficial kinds of psychological experiences that also empty God of His glory and are not marked by knowledge of Him or love for Him. Everybody’s got a worship band; everybody’s got a worship leader; everybody has a worship team, a worship director. There’s a huge emphasis on worship, but I fear a lot of it is taking the Lord’s name in vain. Fake worship. I’ll give you a definition.
What is worship? True worship is any and every expression of obedience, praise, honor, adoration, and gratitude offered to the true God by a regenerate soul who knows the truth about God and loves Him. Did you get that? Should I try it again? Okay. True worship is any and every expression of obedience – praise, honor, adoration, and gratitude – offered to the true God by a regenerate soul who knows the truth about God and loves Him.
And this is a way of life. This is not something we do only on Sunday. It’s that we do it collectively on Sunday, but individually this is how we live our lives, worshiping the Lord by obedience, praise, honor, adoration, and gratitude offered to the true God by a regenerate soul who knows the truth about God and who loves Him. We live in praise; we live in worship; we are true worshipers. We are the true worshipers the Father sought and found. We are those, Paul says to the Philippians, who worship God in the spirit and have no confidence in the flesh. We are worshipers.
If you’re a Christian, you’re a worshiper. You’ve been literally saved to worship. If you question that, then take a glimpse at heaven. Go to the book of Revelation, look at chapters 4, 5, 11, 14, 15, 19, 22, and you’re going to have a glimpse of heaven. And everybody’s doing one thing: worship, worship. Psalm 45: “My heart is overflowing. My heart is bubbling over.” That’s worship, and that’s all the time. You are a true worshiper with a heart that is overflowing with worship.
In the New Testament we see so many doxologies, don’t we, where Paul stops and bursts into praise, like in the end of Romans chapter 11. Since we’re in chapter 12 you might just look back at that. Paul has gone through the glories of salvation, and then he says in verse 33, “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor? Or who has first given to Him that it might be paid back to him again? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.” Such magnificent doxologies are throughout the writings of the apostle Paul as he bursts into praise.
We need to remind the church that music is not worship. Music is just poetry with a tune, a melody. It is not worship. Worship is what the heart does, music is just one vehicle. Prayer is worship. Ministry is worship. It’s an act of service. It’s a sacrifice of praise. Thankfulness - the fruit of your lips, thanks unto God is worship. Everything you do in your life should be an act of worship to the Lord. And when we come together collectively, all of us as individual worshipers have this incredible joy of riding the wave of our corporate gratitude and love to God in the high, glorious expression of collective praise. People who do the music aren’t the worship leaders. The worship leader is the person who teaches the Scripture, because that’s where worship is born. Worship is stimulated not by music, but by understanding, by the reading of the Scripture, the preaching of the Scripture.
But aren’t we blessed to have music, to let our hearts overflow with words that we couldn’t come up with on our own on the wings of melody that we couldn’t write? The hymnal that you have there beside you with your Bible is a gift from God to us, a legacy of saints down through the years who help us express our worship in words that we otherwise wouldn’t have.
I’ve said this in the past and you will remember it if you’ve been here. Your praise can only go as high as your understanding goes deep. People who have a superficial knowledge of God have only a superficial capacity to praise Him. The height of your praise is directly proportionate to the depth of your understanding. When you understand the deep things of God, when you understand the truths of His glorious nature and work, your praise is elevated based on that knowledge; it is directly proportionate. So if you want to worship the Lord in a greater way, it doesn’t mean turn up the band; it’s not turn up the music. If you want to worship the Lord in a greater way, enrich your understanding of Him from the glorious Word of God.
Father, we thank You for the privilege and opportunity that we have had to gather this morning. It has been refreshing and exhilarating to be in the fellowship of the saints to come before You again and bow in worship and sit at Your feet to hear the truth of Your Scripture. We are so profoundly enriched. May we be changed by this. Give us a fresh new understanding of the seriousness of worship, yes, even the danger of worship.
And then, Lord, we ask this, that You would make us grateful for the forgiveness that You’ve given us for the times we take Your name in vain. We want to love You with all our heart, soul, mind and strength; we fall short of that, and so we break that command. We never want to take Your name in vain, but we do in trivial ways and even in profound ways. But we thank You that the Lord Jesus Christ paid the penalty on the cross for the sins of taking Your name in vain, emptying it of all the glory of which it is worthy. We pray for the church of this generation, and ours in particular, that its knowledge of You from the Word would increase profoundly. Be merciful to people who have leaders who don’t teach them well enough that they can know the God they worship, and so their worship is superficial and prone to take Your name in vain.
Lord, glorify Yourself, elevate Yourself. May we who come into Your presence realize that we need to know You even more than we know You now, even better, and that that opportunity is in our hands through Your Word. Make us all that we can be as worshipers until we’re with You in glory, and all sin and weakness is gone, and we will worship You in pure righteousness. We thank You that we get a taste of that, a taste of heaven as we gather on Your day as we’ve done today. Bless every life here. Draw some who are not worshipers to become true worshipers, who worship You in Spirit and in truth through faith in Jesus Christ. We pray in His name. Amen.
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