Thoughts on Personal Preferences and Worship of God

Contemporary Worship (610x351)From the beginning, when we first see God give His people instructions on worship, we find worship to be liturgical (following prescribed patterns, not free form of one’s own choosing).  After giving His people the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17), God told them to how to build an altar (Exodus 20:24-26).  Then, He told them about keeping the Sabbath (Exodus 23:10-13), the annual feasts (Exodus 23:14-19), and various offerings and furnishings in the Sanctuary (Exodus 25:1-40).  God then directed them on the design of the tabernacle, the altar, the outer court, priest vestments, and instructions for daily offerings (Exodus 26-30).

Yet, the worship that took place on earth was not in isolation.  The book of Hebrews tells us that a relationship exists between our worship and the worship that takes place in heaven.  Hebrews 8:1-5 says (see also Exodus 25:40 and Wisdom 9:8):

[Jesus] is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, who serves in the sanctuary, the true tabernacle set up by the Lord and not by any human….  Now if [Jesus] were [still] on earth, he wouldn’t be a priest at all, because others offer the gifts prescribed by the Law.  They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things.  That is why Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: “See to it that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown to you on the mountain.”

The Old Covenant served as “a copy and shadow of the heavenly things.”  That means God told His people to worship in a specific way because how they worshiped on earth was to mirror what was taking place in heaven.  If God’s Old Covenant people violated this, God was not pleased.

We see God’s displeasure shortly after He rescued His people in Egypt.  In the wilderness, they wanted to worship God—but shaped by their own preferences.  So, they made a golden calf and decided to worship God through that.  How do we know?  Of this worship preference, Aaron says, “Tomorrow will be a feast to the LORD [Yahweh]” (Exodus 32:5).  About the Israelite’s preference to worship Him in the way of the Egyptians, God said, “And the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play” (Exodus 32:6).

God called their worship preference “play,” even idolatry.  The Israelites thought they were worshiping God, but they were only playing.  For they were not worshiping the way God wanted them to do so.

Well, that was the Old Covenant.  What about us in the New Covenant?  Are we fully free to do whatever we want?  You would think so based on all the different styles on worship taking place on Sunday morning.

To this Jesus says in Matthew 5:17-19:

Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets.  I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill.  For I assure you: Until heaven and earth disappear, neither the smallest letter nor even the smallest stroke of a pen will disappear from the Law until everything has been accomplished.  So, whoever sets aside one of the least of these commands, and teaches others to do the same, will be called the lowest in the kingdom of heaven.  But whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus didn’t come to abolish the Old Covenant, but to fulfill it.  And so our worship is to reflect that.  And, thus, worship in the New Covenant is still a copy and shadow of what takes place in heaven!  That’s why when we gather as God’s people, the Church’s liturgy tells us that we also worship with the “angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven.”  With them, “we laud and magnify” God’s glorious name.

And what does Revelation show us about heavenly worship, which we are to mirror?  In Revelation, whenever John sees active, heavenly worship, two words describe what he sees: pipto (fall down) and proskeneuo (in a position of prostration) (Revelation 4:10, 5:14, 7:11, 11:1, 11:16, 15:4, 19:4, 19:10).  Although they are the sinless saints in heaven, they still fall prostrate before God in worship.  If worship is reverential for them, how much more so should it be for us?

It’s not until after Jesus returns on the Last Day, and the bodies and souls of the saints are reunited, when the description of worship changes.  The saints are no longer worshiping God in the form of pipto and proskeneuo.  Revelation 22:3-5 reads:

No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship [latreuo] him.  They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.  And night will be no more.  They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

Now the saints worship God in the form of latreuo.  But more than that, they will also reign with God in eternity!

Well, back to worship here in the Church Militant.  From the beginning, the New Testament Church took God’s commanded forms of worship in the Old Covenant and adapted them to show their fulfillment in the New.  Synagogue worship became the Service of the Word.  Temple Sacrifices became the Lord’s Supper.  That shape developed into what today we call the “historic liturgy.”  This worship form still exists in Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Coptic, and traditional Lutheran worship services.

Worship is not a matter of preference.  Our preferences are irrelevant, just as the preferences of the Israelites were irrelevant in the wilderness.  In the end, it’s not about what we want.  It’s about what God wants for us.

It is a presumptuous and arrogant people who take their preferences and then demand to be shown where they cannot do what they want in their worship of God.  That happened in the Old Covenant, when the people of Israel wanted to worship God using forms they were comfortable with: a golden calf (Exodus 32:5).  God called such worship idolatry–and this was even before His people received the Ten Commandments.  Beginning with such a human-centered approach begins with an idolatrous worldview of self at the center instead of God.




  1. Susan Steinhaus says

    One of my friends had this as a link on their facebook page so I followed. As a former Lutheran (for 50 years) and now an Orthodox I found it very good reading. I have had to humble myself to fully emerse myself in Orthodox worship. I went to college in the early 70’s and it was all about the guitars and free form worship. I could never have been orthodox as a young adult. I was still too rebellious theologically. Reading more history and experiencing Orthodox worship literally brought me to my knees and a new old church.

  2. Ethel Hikal says

    I highly appreciate this erudite essay, complete with Scripture references.

    • Ethel and Susan,

      Someone linked this article at Several people were not understanding the idea that the golden calf was really a means the Israelites used to try to worship God through their own preferred means. In response the the discussion there, this is what I wrote there to help others understand this.


      In Exodus 32:1, when the people ask Moses to “make us gods who shall go before us,” the Hebrew word for “gods” is Elohim. Elohim is one of the names for God, which is a plural form with usually a singular meaning, which is cool because it shows both the singleness of God (One God) but also plurality of God (Trinity).

      As only one golden calf was made, then the meaning for Elohim can’t be “gods” but “God.”

      Aaron affirms that understanding by referring to Elohim as YHWH in vs. 5.

      The true idolatry was that the people of Israel chose to worship the one, true God by adopting foreign worship styles. They were saying, through their actions: we’ll worship the one, true God, YHWH, but use the worship style we like and are familiar with–Egyptian worship style. Adapting a book title on worship, it was “Egyptian Style, Israelite Substance.”

      That disconnect between what one believes and how that is lived out did not sit well with God. For we don’t (and shouldn’t) come to God based on our preferences but, instead, God’s “preferences” for us. That’s how it is with God. That was the main premise of the short article I posted on my church’s web site.

      Later, we see God‘s dislike of the Israelites in Numbers 16. There, the Israelites wanted to set up their own priesthood, instead of the one God had set up for them. That was the same sin: the people choosing, based on their preferences, how they would worship God (but this time it was by choosing their own priesthood instead of the one God instituted).

      Well back to Exodus 32. We see how serious of an offence it was to come to God on their own terms, that is, based on their preferences. Notice the shift in language that God used to refer to Israel. No longer did God speak of the Israelites as His special people (Exodus 3:10, 5:1, and 6:7). Instead, He told Moses that the Israelites are “your people, whom you brought up from the land of Egypt” (Exodus 32:7)!

      The first four chapters of Numbers tell us what happened after the golden-calf incident. Moses took a census (from which the book gets its name as a book of “numbers”) and established the authority of the Levites.

      Why the Levites? They were the only tribe who did not to try to worship God through the form of an Egyptian false god: the golden calf. So, they were dedicated and ordained as priests for the nation (Exodus 32:26-29). Now, the firstborn son in each family would no longer inherit the father’s role as priest. Instead, the Levites were chosen in place of the firstborn sons (Numbers 3:11-13, 45).

      And so we see that Korah’s rebellion in Numbers 16, against the Levitical priesthood, has its roots back in the golden-calf incident.


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