Worshipping God in Truth

“And in the process of time it came to pass that Cain brought an offering of the fruit of the ground to the LORD. Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat. And the LORD respected Abel and his offering, but He did not respect Cain and his offering. And Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell” (Genesis 4:3-5)
The very thought sounds foreign to many modern ears: God looks at the sacrifice of someone who is worshipping Him and does not have respect to it, or, as other translations of the Bible put it, has no regard towards it. Isn’t God able to look past the form of worship to the foundation from which it is offered? Doesn’t He see past the externals to the heart of the worshipper?

In explaining why the Lord did not receive Cain’s offering, some state that it must have been offered insincerely. But why then would the record state that after his offering was rejected, “Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell” (Genesis 4:5)? It isn’t likely that you’re going to get very upset over something you don’t care about or that you do halfheartedly.

A better explanation for God’s rejection of Cain’s offering can be found by taking into account the sum of God’s word, which, as the Bible says, is where truth is found (Psalm 119:160 ASV, ESV, NASB, etc.). The immediate context reveals that while Cain’s sacrifice was rejected, Abel’s sacrifice was received. The Bible later reveals that Abel’s sacrifice was offered by faith (Hebrews 11:4). But where does faith come from? “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17). Putting the two thoughts together, the reason why Cain’s sacrifice was not accepted becomes clear: God must have given a command to both Cain and Abel that Abel followed but Cain disobeyed. Cain’s offering was rejected because it didn’t agree with God’s commandment.

God’s desire for worship has not fundamentally changed. From the very first time man offered worship to God, God has looked at two things: the heart from which it comes and whether or not it is offered in faith, or, in other words, by one who believes and obeys the commands of God. Jesus highlighted this fact to a woman from Samaria when He said, “God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). It isn’t an accident that Jesus said this after condemning the worship of the Samaritans, which was not received by God even though it was offered to Him (John 4:22). God wants worship to be in spirit – from the very center and soul of a man, with his heartfelt emotion – but He wants it also to be in truth – in agreement with His commandments.

Some believe that since we are commanded to offer ourselves as living sacrifices, that our lives become worship, and therefore true worship becomes anything that we do in the course of living the Christian life. Upon closer examination of this command, one realizes that the passage doesn’t feature the typical word used in the New Testament for “worship.” Some translations honor this by rending the word “service”: “Present your bodies a living sacrifice [...] which is your reasonable service” (Romans 12:1). There is a difference between what is done to God and what is done for God. While it is true that all worship is service, not all service is worship.

Worship has always been an action of purpose and intent; in other words, no one has ever accidentally worshipped. Worship is something that begins and ends as Abraham demonstrated when he said, “The lad and I will go yonder and worship, and we will come back to you” (Genesis 22:5). Further, God has set parameters for what worship ought to be. If one worships God according to the doctrines of men or according to his own thoughts or desires, one worships God in vain (Mark 7:7). To borrow some thoughts from Paul, such worship can be considered “self-imposed religion,” and since it is “according to the commandments and doctrines of men,” it is “of no value” (Colossians 2:22-23).

Though God’s fundamental desire in worship hasn’t changed, what He expects from man as a means of worship has. In previous ages, a man might have worshipped God by offering an animal sacrifice, keeping a feast day, or even by playing an instrument. Today, we find that in order to worship God acceptably our worship must be rooted and grounded in the authority of Jesus: “And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him” (Colossians 3:17).

The safest and surest way to find the authority of Jesus is to follow the example of the early church, as it was directed by Jesus’ inspired apostles. Under their guidance, the church engaged in the following activities in worship to God: prayer (Acts 12:5; 1 Timothy 2:8), singing (Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16), the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:23-28, Acts 20:7), freewill offerings (1 Corinthians 16:1, 2), and teaching/preaching (Acts 20:7). Each of these actions are governed by the specific requests of God. For example: men are commanded to lead in prayers and teaching and not women (1 Timothy 2:8-12); collections are only to be taken up by the church on the first day of every week (1 Corinthians 16:1, 2); singing – which is a means of teaching and therefore is to be led by men – is to be reciprocal (done to each other as opposed to a performance by a soloist or a choir), accompanied only by the instrument of the heart (Ephesians 5:19); the Lord’s Supper is to be taken the first day of every week (Acts 20:7). When the church followed these instructions from God, it worshipped “by faith” just like Abel did (Hebrews 11:4). To fail to do so would have been to follow the example of Cain.  

The hour is coming and now is when God is looking for those who will worship Him with all their heart, soul, strength, and mind (cf. John 4:23-24; Mark 12:28-34). At the same time, He is looking for men and women like righteous Abel, who will take Him at His word and worship Him in truth. Will you follow His will, or yours? Will you worship Him in truth?
-Patrick Swayne  
patrick@tftw.org

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