Preserve me, O God, for in you I take refuge. I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.” As for the saints in the land, they are the excellent ones, in whom is all my delight. The sorrows of those who run after another god shall multiply; their drink offerings of blood I will not pour out or take their names on my lips. The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.
I bless the Lord who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me. I have set the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken. Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices; my flesh also dwells secure. For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption. You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
In your presence there is fullness of joy. At your right hand are pleasures forevermore. If that’s true, “in your presence there is fullness of joy” — there’s no fuller than full. And if it’s true, “at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” — there’s no longer than forever, full and forever. If that’s true, then there’s no other place to be than there. And in worship, we want to go there. That’s where we want to go. Worship leaders help people get to that place — full and forever satisfaction.
I feel, in your presence, really inadequate for this. I’ve never done what Bob just did. I love to sing, but I’m glad people are singing with me when I sing, because you wouldn’t want me at a microphone. But oh my, I’ve said to our people many times, and I think it’s still true, that consistently the highest joys of my life are standing right where I was standing with the worship of my people cascading over my head.
God does more work in those moments on my marriage, on my fathering, and on my witness than at other times; he breaks me there more than any other place and reminds me of the horrors of bad attitudes. I don’t know how you are, or where you feel most pressed by the Lord as a failure, but I feel it in worship. Worship is a paradox to me. I feel most cognizant of my sin there, and most hope-filled there.
We did communion this past Saturday night, and Kenny Stokes led us here. Noel was with me that night, and it felt really special. Communion ought to be special. There should be a powerful, vertical thing going on as we commune and fellowship with the risen Christ, remembering what he did until he comes. And there should be powerful, horizontal affections going on in those moments. And if there’s brokenness there, that ought to be fixed. That’s why we test ourselves.
As Kenny finished, I just leaned over to Noel, took her hand, and said, “I love you.” That was really sexy, in the holiest way I can imagine saying those words. It was totally God, at that moment, sweetening my affections for my wife of 43 years. And a hundred other things happen on that bench right there. So if you’re responsible for helping make this happen, that’s a big glorious calling.
So another reason I feel inadequate, since I haven’t done it, is that I’m just so aware of how little I’m going to be able to say in these five hours. I think to myself, “Big books have been written on this. You’ve probably read five of them, and I probably haven’t read any of them.” I just read my Bible, try to figure out what it says, and then talk.
So I just want to make sure you know there’s going to be a lot of important things I’m not going to say. Okay? This is a slice of John Piper’s experience with worship and the Bible. I’m limited, time is limited, and where I’ve looked is limited. So don’t let your expectations be too big here, okay?
If I could just say a few things I’ll be happy. I don’t know a lot of things about a lot of things. I know a few really, really important things about a few really, really important people: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And if you know a few things really deeply, really well, and they just totally grip you, it truly will make your life fruitful. Don’t worry about knowing too much. Just know deeply and know well what’s true, big, and all encompassing.
Why Gravity and Gladness: The Pursuit of God in Corporate Worship?
Let’s start by reflecting on the title of the seminar. Why this title? Gravity and gladness the pursuit of God in corporate worship. Let’s start with the word corporate and think about that for a minute. Corporate is our focus. There are other kinds of worship. We may allude to them. That’s not our focus. Not private or family, but the essence is the same. There are unique things that happen in corporate worship for the glory of God.
I never want to overstate the case for corporate worship, or say it’s more important than a life of worship, as described in Romans 12:1–2. I wouldn’t say that it’s more important than a husband, wife, and children daily worshiping, I wouldn’t say that it’s more important than you alone on your knees with your Bible before God. I’d just say it’s unique. There are some things that go on in it that are really good, and you don’t want to miss. I would probably even say there are essential things in it.
So here is an example of the effect of corporate.
As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God? My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me all the day long, “Where is your God?” (Psalm 42:1–3).
So here’s an embattled soul, aching for God with enemies surrounding him. And here’s how his soul moves:
These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I would go with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God with glad shouts and songs of praise, a multitude keeping festival (Psalm 42:4).
So what does he remember in his embattled solitude, while he’s surrounded by adversaries? What does he remember? He remembers corporate worship. He remembers a throng. He remembers a precession. He remembers a house. He remembers shouts and songs of praise. He remembers a multitude keeping festival.
And the very memory of it has a power. The next verse says:
Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation (Psalm 42:5).
So he’s preaching to himself on the basis of this, the very memory of it. I have stepped away from ministry sometimes for vacation, a writing leave, a five months sabbatical, or an eight-month leave of absence. I’ve stepped away many times over the years from the memory of this room.
We’ve been here for 20 years this summer. We built this building in 1991. Before that, I have memories of another building — but 20 years of meeting God here with my people. This is unbelievably full of sweetness to me. And so, when I’m away, the same phenomenon from Psalm 42 happens. There are unique things that minister to us as persons that go on here. It’s always bi-directional, right? If it ever ceases to be bi-directional, it’s either not Godward or it’s not congregational.
Bi-directional means it needs to always be vertical. I want to take the American church and shout at the top of my lungs, “Go vertical! Lay off the horizontal for a while. One hour a week is not too long to ask people to get serious about being vertical.” There’s not much time. The whole world is jerking them around to be horizontal — to be funny, chatty, lovable, kind, and gentle. They want to talk and talk, and be funny.
Can we just have one hour a week where we just rivet on God? Everything in the service just pushing vertical all the time? The welcome is going vertical. The announcements are going vertical. The music is going vertical, the confession, the Scriptures — everything. And yet, it won’t only be vertical because we’re together. As soon as you get two people together, or a hundred people, they know the other people are going vertical too
It affects me when Tom Stellar or David Mathis are at my side singing heartily. Maybe at a moment when my mind just checked out, their hand goes up. And I say, “Whoops, where am I? Obviously, not where they are. I’m thinking about whether I can say Psalm 16 by heart.” So the horizontal dimension is huge. It’s real. There’s no denying it, and it’s important that we believe in it. Something happens to us as the people around us are connecting vertically, and it’s a kind of thing that you can’t quantify. It does things in you for God and for others. That’s congregational thinking.
Now, what about the word pursuit in the title? Maybe you would say, “Should we think this way about worship? Isn’t God pursuing us? Why do you say we pursue him? Why would you even put that in the title? It sounds like too much focus on us.” And to that I would reply, yes, he pursues us.
You did not choose me, but I chose you…(John 15:16).
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him (John 3:17).
Yes, he came after us. Again, it says:
The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him (John 4:23).
Yes, yes, yes. That’s true. But this is true too:
One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple (Psalm 27:4). I’m after that with blood earnestness. This is no casual thing. I want to help my people on Saturday to get ready to do this dogged search on Sunday morning, that says, “I’m after you. I will not rest until I have you. I must have you. I must meet you. I can’t live without you.” That’s the flavor I’m getting at with this word.
Seek the Lord and his strength; seek his presence continually! (Psalm 105:4).
You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart (Jeremiah 29:13).
So get a good start on Saturday, and then do it corporately on Sunday, or whenever your services are. I want to help people get there. Most people don’t come into worship services already there. They don’t. You can tell by their chatter. So we need to help them get there, and chiding them won’t help them.
The key is to get these two things, God’s pursuit of me and my pursuit of him, in the right order. The first yields the second. Depend on the first, his pursuit of me, for the second, my pursuit of him. Here are three texts that point there.
Philippians 3:12 says:
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.
Oh, press on. That has to be one of my favorite verses for defining the Christian life. The Christian life is a race. It’s a pursuit. Sunday morning is the vertical dimension of that, big time. I am stretching. I’m leaning. I’m pursuing. I’m agonizing. I’m striving. I’m pushing in. If that just sounds like work to you, it’s not that way. It’s like a deer panting for the flowing streams.
And this is what relieves you. We’re doing it because he made me his own. Prior to my quest for him, he took me already and made me his. If I haven’t reversed, I’m not a Christian yet, or I’m becoming a legalist. We say to him, “I want you because you’ve got me by the scruff of the neck.” I picture myself like that a lot. God has me held tightly. I may not be hugging him at the moment, but he’s just holding me. He won’t let me drop. I believe in the perseverance of the saints. Those whom he called, he justified. Those whom he justified, he glorified. He did it.
So there is a gospel way to seek God, and there is a profoundly contented way to express your discontentment at not having enough of him.
Philippians 2:12–13 says:
Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Work it out, because God is at work. His work is prior, which is what the word for is getting at.
And 1 Peter 4:11 says:
whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies...
A lot of service goes up on this platform. We have drums, guitars, piano, and an organ back there. Singers appear in a choir. And then the people in the service of worship are out there serving. A lot of serving is going on. What does that mean? It means we’re always receiving. The one who serves does it by the strength that God supplies, in order that in everything, God may get the glory. The principle here is real simple: the giver gets the glory. If you put yourself in the position of a giver, the benefactor of God, you take away his glory. God will be the giver.
We have a prayer room downstairs, and we go there to pray for 30 minutes before every service. So the key to my hope as I come up here to preach is that I’ve been prayed over for 30 minutes, and we’ve sought God about many things in the service and in the church.
And usually, somebody quotes the passage I just read. So we think, “Here we go, Lord. It’s time.” And we go in strength he gives. We really go. Our wills are being used. Our legs are moving. Our mind is working. We are doing things — all in the strength that he is supplying so that he might get the glory, because from him, and through him, and to him are all things (Romans 11:36). You just have to build that into your people and into yourself. It’s the way to live at all moments, but especially in the service of worship. There are two more words in the title I want to focus on: gravity and gladness. Why those?
For the Lord spoke thus to me with his strong hand upon me, and warned me not to walk in the way of this people, saying: “Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread. But the Lord of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread (Isaiah 8:11–13).
Let that sink in otherwise, you won’t get the next phrase. Don’t be afraid of anything the world is afraid of — disease, war, criminals, crime in the neighborhood — don’t be afraid of what they are afraid of. Instead:
But the Lord of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. That sounds scary. And then it says,
And he will become a sanctuary... (Isaiah 8:14)
That’s weird. That is awesome. There’s the key right there. If you get that, if you can bring some taste of that on Sunday morning, then you’ve got it. They will be a fearless people, unlike the world. Losing money, losing a job, and trouble in the world is just not what they will be afraid of. That’s a free people.
God is big, wise, strong, holy, unapproachable — a consuming fire. And you better be afraid of him. Don’t mess with him. Don’t treat him lightly. Don’t act like a smart aleck with him. And if you don’t, if there’s this reverential, trembling, awe and fear in his presence, he becomes a sanctuary for you.
So there’s my favorite illustration of this, which involves Karsten and a German shepherd. A man named Dick Teagan invited Noel and me to his house the first year I was here in 1980. My oldest son was seven, when we opened the door he stood eye to eye with the biggest dog he’d ever seen. He looked up at me and I looked at Dick, and he said, “It’s not a problem. He’s fine. This dog’s safe.” And so I said, “It’s okay, Karsten. He says it’s okay,” though I was thinking, “Just one error and your face is gone.”
As we walked in, we remembered that we left something in the car, and I said, “Oh, Karsten, would you run to get the bag?” And so, Karsten went running across the lawn and the dog started growling and following him. That was terrifying. The dog was as tall as him and had this deep growl. And then Dick Teagan leaned out the door and said, “Oh, Karsten, maybe you should walk. He doesn’t like it when people run away from him.” And I said, “That’s in the sermon next Sunday.”
And it has been a hundred times since then. Do you get this? Do you get what the fear of the Lord is? Maybe you better not run away from him. He might bite you. You better turn and just hug him. Put your arm around him and walk to the car. That’s the best illustration I’ve gotten in 30 years about what it means to fear God. Fearing God means the fear of leaving him — fearing finding anything, other than him, more satisfying than he is.
It’s a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God when what you want is something else, like a new iPad. As if to say, “I don’t want the Bible. I don’t want a sermon. I don’t want power in my life. I just want another toy.” That’s a scary thing in the presence of God, really scary. So there’s gravity in worship. If this text makes any sense, which I think it very much does, don’t be afraid of what the world fears.
Let me point you to another text in Exodus 20. Some of you know this text. It’s just so amazingly confirming and paradoxical like this. Exodus 20:20 says:
Moses said to the people, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.”
All you have to fear is fear itself, although that would be a different context, wouldn’t it? And yet that’s what he’s saying. Don’t fear what man fears.
There’s on more passage I want to point you to in relation to gladness. Psalm 43:3–4 says:
Send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling! Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy, and I will praise you with the lyre, O God, my God.
Authentic worship increases in proportion to how exceedingly God is our joy. If he’s only a little bit of your joy, your worship will only be a little bit. As your joy in him becomes more consuming, and other joys take their proper place, your worship will rise with its intensity and its authenticity. We need to help our churches find the balance here. And maybe just a practical word to you.
One of the most frustrating things is to have staff that aren’t on the same page, and some of you come from situations like that. Maybe you have a senior pastor who is a clown, and you’re the worship leader, and you want so badly for the people to know what serious joy is, not clownish joy, but serious, deep, and powerful joy; life-changing joy tasted with gospel songs. But instead, he’s always yucking it up. He’s always clowning around, telling pun after pun and alluding to one TV show after the other. And you’re sitting there thinking, “God, what am I going to do? How can I survive this?”
Maybe you can’t, but you pray like crazy. You discuss with him whether he even believes there is a kind of joy that’s different from clownish, glib, funny, lighthearted joking. In some settings, when I try to say what I’m saying right now, the only category that some people have in response is that I’m talking about being boring. That’s the only thing they know. Chipper and funny equals joyful and happy. Serious equals boring. Those are the only categories they have, and so if you try to say something like this they will simply take you to mean, “Oh, you just want everybody to be sitting there with their arms crossed. Everybody has to be solemn and bored.”
And I just want to say, “No. It’s not the way it is at a wedding. Do you usually have to tell jokes at a wedding to make people happy?” Let’s pray for each other. Let’s ask God to sweep through.
Or maybe it’s the pastor who has the heart for vertical gravity and gladness, and the worship leader is silly, and doesn’t know anything but the old way. I say the old way, because I grew up with song leaders saying, “Alright. Everybody stand up. Smile this time. Let’s do verse three again. Hug somebody on verse four.”
The attitude that we’re just going to make horizontal camaraderie happen; we’re going to get people to love each other, no matter what it takes, is utterly counterproductive. It’s just not what the gospel and what the seriousness of the Bible is about. Okay, that’s an introduction to why I titled this the way I did.
Worship as an Inward Experience of the Heart
The next thing we will move on to is the intensification of worship as an inward experience of the heart. This is going to be a biblical study now for the next half hour or so — the biblical study of what becomes of worship as you move from the Old to the New Testament, and how the New Testament sets certain trajectories for 21st century corporate worship. That’s where we’re going now.
Here’s my thesis: the essential, vital, indispensable, defining heart of worship is the experience — and that’s a huge commitment that I’m making right there — the real inside experience of being satisfied with God, because God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. This is a fateful choice if you make it, defining worship in this way. And by heart, I don’t mean your own heart, but the essence of the act itself. The defining essence or heart of worship is the experience of being satisfied with God, or all that God is for you in Jesus, if you want to keep it Christological, which is good to do. Sometimes I say it that way, sometimes I infer it.
The experience of being satisfied with God and the reason that is worship is because God is glorified when we are satisfied with God. The chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying him forever. That’s the thesis of my life and the thesis of every seminar I give, probably.
This involves a fairly radical simplification, or narrowing, of the focus from what is often included under the term worship. And please don’t overstate what I tried not to. When I say the heart or essence of worship, I don’t mean the totality of worship. Okay?
I think hands lifted, hands clapping, voices singing, voices confessing, voices preaching, and other more outward manifestations of this are also worship, if they are vitally connected with this. When they cease to be vitally connected with this, they come under the indictment:
This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men (Matthew 15:8–9).
I don’t call that worship. Vain worship is not worship. It’s worship that’s canceled and not there. As soon as this heart experience goes away, worship goes away. The acts may continue. The singing may continue. The preaching may continue, but worship isn’t happening anymore. I’m not saying this is all that worship is, I’m saying where this has gone, there isn’t any worship. That raises lots of questions, so hang on. We’re going to spend a good bit of time on this.
I just assumed something in what I said, so let me say it explicitly. A long time ago at this church, we got over ever talking about doing worship and then doing preaching. That’s not the way we talk because it’s not the way we think or the way we are. This is a worship service; that is, it is a congregational moment in the life of our people gathered to go vertical — to make much of God in Jesus Christ in the gospel — and there’s singing parts to it, praying parts, welcoming parts, confessing parts, and preaching parts. So maybe someone would say, “What do you do when all that stops and you preach?” My answer is, “I worship.” I call it expository exultation. I take my Bible, I open it before glorious things, and I exult over them to this congregation.
I’m doing it, and I hope they’re being drawn into it. It’s not a lecture. It’s not mainly teaching, though there’s a big teaching component. Preaching is mainly expository exultation. When I said a minute ago that, if the heart disconnects, Jesus would pronounce his judgment on me, as I preach, he would say, “That has ceased to be worship because you have ceased to rest in me, trust in me, enjoy me, delight in me, and overflow with exultation at the wonderful things that I’ve been showing you in my word. You just checked out.” And that’s possible in preaching, singing, or anything else.
Now here’s the problem: that kind of definition is really narrow, really subjective, and the Bible seems to talk about worship bigger than the experience of being satisfied with God. So this is my aim to show from the New Testament that this simplifying, narrowing tendency in talking about the heart of worship is biblical and in line with the reformed Puritan tradition. The reason I go there is not just because I am reformed, but because that’s the tradition that would be most uncomfortable with what I’m saying here. A Wesleyan tradition would not stumble nearly as much over making this experience the essence of worship, but for reformed folks it’s subjective. They might say, “Jonathan Edwards got us into big trouble at that point. He weighed too much on subjectivism and we need to pull things in.”
I’m going to argue that historically, that’s not the case. Here is the thesis of what I’m saying: In the New Testament, there is a stunning degree of indifference to worship as an outward form, and a radical intensification of worship as an inward experience of the heart. I think you’re going to be amazed unless you’ve read and studied all this before. I was amazed at what I found in this regard.
Here are some observations: In the New Testament, there is very little instruction that deals explicitly with corporate worship, or what we call “worship services”. There were corporate gatherings, but they were never called worship in the new Testament. Some people take this idea — I could name groups — and say:
We should never call what we do on Sunday morning worship. The New Testament doesn’t, so why should we? In fact, the effort to try to turn it into vertical worship is not in the New Testament because it’s really edification that’s the focus. Let everything be done for oikodomē (upbuilding), as 1 Corinthians 14:26 says. We gather to teach and to grow in the knowledge and the grace of God. Singing is just kind of a warm up for the audience or something, but the essence is information being transferred. The Holy Spirit is illuminating the information, we’re growing in the knowledge of God, and then we go out and change the world. Calling that worship and wanting these kinds of subjective experiences is just not biblical.
There’s significant groups that talk that way. I’m going to argue against it, but I will concede this: they weren’t called worship services in the New Testament. First Corinthians 14:23 speaks of “the whole church gathering together.” Acts 2:46 speaks of the early church “attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes.” You get the big group and small group. Hebrews 10:25 speaks of “not neglecting to meet together.” James 2:2 pictures a service of sorts. Get a picture of this:
For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
All I’m pointing to here is that there’s an assembly and people are welcomed in from outside. Guests come and something’s going on. Also, consider Acts 20:7:
On the first day of the week…
Interesting that’s Sunday, not Saturday.
...when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul began talking to them, intending to leave the next day, and he prolonged his message until midnight.
So it was a long service with some kind of togetherness, and here ’m just pointing out that there were gatherings of the early church, but we’re not told much about what they did there.
So here’s a question: What becomes the main word used in the Old Testament for worship? In Hebrew, hishtavah has the basic meaning of “bowing down” with a sense of reverence, respect, and honor. It occurs 171 times in the Old Testament in Hebrew. In the Greek Old Testament, the Hebrew is translated into the Septuagint in 164 of those 171 instances as proskuneo. Now that’s amazing. It’s a pretty consistent translation of the main word for worship is proskueno. In the Greek, this is the main word for worship. But something astonishing appears in the New Testament.
Proskueno is common in the gospels, appearing 26 times. People would often bow down worshipfully before Jesus. It is also common in the book of Revelation, appearing 21 times, because the angels and the elders in heaven often bow down before God. But in the epistles of Paul, it occurs only once, namely in 1 Corinthians 14:25, where the unbeliever falls down at the power of the prophecy and confesses God is in the assembly. It does not occur at all in Peter James, or John. In Hebrews 1:6 and 11:21 it appears in Old Testament quotations, and in Acts 7:43, 8:27, 10:25, and 24:11 they don’t refer to Christian worship at all.
So why are the very epistles that are written to help the church be what it ought to be in this age almost totally devoid of this word and of explicit teaching on the specifics of corporate worship? That’s a really provocative question that I felt I needed an answer to four years ago when I was first studying this. I think the reason is found in the way Jesus treated worship in his life and teaching. Jesus did something. Jesus talked in a way and acted in a way that killed the word proskuneo in the New Testament, just about. Why? What happened?
For example, Mark 11:17, "My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations." When he wove a whip and drove out the money changers, the reason he gives is not for the sake of proper sacrifices, but for the sake of prayer. In other words, he focused attention away from outward acts of Jewish sacrifices to the personal act of communion with God for all peoples. Another example,
In Matthew 12:6, Jesus said “Something greater than the temple is here,” referring to himself. This was unbelievably offensive. In fact, it got Stephen killed. In John 2:19 Jesus said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days, I’ll raise it up.”
This attitude to the temple, not only got him killed, it also got Stephen killed. That’s how important it was. So Jesus was identifying himself as the true temple and saying that in himself he would fulfill everything that temple stood for, especially the place where believers meet God. He said, “It’s not that building, it’s me.” You can see what’s going on here. This is a shifting of focus from geography, externality, and ritual to a person — Jesus. So here again, he’s diverting attention away from worship as a localized thing with outward forms to a personal, spiritual experience with himself at the center.
Worship does not need a building, a priesthood, or a sacrificial system. It needs the risen Jesus. That’s just huge. It’s huge, missiologically. I’ll get back to this in a minute, but you can see maybe where I think the New Testament is going. If you were going to restrict your revelatory and saving work to an ethnic people for 2000 years, everything makes sense in the Old Testament as a lesson book for something else. But as soon as you say, “You go make disciples of 16,000 languages and people, groups, and tribes.” And you say, “How can I take the temple? What if they don’t have sheep? How can we do this?”
So you can see what Jesus is doing in his three years of life is just ending it all. It may be an overstatement to say all, but you will catch on as we go. In John 4:20–21 is the key to why the Old Testament word proskuneo did not fit the reality of the worship of Jesus that he was bringing. The woman at the well said:
Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father.
She was asking about where, but it’s neither. “Where” is not the question anymore. But what is the question?
But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
There’s an eschatological break in here, right? It is coming. There's a kind of worship that’s coming: “My people will all be prophets. Sons and daughters will be filled with the Holy Spirit. It’s going to be an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. It's here now, in this age.” So here’s the key sentence, true worship, which was anticipated for the age to come has arrived. The hour is coming and now is, and what marks this true worship that has broken into the present time from the glorious age to come, is that it is not bound by localized place or outward form. Instead of being in this mountain or in Jerusalem, it is in spirit in truth.
Notice the category shift. She wants to say, “Choose your locality, Jesus. Settle this dispute for us. Is it Jerusalem, or is it the Samaritan mountain?” And Jesus said, “Those aren’t the questions anymore. It’s not on a mountain. It’s in the spirit. It’s not in Jerusalem. It’s in truth.” See, that just takes a complete mental shift. The questions become: “is this worship in spirit? Is this worship in truth?” The question is not “Is it in a building, or in the parking lot, or in a movie theater, or a store front?” Wrong question. That’s what Jesus is doing, and so he is stripping proskuneo of its last vestiges of localized, outward connotation.
Not that it will be wrong for worship to be in a place, or that it will be wrong for it to use outward forms, but rather he’s making explicit and central that this is not what defines worship. What defines worship is what happens in spirit and in truth, with or without place, with or without outward forms. Now I know you can’t do corporate worship without forms, so don’t hear me being naive. You must have form, and you must agree on them or you’re not going to come together.
In Spirit and in Truth
So here’s a question: What do those two phrases “in spirit and in truth” mean? I take “in spirit” to mean that this true worship is carried along by the Holy Spirit. There is an argument about whether this is should be a big s or a little s, but I’m going to have my cake and eat it. I think given the way John writes, there is, in fact, an intentional ambiguity and double meaning here, which happens repeatedly in the Gospel of John. So, here’s my understanding carried along by the Holy Spirit and is happening mainly as an inward spiritual event, meaning this has to do with my spirit governed by his Spirit, not mainly as an outward bodily event.
So if you asked me what does in spirit mean? Do you think it means in the Holy Spirit or in your spirit? I would say yes, because it’s useless if it’s just in my spirit and not carried by the Holy Spirit, and it can’t be carried by the Holy Spirit if it is not connected to my spirit. Rather, it’s the coming together of God’s spirit on my spirit, in my spirit, awakening my spirit. John 3:6 says:
That which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
What does that mean? What’s the second spirit there? That which is born of the capital S spirit is…what? And my answer is it’s this; namely, my spirit born by his Spirit. My spirit was enlivened by his Spirit. My spirit is indwelt by his Spirit and shaped by his Spirit. That’s what worship is when it’s worship. Our spirits are awakened. They’re made alive. They’re engaged, governed, shaped, carried, and lifted by the Holy Spirit. It’s a supernatural event, which is why the best musicians in the world can’t make it happen. It’s a miracle when the human spirit is made alive by the Holy Spirit, and it has nothing decisively to do with the excellence of music. They may be related because we are in the body, but we will talk more about that later.
I take the phrase “in truth” to mean that this true worship is a response to true views of God and is shaped and guided by those true views of God.
It’s really hard, isn’t it, to do worship if you’re not theologically on the same page as the staff. I’ve been here for 30 years. It took 10 years to persuade this church that there should be elders, and so we created a council of elders in 1990, 10 years after I got here. I came to believe that’s the way a church should be governed. I’m a congregationalist, but under congregational affirmation there should be governance by the elders. I think that’s rational and doable.
Then it took another 10 years, and I didn’t even think this would ever happen, for those elders to coalesce around a very rigorous reformed theology, put it on paper, put it to the people, and ask the people by vote of constitutional revision to make them believe it. It was a miracle, and it happened in the year 2000. It took 20 years, but now the 37 elders, these three worship leaders, and I are theologically on the same page. What freedom that gives us.
I don’t even think about these guys and what they’re going to do anymore. When we sing songs, I never say, “Where did they get that stupid idea? Where did that come from?” It doesn’t happen. I’m thankful for you guys, big time. It’s a sweet thing because you have to worship in truth, which means true views of God that are going to be reflected in your lyrics, your preaching, the way you use texts, the way you pray, etc. How you view God is just all over the services.
So what Jesus has done is decisively break the necessary connection between worship and its outward and localized associations. He breaks that connection. Now it is mainly something inward and free from locality. It is what he meant in Matthew 15:8–9 when he said:
This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me...
When the heart is far from God, worship is vain, empty, and nonexistent. The experience of the heart is the defining, vital, indispensable essence of worship. That’s my thesis.
Why then is the central old Testament word for worship, proskuneo, virtually boycotted by Peter, James, John, and Paul in the letters that they write. Only in the Gospels and in Revelation does it have any prevalence at all. Here’s my attempt to answer that. The word proskuneo, having been translated hishtahava in the Old Testament 164 times, carried too much of that original meaning from the Old Testament.
The word did not make clear enough the inward, spiritual nature of worship. It carried significant connotations of place and form. The word was associated with bodily bowing down and with actual presence of a visible manifestation to bow down before. So it is prevalent in the Gospels and Revelation where Jesus is physically present to the worshipers, but in the epistles, Jesus is not present in visible glory to fall before. Therefore, the whole tendency of the early church was to deal with worship as primarily inward and spiritual, rather than an outward and bodily and primarily pervasive rather than localized.
So the explanation for us, with proskuneo appearing 26 times in the Gospels, 21 times in the book of Revelation, and almost nonexistent in the epistles, is that Jesus was here in the body. He was physically present and people could fall down before him. If Jesus walked into this room, I’d fall down. I’d call that fall worship. I think it would be, along with all the trembling that would go with it. But he’s not here, and notice I’m standing. Am I worshiping? I hope so. My heart is leaping with these truths. I just love being able to talk about him with you, but if he walked in I’d be down. So he’s there in the Gospels and he’s there in Revelation, but now he’s in heaven, and therefore, worship goes inward.
Now, to confirm this, consider what Paul does to some of the other words related to Old Testament worship. The Greek word latreuo, used 90 times, is the next most frequent word for worship in the Old Testament after proskuneo. It is translated into Greek from the word abad in the Hebrew Old Testament, which is usually translated into English as “serve”. For example, Exodus 23:24 says:
You shall not worship their gods or serve (abad) them.
And that would be translated latreuo in the Greek Old Testament.
Now, when Paul uses the word latreuo for Christian worship, he goes out of his way to make sure that we know he does not mean a localized and outward form of worship practice, but a non-localized, spiritual experience. In fact, he takes it so far as to treat virtually all of life as worship when lived in the right spirit. In Romans 1:9, he says:
I serve (latreuo) God in my spirit, in the preaching of the Gospel
So he is saying, “Anywhere I go, standing on any corner, in any city, lifting up my voice to proclaim the gospel, I’m doing latreuo. You don’t have to go to the temple.”
Or in Philippians 3:3, Paul says that true Christians worship (latreuo) God in the Spirit of God and put no confidence in the flesh. Or again, in Romans 12:1 Paul says:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship (latreian).
The whole of life, body and all, is this word. So he strips it of its ritualistic, localized meaning. The language of temple, sacrifice, and priestly service. What does he do with those? The praise and thanks of the lips is called sacrifice to God (Hebrews 13:15). So praising is called sacrifice, not animals, but so are good works in everyday life (Hebrews 13:16). Paul calls his own ministry a priestly service of worship (Romans 15:16). In that same passage he calls the converts themselves an acceptable offering. He even calls the money that the churches send him a fragrant aroma, an acceptable sacrifice to God (Philippians 4:18), and his own death for Christ, he calls a drink offering to God (2 Timothy 4:6).
You see what he’s doing? He’s taking all this cultic, priestly, temple worship language and stripping it of services, forms, places, and times, and he’s applying it to all of Christian ministry and all of life.
The same thrust is seen in the imagery of the people of God as the New Testament “temple”, where spiritual sacrifices are offered and where God dwells by his Spirit living in us; where all the people are seen as a holy priesthood (1 Peter 2:9).
Second Corinthians 6:16 shows that the new covenant hope of God’s presence is being fulfilled even now in the church as the people of God. Paul says, “We are the temple of the living God.” So Jesus is the temple, in one sense, and now God inhabits us as a corporate entity and the church is the temple. Worship is being significantly deinstitutionalized, delocalized, and de-externalized. The whole thrust is being taken off of ceremonies, seasons, places, and forms, and is being shifted to what is happening in the heart, not just on Sunday, but every day and in all of life.
He goes on to state many things in relation to this, such as the fact that that all of life should be to the glory of God, no matter what we do (1 Corinthians 10:31). In Colossians 3:16 he says:
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.
Here we get a little glimpse into some things that were done when they got together: singing and making melody to the Lord. Even when Paul calls us to be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in the horizontal dimension of corporate worship, we are also singing and making melody to the Lord. So this is bi-directional — to one another and to the Lord. It’s not worship if you separate those, at least not corporate worship. We are to make melody with our hearts, doing everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, and giving thanks to God the Father through him.
There’s no reference to a time or place or service. In fact, the key word is always, though I think a service is implied here or some kind of togetherness. This may, in fact, be what we should do in corporate worship service, but it is not Paul’s burden to tell us that. His burden is to call for radical, inward authenticity in worship. Do it from your heart. Do it to the Lord. He is after an all-encompassing pervasiveness of worship in all of life. Place and form are not of the essence.
What about the Reformed and Puritan tradition. They saw that worship is radically oriented on the experience of the heart with little emphasis on form and place. This quote from John Calvin blows certain people away. I quoted this at a Puritan Reformed conference about 20 years ago and a big crowd assembled around me like Daniel in the lion's den, saying, “Where’d you get that quote?” Because I didn’t give the source. Calvin says:
The master did not will in outward discipline and ceremonies to prescribe in detail what we ought to do (because he foresaw that this depended on the state of the times, and he did not deem one form suitable for all ages)...because he has taught nothing specifically and because these things are not necessary to salvation, and for the building of the church ought to be variously accommodated to the customs of each nation and age.
It will be fitting as the advantage of the church will require to change and abrogate traditional practices and to establish new ones. Indeed, I admit that we ought not to charge into innovation rashly, suddenly, for insufficient cause, but love will best judge what may hurt or edify; and if we let love be our guide, all will be safe (Institutes, IV, 10, 30).
I think that is amazing coming from Calvin, because we think of the Reformed tradition as being really tight with their traditions, and some people, it seems to me, have institutionalized the 16th century, or the 17th century, or the 18th century as though it is the only way to worship. They might say, “That’s the way it has been done for four or five centuries.” Well, maybe, but these are amazing statements from Calvin.
God did not will in outward discipline and ceremonies to prescribe in detail what we ought to do...because he has taught nothing specifically.
Now, one more comment about culture: My way of saying why God didn’t teach us more specifically about what to do when we get together is because the New Testament is a church handbook for the nations — all of them. Had he said anything about organs, instruments, length of service, time of service, order of service, what you sit on, where you meet, or anything of the dozens of things you have to decide on when you do church; had he been specific, the Bible just couldn’t have run as it has and been so infinitely translatable as it is. The Bible is not like the Qur’an. The Qur’an is not translatable because God spoke Arabic.
I was really helped by somebody pointing out to me that if you try to relate the Bible with the Qur’an and Christ with God, you miss it. In comparing the two religions, Christ corresponds to the Qur’an. The Qur’an is the incarnation of the word of God. It can’t be touched. If you have a translation, you don’t have the real deal. Jesus Christ comes into the world as a specific man and he says, “It’s better for me to go back to the Father. I’ll send the spirit and I’ll give you a book. The book will have very little detail in it and you translate it into every language on the planet. And it will be my word in every language on the planet.”
It’s amazing. Christianity is almost infinitely culturally adaptable because of what Calvin said and because of how little we are told. It frustrates the daylights out of us because we’d like some specific guidance from God as to whether this instrument is somehow preferable to that instrument, or if we should use the organ, or flute, or all the glorious instruments God has let us make. But you’re not going to find that in the Bible. It’s not going to be there. It comes down to love and wisdom.
Here is a quote by Luther, putting his foot in his mouth in typical fashion:
The worship of God...should be free at table, in the private rooms, downstairs, upstairs, at home, abroad, in all places, by all people, at all times. Whoever tells you anything else is lying as badly as the Pope and the devil himself.
Don’t you just love that guy? Probably just going home and repenting every day. There’s a lot of freedom there though, isn’t there? In his mind about worship he says: “free at table, in the private rooms, downstairs, upstairs, at-home, abroad, in all places, all people.”
The Puritans carried through the simplification and freedom of worship in music and liturgy and architecture. Patrick Collinson summarizes Puritan theory and practice by saying,
The life of the Puritan was, in one sense, a continuous act of worship, pursued under an unremitting and lively sense of God’s providential purposes and constantly refreshed by religious activity, personal, domestic and public.
All of life is worship. One of the reasons Puritans called their churches “meeting houses” and kept them very simple was to divert attention from physical place to the inward, spiritual nature of worship. The room we’re in is a compromise. Some people walk into this room and they say, “Simple, really simple.” Others walk in here and say, “Whoa, look at those trusses!” There is supposed to be a Puritan simplicity about this room. If I had it my way, which I didn’t, it would have been a flat floor and a basketball goal on both ends, but I didn’t win that one. We won’t talk about that anymore. I like this room a lot. I like the acoustics and I like the vaulted ceiling. It does say something, though it cost us about 4 million dollars back in those days. And I don’t know how to reckon the price of such things.
There’s one more thing to say about the Puritans. They get a bad rap because of their iconoclasm, smashing all the pictures, taking all the pictures out of the windows, smashing all the statues and everything. I’m pretty sympathetic with that, but a lot of people draw a straight line from being an ecclesiastical iconoclast — stripping this room of statues and pictures on Sunday morning — to thinking we are anti-art. A lot of people go there.
They draw a straight line and say, “If you knock all the statues down, punch out all the beautiful stained glass windows, and put no symbols anywhere except maybe a cross in the middle and a pulpit stand in the center, then you clearly don’t believe in art; you don’t believe in sculpture; you don’t believe in drama; you don’t believe in a music set for your simple non-musical songs on Sunday morning.”
I think a Puritan like Abraham Kuyper would say, “The church is a sphere, along with business, along with art, along with education, along with government, and along with family. And in each of those spheres there’s a kind of sphere-sovereignty with each one having its unique calling. Over here in this sphere, art should flourish. But people who are constantly trying to drive it into worship services are, in fact, limiting what they should be.” Do we have to drive it into worship services? Do we have to have drama in worship? Do we have to have every kind of music in worship? Do we have to have paintings in worship? Do we have to do everything? No, because there’s a sphere. At least in that Reformed wing, there are spheres of life.
So if you want to serve the arts, this is John Piper talking, I don’t think the way to serve the arts is to try to pack them all in on Sunday morning. You’re going to get cheap, utilitarian art. But instead, take those who are, let’s say, called and gifted in drama and have them create it. Let them use the building on Friday night, and do it the best they possibly can. Make it really good and bring in the community, but not as a little part of the service. Make it real. Make it good, deep, and powerful. Let it be its thing and be what it is. And I would say it’s the same way with visual art, sculpture, dance, or whatever else. It has its realm. But that’s just my opinion, I think probably rooted in the simplicity of Jesus, but you decide.
In the New Testament, there is a stunning indifference to the outward forms and places of worship. And there is, at the same time, a radical intensification of worship as an inward spiritual experience that has no bounds and pervades all of life. These emphasis were recaptured in the reformation and came to clear expression in the Puritan wing of the Reformed tradition.
Now, this is the end of this unit number two, and if the thesis is true, the question it poses is: What is the essence of this radical, authentic, inward experience called worship and how is it that this experience comes to expression in gathered congregations and everyday life? So, that’s where we go next. And we have 20 minutes to do some of it. We won’t finish this, but we can make a good start so you know where we’re going.
A Question about Forms
We had a question from someone who asked, “If worship is all about the heart, what do we have in the Bible to shape our outward form?” My answer is that the pointers in the New Testament show that the word of God was in the gatherings, and also singing seemed to be there from Ephesians 5. Those would be two of the outward forms, but beyond that, I think we answer those questions, not by what’s there by way of a mandated example, but rather by the nature of God — the nature of his relationship to us, the nature of corporate life, the nature of faith, etc.
If I were to write a book on worship that tried to warrant from the Bible all the things that we do on Sunday, I wouldn’t trace those things that we do probably back to, “Well, they did it right there so we do it.” I would trace it back to, “This is the way we are saved. This is the kind of response he expects. This is the way human beings are by God’s design and the way they relate to each other. These are some hints and pointers in the Bible.” Which you can see, is just totally flexible. You could just shoot me down in a minute and say, “We don’t do it that way.” And I would say, “I’m not making you do it that way.”
There was a blog post the other day. I haven't read it yet, but I saw the title. I think it said something like, “The Bible has more to say than we think it does about the way we worship.” So this is a person foreseeing what I’m saying here and pushing back on it. And that’s fine. I would be really happy if you pointed me to places that say, “You should do these things.” I think I could make a really strong case for preaching and singing. That’s about all. And then if you said, “Well, what would be the content of the singing?” I’d say, “It should be prayer, as we’re told to sing to the Lord.” And then if they asked, “What are the things you need to say to the Lord?” I would probably say, “Thank you, I praise you, I’m sorry, and please guide me.”
The Essence of Worship
So what is worship, if I’m on the right track that hishtahava and proskuneo, with all their outward associations and ceremonial dimensions, are ended by Jesus, and instead driven into the heart as an experience? If that’s true, then what is that experience? And so here’s my second thesis: The essential, vital, indispensable defining heart of worship is the experience of being satisfied with God, or being satisfied with all that God is for us in Jesus. This satisfaction in God, magnifies God in the heart. This explains why the apostle Paul makes so little distinction between worship as a congregational service and worship as a pattern of daily life. They have the same root — a passion for treasuring God as infinitely valuable. The impulse for singing a hymn and the impulse for visiting a prisoner is the same: a deep, freeing satisfaction in God now, and a thirst for all that God promises to be for us in Christ. So I’m arguing that washing the dishes at home in the sink is worship for the same reason that preaching or singing is worship. It comes from that kind of heart. It says, “I am resting in God, satisfied in God, delighting in God; and what I do with my voice in church or with my hands in the sink is an expression of my satisfaction in God, my joy in God, and my desire to extend that into the lives of people and magnify my own joy in their joy in God.”
And that’s one of the reasons it’s so satisfying to me to talk this way about it, because it does give such unity to the worship language of the New Testament. The question is: is it biblical? The root of our passion and the thirst for God is God’s own infinite exuberance for God. So I’m arguing now that the root of this definition, the root of being satisfied with God is the essence of worship, is God’s own satisfaction with God — God’s passion and thirst for God and God’s exuberance for God. I don’t know if you’ve seen all these, but I’ve worked my way through these texts in so many different places so I’ll briefly point to them.
- God creates for his glory.
Bring my sons from afar. My daughters from the ends of the earth, everyone who’s called by my name, whom I created for my glory (Isaiah 43:6–7).
God made you to make him look good. He made you to make him look glorious. You exist to make God look like he really is — glorious.
- He elects Israel for his glory.
For as the loincloth clings to the waist of a man, so I made the whole house of Israel and the whole house of Judah cling to me, declares the Lord, that they might be for me a people, a name, a praise, and a glory…(Jeremiah 13:11).
- God saved Israel from Egypt for his glory.
Our fathers, when they were in Egypt, did not consider your wondrous works; they did not remember the abundance of your steadfast love, but rebelled by the sea, at the Red Sea. Yet he saved them for his name’s sake, that he might make known his mighty power (Psalm 106:7–8).
I hope that you feel the significance of this. These things clobbered me in 1968–1971. It just turned my world upside down to know that God is God-centered; that God does everything for the glory of God; that God is passionate for the glory of God. I never thought that way before. And then I saw dozens and dozens and dozens of Bible passages that pointed to it. And I pause here to say it because, if it gets you, everything else is going to fall into place regarding worship, at least everything that I care about. Forms won’t fall into place, but what matters will fall into place. You will become a radically God-centered person because you will get on board with God’s view of God.
It won’t seem arbitrary when he says whatever you do, whether you eat or drink, do all to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31), because he is saying, “Join me. I do everything for my glory. Join me in this.”
- God restrains his anger for his glory.
For my name’s sake I defer my anger; for the sake of my praise I restrain it for you, that I may not cut you off…For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for how should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another (Isaiah 48:9, 11).
- God sent Christ into the world for his glory.
For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy (Romans 15:8–9).
- God will send his Son a second time for his glory.
They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.
- Our calling is to manifest the worth of the glory of God in this world.
Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples! (Psalm 96:3)
Praise the Lord, all nations! Extol him, all peoples! (Psalm 117:1)
So, in summary, God’s overflowing joy in his own glory is the root and the basis of ours. God is so exuberant about his glory that he makes its display the goal of all that he does, and therefore, so should we. That’s the foundation of worship. Now, putting it that way doesn’t quite get to the heart of the matter. To get to the heart of the matter we need to ask this: Why is it a loving thing for God to be so self-exalting and why, if we come to share his satisfaction in himself, is it the essence and heart of worship?
Is God an Egomaniac?
Let me pause here with a few illustrations of how critical this is. My file on this is growing all the time. It started way back 10 years ago, or so. This is Michael Prowse from the Financial Times in London:
Worship is an aspect of religion I always found difficult to understand. Suppose we postulate an omnipotent being, who for reasons inscrutable to us, decided to create something other than himself. Why should he expect us to worship him? We didn’t ask to be created. Our lives are often troubled. We know that human tyrants puffed up with pride, crave adulation and homage. But a morally perfect God would surely have no character defects, so why are all those people on their knees every Sunday?
For him, the texts that I just read make God a moral monster. He’s an egomaniac.
And this is exactly what Terry Gross pointed at in 2009 on her program Fresh Air. She interviewed Eric Reece, who had just written a book entitled An American Gospel, in which he says, “Who is this egomaniac speaking these words?” right after quoting Matthew 10:37, which states that one must love Jesus more than they love their mother or father. And Terry Gross asked him, “Did you mean to write that? Did you mean to call Jesus an egomaniac?” And he said, “Well, it just struck me: Who is this person? A complete historical stranger is saying that we should love him more than we should love our own fathers and sons. It just seemed like an incredibly egomaniacal kind of claim to make.”
So we’ve got Michael Prowse in the Financial Times saying, “What is this thing called worship, and this God who demands it and says he’s the greatest thing in the world?” And then Eric Reece, who says, “Who is this Jesus, who says people have to love him more than they love their own mother or father? They’re just a bunch of egomaniacs talking.”
And then you’ve got Brad Pitt. Ever heard of him? He was writing in Parade and said:
I didn’t understand this idea of a God who says, ‘You have to acknowledge me. You have to say that I’m the best. And then I’ll give you eternal happiness. If you won’t, then you don’t get it.’ It just seemed to be about ego. I can’t see God operating from ego. So it made no sense to me.
So there’s a whole stream. A while back, Don Carson said that the questions that students ask on campuses nowadays, when he does missions as he calls them, are very different. He said that thirty years ago they wanted arguments for the resurrection — proving the objective truth of the resurrection. Today they say, “God is an egomaniac by demanding worship.” So what do you say about that? This is not a small thing that we’re into right here. Is God loving when he is so self exalting?
That’s huge because so many people read their Bibles and just intuitively hear God doing things for his own glory all the time, everywhere in the Bible, and they conclude: megalomania and egomania. As I struggled with that back in those critical years, C S Lewis first pointed me to an answer, and then Jonathan Edwards. Lewis talked about his own stumbling about these things and said that the command for praise in the Psalms sounded to him like an old woman needing compliments. But then he added:
The most obvious fact about praise strangely escaped me…I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise…The world rings with praise — lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favorite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favorite game — praise of weather, wines, dishes, actors, horses, colleges, countries, historical personages, children, flowers, mountains, rare stamps, rare beetles, even sometimes politicians and scholars…My whole, more general, difficulty about the praise of God depended on my absurdly denying to us, as regards the supremely Valuable, what we delight to do, what we indeed can’t help doing, about everything else we value.
I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment of the thing praised. It is its appointed consummation. It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are. The delight is incomplete until it is expressed.
If that’s true, and it is, then what is God doing when he, the most infinitely praiseworthy being in the universe, demands that we praise him? Answer: He’s bringing our joy to its fullest consummation, which means he’s loving us. God is the one being in the universe for whom self-exaltation is the most loving thing to do. If you try to imitate him you will be wrong, and this is why these guys are stumbling. They’re translating God’s demand into our demand. If I were to say to you right now, “I want you all to praise me. Would you all stand up please and sing praise to John Piper.” You would look at one another briefly, and then you would either laugh or walk out, and rightly so.
Why, if God can do that? Answer: The way I love you is by pointing you to him, because at his right hand are pleasures forevermore, in his presence is endless joy. If I direct your attention to me, I’m not loving you. I’m diverting you from your source of joy. But if God calls you to attend to him, he’s inviting you to the spring of life. He’s inviting you to the place of infinite happiness. Saying it reverently, God is stuck with being glorious. If he’s going to love you, he has to give you himself as your best gift. He has to invite you to himself. This is what people hate, if they don’t want God. It’s just so manifestly obvious when you think about it. If there’s a God, and he is infinitely perfect in every regard, then the most loving thing for him to do is not to shield himself in some kind of mock humility. That’s hellish.
Rather, it is loving for him to say:
Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price (Isaiah 55:1).
Likewise, Jesus say, “I’m the water. Come to me.” If you want to call that egomaniacal, I just feel so bad for you. It’s love. This is what love is.
Maybe the way to wrap this up in one minute is with my favorite granola bar advertisement, and then my favorite Arlo and Janis cartoon. The point of closing with these two little pointers is that the world has this written on their hearts. They do. They know that they are not made to be God, God is God. They are made to be small, and their joy doesn’t come ultimately from feeling big, but in knowing bigness, seeing bigness, and enjoying bigness outside themselves. So here’s the granola bar advertisement. It’s a really beautiful picture of a mountain.
This mountain has two men standing next to each other. They’ve climbed up this rock face, and one man has his arms stretched out. It’s a magnificent view of Yosemite and a vista of mountains. And the advertisement is his selling Nature Valley Trail Mix fruit and nut granola bars. Now, if you were sitting in a boardroom and you wanted to commend granola bars to the world and have them buy them, what would you say? How would you get inside their stomach and their mind? And get them to say, “I want to buy these things.” Look at the headline.
You’ve never felt more alive. You’ve never felt more insignificant.
What advertising agency is this? As they were putting their heads together, saying, “Now what will really appeal is creating a collective sense of insignificance. This is what people really want. They want to feel insignificant because when they feel insignificant, they’re happiest.” That’s true. That’s true in the presence of God and the Grand Canyon. But who sells granola bars that way? Some Christian who was smuggled in over at General Mills.
So what I’m saying is that the world is not ignorant of what we’re talking about. Wherever that came from, you could talk to that person about this talk tonight and they would be able to at least tie in something to what I’m saying — that when God goes big and makes sure he’s seen as big, and we are made small, seeing him as magnificently big, it’s good for us.
They get this, and so do Arlo and Janis. So here they are, and Arlo says, “It’s so quiet,” and she says, “Yes.” And he says, “Hey…ever notice the best moments make you feel insignificant?” How’s she going to feel about that? Where’d he get that idea? It’s true. There is a magnificent snowfall coming down. It’s quiet, big, and pure, and when we feel so little, it’s so good.
Worship isn’t about helping people feel big. Nobody goes to the Grand Canyon to increase their self-esteem. It isn’t helping people feel big. It’s helping people see an all-satisfying bigness outside themselves called: All that God is for them in Jesus.