Whose Worship is it?

I belong to a church that makes a public statement about what worship is. It does this by means of a document called the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF).

Ministers and Elders of our church each make vows saying that they agree with that document and promise to assert, maintain and  defend its propositions. They own it as a profession of their faith. The WFC begins with an extensive chapter on the Word of God. There it says that the Bible is God’s complete and alone verbal revelation to his human creatures. The Bible alone is authoritative and normative for God’s people in faith and practice. The Bible alone tells us how we must be saved and how we should respond to that salvation. God himself is the one who teaches us, by his word and Holy Spirit.

In addition to the vow to assert, maintain and defend the teaching of the WFC, ministers and elders of my church are asked whether they hold to the form of purity of worship as practised by this church. They must answer yes to be admitted to the office of teaching or ruling elder. They are free to say ‘no’ if they do not hold to it, but they would have to serve the Lord Jesus Christ in a different Christian Church if they did say ‘no’. Now, it seems to me that the promise is not simply to fall into line with whatever churches are presently doing, that is, to do whatever churches at large do for worship, but rather it is another deliberate reference to what the church publicly states to be its idea of purity of worship in the WCF.

In short, public worship (doing church) is what God has said it is to be in his word.

If this is not true in the minds of other christians, it ought at least be true for ministers and elders of my church.

The confession says this: “The acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representations, or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scriptures.” WCF 21:1

This is a statement about the content of worship. Incidental matters like time, place, building design, seating comfort, and the tunes used for singing are to be decided by the local group using common sense (WCF 1:6), but the content of worship is to be received from the statements of the Bible. In short, what is prescribed (written down in the Bible) is to be done, but what is not prescribed is not to be done in public worship.

Now the WCF gives us some guidance regarding this matter. It states that the ordinary parts of public worship are: “[Prayer (WCF 21:4) and] the reading of the Scriptures with godly fear; the sound preaching and conscionable [intelligent; conscientious] hearing of the word, … singing of psalms with grace in the heart, [and] the due administration and worthy receiving of the sacraments instituted by Christ.” (WCF 21:5)

This is a recognition that worship is God’s thing. He has given it to us for our benefit. Bible worship directs us to our God and his great salvation as revealed in his word. By it the Holy Spirit draws people to trust the Lord Jesus Christ and serve our Creator and saviour. I hope to say of few more things about the Bible and matters of worship in days to come.

Speaking in Tongues?

In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul addresses the issue of ‘tongues’. Whatever people now might think these tongues were, it seems to me that Paul spoke of these ‘tongues’ as merely human languages.

Why do I say this? Corinth was a major, I mean major, centre of trade. All sorts of people and things passed through the city – literally – as it was at the neck of an isthmus. This geographical fact allowed the trade ships to save travelling time by being dragged across the thin section of land along a track. In this way they could pass quickly from the Aegean Sea to the western Mediterranean and back again. Lots of people with different mother-tongues (languages) lived and worked in the region.

Now it is true that Greek was the common language of the day, but even the New Testament gives us the heads-up that other languages were spoken at the time. In Lystra, after Paul healed a lame man by the authority of Jesus, the people of the city called out in the Lycaonian language that the gods had come to earth. Again, in Malta, the locals called the shipwrecked people ‘barbarians’, meaning they spoke a language that the Maltese did not readily understand. This is perhaps why Paul could tell the Corinthians that ‘he spoke in tongues more than all of them’ (1 Cor 14:18), due to his wide travelling. But this is the point. Paul insisted that things said in church – which is the context of 1 Cor. 14 – must be understood by as many people as possible. This would mean speaking, praying, singing etc., in a language understood by most people at a worship meeting.

Paul points out that a speaker who used an obscure language, rather than one commonly understood by the congregation, would only be understood by God at that time (1 Cor. 14:2). What the speaker says would be a mystery to others in the meeting. The speaker might be spiritual or passionate in his delivery, and his talk might be of help to himself, but nobody else would get it. This is not the way of love. Love edifies [builds up] others. This is why Paul desires people to prophesy. Now, this does not necessarily mean to ‘foretell the future’ or to reveal new information about Jesus. It most likely means to ‘forth tell’ or proclaim the message of Jesus that they had already received. Later, Paul himself speaks of delivering to them the Gospel that he himself had received (1 Cor. 15:3).

Paul’s aim was to have the church focused on the clear message regarding Jesus Christ: who he is, what he did, and what that means in all its fullness for sinners like us. Using a local language instead of the common language would make speaker and congregation ‘barbarians’ to one another (just as the Maltese were to the shipwrecked souls).

In v.6 Paul says that if he spoke to the Corinthians in a tongue, his talk would not benefit them, and in vs.14 to 17 he develops this idea. By praying in a tongue he himself would benefit but his prayer would not benefit [be unfruitful for] the congregation. His understanding, declared in a language unknown to his audience, would not benefit them. The same, he says, is true of his singing or giving thanks in a foreign language. No one else would be able to say ‘Amen’ to it. Instead, Paul would rather give a short sermon in a known language than a barrage of words no one understood. The aim is building up the church by clearly articulating the Gospel message.

One last point. Paul says when an unknown language is used toward a church, it is a sign of God’s displeasure at unbelief. This is indicated in verse 21. The passage is from Isaiah 28:11-12. The Old Testament church was refusing to listen to the Gospel. They were running after gods who were not gods and who could not save. They rejected God’s plain message to turn from sin and be save. So God told them that foreign conquerors, people who spoke a strange language, would come and speak to them, and show them by aggressive action that God meant what he had told them in plain language. We must listen to God. So, if a foreign language is ever used in church it must be translated so all can hear, understand and judge the message, or prayer or song. We are not to obscure the Gospel with our words.

The Doctrine of Caiaphas

“It is better for one man to die for the people least the whole nation be destroyed.” John 11:50

An English churchman of the nineteenth century once argued that the evangelical gospel, that Jesus died to pay for the sins of his people, is the evil doctrine of Caiaphas. This English churchman preferred to believe that Jesus’s death was simply the result of an innocent person living in a bad world – like a child factory-worker who was caught up by the machinery and died as a result. I think this churchman was greatly mistaken.

Caiaphas was high priest in the year that Jesus was crucified. John, in his gospel, tells us that for this reason, Caiaphas foretold that Jesus would die in the place of God’s people. The irony is, that Caiaphas meant something very different from what God intended by the death of Jesus.

Caiaphas, as a priest, was probably of the sect of the Saduccees. The Sadducees famously denied the resurrection from the dead. In the week before Jesus died, the Sadducees asked Jesus as strange question. At the resurrection, who would be the husband of a particularly unhappy woman. Apparently she had married seven brothers in succession. Each brother had married the woman and then died without fathering a child. You see, for the Sadducee, the point of the brother marrying a deceased brother’s wife was to ‘raise up seed’ – to produce an heir for his dead brother in order to continue his line. This ‘raised up’ heir was the only ‘resurrection’ that the Sadducees expected. Children were their only hope of ‘life-after-death’. They would ‘live on’ in their children. Jesus told them that they were greatly mistaken. They didn’t know (understand) the scriptures or the power of God.

 I suspect that the Sadducees read the pattern of the Old Testament something like this:

  • Adam’s sin either introduced death to the world, or just made Adam’s formerly limited but happy life shorter and miserable. Sin was the problem that cursed human lives, but how was it to be remedied?

  • The Sadducees probably read the promise to Eve, that her ‘seed’ would put things right, as suggesting children had something to do with the solution to the sin problem.

  • They saw that a line led from Seth to Abraham, and noted God’s promise that Abraham’s seed would make the world happy. The children of Jacob (a.k.a. Israel) were particularly associated with this coming happiness.

  • Then the Sadducees probably thought that the law of Moses was the means of blessing. Obedience brings blessing; disobedience brings a curse. Again, the sacrificial system appeared to them as a means of minimising the troubles that sin bring to this life – the only life the Sadducees acknowledged.

 If this approximates the thinking of the Sadducees, it helps us understand Caiaphas and his attitude to Jesus. As a priest and a Sadducee, he saw himself as one who would save the nation. He wanted to protect it from extinction. He thought that if Jesus went on stirring up the people, the Romans would come wipe them out. Caiaphas believed that the nation of Israel was God’s way of making the world a happy place. Israel would overcome evil by doing good and gathering the nations to itself by making proselytes.

 But John said that Caiaphas, in spite of his misunderstanding, had prophesied. He had correctly foretold that Jesus would die for God’s people. But to get this, you have to read the pattern of the Old Testament in a way different from that of the Sadducee:

  • Adam’s sin brought death to himself and his children. That would have been it, if God hadn’t acted in mercy. The only reason Adam and Eve were not immediately killed was God’s intention to show mercy.

  • The promise to Eve was that her seed (Jesus) would deal with Satan, Sin and Death.

  • The promise about Abraham’s seed was ultimately fulfilled in Jesus. The Lord Jesus himself said that Abraham foresaw Jesus and was glad.

  • The law of Moses speaks of blessing for obedience, the obedience which Jesus alone supplies by his living a good life to replace the bad lives of his people. It also speaks of a curse for disobedience, the curse which Jesus took for his people as he died in their place. The sacrificial system also points to Jesus.

 The soul who sins shall die, says the law. But the law also told sinners to bring an innocent animal to a priest. The sinner was to place his or her hand on the animal and confess their sins. This act symbolised the transfer of sin from the sinner to the animal. The animal was killing in the place of the sinner, who could go home alive. Jesus was identified as ‘The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.’

 How could Jesus die for God’s people? Ezekiel and Psalm 49 both tell us that a mere human being cannot take responsibility for the sins of another. This is why Jesus had to be both God and man.

 Jesus had to be a man so he could die, and he had to be God so his death could be of benefit to others. He had to be a sinless man, or he would have had to die for his own sins, and he had to be God so his sinlessness could be donated to others.

 As a sinless man, Jesus could only die if he were taking responsibility for the sins of other people. After Jesus died for these sins, he was raised from the dead to show that he is really good (not the bad person Caiaphas thought he was) and that the sins for which he died no longer condemn. His people, those who come to trust him, have had their sins paid for in full. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. If it were not so, Jesus would never have risen from the dead.

 So Jesus was not, as the English churchman believed, just a poor innocent slain by a bad world. He is the Lord from heaven who deliberately became a man for our salvation. He came to do and die and rise to save his people from their sin. He is indeed the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.