Volume 14, No. 6 (June 2019)
What Matters Most
When Christians think about Old Testament worship, the tendency is to automatically invoke images of the complex system of Israel’s worship centering on its ornate Tabernacle, with its priests, ritual sacrifices and festivals.
While this system was instituted and carried out according to the explicit and detailed commands of God (communicated to Moses on Mount Sinai), we miss God’s deeper design if we focus only on the external, physical trappings of worship in the Old Testament. God always, in the Old Testament as well as the New, gave priority to a person’s heart of worship.
Indeed, adherence to the instructions regarding Tabernacle worship was a crucial way pious Jews would express their heart devotion to God; after all, it would make no sense for an Israelite to claim inner allegiance to and love for Yahweh, but then choose to ignore the ways He commanded to give that attitude public expression.
On the other hand, Old Testament writers, and especially the prophets, make it abundantly clear that merely outward conformity to the requirements without an engaged heart meant nothing to God; in fact such offerings and rituals were detestable to Him:
“I hate, I despise your feasts,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
And the peace offerings of your fattened animals,
I will not look upon them.” (Amos 5:21-22)
Without the heart’s engagement, conformity to the sacrifices and rituals meant nothing to God. As C. S. Lewis reminds us, it is not as if God “really needed the blood of bulls and goats.” (“On Church Music,” in Christian Reflections, 98)
Jesus, of course, similarly often criticized the Jewish leaders of His day for their reliance on external show and their search for public approbation in the absence of a true heart devotion to God.
“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.
“Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:1-5)
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.” (Matthew 23:1-7)
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Matthew 23:23-28)