Main Idea: By His grace God meets with us when we gather with His people to worship Him, and He powerfully works in our lives as we worship through Jesus and in submission to His Word.
I. Powerful Worship Follows Preparation for God’s Presence.
II. Powerful Worship Includes Submission to God’s Word.
A. We submit to God’s Word by the act of worship.
B. We submit to God’s Word by the way we worship.
C. We submit to God’s Word by a life of worship.
III. Powerful Worship Requires God’s Mediation.
IV. Powerful Worship Results from God’s Visitation.
What is the most memorable, powerful worship experience of your life? When I was a teenager, in a worship service in the church where I grew up, I felt deeply convicted of my sin and separation from God. I was intensely drawn by God to salvation in Christ. I had felt that before, but in that worship service I yielded my stubborn will and put my trust in Christ and was saved. That was a powerful worship experience. About four years later, in a worship service in the same place, God powerfully impressed on me that the way I express love to my parents and sister reflects whether I love and obey God. I had never realized that. It was simple, but it was also powerful because it changed a lot about my life.
Another time, I was on a mission trip to the island of Dominica. All week I went door-to-door sharing the gospel and inviting people to the services at night in which I preached. We also witnessed to people all day in two clinics we provided, and we shared Christ with children through Vacation Bible School. On the final night I was to preach, the church was packed. There was no air conditioning, so the windows were open. People stood outside at the windows to hear. We had a speaker set up outside that amplified the preaching into the street, and people stopped out there to listen. I preached the gospel and invited people to put their faith in Christ, and God visited that place. People started coming to profess faith in Christ. They came from inside the building and outside the building and down the aisle to tell counselors that they wanted Jesus. The invitation went on for a long time, and when it was over I think they counted over 90 people who professed faith in Jesus that night. That was a powerful, memorable worship experience.
What are your most powerful worship experiences? I hesitate to use the word “powerful,” because that word is so overused and misused in describing worship—“That was powerful music!” or “He’s a powerful preacher.” But when I use the word “powerful” I’m not referring to man’s power but to God’s power. Leviticus 9 describes a manifestation of God’s power. It happened in worship at the tabernacle. Often our most memorable worship times occur when we experience something for the first time—when we first put our faith in Christ, when we first surrender our whole life to do God’s will, or when we first worship in a place that we prayed for, worked for, and dedicated to God. The worship experience described in Leviticus 9 was a first for the people of God—the first time they worshiped in the tabernacle. Chapters 8–10 are about the priests who administered the sacrificial system in the tabernacle. Chapter 8 describes their ordination for service, chapter 9 the inauguration of their service, and chapter 10 the contamination of their service by sin.
In this section we will look at the inaugural worship service for the tabernacle that God had commanded to be built during Israel’s wilderness wandering. God had told them to build the tabernacle; they obeyed and built it. God had told them to consecrate Aaron and his sons as priests, and they did that. God had told them what sacrifices to offer and how to offer them.
Now, the time of preparation was over and the time of worship had arrived, and if any worship experience could be described as powerful, this one was powerful. It was ordained by God, blessed by God, and visited by God. God can use it to teach us something about powerful worship.
Powerful Worship Follows Preparation for God’s Presence
In the case of the worship described in Leviticus 9, preparations had been extensive. The people had erected the tabernacle according to God’s specifications. The people had set apart Aaron and his sons as priests according to God’s command, and chapter 8 describes the consecration ceremony for the priests that lasted seven days.
Those were the preparations in the recent past, but other experiences had prepared them for this time of worship too. They had seen God deliver them from slavery in Egypt by a succession of ten astounding miracles, they had seen God part the Red Sea and provide food and water for them where there was no food and water, they had experienced God’s awesome presence at Mount Sinai, they had received God’s law from Moses, they had seen God’s judgment against their idolatry, and they had heard God invite them into His presence through the sacrificial system. All of those experiences prepared them for this time of worship.
How do we prepare for worship? Sometimes we prepare for worship by staying up late Saturday night, waking up Sunday morning and reading the comics, checking email and a few websites, watching that episode of Duck Dynasty that we recorded, and then arguing on the way to church about whose fault it is that we’re late. Then half our time at church we fume about the argument, and we leave saying, “I didn’t really get much out of church today.” It doesn’t occur to us that we weren’t ready to receive anything from God.
Powerful public worship is so often preceded by powerful private worship. We are more ready to worship with others when we have worshiped alone. God has used private worship times in my life in a wonderful way. However, when I worship with the people of God it is as if the volume has been turned up in my spirit. It’s exciting! Private worship has prepared me for public worship. Why don’t we spend some time in prayer before worship asking God to use the worship time to do His work in us? We should ask Him to speak to us during the time of worship, and we should ask Him to form us into the image of Jesus. We should ask Him to help us exalt Him in worship and to protect us from ourselves—our self-consciousness (“What are people thinking about me?”), our critical spirit (“The pastor is stumbling a bit today, and the sopranos in the choir were flat”), and our propensity to be distracted by everything and everyone except God. When we seek God in prayer like that before worship, it’s amazing the difference it makes. Powerful worship follows preparation for God’s presence.
Powerful Worship Includes Submission to God’s Word
The worship experience described in Leviticus 9 was according to what God had commanded. In the first seven chapters of Leviticus God commanded five types of sacrifices—the burnt offering, the grain offering, the fellowship offering, the sin offering, and the restitution offering. During the inauguration of public worship described in Leviticus 9, God’s people obeyed His commands. They offered all of the commanded sacrifices, except for the restitution offering, which was never a public offering since its purpose was to make restitution for personal sin. So God’s people in worship submitted to what God said regarding worship.
Note three ways worship relates to submission to God’s Word.
We Submit to God’s Word by the Act of Worship
Throughout God’s Word, worship is the way God’s people relate to God. The patriarchs worshiped. The Israelites left Egypt, went into the wilderness, and worshiped. God told His people to build the tabernacle and later the temple for worship. The prophets called God’s people to right worship instead of empty ritual. The psalmists exhorted God’s people to worship. Psalm 96 says,
Ascribe to Yahweh the glory of His name; bring an offering and enter His courts. Worship the Lord in the splendor of His holiness. (vv. 8-9)
Worship was the pattern of the church in the New Testament. Jesus said that God the Father is seeking people to worship Him in spirit and in truth (John 4:23). In heaven God’s will is done perfectly, and heaven is a place of worship. Jesus told us to pray, “[God], ‘Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’” (Matt 6:10), and in heaven, God’s people offer worship to Him continually. Revelation 4 says that in heaven, “Day and night they never stop, saying: Holy, holy, holy, Lord God, the Almighty, who was, who is, and who is coming.” (v. 8). When I taught a class that prepared people for potential membership in our church, I told them, “If you’re not going to gather with God’s people for worship every Sunday you are in town, then please don’t join.” Nothing is clearer, more fundamental, and more imperative in God’s Word than God’s people gathering to give worship and praise to God. We submit to God’s Word by the act of worship.
We Submit to God’s Word by the Way We Worship
Leviticus 9 describes God’s people worshiping in the way God had told them to worship—at the tabernacle He had designed, with the sacrifices He had commanded, and led by the priests He had selected. We too worship God in the way He tells us to worship in His Word. His Word tells us to sing praise to Him, so we sing praise to Him. His Word tells us to be contrite in His presence, so we humble ourselves and confess our sin to Him. His Word tells us to pray, so we pray. His Word tells us to express love to our brothers and sisters in Christ, so we do that. His Word tells us to read and preach the Scriptures in our gatherings, so we do that too. His Word tells us not to offer gifts in worship if our brother has something against us, so we reconcile with one another and then offer our gifts in worship.
The act of worship is not merely observing rituals in a specified order. Worship is not merely attendance at a building where worship is scheduled. Worship is not watching what the people on the podium do. Worship is the people of God submitting to what God has told us to do—gather with His people to express heartfelt praise to Him, speak to Him in prayer, bring gifts to Him, confess sin to Him, express love to Him and His people, and listen to what He says to us in His Word. God’s Word does not tell us to critique what others do in worship, but to worship. We are not spectators, we are participants. The almighty, holy, sovereign God meets with us in worship. He has told us to gather to worship Him, and He has told us what to do in worship.
We Submit to God’s Word by a Life of Worship
The book of Leviticus describes numerous rituals. Leviticus also describes every area of life as holy and under God’s rule—how we relate to family and neighbors, how we work, what we eat, how we worship. All of life is worship because it all relates to God, and we follow the lifestyle He has prescribed. Rituals don’t have to be meaningless; God intended the rituals He gave to be invitations into His presence and ways of connecting with Him. But when worship becomes merely ritual without connecting with God and without making a difference in the way we live, that ritual is meaningless.
The Old Testament prophets repeatedly preached against ritualistic religion that observed the forms and followed the traditions but was not part of a life of seeking and pleasing God in everything. The prophet Micah asked what kind of worship pleases God.
What should I bring before the Lord when I come to bow before God on high? Should I come before Him with burnt offerings, with year-old calves? Would the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams or with ten thousand streams of oil? Should I give my firstborn for my transgression, the child of my body for my own sin? Mankind, He has told you what is good and what it is the Lord requires of you: to act justly, to love faithfulness, and to walk humbly with your God. (Mic 6:6-8)
Micah was asking about right worship. He asked whether observing the rituals would please the Lord. If merely offering a sacrifice is not enough, maybe God would be pleased with lots of sacrifices—“thousands of rams” or “ten thousand streams of oil.” But if quantity does not please God, maybe it’s quality He wants, so Micah suggested that perhaps God would be pleased if he offered his firstborn child. After his rhetorical speculation, Micah stated the kind of worship that pleases God—worship that’s part of a life of walking with God through everything and obeying His commands to do justice and show mercy. That’s a life of worship. If we come into the presence of God, experience His presence, and hear and heed His Word, how can our lives go unchanged? How is it possible to be visited by and touched by the almighty God of the universe and not be changed? We are always changed by powerful worship. We submit to God’s Word by the fact of worship, by the way we worship, and by a life of worship.
Powerful Worship Requires God’s Mediation
Over the years I have taught and preached through an interpreter many times. I once spent a week in Vietnam, lecturing on parts of the Old Testament. I do not know any Vietnamese, and before I made the trip a missionary told me that Vietnamese is an inflectional language; if I used the right word with the wrong inflection, I could say something entirely different from what I intended. Hence, they told me not to attempt to communicate in Vietnamese at all. I couldn’t resist trying, so in the course of five days I think I mastered the pronunciation of the Vietnamese word for “Thank you.” Obviously, in order to lecture all week to people who spoke Vietnamese, I needed help. So I spoke through an interpreter. He took my words and translated them so that they were understandable. He was my mediator.
In the old covenant the Israelites also had mediators in worship. They were the priests. Leviticus 9 describes the inauguration of the worship God had commanded in the tabernacle, and the priests offered the sacrifices and announced God’s blessing. The people approached God through the priests. The requirement for priests as mediators carried an essential message. God has decreed that people cannot come into His presence in the same way we come into the presence of other people. Just like the Vietnamese speak a different language so I needed help, God is different from us so we need help in approaching Him. The difference between us and God is not just a matter of degree, as if we are good and He is considerably better. No. He is other, separate from us. We are finite, He is infinite. We are weak, His power has no limits. We are ignorant, He is all-knowing. We are earthly, He is heavenly. We are contaminated by sin, but no sin will ever be in His holy presence. In fact, no sin has ever been in His presence except for that moment when He took our sin on Himself on the cross to atone for our sin so that we can come into His holy presence.
When Jesus shed His blood on the cross for our sins, He inaugurated the new covenant, and in the new covenant He is both our sacrifice and our high priest. He, God the Son Himself, has now superseded the old covenant sacrifices and the old covenant mediatorial priesthood. He became the perfect and final sacrifice for sin. Moreover, just as God required old covenant believers to approach Him through the mediation of priests, God also requires new covenant believers to approach Him through a priest. However, now Jesus is the only mediator. First Timothy 2:5 says there is “one mediator between God and humanity, Christ Jesus.” We offer our worship through that Mediator. Hebrews 13:15 says of Jesus, “Through Him let us continually offer up to God a sacrifice of praise.”
Christ Jesus takes the place of the old covenant priests, but He does not merely replace them. The writer of Hebrews wrote, “He is the mediator of a better covenant” (8:6; cf. 7:22). The new covenant is better, and He is a better high priest. Old covenant priests were sinners, so they had to offer sacrifices for their own sin, as they did in Leviticus 9. But Hebrews 7:26-27 says that Jesus is
holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. He doesn’t need to offer sacrifices every day, as high priests do—first for their own sins, then for those of the people. He did this once for all when He offered Himself.
Old covenant priests offered sacrifices for Israel; Hebrews 5:9 says Jesus is “the source of eternal salvation for all who obey Him.” Old covenant priests served for a while and died. Hebrews 7:24 says that Jesus “remains forever, He holds His priesthood permanently” (cf. 6:20). Old covenant priests offered the blood of bulls and goats, but Hebrews 9:14 says that Jesus “offered Himself without blemish to God.” Old covenant priests served in a holy place made with hands, but Hebrews 9:24 says that Jesus entered “into heaven itself, so that He might now appear in the presence of God for us.” Old covenant priests had to offer sacrifices repeatedly to atone for sin, but Hebrews 9:26 says that Jesus offered Himself “one time.” Jesus is not merely the new high priest; He is the better high priest, the perfect and eternal high priest. In fact, the old covenant priesthood existed to prepare us for Jesus’ high priestly role by teaching that true worship requires God’s mediator.
Powerful Worship Results from God’s Visitation
Leviticus 9:23 says, “The glory of the Lord appeared to all the people,” and verse 24 says, “Fire came from the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat portions on the altar. And when all the people saw it, they shouted and fell facedown on the ground.” They shouted presumably in celebration. They fell on their faces in contrition because they realized that they were in the presence of almighty God. Sometimes Christians debate vigorously whether worship should be more celebrative or more meditative. Why can’t it be both? Both were expressed in the powerful worship service in Leviticus 9. But people who like to celebrate in worship often are not very comfortable with silence or contemplation. On the other hand, people who like more meditative worship are bothered easily by expressions of celebration. Must we demand of God that our response to Him should be only what is most comfortable to us?
“They shouted and fell facedown.” God manifested His presence. He visited His people. That’s powerful worship—not the power of man but the power of God that’s expressed when we invite Him to worship and He shows up and does in us what only He can do. When He comes, He can convict us, break us, forgive us, restore us, call us, transform us, direct us, empower us, save us, and sanctify us.
As a pastor, I usually work with other worship leaders to begin the planning process for a worship service months in advance. We plan the content of each worship service based on the content of God’s Word that we will read on that day. Then we plan more specifically as the day gets closer. We talk about it, pray about it, and put a plan on paper. However, the experience of worship is always better than the plan. Worship is more than the sum of its parts. That’s because nobody can plan or program what God does. “In the second song, God is going to call Suzy to salvation, and during the prayer time God is going to convict Harry about how he’s been treating his wife.” It doesn’t work that way, because God does what He wants to do when He wants to do it. But when God visits us He does what no person can do. Only God can send fire from His presence and light the altar.
A lot of people today think that a great time of worship is defined by great music. God commands us to use music to praise Him, but in the worship described in Leviticus 9 the people produced no music. God was present, and that was enough. A lot of people think that a great time of worship is defined by great communication by the preacher. But powerful worship is the result of God’s presence, not man’s. A few years ago someone invited me to a special worship service. He said he was excited about the meeting because a particular preacher was going to be speaking. He thought I would want to go too when he told me the name of the preacher. I replied sarcastically, “I heard God’s going to be there too.” I was trying to make a point—I want to be more interested in meeting with God in worship than listening to any man. Does it exalt God when we want to attend worship more because a preacher we like will be there? Powerful worship is not the result of what man does; it is the result of what God does.
When I was in college I preached in a small church in north Alabama on a Sunday morning. I remember thinking beforehand what a great sermon it was going to be. I was so proud of the way I had written it. Somehow, however, as I was preaching, it just fell apart. I said hardly anything I had intended to say, and what I said seemed virtually incoherent. After I preached, as the congregation was singing the closing song, I went to the front pew and asked God to forgive me for doing such a horrible job of serving Him and for being so full of myself to think that I could preach a great sermon. I prayed with my eyes closed during that time of singing, and when it was over and I looked up, the pastor began introducing six people who had come to him during that song and told him they had decided in that service to put their faith in Jesus and be saved. I learned a lesson that day about what a man can do and what God can do. No matter how pitifully a man may lead worship, if God shows up in power that’s all that matters. If God doesn’t show up in power, no matter how wonderfully man may lead worship, it won’t matter. Powerful worship results from God’s visitation.
Do we seek and experience God’s presence every time we worship? When I have asked people about their most powerful and memorable worship experiences, often they have referred to what they experienced in a retreat setting or around a campfire with a group of believers. They rarely refer to a Sunday morning worship service in the church where they are members, though they have gathered there for worship hundreds of times. Before Robert Webber died in 2007, he was a professor at Wheaton College and wrote over 40 books on the subject of worship. He once wrote this striking statement:
Worship is the weakest area of evangelical Christianity. We are strongest in the areas of evangelism, teaching, and fellowship. . . . But depth in the area of worship is badly lacking. We hardly know where to begin. (Webber, Worship: Old and New, 198)
Webber’s assessment of the depth of our thinking regarding worship is bleak. Yet, many of us have observed the shallowness of evangelicals’ thinking about worship. I have talked with Christians who seemed to consider themselves authorities on the subject of worship, but the more they talked the more it was clear that they were authorities only on the subject of what they like. Most of our conversations about worship are not about worship at all but about music. And our conversations about music almost inevitably devolve into a recital of our preferences or the kind of music that achieves a desired effect—like excitement or contemplation, the feeling of relevance or the feeling of transcendence. Most of evangelicals’ comments about music or worship do not focus on what the Bible says, though we claim the Bible is primarily on our side. Leviticus 9 is just one chapter in the Bible, but even at this early stage in the history of God’s revelation a theology of worship is beginning to emerge. Powerful worship involves our spiritual preparation, submission to God’s Word, mediation to God through Jesus, and a visitation by God. Let us prepare our hearts to meet God in worship. Let us submit to His Word and put our faith in the only Mediator, Jesus. Let us ask Him to show His glory to us in worship.
Reflect and Discuss
- Describe your most powerful worship experiences.
- How did the people of Israel prepare to worship God?
- How had God prepared the people of Israel for worship?
- How do you prepare yourself for worship? What are some changes you would like to make in your preparation?
- What are the three ways worship relates to submission to God’s Word?
- Are you a spectator or a participator in worship services? What can you do each week to ensure you are a participator?
- How did the old covenant priesthood prepare us for Jesus’ high priestly role?
- Both celebrative and meditative worship were expressed by the people in Leviticus 9. Which do you typically prefer, and how can you incorporate the other?
- According to Micah 6:6-8, what type of worship pleases God? Does your worship please God? How can you know?
- What do you require in order to experience a great time of worship? Are your requirements in the Bible, or are they your own? Are they present in Leviticus 9?