Worship is our response when we meet with God. (See how I arrived at that definition here.) But we haven't always met with God the same way. A dramatic shift in worship came with the shift from the Old Testament economy to the New Testament one. Today I am going to discuss this huge shift with you. Over the next two weeks I will discuss the practical ramifications of what understanding and misunderstanding that shift means to modern American Christianity.
In the Old Testament (OT), other than occasional theophanies, God was present above the Mercy Seat on the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies. We see this vividly illustrated in the story we all learned in Sunday School as children about the pillar of fire by night and the pillar of cloud by day that hovered above the Mosaic Tabernacle. To tabernacle means literally to dwell and those pillars visually indicated God's presence among His people.
This is often called the Shekinah Glory, so named after the Hebrew word for dwell. And Moses was not able to enter into the tent of the congregation, because the cloud abode thereon, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. (Exodus 40.35) The original language word abode has the idea behind it of a bird's nesting place. Solomon, who I think wrote Psalm 132, said in verse four and five, I will not give sleep to mine eyes, or slumber to mine eyelids, Until I find out a place for the LORD, an habitation for the mighty God of Jacob. The original language word habitation is the same root word as abode in Exodus 40. It is the word that gives us in English the shekinah in Shekinah Glory. In Solomon's day there was a place but it was a thousand year old tent. Solomon, influenced no doubt by David, wanted to build God a more appropriate dwelling place. He did. Solomon's Temple sat on the same spot where Abraham took Isaac to be sacrificed. God liked that specific location. Still does, by the way, as will be made clear when Christ returns.
In the OT we see then that worship was strongly associated with the particular spot your god or God lived; that was where you went to meet Him. Indeed, the very first mention of worship in the Bible indicates this concept. And Abraham said unto his young men, Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship. (Genesis 22.5)
This is seen in the many OT mentions that discuss going to a particular location to worship God.
Elkanah did this. And this man went up out of his city yearly to worship and to sacrifice unto the LORD of hosts in Shiloh. (I Samuel 1.3)
David mentions this repeatedly. Then David arose from the earth, and washed, and anointed himself, and changed his apparel, and came into the house of the LORD, and worshipped. (II Samuel 12.20) Exalt the LORD our God, and worship at his holy hill. (Psalm 99.9) We will go into his tabernacles: we will worship at his footstool. (Psalm 132.7)
This concept, that one worships at a particular location, is the entire reason why Jereboam, the leader of the breakaway Jewish kingdom of Israel, built two false gods. He knew that his people would continue to go down to Jerusalem to worship unless he furnished them a particular place to worship within the boundaries of the new northern kingdom. This is also the reason why Hezekiah and other godly OT kings sought to physically destroy the altars and groves in which false gods were worshipped. If you physically destroyed the place you practically destroyed the god. Hath not the same Hezekiah taken away his high places and his altars, and commanded Judah and Jerusalem, saying, Ye shall worship before one altar, and burn incense upon it? (II Chronicles 32.12)
The post-Captivity prophet Jeremiah found this still true in his day. Thus saith the LORD, stand in the court of the LORD's house, and speak unto all the cities of Judah, which come to worship in the LORD's house. (Jeremiah 26.2)
This is why there is a strong indication that when one could not be physically present where God was at you worshipped facing in that direction. I will worship toward thy holy temple. (Psalm 138.2) Daniel is the best known example of this. Daniel 6 does not use the word 'worship' but it does say that he had the lifelong habit of opening the windows of a room that faced Jerusalem and kneeling upon his knees three times a day in prayer.
In summary then in the OT God's people worshipped Him at a particular location or at least faced their hearts and bodies in that direction. God dwelt in the Tabernacle and then the Temple. Since worship is the response that comes when you meet with God His people went to that particular place to meet Him and to worship.
In the New Testament (NT) we find a fascinating turn of events. Worship is not discussed near as much in the NT as it is in the OT but it is still certainly discussed. The most important NT chapter on worship is John 4. This is well known as Jesus' best example of personal evangelism. But in the context of the discussion in which Jesus leads the woman at the well to place her faith in Himself there is a very revealing interplay regarding worship.
John 4.19 The woman saith unto him, Sir, I perceive that thou art a prophet.
20 Our fathers worshipped in this mountain; and ye say, that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.
21 Jesus saith unto her, Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father.
22 Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews.
23 But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him.
24 God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.
The woman at the well was a Samaritan, which is crucial to understanding this part of the conversation. The Samaritans share many similarities, religiously speaking, with the Jews but they also differ in some serious ways. These differences cause great animosity. One of those differences is a disagreement about where the Temple should be located. The Jews believe the Temple should be on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem. The Samaritans insist that it ought to be in their neighborhood on Mt. Gerizim.
This woman immediately perceives Jesus to be in her words a prophet. Yet He is also willingly traveling through Samaria and conversing with Samaritans. She questions Him about this dispute. Our fathers worshipped in this mountain; and ye say, that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.
Jesus' answer reveals the heart of this incredible shift that takes place in worship between the OT and the NT. He tells her that worship will soon no longer be done at or directed toward any one particular location as had been done all through the OT. The hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father.
Jesus then goes on to explain the reason for this shift in worship. But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth. In the OT God tabernacled with His people in a tent first and later in the Temple. In the NT God tabernacles with His people via the indwelling Holy Spirit. In the OT the Holy Spirit only 'came upon' or visited people. In the NT the Holy Spirit takes up residence in them.
Thus it is that in the OT, when one wanted to worship – which is our response when we meet God – he had to go to a location. But in the NT dispensation when he wants to worship he no longer has to go to a place. There is not a spot in the NT where God lives because He lives in the heart of every believer. Thus – and I cannot emphasize this next sentence enough – the NT believer can worship God anywhere provided he does it with the right doctrine and the right heart.
Paul, a Jews Jew if there ever was one, understood this shift. He grasped that one's physical location and direction in worship no longer mattered. For we are the circumcision, which worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3.3)
Worship is our response when we meet God. But in our day we can and should meet Him everywhere. Join me next week as I begin to discuss the ramifications of that for the modern American church.