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Worship Lesson 9: “Trust Not in Deceptive Words”: The Prophets and Worship

Sabbath School Today


Lesson 9: “Trust Not in Deceptive Words”:
The Prophets and Worship

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The debate within the Adventist church over contemporary worship styles has been going on since the 1980s. The real issue of worship, however, resolves itself around the true character of the God we worship. Is our god “Baal” whose worship caters to self-pleasure; or, the God who reveals Himself in self-denial and the divine-human sacrifice on the cross?

This was ancient Israel’s dilemma as well as ours. All the spiritual confusion started when they called God “lord”–Baal. Then they brought in “contemporary” worship. It was “ecumenical.” It was good “outreach” to secular people. The Israelites liked it.

Ancient Baal worship was the worship of “self” disguised as the worship of God. It resulted in lawless behavior. Jeremiah pointedly asked: “Will ye steal, murder, and commit adultery, and swear falsely, and burn incense unto Baal, and walk after other gods whom ye know not?” (7:9). Here is the unconscious sin.

The “watchman” is to sound the contemporary alarm.

All sorts of enslaving addictions arise out of the worship of “self”: alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, gambling, infidelity, hatred, backbiting, evil-surmising, sharp-dealing, apathy, etc. When God’s people lose their agape-love in exchange for eros-kind of faith motivated by self-interest, there is no end to the sins that can arise out of worshiping such a false god. The worship of “self”-idols is a violation of the first commandment: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:3).

What is the cure for worshipping our sin-addictions? The only cure for worshipping false idols is an understanding of the true character of God. “God is love”–agape (1 John 4:8). But one cannot understand love unless he “sees” how God has revealed Himself at the cross.

The “good news” dynamic about God’s character is illustrated by the prophet Isaiah’s experience when he wandered into the Temple one day. He thought himself fitted for “ministry” until he heard the words, “Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts,” and saw “the whole earth is full of His glory” (Isa. 6:3). The character of God is holy-agape. Here is a “good news” 1888 concept. Isaiah saw God revealed at the cross by going into the Temple. This revelation fills the “whole earth.”

Isaiah declared: “Woe is me! For I am undone” (vs. 5). The closer he came to God the more he abhorred himself and his unchristlike character. Said Isaiah, “My heart is polluted in contrast with the righteousness of Christ.” Isaiah could never have written his 53rd chapter about the cross of Christ unless he had experienced that self-abasement early on in chapter 6.

Worship that is not cross-centered descends into entertainment which appeals to the ego. When the forms and rituals of worship are not offered by “faith which works by love” (Gal. 5:6), then it is heathenism.

Heathen worship is not inconsistent with the retention of forms and ceremonies instituted by God. God instituted sacrifices as an essential feature of His worship, and it was doubtless from these that all other sacrificial ceremonies were borrowed. “Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” (Micah 6:7). The heathen looked no further in their worship than the sacrifice itself, and attributed to it all the virtue of obedience to the Divine instructions. It was this that made them heathen. They lost faith, which looked beyond the form and ceremony to the Lamb of God, in whom alone there was virtue for mankind. Heathenism is simply worship not of faith.

The sacrifices which were intended to point Israel to the atoning sacrifice of the Lamb of God, was perverted when faith dropped out, by the offering of sacrifices in order to appease an angry God. They even went to the extent of offering their own children in order to expiate God’s wrath (2 Kings 17:16, 17; 3:27).

When the cross is uplifted in worship it results in repentance, and hardened, self-sufficient hearts are melted by our Saviour’s divine compassion. “We are not to entertain the idea that God loves us because Christ has died for us, but that he so loved us that he gave his only-begotten Son to die for us. The death of Christ was expedient in order that mercy might reach us with its full pardoning power, …” (Ellen G. White, Signs of the Times, May 30, 1895). The 1888 idea is that God gives us the atonement. We are the ones who need it. “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; …” (2 Cor. 5:19).

It is not alone the proclamation of the law that convicts of sin. In fact, it may even “provoke” sin. To preach to someone that they must obey the law of God when they have not within them the power to obey, creates frustration and tension which can result in rebellion and rejection of God. Who has not seen the wreckage of such old covenant teaching in the loss of souls who go out the back door of the church?

There is a preachment of the law which, without the gospel, descends into self-efforts of obedience that is nothing more than paganism. “As a people, we have preached the law until we are as dry as the hills of Gilboa that had neither dew nor rain. We must preach Christ in the law, … We must not trust in our own merits at all. …” (Ellen G. White, Review and Herald, March 11, 1890).

The 1888 message emphasized the union of the law and the gospel just as in the “early rain” on the day of Pentecost. Peter proclaimed: “But ye denied the Holy One and the Just, and … killed the Prince of life, …” (Acts 3:14, 15). By this means the Holy Spirit convicted hearts in genuine repentance and conversion (vs. 19), and thousands received the atonement in a day (2:41).

The “latter rain” will be much more glorious in its call to “worship Him that made heaven, and earth” (Rev. 14:7). God’s everlasting covenant is given to every earth-bound soul in a clarion call to worship: “Here are they that keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus” (vs. 12). “Keep”; that is, “cherish” the “treasure” of God’s promise. “Keep” what God has given you.

“The faith of Jesus,” the gospel has been given to all. “God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith” (Rom. 12:3). Let Jesus’ faith work out His commandments in you by agape-love.

Paul E. Penno.

Lesson 8: “Conformity, Compromise, and Crisis in Worship”

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Sabbath School Today


Lesson 8: “Conformity, Compromise, and Crisis in Worship”

Will it not be a glorious day when the hearts and lives of God’s people are free from sinning and they have grown up fully in God’s agape-love? They will not be conscious that their characters have been perfected by God’s grace. They will not be aware that they have received the seal of God. God will pronounce the words of His covenant before the universe: “Here are they which keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus” (Rev. 14:12). Their only concern will be that they might dishonor Christ by some hidden defect in their lives. However, Jesus “shall see of the travail of His soul, and shall be satisfied” (Isa. 53:11). The “most precious message” sets forth the prospect of sinless living in tempted sinful flesh. Jesus will demonstrate that His gospel is fully able to deliver us from sin.

“It’s not pretty, but there it is–the last word of the Old Testament is ‘a curse’ (Mal. 4:6), not so much a threat as it is the inevitable Bad News of disaster as the unavoidable consequence of sin. It’s the ‘curse’ that came in the flood of Noah when the earth was destroyed. The human race brought it upon themselves ‘in the days of Noah,’ and will do so again, unless somehow help can come.

“The ‘help’ that God promises is a totally impossible miracle for humans: God will ‘send … Elijah before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord, and he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers’ (Mal. 4:5, 6). That ‘turning-of-heart’ is the only thing that can avert a global ‘curse.’ Only ‘Elijah’s message’ can reconcile the desolated hearts and cleanse the pollution. It’s more than old covenant resolutions and works; it’s a heart-turning ‘faith-which-works’ proclamation of the cross of Jesus, of grace which abounds more than sin” (excerpted from Robert J. Wieland, “Dial Daily Bread”).

In the days of Elijah, through complacency, Israel had fallen into Baal worship. “The apostasy prevailing today is similar to that which in the prophet’s day overspread Israel” (Ellen G. White, Prophets and Kings, p. 170). Like the end-time church, Laodicea, Israel had been blind to this perversion of truth, so compromise came easily. Content to allow an “alternative” worship style, Israel saw nothing wrong with the worship of God and the worship of Baal co-existing. Ellen White explains the parallel for our day: “Baal, Baal, is the choice. The religion of many among us will be the religion of apostate Israel, because they love their own way, and forsake the way of the Lord” (Testimonies to Ministers, pp. 467, 468).

“Elijah recognized that Baal had usurped the place of Yahweh. … Baal was solely the creation of man, a counterfeit from the beginning. He was an insult to the Creator, made for human desire “to be mighty … in the earth,” and by him cities were built and Babylon was made the capital. Plainly, Baal-worship is none other than self-worship” (Donald K. Short, “Baal-worship and the Long Delay”).

God didn’t abandon Israel, and as with Laodicea, He reproves and disciplines those He loves. Elijah called for a “showdown.” Echoing the Day of Atonement mandate that all must participate (Lev. 23:29), Elijah commanded that all Israel must appear. That Ahab agreed to the showdown was probably a combination of his own weakness and the desperate situation. Ahab hated this messenger who “troubled” Israel as one whose life and message served to constantly reprove his weaknesses and sins. Maybe Ahab hoped the showdown would reveal Elijah and his God to be failures, providing an excuse to rid the earth of the source of the problems.

The test was posed by Elijah: “How long halt ye between two opinions?” (1 Kings 18:21). The question called for a public declaration of belief. “When [Elijah] threw down the challenge, ‘If the Lord be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him,’ we have in their answer a vivid video tape of the last church. The record says, ‘The people answered him not a word.’ This means they were not for, they were not against, they were not hot, they were not cold, they were ‘lukewarm.’ They did not know their condition. Unconsciously they had changed leaders” (Short, op. cit.).

Like the man attending the wedding feast without a garment, the people said nothing. They were accustomed to the entertaining and seductive demonstrations of the priests of Baal and Asherah. The satanic celebration moved to outright frenzy, when about noon, Elijah mocked them and their gods. By late afternoon, the dancers were giving up from exhaustion.

What will Elijah do, another wearisome demonstration of self-mutilation? Attention is riveted. The coarsely dressed Elijah stands alone and unafraid. The spiritual leadership of the day never demonstrated this kind of courage. His first words are unexpected: “Come near to me,” words which would echo the One Who years later would say to the world “Come unto Me all ye that are heavy laden, and I will give you rest …” (Matt. 11:28, etc.).

The “Elijah” message is probably most clearly embodied in his prayer: “Let it be known that Thou art God in Israel, … and that thou hast turned their heart back again” (1 Kings 18:36, 37), and Malachi repeated that message (4:6).

This “turning of heart,” or restoration, incorporates the idea of repentance, which is what John the Baptist called for when he came in the spirit and power of Elijah before Jesus came. Jesus described how He would accomplish this: “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto Me” (John 12:32). In the very last days before Jesus returns, those who have identified with Christ’s sacrifice when He was “lifted up” will be used to draw all to Christ. They will be so restored, cleansed, and regenerated that they will demonstrate what it means to have their hearts “turned back” again. The result will be a sympathy with Christ for perishing multitudes and an understanding heart toward sinners.

“God’s people have the assurance from Malachi that before the Lord can return there will again be a great work performed by Elijah (4:5). … In a morning talk given by Ellen White, she intimates ‘Elijah’ is that message begun in 1888 (Selected Messages, book 1, pp. 412 ff.). … When we understand our situation, our relation to the ‘most precious message’ the Lord sent, Baal-worship will be destroyed. … The long delay is over. Baal is cast down. The Divine Bridegroom has at last won the heart of His bride. ‘That day’ can come whenever the Bride says she is ready to be married. ‘That day’ could be sooner than we think” (Short, op. cit.).

Arlene Hill