EXODUS 32:1-6 - What Should We Do When We Gather?

The Worshipping Church  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented   •  45:06
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Since God is the One who gathers us for worship, we must submit to His commands for what our worship looks like

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A couple weeks back I was working through VA program approvals for our campus—we have to receive approval from the State Approving Agency every year to be able to receive GI Bill funds for our military students. Every year the forms and processes are different, and we are working with a different official from the state. If you’ve ever had to submit paperwork to the government for your job, you know what fun it is (It’s like doing your income taxes, except the forms and requirements completely change every year!)
Every year we have to wait until we get specific instructions from Harrisburg before we can submit our application; every campus messages back and forth with each other comparing our applications like kids comparing test scores after class: “What did you put for number 12?” Because if you get these things wrong, if you don’t follow their directions precisely, you can wind up with all kinds of headaches with VA funding for your students. You can’t just put whatever you think looks good to you; you have to submit the documentation the way they want it, or risk all kinds of sanctions, fines or suspensions and uncomfortable meetings with your supervisor...
This is one of the reasons why it is so important for us to carefully consider the decisions we make about how to structure our worship when we gather as a church. Consider the passage that we read earlier from Exodus 32, when Israel got impatient waiting for instructions and decided to come up with their own ideas about worship.
It’s a common understanding that this passage is describing the Israelites’ rejection of the LORD and embrace of pagan Egyptian gods, that the golden calf represented their turning to worship gods other than YHWH. But I think (with good reason) that the people were calling on Aaron here to make them an image of the true God. For one thing, the plural word “gods” in verse 1:
Exodus 32:1 (ESV)
“...Up, make us gods who shall go before us...
is the word “elohim”, which is one of the names for God in the Old Testament (a “plural of majesty”, as it were.) So this verse can be read, “Up, make us Elohim”—make us the God who will go before us in the wilderness, as He went before us through the Red Sea...”
Add to this what we read in verses 4-5: Aaron specifically said that the image was meant to worship YHWH:
Exodus 32:4–5 (ESV)
...These are your gods, O Israel, [or, “this is your Elohim, O Israel”] who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” 5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.”
And finally, scholars who study the religion of the ancient Egyptians tell us that their gods were commonly depicted as riding on calves. So when Aaron made this image, he made a riderless calf; he made a representation of the invisible God, Elohim, YHWH Himself.
Put all this together and you see that Aaron and the people believed that they were worshipping YHWH appropriately; they were not creating an image of Him exactly, but were (as the writer of Judges would say) “doing what was right in their own eyes” in worship. It is a terrible sin to turn away from the worship of the true God to idols—but it is also a terrible thing to worship the true God in the wrong way. The Israelites’ attempt to worship God in their wisdom cost the lives of three thousand people (Exodus 32:27-28).
And before you dismiss this assertion by saying, “Well, that was the Old Testament; we live under grace now!”, don’t forget that Ananias and Sapphira—believers—were struck dead because they lied about the offering they brought to church (Acts 5:1-11), and the Apostle Paul warned the church in Corinth that if they did not stop coming to the corporate worship of the Lord’s Supper without the reverent repentance God required that more of their church members—believers—would sicken and die (1 Corinthians 11:29-30). The Apostle John warned us a few weeks ago that a believer who refuses to repent of wilful, continuous sin may die under God’s chastening hand (1 John 5:16).
Yes, we live under the grace of God purchased for us through the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ—there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ—we cannot be condemned for our sins, the horrors of the wrath of God in Hell can no longer terrify us. But we cannot forget that it was a New Testament writer, writing to church members, who said
Hebrews 10:31 (ESV)
31 It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
It is not for nothing that Baalam says in Numbers 23:19
Numbers 23:19 (ESV)
19 God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind.
The same God who spent chapter after chapter in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy commanding every last detail of how the tabernacle was to be constructed and the priest was to be dressed and how the incense was to be blended—the same God who burned up Nadab and Abihu for kindling their censers apart from His instructions in Leviticus 10—is the same God who has assembled you here together to worship today!
And so how shall we then worship? How shall we determine what activities we are to carry out, how we are to go about offering worship that is acceptable to this mighty and holy and righteous God? Over time in a church with a long and faithful history like ours, we are apt to just presume that we know what sort of things we ought to do in our worship because we’ve pretty much always seen and done the same sorts of things as far back as we can remember. (And for the record, I do not believe that our worship together on Sunday mornings is disobedient or sinful or making us liable to chastisement from God).
But I believe that it is good and prudent and wise for us to always evaluate ourselves in the life of our church, to continually come back to God’s Word to compare what we do in worship with what He has commanded. What I want to work through with you this morning from the Scriptures is called
THE REGULATIVE PRINCIPLE OF WORSHIP: The corporate worship of God by His church is to be founded on SPECIFIC DIRECTIONS of SCRIPTURE
Throughout the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament), God gave explicit and detailed instructions on how His people were to worship. When Jesus came, he fulfilled all of those requirements by His active and passive obedience (Matthew 5:18). But that does not mean that worship in the New Testament is left up to our own whims and wishes—God has still clearly spoken to us about how we are to carry out our gathered worship. And so the way I want to say it this morning, and what I want you to see today is that
By His WORD , God GOVERNS what the local church should DO when it GATHERS
And the first thing that we see is that through His Word, God

I. DEFINES the ELEMENTS of our worship

We can identify five separate headings of things we are commanded to do when we worship together. The Apostle Paul wrote his letters to churches across the Roman Empire, instructing, encouraging (sometimes rebuking) and guiding them in their corporate life together. And as we read through his letters we see very specific commands of things to be done in gathered worship. In 1 Timothy 4:13, churches are commanded to
READ the Word (1 Timothy 4:13)
1 Timothy 4:13 (ESV)
13 Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.
As we have noted before, this is a clear direction on what we are to do when we gather—we are to read the Word of God together. We are to be devoted to it—not something that we occasionally do when the fancy strikes us; we are to be devoted to it, give our attention to it as some translations say. Reading the Scriptures together (whether in unison or responsively or listening as the Scriptures are read) is a clearly defined element of our gathered worship.
Paul also says in that verse that we are to give attention to exhortation—another way to say this is that we are to
PREACH the Word (2 Timothy 4:2)
A few verses earlier in verse 2 of 2 Timothy 4 we read
2 Timothy 4:2–3 (ESV)
2 preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.
Again—this is a command we find in God’s Word—preach the Word! He further defines what that means in the rest of the verse—reproving, rebuking, exhorting, patiently teaching and giving understanding of the Word that we have read together.
If we move over to the book of Ephesians, we see another essential element of worship: We are to
SING the Word (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16)
Ephesians 5:19 (ESV)
19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart,
Singing isn’t just something that we do because we think it’s fun or an enjoyable way to pass the time. We are singing because we are commanded to. God has determined that when you come to worship on Sunday, He wants to hear you sing. And He is omniscient, which means He knows everything, which means He knows what your singing sounds like, and He wants to hear it anyway! As we have noted before, singing is the way that you instruct and teach your fellow members in worship:
Colossians 3:16 (ESV)
16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.
Singing—specifically, singing to each other—is an indispensable part of corporate worship.
As we move on we see that we are also commanded that when we gather for worship, we
PRAY the Word (1 Timothy 2:1-2)
1 Timothy 2:1–2 (ESV)
1 First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, 2 for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.
Corporate prayer together on Sunday morning is an essential element of gathered worship. And see again how the types of prayer that we are to offer is described here for us—intercessions (praying for the needs of others) thanksgivings (prayers of gratitude for His goodness to us). We are ascribing to God the honor and glory and praise due His Name when we demonstrate our need for His work on our behalf by coming to Him in prayer—we show that He is our hope for our own needs, and that (as Paul demonstrates here) that He is the only source of peaceable and quiet lives lived in godly dignity.
And there is one other example that we are given in the New Testament that defines what we do in worship—we read the word, preach the word, sing the word, pray the word, and we are to
SEE the Word (Acts 2:41-42)
In Acts we read about the earliest days of the church, and in Acts 2:41-42 we read that
Acts 2:41–42 (ESV)
41 So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. 42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
There are two activities that we see took place from the earliest days of the church—baptism, and “the breaking of bread”—a reference to the Lord’s Supper. Observing these two ordinances are an essential part of what a church must do when it gathers. I call this “seeing” the Word because the Gospel is, in a very real sense, acted out for us in the observance of these two activities.
In baptism, we see a person acting out their death to sin, their death with Christ, as they go under the water, and we see them rising again with Christ as they come back up. In the Lord’s Supper we see the bread and the cup that represent the body and blood of Jesus Christ, broken and shed for us.
God’s Word governs what we should do as we gather—it is not left up to us to decide what the elements of our worship should be. We must read the Word, preach the Word, Sing the Word, pray the Word and see the Word.
So much, perhaps, we can see clearly. But then the question comes—how do we carry out that preaching and reading and prayer and singing and showing? What form should our worship take?
Just as God’s Word governs the elements of our worship, so we see that it also

II. INFORMS the FORMS of our worship

So let’s take a moment and distinguish what we are talking about—what’s the difference between an element of worship and a form of worship?
Think of it like this: A couple of weeks ago the church got a new stove in the kitchen (and Jeff already tried it out at breakfast yesterday!) Now, a stove is an element of a kitchen. It is an essential component of a kitchen. But what kind of stove you have in your kitchen can vary—the Stewardship Team and Leadership Council knew that we needed a stove, but then had to work through what form that stove would take: Gas? Electric? Oval burner? Color?
In the same way, God’s Word commands us to have certain elements of worship, but the forms those elements take are not commanded or prescribed—they can differ according to circumstances. For instance, consider the elements laid out for us here for the Lord’s Supper this morning. Now, we are commanded to “see” the Word through the Lord’s Supper; it is an element of worship that we do not have the option of leaving out. But what form that element takes is not commanded in Scripture: Do we use bread cubes or matzoh? Do we break the bread at the moment of serving it or do we do it beforehand? Do we use one cup that we share or individual cups? Do we use wine or grape juice? These are all valid questions that a church must answer as they carry out the element of the Lord’s Supper in worship.
I want to suggest that, even though God’s Word gives us no commands regarding the forms of our worship, our decisions about how to carry out those five elements of worship can be greatly informed and guided by God’s Word. In fact, let’s take the three points from last week’s sermon and revisit them here as we are talking about how to guide our choices in our forms of worship. Remember last week that when we gather, we are called
To EXALT God (Psalm 34:3)
Psalm 34:3 (ESV)
3 Oh, magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together!
So whatever form our worship takes, our aim must be to lift up and magnify and glorify God in His holiness and majesty. Years ago I visited a Baptist church in Wilkes-Barre. Now, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton area is very heavily influenced by Roman Catholicism, and this was evident in the forms of worship that this church conducted—beautiful stained-glass windows in a basilica-shaped sanctuary, pipe organ, choir dressed in white robes, traditional hymns, readings and sermon from the King James Bible—all of the faithful elements of Gospel worship were there, but the forms those elements took were carefully chosen to be sure that they were exalting God in ways that spoke most readily to the people in their community.
Contrast that with Manchester Baptist Church in Kentucky, where we went on our Spring Break missions trip with Penn State. No pipe organ, no formal choir, no mahogany-paneled sanctuary, but all of the faithful elements of worship were there! They read the Word and sang it and prayed it and preached it! And even though the preacher preached like a Kentucky backwoodsman (slowly and carefully!), God was greatly magnified and exalted in that place!
God’s Word helps inform our choices about the forms of our worship—whatever forms our worship takes, we aim to exalt God. Remember back last week that we observed also that our gatherings are also meant
To EVANGELIZE the lost (1 Corinthians 14:24-25)
Another way to talk about the five elements of worship is to make explicit their Gospel connection: We can just as easily say that the elements of worship are to preach the Gospel, read the Gospel, sing the Gospel, pray the Gospel and see the Gospel. Everything that we do here on Sunday morning should point towards the Good News of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ for sinners. When the Apostle Paul was riding the brake on the Corinthian church’s preoccupation with flashy sign gifts, he said that the focus of their worship should always come back to people coming to faith in Christ: As we observed from Paul’s letter in 1 Corinthians 14
1 Corinthians 14:24–25 (ESV)
24 But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, 25 the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.
So the question we need to ask as we evaluate our forms of worship at Bethel is: Will someone clearly hear and come to understand the Gospel as a result of how we worship? Do the forms we observe make the Gospel plain? Does the Gospel come through in the songs that we sing, in the prayers that we pray, in the content of the sermons we preach? Moreover, is there a “Gospel flow” of our service that demonstrates conviction of sin, forgiveness in Christ, growth in holiness and celebration of unity with God? Lord willing we will talk more next week about how a church’s order of service can be a “tour of the Gospel” every week, but for now it is enough for us to think about how the forms we choose for worship can make the Gospel plain to everyone who attends (unbelievers and believers alike!)
God’s Word informs our choices about our forms of worship—to exalt God, to evangelize the lost, and
To EDIFY each other (1 Cor. 14:26)
Paul says it clearly in 1 Corinthians 14:26:
1 Corinthians 14:26 (ESV)
...Let all things be done for building up.
Let’s think for a moment about the element of singing the Word—this is one of the forms of worship that perhaps has caused more friction and breaks in fellowship than perhaps any other in the last few decades. There are churches that use pipe organs, churches that have a full string orchestra, churches that have five-piece rock bands, churches that sing to a piano, churches that sing traditional hymns, churches that sing psalms, churches that adapt Imagine Dragons songs with Christian lyrics, and on and on it goes. Once again—the form of worship that singing the Word takes is largely dependent on the circumstances of the congregation. You use the resources that you have—if you can have a full orchestra or praise band, then go for it; if all you have is a piano and a talented pianist, then go for it. One is not better or worse than the other.
But whatever form singing the Word takes, the focus must be on edifying one another. We are clearly called to sing to one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs—we are not called to be sung to. Our forms of worship in singing should not lead to a passive listening rather than participating; whether because the technical skill of those leading leaves the congregation in the dust, or because the music is treated more like a concert (with dim lights so that you can’t see each other and loud amplification so you can’t hear each other). God’s Word does not demand a particular form of singing the Word, but it does inform how that form should be carried out.
This leads us to one more crucial aspect of how God by His Word governs what a local church does when it gathers—God’s Word defines the elements of our worship, it informs the forms our worship takes, and God’s Word

III. ORIENTS our HEARTS in our worship

I said a moment ago that the forms of singing the Word have caused more friction and fallout than perhaps any other issue of worship in the church. And so we cannot leave this issue without recognizing how God’s Word protects our liberty in worship. We spent a lot of time in Romans 14 last year as we studied the role of the conscience in the Christian life, and it is good for us to remind ourselves of it again here:
Romans 14:13–16 (ESV)
13 Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. 14 I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. 15 For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. 16 So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil.
Paul was writing about Christians who differed over what foods it was permissible to eat, but the principle clearly applies to our forms of worship--
We submit to ONE ANOTHER in LOVE (Rom. 14:13-16)
Just as in everything else, one Christian has a tender conscience where another has a stronger conscience. One believer has no problem with a particular style of music in worship while another has a tender conscience and cannot participate in faith. The weaker brother becomes a Pharisee to the stronger, binding their conscience in an ungodly way over music, or the stronger brother plays the role of Satan in their weaker brother’s life by causing him to sin by violating his conscience.
The only way for us to worship together in Christian liberty is to submit together to God’s Word. When we are sure that we have a clear, Biblical basis for everything that we do in worship, when we can easily demonstrate from the Scriptures why we include a particular element of worship, then we are protecting one another’s liberty of conscience and together submitting to God’s Word:
Romans 14:19 (ESV)
19 So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.
Through His Word God orients our hearts in worship—we submit to one another in love, and
We submit to GOD in HUMILITY (John 4:20-24)
Turn with me to John’s Gospel, chapter 4 (page 889 in the pew Bible). Jesus is having a conversation with an unbelieving Samaritan woman, and she deflects His personal statements about her marital status by trying to start an argument about worship:
John 4:19–20 (ESV)
19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. 20 Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.”
How often arguments and disagreements and frictions about forms of worship come about because someone doesn’t want to be confronted with God’s call on their life! Sometimes someone who wants to be particular about what kind of music a church sings or how long the sermon is or what version of the Bible is read is trying to avoid the words of Jesus Christ that are convicting them of their need for repentance.
Now, that’s not to say that any time there is an issue over a form of worship it’s because someone is being sinful—but it does mean that you need to watch your heart when you come to worship. You have entered into the presence of the God Whose attention to the details of worship went clear down to the embroidery of the priest’s garments in the Old Testament. The God Whose wrath burned up Nadab and Abihu for not lighting their incense the way He commanded. The God Whose holiness and splendor is so overwhelming that even the ancient, mighty seraphim are forced to cover their faces in His presence. the God Whose righteousness and purity and transcendence is so complete that the only way you can worship Him at all is if He instructs you how to do it.
Remember Whose presence you are entering in worship. Aaron’s attempt to come up with his own method of worshipping God rightly at Mount Sinai resulted in the death of thousands of worshippers; there is no way to please God in worship by coming up with what you think is appropriate; what you believe will honor Him. And so you come with a posture of humility before Him, resolved to worship according to what He reveals in His word.
And remember what He has done to make you fit for this gathering! There was a time in your life when you were nothing but a child of God’s wrath, dead in your sin, carrying out the desires of your body and mind (Eph 2:1-4)—
Ephesians 2:4–5 (ESV)
4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ...
You can come here into the presence of this holy, righteous and majestic God because Jesus Christ has made you fit for it! He has paid the penalty for your sin and rebellion against Him, He has made you righteous because of your faith in Him, and by His Spirit dwelling in you He leads you into the kind of worship that He demands—as Jesus said to the Samaritan woman:
John 4:23–24 (ESV)
23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
Beloved, Jesus confronts you with the same question that He did with that woman at the well so long ago: Are you a true worshipper of the Father this morning? Are you here worshipping as a Spirit-filled child of God, redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ, truly offering to Him your worship of adoration, obedience, confession and humility?
Or have you come here this morning only willing to “go so far” in worship? You’re happy to participate in the singing and praying, you take an academic interest in the sermon, but you’re not prepared to be confronted by Jesus with your sin. Like the Samaritan woman, you don’t want Jesus probing around in your personal life, exposing your sins and failures and corruptions.
But Jesus hasn’t gathered you here this morning for a polite visit. He has called you here this morning to confront you—through this worship service—with the fact that you need to repent of your sin and call on Him in faith for salvation. You know perfectly well that what Jesus is saying to you about your condition is true. And like He did for the woman at the well, He is revealing Himself to you through this worship: “I am He!” He is the great I AM of the Old Testament; He is the One who sees everything you have done, and He is the One who has died and risen again so that you can receive forgiveness from Him for all of it!”
If you do not know that you have received that forgiveness, if you do not know that you have eternal life from Christ this morning—do not leave this worship service until you know! Come and talk to me down front after the service, talk to one of the elders, talk to one of the church members here—anyone—so that we can show you the Gospel this morning so that you can come—and welcome!—to Jesus Christ!
Hebrews 13:20–21 (ESV)
20 Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, 21 equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.


Consider the five elements of worship that God’s Word commands for us to observe when we gather for worship. Can you see these elements clearly in the way we gather for worship at Bethel? Why or why not?
What is the difference between an element of worship and a form of worship? How does God’s word inform the decisions we make about the forms of worship that we practice here at Bethel? Are some forms of worship better than others? Why or why not?
Read Romans 14 this week. How do we protect one another’s conscience when it comes to the forms of worship that we practice?
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