A Time of Worship Reformation (May-Jun 2002)

By Matt Dabbs

by Al Maxey
May-June 2002

Spiritual Israel struggled within herself as she sought to come to grips with her new identity in Christ Jesus. Laying aside the hostile decrees and demands of the old covenant system, she took those first tentative steps toward the spiritual freedom so graciously offered by her God.

Breaking with one’s past is never easy. It is a transition rarely accomplished without tremendous inner conflict. Leaving a well-known religious system with its comfortable rituals and regulations can be a frightening proposition. For the early disciples of Christ coming out of Judaism, it was a painful process. Perhaps nowhere is this inner struggle seen so dramatically as in Saul of Tarsus as he wrestled within for three days in the city of Damascus. Taking neither food nor drink, he agonized over the life-altering changes that he faced.

For our ancient Jewish brethren, the passage from shadow to substance, from law to liberty, from religion to relationship did not come quickly or quietly. A vocal element within the church simply could not let go of the regulatory system of their religious forefathers, and they militantly resisted the total transposition from slavery to freedom. In a vain attempt to cling to both covenants, they ignorantly proclaimed a “gospel” consisting both of grace and law, which the Scriptures clearly declare mutually exclusive with regard to justification and salvation.

The epistle to the Hebrews was part of our Lord’s attempt, through inspired writers, to counter this confusion. Time and again the two great covenants between God and man were contrasted; and repeatedly, the old was depicted as falling far short of the new. Change had come, and uncomfortable though it might have initially been, God’s people were called to boldly embrace it!

One of the passages in this marvelous “epistle of change” that sought to address this inner struggle of our forefathers is found in the ninth chapter. The writer speaks of “regulations of divine worship” associated with the old covenant system (Heb.9:1). The Greek word dikaioma refers to a “legal norm, a legislative determination.” Thayer, in his lexicon, defines it as “an ordinance or precept concerning the public worship of God.” Under the first covenant God regulated worship! Where, when, and in what manner one expressed his devotion to God was specifically addressed by law. Although there was some latitude, such as in the practice of freewill offerings, it was nevertheless a system characterized by strict legislation. Law, not liberty, was the watchword of worship.

However, the performing of such worship never really accomplished the spiritual maturing of God’s people. Regulated worship is inherently flawed: It restricts the full and free expression of the devotion of the worshiper’s heart. To legislate worship is to limit worship. That’s not to suggest that this regulation didn’t serve a legitimate purpose during the infancy and adolescent stages of Israel’s development. But, with the coming of a change in relationship between God and His people also came the need for changes in the expression of that relationship. Just as rightful restrictions governing the expression of a couple’s love during courtship no longer apply once a covenant of marriage is entered into, so also is the restrictive nature of the old covenant with regard to worshipful expression too limiting now that a new covenant has been effected. With a change in covenant must come a change in the manner in which the covenantal parties express themselves to one another.

This is the point the Hebrew writer seeks to convey to his readers when he informs them that the regulations of divine worship were imposed only “until a time of reformation” (Heb. 9:10). The restrictions upon worshipful expression were temporary and would be removed! This would occur at a specified time determined by the covenant maker: a time of reformation, or “the time of the new order” (according to several translations, such as the NIV). The writer used a very rare Greek word, diorthosis—a word which appears only here in the New Testament writings – to express this thought. This word signifies a complete rectification, a setting right once again. This time of reformation, this implementation of a “new order,” would occur when the Messiah instituted God’s new covenant with mankind. F.F. Bruce writes, “The coming of Christ involved a complete reshaping of the structure of Israel’s religion. The old covenant was now to give way to the new, the shadow to the substance, the outward and earthly copy to the inward and heavenly reality” (The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Epistle to the Hebrews, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, pp. 197-198).

During God’s dispensation of grace, of which you and I are now a part, our worshipful expression has been liberated from legislative determination. Jesus nailed such limiting decrees to the cross and freed us to show forth our worship unto the Father with a newfound, heartfelt liberty. A system of rigid regulation of every aspect of our devotion to God has been forever terminated. We are free!!

Jesus spoke clearly of this “time of reformation” during His earthly ministry—perhaps nowhere as plainly as in a conversation with a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well in the city of Sychar. When this nameless woman, who had come to draw water, perceived Jesus to be a prophet of God, she immediately shared with Him a concern that was heavy on her heart and that reflected the legalistic mind-set of many of her contemporaries with respect to worship: “Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship” (John 4:20). The Jews and Samaritans had different concepts of what was appropriate and acceptable in worship. Their practices varied, as did their theology. This woman was essentially asking, “Whose set of regulations constitutes the legal norm?” Rather than taking sides in a legislative debate, Jesus transcended the issue by directing this woman’s focus away from systematic regulation to spiritual reformation. “Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, shall you worship the Father…..But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:21, 23-24).

The “hour” of which Jesus spoke is the “time of reformation.” It would be a dispensation of grace in which “regulations of divine worship” would be made obsolete. No longer would one’s expressions of worship be judged worthy or unworthy by specifics of a systematized religion or the tedious tenets of traditionalism. At the time of reformation – under the new order of the new covenant – which Jesus indicated to this woman was at that time appearing, all worshipful expressions of the devotion of men’s hearts would be spiritually, not legally, rendered and received.

Such matters as in what mountain or in what building, with how many cups, or with what style of music are all regulatory in nature. Stipulations concerning such matters are attempts, once again, by an element of God’s people lacking in spiritual perception, to impose “regulations of divine worship” upon their brethren, thus limiting by legislation the full and free expression of their devotion and praise unto God. The result is a fractured fellowship with numerous fuming factions engaging in open warfare over matters long since abolished by our Savior at the cross. Having failed to discern the “time of reformation,” many brethren continue to struggle over “regulations of divine worship.” Involved in endless debates over the “mountain” in which men ought to worship, they have found themselves with little time or inclination to embrace or promote worship which is “in spirit and truth.”

Yes, change is difficult for most people, and it is not effected without a degree of struggle and sacrifice, but change we must if we are ever to know the joys of our freedom in Christ.

We are not a people of the old covenant, with its restrictive regulation of worshipers. We have been blessed by God to live in a time of reformation, a time of responsible spiritual liberty, a time of limitless possibility in which we can express, in spirit and truth, the deepest devotion of our hearts in worshipful praise and service to our God.

Change has come! It is time for the people of God to perceive that fact and to step into the era of the new covenant!

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This author published 1598 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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