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Vain Worship

"BUT IN VAIN DO THEY WORSHIP ME, TEACHING FOR DOCTRINES THE COMMANDMENTS OF MEN." (Matthew 15:9)

The passage above spoken by Christ appears to be a paraphrase of Isaiah 29:13, "... these people draw near with their mouths and honor Me with their lips, but have removed their hearts far from Me, and their fear toward Me is taught by the commandment of men...."

The description here quickly turns our thoughts to the first of the Ten Commandments, "You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain." (Exodus 20:7)

Perhaps the best place to start this discussion is to consider what it means to take the name of God. Just the way I worded the previous sentence already has you thinking about that in a different way than it is usually applied. If you think you see a parallel in the way a woman takes her husbandís name in marriage, I agree. Indeed the Hebrew word nasa (naw-saw) can be translated "marry."

Being in a covenant relationship with God is a serious matter. The Hebrews had been quick to agree to Godís terms. They took His name but it became increasingly obvious that, as a nation, they had taken it in vain.

It was in vain because the Mosaic Law was weak (Roman 8:3). The Law demanded the faithfulness of men in the flesh and made no permanent provision for their failure. That weakness would require a new covenant that depended on Godís work rather than manís.

The old covenant was external. It was based on what is seen, and what is seen is temporary (2 Corinthians 4:18). God was not surprised when the Hebrews failed. In fact, He was using them to demonstrate that mankind could never serve (worship) Him in the flesh.

The Jewish leaders stood in arrogance and defended their failure. They made "legal" loopholes so they could disregard Godís order and all the while claim to be His chosen and obedient children.

The law they received was to teach them justice, mercy, and compassion but they turned it into a tradition that crushed anyone who dared to oppose them, including their own Messiah.

Jesus exhibited tremendous compassion for those who were sin-sick, but He reserved His harshest rebuke for those who, professing to be holy, demonstrated that they had taken the name of God in vain.

At this point we should consider the word vain. In the widest application, the word means empty. In the context of the present study it should be understood as futile, to no purpose or of no benefit.

Therefore, those who take the name of God and then prefer tradition (the commandments of men) to right relationships with God, other believers and the world, prove that their portion in the name of God is in vain. This was the problem in Isaiahís day and it was still a problem for the Pharisees when Christ arrived on the scene.

Sadly, it is still a problem among professing Christians today.

In Galatians 5, Paul challenges his readers to walk in faith. He notes that the flesh is capable of works, but that the Spirit produces fruit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control).

It doesnít matter how good the works of the flesh may appear to be, their end result is quite a laundry list: "immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these...."

The Pharisees made the mistake of putting "doctrine" above relationship. By that I mean they so loved the rules and regulations that empowered them they neglected the very things which the Law sought to reinforce. In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ went to the root of the problem to explain that the real issues were heart matters.

He never excused sin, never. At the same time He saw individuals and their needs. The Pharisees didnít perceive any needs, including their own. Because they didnít see their spiritual poverty,  they rejected the provision God made for them. Having failed to accept Godís provision, their worship was in vain.

We mentioned it previously but need to repeat that latreuo which is translated worship means service. Worship is a word which early on in Christian history, took on a meaning which is foreign to scripture. Early Christians would have been confused to hear their assemblies referred to as "worship services." What is a service, service???

Understand that what the priest did in the temple was service. As recipients of the new covenant we are all priests and we all serve. To reduce that service to an assembly where we engage in certain rituals is to miss the meaning of worship.

Properly understood, worship is everything we do in Christ (and we should be doing everything in Him). In Romans 12, Paul says, "...present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service." Herein lies true Christian "worship".

Unfortunately, our tendency is to reduce worship to a few acts that we do on Sunday or whenever we happen to meet with the assembly. While gathering with other believers to glorify God, edify each other, and testify to the world the love of the brethren is desirable, such assemblies are not the beginning and end of true Christian worship.

I was raised in a tradition that claimed (almost exclusively) to worship "in spirit and in truth". We had the right formula. The denominations "worshiped in vain" because they had a different formula. The problem arises because we have developed a formula for service that scripture does not teach.

Our formula for worship had five main points: prayer, preaching, singing, giving, and communion. Because other traditions differed in their practice of these things, we were taught they worshiped in vain. We could certainly attend such meetings but we learned not to consider them worship.

It breaks my heart that, in ignorance, I once enjoined such a profession. Christ came to set us free, not to bind more rules and regulations upon us. Those who walk by the Spirit are not under the law. Why then do we insist on imposing our private interpretations of Godís word on others? How can we justify condemning one another for these differences and still profess to love God? I really want to know.

However much I may disagree with another believerís understanding of scripture, the love of the brethren compels me to reach out and engage them until I am persuaded that they seek to maintain their position in spite of the clear teaching of scripture.

Let me be very clear at this point. There are some absolutes for Christian fellowship. These are things which all believers hold in common. Thatís a pretty short list, but once we go beyond it, we need to be very careful about simply dismissing others because our understanding is different.

Iíve said it before and Iíll repeat it again, "None of us has all the truth." The only way any of us deepens our understanding of scripture is by entertaining the views of others with a willingness to embrace a more perfect view when we see it. If we only engage such differences with the mindset of showing others where and how they are wrong, we do not have a proper attitude for growth.

Vain worship then is living a life under the banner of Godís holy name while seeking to create and maintain an institution for our own good pleasure. Only in the most limited sense does worship have anything to do with our assembling together.

© Copyright 2003 - Jim Wade

Updated 07/07/03