RPW Series (Part 4)
July 31, 2002
All I Really Need to Know About Worship
…I Don’t Learn from the Regulative Principle (Part 4)
Greetings in our Messiah. As Paul McCartney once pleaded, Try to see it my way. These articles against the Regulative Principle of Worship—if it is not commanded, it is forbidden—are written by one who had been taught the RPW, who had tried to believe the RPW and who had sought to defend it. But the testimony of the whole Bible is stubborn and would not yield. Its evidence made it quite clear that the RPW—however salutary, however convenient, however helpful—is simply not Scriptural. It is a tradition of men. I have been seeking to demonstrate why I have been overtaken by that conviction, seeking in such a way as to retain what is best from the tradition. I am no enemy of RPW worship. But where there is a claim to Biblical authority that rests on a series of faults, it’s best to let those who build their homes along that line know that their domiciles are vulnerable to earthquakes.
Many of you have become convinced along with me that the RPW does not serve well as a single, governing principle of worship; you recognize that there’s just too much Biblical data the RPW can’t account for. Others are skeptical but open. Still others refuse to consider for so much as a moment that the Scriptures could possibly say anything other than what they’ve held them to say. That is, for some, the RPW cannot, not even for argument’s sake, be imagined not to be true. No evidence whatsoever is admitted, period. This makes discussion difficult. Let me give you one of many examples of the methodological problems encountered in discussions with such regulativists.
The Informed Principle of Worship reasons like this:
Major premise: There are no inscripturated commands concerning the elements, order or performers required for lawful synagogue worship services, and no full, explicitly normative examples of such prior to the appearance of the institution.
Minor premise: Jesus, the perfectly righteous one, regularly—religiously—participated in synagogue worship, which had been pretty well codified before His incarnation.
Conclusion: Therefore, the rule of righteousness in worship cannot be: if God has not commanded it, it is forbidden.
Regulativist reasoning, however, seems to work somewhat differently. Some adherents look at the data this way:
Major premise: The Regulative Principle of Worship is true.
Minor premise: There are no inscripturated commands concerning the elements, order or performers required for lawful synagogue worship services, and no full, explicitly normative examples of such prior to the appearance of the institution, but Jesus went to synagogue.
Conclusion: Therefore, there must have been uninscripturated divine commands that we don’t know about wherein God told someone what to do and how to do it.
Same old Same old
Their major premise is always the same. As you can see, people who start with such a given seek to force all proposed data to harmonize with the major premise. It is a method derived from Procrustes. No contrary evidence is permitted: it’s either lopped off or stretched to fit. This is so even if an answer requires the introduction of an uninscripturated yet binding and normative oral tradition. And the kicker, of course, is that regulativists say that the Informed Principle of Worship is incipient Romanism. That shoe be on the other foot!
Let’s see if we can make this point a little clearer: The Regulative Principle of Worship undermines itself. Because it a) insists that, to justify a worship element we need a clear command (by precept or normative practice) revealed in God’s Word, and b) it acknowledges that the elements of the synagogue service in which Jesus participated originated and developed with no such commands recorded in His Word, c) it is therefore left to insist upon uninscripturated words, thus defeating itself. We have to have a command, except when we can’t find one. Then we have to assume that it must have been there, somewhere. Like we said, no evidence to the contrary is admitted.
Let me give another example which causes consternation in discussions with my regulativist brothers. Those who regard themselves as the most regulated of all regulativists—let’s call them super-regulativists—typically disallow two elements of worship commonly found in other church services, viz., the singing of anything other than Psalms, and instrumental music. Hymns and instruments are variously labeled as carnal, inventions of sinful men, intrusions, wicked devices of Satan, and on and on. Here is a paragraph from one RPCNA minister explaining why instruments must not be used:
Since the New Testament teaches that all the ceremonial aspects of temple worship have been abolished, the passages that speak of the use of musical instruments in public worship, under the old covenant, do not provide biblical warrant for the use of musical instruments in public worship today. Jesus Christ rendered the whole ceremonial Levitical system obsolete with the perfect sacrifice of Himself on the cross (cf. Heb. 7:27, 9:28). The inferior (Heb. 9:11-15), the shadow (Heb. 10:1; 8:4-5), the obsolete (Heb. 8:13), the symbolic (Heb. 9:9), and the ineffectual (Heb. 10:4) have been replaced by Jesus Christ and His work. Christians have no more business using musical instruments in public worship than using priestly vestments, candles, incense, altars, and a sacerdotal priesthood.
Notice, the regulative principle (a principle derived from the very order here acknowledged to be defunct!) disallows instruments because they belonged to the Levitical shadows (and, they add, instruments are not commanded to be used in the New Testament—leaving Revelation aside). Of course, we pointed out in a previous issue of Messiah’s Mandate that this method of argument should lead super-regulativists to the conclusion that no singing at all be permitted in worship. When this argument against singing was reiterated to the above-quoted minister, this was his response:
…the objection that there is no biblical warrant for singing in public worship is rather astonishing. Once again, if we are using the biblical, broad definition of the RPW, this assertion is ludicrous. There are many examples of singing praise in public worship (e.g., 1 Chr. 16; 2 Chr. 5:13;20:21; 29:30; Ezra 3:11.) and there are many commands to praise Jehovah with the singing of psalms (e.g., Ps.95:1-2; 81:2; 98:5; 100:2; 105:2). Once again the opponents of the RPW have resorted to straw-man arguments.
Do you see why I feel quite at a loss? First, we see in this response special pleading, for our correspondent is anything but a broad-definition regulativist. When he is asked to be consistent with his narrow rhetoric he responds that we should be broadminded. OK, I’m all for broadmindedness.
But when he is prodded further, he ends up using the very argument—the very texts!— he had elsewhere utterly rejected as baseless and irrelevant to the question at hand. If one appeals to the Levites’ use of instruments to justify their use today, he is accused of imposing shadows on the people of the New Testament. But when told how this very method is part of a chain of reasoning that leads to a songless church, the reply is, Nonsense! Astonishing! How could you say such a thing! Look! The Levites sang!
The same must be said about our brother’s appeal to the Psalms. Super-regulativists dismiss, out of hand, appeals to the Psalms for worship elements with which they are not comfortable. They do this by saying, Well, the Psalms also call for sacrifices (e.g., Psalms 50:14; 66:15; 107:22; 116:17). Therefore we cannot say, ‘It’s in the Psalms, therefore it’s OK.’ This, from men who insist that Psalms alone may be sung in worship.
The foregoing should highlight the simple, apparent fact that the Regulative Principle of Worship does not do justice to the whole of Scripture’s actual teaching on the subject. That’s why its proponents get themselves hopelessly entangled in these sorts of contradictions.
Dance, Dance, Dance
I’ll now risk getting myself in a lot of trouble for the sake of (hopefully!) making things clearer. Let me minimize that risk by stating that I am not, in what follows, calling for the introduction of dance as an element of the weekly worship service.
I’ve mentioned already the regulativist’s habit of simply assuming, in the face of whatever evidence there might be, that the RPW is just true, period. This has often been made evident when, on a number of occasions, during a challenge to the RPW, we’ll be told, Why, then you’ll have dancing in worship! And that, it seems, settles the matter.
Is this what the RPW is all about? To save the church from dancing? Perhaps they should just call themselves Michalites. For when Michal, in the famous incident recorded in 2 Samuel 6:16-23 and 1 Chronicles 15:29, saw King David dancing and celebrating, she despised him in her heart. The fact that the Lord cursed her with barrenness thenceforth doesn’t seem to give anyone the slightest pause in condemning dance. It is, for us moderns, quite self-evident that it must be forbidden.
It is difficult to find someone willing to discuss this subject dispassionately. The difficulty, however, lies in culture rather than Scripture. And it is just here that the Informed Principle of Worship can be very useful, while the RPW is not.
The reason regulativists utterly reject dancing before the Lord, without so much as entertaining the question, has more to do with 1) their Northern European heritage, 2) the failure of some Reformed to utterly break with a Roman overview of worship, and 3) our contemporary culture—than it does with God’s express will revealed in Scripture. What I mean is this:
The knee-jerk reaction against dancing has a lot to do with its being linked to sensuality or entertainment. But David’s dancing was not lascivious, and it was not intentionally entertaining. The problem here seems to be a simple lack of proper dancing models. We do have such in the Jewish world. On special occasions, Jewish men can be found dancing in synagogues, especially around the Torah (the Word of God, written on scrolls); the dancing might even, on very special occasions, move out into the street. At these infrequent times of infectious, unrestrained joy, there is no thought of unseemliness. It is, at the moment, most normal. It is a cultural thing.
The IPW would say that dancing is not ordinarily warranted or desirable, but that it might be appropriate under certain circumstances. First, Biblical dancing, so far as I can tell, is never inter-gender. Second, Biblical dancing is not for viewing but for doing. Just these two considerations overthrow the legitimacy of virtually all the contested dancing that is discussed today, for such is usually practiced by misguided mainliners or wannabe mainliners looking to provide a greater thrill for the audience.
The so-called Davidic dance which has spilled over from the Messianic movement even on some Presbyterians, is (based on my personal observation) contrived, forced, phony, and inter-gender.
The so-called liturgical dance encountered too often in the PCA and church-growth-type worship centers is actually, in part, a radical outworking of a Roman Catholic—as opposed to synagogal—worship structure. Romanist worship consists of actors up front and an audience in the pew.
Against Davidic and liturgical dance is covenantal dance. If dancing ever takes place in a synagogue (and it doesn’t in all), it is done by the worshippers, not by a troupe, and the genders are strictly separated.
My point in bringing this matter up is not to advocate dance. We do quite well without it, I think. I mention it only to say that it is by no means inconceivable that dance, under certain circumstances, may be regarded as proper and acceptable before Jehovah as an expression of unmitigated joy. Such circumstances are difficult, if not impossible, to reproduce in modern congregations of Northern European extraction, so one should not try. As I indicated, the contemporary efforts of Davidic and liturgical dance advocates reach no higher than the banal.
But there might well be occasions when dancing is most fitting: the end of a gruesome war comes to mind, or the provision of food after famine. Not your everyday events, but should they happen, don’t let the regulative principle frighten you. Praise his name with dancing and make music to him with tambourine and harp. Yes, praise him with tambourine and dancing, praise him with the strings and flute. Say to the Lord, You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy. Because there is a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance (Psalm 30:11; 149:3; 150:4; Ecclesiastes 3:4).
What we’ve written thus far in this installment has only been written to demonstrate the difficulty we encounter in having fruitful discussions with regulativists who make the RPW into the indispensable presupposition of all intelligible predication concerning worship. Can’t we let the whole Bible speak?
Were this matter part of our Ecumenical Creeds, perhaps such a truculent posture would be understandable. But in view of its place in the scheme of things, RPW adherents should be willing to discuss the matter. Unfortunately, its advocates too often look like those who were described by one author as having backed up into their convictions. We should remember the butcher who backed into his meat grinder and got a little behind in his work. Some regulativists, too, have backed up, syllogized themselves, into a position before considering it thoroughly and now they are afraid to admit that there’s a problem.
Well, there are lots of problems with the RPW. But if for no other reason than to humor a poor, misguided Jew, I appeal to you, allow me once again to explain my read on the Scripture’s teaching concerning the RPW. And after a brief brief, we’ll continue to show (perhaps in the next installment) why all is not lost if we yield to the Scriptures’ entire testimony on the subject. We will discover, I trust, that we have not been left adrift to do simply anything we might want in worship.
On the contrary. We are here simply insisting that the Westminster Confession’s admission concerning circumstances of worship—that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed—is, in truth, a far more comprehensive statement of God’s will for New Order worship than is recognized in some quarters.
These general rules—or, as I’ve labeled them, the elements of the Informed Principle of Worship—are adequate guides precisely because the Confession is correct when it says that under the new testament, the liberty of Christians is further enlarged, in their freedom from the yoke of the ceremonial law, to which the Jewish church was subjected. For the Regulative Principle of Worship, as found in the Bible, belongs to the ceremonial law. Let me show you why I think so.
Standing on Ceremony
The regulativist motto, taken from Deuteronomy 12:32, Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it, is a seriously abused text. In fact, it has been stretched by some as badly as 12:21 has been stretched by the rabbis. The Jews have a very exact, elaborate and strict method for the ritual slaughter of animals which are to be eaten. Yet, (a)ll that R. Judah Hanasi could adduce in proof of this practice are the three words of Deuteronomy 12:21: vezabahta…kaasher tziviticha, ‘and thou shalt slaughter…as I commanded thee.’ From these three words it was assumed that God must have given numerous details to Moses, who would initiate their oral transmission. Then, through an unbroken succession, they would be codified in the Mishna.
That’s a lot to ask from Deuteronomy 12:21. But the Jews, at least, concede that their methods involve stretches. Listen to this heartening confession: The Mishna frankly states that for some laws (halachot) there are but slender Scriptural proofs. Some halachot are like mountains suspended by a hair; their scriptural basis is scant and the halachot are abundant…
Strict regulativists ask as much from 12:32 as the rabbis ask from 12:21, but they don’t admit it. The words of 12:32 are stretched way beyond their contextual meaning. The context (12:1-16:17) deals with the coming centralization of worship at the place where the Lord would cause His name to dwell. Consider how abundantly clear this context is as you read these verses from chapter 12:
But you shall seek the place where the Lord your God chooses, out of all your tribes, to put His name for His dwelling place; and there you shall go. There you shall take your burnt offerings, your sacrifices, your tithes, the heave offerings of your hand, your vowed offerings, your freewill offerings, and the firstborn of your herds and flocks. And there you shall eat before the Lord your God, and you shall rejoice in all to which you have put your hand, you and your households, in which the Lord your God has blessed you. You shall not at all do as we are doing here today—every man doing whatever is right in his own eyes—for as yet you have not come to the rest and the inheritance which the Lord your God is giving you. But when you cross over the Jordan and dwell in the land which the Lord your God is giving you to inherit, and He gives you rest from all your enemies round about, so that you dwell in safety, then there will be the place where the Lord your God chooses to make His name abide. There you shall bring all that I command you: your burnt offerings, your sacrifices, your tithes, the heave offerings of your hand, and all your choice offerings which you vow to the Lord. And you shall rejoice before the Lord your God, you and your sons and your daughters, your male and female servants, and the Levite who is within your gates, since he has no portion nor inheritance with you. Take heed to yourself that you do not offer your burnt offerings in every place that you see; but in the place which the Lord chooses, in one of your tribes, there you shall offer your burnt offerings, and there you shall do all that I command you.
Give me my Allowance
No reasonable reader could disagree that what we have here is law for centralized, sacrificial worship, not for worship per se. God even compared this to prior worship—a regulativist’s nightmare in which each man did whatever is right in his own eyes (v.8), yet that worship had heretofore been acceptable! But now Israel would no longer be permitted to sacrificially approach Jehovah except in the place where His name would dwell, and then, in accord with His prescribed manner.
Further, God in this passage expressly allows Israelites to slaughter animals for private consumption if they follow general rules—blood could only be used for expiation and that only according to His prescriptions. Otherwise, the blood would be poured on the ground.
However, you may slaughter and eat meat within all your gates, whatever your heart desires, according to the blessing of the Lord your God which He has given you; the unclean and the clean may eat of it, of the gazelle and the deer alike. Only you shall not eat the blood; you shall pour it on the earth like water.
One commentator noted: 12:20 allows for secular meat-eating anywhere; it's only ritual sacrifices which must be offered at the central shrine. By this allowance it is made even clearer that what was being strictly regulated in this passage was ritual, sacrificial, soon-to-be centralized worship. That, and that alone, is what God was here marking off and codifying—not worship per se. Anyone who thinks otherwise must still bring the firstborn of his flocks and herds to Jerusalem. Or put another way, anyone who is not bringing burnt offerings, sacrifices, tithes, heave offerings, vowed offerings, freewill and other offerings to Jerusalem is implicitly acknowledging that this chapter is regulating things which do not obligate Christians, at least not in the same way they had once bound Israel.
Still, one regulativist, quite representatively, puts it plainly: Verse 32 is an explicit statement of God’s regulative principle of worship. But to isolate verse 32 from its context, and then make it an obligatory, governing principle for all worship, is just as arbitrary and unsound as saying that Christians who have a running sore must have it examined by an Aaronic priest. I hope no one has such a sore, but if you do, try finding an Aaronic priest!
Remember, a regulativist who pleads the normativity of 12:32 must, to be consistent, plead the normativity of what 12:32 was guarding, in context. Once he says that he is not obliged to bring all his offerings to a single earthly location, or to do this or to do that, he has violated his own principle: he has taken away something God had, in that very context, commanded.
The New and Living way
What is the message of Deuteronomy 12 for Christians? The message, in light of the New Testament, is very clear: reconciliation with God can only be had along the path of the God-provided atonement. Since the blood of bulls and goats merely bore witness to the blood of Christ, it is that blood with which Christians are concerned. For the New Covenant is in His blood (Luke 22:20); He purchased us with His own blood (Acts 20:28); Christ was set forth by God as a propitiation by His blood (Romans 3:25); in Him we have redemption through His blood (Ephesians 1:7); Gentiles, who once were far off, have been brought near by the blood of Christ (Ephesians 2:13); we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins (Colossians 1:14); it was not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood that He entered the Most Holy Place once for all (Hebrews 9:12); we may have boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus (10:19); it is the blood of Jesus Christ His Son which cleanses us from all sin (I John 1:7); for He loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood (Revelation 1:5).
Therefore, if we believe in and guard the way opened up by Christ’s blood, we are fulfilling the so-called Regulative Principle of Worship. Deuteronomy 12:32—Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it—is properly understood only when seen as an insistence upon the exclusivity of God’s Gospel. When a person is trusting in the blood of Jesus Christ for his salvation—not adding to His work or taking away from it—that person is obeying 12:32 in its fullness.
That is why you read a great deal about the blood of Christ in the New Testament but nothing about the need for Christians to continue to bring blood offerings, and nothing about one single principle regulating worship. When we believe in His blood, His atoning sacrifice, His exclusive work, we are doing exactly what God requires of us in Deuteronomy 12:1 through 16:17.
If our thesis (that Deuteronomy 12:32 is given as a regulation governing only the centralized, sacrificial system) is correct—and it certainly appears to be!—then the implications for the matter under discussion are significant.
For it would mean that regulativists may not, without qualification, appeal to texts dealing with the sacrificial system as support for their principle. Out goes Nadab and Abihu, out goes Uzzah and Uzziah. They don’t go out of the canon, and they don’t go out as sources of instruction. They go out as supposed proofs of a tortured principle, a principle which was never given to regulate worship in light of Christ’s historical accomplishments. The lengthy litanies of instances cited by regulativists, wherein God reproves His people for violations of the centralized worship system, are at most only indirectly germane to the matter at hand. Once they trim the explicit requirements of Deuteronomy 12, regulativists trim their own principle, too.
Some regulativists will attempt to broaden their appeal to the principle found in 12:32 by saying that it is found also in Deuteronomy 4:2. But this only further undoes their assertions. The passage reads, Now therefore hearken, O Israel, unto the statutes and unto the judgments, which I teach you, for to do them, that ye may live, and go in and possess the land which the LORD God of your fathers giveth you. Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you.
If the regulativist would bring this passage to bear on the question of worship, he has gone even further from the path leading to the light. For this passage refers to all the Law of God, not simply to laws governing worship. Very few regulativists would seriously argue that God's intent here is to forbid Israel from doing anything whatsoever in any area of life that is not specifically commanded in the Law. I suppose those Amish who eschew buttons for want of finding them mentioned in Scripture might look somewhat favorably on this interpretation, but they'd be mighty lonely in so doing.
Yet that is precisely the conclusion which cannot be evaded if 4:2 is cited as supportive of the regulativist’s reading of 12:32. Deuteronomy 4:2 is a general rule, requiring a life that conforms to God’s disclosed will in its entirety. The NIV Study Bible note is to the point: The revelation the Lord gives is sufficient. All of it must be obeyed and anything that adulterates or contradicts it cannot be tolerated.
God did not intend that the recipients of this verse (4:2) would literally do nothing not mentioned therein (e.g., no skateboarding, using electricity, driving automobiles, or eating lemon ices). Thus, 4:2 as a parallel demonstrates that 12:32 is not to be taken in an absolute sense. If you find a similar phrase used by the same author in the same book, you need to justify applying a radically different sense to each. If it is agreed that 4:2, referring to the whole Law, was not to be taken absolutely when it forbids additions and subtractions, neither is 12:32 to be taken as an abstract and absolute rule. Both are to be interpreted in terms of the whole Word of God, a Word that simply does not teach: if it is not commanded, it is forbidden.
Listen, please, and be patient with me. Try to see what our regulativist friends have done. They’ve taken a principle and yanked it from its context wherein sacrificial worship—and that alone—was being regulated. Nevertheless, these same folks, recognizing that the system was to be observed only until the Christ, abstract the principle and then absolutize it. They themselves no longer practice the things the verse was (in context) given to guard, yet they continue to regard the verse as having an independent existence!
Regulativists don’t have a human priesthood, which the verse protected—they believe in a priesthood of all believers. They don’t have a human-constructed Temple, made according to exact requirements, which the verse guarded—they make church buildings any way they please. They don’t have daily, weekly, monthly or annual blood offerings, which the verse oversaw—they use no blood at all in their rituals. They don’t do pilgrimages, they don’t honor the dietary restrictions, they don’t refrain from mixing cloths, they don’t keep the same calendar, they don’t do any of the things demanded in the verse’s immediate context! And all this is well and good. They see in so many ways that all this must be interpreted in light of the whole Word of God. But when it comes to the principle which was part of the same package which terminated upon Christ’s sacrificial work…Like men in a swoon and afraid of falling, they reach out to steady themselves with a principle rather than the Christ who was therein honored. They are left embracing a verse when all the while the verse was given only so that we might embrace the Christ! Its meaning is found in Him.
Careful now! We are not saying of this whole matter, That was the Old Testament! Rather, we are saying of the sacrificial system, That was Gospel declaration in the Sinaitic administration. The Gospel declaration today is guarded precisely the way it was then: it is forbidden to add to it or take from it (Galatians 1:8 makes that reasonably clear!).
Jesus Paid it All
Thus with one eye-opening truth—viz., that the rigorous RPW of the Old Administration was unto Christ—by far the greatest amount of regulativist evidence becomes inadmissible because their citations become explicable on grounds other than those they advance. Their arsenal is neutralized once we see that the principle was a schoolmaster to lead us to Christ.
Thou, O Christ, art all I want, more than all in Thee I find, not in an abstracted and tortured principle. But then, strict regulativists are not permitted to corporately worship Christ by singing the words of Jesus, Lover of My Soul. Their principle forbids it, regarding such an act as presumptuous impiety and a form of idolatry. Let them say this more loudly into the microphone. It is easy to see why nearly the entire Christian world for all of its history has not recognized the RPW as something taught by our Jesus. Imagine, forbidden by a principle to express our devotion to our Savior, by name, in corporate song. Yes, speak up into the microphone.
But even during the Gospel’s Sinaitic administration, there were some variables. Certain Scriptures lead us to conclude that the RPW of Deuteronomy 12:32 was more elastic than modern regulativists would typically grant. I’m thinking, for example, of additions to the prescribed religious worship, additions which were countenanced by our Lord.
We’ve already seen the covenant celebration of Purim, a feast added to Israel’s obligations (Esther 9:26-28). And the Feast of Dedication, an important holiday on Israel’s calendar, was added by man alone. Not only was there no divine command for this holiday, there was not even a prophet on earth at the time to consult. Yet it became part of Israel’s observances—and the Lord Jesus attended its celebration in Jerusalem (John 10:22).
Water from the Rock
It may be that these additions were acceptable because they commemorated acts of gracious intervention by the covenant God on behalf of His people, and their observance by the people did not require additional priestly/Temple work. But I’m not sure that covers it all, for we do, in fact, find additions to the priestly/ Temple service by the time of the New Testament. Indeed, we find our Lord Jesus taking certain of these additions in comfortable stride, very unlike modern regulativists. Two examples follow.
One: In the Gospel According to John, the Evangelist is much concerned to demonstrate that Jesus fulfills the Jews’ expectations of a Messiah like unto Moses. This is evident throughout. Consider, for example, how John begins and ends his book. His first line recalls the first line of the first book of Moses.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1).
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God (John 1:1).
Then see John’s last line echoing the last line of Moses’ last book:
Since then there has not arisen in Israel a prophet like Moses… in all the signs and wonders which the Lord sent him to do in the land of Egypt… and by all that mighty power and all the great terror which Moses performed in the sight of all Israel. (Deut. 34:10-12)
And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. Amen. (John 21:25)
John’s point, of course, is this: You think Moses was something? You’re right! But now, not only has a prophet arisen in Israel like unto Moses, but the Prophet has come, one greater than Moses, and His name is Jesus (cf. Deuteronomy 18:14-19; John 1:17, 45; 6:14; see also Acts 3:22-23).
In John 6, there is explicit comparison between the gift of the bread from heaven associated with Moses, and the gift of the bread from heaven who is Jesus. In John 7 and 8 there are implicit references to the other two wilderness gifts associated with Moses, namely the rock that gave water, and the pillar of light that guided God’s people to the promised land.
John 7:37f sets forth Jesus as the Rock that gives water. This is made clearer if we adjust the punctuation, as many scholars have suggested, so that Jesus is understood as saying, Let him that is athirst come unto Me, And let him that believeth on Me drink. Verse 38 would then (properly) be seen as referring, not to the believer, but to Jesus. As the Scripture hath said, From His belly shall flow rivers of living water. Paul would certainly read John this way (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:3,4).
This interpretation is favored by many, with good reason, but that is not why we mention the passage. Rather we are concerned with the occasion of its utterance. We are told that Jesus said this on the last and greatest day of the Feast (v.37). What Feast? Tabernacles. What’s the connection between the words Jesus uttered and the last (the seventh) and greatest day of the Feast? A simple yet profoundly beautiful connection.
As Glasson has noted, It is pretty generally agreed that the words of Christ in John 7:37-39 refer to the water ceremony carried out at the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkoth). Priests would go down to the Pool of Siloam and draw water into a golden pitcher. The priest carrying the water would try to time his return to coincide with the moment that the pieces of a sacrifice were being laid on the altar by his fellow-priests.
As he entered the ‘Water-gate,’ which obtained its name from this ceremony, Edersheim tells us, he was received by a threefold blast from the priests’ trumpets. He would go up to the rise of the altar where there were two silver basins with narrow holes. Wine would be poured into one while the water from Siloam would be poured into the other, the people shouting, Raise thy hand, that they might see the outpouring and rejoice. David Baron notes that the joy accompanying this ceremonial was so great that it became a proverb. ‘He that hath not seen Simchat-bet-ha-Sho’ebah, the joy of the drawing (and the pouring) of the water hath not seen joy in his life.
That’s not Funny
The people were very serious about witnessing this event. According to Edersheim, when Alexander Janneus, in 95 B.C., showed contempt for this tradition and poured the water on the ground, the people pelted him with citrons and sought to kill him!
The Feast of Tabernacles came to be imagined as the time when God would determine the rainfall to be allotted for the ensuing year. Before you say, That’s totally insane, read Zechariah 14:16-19. Be that as it may, the Talmud suggests that the rabbis were looking for something better in relation to this ceremony: Why is the name of it called, The drawing out of water? Because of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, according to what is said: ‘With joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation.’
Now, our Lord Jesus comes upon this addition made by men, this tradition, this ceremony added to the prescribed Temple rites. We know He never pandered or catered to man’s prejudices, never pulled any punches. We know He did not hesitate to overturn tables at the Temple on two occasions. What does He do now? Does he upbraid them for their wickedness? Does He throw the water out, thrash the golden vessel, interrupt the celebration?
No. He applies it to Himself and His work. He says, Water? You want water? Let him who thirsts come to Me and find water! Compare this to John 6:35: Jesus said to them, I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst. He makes the same use of a human addition, a tradition, as He had of an historical miracle.
Light from the Pillar
Two: In John 8, Jesus again makes use of a tradition of human origin which became an important part of the Sukkoth celebration. Let’s hear David Baron describe it for us:
Worshippers congregated in the Court of the Women, where a great illumination took place. Four huge golden lamps or candelabras were there, each with four golden bowls against which rested four ladders. Four youths of priestly descent ascended these with large pitchers of oil from which they filled each bowl. The old worn breeches and girdles of the priests served for wicks to these lamps. So great and brilliant was the light that, according to a saying, ‘there was not a court in Jerusalem that was not lit by it.’ Around these great golden burning lamps a sacred dance took place in which even the…prominent leaders of the people with flaming torches in their hands danced before the people and sang before them hymns of song and praise.
Baron suggests that the illumination had a significance similar to that of the water: a harkening back to a wilderness miracle and a looking forward to a future divine intervention. It reminded them of the past when God led them in the wilderness with the cloud of glory and the pillar of fire—of the Shekinah glory which dwelt in the first Temple.
What did our Lord do upon encountering this human addition to the worship prescribed by Jehovah? In reference to this illumination, Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life (John 8:12).
We should perhaps note that F. Godet, in his commentary on John, confirms this reading of the material:
That which concerns us is the meaning of the feast of Tabernacles, which the people had met to keep. This feast was designed to commemorate the favors they had received from God during their sojourn in the wilderness. Hence the booths of foliage. Now among these favours, the two chief were the water from the rock and the pillar of fire. Jesus had just applied to Himself one of these types. He now appropriates the other.
We are tempted to depart from the subject at hand to meditate on the exquisiteness of John’s selection of material, the obvious Divine hand behind it. The true manna, John wants us to know, is Christ, come down from heaven for the life of the world. The true water source is Jesus, who shall satisfy the thirst of the world when He becomes the smitten Rock through whom the Spirit will be universally given. The true light is our Savior who guides His people to the Promised Land.
We are tempted, I say, to dwell on these lovely themes, but we shall only mention here that the two most important ceremonies of the Feast of Tabernacles—the pouring out of water and the illumination of the Temple—were of post-Mosaic origin. For these ceremonies we have not a shred of Biblical warrant, if the RPW be true. Yet we find Jesus not only participating in the traditions, but using them so powerfully to teach us about Himself!
In our mind’s ear we can hear the regulativist’s reply that Jesus’ presence at—or even His participation in—these traditions implies no endorsement. Yet that is not what they say about His attendance at synagogue! The stricter the regulativist, the more elastic his standard when applied to his principle.
The bombastic rhetoric of the regulativists does not comport with our Lord’s own attitude toward tradition. Clearly we need a better principle than the pathetically reductionistic, If it is not commanded, it is forbidden.
Isn’t it time to yield to the Jesus we’ve actually been given, rather than the Jesus we wish might be? The knee-jerk reaction of some of my brethren, recoiling at the thought that God would countenance human additions, is uncalled for. We have found our God putting a non-Mosaic, non-prophet-authorized, feast (Purim), into the Bible. We have found our Lord celebrating Chanukah, a holiday the antecedent of which occurred between the Testaments. We have found Him celebrating the Passover according to non-Scriptural, covenant tradition, even down to the use of wine (never commanded). We find Him worshiping in the synagogue, an institution whose liturgy arose apart from any recorded express divine command. And now we see Jesus participating in commemorative traditions of human origin.
How much do we need to read before we ask ourselves if there might not be a better principle—or set of principles—given in this Word to govern worship, a set of principles which might reasonably account for all the evidence of Scripture, that would allow us to read the Word without subjecting its texts to torture? Let’s return then to our exposition of the IPW. We said in our last letter that informed worship is I) doctrinally-driven and II) Word centered. We now add…
III: A Matter of Manner
Consider what God’s actual will concerning traditions might be, in light of the whole Word. On the one hand, we see there are times when human inventions are condemned. On the other hand we see times when they are embraced. What then?
Have you ever noticed that what we found Jesus doing directly in the Gospels, we find God doing indirectly (through a prophet) in Zechariah: allowing for the legitimacy of observances with purely human origins, under certain conditions. In a rather remarkable passage beginning in Zechariah 7, the people inquired concerning the fasts they themselves had established as a tradition. Two of these four fasts (still observed by orthodox Jews, by the way) are mentioned:
And it came to pass in the fourth year of king Darius, that the word of the Lord came unto Zechariah in the fourth day of the ninth month, even in Chisleu; When they had sent unto the house of God Sherezer and Regemmelech, and their men, to pray before the Lord, And to speak unto the priests which were in the house of the Lord of hosts, and to the prophets, saying, Should I weep in the fifth month, separating myself, as I have done these so many years? Then came the word of the Lord of hosts unto me, saying, Speak unto all the people of the land, and to the priests, saying, When ye fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh month, even those seventy years, did ye at all fast unto me, even to me? And when ye did eat, and when ye did drink, did not ye eat for yourselves, and drink for yourselves?
God was obviously less concerned with the actual, man-originating practices than with the motive and manner of their observance. After an extended and earnest exhortation to His people to act like His people, He promises them that a time will come when their (four) fasts will be turned into feasts.
Thus saith the Lord of hosts; The fast of the fourth month, and the fast of the fifth, and the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth, shall be to the house of Judah joy and gladness, and cheerful feasts; therefore love the truth and peace (Zechariah 8:19).
If God was a regulativist, He would have said something quite different, we think. If He was a regulativist, we could imagine Him saying something like, You think those fast days you invented make you sorry now? Wait till you see what I do to you for adding them to my calendar! But instead, He says something very different, very gracious. You are mourning now in remembrance of the judgment I brought upon Jerusalem. Just be faithful, and I will turn those days of gloom into days of joy.
Remember the following phrase as shorthand for God’s attitude toward tradition: it’s less the matter than the manner. Jesus didn’t condemn the human tradition of wearing tefilin (phylacteries) per se, he condemned making them wide for ostentation (Matthew 23:5), as if the wearer of wide tefilin and long tzitzis was holier than others—an attitude not less present in some RPW communions, however externally austere, than in the group Jesus was addressing. It wasn’t the matter, it was the manner.
Perhaps the real teaching of Scripture might more accurately, in view of the small light we’ve gained so far, be summarized as: Meaningful and earnest traditions which serve as memorials of actual interventions by God in history, whether in judgment or grace, or traditions which reflect credible understandings of His commands, are permitted. The meaning of these memorials and traditions, however, must be easily accessible to the common believer.
On the other hand, traditions which are obscure, contradict or contravene God’s Word or express will, or traditions which exploit covenant occasions for personal gain—gain in coin or prestige at the expense of others—such traditions are forbidden.
These two paragraphs above seem to incorporate a great deal more Scripture with a great deal more harmony than the RPW. By these considerations, the ceremonies in John 7 and 8, the fasts of Zechariah 7 and 8, the donning of tefilin, are not viewed as necessarily presumptuous, idolatrous additions, but rather as holding the possibility of being legitimate adornments.
With this metaphor—adornments—we return to our first treatment of this subject. Just as women, though seemingly forbidden by 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Peter 3 from adorning themselves—just as they are actually, in view of all the Scripture, most certainly permitted to adorn themselves, in moderation, so also the people of God may adorn the historical deeds and commandments of God.
But just as a woman must abide by limits in her self-adorning, so must the people of God. Adornment must be just that. It must draw attention to the thing being adorned, not to itself. When adornment becomes obfuscation, deceit or mutilation, it has crossed the boundaries. God permits make-up, He forbids cross-dressing. Putting something on is not sinful in itself. It depends. And that’s the Informed Principle of Worship.
Yes, this requires wisdom. Yes, this means we must operate without the convenience of the RPW. At least, we must operate without pretending that it is what God requires. If we’d only say, We’ve found the RPW helpful in keeping our communion free from Roman excesses, for example, all well and good. And if someone found another route to the same end, no harm done. But at least we’d be able to talk about worship in categories that hold promise for agreement, categories like good/better/best, rather than I’m faithful and acceptable and you’re a papist pig.
Lord willing, we’ll soon return to an exposition of other elements of the Informed Principle of Worship. If you want to remain on our mailing list, please do stay in touch with us. And please accept our thanks for your much needed support of our diverse ministries. The Lord has been bestowing blessing. Several new converts are scheduled to be baptized. We’ll tell you more in Messiah’s Update (if you don’t receive the Update, write to us.)
Yours and His,