I know it’s late mid-January now, but refrain from throwing anything at me yet and instead ruminate upon this: Aren’t the belated Christmas presents you get the best ones? Well, I hope so, because this is a Best Buy worthy tardy delivery!
The seminar opened on Friday night with Bob Kauflin, the music director with Sovereign Grace, leading the audience assembled in Bethlehem’s auditorium in a half hour of hymns and choruses. Very stirring stuff for a man with minimal vocal ability that typically attempts to sing at as low a volume as humanly possible (unless it’s a Europe song or something like that- I can nail those without even a whiff of difficulty for some preternatural reason). At first, my inhibitions stifled the quivering compulsion I felt to sing at barbarous sonic levels. A steady pulse of emotional energy throbbed through the room as hundreds of voices carried glorious musical strains heavenward. Kauflin lead the music with pastoral oversight, reading texts and explaining lyrics to us all, and throwing himself headlong into the praise of the God revealed in the Bible. The stiffness in both my posture and my vocal cords limbered up as the euphoric contagion of a roomful of people discarding self-image and giving themselves wholeheartedly to that same praise overwhelmed my image-conscious defenses. Suddenly I could see Piper standing in the front row of pews, hand raised high, passionately singing. Remembering his own estimation of his singing as deplorable, I cranked it up to 11 and added my own thundering amplitude to the throng of cheerful worshipers’. That half hour alone was worth the time spent driving up!
We all took our seats as Piper assumed the pulpit front and center. You know you’re a big deal when you take your first step up a set of stairs and people hush completely without beckoning. Maybe Piper is blissfully unaware he’s a big deal… No, probably not, the man’s no fool- I think he’s genuinely humble enough that stuff like that scarcely even registers on his radar.
Piper welcomed us all to the seminar and admitted he was no expert in the matters of worship, but added that it is a matter close to his heart because it prompts everything that he does. That should be the reality of every believer, so a solid understanding of what that concept means is crucial for the Christian, whatever their station.
He began by inviting us to set our sights on what goes on to make worship possible in the first place: first, God pursues us, and second, as a result of God’s pursuit of us, we pursue God. “Get these in the right order,” Piper commanded, “and then rely on the first for the second. This is a gospel way to go after worship!”
Next, we were directed to ponder over the title of the seminar itself: “Gravity and Gladness.” That was not intended to sound fanciful or airy in any way, he explained; it’s meant to convey both the deadly earnestness (Isaiah 8:11-14) and the exceeding joy (Psalms 43:3-4) with which we ought to pursue corporate worship. Serious joy? That might sound suspicious to the world, Piper summarized, but the believer in Christ is refit to experience this on a regular basis. Joy does not equal silliness or irreverence; the Christian’s joy is too serious a thing to waste time with that. Piper employed the paradigm of Christian hedonism to articulate this idea: “Authentic worship increases proportionately to the exceeding joy people have in God.”
Piper offered his worship thesis: “The essential, vital, indispensable, defining heart of worship is the experience of being satisfied with God.” The problem with this thesis is that “this involves a fairly radical simplification or narrowing of the focus from what is often included under the term ‘worship.’” And then the first bombshell of the night: “The New Testament shows a stunning degree of indifference to form and location through a radical intensification of inward, spiritual worship,” Piper unloaded into his hearers.
I get the “intensification of inward, spiritual worship” part, but what about that “indifference” part? Had Piper deployed some evangelical smoke and mirror chicanery to lower my guard and outflank me with a bunch of liberal ideology? What was going on? I tried to silence the Regulative Principle reactionary storm within my upper intestine and gave him a chance to unpack his claim. His aim, he said, was to show from the New Testament that this tendency is biblical and in line with the Reformed and Puritan tradition.
Hmmm. Still suspicious… His invitation us to join him in examining what becomes of the Old Testament’s use of the main word for “worship” pushed my cynicism out of the way like a high school bully. As Nathanael consented to Philip’s invitation to “come and see” in John 1, so I got behind Piper’s lead to uncover the New Testament’s conception of worship.
The Hebrew word histahawa appears 171 times in the Old Testament, broadly denoting what we mean to convey by the word “worship.” When the Old Testament was translated into Greek as the Septuagint, that Hebrew word was rendered proskyneo 164 of those times. Proskyneo most literally translates into English as “to prostrate oneself, to bow down to, to pay homage, or worship.” Clearly, the common ground between the Hebrew and the Greek words was widely recognized enough to warrant identifying the terms as equivalent.
This is where it becomes highly relevant: the word appears 48 times in the New Testament, but only once outside of the gospels and the Book of Revelation, in 1 Corinthians 14:25. We see it 26 times in the four gospels and a whopping 21 times in Revelation alone. Why is this so significant? Because, as mentioned before, the word proskyneo denotes bowing down to something or someone in homage or worship. This begs the question then: where is the physical presence of Jesus in the New Testament outside of the gospels and Revelation? One cannot proskyneo before something or someone that is not materially there. Piper slammed the logical conclusion home- following Christ’s bodily ascension to the Father, He is not found anywhere in the universe in a physically substantive way except for in the Father’s presence in Heaven. Therefore, the proskyneo paradigm simply will not suffice anymore until we are at last in the physical presence of the risen Lord, as we get a glimpse of in John’s Revelation.
So what are some practical consequences of this principle that believers cannot and do not worship in the same outward manner as believers in the Mosaic Covenant? First and foremost, the reality of Jesus Christ Himself as our temple provides the basis for one of the most mind-blowing promises of Jesus in John 4: “worship in spirit and truth.” Jesus as High Priest and Temple displaces the worship of God from being anchored to any single physical location. Instead, all worship is focused in and through Him, to the Father and by the Spirit. Jesus Himself redefined worship by killing proskyneo! As the true temple Scripture always pointed to, He fulfills everything the temple in the Mosaic Covenant stood for, most especially as the place where believers meet God. This profound truth does away with localized, outward forms to personal, spiritual experiences. The age to come breaks into the now in the person of Jesus, and is not bound by any of the regulations of the Old Testament!
Proskyneo simply won’t suffice any longer. This is the reason Paul employs retooled words such as latreuo (found in the Septuagint 90 times to denote ministry in the temple, translating the Hebrew word abad), which is translated most often as “serve.” Serving God and one another in the context of the church is worship! Looking backwards, it’s not that similar service in the past before the coming of Jesus was not worship, but rather that more than ever it is acceptable worship to God. “Sacrifice” is reconfigured in the New Testament away from animals dying substitutionary deaths on behalf of believers to the very bodies and lives of believers themselves, as in Romans 12:1-2. Praise and thanksgiving in speech and song are reckoned as sacrifices, as are good works and even new believers!
A magnificent purpose of this indifference to form and place is to make the Christian faith a truly missionary enterprise. Piper drew attention to a passage in Calvin’s Institutes which outlines this truth:
[The Master] did not will in outward discipline and ceremonies to prescribe in detail what we ought to do (because he foresaw that this depended on the state of the times, and he did not deem one form suitable for all ages) . . . Because he has taught nothing specifically, and because these things are not necessary to salvation, and for the upbuilding of the church ought to be variously accommodated to the customs of each nation and age, it will be fitting (as the advantage of the church will require) to change and abrogate traditional practices and to establish new ones. Indeed, I admit that we ought not to charge into innovation rashly, suddenly, for insufficient cause. But love will best judge what may hurt or edify; and if we let love be our guide, all will be safe.
It’s not an exaggeration to say a lot of people wigged out when they saw that up on the screen! A sigh as deep as Loch Ness escaped from my lips as my preconceptions of Reformed worship disintegrated in front of my eyes. So much for your daddy’s rigid regulative principle! I couldn’t believe that Calvin of all people could write such a thing as that! I felt almost crestfallen at first, as though Free Church worship traditions wanted to eat my corner of the pie and thumb their nose at me to boot. When sanctified reason finally gave me the people’s elbow I came to grips with the fact that I was idolizing my own historical pet doctrines to the detriment of what Scripture was communicating. Ouch! There was nothing to be grieved about when the whole question of worship forms is viewed through the lens of a Savior Who rises from the dead to summons billions of people from thousands upon thousands of cultures to join Him in worshiping God the Father in Spirit and in Truth. When you can see how the destruction of the old norms obliterates the barriers that keep the nations out, it makes absolute sense. Without Jesus Christ displacing the normative patterns of the Old Testament by fulfilling them in His person and work, the gospel could not become a culture-transcending force- and all of us Gentiles would still be alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and the covenants of God! What an enormous truth, a truth that refocuses your theological goggles more tightly upon the glory of God in Jesus Christ.
After establishing that worship is the purpose of every human life and therefore not merely one option among many, Piper unleashed one of my absolute favorite phrases from the seminar. Comparing the power and force of the love of God to cosmic phenomena in the context of the love of God being poured out into our hearts (Romans 5:5), he said, “You think there’s energy in a supernova? Or a black hole? Or all the galaxies combined? They’re like a nut in the pocket of God compared to the energy of the Father’s love for the Son and the Son’s love for the Father!”
Whoa. Put that in your (proverbial)* pipe and smoke it. That same love that the Triune God revels in for one another animates our worship through our union with Christ.
Piper then exploded the false idea that could arise in our heads if we stress the joy aspect of worship to the exclusion of other emotions. What about sadness, for instance? Are we to flush out feelings of sadness to pursue authentic worship, just pretend the sadness doesn’t exist? Never, Piper says- “All our sorrows should be worship.” Knowing that that the simplicity of the statement often seems at odds with the complexity of the reality it describes, he outlined two ways to achieve this.
First, if our sorrow is caused by someone else’s loss of joy, our feelings can be serve as a beautiful statement of desire that they would find joy in God the Father through Jesus Christ. Second, if our sorrow is caused by our own suffering, or prosperity, or sin, or our personality, we can convert these feelings from self-pity into worship by seeing them through the lens of a grief at not seeing God more clearly and loving Him more deeply.
He had much to say after this about the qualities of different musical genres, qualities to look for in music leaders, and qualities to cultivate as a worshiper. One of the most interesting things he said about engaging in worship actually flattened the old argument against the raising of hands during corporate singing. You know, the one that says, “People just do that to draw attention to themselves.” Piper turned it right around by stating that when he sees someone’s hand go up during a song and he is feeling cold, that person is actually ministering to him by rebuking him for being somewhere else mentally and emotionally. So yeah, they do draw attention to themselves, but in so doing, they refocus your attention back to the worship of the Triune God by dragging you out of your emo funk!
Bob’s cousin Vanessa McQuinn and her husband Scott graciously provided me with a roof over my head on Friday night and a bombtastic breakfast the following morning. They are members at Bethlehem and Scott is attending Bethlehem Seminary, so they’re pretty used to Piper awesomeness as a way of life. They lived a couple of blocks from Bethlehem so we took our sweet time getting to the seminar the next morning after hours of sweet fellowship. I knew them for approximately two minutes at the seminar but we hit it off big time within five minutes of arriving at their home- proof positive of the power of the Spirit to bind believers in deep fellowship based solely upon the commonality of the Savior Who has redeemed them.
The entire weekend was a blast and if I covered every single nanosecond of it (as tempting as that is) we’d be looking at about four more humongous entries. Ergo, kindly accept these links to the videos from the sessions:
*Unless you’re a Presbyterian. Then you can just kinda do whatever!