Zealously guarding true worship

Scripture Reading

  • Acts 17:10-15
  • Joshua 22:9-34


Dear friends in the Lord,

Our society puts a high premium on privacy.  We have passwords to protect our privacy, codewords to unlock our bank accounts, fingerprint technology to protect our smartphones, voice recognition to open doors, encryption technology to protect messages and bank records.  We check our mailboxes regularly to guard against identity theft. And then, ironically, we install electronic eyes to watch over us and our property. Our personal safety is perpetually on the line.

It is sad that this fixation with privacy has had a negative effect on church life.  We have to have police checks to work with children and the elderly and we carry identity cards all the time, just in case we are asked about it.  

It is hard to pay church members a friendly visit if they reside in a gated facility. And even then, locked doors, security personnel and alarm bells could very well turn a friend into an intruder.  But there is another problem—perhaps even more serious—church people choose not to be bothered.  

Worse even—church members can unintentionally build exclusion zones around themselves,  to the point that even a well-meant enquiry is treated as an intrusion into personal privacy.  The enquiry of a caring brother or sister as to how one’s spiritual life is going is deemed as “none of your business”. 

One of the lessons we learn from the text of today is that we are indeed one another’s keepers.  It is our concern to zealously guard the true worship of God among one another.  

Trough our study of the book of Joshua we’ve been following the Israelites as they occupied the promised land.  First, they defeated the gates of hell east of the Jordan into Bashan:  kings Sihon and Og and their subjects were dispossessed.  That land was promised to Reuben, Gad and half of the tribe of Manasseh.  Moses made these tribes promise to first help the others to get their portions of the Promised Land before they themselves settle, and so they did.  Under Joshua, they helped to defeat the Canaanites.  

Nothing without chance or purpose

Chapters 15-21 describe in fine detail the borders of each tribe.  These borders and the cities mentioned in the Bible help us to understand that:- 

  • the story of the Bible is an account of real history:  the events happened in determined locations, at a specific time in history; if historians seek diligently they will have to conclude that the Bible is trustworthy.  
  • Another lesson here is that the Bible is not a book of airy-fairy, spiritual stuff with no practical implication for how the way people who believe in God should live.  The world belongs to God; He determines the boundaries, times and circumstances in which his people live; they face good and bad things, and in the end, God will make everything new.  In the meantime, God commands his church to live to his glory, proclaim the Gospel of Christ and to bring every thought under the control of God.  He is faithful and will bring everything to a conclusion.

Chapter 15-21 concludes with this verse: 

Not one of all the Lord’s good promises to Israel failed; every one was fulfilled. (Joshua 21:45, NIV)

Shiloh—the place Got chose for his worship

Chapter 18:1 tells us that the Tent of Meeting was at Shiloh.  This is significant.  It was not just any other place.  It was the place where God declared to be worshipped.  Moses, in Deuteronomy 12, carefully instructed the people that they could not just worship where and how they wished.  First of all, they had to completely destroy all the places on the high mountains and hills and the reading trees of the heathen nations they had to dispossess.  God commanded:  

You must not worship the Lord your God in their way. (Deuteronomy 12:4, NIV)

Nothing of idol worship could be carried into God’s true worship.  Further, 

But you are to seek the place the Lord your God will choose from among all your tribes to put his Name there for his dwelling. To that place you must go; (Deuteronomy 12:5, NIV)

That’s how they got to Shiloh.  What is further important is that all the daily, monthly and annual sacrifices had to happen there.  

There, in the presence of the Lord your God, you and your families shall eat and shall rejoice in everything you have put your hand to because the Lord your God has blessed you. (Deuteronomy 12:7, NIV)

Moses instructed them carefully how they should bring the sacrifices, what animals had to be sacrificed, and even the way they had to be sacrificed.  As a matter of fact—and it surely applies to us even today—in the matter of worship, God determines everything; we have no say.  Our preferences do not count; what we like or dislike has no part to play—it has to be in accordance with the declared will of God.  

Reformed churches hold to the regulative principle of worship:  all worship is founded upon specific directions of Scripture.  Calvin said: “God disapproves of all modes of worship not expressly sanctioned by his Word.” In other words, we cannot allow things which may appear as it is not forbidden to creep in; we can only worship as God expressly commanded.  The Roman Church takes the first option:  some elements of worship are not forbidden in the Scripture and are therefore allowed, which opened the door for all things to be carried into worship which God never commanded.  

Worshipping God outside the place of worship

Chapter 22 of Joshua records the return of the tribes of Reuben, Gad and the half tribe of Manasseh to their people on the eastern side of the Jordan in Gilead, Bashan up into the mountains of Hermon.  Joshua made sure they understood God’s command well:  

But be very careful to keep the commandment and the law that Moses the servant of the Lord gave you: to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, to keep his commands, to hold fast to him and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul.” (Joshua 22:5, NIV)

Joshua blessed them and they started their journey home.  When they arrived at the border with Canaan at the Jordan river, they erected an imposing altar.  They had reasons for doing so:  

First, it was meant to stand as a sign of the unity between the tribes.  

We did it for fear that some day your descendants might say to ours, ‘What do you have to do with the Lord, the God of Israel? (Joshua 22:24, NIV)

Also, it was a memorial to their own people to remember the glory of God so that when they ask what the altar meant, they would know that they too share in the redemption which God provided for his people.  

They had no intention to bring sacrifices on the altar; it was a replica of the real thing.  They still worshipped God, the God who knows, the Mighty One, the Lord (verse 22:22).  Him they still worshipped loyally and wholeheartedly.  But by building the replica of the one in Shiloh they actually took the message of God’s salvation further, outside of the formal place of worship.  In a sense, it acted as a drawcard back into corporate worship.

The leaders of the other tribes, with their priest on the western side, those who worshipped God in the place of formal worship, gathered to stand up against what they saw as rebellion and unfaithfulness.  They were ready to, zealously, guard the true worship of God.  They gathered to prepare for war against the Reubenites and Gadites.  They thought there was a breach of faith with the God of Israel!

Yes, as Christians we are one another’s keepers.  We have the Christian responsibility to guard the true worship of God.  It is true about our public, corporate, worship, but it surely has a bearing on our everyday life away from corporate worship.

Never may we have an attitude of “it’s none of your business” when a fellow brother or sister is concerned about our walk with the Lord.  We are called to care for one another.  We can’t see one another slip away from the faith and worship of God and pretend it is none of our business.  The writes of Hebrews commands:  

See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original conviction firmly to the very end. (Hebrews 3:12–14, NIV)

In Chapter 10 he writes:  

Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Hebrews 10:23–25, NIV)

Therefore he writes:  

Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:28–29, NIV)

Guarding true worship everywhere

Who was right?  The Israelites who were ready to defend true corporate worship or the Reubenites and Gadites who worshipped on their way?  Well, in reality, both.  

Corporate worship must be true and pure.  We don’t bring sacrifices to the Lord on allotted days of festivals and new moons.  We don’t even attend worship in the same place of worship; we certainly do not need to go to some temple.  But there are certain principles that we need to adhere to:

  • We may only worship as the Word commanded.  Therefore the Scriptures takes the prominent place in worship.
  • We may only worship the Lord in the Name of Jesus Christ.  He is the last and perfect High Priest, He was the last Lamb, and in Him, the worship at the temple has come to an end.  
  • We pray only in the Name of Jesus Christ.  There is no other mediator, no angel, no saint through whole we should pray.
  • Singing is worship and Gospel proclamation.  We are bound to sing words in accordance with the Word of God, songs which bring glory to our Lord and Saviour. Songs which put any person in the centre of action or desire have no place in Reformed worship.
  • If personal preference of worship is more to us that the One we worship, we don’t worship God; we worship ourselves.  Worship is not about us and our personal needs; true worship brings us under the sovereignty of God to live to his glory.  In one sense then it is true that in true worship I die.  Here my needs are less important; here I take up my cross and follow Him as his disciple with the sure knowledge that God cares for me to provide in my needs.
  • All things that distract from the glory of God have no place in worship.  
  • Christ is the Head of his Church, and those who believe in Him are the members.  Members must have concern for one another because we laugh together, and we mourn together. Don’t give reason that your fellow brothers and sisters mourn about you.

Worship as a way of life outside corporate worship stands under the same principles.  Paul writes:  

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:1–2, NIV)


My friends, we are children of the same Father.  We share in the grace and redemption of Jesus Christ.  We are all led by the Holy Spirit.  We are members of Christ’s body. It is our duty to give an expression of this unity in corporate worship.  And we have a responsibility towards one another to worship God in true worship.

When we leave this place we don’t stop being God’s people.  Like the Reubenites and Gadites, we need to tell of God’s greatness in Jesus Christ.  Don’t stop worshipping God in all you do.  And don’t give your fellow-believers reason to think that your service in the Lord is wanting.  If they do enquire, assure them that you worship Almighty God, the God who knows. If their words call for repentance, thank God for them because they don’t want to see you slip away and miss eternity with them.


Sermon preached by Rev D. Rudi Schwartz on Sunday 30 June 2019


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