The Ancient Ritual of Worship: Contrasts and Parallels Between Mosaic and Christian Worship

Taken from, “The People’s Bible: Discourses Upon Holy Scripture,” Vol. 3, 
Written by Joseph Parker


WHEN the Ten Commandments were given, the Lord had called unto Moses from the top of mount Sinai…

Now he calls from “the tent of meeting.” He is about to speak more minutely, and to enter upon statements which were better made in the quietness of a holy place, than delivered in a theater of lightning and thunder and earthquake. The one was a great declaration of morals, a solemn code of behavior or action; the other related to sacrifice, worship, divine communion and the whole life of the heart.

The lightning and the thunder have passed, and the earth and heaven no longer throbs with sound, but is quieted to hear the peaceful law.

Moses enters the sanctuary. It is a church made with hands, and it stands at the foot of ”the mount which burned with fire.” Sometimes our worship seems to require space, so much are our souls exalted, and so loud is our cry of distress or our psalm of adoration. The mountain is not high enough, the sea is wanting in width, and the horizon is too near to constitute a church, because our souls are lifted up with great emotions and our love glows with an infinite fire. In those high moods we tell the mountains to rejoice; we bid Lebanon clap its hands; and call upon the sea to help our offering of praise. Afterwards we fall into another and calmer mood; a mood subdued almost into timidity; in these moments we would draw a curtain in on ourselves and draw away from our former publicity to within the bounds of comparative secrecy. The sky is too vast; we are afraid of its very immensity; so under roof and lamp of our own making we render our worship, giving God praise, and whispering the prayer which is almost spoiled by speech.

This verse gives us the picture of God and man meeting in a holy place; say in close quarters; say as if space were annihilated and the infinite had taken up the finite into itself. Man needs instruction in the art or act of worship. The worship itself may be what is sometimes called instinctive. Hence man has been called a religious being; hence we are told that worship or the spirit of worship is in man; and hence too we have been mistakenly told that every man may worship God as he pleases.

That is a sophism which needs exposure. The will of man has no place whatever in worship, except to receive the direction or command of God as to its expression.

There are emotions of the heart, inarticulate sometimes, fierce sometimes, tender emotions of every force and tone that run through the whole gamut of human feeling; but we are not to say which part shall be uttered and which shall be silent; we are like little children to be taught how to worship our Father God.

“Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, If any man of you bring an offering unto the Lord, ye shall bring your offering of the cattle, even of the herd, and of the flock. If his offering be a burnt sacrifice of the herd, let him offer a male without blemish: he shall offer it of his own voluntary will at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation before the Lord. And he shall put his hand upon the head of the burnt offering; and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him. And he shall kill the bullock before the Lord: and the priests, Aaron’s sons, shall bring the blood, and sprinkle the blood round about upon the altar that is by the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. And he shall flay the burnt offering, and cut it into his pieces. And the sons of Aaron the priest shall put fire upon the altar, and lay the wood in order upon the fire: And the priests, Aaron’s sons, shall lay the parts, the head, and the fat, in order upon the wood that is on the fire which is upon the altar: But his inwards and his legs shall he wash in water: and the priest shall burn all on the altar, to be a burnt sacrifice, an offering made by fire, of a sweet savor unto the Lord.” Lev. 1:2-9

Here is a singular conjunction of the legal and the voluntary.

Jehovah fixes the particulars; but the man himself decides on the act of sacrificial worship. Observe how the Lord works from the opposite point from which the first of the Ten Commandments was given. There God called for the worship: here he leaves the man to offer the worship and proceeds to tell him how. The first was general, the second was particular. The offering was to be of the cattle; it was to be a male without blemish; it was to be offered at the door of the tabernacle; the priests were to do part and the man himself was to do part.

So we see again that man needs instruction in the act of worship…

The question must ever arise, How shall we come before God? The disciples of Jesus Christ came to him, and said,” Lord, teach us how to pray.” We all pray; we cannot help praying. Sometimes in our secularistic pride we only use such common words as “I wish,” ”I long for,” “I hope,” “I desire,” “these are feeble ways of putting what is in every human heart, namely, the desire which means prayer. Jesus Christ taught his disciples how to pray, that is, he gave them instruction as to the meaning and mode of worship. So then, we have a manner or science of worship even in the Christian sanctuary, dictated and authorized by Jesus Christ himself. The preparation of the heart and the answer of the tongue are from God. No man was at liberty in the ancient Church to determine his own terms of approach to God. The throne must be approached in the appointed way.

There is a genius in worship, there is a method of coming before God. God does not ask us to conceive or suggest methods of worship. He himself meets us with his time-bill and his terms of spiritual commerce. God is in heaven and we are upon the earth; therefore should our words be few. The law of approach to the divine throne is unchanged. The very first condition of worship is obedience.

Obedience is better than sacrifice, and is so because it is the end of sacrifice. But see, how under the Levitical ritual, the worshiper was trained to obedience. Mark the exasperating minuteness of the law. Nothing was left to haphazard. The bullock was to be offered at the door of the tabernacle; the sheep was to be killed on the northward side of the altar; the blood of the fowl was to be wrung out at the side of the altar; the crop was to be plucked away with the feathers and was to be cast on the east side of the altar by the place of the ashes; fine flour and oil were to be the ingredients of the meat offering, whether it was burnt upon the altar or baked in the oven, or in the frying-pan, and loaves and honey were not to enter into the sacrifice by fire.

So the law runs on until it chafes the obstinate mind. But man was to yield. He had no choice. His iron will was to be broken in two and his soul was to wait patiently upon God. When, however, we are in the spirit of filial obedience the very minuteness of the law becomes a delight.

God does not speak to us in the gross; every motion is watched, every action is determined, every breathing is regulated; man is always to yield; he is not a co-partner in this high thinking. So our inventive genius of a religious kind often stands rebuked before God. We like to make ceremonies ; methods of worship seem to tempt one side of our fertile genius, and we stultify ourselves by regarding our inventiveness as an element of our devotion. We like to draw up programs and orders and schemes of service and sacrifice. What we should do is to keep as nearly as we can to the Biblical line, and bring all our arrangements into harmony with the law of heaven. The law can never give way. Fire never surrenders; it is the fuel that must go down.

The worship was to be offered through mediation. In every sacrifice the priests, Aaron or the sons of Aaron, were present. The priestly element pervades the universe ; it is the mystery of life and service. The sinner did not come immediately before God and transact his business with the Infinite face to face. Is there then any priestly element in Christianity? It is the very consummation of priestliness.

Our sacrifices are acceptable to God by Jesus Christ. Our great High Priest is passed into the heavens. There is one Mediator between God and man, the Man Christ Jesus. Jesus is the Mediator of the new covenant. The difficulty with us is that we think we can all be official priests. We forget that now there is only one Man who continues forever, because he hath an unchangeable priesthood. Jesus is the Intercessor, he pleads his blood ; his cross is in heaven; it rests against the throne. ” I saw in the midst of the throne a Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.”

All things are colored with his blood. It is a great mystery and not to be understood by reason in its cold moods; only when we are burning with unutterable love to God, do we catch any hint of the meaning of these sovereign mysteries. We have no need of priestly help from any human point of view. Brethren pray for us. Ministers will pray for their people, but not as their substitutes; their prayers are eloquent with the cry of human necessity and the psalm of human adoration. Not in any way priestly, but in a profoundly sympathetic sense, we are all priests in Christ –a holy priesthood.

This worship service was voluntary. Notice the expression, “He shall offer it of his own voluntary will.” The voluntariness gives the value to the worship. We can only pray with the heart.

Prayers we can say with the mouth, but to say prayers may not be to pray. To pay a tax is to keep a law, but to give bread to the hungry is to draw out the heart and to put a gift in the very hand of God. So in Christian worship, the voluntary and the legal are combined. There is in this great ritual a wonderful mixing of free will and divine ordination; the voluntary and the unchangeable; the human action and the divine decree. We cannot understand it; if we are able to understand it then it is no larger than our understanding: so God becomes a measurable god, merely the shadow of human wit, a god that cannot be worshiped.

It is where our understanding fails or rises into a new wealth of faith, that we find the only altar at which we can bow, with all our power; where we can utter with enthusiasm all our hopes and desires. So we come with our sacrifice and offering, whatever it may be, and having laid it on the altar, we can follow it no further –free as the air up to a given point, but after that bounded and fixed and watched and regulated –a mystery that can never be solved, and that can never be chased out of a universe in which the Infinite and finite confer.

The worship in the ancient Church was no mere expression of sentiment. It was a most practical worship; not a sentimental exercise; it was a confession and an expiation,” in a word an atonement. This fact explains all. Take the word “atonement” out of Christian theology, and Christian theology has no center, no circumference, no life, no meaning, no virtue. See the man bringing his bullock “what is he going to do? To make God a present? He is going to confess sin; he is about to say, “My sin deserves death, but it hath pleased thee, mighty King, to accept a type of my death, therefore do I shed the blood of this beast before thee.” He is about to say, “Sin means suffering; suffering must accompany sin; “to express it therefore did he put the knife into that dedicated bullock. We have lost many of the spiritual ideas, I fear, suggested by this symbolism, from the range of our Christian worship.

Who remembers that sin is a debt? Who brings before his mind in all its pathos and humiliating effect the great fact that sin must be confessed, admitted, specifically owned, –that each man must say “My sin”? Who is there that really feels that he is not master of his own sin, having power to put an end to it as if he had never committed it?

The devil says, “You have sinned; that may be perfectly true, but what you have got to do is to repent of your sin, and all will be well.” He knows that our repentances, unless springing from the right source and regulated by the right influence, do but harden the heart and give the tempter a wider sweep and advantage over us. The enemy says to the withered branch perishing by the roadside,” It is quite true that you are withered, but repent, and all will be well.” Never. There must come a Divine hand that can lift the branch up and put it back in the tree, so that it may draw the life-juice from the root and connect itself with the all-blessing sun. A vital work must be done. You cannot wash yourself clean. The sea will not wash you. The cleansing is an act Divine.

The ancient worship was marked by every variety of offering. What a wonderful list do we find in the first three chapters of Leviticus! A bullock, a sheep, a turtle-dove, a young pigeon, fine flour, first-fruit a goat. The great law seems to say to us, “What have you to offer?” The law is not hard and fast. The rich man and the poor man each has his opportunity. They could not all bring alike; it was not every man who had a bullock to offer, or a turtle-dove, or a young pigeon, or a handful of flour,” the meaning was the same; the meaning was not to be measured by the gift; the gift itself was the meaning when measured by the heart.

Has this time of oblation passed? It cannot pass; only our offering is no longer an atonement, it is now a grateful expression for an atonement already offered. So the Lord says to each of us, “What have you?” One man has time, and gives it willingly unto the Lord; another has social influences, and is true to his Savior in the exercise of all the power that comes He blesses the giver and the gift.

If we could read this book of Leviticus through at one sitting, the result might be expressed in some such words as these,” “Thank God we have got rid of this infinite labor; thank God this is not in the Christian service; thank God we are Christians and not Jews.” Let not our rejoicing be the expression of selfishness or folly. It is true we have escaped the bondage of the letter, but only to enter into the larger and sweeter bondage of the spirit. It makes the heart sore to think that so many persons are under the impression that Christianity is a do-nothing religion, and that by becoming Christians we enter into the liberty of idleness.

When we think of the bullock, and the sheep, and the goat, and the turtle-dove, and the young pigeon, and the fine flour, the heave-offering, and the wave-offering, and the trespass-offering –offerings all the year round, never-ending, or ending only to begin again; the smoke always ascending, the fire always alight, we say, “Thank God we are Christians.” What do we mean? Had the Jew more to do than we have to do? No; or only so in a very limited and mechanical sense. The Jew gave his bullock or his goat, his turtle-dove or his young pigeon; but now each man has to give himself! We now buy ourselves off with gold. Well may the apostle exhort us, saying, “I beseech you, therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.”

Wonderful is the law which lays its claim upon the ransomed soul,” none of us lives to himself, and no man dies to himself; whether we live, we live unto the Lord; whether we die, we die unto the Lord; living or dying we are the Lord’s. We have escaped measurable taxation, but we have come under the bond of immeasurable love. We have escaped the letter, we have been brought under the dominion of the spirit. Let us be careful, therefore, how we congratulate ourselves on having escaped the goat-offering and heifer-offering, and turtle-dove and young pigeon sacrifices; how we have been brought away from the technicality and poverty of the letter into the still further deeper poverty of selfishness.

As Christians, we have nothing that is our own; not a moment of time is ours; not a pulse that throbs in us, not a hair of our head, not a coin in the coffer belongs to us. This is the severe demand of love.

Who can rise to the pitch of that self-sacrifice? None. The Jew gives his tenth, and another tenth, and another tenth, and another tenth, even unto five-tenths, or one-half, and we say, “All that is done for ever; it has passed away with the obsolete ritual, and now we are under the law of love,” as if God had brought us into something less rather than into something more. The Jew had a night in which he might rest from his labor, but in Christianity, as to the spiritual exactions of its service it may be truly said there is no night; if we cease from the more active labor during the night it is that we may be prepared to resume it with increased energy with the first light of dawn.


Five animals are named in the Law as suitable for sacrifice; the ox, the sheep, the goat, the dove, and the pigeon. It is worthy of notice that these were all offered by Abraham in the great sacrifice of the Covenant (see Gen. 15:9). These animals are all clean, according to the division into clean and unclean animals, which was adopted in the Law. They were the most important of those which are used for food, and are of the greatest utility to man. The three kinds of quadrupeds were domesticated in flocks and herds, and were recognized as property, making up in fact a great part of the wealth of the Hebrews before they settled in Palestine. It would thus appear that three conditions met in the sacrificial quadrupeds:

(l) they were clean according to the Law;
(2) they were commonly used as food; and being domesticated

(3) they formed part of the home-wealth of the sacrificers.

— The Note was taken from, The Speaker’s Commentary (Abridged)