The Gospel is the heart of Christianity. It is the core of Christian theology. Other important doctrines and teachings exist, and we can and do get them wrong; but if we get this wrong, the consequences are eternally fatal. As Paul said, this is of “first importance.” (1 Corinthians 15:1)

And if we get it right? The Gospel is “the power of God unto salvation.” (Romans 1:16).

I’ve been thinking on this as I prepare my next sermon. I thought I’d share a few key insights.

THE NATURE OF THE GOSPEL

1. The Gospel is more than an offer; it is a COMMAND. When we stand before people (and before God) and present the message, we plead with them to be reconciled to God (2 Corinthians 5:20). Yet this plea is not like that of a desperate boyfriend looking for his girlfriend to marry him; it is the plea of the King’s messenger to His own rebel subjects to lay down their arms before He has to destroy them. We implore them because God takes no pleasure in the destruction of the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11). As Paul said, God now commands everyone everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30). We plead and implore, yes, but we do so with AUTHORITY.

2. The Gospel commands REPENTANCE. The Gospel involves turning away from sin. It involves a recognition of one’s sinfulness and recoiling from it, running instead to Christ. This repentance is not optional; it is a duty, a command to be obeyed (Acts 17:30), and failure to do so is sin. We must command sinners to repent.

3. The Gospel is, first and foremost, about FORGIVENESS OF SIN. It’s interesting that though many modern evangelistic presentations begin with statements like “Jesus loves you,” not one of the evangelistic presentations recorded in the New Testament ever uses those terms. There are 13 evangelistic presentations recorded in Acts (Acts 2:14-39, 3:12-26, 4:8-12, 5:29-32, 7:1-60, 10:34-43, 13:16-41, 17:22-31, 22:1-21, 23:1-6, 24:24-25, 26:1-29) A look at them does not reveal even one mention of God’s love, but eight of them emphasize forgiveness and ALL of them mention sin, guilt, or darkness. To preach the Gospel without telling unbelievers of their sin is to fail to preach the Gospel at all.

4. The hope of the Gospel is the RESURRECTION. Modern evangelism tends to emphasize the Cross, and Jesus’ death on our behalf. This is not wrong. However, Jesus did not stay on the Cross – God raised Him to life. A look at the above 13 evangelistic presentations in Acts shows that all but two talk about resurrection. Christ’s resurrection vindicated His claims to be the Messiah and to being God. We must emphasize Christ raised!

5. Certain truths are essential to the Gospel. “For I delivered to you as of FIRST IMPORTANCE what I also received: that CHRIST DIED FOR OUR SINS in accordance with the Scriptures, 4that HE WAS BURIED, that HE WAS RAISED on the third day IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE SCRIPTURES, 5and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve… 8Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10But BY THE GRACE OF GOD I AM WHAT I AM, and HIS GRACE TOWARD ME WAS NOT IN VAIN. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though IT WAS NOT I, BUT THE GRACE OF GOD that is with me.” (1 Corinthians 15:1-5, 8-10)

See that these things are of first importance. They are essentials that cannot be removed from the Gospel.

THE ESSENTIALS ACCORDING TO PAUL

According to 1 Corinthians 15:

1. Christ died and was buried.

2. If He died, He was mortal – thus He was a man. Denying Jesus came in the flesh is to deny the faith entirely (1 John 4:2-3).

3. Christ died for OUR SINS. We are sinners. A person who denies he is a sinner cannot be saved – knowledge of one’s sin is vital for salvation (1 John 1:10). Again, a Gospel proclamation that does not confront sin is not a Gospel proclamation.

4. Christ died FOR our sins. Christ was punished as our substitute (Isaiah 53). He died in our place, taking the wrath of God that we deserved. Note that our sins had to be punished – they could not be simply ignored or forgotten. God is a holy God.

5. He was raised from the dead. Christ has the power to lay down His life AND to take it up again (John 10:18). This proves two things. First, we have assurance that death is not the end – we will be raised again. Second, only God can give life to the dead. Jesus, by taking up His life again, proves He is God.

6. This was all in accordance with the Scriptures. The Gospel presupposes the authority of the Bible. Rejection of the Bible’s authority is incompatible with salvation.

7. It is by the grace of God that a saved person is what He is. God saves; we don’t. Salvation is a gift; it is not earned or deserved. Salvation is, from beginning to end, the work of God, for even our efforts toward salvation (faith, repentance) are but the grace of God working through us. We can take no credit or praise for our salvation.

8. God’s grace is not in vain. God cannot fail. He cannot be defeated. This is important, for if God can fail in His grace toward anyone, what assurance do we have that His grace toward us will not be in vain? Who is to say, if His grace can fail, that we really will be raised from the dead and given eternal life?

May God bless you by these thoughts.

Soli Deo Gloria (To God Alone Be The Glory)

– Jeff Jones

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Sermon Manuscript – 6 May 2007

I have noticed, as I’ve gotten to know more and more Christians, that many believers don’t know their Old Testaments well. Now, most of us know the famous stories – Noah and the ark, David and Goliath, Daniel and the lion’s den. But how many believers really understand the Old Testament? How many really appreciate how both parts of the Bible fit together? How difficult is it for us to open our Bibles to the first two thirds and understand what we’re reading, how it matters, why it was written?

Jesus has a message for us about that. Today’s sermon is a look at the foundation of the Gospel, at a very important part of the Old Testament – the Law of God. The Gospel and the Law go together. To be a mature Christian, to be an effective witness for Christ, to faithfully share the hope that is within us, we have to know what the Law is and why it matters today.

This is a deep, deep passage. This could keep us busy for a while. But today I want to pull just two important truths out of it, and from those two truths I want to highlight four practical applications.

Before we do that, though, we need to understand what the Law is. Simply put, the Law is the rules God gave His people in the Old Testament, in the first five books of the Bible. For Christians, the law is tough because it’s so foreign. The Law talks a lot about animals being sacrificed, and what meats are unclean and cannot be eaten, and about stoning criminals to death. These are things that simply aren’t observed in the average church! Clearly, the first coming of Christ marked some kind of difference between then and now.

Some think the law wasn’t meant for the Church. It applied to Israel – Jesus gave different rules for the church. That’s a simple solution, but it’s just not right. People who think that the law was just for Israel forget a very important thing: God has only one people. The Church is the New Israel. There is one olive tree – the nation of Israel – and the Gentiles, the non-Jewish believers in Christ have been grafted into that tree while any unbelieving Jewish branches have been cut off. But there’s still only one tree. God does not have two peoples, Israel and the Church; and He doesn’t have two sets of rules.

Others think that the Law was temporary until Jesus came. Once he died and rose again, the Law was cancelled. It didn’t matter anymore. Well, that’s not right either. Jesus has some strong words here about that. He denies that He has come to cancel the Law. The word translated “cancel” can mean destroy, or demolish, or overthrow. Jesus is not destroying the Law. He is not overthrowing it. Jesus is not the enemy of the Law.

No, He came to fulfill it! Jesus was the culmination of the Law. The Law anticipated Him. It pointed to Him. The Law would have been pointless without Him. It would have been incomplete. Jesus was the only person who ever fully kept the Law, and He was the very reason the Law was given in the first place.

Jesus came to fulfill the law, not to destroy it. Even the tiniest words and letters will not pass away, He said. Jesus warns us not to relax the Law in the slightest. Obviously, the Law is important today. And this is where our first two points come from.

So here’s our first point. The Old Testament Law is vital for salvation. Now that sounds strange. We live by faith, right? We’re saved by faith, aren’t we? That’s what Christians believe – your works can’t save you, right?

Look at the final verse of our passage, though: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” The scribes and Pharisees had obeying the law down to a science. They tithed not just their money, but the spices and herbs in their kitchens. They fasted twice a week. They loved the Law. They knew the Law. And in the eyes of the Jewish people, they were righteous. They were holy. They taught in the schools and in the synagogues. They were models and examples to everyone.

And yet Jesus tells the crowds, that’s not good enough. See the Pharisees? See how good they are at law-keeping? Guess what? Unless you’re better than that – you’re doomed. Unless your righteousness is even greater than that, you haven’t got a chance. At the end of chapter five, Jesus drills in this point with these words – words that should make every person tremble: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

More righteous than the Pharisees. Perfect as God Himself. That’s what God expects. That’s the standard. That’s the passing grade – one hundred percent, no less. The crowd listening must have thought, “This is impossible! How could anyone be saved?” And that’s the question, isn’t it? Like the disciples said, that day when Jesus declared it was easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven, the disciples asked, “Then how can anyone be saved?” And the answer? “With man this is impossible, but with God, all things are possible.”

Here is the truth about salvation. The Law is necessary to be saved. God expects that His law be kept perfectly. He demands that all His commandments be fulfilled. Getting to heaven requires perfect obedience. Don’t believe anyone who tells you that salvation doesn’t involve obeying God.

And this is how obedience earns salvation: Jesus Christ was the obedient one. Not only did His Cross pay for the punishment of our sins – with God, it’s not enough to have the guilt taken away, to have the negatives removed. Before Christ, we had absolutely no righteousness at all – it was all sin. Even the good things we did counted as sin, because we did them for ourselves or for others, but not for God. Our so-called righteousness was as filthy rags! Christ’s blood removed the red ink, but if that had been all, we would have had nothing on that sheet.

It’s like a financial balance sheet. On one side is the black ink, the positives, the credits. On the other are the debits, the negatives, the red ink. Our sins are on the debit side – they count against us. Christ’s blood removes everything from that column. But because we can’t do any good of ourselves, we have nothing on the positive side. We have nothing to our credit!

For shareholders of a company, it’s not enough that the company simply breaks even. They desire that the company makes money – that there be a profit to show on the credit side. How much more, then, does God, who is perfect and just, desire that His people reflect His image and produce good works for Him? God wants more than an empty balance sheet.God requires more than just no sin. He requires righteousness. Christ’s death removed the negatives, and that brought us back to zero. But God wants more than zero. And that’s where obedience comes in. Christ lived a perfect and sinless life. He kept the Law. He obeyed the Law. And when we believe in Him, God not only counts our sins to His account, but He counts the obedience and the righteousness of Christ to ours. Christ bore our sins; we wear His perfect obedience. His righteousness becomes our credit.

Yes – the Law has to be obeyed to be saved. The Good News of the Gospel is that, even though we could never obey the Law perfectly, Jesus Christ has already done that for us. He obeyed the Law. He paid the price, and He gave us His righteousness. He did it all! That’s what it means when Jesus said He fulfills the Law.

And though I’m not done explaining this passage, I want to stop and stress this. If you haven’t believed in Christ – now’s the time. If you’re still trying to please God on your own – you can’t do it. If you’re thinking that you’re a pretty good person, and that you’re better than average, and that God will accept you for that – He won’t. The standard is perfection, and you’ve already failed. The only way is to stop relying on your own strength, to confess and repent of your sin, and to cry to Jesus for mercy. You must believe that Jesus came, became a man, died for sins as a substitute, and rose again from the dead. If you haven’t yet believed, don’t wait. Do it now!

So that’s my first point. The Old Testament Law is vital for salvation!

Second, the Old Testament Law is vital for Christian living. Yes, we’re saved. No, we cannot ever lose our salvation – as long as we are truly believers, as long as the faith that we place in Christ is a true and living faith. But then, once we’ve been saved, then what? How does the Law matter in our lives today? Didn’t Jesus take care of it? Does it apply to us today?

Look at the passage again. Jesus said, “Until heaven and earth pass away,” “until all is accomplished,” “not an iota” – the smallest letter – “or a dot” – the smallest stroke of a pen – will ever pass from the law. That’s the truth. That’s the principle. That’s the theology – the Law stands for all time.

And the application of that principle, the practical expression of that theology, is given by Jesus in the next verse: Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. We don’t relax the law!

If we’re not to relax the law, then it obviously still matters. If Jesus is telling us it is not to be taken lightly, then we are still to obey it and use it.

And we, of all people, have no excuse. Believers have the Holy Spirit. We have, in the words of Jeremiah 31, had God’s law written on our hearts. God will cause us to walk in His ways and keep His commands. We are born again! We no longer have hearts of stone! We are able to keep the law, now! The Spirit lives within us!

What about love, then? Isn’t the Christian faith about love, not law-keeping? Jesus spoke to that question. He said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” That’s John 14:15.

So that’s our second truth: the Old Testament Law is vital for Christian living. How then shall we live? In light of what Jesus has told us about the Law of God, what are we to do?

First. We must know the Old Testament. We must read it and study it. The New Testament was never meant to be a stand-alone thing. It’s like going to high school without finishing elementary – your teachers may be able to help you scrape by, but you will never fully understand the material. You can’t properly understand the New Testament unless you have a grasp of what God was doing in the Old. It’s that simple.

So know the Old Testament. Read the stories – Adam and Eve and Noah and Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Moses and Joshua and the Judges and David and the Kings and the prophets. That will help you grasp the plot of the Bible. Read the poems and the songs – the psalms and Lamentations and the Song of Solomon – so you understand the mood, the emotions, of the people of God. Read the prophecies – those in Isaiah and Ezekiel and Jeremiah and others – so you see God’s promises and how they were kept. Above all, read the Law – read through Exodus and Deuteronomy, to start. There you will see God’s holy standard. There you will discover what God’s true will for His people is – that they may be holy, as God is holy.

Study the Old Testament. Know the Old Testament.

Second. We must keep the law. How do we do that? Listen to what it says. Love the Lord your God, with all your heart – He must be your deepest desire, your highest joy. With all your soul – He must be your highest commitment, your highest value. With all your mind – everything you do with your mind must be done in service to Him. We must seek to know and understand Him and His Word more fully every day. With all your strength – all these things must be done wholeheartedly, never looking back, never giving in, never slowing down. All to God and all for God.

And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. Simply, we must consider one another better than ourselves. We must be unselfish, always seeking to place the needs of others ahead of our own. We must treat them the way that we would like to be treated ourselves, value them the way we value ourselves, honour them as we honour ourselves and would like to be honoured.

This is God’s will for our lives – that we love Him by keeping His commandments. We have the Spirit; we can do it. We must keep the law.

Third. We must never relax the standards we have been given. We just don’t have the authority to reduce God’s law. In some specific instances, God has seen fit to set aside a specific command of the law – Jewish dietary restrictions, for instance. But in any and all cases where this is not done, the Law still stands – not as a means of earning salvation, but as a standard we strive to achieve. We honour and worship God by honouring and obeying His law. May we never be found relaxing the Law of God!

Fourth. We must use the Law in evangelism. The Gospel is good news – but it is good news because of the bad news. The bad news is this: There is none righteous, not even one. There is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have sinned, all fall short of the glory of God. And the wages of sin is death.

In evangelism, the first task – a vital task – is to explain to the unbeliever that they are a sinner, and that they are under a death sentence. How do we do this? We share with them God’s holy standard. We tell them the law. The Ten Commandments are a great summary when used in evangelism – every human being has dishonoured their parents at one point, or lied, or desired something that was not theirs, or taken a cookie from the jar when Mom wasn’t looking. The Ten Commandments and the two greatest commandments, when shared, convict the unbeliever – showing him that he is not good enough. The Law demonstrates that we are helpless and unable to save ourselves. And thus, the Law prepares the way for the Gospel – the Good News that God has sent a Saviour to do what we could never do ourselves.

To do this, we must know the law. That’s a great reason to memorize the Ten Commandments, if you haven’t already done so. We must use the Law in evangelism.

So we’re going to close today by doing something different. I’m going to read the Ten Commandments, from the first 17 verses of Exodus 20:

1And God spoke all these words, saying,

2″I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

3″You shall have no other gods before me.

4″You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, 6but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

7″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.

8″Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. 11For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

12″Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.

13″You shall not murder.

14″You shall not commit adultery.

15″You shall not steal.

16″You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

17″You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.” (ESV)

– Jeff Jones

Sermon Manuscript – April 22, 2007

One of the hardest things I ever had to do was to learn to speak another language. Those of you who have had to do this can sympathize, I am sure. For me, it was French. It was tough! Even after taking it for years in elementary and high school, I struggled with it in college. For me, it was a requirement to graduate. Be functionally bilingual, pass a government proficiency test, or you don’t get your diploma. As Winston Churchill said, “The threat of death concentrates the mind wonderfully.” Well, it should have helped, but I still only managed to meet the requirement halfway through my fourth year – just months before graduation.

But I’m glad I did it. It taught me a lot.

Here’s something I learned. In English, there is only one second-person pronoun. In other words, if I address an individual or a group, I will call them “you.” Mike – it’s good to see you. Guys, it’s good to see you. It’s the same with both individuals and groups. In the first person, there is a difference – I and we. In the third, there’s a difference – he or she, and they. But second? You and you.

See, French does have the distinction in the second person. Singular is tu, while the plural is vous. So it’s like most other languages that way. But in French, there’s an added meaning to these terms. It’s not just a difference between number – singular and plural. It’s also familiarity and closeness, a difference between informal and formal use. You would use vous to address individuals if you don’t know them or if they are your superior – in formal contexts. You use the normal singular tu with friends and family. So I would address my franco buddies as tu, but when I addressed a francophone officer senior to me, like a major or a colonel, I would always use vous. With me so far?

That’s a big difference from English. And yet, culturally, there’s an important similarity between French and English speakers. See, ours is an irreverent culture. Pop culture glorifies rebellion, and arrogance, and a disdain for authority. It’s the same in the francophone culture. I remember reading a French newspaper article about public schools, where the teachers were complaining that the students no longer bothered addressing them by the formal vous. Instead, they used tu. The teachers were concerned that it was undercutting their authority, contributing to an atmosphere of informality and irreverence in the classroom.

That rings a bell in my ears. That message is like a drumbeat in our culture. Like in the eighties – “stick it to the man!!” Young people hardly bother to vote, but they turn out in droves to riot and smash windows when a political leader comes to visit. We caricature politicians as dishonest and policemen as incompetent, but exalt Playboy models and drug-imbibing rock stars as our cultural heroes.

We are an irreverent society. And I fear that Christians today, prone as they are to take their cues from culture instead of Scripture, are careless in how they teach and preach and model reverence in the church. I feel sometimes that in our worship, especially, we are all too often like those schoolkids in Quebec – we’ve substituted familiarity and informality for reverence and respect. Just compare the worship choruses of today with the hymns of old, and you’ll see my point.

What happens when God’s people take God’s power and authority for granted? What’s the risk we assume when we forget God’s holiness and righteousness – especially in the way we serve and worship Him?

Sadly, this isn’t a new problem. Our text today is a terrifying example of God’s reaction to such carelessness. Let’s set the stage a little.

Israel’s greatest king, David, had a problem. The Tabernacle, the physical centre of Israelite worship, was in one place – Shechem. The ark of the covenant, the symbol of God’s presence and power, was in another – a little town on the Philistine border. David wanted to consolidate these in his new capital, Jerusalem – eventually in a temple he would decide to build – and therefore unify the country.

So he decided to go get the ark. Thinking like a soldier, he musters a massive force to escort the ark. Thirty thousand men. That’s a big force, even today – the U.S. military does not even have that many men fighting the war in Afghanistan right now. David wants to protect the ark from any Philistine interference. If they were to attack and take the ark, even destroy it, it would be a massive symbolic victory. So the ark needed a strong force to guard it – this is the soldier thinking.

The politician was also thinking. The force was composed of men from all twelve tribes. This was a national undertaking, another unifying event. It was a symbol of the united Israelite nation, serving their God together.

With this huge show of force, David meant to show his respect and concern for the ark. He decided to do something else to show this, as well. And this is where he went wrong. He has the ark put on a cart, drawn by oxen. It was a shiny new cart, to be sure. Brand new. Well-built. A worthy mode of transportation for God’s throne, right?

Except that God had already made crystal clear how He wanted the ark to be carried. And He did not mention a cart anywhere in His instructions. This was the first mistake. David didn’t bother consulting God about the matter first. Specifically, he didn’t go to God’s word, the Law. God had made it very clear in His Scriptures how he was to be worshiped. How the objects associated with His worship were to be handled. The ark was not to be carried on a cart. God had given detailed instructions, telling His people that the ark was to be carried on the shoulders of Levites. David should have known that. But he didn’t. Why? David didn’t go to his Bible, his copy of the law that as king he was supposed to have written out with his own hand for his own use.

No. David’s first mistake was to assume that God hadn’t spoken specifically to this situation in the Scriptures. Even as a believer in God, even as a prophet in his own right and the leader of God’s people, David had no authority to ignore the Scriptures and do things his own way.

How often do we jump into things without looking in God’s Word first? How often do Christians plan things in the church and in their lives without thinking that maybe God’s Word has something to say about it? Especially in worship! God cares about His worship! We can’t make the mistake of assuming God hasn’t spoken.

David’s second mistake was maybe even worse than the first. David didn’t go to God’s Word to guide his service – that was the first. He didn’t do something he should have – that was the first. The second – well, David did something he shouldn’t have. His second mistake was to take his cue in what he did do from the culture around him. The Ark had been carried on a cart before, and it’s probably not a coincidence that David chose to do so again. But the first time, the cart was the idea of Philistine religious leaders. Pagan priests. Tired of plagues and disasters, wanting nothing more to do with the ark they had captured, they sent the ark back to Israel on a cart drawn by oxen. That time, it worked out great. The Philistines were delivered from their plagues. The Israelites got the ark back. Everyone’s happy.

But the Philistines were ignorant. They had no Law. They had no Levites to carry the ark. They simply acted as best they knew how. But for God’s people, ignorance isn’t an excuse. For God’s people, improvisation just isn’t enough. God has spoken by His prophets and His Law. The people of God are supposed to know better, to take their lead in worship and service from the Scriptures God gave them. They aren’t supposed to blindly imitate the culture in their worship.

Does that sound familiar? How many of us have made the mistake of thinking that worship is something we do to attract unbelievers, something we do to entertain seekers? How many Christians look at worship as a show they put on for the culture, assume that God is pleased with just anything they can think up? How often do believers, with good intentions, try to baptize and sanctify things they’ve seen in the world and bring them into the sanctuary?

See, that was David’s second mistake – assuming that he, as a human being, had the right to improvise new ways to serve God in worship. He carelessly ignored the Scriptures – number one – and he opted for the ways of men – number two.

What was the result? Disaster struck. Marching along the road, music playing, drums beating, people celebrating, the procession hits a literal bump in the road. The oxen stumble.

Our author reports this almost clinically, in passing. But – there is not one rogue atom in God’s universe. All things happen in accordance with His will. God has ordained everything that has ever happened, everything that will happen. Nothing comes to pass outside of His plan. Do you think those oxen stumbling was some kind of accident? That God’s eyes wandered off the road His ark was driving on? The oxen stumbled. And Uzzah fears for the ark. What if it fell? What if this gleaming golden box was muddied by touching the dirt? What if the fall damaged the ark?

Uzzah reached out his hand to steady the ark. And he was struck dead. This seems so harsh, doesn’t it. He was just trying to help! He was seeking to honour God! To protect an object of His worship! Don’t intentions matter more than deeds? Doesn’t God care more about spirit and truth than ceremony and rules?

But – that’s the wrong perspective.

When God’s people forget God’s Word, or lose their trust in it to guide and regulate their worship, it is a most dangerous thing. When they turn to human methods instead, it’s even worse. When we fail to consider our service to God through His eyes, from His point of view, and when we make our decisions and do our thing by our own standards and assumptions, we miss what matters to God.

We see this tendency to see things through men’s eyes and not God’s in Uzzah’s actions. Uzzah, like David, made two fatal mistakes. First, he forgot God’s sovereignty. Uzzah knew the stories of the ark’s capture by the Philistines and its return after plagues and sickness. He should have realized that God is perfectly capable of defending His own glory. Uzzah forgot that God was sovereign.

And in forgetting God’s sovereignty, God’s control of all things – even the small things, like bumps on the road and the footsteps of oxen – Uzzah assumed that things depended on him. If Uzzah had remembered God’s sovereignty, he might have wondered why God would allow the oxen to stumble. He might have realized that maybe there was a purpose in it. Uzzah might have perceived this bump in the road as God’s way of stopping the procession, of saying, “That’s enough. I’m not happy. Start over.”

Second, Uzzah forgot God’s holiness. Uzzah, in thinking that the problem was the ark falling off the cart, lost sight of what really mattered to God. It’s not simply that God can protect the ark Himself. It’s what God desires to protect it from. God wasn’t concerned about the ark getting dirty. It’s not dirt that matters. God made dirt. God likes dirt. He made Adam from dirt. Jesus used dirt to heal the eyesight of a blind man.

Dirt doesn’t sin. Dirt doesn’t rebel against the will of God. Dirt doesn’t neglect God’s commands and expectations, or try to do things its own way. But men do.

God is far less concerned about getting mud on his throne than He is with an impure and sinful human being defiling His presence. Uzzah did the unthinkable – he violated the holiness of God. The ark, the symbol of God’s authority, the place where the blood of sacrifice for sins was sprinkled by the priests – carelessly touched by a sinful man. A man who forgot God’s holiness.

The issue isn’t even the ark – it’s what it represents. Look at the passage. The ark didn’t kill Uzzah. This wasn’t some automatic or mechanical reaction, like a child touching a live wire. God killed Uzzah. Personally. His anger was kindled, burned, glowing with holy rage. God executed a man who stepped across a line that man may not cross. God’s holiness was violated, and God cares deeply about His purity.

This is a truth that simply screams to be applied in the Christian church today. How often are we careless with our worship? Do we ever stop and think that what we do on Sunday morning, when God’s people gather to glorify Him, is a life or death matter? When we as a church approach the throne of God, how do we do this? As self-confident individuals walking in like we own the place? Or as forgiven rebels and criminals approaching the high and exalted throne of a perfect and spotless God?

God cares how He is worshiped. Several times in the Bible, he has had to impress His people, by an act of judgment, with a true and proper reverence and awe for His holiness. Look in Acts – at the story of Ananias and Sapphira. They tried to use an act of worship for personal gain, to exalt themselves rather than God. What was the result? God killed them. He took their lives. Because they defiled what should have been holy and set apart with sinful motives. Because they were evil in the midst of a people God was working to make holy.

It doesn’t stop there. Paul later has to admonish the troublesome Corinthian church to treat the Lord’s Supper with respect. The Corinthians had made it into a drunken party. They treated Communion as a chance to fill their bellies and have a good time. They saw God’s worship as a means to meet their own needs and satisfy their own desires instead of as an opportunity to honour a Holy God. What was the result? Read First Corinthians. Some had fallen ill. Some had even died. God had taken their lives. God had executed them for their sin.

God’s holiness is a deadly serious matter. How we worship God matters to Him. He spent three thousand years revealing Himself and His will to us in Scripture so that we might know how to honour Him in spirit AND in truth. God’s worship belongs to Him, not to us. God decides what is acceptable worship, not us. And He’s made it clear in the Bible, what He wants and what He doesn’t. God wants spiritual songs and acts of kindness. He does not want child sacrifice or images in worship. God desires a humble heart that throws itself before His mercy, not a proud one that thinks it has something to add to God’s treasures. God wants a people dedicated to His glory and His praise, not one obsessed with their own comfort and entertainment!

So many years I thought worship was about us. About me feeling good. About what I could bring, rather than what He has done. For so long I profaned the holy duty of worship by trying to do it on my terms and not on God’s. Trying to entertain myself and others, by my standards, rather than give glory and honour to God on His.

And when I read this passage, it terrifies me. God has the power of life and death. My next breath and my next heartbeat will be gifts from His hand. I live and breathe at His pleasure. And if He is a God for whom holiness is a life and death matter, for whom an insult to the purity of His worship can cost a man his life, then this passage needs my attention.

Walter Brueggemann once put it this way: “when people are no longer awed, respectful, or fearful of God’s holiness, the community is put at risk.”

We are the people of God. We are the Bride of His beloved Son. This is our burden! God’s honour and holiness are our concern! And we are expected, required, to know better!

God’s worship is not ours to treat any way we please. God’s holiness is not some trifle for lip service only. We must fear the Lord. We must reverence Him, be awed before Him. We must worship Him as He has demanded, not make up new ways on our own.

So let us not neglect our duty. Let us be, like Apollos, “strong in the Scriptures.” Let us seek every day, even and especially in those things we have done the same way for many years, to look at things through the lens of God’s truth, through the prism of His Word. As we worship God, may we never be so arrogant as to assume that we have the authority or the right or the ability to decide without reference to Scripture what is acceptable worship. In everything we do, let us ever remember He is holy, holy, holy.

– Jeff Jones