Yep, I spelled that word wrong intentionally. But in my browsing this morning I came across some articles that mention “coming forward to the altar” at typical church services, and though I’ve written about this before, it bears repeating.
Why do churches have altars?
Jesus died on the cross and rose again, offering His literal, physical blood on the real altar in the real temple in heaven. In various scriptures we are told that we who have been reconciled to God through Jesus alone are the temple and the priesthood, and our sacrifice— Jesus Himself— is already offered, once for all. The writer of Hebrews states:
9:12 And it was not the blood of goats and calves but his very own blood that he carried into the Holiest Place, once for all eternity, obtaining our redemption.
10:8–10:14 So when he said God didn’t want sacrifices and offerings, and then that he came to do God’s will, he was saying he takes away the first in order to establish the second. And we are made holy by means of the offering of Jesus’ body, once for all. Every priest performs the sacred service day after day and offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away our failures. But this One, after making one final sacrifice, is seated at God’s right hand, waiting for his enemies to be made his footstool. For by one offering he has finally completed the holy ones.
12:1-2 So I am encouraging you, brothers and sisters, through the compassion of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and very pleasing to God— which is your logical divine service. And do not be conformed to this age but be transformed by renewing your minds, for the purpose of testing what the will of God is, which is good, very pleasing, and perfect.
13:9–13:15 Don’t let yourselves be carried away by various strange teachings. It is best to confirm your heart by gratitude toward God instead of by certain foods that did nothing to help those who ate them. We have an Altar at which those who offer divine service in the Tent of Meeting have no right to eat. The bodies of animals, whose blood the ruling priest carries into the holy places for failures, are burned up outside the camp. Likewise, Jesus suffered outside the city gate in order to make people holy by means of his own blood. So then, let us come out to him, outside of the camp, and take up his disgrace. For we do not have a permanent city here, but we search for the one to come. Through him, then, let us offer up a continual sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the “produce” of our mouths, publicly acknowledging his Name. Likewise, Paul states in his letter to the Romans:
So what do we mean by building physical altars and placing (cash!) sacrifices upon them? Even in the OT, cash was never a sacrifice, so by erecting these altars and placing “tithes and offerings” upon them, we symbolize at best the worship of a god who assigns great worth and value to money. And what do we mean by any “sacred furniture” at all, including pulpits and vestments? By elevating a few donning priestly robes and giving lectures on a raised platform from behind a pulpit, we symbolize that Jesus changed nothing at all in this life; we mock Him by continuing to practice a hybridized Judaism/paganism while telling ourselves “It’s a relationship, not a religion”. Yet the cognitive dissonance is lost on many believers; here is an example (emphasis mine):
One thing that I think about is how in the Old Testament God had the people make altars, pile stones, build a Tabernacle, and ultimately build the Temple. There was an environment and a place to meet with God. Stephen deconstructed this in Acts 7 because he said that the significance of the Temple was now found in Christ Himself, laying the groundwork for the argumentation found in Hebrews, but that doesn’t mean that we do not create environments for people to meet with God. We engage the senses that God gave us and we set aside times and places to meet with God, not because He is limited to such places, but because we need the focus and we need to engage our whole beings in worship to God. I think that Communion and Baptism should be seen in this light.
Knowing very well that the old religious rituals and practices were “deconstructed”, this commenter nonetheless negates it with an appeal to those rituals and practices “because we need the focus and we need to engage our whole beings in worship to God.” We can’t do those things without all that religious baggage? Where is the Holy Spirit then, not in our hearts? Either we need these things or we don’t, and the practice of them speaks louder than the admission that they were “deconstructed”. It would be like saying people no longer need to register in a blog to use all its features, but “bonus” features are not enabled unless you do. Either these “environments” are necessary or they are not; they can’t be both. And as I’ve written often, anything deemed necessary, binding, or vital must be clearly and expressly stated, such that anything not so stated must not be necessary, binding, or vital.
There is nothing wrong with being emotional in our worship of God, but there is something wrong with getting that emotion from what even the world recognizes as manipulation. Our emotions as Christians must come from our relationship with God through Jesus and the Holy Spirit within. It is the mind that is “renewed” as Paul put it, and what we know about Jesus is where love for Him should come from.
Certainly we can enjoy music and other art forms to make us feel good, but calling it a “need” is a failure to discern between the “cake” and the “icing”. It is just as unhealthy to only feel an emotional connection to God when we’re in an environment whose sole purpose is to manipulate emotion (though it is loudly denied and excused as only a desire to worship) as it is to to eat only the icing on a cake. Icing of either kind is addictive, and if you don’t believe it, try taking these advocates of “worship services” away from that environment for an extended period of time and see how spiritual they feel. When anyone is convicted about something, spiritual or not, it will have an emotional effect of some kind. But emotions we get only as reactions to stimuli have to be continually replenished, just like addictive drugs.
It’s time for believers to be honest with themselves and to really think about what message they send to the lost and to God when they practice religion but deny it. And here is the key: Do the emotions come from the environment, or does the environment come from the emotions? Do we sing and praise because we love, or do we love because we sing and praise? Is music an expression of what’s already in the heart, or is the heart only reacting to the music? The same goes also for hearing a rousing and polished speech (aka “sermon”) or following rituals; which comes first?
If you attend “services” to get an emotion rather than to express an emotion, there is a serious and fundamental problem with your relationship with God. This is no different in essence from the “altered states” of consciousness people can get from drugs or meditation practices. We get our spiritual life from God alone, and our hearts respond to His love and presence in our own lives. But if we have no or little spiritual life without the “environment” and feel the need for a weekly “fix”, we have it all backwards. Is Jesus really “everything” to us, or does spirituality only come in sacred buildings through sacred music delivered by sacred professionals?
And to clarify: I am not saying that a believer must have an extensive theological education in order to be spiritual! I’m only saying that salvation is a deliberate and cognitive choice to accept the Biblical Jesus and thereby receive the Holy Spirit, from whom our spiritual life comes. We cannot manufacture it with music or rituals or special environments. If it isn’t coming from the Spirit and heart within, we need to seriously question whether we understand what our faith is about at all. Is it really a relationship and not a religion? Then don’t tell me so while you’re in a sanctuary with an altar and an exalted priest; don’t tell me so while you can’t wait for your weekly fix of “environment”.