The Old Testament Approach to Church and Worshiping God
Moses Presents a Model for Connecting with God
When God gives Moses the Law, he sets three key expectations for worship, along with a lengthy set of mind-numbing details to guide the practices he wants his people to follow. God addresses this throughout Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
These three main elements relate to the worship space, the worship team, and their financial support: tithes and offerings. Much of the Law of Moses relates directly to these trio of items. The rest of God’s instructions support these three tenants indirectly by guiding the people into right living as a daily way of worshiping God through their personal practices and interpersonal interactions. These prepare them to move into relationship with him and worship him more fully through their many annual feasts, festivals, and celebrations.
In the Old Testament God is most particular about the place where his people are to worship him. And he gives detailed instructions in how they are to do it.
First, God sets specific parameters for the tabernacle and surrounding worship space. He gives exact instructions for its size, materials, and construction methods. In some cases, he even specifies who is to oversee the work. (See Exodus 26-27 and 35-36.)
The tabernacle and adjacent area function as a home for the various objects used in the people’s religious practices. God gives detailed directions for these implements of worship too. He specifies dimensions, base components, and fabrication instructions. Again, he sometimes names who is to head up the construction. (See Exodus 28-31, 33-34, and 37-40.)
Later the people get situated in the land God promised for them. In doing so they transition from a roaming people to a nation with borders. They no longer need a portable tabernacle that they can set up and tear down as they roam about the desert.
Years later King David has a God-approved inspiration to build a temple to honor him. Although prohibited from erecting this grand edifice himself—because he was a warring military leader with blood on his hands—the king sets aside provisions for its construction (2 Samuel 7:1-17). It’s David’s son Solomon who builds this permanent worship space for God’s people (1 Kings 6). In doing so the tabernacle built by Moses transitions to the temple built by Solomon. The portable tabernacle of the desert as the focal point of worship shifts to the permanent temple in Jerusalem.
With little exception, the people must go to this house of worship, the tabernacle—and later the temple—to approach the Almighty. His people see the tabernacle/temple as God’s dwelling place here on earth. They must go there to experience a divine encounter with him.
But the people won’t connect with God directly. They refuse. They’re afraid of him. Here’s what happened.
In the Old Testament we see Moses on Mount Sinai, hanging out with God. They’re having a spiritual confab of the highest order. God has some words—many words, in fact—for Moses to give to the people. In one instance God says they will serve as his kingdom of priests, a holy nation (Exodus 19:6). Really? Did you catch that?
God intends for a whole nation of priests. And who will they be priests to? Implicitly other nations. But this doesn’t happen. I’ve not found any evidence in the Bible of them as a nation serving as priests. What happened? It could be the people were afraid of God.
Just one chapter later in the book of Exodus, the people see a display of God’s awe-inspiring power. They pull back in terror. They keep their distance. God’s magnificent display of power terrifies them.
Because of their immense fear, they don’t want to hear what he has to say. Instead they beg Moses to function as their intermediary between them and God. They ask Moses to do what they’re afraid of doing: hear from God. Moses serves as their first liaison with God (Exodus 20:18-21). In effect this makes Moses the people’s first priest, though the duty officially goes to Moses’s brother, Aaron.
After this, God seems to switch to plan B.
Instead of his people being a kingdom of priests, he sets some of them aside—descendants of Aaron—to serve as ministers, functioning as the middleman between God and his people. This is something far different than what he originally wanted with everyone being a priest.
Recall that God talks with Adam in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:8-10). And after sin forces Adam and Eve’s exile from their paradise, God speaks directly to Cain, confronting him for his sinful murder of his brother, Abel (Genesis 4:6-9). Then once sin fills God’s creation with evil, he approaches Noah with a solution (Genesis 6:11-22). Much later God has multiple interactions with Father Abraham (such as in Genesis 17:9), as well as his wife Sarah (Genesis 18:10-15). God then meets Moses through the burning bush (Exodus 3) and later talks with him face to face (Exodus 33:11). And God speaks to many other people in the time between Adam and Moses.
This shows a consistent history of direct communication from God to his people. Now he wants to talk to his chosen tribe (Exodus 19:9), but they’re afraid of him and don’t want to listen.
They demand an intermediary, someone to reveal the Almighty to them. They want an ambassador to represent God to them. To address this, God sets up the priesthood. These priests will serve God in his temple and be his representatives to his people. They’ll serve as the liaison between the people and God.
Though this begins with Moses, the religious infrastructure God sets up requires many people. We have the priests: Aaron and his descendants (who are Levites). And the entire tribe of Levi plays a supporting role in God’s plan to connect with his people.
Of course, this religious structure is vast. The priests lead the people in their worship of the Almighty God, and the entire Levite tribe supports this effort. Accomplishing this requires financial support. To address this God institutes a temple tax of sorts: the annual tithe (Numbers 18:21). This is a mandated obligation to give 10 percent to support the maintenance of the tabernacle and the needs of the staff.
But it’s not just one annual tithe. There’s another one too (Deuteronomy 14:22-27). In addition, a third tithe for the poor occurs every three years (Deuteronomy 14:28-29). This means that each year God’s people give between 20 and 30 percent to him in support of the tabernacle/temple, all the people who work there, and those in need. This averages out to 23.3%, approaching one quarter.
Take a moment to imagine giving one fourth.
In addition to the mandated tithes are various required offerings and sacrifices that relate to annual events (such as Exodus 12 and Exodus 30:10). God commands his people to adhere to all these obligations. On top of these are voluntary offerings and gifts (such as in Leviticus 22:21). God expects a lot financially from his people.
The Old Testament religious institution is expensive to sustain. And God expects each one of his people to do their part.The Old Testament religious institution (temple and priests) is expensive to sustain, and God expects each one of his people to do their part (tithes and offerings) to support his church. Click To Tweet
This is the Old Testament model for church: a place (tabernacle and then temple), clergy (priests and Levites), and financial support (tithes and offerings). We still follow this model today.
[Read more about this in Peter’s upcoming book, Jesus’s Broken Church.]
Peter DeHaan writes about biblical spirituality, often with a postmodern slant. He seeks a fresh approach to faith and following God through the lens of scripture, without the baggage of made-up traditions and meaningless practices. Read more in his books, blog, and weekly email updates.