People have constructed massive structures and religious places of worship to get in contact with God. Islam has Mecca, the birthplace of Mohammad with the Kaaba being the “House of God.” Buddhism has its shrines with the five elements–fire, air, earth, water, and wisdom. Bahai followers have their temples with the oldest one near Chicago, Illinois. Hindus have their “mandir” temples with the world’s largest one in the New York City metro area. The Mormons have the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City while Catholics have the Vatican. All of these cost a great deal of money, and all of them are geographically limited and impersonal. None of them are consistent with the biblical teachings for Christians. Where is God’s dwelling place?
Jesus made it clear that a new relationship was coming with the advent of Christianity. When Christ spoke with the Samaritan woman in John 4:20-24, He indicated that there would be no single place for worship. Peter in Acts 2:16-21 quotes Joel 2:28-32 in observing how worship of God and the presence of God was changing. In 1 Corinthians 3:16 and 6:19 we read that our bodies are now the “temple of God.” Ephesians 3:17 indicates that Christ dwells in the hearts of Christians based on love. Galatians 4:4-6 tells us that God sent the Holy Spirit to dwell in us.
The Church is people, not places. It can meet anywhere, under any conditions, with no expense or construction or long pilgrimage required. The Church we read about in the Bible did not own a temple or a house of any kind. When we read Acts 2:46 we see Christians meeting from “house to house.” The disciples met in an “upper room,” and they even met in the Temple (Acts 3:1). There is no justification for spending millions of dollars on a physical place to meet while people starve or freeze to death within sight of the structure.
In Acts 17:22-31 Paul talks to the leaders of the day about God’s dwelling place. In verse 24 he told them and us that God “does not dwell in temples made with hands.” He then told his listeners that people “feel after God and try to find him though he is not far from every one of us, for in him we live and move and have our being” (verses 27 and 28). Paul told them they should not think of God as something made by art and human design. He calls on them to repent (verse 30).
We get emails rather regularly from people denigrating worship. Some come from people who attend a church but “don’t get anything from going.” Others are from skeptics and atheists who describe worship as “a supreme waste of time and energy.” Both of these responses are at least in part due to a failure to understand what worship is and its purpose. The biblical concept of worship is not having an entertaining service by a skilled performer. James tells us in James 1:27 “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction and to keep himself unspotted by the world.” The purpose of worship is to help us do that and to be strengthened by our time together so that we can serve.
The Church we read about in the Bible did several things as acts of worship to equip themselves to do God’s will. Our problem seems to be that we don’t always understand how that happens. We are told to pray (Philippians 4:6; 1 Timothy 2:1; Colossians 4:2; Ephesians 6:18). Our prayers are not to inform God or to build up His ego. Prayer is vital for us to learn to focus on something beyond ourselves and to be able to petition God to help us have the strength to do what He calls us to do. We are also told that giving is an act of worship (1 Corinthians 16:2; Acts 20:35; 2 Corinthians 9:7). The giving is obviously not because God, the creator of all things, needs our money. Learning to give cheerfully is a grace that helps us learn how to get the most out of life in relationships and our attitudes. The best of love, sex, work, learning, and security comes when we learn how to give. Singing is another part of worship to help us get the best out of our relationships with each other and God. Singing is not to entertain ourselves or God but to express our joy, unity, and fellowship (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16; Romans 15:9; and 1 Corinthians 14:15). Our personal connection to God and to one another as we struggle with the problems of life is supported by our communion service, remembering the sacrifice and resurrection of Christ (1 Corinthians 10:16 and 11:23-28).
Humans seem to enjoy using symbols for everything in life. Notice the emoticons and emojis used in electronic communication. It is interesting that the use of symbols to convey meaning is an attribute of humans that is not seen in any other form of life. Animals may use sounds or chemicals to alert others of their kind to danger, territory, or sexual availability, but these are not symbols. Sometimes symbols have different meanings to different cultures or even different generations. In my hippie days, holding up two fingers in a “V” meant “peace.” When I was first inducted into military service, the same symbol meant “victory” and indicated an intention to conquer. Symbols convey information, and as the deaf can demonstrate to us, they can even form the basis of complex communication.
Our use of symbols is a reflection of our spiritual makeup. We can create art, express ourselves in music, and worship God because we possess a soul which allows these unique forms of expression. The most mentally challenged among us can use symbols and rejoice in being able to do so.
Sometimes symbols and their use are unique to a particular time in human history. A classic example of this is the use of the cross. In today’s world, the cross is universally accepted as a symbol of Christianity. People wear crosses to express their personal faith. The cross is put on many buildings, Bibles, and along our roadsides. Steven Lemley in an article in Power for Today (January 2, 2017) points out that in the first century the cross was only a sign of the execution of guilty criminals. He reminds us that wearing a cross or having it adorn a place of worship in the first century, would be like us today wearing the image of a hypodermic needle used in executions. Many saw the cross as a stumbling block (1 Corinthians 1:23) or a sign of God’s weakness. Paul used the cross as a symbol of separating ourselves from the world (Galatians 6:14) as well as crucifying our sinful nature (Romans 6:6).