What Constitutes an Act of Worship?
If I were to give you a quiz on what qualifies as an act or expression of worship in a gathered service of believers on a Sunday morning, what would you include in your list? Singing probably would be at the top as an obvious choice. Then, perhaps you would include prayer. Of course, the central, primary elements of worship for the Christian community are hearing the Word of God preached and partaking of the sacraments, baptism and the communion. Making vows also is an act of worship. This is what happens when two believers are married by a pastor — they make covenantal promises as vows to each other with God as the primary witness. Other elements and expressions of worship we find in Scripture include giving thanks, clapping, kneeling, raising hands, and even liturgical dance.
Of all that we have included, there is a fundamental element of worship that we haven’t mentioned, which is giving of tithes and offerings.
Have you ever thought about giving as an act of worship? That when we give financial resources to fund the ministry of the local church or to give to specific needs, we are participating in a response to God’s giving to us in Jesus through the cross.
We need to emphasize the aspect of response, lest we think of giving as if it is something that we must or should do in order to be saved or stay saved. Giving as an act of worship is not like paying gym dues. We are not kept in good standing with God by our giving. We are kept in good standing because of Jesus’ giving for us.
While there is a fundamental gospel expectation that we will give the base-line amount of the tithe established in the Old Testament, giving as an act of worship should more closely resemble singing a song of praise to God than paying taxes to the IRS. Giving has been designed by God not only to help us live by faith but to be a joyful response to the gift of God in Jesus, who for the joy set before him that Jesus endured the pain and sacrifice of the cross. As he gave himself, we give ourselves — with joy.
Losing Our Joy
But what happens when we lose the joy? You know what I mean. When giving becomes more of a duty than a delight?
Let me ask a personal question. If you are part of a church that passes a plate or basket after the sermon, how do you feel when the plate goes around? What emotion rises to the surface? Anticipation for the joy of a practical response to the preaching of the good news? Or guilt? Or dread? For some, I suppose that the soul-lifting moment of basking in the love of God after hearing the glorious grace of God preached is dampened with the cold, wet rag of the offering basket.
Every time we discuss this topic in my home church, I feel the need to remind the congregation that many folks give online. The very last thing we want to do is create an environment where we feel guilty about passing the basket without putting anything in it! In fact, the offering time immediately after the sermon is a great opportunity to fix your eyes not on the offering basket or what anyone else is putting in or not putting in, but to fix our eyes on Jesus, doubling down on personalizing the gift of God to you in Jesus.
Giving as an act of worship means that we do not give to be seen by others. We give to be seen by Jesus, with gratitude and joy that our gifts are able to support the spreading of his glory in the gospel in our community and around the world.
Nevertheless, I know that you may have lost your joy. Not just your joy in generosity but as a disciple of Jesus. You are spiritually tired. Thirsty.
What I want to do for you in this final chapter is to offer you living water from John 12:1–8. When you drink deeply, I think you’ll understand what it looks like to give as an act of worship.
The scene is set at a dinner party in a small village called Bethany, just two miles outside of Jerusalem.
A Dinner in Bethany — John 12:1–2
John 12:1 Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him.
“Six days before Passover” indicates that this is Saturday, the eve of the Sunday when Jesus enters Jerusalem riding on the colt of a donkey to the adulation of the Jews who were waving palm branches as he rode into town. Today, we call it Palm Sunday, the Sunday immediately preceding the crucifixion.
Passover was one of the three Jewish pilgrimage celebrations that took place each year to commemorate the Lord delivering the Israelites from slavery in Egypt when each Jewish family killed a lamb for their last meal before heading out for the desert crossing to the promised land of Canaan, which is present-day Israel. They were directed by Moses to spread the blood of the lamb over the doorposts of each home. Where blood covered the doorposts, the angel of death sent by God as the tenth plague in Egypt passed over those families. But in homes not covered by blood, the firstborn son was killed in the plague. With his own son dead, Pharoah finally relented and let Moses and his people go free.
In John 12, Jesus has arrived just in time to celebrate Passover.
In the previous chapter, John 11, Jesus raised a man named Lazarus from the dead. The raising of Lazarus was so dramatic that the Jewish leaders began plotting how to have Jesus killed. Making the blind see, healing lepers, and making the lame walk was one thing. Raising someone from the dead was too much. The leaders feared that they would not be able to curtail Jesus’ popularity, which threatened their positions of authority.
With the recently raised Lazarus present, along with his sisters Mary and Martha, Jesus and his disciples attend a banquet in his honor. It is at this dinner in Bethany that we observe an astonishing act of devotion.
An Astonishing Act of Devotion — John 12:3
John 12:3 Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
You may be familiar with these two sisters, Martha and Mary. To avoid confusion, this is not Mary the mother of Jesus. Apparently, Mary was a fairly common name among first-century Jewish women.
Anyway, in another scene recorded in Luke 10, Martha opened their home to Jesus. As in the John 12 account, Luke records that Martha was busy serving, but Mary “sat at the Lord’s feet, listening to his teaching.” When Martha rebukes her sister for not serving and complains to Jesus about Mary’s apparent lack of hospitality, Jesus responds in Luke 10:41–42,
“41 “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, 42 but few things are needed — or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
To sit at someone’s feet was a sign of humility and respect. In the episode recorded in John 12, her respect for Jesus has blossomed into full-blown worship. Demonstrating her unrivaled devotion to Jesus, Mary pours out an excessive amount of very expensive perfume on his feet.
We usually dab perfume, don’t we? But she doesn’t dab it. Mary does not use as little as possible, but pours it out, liberally, without concern for cost.
John tells us that the perfume is “pure nard,” which was an imported “oil prepared from the roots and stems of an aromatic herb from northern India.” [Edwin A. Blum, “John,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 2 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 316.] The estimated cost of a pint of this fragrance was about 300 denarii, which was equivalent to an entire year’s wages. Mary essentially poured out her life savings on Jesus, worth tens of thousands of dollars in contemporary terms.
But why pour it all out? Why not dab it or pour just a little? Why such excess? Why such a waste? These were the questions being asked by one of Jesus’ disciples named Judas.
Behind the questions, true motives are exposed.
True Motives are Exposed — John 12:4–6
John 12:4 But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, 5 “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” 6 He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.
Ah, Judas. We know Judas as the one who betrayed Jesus for 150 denarii, which as we now know, was not a small sum, but worth half a year’s income. The contrast between Judas and Mary is striking, isn’t it? Judas will sell out Jesus for half of what Mary is willing to give for Jesus!
Judas had been chosen to be one of Jesus’ closest friends, one of the original disciples we call Apostles. But at some point, he took the bait, choosing money over Jesus, falling into the trap of which Paul would warm Timothy,
9 Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. (1 Timothy 6:9–10)
As the apostolic treasurer, Judas talked a good game, even rebuking Mary in the name of compassion. “What are you doing? This could be sold and given to the poor!”
But John reveals his true motives, which defied what he professed with his mouth. Judas didn’t love the poor. And he didn’t love Jesus — even though he would have said he loved Jesus. His actions proved that money was his first love and the true ruler of his heart.
As Paul warned Timothy, Judas’ love of money would plunge the apostle into ruin and destruction. If it can happen to him it can happen to me and it can happen to you.
If Mary’s devotion seemed excessive, in the final two verses, Jesus’ response to Judas reveals the most excessive, astonishing act of devotion.
The Most Excessive, Astonishing Act of Devotion — John 12:7–8
7 “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. 8 You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”
If Judas thinks that pouring out a pint of perfume is extravagant and excessive, he hasn’t seen anything yet. While the perfume no doubt represented an extravagant gift from Mary, it still amounted to a pittance compared to what Jesus was about to pour out.
Speaking of his impending burial, Jesus announces that he is about to give himself unto death, covering the stench of our sin with the fragrance of his blood — not with pure nard but with pure righteousness.
The most excessive, astonishing act of devotion was not made by Mary, but by Jesus, who like Mary, didn’t dab his blood, but poured it out.
A Surprise at the Auction
At five-years-old, John Gilbert was diagnosed with Duchenne’s Muscular Dystrophy, a genetic, progressive, debilitating disease. Year after year after his diagnosis, John lost some physical ability. One year, he lost the ability to run, then the capacity to even walk. Wheelchair-bound, he eventually even lost the ability to speak. By his teenage years, he had endured more suffering and ridicule from heartless schoolmates than most of us face in a lifetime.
Yet, in the midst of perpetual trial, he also loved the Sacramento Kings of the NBA. When he and his mother were invited to attend a charity auction, he noticed that one of the items was a basketball signed by each member of the Kings.
As the auction began, John kept waiting for the basketball to be offered. When it was, he was ready. But as he attempted to raise his hand to bid, his mother gently lowered it. They didn’t have the funds to purchase such a prize. What money they did have was earmarked for medical expenses — not basketballs.
The bidding continued for some time, until someone put up a bid that no one could match — far more than anyone expected. The gentleman approached the table to acquire his costly prize but he didn’t return to his seat. Instead, he walked toward John. As he placed the treasure in the boy’s frail hands, the crowd gasped, then erupted in applause with not a few tears shed at the sight of such generosity and kindness.
Although John would never dribble the ball down a court, he would cherish that gift for the rest of his life.
The Greatest Gift
Can you see how this is what Jesus has done? What we long for most deeply but could never pay for ourselves is purchased by Jesus and given to us, placed as it were in our frail hands. Not a King’s basketball but the King’s affection, where we know what it is to be declared forgiven, accepted, and loved by God.
On a cross, where Jesus suffered the judgment our sin’s deserved, he cried out, “It is finished.” With those words, the gavel of God fell on the auction block of heaven and the Father shouted, “Sold!”
Paid in full. Purchased with blood. The gift of God for any with frail enough hands to receive what only God can give. Now, in response to that gift, we give as an act of worship — as an expression of devotion to the one who has proved his devotion to us.
- What could have been going through Mary’s mind when she poured out all fo the perfume?
- What was going through Judas’ mind when she poured it out upon Jesus’ feet?
- In view of this passage, how can giving truly become an act of joyful worship?
- How is Jesus’ act of generosity infinitely greater than Mary’s?
- How did the story about John Gilbert affect you?