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All I Really Need to Know About Worship... I Don't Learn from the Regulative Principle (Part IX)

Even during the gospel's Sinaitic administration, there were some variables permitted in worship. Certain Scriptures lead us to conclude that the RPW of Deuteronomy 12:32 was more elastic than modern regulativists would typically grant. I'm thinking, for example, of additions to the prescribed Temple worship, additions which were countenanced by our Lord.

  • Steve M. Schlissel,
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Even during the gospel's Sinaitic administration, there were some variables permitted in worship. Certain Scriptures lead us to conclude that the RPW of Deuteronomy 12:32 was more elastic than modern regulativists would typically grant. I'm thinking, for example, of additions to the prescribed Temple worship, additions which were countenanced by our Lord.

We've already seen the covenant celebration of Purim, a feast added to Israel's obligations (Est. 9:26-28). And the Feast of Dedication, an important holiday; on Israel's calendar, was added by man alone. Not only was there no divine command for this holiday, there was not even a prophet on earth at the time to consult. Yet it became part of Israel's observances and the Lord Jesus attended its celebration in Jerusalem (Jn. 10:22).

Water From the Rock
It may be that these additions were acceptable because they commemorated acts of gracious intervention by the covenant God on behalf of His people, and their observance by the people did not require additional priestly/Temple work. But I'm not sure that covers it all; for we do, in fact, find additions to the priestly/Temple service by the time of the New Testament. Indeed, we find our Lord Jesus taking certain of these additions in comfortable stride, very unlike modern regulativists. Two examples follow.

One: In the Gospel According to John, the Evangelist is much concerned to demonstrate that Jesus fulfills the Jews' expectations of a Messiah like unto Moses.1 This is evident throughout. Consider, for example, how John begins and ends his book. His first line recalls the first line of the first book of Moses.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth (Gen.1:1).

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God (Jn. 1:1).

Then see John's last line echoing the last line of Moses' last book:

Since then there has not arisen in Israel a prophet like Moses in all the signs and wonders which the Lord sent him to do in the land of Egypt and by all that mighty power and all the great terror which Moses performed in the sight of all Israel (Dt. 34:10-12).

And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. Amen (Jn. 21:25).

John's point, of course, is this: You think Moses was something? You're right! But now, not only has a prophet arisen in Israel like unto Moses, but the Prophet has come, one greater than Moses, and His name is Jesus (cf. Dt. 18:14-19; Jn. 1:17, 45; 6:14; see also Ac. 3:22-23).

In John 6, there is explicit comparison between the gift of the bread from heaven associated with Moses, and the gift of the bread from heaven who is Jesus. In John 7 and 8 there are implicit references to the other two wilderness gifts2 associated with Moses, namely the rock that gave water, and the pillar of light that guided God's people to the Promised Land.

John 7:37f. sets forth Jesus as the Rock that gives water. We are told that Jesus spoke this "on the last and greatest day of the Feast" (v. 37). What Feast? Tabernacles. What's the connection between the words Jesus uttered and the last (the seventh) and greatest day of the Feast? A simple yet profoundly beautiful connection.

As Glasson has noted, "It is pretty generally agreed that the words of Christ in John 7:37-39 refer to the water ceremony carried out at the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkoth)."3 Priests would go down to the Pool of Siloam and draw water into a golden pitcher. The priest carrying the water would try to time his return to coincide with the moment that the pieces of a sacrifice were being laid on the altar by his fellow-priests.

"As he entered the Water-gate,' which obtained its name from this ceremony," Edersheim tells us, "he was received by a threefold blast from the priests' trumpets." He would go up to the rise of the altar where there were two silver basins with narrow holes. Wine would be poured into one while the water from Siloam would be poured into the other, the people shouting, "Raise thy hand," that they might see the outpouring and rejoice. David Baron notes that "the joy accompanying this ceremonial was so great that it became a proverb. He that hath not seen Simchat-bet-ha-Sho'ebah, the joy of the drawing (and the pouring) of the water, hath not seen joy in his life."4

That's Not Funny
The people were very serious about witnessing this event. According to Edersheim, when Alexander Janneus, in 95 B.C., showed contempt for this tradition and poured the water on the ground, the people pelted him with citrons and sought to kill him!

The Feast of Tabernacles came to be imagined as the time when God would determine the rainfall to be allotted for the ensuing year.5 Before you say, "That's totally insane," read Zechariah 14:16-19. Be that as it may, the Talmud suggests that the rabbis were looking for something better in relation to this ceremony: "Why is the name of it called, The drawing out of water? Because of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, according to what is said: With joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation.'"6

Now, our Lord Jesus comes upon this addition made by men, this tradition, this ceremony added to the prescribed Temple rites. We know He never pandered or catered to man's prejudices, never pulled any punches. We know He did not hesitate to overturn tables at the Temple on two occasions. What does He do now? Does he upbraid them for their "wickedness"? Does He throw the water out, thrash the golden vessel, interrupt the celebration?

No. He applies it to Himself and His work. He says, "Water? You want water? Let him who thirsts come to Me and find water!" Compare this to John 6:35: Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst." He makes the same use of a human addition, a tradition, as He had of an historical miracle.

Light From The Pillar
Two: In John 8, Jesus again makes use of a tradition of human origin which became an important part of the

Sukkoth celebration. Let's hear David Baron7 describe it for us:

Worshippers congregated in the Court of the Women,8 where a great illumination took place. Four huge golden lamps or candelabras were there, each with four golden bowls against which rested four ladders. Four youths of priestly descent ascended these with large pitchers of oil from which they filled each bowl. The old worn breeches and girdles of the priests served for wicks to these lamps. So great and brilliant was the light that, according to a saying, "there was not a court in Jerusalem that was not lit by it." Around these great golden burning lamps a sacred dance took place in which even the prominent leaders of the people with flaming torches in their hands danced before the people and sang before them hymns of song and praise.

Baron suggests that the illumination had a significance similar to that of the water: a harkening back to a wilderness miracle and a looking forward to a future divine intervention. "It reminded them of the past when God led them in the wilderness with the cloud of glory and the pillar of fire of the Shekinah glory which dwelt in the first Temple."

What did our Lord do upon encountering this human addition to the worship prescribed by Jehovah? In reference to this illumination, "Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life" (Jn. 8:12).

We should perhaps note that F. Godet, in his commentary on John,9 confirms this reading of the material:

That which concerns us is the meaning of the Feast of Tabernacles, which the people had met to keep. This feast was designed to commemorate the favors they had received from God during their sojourn in the wilderness. Hence the booths of foliage. Now among these favours, the two chief were the water from the rock and the pillar of fire. Jesus had just applied to Himself one of these types. He now appropriates the other.10

Variegated Vagarious
Isn't it time to yield to the Jesus we've actually been given, rather than the Jesus we wish might be? The knee-jerk reaction of some of my brethren, recoiling at the thought that God would countenance "human additions," is uncalled for. We have found our God putting a non-Mosaic, non-prophet-authorized feast (Purim), into the Bible. We have found our Lord celebrating Chanukah, a holiday the antecedent of which occurred between the Testaments. We have found Him celebrating the Passover according to non-Scriptural, covenant tradition, even down to the use of wine (never commanded). We find Him worshiping in the synagogue, an institution whose liturgy arose apart from any recorded express divine command. And now we see Jesus participating in commemorative traditions of human origin.

How much do we need to read before we ask ourselves if there might not be a better principle or set of principles given in this Word to govern worship, a set of principles which might reasonably account for all the evidence of Scripture, that would allow us to read the Word without subjecting its texts to torture? Let's return then to our exposition of the IPW. We said in our last treatment that informed worship is I) doctrinally-driven and II) Word-centered. We now add

A Matter of Manner
Consider what God's actual will concerning "traditions" might be, in light of the whole Word. On the one hand, we see there are times when human inventions are condemned. On the other hand we see times when they are embraced. What then?

Have you ever noticed that what we found Jesus doing directly in the gospels, we find God doing indirectly (through a prophet) in Zechariah: allowing for the legitimacy of observances with purely human origins, under certain conditions. In a rather remarkable passage beginning in Zechariah 7, the people inquired concerning the fasts they themselves had established as a tradition. Two of these four fasts (still observed by orthodox Jews, by the way) are mentioned:

And it came to pass in the fourth year of king Darius, that the word of the Lord came unto Zechariah in the fourth day of the ninth month, even in Chisleu; When they had sent unto the house of God Sherezer and Regemmelech, and their men, to pray before the Lord, And to speak unto the priests which were in the house of the Lord of hosts, and to the prophets, saying, Should I weep in the fifth month, separating myself, as I have done these so many years? Then came the word of the Lord of hosts unto me, saying, Speak unto all the people of the land, and to the priests, saying, When ye fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh month, even those seventy years, did ye at all fast unto me, even to me? And when ye did eat, and when ye did drink, did not ye eat for yourselves, and drink for yourselves?

God was obviously less concerned with the actual, man-originating practices than with the motive and manner of their observance. After an extended and earnest exhortation to His people to act like His people, He promises them that a time will come when their (four) fasts11 will be turned into feasts.

Thus saith the LORD of hosts; The fast of the fourth month, and the fast of the fifth, and the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth, shall be to the house of Judah joy and gladness, and cheerful feasts; therefore love the truth and peace." (Zec. 8:19)

If God were a regulativist, He would have said something quite different, we think. If He were a regulativist, we could imagine Him saying something like, "You think those fast days you invented make you sorry now? Wait till you see what I do to you for adding them to my calendar!" But instead, He says something very different, very gracious. "You are mourning now in remembrance of the judgment I brought upon Jerusalem. Just be faithful, and I will turn those days of gloom into days of joy."

Remember the following phrase as shorthand for God's attitude toward tradition: it's less the matter than the manner. Jesus didn't condemn the human tradition of wearing tefilin (phylacteries) per se, he condemned making them wide for ostentation (Mt. 23:5), as if the wearer of wide tefilin and long tzitzis were holier than others an attitude not less present in some RPW communions, however externally austere, than in the group Jesus was addressing. It wasn't the matter, it was the manner.

Perhaps the real teaching of Scripture might more accurately, in view of the small light we've gained so far, be summarized as: Meaningful and earnest traditions which serve as memorials of actual interventions by God in history, whether in judgment or grace, or traditions which reflect credible understandings of His commands, are permitted. The meaning of these memorials and traditions, however, must be easily accessible to the common believer.

On the other hand, traditions which are obscure, contradict or contravene God's Word or express will, or traditions which exploit covenant occasions for personal gain gain in coin or prestige at the expense of others such traditions are forbidden.

These two paragraphs above seem to incorporate a great deal more Scripture with a great deal more harmony than the RPW.

Yes, this requires wisdom. Yes, this means we must operate without the convenience of the RPW. At least, we must operate without pretending that it is what God requires. If we'd only say, "We've found the RPW helpful in keeping our communion free from Roman excesses," for example, all well and good. And if someone found another route to the same end, no harm done. But at least we'd be able to talk about worship in categories that hold promise for agreement, categories like "good/better/best," rather than "I'm faithful and acceptable and you're a papist pig."


1. This has been demonstrated beyond refutation by several scholars; perhaps the best and pithiest work is T. F. Glasson's Moses in the Fourth Gospel (Alec R. Allenson, Naperville, IL, 1963).

2. "The three gifts" are found together in Nehemiah 9:19, 20, and recounted also in Psalm 105:39-41. Compare Psalm 78:14-25.

3. p. 48, but see all of chapter 7. For a fuller description of the water-drawing and other ceremonies, see Edersheim's chapter on Tabernacles in The Temple: Its Ministry and Service as they were at the Time of Jesus Christ; available on the web at

4. Types, Psalms and Prophecies, 66 (1907; reprint by Klock & Klock, Minneapolis, MN, 1981).

5. Our old friend, John Wesley, got v. 37 exactly right: "On the last, the great day of the feast On this day there was the greatest concourse of people, and they were then wont to fetch water from the fountain of Siloam, which the priests poured out on the great altar, singing one to another, With joy shall ye draw water from the wells of salvation. On this day likewise they commemorated God's miraculously giving water out of the rock, and offered up solemn prayers for seasonable rains."

6. Cited by Edersheim. In my 1881 edition, it is on 243.

7. Baron is relying on Edersheim here.

8. The astute reader will realize that the architecture of the Temple had been modified without benefit of recorded divine command. Where did God command a Court of the Women or a Court of the Gentiles? Tradition is everywhere in Scripture, not all of it evil. Here's a note from Nelson's Bible Dictionary (Nelson, 1986), which reveals that an act of religious worship took place in the Court of the Women: "The inner area of Herod's Temple contained three courts. The easternmost court was the Court of Women, and it contained the Temple treasury where people donated their money (Mk. 12:41-44).

9. English translation, 1886, cited by Glasson.

10. Cited by Glasson, 61.

11. The first lamented the breaching of the wall (2 Kings 25:3-4), the second the burning of the Temple (vv. 8

10), the third Gedaliah's murder (vv. 22-25), and the fourth (the fast of the tenth month) mourned the beginning of Nebuchadnezzar's siege (2 Kings 25:1; Ezekiel 24:1, 2).

  • Steve M. Schlissel

Steve Schlissel has served as pastor of Messiah's Congregation in Brooklyn, New York, since 1979. Born and raised in New York City, Schlissel became a Christian by reading the Bible. He and Jeanne homeschooled their five children  and also helped raise several foster children (mostly Vietnamese). In 2003, they adopted Anna (who was born in Hong Kong in 1988, but is now a U.S. citizen). They have eight foster grandchildren and fourteen "natural" grandchildren.

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