You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way. But you shall seek the place that the LORD your God will choose out of all your tribes to put his name and make his habitation there. There you shall go, and there you shall bring your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and the contribution that you present, your vow offerings, your freewill offerings, and the firstborn of your herd and of your flock.
Where do you go to worship God? Muslims face east in prayer, and may go on the Hajj;1 Jews might go to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem; you go… to church?
In Deuteronomy 12, as part of a (very!) long sermon before Israel entered the Promised Land, Moses is talking to Israel about how and where to worship God. This chapter starts a lengthy section on various laws, but it’s a long way from dry legalese. What we have here is a call for Israel to respond rightly to what God has done (seen clearly in chapters 1-11). The outcome that Moses wants is for the Israelites to be loyal to the covenant they have with God: loyal in both the big picture as well as the details.
So the actions depicted in these laws aren’t just about faithfully carrying out a duty; they’re ultimately about being loyal to the one who commands them. The Law is presented in light of the truths demonstrated in the preceding chapters. (This is a pattern the New Testament takes as well: why, for example, should we set our minds on things above? We should do so because Jesus is there, and he has already raised us up with him—Col 3:1-4). This chapter is concerned with Israel’s exclusive loyalty to God, reflecting the first two commandments (cf. Deut 5:6-10). The point of contrast is with the Canaanites and their traditions, false gods and false worship.
“You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way” (v. 4). God’s people were to have nothing to do with false religion. Approaching God on anything other than his own terms is foolishness indeed. God told them to go and remove the names of the false gods from throughout the land, to remove any sense at all of their presence or power. In place of falsehood God will put his name in the land, in the middle of his people: the Lord is available and near to his people (v. 5).
So God chose the place (v. 5), and he chose how the Israelites were to approach him: with the various sacrifices and offerings required by the law (v. 6ff).
But notice that the place is fairly non-specific. It’s not named as Jerusalem, for example. (From the time of David, when the ark was brought in to Jerusalem, that would indeed be where God is referring to; but at the moment it’s not specified.) All we know about where is that it’s the place God will choose, and it’s the place he will be.
There are two things to say about this, both of which come up later in history. Firstly, it’s less about the place, and more about the name and the presence of the one who chooses. This becomes clear when Israel put their emphasis on the location or the structure of the temple, and not on the one who fills it (e.g. Ezekiel 8, 24:21ff). Or, perhaps counter-intuitively, when they ignore the importance of the temple altogether and build other shrines and high places, because they don’t value the one who chose that place (e.g. 1 Kgs 12:28ff; Amos 5:4ff).
Secondly, if the importance of the place in which you meet and worship God is less about the specific location and more to do with the identity of the Lord who is there, then it’s clear how Jesus fulfils this: “‘Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days’… But the temple he had spoken of was his body”, says John (John 2:19-21). Jesus is where we meet God. Jesus is the one who eliminates the need for a physical temple in the heavenly city, for the dwelling place of God is with men (Rev 21:22).
But it’s sometimes too easy to recognize the fulfilment of the Old Testament in Jesus, and inadvertently let that truth eliminate the gravity of the original commands: God told Israel to worship him on his terms. So when we respond to God’s action in saving and redeeming us, we need to respond rightly and appropriately. We can’t worship God our own way, but only in and through Jesus Christ. It’s exclusive: there is no other name than Jesus in heaven or earth by which we can be saved.
- The Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. ↩