Jesus clearly emphasized the restoration of true worship as the core of his mission through his identification with the place of God’s worship in key points throughout his earthly ministry.
The first record of Jesus’ life following his birth is Jesus’ pilgrimage to the temple for Passover when he was twelve years old (Luke 2:41–50). There he gave focused attention to dialogue with the religious teachers such that his parents left the city without him. Confronted by his mother for his failure to accompany them, Jesus replied, “Did you not know I must be in my Father’s house” (Luke 2:49)? This was the reason he had come.
Jesus also reveals his mission to restore pure worship by the fact that he cleansed the temple both at the beginning (John 2:13–22) and end (Matt 21:12–17, Mark 11:15–19, Luke 19:45–48) of his earthly ministry. What the prophet Malachi had condemned had now become common practice in the worship practices of Israel. The people honored God with their lips and their actions—they followed his instructions to the letter, but they did so with such irreverence that the house of God had become a “den of robbers”—no coincidence, Jesus quoted Jeremiah’s condemnation of corrupt worship that led to exile (Jer 7:11) in his own condemnation of temple worship in his day. Furthermore, the temple cleansings also identified Jesus himself as the sanctuary of God’s presence when he indicated to the Jews that he was the temple that would be destroyed and raised up in three days (John 2:19–21).
Frequently during Jesus’ public ministry, he condemned the religious leaders of the day for their impure worship. As had become the expectation since the return of the Israelites from exile, the religious leaders in Jesus’ day did not worship false gods or engage in syncretistic worship practices. Nevertheless, their central problem also remained consistent with the sins Old Testament prophets condemned; quoting Isaiah this time, Jesus said of the Pharisees and scribed, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me” (Matt 15:8). They obeyed God’s instructions regarding how to approach him in worship to a degree, but they did so with insecure, hypocritical hearts.
Furthermore, Jesus proclaimed, “in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (v. 9). While these religious leaders did not break the commands of God for worship by eliminating any of what he had prescribed, they nevertheless added additional worship practices and taught these as necessary for fellowship with God. Supplementing the biblical precepts with practices of their own devising rendered worship vain in God’s eyes. Thus, the core problem of the religious leaders of Jesus’s day was two-fold, underscoring the two-fold essence of God-pleasing worship emphasized throughout Scripture: (1) insincere hearts and (2) adding to what God had prescribed.
Finally, Jesus stressed the centrality of biblical worship to his mission by formally announcing the beginning of his mission in a synagogue service in Nazareth, which Luke notes “was his custom” (Luke 4:16–30), proclaiming that he was the Messiah promised by the prophet Isaiah. Much of Jesus’s ministry involved teaching the Scriptures in services of worship in synagogues throughout the land (Luke 4:31, 38, 4:44, John 6:59) and in the temple (Matt 21:14, John 5:14, 7:14, 28, 8:2, 20, 10:23).
Scott Aniol, PhD, is an author, speaker, and teacher of culture, worship, aesthetics, and church ministry philosophy. He is chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He founded Religious Affections Ministries and has written several books, the most recent being By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture. He can be found on Twitter @ScottAniol, and you can listen to his podcast here.