Provisions for Worship in the Desert

We’ve all been there. It’s the new year and our plan to read through the Scriptures is blowing full steam ahead. But suddenly, something happens: we reach Exodus 20 and the Law “proper,” full of seemingly obscure commands for cleansing fungal infections and slaughtering various animals, and our fervor for reading the Word often drains. To top it off, the Law begins with a lengthy description of the tabernacle, the ark, the altar, and other articles of worship – something for which many of us (including myself) are grateful for the helpful pictures found in study Bibles. Moses is given specific instructions on how to build God’s dwelling place on earth, where God and man may meet in holy communion. In Exodus 25:1-9, God tells Moses what building and crafting materials he is to collect from the people. The ark of the covenant is to be overlaid in pure gold, the high priest’s robes are to contain precious jewels representing the twelve tribes, the altar is to be coated in bronze, even the poles used for transportation are to be made of the finest wood. The tabernacle is to be a shining display of God’s glory among his people.

But weren’t the Israelites dwelling in the desert as nomads? Where would they have acquired all this wealth? The answer is found a few chapters back in Exodus 3.

Before the Lord hurled his many plagues against the Egyptians, he spoke to Moses in the burning bush, declaring freedom and redemption for Israel. Once he finishes giving his instructions to Moses, God gives a final promise: “And I will give these people such favor with the Egyptians that when you go, you will not go empty-handed. Each woman will ask her neighbor and any woman staying in her house for silver and gold jewelry, and clothing, and you will put them on your sons and daughters. So you will plunder the Egyptians.” (Ex 3:21-22 CSB). And that brings us to this key point: God provides the means by which his people are to worship him. Pastor and theologian David Peterson is helpful here when he posits, “[T]he worship of the living and true God is essentially an engagement with him on the terms that he proposes and in the way that he alone makes possible.” [1]

The Lord was always aware of the broken state of the Israelites, not just from the elements of the world, but also from their sin, and yet he always provided deliverance for those whom he called to worship him.

God’s desire in rescuing his people from slavery was for them to worship him in the land he promised to their forefather Abraham. For them to do so in the way he commanded, God had to provide the resources they needed to construct the tent and its furnishings. As Pharaoh begs the Israelites to leave after the death of the firstborn, they take with them the fortunes of Egypt. Those once in bondage now carry the wealth of nations, yet not for themselves, but for the glory of God.

Even then, God knew that as the Israelites camped around Sinai they would misuse the gold and make an idol, and still he allowed Moses to intercede on their behalf (Ex 32). He knew they would rebel against his chosen leader leading to punishment by the venom of asps, and still he provided deliverance through the bronze serpent (Num 21). He knew they would reject his commands to drive out the Canaanites, and still he gave them the land in the end (Num 13-14, Josh 13). He knew they would sojourn for 40 years in a barren land, and still he provided manna from heaven and water from rocks (Ex 16). He knew kings would swoop in to attack the weakened and helpless Israelites, and still he provided victory in battle (Ex 17). The Lord was always aware of the broken state of the Israelites, not just from the elements of the world, but also from their sin, and yet he always provided deliverance for those whom he called to worship him.

Jesus reminded his hearers that, “everyone who commits sin is a slave of sin” (John 8:34). Just like the Israelites, and apart from Christ, we are bound by our depravity, held fast in the chains of evil and transgression. God provided the means for the Israelites to escape the bondage of their sin through the sacrificial system. But God also knew that “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Heb 10:4), and so he sent Jesus to die “once for all time when he offered up himself” (Heb 7:27). Through his death, resurrection, and ascension to the right hand of the Father, Jesus Christ now mediates on behalf of his people, providing entrance into the most holy place before God (Heb 4:14-16). Just like the once enslaved Israelites who were freed, carrying with them the riches of the Egyptians, we today are freed from sin by the blood of Christ as he invites us into the presence of God and the riches of his glorious grace (Eph 1:7-8).

God does not need humanity to worship him, but he does desire a relationship with his creation, and so we have the privilege of witnessing the glory of the Lord through his Son, the God-man Jesus Christ. “But an hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and in truth. Yes, the Father wants such people to worship him” (John 4:23). Even then, our direct access to God the Father is provided through the mediation of Christ. Though our pews are not made of bronze nor our PAR 58 light fixtures coated in gold, God has still given his church what she needs to glorify him: the provider in the sinful desert of the soul, Jesus Christ.

[1] . David Peterson, Engaging with God (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1992), 20.

Austin Collins serves as the research assistant at the Institute for Biblical Worship. He and his wife Liz currently lead worship at Harrison Hills Baptist Church in Lanesville, IN, while he pursues his Master of Divinity in Worship Leadership at Southern Seminary.

Confessions of a Fallen Worship Pastor

So, whoever thinks he stands must be careful not to fall (1 Corinthians 10:12, HCSB).

Three times each semester the Institute for Biblical Worship at Southern Seminary hosts a special speaker and lunch for the worship majors enrolled in the Boyce College and Seminary music and worship programs. In the past we've had a wide variety of guests including Matt Boswell, Keith Getty and Mike Harland. We try to expose our students to influential voices in the area of worship leadership and ministry beyond the classroom. You can hear recordings of past presentations here.

In his chapel message at Southern Seminary on February 21, 2017, Dr. Denny Burke spoke on 2 Timothy 2:22, where Paul reminded Timothy to “flee youthful passions.” It is not coincidental that Dr. Burke is sensing the same concern for students throughout the entire seminary that we have for our worship majors. Please listen to his message here.

Last week we had a speaker named Brandon Watkins. Brandon drives a Schwan's food truck. He gets up every morning at 2:30 am and delivers frozen food to the customers on his route in this region of Kentucky. He didn't always work for Schwan's. Several years ago he was a student at Southern in what was then the School of Church Music. Throughout his high school and college years, Brandon sang for a traveling evangelist in a ministry that took him all over the world. When Brandon speaks you can tell he can sing... he has that natural, resonant quality to his vocal tone you often hear from someone on a stage in Nashville.

Until about seven years ago, Brandon was a full-time worship pastor in a large, growing church in the south. He was married and had two little girls. But he lost them and everything else in life because of an addiction. While he was in high school he, like so many other young men, began looking at pornography. As a Christian and a traveling musician in an evangelistic ministry, he convinced himself that he could "manage" the sin. After all, good Christians (especially traveling evangelists) aren't supposed to struggle with bad things like porn, and he didn't want to admit he had a problem. Brandon said this to our students: "When sin isn't exposed to the light, it leads to a stronghold, and when a stronghold isn't dealt with, it leads to an addiction."

Brandon's story is heartbreaking. At the height of his deception, he still thought he could "manage" the double life of being a worship pastor and a daily customer at a strip club. He justified his actions by saying that God didn’t answer his prayers. Here was his prayer: “God, if You want me to quit going to the strip club, then take my voice away from me.” He told our students it was incredible the things he would come up with to justify his double life. His singing voice stayed strong, the ministry at his church flourished, and he kept right on living in the darkness of what he thought was a secret sin.

Finally, the stress and burden of lies and deceit became too much and he confessed to his wife, his pastor, and his church what he had been hiding. For the next six months, he lived the life of the prodigal son. There was no more hiding what he had become, and he stepped completely out of the light and into darkness. Five months later, on his 31st birthday, he was alone on the back porch of his empty house. The water and heat had been turned off, and other than a mattress and a table, there was not any furniture in the empty rooms of the home he once shared with his family. As he sat on his porch and looked down at the half-empty bottle of Jack Daniels next to him, reality finally hit him – he had hit bottom.

Brandon Watkins' testimony opened the eyes and ears of several of our students last week. He told them his pride kept him from asking for help and his arrogance duped him into thinking at each stage of his growing addiction that he could "manage" his sin and deceive everyone around him. Through his tears, he looked at our students and said, "Each one of you is living in one of three categories right now: (1) You are actively and intentionally protecting yourself from a fall because you know you are vulnerable. (2) You are in the middle of a fall. Or, (3) you are arrogantly thinking you will never fall—and if that's the case—you'll be calling me within five years and asking for my help because you've lost everything."

I once heard a pastor say that among men who are no longer in ministry because of moral failure, the fall was never a moral blowout, but a slow leak. Those men let down their guard on the small things, like a second look at the tabloid in the grocery store check-out line, or a daydream that fueled lustful thoughts. For Brandon, and all of us, this is a battle that never ends. The measures of protection match the severity of the sin. Brandon and his new wife, Kala, do not have internet at their house.

Why should we take up blog space on the Institute for Biblical Worship website with a topic like this? Because so many worship leaders and pastors are struggling with the devastating sin of pornography. During the Q&A time with Brandon, one of the students asked, "Why aren't we talking about this more and being proactive in battling against it?” Brandon said that when he was younger he didn't want to share his battle because a worship leader wasn't supposed to be dealing with a sin like porn.

As he ended his testimony, Brandon introduced his mentor, Ray Carroll, who has a book and a ministry called Fallen Pastor (  In the last few years since he began this ministry, Ray has spoken with over 500 pastors who have fallen. Over and over throughout Brandon and Ray’s talk with our students, they encouraged the students to seek help, develop true accountability, and shed light on the sin.

So, whoever thinks he stands must be careful not to fall. No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to humanity. God is faithful, and He will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation He will also provide a way of escape so that you are able to bear it (1 Corinthians 10:12-13).

Taste and See: The Case of Nadab and Abihu

Taste and see that the LORD is good. How happy is the man who takes refuge in Him! Psalm 34:8 HCSB

On January 1 of this year my Bible reading plan began with Genesis 1. The consistent pattern is to read three or four chapters a day and if all goes well and I stick with the schedule, by December 31 I should be reading the words of John the Revelator, “Amen, Come, Lord Jesus!”

On many days, familiar characters in the readings such as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph feel like old friends. Although the descriptions of those characters don’t change from year to year, my perceptions of them and their strengths and weaknesses do. As their stories unfold in the pages, it seems as if those characters know my story too. I chuckled out loud as I read the account of Israel’s sons when they left Egypt after Joseph revealed himself. I can see Joseph calling out to them from an Egyptian palace balcony, “...and don’t argue on the way home!” (Gen 45:24). Small phrases like those give us glimpses into the personalities of characters like Joseph and his brothers— glimpses that we can pick up on the next time we encounter them.

This past week a particular phrase in Exodus 24 arrested my attention so completely it seemed as if I was there watching the scene unfold. God said to Moses, “Go up to the LORD, you and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of Israel’s elders, and bow in worship at a distance.” What followed was a covenant ceremony, and in Exodus 24:9 Moses recorded these words: “Then Moses went up with Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of Israel’s elders, and they saw the God of Israel. Beneath His feet was something like a pavement made of sapphire stone, as clear as the sky itself. God did not harm the Israelite nobles; they saw Him, and they ate and drank.”

Those men saw God. We don’t know what exactly that entailed, but at the very least, they caught a glimpse of Him. The verse also indicates that “they ate and drank.” They sealed the covenant ceremony with a meal to remember the significance of those moments with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Then, less than fifty days after seeing God, Aaron gave in to the complaints of the Israelites and made the people an idol in the shape of a cow. Later, Nadab and Abihu became eternal poster boys reminding generations that God is serious about how He is worshiped (Lev 10:1).

All too frequently my first reaction to Old Testament characters like Aaron and Nadab and Abihu is “How in the world could they have done something so stupid, especially after they had seen God and eaten a covenant meal like that?” But as time passes and I get older, I’m less critical of the Aarons and Nadabs and Abihus in the pages of Scripture because I see more of my own sin in their stories. Or perhaps, their stories somehow point to and reveal the sin in my story. How many times have I been a part of a corporate worship gathering and sensed my affections for God elevated to new heights because of God’s self-revelation through Christ and Scripture [1], but within hours of that gathering I succumb to satisfying my soul with an idol like food or entertainment? How many times has God clearly revealed something to me in His Word and within a few weeks the once-clear revelation is lost in a foggy mist of my own desires and disobedience?

What Exodus 24:9 reminded me of this past week is that I need to be ever-vigilant to realize how easily and quickly my heart can move from awed obedience to selfish sin. Aaron and his sons seemed to let down after they worshiped. Perhaps they dropped their guard thinking that somehow the phenomenal experience of covenant worship rendered them immune from the sin of idolatry and disobedience. Although it was years later that David wrote, “taste and see that the LORD is good” in Psalm 34, Aaron, Nadab and Abihu stand as powerful witnesses of what can happen when the latter half of that verse is neglected... they simply did not continue to “take refuge in Him."

After nearly three decades of leading worship, I’m finally starting to realize that I’m most vulnerable to sin and selfishness after I’ve had times of significantly meaningful worship. I let down. I think I deserve a break and that somehow I’m entitled to a little self-indulgence. And here is something else I’m becoming more aware of: the evil one is more than willing to assist my own selfish slant toward self- indulgence. As the years pass, the stories of Aaron and his sons cause me to scoff less at their stupidity and cause me to be more cognizant of my own. Peter says it incredibly well: “Be serious! Be alert! Your adversary the Devil is prowling around like a roaring lion, looking for anyone he can devour. Resist him and be firm in the faith, knowing that the same sufferings are being experienced by your fellow believers all over the world” (1 Pet 5:8-11).

So the next time we have the urge to roll our eyes in disgust at folks like Nadab and Abihu, maybe we need to remember that we should run to “take refuge in Him” after we have “tasted and seen.”

[1]. This is a paraphrase from John Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 43.

Dr. Crider is the Executive Director of the Institute for Biblical Worship and a professor of Church Music and Worship in the Department of Biblical Worship at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY. He also serves as Worship Pastor at LaGrange Baptist Church in LaGrange, KY.