In Deuteronomy 12, the Lord instructs Israel, the people He deeply loves, to return their love for Him through respectful and reverent worship. Moses explains that, once Israel enters the Promised Land, God has one chosen place of worship: “Take heed to yourself that you do not offer your burnt offerings in every place that you see; but in the place which the Lord chooses, in one of your tribes, there you shall offer your burnt offerings, and there you shall do all that I command you” (Deuteronomy 12:13–14, NKJV).
“Take heed” is an archaic way of saying “take care” or “be careful.” Take heed to yourself means “be careful not to do whatever you please or merely what seems right in your own eyes.” In other words, God’s chosen people were to be careful to worship the Lord where and how He commanded them. Modern translations such as the New International Version render Deuteronomy 12:13 like so: “Be careful not to sacrifice your burnt offerings anywhere you please.”
Israel was about to undergo a radical shift in lifestyle. Before this time, God’s people were constantly on the move. They were accustomed to worshiping God wherever they saw fit. That was the norm (Genesis 12:7–8; 13:18; 22:9; 26:25; 35:1, 3, 7). But now, they were relocating to a land of a pagan people, the native Canaanites, who worshiped many gods at numerous local shrines. In this new setting, to keep their worship of the One True God pure and undefiled, Israel was to have only one sanctuary within the community of Israel. Here they would gather to offer sacrifices and offerings to their God (Deuteronomy 12:1–28). They were not to follow the practice of the Canaanites.
Take heed to yourself was a command that Israel could no longer follow their own whims. Once they had conquered the land, corporate worship of the Lord was to be held in the one place where God’s presence would be established and where He would cause His name to dwell (Deuteronomy 12:11). Before the temple was built in Jerusalem, that central sanctuary was the tabernacle containing the ark of the covenant.
Still today, believers must “take heed to yourself” and be careful to worship God respectfully and on His terms. Jesus told the woman of Samaria, “But the time is coming—indeed it’s here now—when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. The Father is looking for those who will worship him that way. For God is Spirit, so those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23–24, NLT).
Radical love and uncompromising commitment to God are demonstrated through careful attention to the details and practices of worship. To truly worship God in Spirit and truth, His supreme sovereignty and holiness must be acknowledged. The writer of Hebrews explains, “Since we are receiving a Kingdom that is unshakable, let us be thankful and please God by worshiping him with holy fear and awe” (Hebrews 12:28, NLT). God must be honored and revered for who He truly is, and in the manner He prescribes. God is not a pagan deity, and it would be inappropriate to worship Him as one.
God’s presence now dwells within His people (1 Corinthians 6:19; 2 Corinthians 6:16; Romans 8:11). Believers are that central sanctuary today because God has established residence in us through the person of the Holy Spirit.
The apostle Paul describes Christian worship as a way of life, giving our bodies to God as “a living sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect” (Romans 12:1–2, NLT). New Testament worship comes from hearts who offer “a continual sacrifice of praise to God, proclaiming our allegiance to his name” (Hebrews 13:15, NLT).
Moses’ warning is a helpful reminder to “take heed to yourself.” We do this by expressing our love for God through worship that honors and pleases Him. In the Old Testament, God’s people united to worship in the place He had chosen. Today, that location is anywhere believers come together in His name.