Worship has innumerable forms. The Moslem worships Alla in prayer by turning toward Mecca five times a day and repeating the same prayer. At some time in his life he makes a pilgrimage to Mecca where he will walk around the Kaaba seven times and kiss the sacred black stone. An American Indian may have worshiped by erecting a totem pole, offering up tobacco in the peace pipe, by sacrificing a finger joint or even a human being. Satan worshipers allegedly sacrifice infants and use some of the organs of mutilated animals. All of us would probably be willing to acknowledge that these forms of worship are misguided and erroneous although those who follow these practices do so with great sincerity.
Then, of course, there are the pagan forms of worship which we find within civilized America. There are those who worship the sun by taking off their clothes in nudist colonies. There are those who would have us understand that they find it much easier to worship God on the golf course or out on the lake or in the woods on Sunday morning.
Then again within what might be called ‘non-evangelical Christianity’ there is great diversity in what is understood to be worship. As I was researching in some periodicals, I found two rather suspicious titles, neither of which I consulted for this message. One title was, Awareness Worship: A Clue to Creative Worship in the Out of Doors. Another which caused me to raise my eyebrows was one entitled, The Organist as Worship Leader.
We should expect considerable confusion in this matter of worship from those who have departed from the central truths of the Scriptures. Meland states that when the ‘myth’ of the doctrine of the atonement was rationalized away by liberal theologians the focal point for worship disappeared as well.10 Modern theologians have not yet found any workable substitute, nor will they.
But most distressing of all is the confusion which exists within the Protestant, evangelical, fundamental Christianity concerning the meaning of worship. Robert Webber, in an article in Eternity magazine, made this condemning statement concerning the ignorance of the Christian in the matter of worship:
… the majority of evangelical lay people don’t have the foggiest notion of what corporate worship really is. To questions such as: Why does God want to be worshipped? What is the meaning of an invocation or benediction? What does reading the Scripture, praying, or hearing a sermon have to do with worship? I received blank stares and bewildered looks.11
In preparing for this message, I have consulted a number of books and articles, and if they are representative, not only do the laymen not know what worship is, neither do the so-called scholars.
Some may wonder why all the fuss over this matter of worship. Before we go on to try and define what worship is, let us first begin our study by dealing with the importance of worship.
The first reason for our study of worship has already been suggested. Simply stated, we need to study worship because there is so much confusion and so little understanding and practice of worship.
Negatively, there is a second reason why we should search the Scriptures on the subject of worship. It is because of the severe consequences of false worship. Cain’s sacrifice was rejected by God because it was false worship (Genesis 4:5). Three thousand people died in one day because of the false worship of the golden calf fashioned by Aaron (Exodus 32). The kingdom of Israel was divided because of the idolatry and false worship of the nation (1 Kings 11:31-33). The fall of Jerusalem was directly attributable to the apostasy and false worship of the nation (Jeremiah 1:16; 16:11; 22:9). Misdirected worship was the cause of untold hardship and suffering in the Old Testament. In the first chapter of Romans, Paul wrote that God was justified in condemning man because he worshiped in error:
For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen (Romans 1:25).
Satan fell from heaven because he sought worship for himself rather than submission to his Creator. Satan today seeks those who will worship and serve him (cf. Matt. 4:9).
The third reason, and by far the primary one for considering the subject of worship worthy of our consideration is because worship is of great importance to God. That is the clear teaching of passages such as John chapter 4.
But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers (John 4:23).
God is seeking men and women to be worshipers of Himself. But this worship must be worship that is “in spirit and in truth.” It is not enough to be a worshiper of God; God is seeking true worshipers. It is only in the Word of God that we can learn what worship is pleasing to God.
Why, then, should we devote ourselves to the study of worship? Simply because it is a matter of great importance to God and because false worship leads to dire consequences. With all the current confusion on the subject, we must return to the Scriptures for our infallible guide to true worship which pleases Him.
A brief glance at a good Bible concordance will reveal that there are a number of Greek and Hebrew words which are rendered ‘to worship’ or ‘worshiper.’ In the Scriptures, there are three pairs of words which underscore for us the three primary elements of true worship.
Humility. The most frequent word in both the Old and New Testaments is one which means to make obeisance, to bow down, to prostrate.12 The Hebrew word is shaha…, and the Greek word is proskuneo. Both words denote the act of bowing or prostrating oneself in submissiveness and reverence. The outward posture reflected an inner attitude of humility and respect. The word might be used of men showing respect for men as well as a response to deity. As the word relates to worship, it denotes a high view of God and a condescending opinion of self. Thus, true worship views God in His perfection and man in his imperfection.
Reverence. Another pair of terms underscores the attitude of reverence. The Hebrew word is yare…, and the Greek term is sebomai. The idea of both the Greek and the Hebrew is that of fearing God. It is not so much the fear of terror and dread so much as it is the fear of wonder and awe at the majesty and greatness of the infinite God. Davidson differentiates ‘humility’ from ‘reverence’ in that the first pair of terms focus inward. We are aware of our finiteness and sinfulness in the light of His infinity and perfection. The second pair of terms focus outwardly upon the awesome majesty of God.13 Irreverence is antithetical to worship. No doubt, it was the irreverence of the Corinthians at the Lord’s Table that required such severe discipline as sickness and death (1 Corinthians 11:30). Paul said that they did not ‘judge the body rightly’ (1 Corinthians 11:29). If I understand Paul correctly, he is saying that to participate in the remembrance of the Lord’s Table, to partake of the elements which symbolize the body of our Lord in a light or irreverent way is to bring upon ourselves the discipline of God. Drunkenness and frivolity at the Lord’s Table reveals a spirit of irreverence which is diametrically opposed to true worship.
Service. The third pair of terms employed for worship in the Bible emphasize service. The Hebrew term, abad, and its Greek counterpart, latreuo…, denotes the idea ‘to work, to labor, or to serve.’ In the Old Testament this service was most often priestly service. In the New Testament we are told that we are all priests of God (1 Peter 2:5,9), so that this term does not apply only to the service of the few, but of the entire congregation of believers in Christ.
In addition, service and worship were often linked in the Old Testament. It is no surprise, then, when we find Satan tempting our Lord to worship him (Luke 4:7). Satan was not asking our Lord simply to fall to the ground before him. He was asking the Lord to acknowledge him as sovereign and to surrender to him in service. This is why our Lord responded, “It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and serve Him only’” (Luke 4:8).
Worship and service cannot be isolated, but rather they must be integrated, if it is to be true worship.
The study of any subject such as worship must consider more than just the words themselves, for the context in which these words are found can add much to our understanding of the subject also. In addition to the ideas of humility, reverence, and service, we can add four other essential facets of worship.
Response. The first facet of worship that we should consider is that of response. By this we mean that worship, from man’s perspective is primarily a matter of response. Approached from any perspective other than that of the Scriptures, man would probably suggest that worship was something that man devised to give expression to inner desires and needs. Although man has been created with what has been called a ‘God-shaped vacuum,’ we worship not so much because we feel the need of doing so, but because God has first revealed Himself to us. The case is similar to that of love, concerning which we are told,
“We love, because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
Love does not find its origin in man, but in God. Our love is only a response, only a reflection of God’s love toward us. And so it is with worship. We worship God because He has made Himself known to us and has instructed us to worship Him.
There is a passage in the book of Romans which states,
“For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:36).
This is surely the case with worship. Fallen man could never approach a righteous and Holy God, so God in the person of Jesus Christ made us just and righteous by His work on the cross for us (Romans 3:21-24). The Holy Spirit of God works within us to enable us to worship (Philippians 3:3). And worship is directed to the Father (John 4:23). Worship is from God, through God, and unto God. Apart from God’s revelation of Himself and of how man can approach Him in worship, man could never worship God in a way pleasing to Him.
Adoration. If worship is fundamentally a response, what is the nature of this response? It is that of adoration and praise which God rightfully expects of His creatures. Though worship is the primary calling of the one who has placed his trust in the person and work of Jesus Christ in the present age, it is also that which our Lord shall receive from those who reject Him, for in the book of Philippians we read,
“Therefore also God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those who are in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 3:9-11).
Throughout the book of Psalms we find the continual expression, “Praise the Lord.” That is the spirit of worship. We are told in the Psalms,
“Yet Thou are holy, O Thou who are enthroned upon the praises of Israel” (Psalm 22:3).
No book in all the Bible gives us a better pattern for praise and adoration in worship than the book of Psalms.
Sacrifice. A third facet of worship is that of sacrifice. Central in the worship of Israel in the Tabernacle and in the Temple was the practice of sacrifice. When Abraham worshiped God in Genesis chapter 22, the offering was termed worship. The presentation of the first-fruits was also regarded as an act of worship (Deuteronomy 26:10). When the wise men came to worship the baby Who was the Savior of the world, they came with gifts to give. When David sinned by numbering the people of Israel and God stretched forth His hand with the plague, judgment was stayed when David built an altar on the threshing floor of Ornan. Ornan offered to give the land to David, but David responded,
No, but I will surely buy it for the full price; for I will not take what is yours for the Lord, or offer a burnt offering which costs me nothing (1 Chronicles 21:24).
In the New Testament the idea of sacrifice is still prominent in worship, but rather than the sacrifice of offerings it is the sacrifice of self which is essential.
I urge you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship (Romans 12:1).
The book of Hebrews adds to this the sacrifice of praise, of doing good and of sharing (Hebrews 13:15,16).
Proclamation. The aspect of proclamation admittedly is perhaps most subject to debate, but it nevertheless seems to me to be a vital part of worship. The nation Israel was not to worship God in secret, but were to be a ‘light to the Gentiles.’ In this task Israel failed, but it was nevertheless a part of their responsibility to worship their Redeemer. When Abraham worshiped, he built an altar and ‘called upon the name of the Lord’ (Genesis 12:8; 21:33). In the New Testament, we are told that the church has been created by God,
“in order that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 3:10).
Whenever the saints partake of the Lord’s Table they ‘proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes’ (1 Corinthians 11:26). As has been repeatedly said, we cannot look at ourselves as spectators watching what God is doing, but rather we must view ourselves as actors upon the stage, who are being observed by both those in heaven as well as those on the earth.
From our consideration of worship thus far, we should be able to arrive at a working definition of worship:
Worship is the humble response of regenerate men to the self-disclosure of the Most High God. It is based upon the work of God. It is achieved through the activity of God. It is directed to God. It is expressed by the lips in praise and by the life in service.
Now let’s put our definition to work by applying it to four activities which take place in nearly every evangelical church and are often equated with worship.
Prayer. Prayer is often thought to be synonymous with worship. Although prayer can be worship, it most often falls short of it. Are our prayers marked by adoration and praise? Do they focus upon Who God is and what He has done? Or do they turn into grocery lists of petitions for our needs? In other words, do our prayers focus upon God’s goodness or our needs and desires?
Some time ago a mature gentleman visited our church and I shall never forget his prayer. It was devoted exclusively to expressing praise and adoration to God. To my recollection there was not one request made. I shall never forget that prayer and I know that many of you can remember it as well.
Now I am not saying that it is wrong to make our requests known to God for we are instructed to do so (Philippians 4:6). I am saying that we should not deceive ourselves into thinking that in so doing we are worshiping. Let me encourage you to set aside certain times for prayer which are exclusively devoted to adoration and praise. If you have trouble beginning, simply start by considering the attributes of God, His mercy, love, longsuffering, and so on. When we come together as a church, it would be good for us to set apart a certain portion of the meeting to worship, where our prayers express our adoration of God. The reading of a Psalm may help to set a pattern for such prayers.
Testimonies. There are some who might question whether or not testimonies would ever qualify as worship. Certainly any testimony which places the spotlight upon ourselves would not be worship. But as we look at the Psalms, we must recognize that many of them are based upon some experience on the part of the writer. This experience becomes a vehicle which turns the attention of the psalmist to the greatness of his God. He knows that God is merciful and kind not only because the Bible tells him so, but because God has been at work in his life.
I would never want to discourage anyone from sharing with the saints what God has been doing in their life, rather I would want to encourage you to look upon your experience as an opportunity to share with others the goodness and kindness of the Lord. A testimony is an excellent opportunity to praise God for Who He is and what He has done. Praise the Lord, great things He has done!
Singing and Music. While we are still thinking of the Psalms, let us remember that Israel sang many of their praises to God. The praises of the people were set to music and sung. Music can be used to quiet our hearts and minds and focus them upon God and His goodness. Music can also be an instrument through which our praise and adoration can be expressed to God.
We should realize, however, that all so-called Christian music is not the music of worship. Some music is flat-out worthless, either because of its message or its medium. Other music is intended for other purposes than worship. For example, the song ‘Trust and Obey’ is not directed toward God, but toward the saints. It is a song of instruction and encouragement. There is nothing wrong with such music, but we should realize that it is not the music of worship. In our hymnals we may find headings which remind us that some songs are appropriate for worship, while others are not. If we intend to worship God in music, let us be careful to select music which focuses upon God and expresses adoration and praise to Him. A song such as ‘Great Is Thy Faithfulness’ or ‘How Great Thou Art’ is, in my estimation, a song of worship. When we come to the worship portion of our meeting, let us remember this.
Preaching. Some have unfortunately equated the worship service with the preaching service. These words of Robert Webber are words of warning to those who would pursue true worship:
Part of the problem is that we have made our churches into centers of evangelism and instruction. The focus of our services are on man and his needs instead of God and His glory. This is true, for example in music, where its triteness in content and tune tends to entertain rather than provoke worship. Further, a fancy pulpiteering has made worship seem peripheral or at least preliminary to preaching.14
Preaching by itself is seldom worship, and then only by one man, but preaching which is God-centered and directs our attention and affection to Him may prompt worship. That is one of the reasons why we placed the teaching service ahead of the worship service in our church. There is need for preaching to men as they are, but there is also a need to draw men’s minds from their own problems and frustrations to God’s greatness and goodness. This kind of preaching will promote worship.
If worship is a measure of a New Testament church, I wonder how God evaluates Community Bible. If worship is the highest calling of the saint, how are we living up to our calling? May God enable us to worship Him in spirit and in truth.