Friday, October 24, 2008

Topic: What is Worship

What Is Worship?
A Survey of Scripture

Many Christian churches are changing their worship styles. As is often the case with experiences, we have different impressions and reactions to worship styles. In this article, I want to examine what the Bible says about worship. I will sketch the way God’s people worshiped before Moses, after Moses, and after Jesus. Then I want to see how that biblical insight can help inform our worship in the modern world.


The Bible doesn’t give a formal definition of worship. But perhaps we can start by seeing what various words for worship mean. The English word "worship" comes from two Old English words: weorth, which means "worth," and scipe or ship, which means something like shape or "quality." We can see the Old English word -ship in modern words like friendship and sportsmanship – that’s the quality of being a friend, or the quality of being a good sport.

So worth-ship is the quality of having worth or of being worthy. When we worship, we are saying that God has worth, that he is worthy. Worship means to declare worth, to attribute worth. Or to put it in biblical terms, we praise God. We speak, or sing, about how good and powerful God is.

This is a purpose for which we are called: "You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light" (1 Peter 2:9). We were called for the purpose of praising God, worshiping God. That is one of the job descriptions of a Christian. We should declare that God is worthy, worth more than everything else put together.

Now let’s look at the biblical words. In both Hebrew and Greek, there are two major kinds of words for worship. The first kind means to bow down, to kneel, to put one’s face down as an act of respect and submission. Our body language is saying, I will do whatever you want me to. I am ready to listen to your instructions and I am willing to obey. The other kind of biblical word means to serve. Roughly half of the time these words are translated as worship, and the other half as serve. It carries the idea of doing something for God — making a sacrifice or carrying out his instructions.

Of course, word meanings don’t prove what worship is, but they do illustrate three kinds of worship. There is

  1. worship that involves speaking, and
  2. worship that involves listening, and
  3. a worship that involves doing.

There is a worship that expresses the heart, and worship that involves the mind, and a worship that involves the body. There is a worship that is giving praise upward, a worship that is receiving instructions from above, and a worship that carries out instruction in the world around us.

We need all three types of worship. Some people focus primarily on speaking or singing praise to God. Praise is good, but if all we do is praise God, without ever listening to what he says, we have to ask whether we believe the words we are saying. If he is really all wise and all loving, then we need to be attentive to what he is telling us, because he is worth listening to.

Similarly, all talk and no action does not show God the respect he deserves. Actions speak louder than words, and if our behavior isn’t changed by God, then our actions are saying that God isn’t important — he’s a nice idea, but not relevant to our day-to-day lives. When we really believe that God is worthy of every praise, then we will be willing to listen and to change the way we live in response to such a worthy God. We will trust him and seek him and want to please him as much as we can. Worship should affect our behavior.

Response with all our being

Another preliminary point is that worship is a response to God. We can’t know God’s worth, much less declare it, unless God reveals himself to us. So God initiates worship by revealing himself to us. Then we respond, and the proper response is worship. The more we grasp his greatness, his power, his love, his character, the more we understand his worthiness, the better we can declare his worth – the better we can worship.

Our worship is a response to what God has revealed himself to be, not only in who he is, but also in what he has done and is doing and will do in the future. Worship includes all our responses to God – including a response with our mind, such as our belief in God’s worthiness, our emotions, such as love and trust, and our actions and our words. Our heart expresses itself in words and songs; our mind is active when we want to learn what God wants us to do, and our bodies and strength are involved when we obey and when we serve.

Both Old Testament and New Testament tell us that our relationship with God should involve our heart, mind, soul, and strength. It involves all that we are. Worship involves heart, mind, soul and strength, too.

The fact that we believe God says something about his worthiness. The fact that we trust him and love him declares that he is worthy of love and trust. The fact that we obey him also says that he has worth. Our words complete the picture by saying that God has worth. In the words we say to one another, in the prayers we say to God, in the songs we sing, we can declare that God is worth more than all other gods, worth more than all other things.

We can worship God all by ourselves. But it is also something we do together. God has revealed himself not just to me, but to many people. God puts us in a community, he reveals himself to a community and through a community, and the community together responds to him in worship, in declaring that he is worth all honor and praise.

Moreover, God promises that whenever we gather in Jesus’ name, he will be there. We gather in his presence, and because of his promise, we expect him to be with us. He is the One who calls us together, who reveals himself to us, who initiates the worship and is the object of our worship.

One important method we use to worship God is that of music. In church, we have someone called a worship leader, who leads us in singing hymns and spiritual songs. So a worship leader is a song leader, and because of that some people automatically think of music when they hear the word worship.

Music is important, but worship is not just music – it involves our entire relationship with God, all our heart, mind, soul, and strength – it involves all the ways in which we can respond to God, all the ways we can praise him by what we say and do, all the ways we can demonstrate that God is worthy of all praise and honor and allegiance.

Paul’s words for worship

Paul is a primary source for what first-century churches did and how they operated. But Paul says very little about worship. Words for worship are found only a few times in Paul’s letters. He doesn’t tell us how we should worship. Perhaps that is because Paul sees worship as something we are to do all the time. John Piper expressed it in this way: "What we find in the New Testament, perhaps to our amazement, is an utterly stunning degree of indifference to worship as an outward ritual, and an utterly radical intensification of worship as an inward experience of the heart…. The very epistles that are written to help the church be what it ought to be in this age [are] almost totally devoid of…explicit teaching on the specifics of corporate worship" ( piper97/11-09-97.htm).

Worship is the giving of our entire self, our thoughts and our emotions, to God’s use. All of life is an act of submission, an act of worship. Our service to God is not centered on a time or a temple, but is done whenever and wherever we are, because we are the temple of God. The emphasis is taken away from ceremony, seasons, places and rituals, and is shifted to what is happening in the inner person. Worship should invade our entire lives. The test of worship is not only what happens at church, but what happens at home, on the job and wherever we go.

Paul used another word for worship in Romans 1:9: "I serve [latreuo, one of the Greek words for worship] God with my whole heart." How? "…in preaching the gospel of his Son." A similar thought is in Romans 15:16: "God gave me the grace to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles with the priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God, so that the Gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit."

In these verses, preaching the gospel is an act of worship. Paul was not a Levite, but he had a priestly duty, and that was to worship with all his heart by preaching. In our worship services today, the sermon is just as much a part of the worship as the songs are. Whenever the gospel is preached, worship is being done. God’s greatness is being proclaimed. Worship is in the listening, too, as people seek to learn what God wants us to be doing. A worshipful attitude toward God is one that respectfully listens to what he may be saying to us.

Every act of obedience is an act of worship. It declares that God has worth. And whenever we share the gospel with someone, we are declaring God’s worth. We are engaging in the priestly service of preaching the gospel, the worship of being a witness to God’s grace. We tell what a great thing God has done in Jesus Christ, and how that has been good news in our life. We are declaring his worth. We are giving worship in everyday life. We don’t have to wait for a church service.


Our word worship derives from the Old English weordhscipe meaning worthiness or meritoriousness and thus giving God the recognition He deserves. There are some problems with this English translation, however, because the Greek & Hebrew terms do not mean precisely the same thing.

'aboda (Hebrew; also - abad or asab) and latreia (Greek; also - latreuo) are frequently translated as worship. Although, these are not the only words translated worship and even these words are not always translated, 'worship'2. When translated as worship in the OT these words typically mean service associated with the work done in the temple. In the NT the related Greek term latreia either refers back to the OT temple cultus3, to the false belief that killing disciples would be regarded as service to God4 or as an OT allusion that Christians should offer their own bodies (i.e. meaning 'life') to God as a sacrifice.

Therefore I urge you, 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.5 (Rom 12:1)

Paul uses the related Greek word leitourgia (i.e. translated service) to refer to a monetary gift collected for the Jerusalem Christians6 and for the assistance he received from others7 and the term leitourgos (i.e. translated serves or servant) is used of Christ8, angels9, rulers10, Epaphroditus's delivery of the Philippian gift11, and of ministry to the Gentiles12. Thus, the term latreia and its cognates are directly associated with both service & sacrifice when directed toward God. It might have been better if the translators had chosen the words 'serve', 'service' and 'minister' instead of worship.

Other terms are translated as worship including the Greek word proskyneo13 and its Hebrew equivalent shachac.14 Both of these terms refer to a posture of submission and thus an acknowledgment of God's sovereignty. Obeisance requires an attitude of reverential fear. This is evident in the behaviors of bending the knee (i.e. gonu or gonupeteo) and bowing down (histahawa or shachac {Heb.} or proskyneo {Gk. to kiss forward}) which are associated with worship. It should be noted, however, that these postures are associated with other things too (i.e. one can have this attitude in petitions to God, gods or man).

The terms that communicate attitudes of service, submission & reverence (i.e. which are translated 'worship') do not indicate how such attitudes ought to be shown. We must rely on context to specify ways that God expects us to worship Him. When we examine the behavior of worshippers what do we see? Worship may be personal or corporate. It took place at and apart from the temple, however, God doesn't intend that worship be connected with place but with the heart attitude (Jn.4:20ff spirit & truth). It requires unity between believers (Mt.5:23f; Luke 10:25ff). An important term associated with worship is homologia.15 Worshippers frequently spend some or all of their time professing faith, praising God, thanking God and proclaiming truths about God.

Another term often associated with worship is thusia meaning sacrifice. The reason this term should be connected to worship is that such references are allusions to the thank- offerings in the OT which were an important daily ritual of temple worship.16 Interestingly, in the cases where this term is used in the epistles it is usually in reference to self-sacrifice in the service of others.17

...and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma. Eph 5:2

But even if I am being poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrifice and service18 of your faith, I rejoice and share my joy with you all. Phil 2:17

In Putting an End to Worship Wars, Elmer Towns asked the questions: What do you do in worship? How do you worship? What motivates you to worship? and What are the results of worship? From the responses he identified six worship styles in America: Evangelistic - winning the lost; Expositional - teaching the word; Renewal - excitement, revival, 'touching God'; Body-life - fellowship, relationships and small groups; Liturgical - serving & glorifying God through liturgy and Congregational - worship expressed by the laity.

Of these, the renewal, liturgical, congregational approaches are arguably what most Christians conceive of as worship - times of personal and corporate singing and praise. As we have seen, however, the biblical principles and commands related to worship are much broader and more integrated into the Christian life. Worship is the response of grateful and humble people to the living God where submission, sacrificial service, praise, profession, testimony and gratitude are freely expressed in innumerable ways. This is a much richer concept than mere corporate singing and praise once each week for 20 minutes - an event that could occur without any actual worship going on at all.

As long as we are culturally bound to the unfortunate English word, 'worship,' we need to keep our understanding biblical rather than anchored in church traditions. A worshipper must be a humble person who is willing to:

  • Subordinate their goals to God's goals by prioritizing service toward the Kingdom of God;
  • Express gratitude and praise toward God and
  • Tell others about God, his truths and the love they have enjoyed as His child.


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