What is Worship?

In the very last chapter of the Bible, we read these words, “I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things. And when I heard and saw them, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who showed them to me, but he said to me, ‘You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your brothers the prophets, and with those who keep the words of this book. Worship God.’” (Revelation 22:8-9)

This morning, I want to begin what I expect to be a two or three lesson series on the topic of worship. And there are a number of reasons why I think this subject is important. One of them is that worship is what we were created for. The very purpose of our existence here on this earth is to worship and honor God.

In fact, God created the entire universe so that it would display his glory. And in many of the psalms, we see that the universe does an excellent job of this. In Psalm 148, for example, the Psalmist says:

“Praise him, sun and moon,
praise him, all you shining stars!
Praise him, you highest heavens,
and you waters above the heavens!
Let them praise the name of the Lord!

“Praise the Lord from the earth,
you great sea creatures and all deeps,
fire and hail, snow and mist,
stormy wind fulfilling his word!
Mountains and all hills,
fruit trees and all cedars!
Beasts and all livestock,
creeping things and flying birds!

“Let them praise the name of the Lord,
for his name alone is exalted;
his majesty is above earth and heaven.” (Psalm 148:3-5a,7-10,13)

But it’s not just the world of nature that has a responsibility to glorify God. God created us so that we would see his glory around us and respond by knowing him and loving him and praising him — with all our heart and soul and mind and strength. As John Piper has said, “God is the greatest thing that exists, ever has existed or ever will exist. Therefore, for us to glory in anything else would be sin, as there is nothing greater than God, there is no calling greater than praising God.”

And so, I want to talk about worship because worship is so very important – it is our very reason for existing. But a second reason that I think the subject of worship is important is because I don’t think we have a very good understanding of what worship is.

Worship is a lovely, religious-sounding word. I think that most people, whether they have ever attended church or not, are at least familiar with the idea of worship. In fact, almost every church uses the word “worship” to describe what they do when they come together on Sundays. And maybe that’s part of the problem.

Most church-going folks believe that they have experienced worship. They assume that they have been worshiping their entire lives. I mean, after all, the church bulletin says “worship service,” right? But could it be that we’ve gotten it wrong?

What exactly is worship? Why do we do it? How do we do it? Those are some of the questions that I want to look at over the next couple of weeks.

And I started this morning by reading Revelation 22:8-9 not because that’s where the lesson is going to be focused, but because I want us to hear the simple command in verse 9, “Worship God!” When John fell down at the angel’s feet, the angel said, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your brothers the prophets, and with those who keep the words of this book. Worship God.”

In other words, don’t worship angels, worship God! Don’t worship people, worship God! Don’t worship money or power or popularity, worship God! Don’t worship nothing, worship God! Don’t neglect God or despise God or ignore God, worship God! This is the most important responsibility we have — to worship God.

But one of the things that I have discovered as I have studied the topic of worship in the scriptures is that there is not a lot in the Bible that tells us how to worship. Now, that statement is probably going to cause some of you to want to disagree with me, but I’d like for you to think about it for just a moment.

Think first about the Old Testament. What did God tell the Israelites about how they were to worship him? And I would suggest to you that God didn’t give them many instructions at all about worship. Now, he gave them a lot of instructions about sacrifice. And he gave them a lot of instructions about how the priests were to behave when they went into the tabernacle or the temple. But if you go looking for instructions on how the Israelites were to worship God from day to day, or how they were to worship him as a group at any time other than feast days, you’re not going to find much.

And when we come to the New Testament, there is a surprising degree of indifference in regard to worship as an outward ritual, but there is instead a great focus on the heart of worship.

To show you what I mean by that, consider the fact that in the New Testament letters, there is very little instruction that deals explicitly with corporate worship — what we would call “worship service”. Now, it’s not that there were no corporate gatherings for worship. I Corinthians 14:23 talks about when “the whole church comes together”. And Acts 2:46 tells us that the early Christians were “attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes”. And Hebrews 10:25 warns the Hebrew Christians about “neglecting to meet together.”

But, when you think about it, that’s not much. And I think it’s significant that, even when those gatherings are mentioned, the apostles do not speak explicitly of “worship.” In fact, we use the term so much that we are probably shocked to learn that the Bible never makes any mention of “worship services”.

To help you to understand just how significant this is, let’s move for a few moments back to the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, the most common word for worship is the Hebrew word shachah, or the related word hishtachavah. The basic meaning of this word is to bend down, to fall down, to bow, to give honor, to kneel, to worship. It carries with it a sense of reverence and respect and honor.

For example, in Genesis 24:26, we read that Abraham’s servant “bowed his head and worshiped the Lord.” (shachah)

In Exodus 4:31, the Israelites “bowed their heads and worshiped.” (shachah)

In Exodus 24:1, God told Moses to come with Nadab, Abihu and the seventy elders of Israel to “worship from afar” (hishtachavah)

Now I could go on and on quoting verses, because this word appears 171 times in the Old Testament. As I said, it is used more than any other Hebrew word for worship. And in the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament, almost every time this Hebrew word was used, it was translated by the Greek word proskuneo. Because proskuneo means the same thing as shachah. It means “to bend down, to fall down, to bow, to give honor, to kneel, to worship.”

And so, in the Greek Old Testament, this is the main word for worship — proskuneo. But when you look at how this word is used in the New Testament, you find something very interesting. This word is used a lot in the gospels. It’s found there 26 times, as people would often bow down before Jesus to show their respect to Jesus, or to worship him.

And this word proskuneo is also very common in the book of Revelation. It’s found there 21 times, because the angels and elders in heaven often bow down before God.

But in the letters of Paul, this word is used only one time. In I Corinthians 14:25, Paul talks about when an unbeliever hears someone prophesying or preaching the word, and he says that his response will be this — “falling on his face, he will worship God.” Proskuneo. Now, that’s the only time Paul uses this very common word for worship.

And, in the letters of Peter, James and John, this word doesn’t appear even once.

Now this is a bit surprising when you think about it — that the main word for worship in the Old Testament is virtually absent from the letters of the New Testament. So why is that? Why would the very epistles that were written to help the church to be what it ought to be in this world be almost totally devoid of this very important word? Why would there be virtually no teaching in the epistles about the specifics of corporate worship?

Now, to answer that question, I want to take a look at a statement that Jesus made about worship in John chapter 4. But before we look at that passage, I want to take a look at something else that Jesus said.

Keep in mind that, in the first century, the Temple was at the very heart of the Jewish worship. That’s where God was, in the Holy of Holies, and that’s where the Jews came to get close to God. But in Matthew 12:6, Jesus said “something greater than the Temple is here,” and he was talking about himself. On another occasion, Jesus said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19).

It’s obvious that what Jesus was doing was to identify himself as the true temple. “Something greater than the temple is here.” Because Jesus would fulfill everything the Temple stood for, both as a place of sacrifice, but also as a place of worship, that place where believers came to meet with God. Because the truth is, worship doesn’t need a building, it doesn’t need a priesthood and it doesn’t need a sacrificial system of bulls and goats. But it does need Jesus.

And so, when we go back to John chapter 4, we find Jesus talking with the Samaritan woman by the well. And, in this conversation, Jesus uses that word proskuneo — that dominant word in the Old Testament for worship — but he begins to shift its focus. He transforms it into a concept that is inward rather than outward, and a practice that is not tied to any one particular place.

The woman at the well said, “Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” (John 4:20).

Jesus, your church worships in that building over there, our church worships in this building over here. And it’s all very confusing, because everyone says that they’re the one worshiping the right way. So, which one is it? Who’s right?

And the word that she uses for worship here is that common Old Testament word, proskuneo. Notice the emphasis in her mind of making sure that worship is something that’s done in the right location. Because worship is the way that you connect with God, so we’ve got to make sure that we know exactly where God is.

“Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father.’” (John 4:21)

You can see Jesus loosening worship from its localized connotations. Place is not the issue.

Jesus goes on, “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:23-24)

Jesus tells this woman that true worship, that worship that the Jews had been anticipating for centuries, they believed it would arrive in the age to come, that worship had arrived. Jesus said, “the hour is coming, and is now here.” And what marks this true worship is that it is not bound by a localized place. Instead of being on Mount Gerizim or in Jerusalem, it is “in spirit and in truth.”

What Jesus is doing here is stripping worship of the idea of a localized connotation. Not that it is wrong for worship to happen in a specific place or at a specific time. But Jesus is making it clear that this is not what makes worship “worship”. What makes worship “worship” is that it happens “in spirit and in truth”.

I believe that “in spirit” means that true worship is worship that comes from the heart. And I believe that “in truth” means that this true worship is centered in Jesus Christ, the only one who gives us access to God.

The Jews were familiar with all the outward displays of worship – singing and praying and preaching and giving — but Jesus said, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me,” (Matthew 15:8–9). Because when our heart is far from God, our worship is vain, it’s empty, it’s of no value. What takes place in the heart is the defining essence of worship.

So, let’s go back to the question I raised earlier — why is it that that word which was used most often for worship in the Old Testament – proskuneo – was virtually ignored by Peter, James, John and Paul in the letters they wrote to the churches?

And perhaps the reason is because that word does not make clear enough the inward, spiritual nature of true worship. Proskuneo was a word that was associated with physically bowing down, with the actual presence of someone to bow down before.

Which is why that word appears so often in the gospels. Jesus was actually there in physical form to fall down before. So, that word proskuneo is used a lot. And, in the book of Revelation, there is bowing down that happens before the actual throne of God. So the word proskuneo is used often in Revelation, too.

But in the epistles, we find something different. Jesus is not present in physical form to fall down before. And so, the New Testament writers did not seem to want to use a word that might limit worship as an outward display or something that was limited to a particular location.

And so, when they talked about worship, they almost always used a different word. As I said earlier, shachah was the most frequent word for worship in the Old Testament. The second most common Hebrew word used in the Old Testament was abad and it was usually translated as “serve”.

For example, in Exodus 23:24, God said, “You shall not bow down to their gods nor serve them.” The first word he uses there is shachah, bow down. The second word he uses is abad, to serve. Both of those words are connected with worship.

This Hebrew word abad is translated by the Greek word latreuo, and this is the word that Paul uses most often when he refers to worship. When Paul talks about worship, he seems to go out of his way to make sure that we know he’s not talking about a localized, outward form of worship practice.

In fact, Paul takes it so far as to treat virtually all of life as an act of worship when lived in the right spirit. For example, in Romans 1:9, he says, “I serve God” (or I worship God) in my spirit.” In Romans 12:2, Paul urges Christians to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”

So even when Paul uses an Old Testament word for worship, he lets us know that what he has in mind is not primarily a localized event of worship but an internal, spiritual experience — so much so that he sees all of his life and ministry as an expression of that worship.

As a result, what happens in the New Testament is that worship is significantly de-institutionalized, de-localized, de-ritualized. The whole thrust of worship is taken off of ceremony and places and forms; and is shifted to what happens in the heart — not just on Sundays, but every day of the week and all the time, in all of life.

That’s what Paul wants us to understand when he says things like, “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (I Corinthians 10:31). And, “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Colossians 3:17).

That’s the kind of worship that is commanded in the New Testament – to constantly, day in and day out, act in a way that gives glory and honor of God. That’s what true worship looks like. But the New Testament uses those sentences without any reference at all to worship services. They don’t describe worship services. They describe life.

Even when Paul calls us to “be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,” (Ephesians 5:18-20), there is no reference there to a specific time or place or service.

In fact, the key word there is “always” — “giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Singing praise and giving thanks to God may be a wonderful thing for us to do in a “worship service”, but Paul is not concerned here with telling us what our worship service needs to look like. Rather, he is calling for a radical, inward authenticity of worship and a view of worshiping and honoring and praising God in all of our life. The place is not what’s important. Spirit and truth are what’s important.

You’ve heard, I’m sure, of the Puritans. Most of the early settlers of this country who came from England were Puritans. But while you’ve heard of them, you may not know much about them. Someone (Patrick Collinson) has summarized the Puritan philosophy by saying that the life of a Puritan was a continuous act of worship. That’s one of the reasons why Puritans preferred to call their churches “meeting houses” rather than “places of worship”. And they kept those meeting houses very simple to keep the attention away from the physical place so that they could keep the attention on the inward, spiritual everyday nature of their worship.

I think that’s a biblical approach. In the New Testament, there is a significant indifference to the outward forms and places of worship. And, at the same time, there is a radical intensification of worship as an inward, spiritual experience that pervades all of life.

But, in the time that we have remaining, I want us to zero in a little bit on exactly what worship is, because I don’t want to leave the impression that just because worship has an inward focus that it’s just sort of a feeling. Worship is more than just loving God. Now, loving God may lead us to worship him. But, just because I love God doesn’t mean that I’m worshiping him.

Getting an emotional high from the songs that we sing doesn’t make it worship, even though it stirs our emotions. We’ve all been places where we’ve heard hundreds or thousands of Christians join their voices, and you come away feeling wonderful, thinking “that’s what worship is supposed to be like”. Not necessarily. True worship is focused on the Lord.

That’s something we would do well to pay attention to in our me-focused society. I think Kent Hughes hit the nail on the head when he said, “The unspoken, but increasingly common assumption of today’s Christendom is that is primarily for us — to meet our needs. Such worship services are entertainment-focused, and the worshipers are uncommitted spectators who silently grade the performance….Taken to the nth degree, this instills a tragic self-centeredness.”

And I would imagine that what Kent said that steps on all of our toes, because I’m confident that every single one of us has had a conversation on the way home from church that talks about how “good” or “bad” the worship was that morning. And the way we grade it is by how much we liked it. Whether we liked the songs that were led or we didn’t like the songs, whether we liked the sermon or we didn’t like the sermon. Because, when you get right down to it, most of us want a worship service that makes us feel good.

But true worship is not about us. Rather, worship is all about God. Our English word “worship” is actually a shortened form of “worth-ship.” The act of worship is focusing on Almighty God and acknowledging the true worth of God. To put it another way, it is to give God the glory.

And when we realize that, we have to acknowledge that many of the songs we sing aren’t really songs of worship. They may make us feel good, but if they don’t give God glory and honor and praise, then they’re not worship.

I think A. W. Tozer put it well when he said, “Worship is to express in some appropriate manner a humbling but delightful sense of admiring awe and astonished wonder and overpowering love in the presence of. . . our Father which art in heaven.”

Coming to a church service and sitting for an hour is not the same as worship. Watching a beautiful sunset isn’t worship. Even praying may not be worship.

We worship when we acknowledge the glory of God, not only for what he has done for us, when is fairly easy. But even more importantly, when we acknowledge the greatness of God simply because of who he is. And that’s not an easy thing for us to do. I would challenge you sometime this week to take five minutes of your time to praise God, not because of what he’s done for you, but simply because of who he is, his attributes, his person, his character.

We would all do well to spend more time in the Psalms to learn how to truly worship God. In Psalm 96, for example:

“Oh sing to the Lord a new song;
sing to the Lord, all the earth!
Sing to the Lord, bless his name;
tell of his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvelous works among all the peoples!
For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised;
he is to be feared above all gods.
For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols,
but the Lord made the heavens.
Splendor and majesty are before him;
strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.
Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength!
Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;
bring an offering, and come into his courts!
Worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness;
tremble before him, all the earth!” (Psalm 96:1-9)

You see, it’s all about God. Worship is all about Him! Every time Scripture mentions worship, it speaks of an action or attitude where thoughts are directed toward God: who he is, what he’s done, why he exists, how he thinks, where he is, why he came, and what he wants.

And when we truly realize that, we will no longer confine worship to something that happens inside these four walls. Don’t get me wrong. What happens here is important. And it’s a beautiful thing, as we bring our worship that we have been involved in all week long and put it together with the worship of everyone else here so that we collectively offer that praise and glory to God.

But worship doesn’t stop when the closing prayer has been offered. And worship doesn’t stop when we walk out that door. “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (I Corinthians 10:31).


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