There is no shortage of resources available regarding the subject of Christian worship. Just visit your favorite bookstore or online retailer and enter “worship” in the search bar and you’ll find a plethora of recommendations. You’ll see resources that range from the worship culture of ancient Israel to the modern church’s form of worship through song. But what exactly is worship? We must answer this question correctly and then we must answer subsequent questions – Who is to be worshiped and What does acceptable worship look like? – to form a more accurate definition.
Worship – What is it?
Worship is generally defined as an act of religious devotion usually directed towards a deity. Biblically, we must understand how the inspired writers of Scripture defined and used worship. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for worship is שָׁחָה (pronounced shacah) and it means to bow down or prostrate oneself before God. This word was used 172 times in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, the Greek word for worship is προσκυνέω (pronounced proskuneo) and it means kneeling or prostration to do homage (to one) or make obeisance, whether in order to express respect or to make supplication. This word was used 65 times in the New Testament and the similarity of definitions is striking.
To answer the second question, worship was only to be directed toward the triune God. Worship toward anything or anyone else is the chief sin against God and the pathway to all other forms of sin. This was Israel’s first and second commands as the LORD was constituting them at Mt. Sinai (Exodus 20:3-6). Israel was to have no other God before Him and they were not to fashion any sort of idol to bow down to as a representation of Him.
The answers to these two questions set the framework for acceptable worship. Both definitions of worship from each testament include physical prostration or a bowing down. This physical prostration, I believe, is a visible manifestation of one’s heart or attitude of humility and honor. Humility and honor are right responses to God, the maker of heaven and earth and the fullness thereof! With respect to this imagery, worship is more appropriately defined as a right response to the character and worth of God. New Testament scholar, D.A. Carson offers the following definition – Worship is the proper response of all moral, sentient beings to God, ascribing all honor and worth to their Creator-God precisely because his is worthy, delightfully so. 1
But how does one express such reverent responses of honor to God? What are acceptable forms of worship? If we’re considering corporate worship settings, some advocate for the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW) and others advocate for the Normative Principle of Worship (NPW). If we’re considering our individual worship, I believe the New Testament commands what is described in Carson’s definition. Worship is a lifestyle response to the worth of our Creator.
The Bible: A Means of Worship
In the epistle to the Romans, after explaining the merciful indicatives of their regeneration, Paul exhorts the believers at Rome to present their bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that is by testing, you may discern what is the will of God, what is good acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2)
Here we see the direct call to offer their bodies as living sacrifices, which was their spiritual worship. Then we see the exhortation to not be conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewal of the mind, that by testing they may discern the will of God. Worship involves both mind and body according to Paul. But where is the will of God found? The Scriptures. If we are to worship God according to his will, we must be well acquainted with the Scriptures. Since Mt. Sinai, God has used His written word to form, shape, remind, and disciple His people. Obeying His word is worship. Consider how the Scriptures themselves testify to its necessity for worship within the covenant community.
- God wrote the Law on two tablets of testimony that was to govern the people. – Exodus 32:15-16, Deuteronomy 5:22
- God told Moses to make two more tablets for testimony after gold calf idol incident. – Exodus 34:1, Deuteronomy 10:1-5
- Israel was to have written reminders of God’s law within their community. – Deuteronomy 6:1-9; 11:18-20
- Moses wrote Deuteronomy (2nd giving of Law) and it was to be read before the nation every 7 years. – Deuteronomy 31:9-13
- The LORD instructs Joshua to obey the Book of the Law. – Joshua 1:7-8
- God warns Solomon of judgment if he refuses to obey His word. – 1 Kings 9:6-9
- The Lord sent the (writing) Prophets, who were covenant enforcers, to warn His covenant people about their covenant breaking. (see Isaiah – Malachi)
- Ezra and others were used to read and explain the Law to the exiles that have returned and rebuilt Jerusalem. – Nehemiah 8:1-8
- Blessing for delighting in the Law of the LORD. – Psalm 1:2
- The Law of the LORD is good for us. – Psalm 19:7-11, Psalm 119
- The gospels reveal Jesus as the promised Messiah, who teaches on the kingdom and is recognized as the Word of God that we might believe and have life (See Matthew – John, John 1:1-3, 19:35, 20:30-31 *note Matthew’s numerous quotes of the Prophets.
- Jesus testifies that the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms find their fulfillment in Him. – Luke 24:2-27, 36-45
- Paul references the wilderness generation’s idolatry as a warning for the Corinthian church. He expressed how the written account of their failure is useful for the Corinthians. – 1 Corinthians 10:1-11
- Paul reasons from the Old Covenant Scriptures to make different arguments relating to the New Covenant. -Romans 4-5, 9-11, Galatians 2:15 – 3:29
- Paul instructs Timothy to hold to the pattern of sound teaching for the work going on in the Ephesian church . –1 & 2 Timothy
- Paul testifies to the sufficiency of Scripture for the maturing of the saints. – 2 Timothy 3:16-17
- The writer of Hebrews reasons from many Old Covenant texts to show its insufficiency when compared to Jesus. – Hebrews
- James instructs us to be doers of the Word, not hearers only.– James 1:19-27
- Peter elevates the divinely inspired Word over his experiences. – 2 Peter 1:16-21
- God gave a vision to John and told him to write it down and distribute to particular churches. – Revelation 1:9-11
- There is a special blessing for the reading, the hearing and obeying Revelation. – Revelation
The whole Bible of course is the essential and sufficient rule of faith for Christians, but I wanted to draw attention to a just a few specific places where it attests to its own importance throughout redemptive history.
God has graciously provided and sustained His Word that we might be convinced of sin, turn to Christ by faith and live a life of worship and holiness by the Spirit’s power according to the revealed will of God. That’s what it means to be a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1-2).
If we are going to be a faithful people who have been redeemed from sin and reconciled to worship our Creator, we must be people of the Book. God’s very mind, heart and will are revealed in Scripture.
To love God is to obey Him (John 14:15). To neglect the Scriptures, is to neglect God.
However, as we come to the Scriptures, with faith and trusting the Spirit’s illumination, we will see our sin more clearly. We will see the provision for our sin. We will better understand what worship looks like. We will rejoice in our blessed hope – the appearing of Christ! We will see Christ more clearly. We will behold our God! And like the Psalmist, we will sing –
Bless the Lord, O my soul!
O Lord my God, you are very great!
You are clothed with splendor and majesty, …
1D.A. Carson, Worship by the Book, (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2002), 26.