What Is Worship? A Survey of the Bible, by Michael Morrison
This article explores the topic of worship, looking at how the people of God worshiped before Moses, after Moses, and after Jesus, and how those insights inform our worship today. For a detailed essay that explores this topic in detail, see The Church and Its Ministry.
Though the Bible doesn’t give a formal definition of worship, we can note 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. Doing so is the purpose for which we were called of God to be followers of Jesus: “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). A central part of a Christian’s calling is to declare that God is worthy—that he is worth more than everything else put together.
In the Bible there are two major kinds of words for worship. The first 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.
Word meanings don’t prove what worship is, but they do illustrate three kinds of worship:
- worship that involves speaking
- worship that involves listening
- 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.
Worship before the time of Moses
If we survey the Bible, we will see a wide variety of methods that God’s people have used to worship him and express their devotion to him. Some of these methods were done by specific command from God; others seem to have been the choice of the persons involved. We see this pattern throughout the Bible: some things are commanded and some things are optional.
We don’t have to read the Bible very far before we encounter a story about worship. Genesis 4 tells us that Cain and Abel brought an offering to the Lord. We aren’t told why – we are just told that they did it. A few chapters later, we read that Noah built an altar after the Flood, and he sacrificed some animals.
Later, Abraham made sacrifices. He built an altar at Shechem, another at Bethel, then at Hebron, and at Mount Moriah. As part of his worship, Abraham also prayed, circumcised and tithed. Isaac built an altar at Beersheba and he prayed. Jacob set up a stone pillar at Bethel and poured a drink offering on it, and he poured oil on it as some sort of worship. He built an altar at Shechem, and one at Bethel. He vowed to tithe and he prayed. What conclusions can we draw from this?
- First, no one needed a priest. Everyone built their own altars, sacrificed their own animals and did their own worship. The head of the household acted as the religious leader for the family. We see that in the book of Job, too: Job made sacrifices on behalf of his children. There was no special priesthood. Each person could worship without a priest.
- Second, there aren’t many commands about the worship that the patriarchs did. God sometimes told his people where to build an altar and what to offer, but for the most part, the altars and offerings seem to have been initiated by the people. There’s no mention of special times or special days or special seasons. There doesn’t seem to be any restriction on place, either. The patriarchs stayed away from Baal worship, but other than that, they worshiped the true God wherever and whenever and however they wanted.
- Third, not much is said about method – the people could pour out wine or oil, totally incinerate an animal, or roast it and eat part of it. Abel, Noah, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were not limited by time, location or method. The key word is flexibility. The detailed rules that God gave through Moses did not apply to the patriarchs. They were not restricted by rules about special places, people, rituals and days.
One thing was important – probably the greatest commandment about worship, the most important rule about worship no matter who we are or when we live. The first and greatest commandment is this: You shall worship no other gods.
When God dealt with Jacob, he was not concerned about how he was worshiped – his primary concern was that Jacob worship the true God and no other gods. God demands exclusive worship, 100 percent allegiance. Only that can do justice to his worth. There’s no room for loving any other gods even 1 percent. We cannot allow anything to get in the way of our worship relationship with God. We cannot let money, self-consciousness, busyness or anything else get in the way. Worship is to be our highest priority.
Moses and the tabernacle
In the days of Moses, worship went from very little structure to specific, detailed structure. God specified exactly
- how they were to be made
- where they were to be made
- who was supposed to make them
Worship became much more formal. Under the law of Moses, there were holy places, holy people, holy animals, holy rituals, and holy times. God designated certain things for certain uses in worship.
The tabernacle was a holy place. Wherever it was, it marked off holy space. It was somewhat holy in the outer court, more holy in the inner court, and extremely holy behind the veil. The design of the tabernacle communicated something important about God: that he was holy. You just can’t walk up on him every day. You had to be a very holy person on a very holy day in order to walk into the Holy of Holies, and you had to go through special rituals in order to do it. The tabernacle was a symbolic message about God.
The tabernacle pictured God’s holiness, but it also pictured that he was not some far-off God. No – he was in the camp of Israel. When the Israelites broke camp and the tabernacle was dismantled, the ark of the covenant could be seen. People knew what it was, but when the tabernacle was set up, it was hidden. Close, but not accessible. Although God was near, he was also holy and off-limits, and people could come to him only by using proper channels.
For worship in ancient Israel, there were a holy people. The Levites were holy and assigned to work with the tabernacle. There was a priesthood between the people and God. For many acts of worship, the priests had to perform the actions. There were also holy animals and holy plants. Every firstborn animal was holy, dedicated to the Lord. The first-ripe fruits were holy, set apart for worship. There was a holy incense formula, too, and if anyone made the same formula, they were supposed to be expelled from the nation. It was that special. It was reserved for worship. It was holy.
There were holy times. Every week, one day was holy. Every year, some extra days were holy. Every seven years and every 50 years, a whole year was set apart for special use. These designated times gave structure to the Israelite worship. The who, the what, the when, and the where were all spelled out. Everything was structured, organized, formalized.
Most of those details are obsolete, but the most important principle carries over into today’s worship, too. Only God should be worshiped. It’s not that he should be worshiped more than other gods are. It’s that he is the only God worthy of worship. He is so great, nothing else is even close. There is no god like our God. Nothing can compare with him, so we give him exclusive worship. We do not divide our loyalties between him and Baal, or between him and Mammon, or between him and self. All allegiance and all worship go to him alone.
A matter of the heart
In the Law of Moses, it is easy to be distracted by all the detailed worship regulations, but that is not the real focus. All those details were given in order to serve a larger purpose, and that is God. Our focus should be on God, and the same was true for the ancient Israelites. They were to focus on God.
Worship in ancient Israel was not just at the tabernacle – it was also in the heart and in the home. God did not want people to think that they could do the rituals and then live as they please. It was not enough to “do” the worship – a person’s honor and respect for God should be genuine, in the heart, which meant that God was to be praised in all of life.
In Deuteronomy 6, Moses told the Israelites to put God’s instructions in their hearts, and teach them to their children, to talk about them when they sat, when they walked, and when they lay down. They were to write these instructions on the doorposts, to immerse themselves in God’s way of life. All of life is worship.
Some of the later prophets build on this theme. Samuel told Saul that obedience is better than sacrifice. God wants a right attitude more than he wants correct rituals. In Jeremiah 7:22, God says, I didn’t bring you out of Egypt because I wanted sacrifices. I just wanted you to obey me, and sacrifices are only a tiny part of what I commanded.
Isaiah is even stronger – saying, in effect, “I’m sick of your sacrifices. I’m sick of your sabbaths and holy days.” Here is Isaiah 1:11-17: “I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats…. Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations – I cannot bear your evil assemblies. Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts my soul hates…. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen.” The people were doing rituals, bringing animals, keeping Sabbaths and festivals, even praying, but despite all that, there was something seriously lacking in their worship.
Why didn’t God like their worship? He does not say they were keeping the wrong days or doing the rituals incorrectly. The problem was that their lives were full of sin. So Isaiah counsels: “Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean…. Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the
Their sacrifices, prayers and praises were not accompanied by performance in their day-to-day lives. They had worship rituals, but they did not obey God’s commands for how to treat their neighbors, and the result was unacceptable worship. As Jesus said, quoting Isaiah 29:13, their worship was in vain. It was hypocritical to do the worship if it wasn’t changing the other aspects of their lives.
For worship to be acceptable to God, we must have obedient lives. The ritual is not enough – the attitude is what is most important. God does not want hypocritical worship, people who say he is great but do not act like it. Perhaps this is commandment number 2 regarding worship – that it must be sincere. If we are going to say that God is worthy of all worship, then we should believe it in our hearts, and if we believe it, it will show in our actions. Real worship changes everything we do, because it changes who we are. Worship must be in the heart, not just at
the place of worship.
Micah tells us this: “With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn child?… He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:6-8).
We do not have to have a perfect life. David did not have a sinless life, yet overall, he pleased God. His attitude was right, and that’s the kind of worship God wants most. God even used David in two major developments in Israelite worship.
Music at the temple
Many know that David initiated the building of the Temple, a “permanent” place for worship. But David’s other contribution has lasted even longer than the Temple did. That is in the area of music. David had a background in music. As a shepherd, he played the lyre, a simple stringed instrument. He composed music and sang about God. He worshiped God while he took care of his sheep – it was worship on the job. David’s songs are called psalms. That comes from the Greek word psallo, which means “to pluck a string.” Psalms is a book of songs for stringed instruments. We can worship God with songs and musical instruments.
David didn’t write all the psalms. Some were written centuries later. But David got the psalm-book started, and he organized the way that music is used in worship. He assigned some of the Levites to be worship musicians (1 Chron. 23:5; 25:1-8). Music became a permanent part of worship.
Psalms come in a wide variety. Some are historical, reminding us of God’s great works in creation, in the Exodus, in giving the Israelites the land. Some psalms offer praise. Other express thanksgiving, or ask for God’s help. Some express adoration, ask questions, or complain to God about suffering. The mood ranges from anguish to hope, fear to joy, anger to pride. These songs may have begun as private prayers, but they became prayers in which all the people could join in. The people became participants in these worship songs.
All the psalms are worship – even the psalms that complain. The fact that our questions and complaints are directed to God shows something about our relationship to him. All of life is in his hands, in his control. The psalms show our dependence on him.
The psalms are often in the form of a prayer, in words spoken to God. He is the audience, and the people are the participants, the worshipers. These songs are memorized prayers, since they are spoken to God. Some people think that Christians shouldn’t have memorized prayers. But we actually have several of them during worship services every week. We just have them with a melody, and that is a legitimate form of worship. Even without the melody, a recited prayer can be a legitimate form of worship.
Psalm 150 points out a variety of worship methods: “Praise the Lord. Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens. Praise him for his acts of power; praise him for his surpassing greatness. Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet, praise him with the harp and lyre, praise him with tambourine and dancing, praise him with the strings and flute, praise him with the clash of cymbals, praise him with resounding cymbals. Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.”
We might find some of these worship methods unusual today, but all these artistic expressions are permissible when they are done to the glory of God. The main principle of worship is that we worship only God, and that we really mean it.
After the temple was destroyed and Jews were scattered throughout the Middle East, a new format for worship was developed. In the synagogue, the focus was on Scripture, not on sacrifices. It was a much simpler format.
Synagogue services typically began with praises and prayers. There were standard prayers and benedictions, some of them used every week. The Scriptures would be read, translated when necessary, and explained in some sort of sermon. We can see glimpses of this in the New Testament, but the best description is in Nehemiah 8. Under the leadership of Ezra, some of the Jews had come back to Jerusalem.
“Ezra the scribe stood on a high wooden platform built for the occasion…. [today we might call it a pulpit] Ezra opened the book [the Law of Moses]. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. Ezra praised the Lord, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, ‘Amen! Amen!’ Then they bowed down and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground” (vv. 4-6).
Have you ever seen that kind of response in a modern church service – people lifting their hands, saying Amen, and bowing down? If it’s a genuine response to God, it is a good response. They listened with great respect, with a willingness to obey. “The Levites…instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there. They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read” (vv. 7-8). Synagogue worship followed in this pattern, with a focus on Scripture.
Even though the Temple was eventually rebuilt, the public reading of Scripture in synagogues continued to be an important part of Jewish worship. Most Jews could not go to the temple every week. But with a synagogue, they could gather for worship every Sabbath, with prayers, songs, and Scripture.
One result of this was a new focus for the Sabbath. Even in the days of David, most Israelites could not go to Jerusalem every week. The focus of Sabbath-keeping was therefore on rest, as commanded in Scripture. But when synagogues became common, the Sabbath was also seen as a day of participating in worship. Laymen had a greater role in worship – they could do every portion of the synagogue service. People could worship without a temple, without priests, and without sacrifices.
Now let’s survey the New Testament. What did Jesus do in worship, and what did he say about worship? We may begin by noting that he grew up in Galilee. Although he went to Jerusalem for annual festivals, most of his worship was done away from the temple. We are told that he went to the synagogue, where he would read and explain Scripture. He prayed, in private and in public, and he sang songs.
Jesus would have been involved in some rituals, such as killing a Passover lamb every year. He taught in the temple and chased moneychangers out of it because he wanted the place to be worshipful, a place of prayer. But Jesus also predicted the destruction of the temple. It was not necessary for worship.
The Gospels’ most direct teaching about worship is in John 4. This is set in the context of the centuries-old Jewish-Samaritan squabble about the correct place of worship. The woman said, “Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus replied, “Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem” (vv. 20-21). In other words, location will not be important. Worship will not be associated with any particular spot.
Jesus added, “You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth” (vv. 22-24).
God seeks people who will worship him. Worship is something he wants. He knows it is good for us to worship him. In speaking of “spirit and truth,” Jesus is echoing the prophets: worship must be sincere. External things don’t matter if the heart isn’t right. It doesn’t do us any good to worship at the right place or with the right rituals if our attitude isn’t right. We can sing the right songs and hold our hands in the right way, but if our heart isn’t in it, it isn’t really worship.
Jesus criticized the Pharisees, quoting Isaiah, when he said, “These people worship me in vain; they honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” They are hypocrites, he said. (Matt.15:8). They said the right things, but they didn’t believe them. God does not want hypocritical worship — he wants sincere worship. We aren’t supposed to fake it. We need to believe the praises we say, and if we really believe them, our lives will show it.
Externals are not primary, but if our hearts are right, then we will have externals. Rituals are not primary, but we do have rituals. Jesus himself gave us some, and it is inevitable that people will also develop some customs in their worship. But the focus should be sincere praise for God.
The early church
Acts 2 tells us how worship was done among the people who saw Jesus’ example and followed it. “Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about 3,000 were added to their number that day. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (vv. 41-42). This is their response to God, their devotion, their worship: they accepted the message — they believed, they were repentant, they were baptized — and they devoted themselves to
- being taught
- sharing with one another
- breaking bread
Luke is giving a summary description, not a formula for worship services.
“Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people” (vv. 46-47). They worshipped in the temple, and they worshipped in their homes. They praised God, they were happy, and they were sincere.
Apparently many of the Jewish Christian in Judea continued to participate in the temple rituals until the temple was destroyed in A.D. 70 (Acts 21:20-26). Christian faith did not require them to abandon the rituals – but neither did the rituals seem to help them in their faith.
When we examine worship customs, we need to distinguish between what is required, what is permissible, and what is helpful. Few things are required, and few things are forbidden. The many things in between are permissible – if they are done for the glory of God. Luke doesn’t tell us much more about worship. To learn more about worship, we turn next to the writings of Paul.
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.
The New Testament clearly tells us that Christians meet together regularly. It gives us commands regarding meeting together regularly. And if we are worshipping in all aspects of life, we will certainly worship when we get together. Paul uses worship-related words in some surprising ways. Romans 12:1 is one of the better-known uses: “I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God — this is your spiritual act of worship.”
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.
We get our English word “liturgy” from the Greek word leitourgia. In the Greek Old Testament and in pagan Greek literature, it refers to public works of worship. But Paul used it in a different context — an offering of money — money to be used in helping other Christians in famine relief, or money to be used in helping spread the gospel of Jesus Christ. Romans 15:27 uses this word: “If the Gentiles have shared in the Jews’ spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to minister to them” — literally, to give liturgy to them — “with material blessings.” Paul uses this word for worship to describe financial help. This seemingly ordinary service to the saints was
actually an act of worship, a religious activity.
We see a similar thing in Philippians 4:18, which Paul wrote after receiving financial help from the Christians in Philippi: “I have received full payment and even more; I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent. They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God.” And in 2 Corinthians 9:12, he wrote, “This service – this liturgy – that you perform is not only supplying the needs of God’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God.” The people were worshipping with their money, which we can do with our offerings today, as well.
Hebrews 13 combines two New Testament forms of worship. “Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise — the fruit of lips that confess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased” (vv. 15-16). Some worship is given in words of praise, and some worship is given to God when we help one another.
In the old covenant, God required the Israelites to serve him through a priesthood, a sacrificial system and a temple. In the new covenant, all believers are priests, all believers offer sacrifices all the time, and we as a body of people are the temple of God. Worship is dramatically different. The ministry of worship has been given to all the people.
Historically, several types of devotion have been recognized as important in a person’s spiritual maturity. The top two are prayer and Bible study. These have demonstrated their value time and time again in the lives of millions of Christians of all denominational affiliations. If we want spiritual health, we need a good spiritual diet, and these disciplines are helpful. They don’t guarantee spiritual growth, but they do provide an environment in which growth can occur more readily.
If we are in poor spiritual health, we need to check ourselves: Are we doing the things that Christians throughout the centuries have found helpful? We’d like to have quick fixes, like an easy-to-swallow pill that puts us right, but there aren’t any shortcuts like that. We may be able to get away with a junk-food diet for a while, but eventually we are going to feel some negative results, and we can’t expect one week of good food to restore us to excellent health. It requires a long-term commitment for slow, almost imperceptible improvement, and the same is true for spiritual health. There are no quick fixes, no magic potions. It requires a long-term commitment and some sacrifices.
God doesn’t give us rules about prayer and Bible study. He doesn’t say 30 minutes a day or 90 minutes a day. We have to make our own decisions, and what’s right for you isn’t necessarily right for me. But we each have to make spiritual health a priority in our lives.
Of course, we do not worship entirely on our own, each going our separate way. The New Testament picture is that we regularly get together – and when we gather, we will worship. That’s what we do all day long, so how much more will we do it when we gather together! But our gatherings are not the only place we worship. True worship is in the heart, and in its outward expression it can take place in the home, on the job, and in the church.
In our worship services today, where is the worship? It’s in the singing of songs, the giving of prayers, the reading of Scripture, listening to the sermon, giving offerings, and sharing in the Lord’s Supper. There is also the work that goes on behind the scenes to conduct these elements of worship. People who get the building ready may be making sacrifices to God that are pleasing to him. Those who help with refreshments may worship as they work. When we do good and share with others, we are giving the kind of worship that God wants.
People who work with children are worshiping as they help children understand the good news about Jesus Christ. In their actions and in their words, they are praising God. They are showing that he changes our lives, and he changes our priorities. We no longer live to please ourselves, but to serve others. This is a form of worship.
During the time of the apostles, what happened in church meetings? We don’t know for sure. Neither Luke nor Paul gives us a complete description. However, we have some glimpses. We saw in Acts that prayer, teaching and fellowship are involved. Other verses talk about songs, too. Colossians 3:16 tells us the early church sang in their worship: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.” Ephesians 5:19 is similar: “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord.”
Prayer was also part of the worship. It was mentioned in Acts 2, and it’s supported by 1 Timothy 2. What kind of prayers were these? Did everyone say the same prayer in unison, like Jews in the synagogues did? Or did they just take turns, each saying a prayer out loud? We do not know. Either way would be possible.
Scripture reading was an important part of the church meeting, since it had been an important part of the synagogue service. Moreover, the New Testament admonishes believers to stick to the apostles’ doctrine, to the standard of teaching, to the word of life, to the words of faith, to good doctrine and sound words, to sound teaching and the faith once delivered. These are different ways of saying that doctrine was important to the New Testament church. It was important to teach and learn certain truths.
One of the longest passages about church meetings is in 1 Corinthians 14. Some unusual things were happening in the church at Corinth, and Paul had to give them some guidance about it. Most of the chapter is trying to bring control to a situation that was out of control. Paul summarized their situation and provided a focus in verse 1 Cor. 14:26a : “What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation.” The church meeting included songs, teaching, the use of spiritual gifts and also the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 10:16-17). All were be done for the strengthening of the church” (1 Cor. 14:26b).
Worship involves our entire relationship with God: our words, our attitudes, and our actions. Our words may be normal conversation, songs or prayers. In any style of speaking, we can declare God’s praises and express our faith reliance on him. God wants worship not only on our lips, but also in our hearts. He wants our worship to be sincere — he wants to be the most important thing in our lives, that we are truly submissive to him. He wants our worship to affect our behavior, that we make sacrifices, that we put to death the deeds of selfishness, that we seek justice, be merciful and humble, and help others. He wants us not just to obey him, but to serve in ways that go beyond specific commands. We are to worship wherever we go, doing all things to God’s glory, praying always, giving thanks always, never ceasing to be a temple of the Holy Spirit. Our worship involves how we work, how we drive, and how we choose what to watch on television.
There are also actions that are more specifically times of worship. We might call these private devotions, or spiritual disciplines. These are habits and actions of worship we do individually, as opposed to worship when we gather as a church.
Worship is not restricted to a specific place and time. The best thing that has ever happened to us is that we have God in our lives. The best thing that’s happened to us this week is that we have God in our lives. We have reason to celebrate all the time. When we live each day praising God in our hearts, it is natural that we praise God when we gather together, when we speak to one another about the best thing that’s ever happened to us. We worship all the time, but we also worship together at specific times at meetings designated for that specific purpose.
What’s involved in our worship services?
- Our first act of worship is gathering together. Simply by gathering, we are showing that God has worth. Where two or three are gathered in his name, he will be present in a special way. When we gather, we gather in the presence of God. As the Old Testament says, we appear before the Lord. It’s like an ancient throne room, and we are invited to be with him.In our worship services, we want God to be present. We specifically ask him to be present. He promises to be present. And if we are sincere about this, we should expect him to be present. And when we sing in God’s presence, we are singing to him. It’s not just a song about God — it is a song to God. These are words spoken to him. Like many of the psalms, the hymns we sing are often prayers set to music. He is the audience; we are the participants.
- Like the psalms, our music comes in a wide variety. Some songs express positive emotions, such as adoration, praise, thanksgiving, confidence, faith, joy or excitement. We should always be happy that God is in our life. Even when we have trials, we are to rejoice. The psalms tell us to come before him and rejoice, to praise the Lord, to sing a new song unto the Lord. Praise him in the heights. Praise him, praise him, praise him. Our joy in him should spill over into praises. Our worship should be dominated by praise.But joy is not the only legitimate emotion we can have with God. The psalms also have prayers of confession and supplication. Some of our hymns are more meditative than celebrative. Some ask questions, some express sorrow, or anguish or fear. All of these are legitimate emotions we can sing about.
- Our worship services usually contain several prayers. They include praise, usually a request, sometimes a confession. When someone near the beginning of services asks God to be in the service, to inspire the service, this is something we all want. We join in the prayer not as an audience, but as participants. When we say “amen,” we are saying, That’s my prayer, too. I want God to be here, too.When we express our dependence on God, when we give all our requests to him, it shows his worth. When we want to be in his presence, it shows that he is good. When we confess our sins to him, it shows his greatness. When we give him thanks and praise, it exalts him and glorifies him. We worship when we participate in the prayers.
- A fourth major part of our worship service is the sermon. The sermon is a communication of God’s word to us. It explains to us what God’s will is for our life. We expect God to speak to us through his Word, by inspiring the speaker, and we listen for what God is telling us. God’s truth affects our lives and our hearts. It affects real life, and it demands a heart-felt response. The sermon should therefore appeal to our mind and to our emotions.In the sermon, we are not just an audience — we should also be participants. We should actively think about the Scriptures, think about the sermon, think about what it means in our lives. This isn’t just information about God — it is information about how God wants to change our lives. Part of our worship, part of our respectful response to God, is listening for what he wants to teach us and how he wants to change us.We have to listen with the expectation hat the sermon contains something God wants to tell us. It may be different for you than it is for me. The point is that we have to participate in the listening. Just as we participate in the music, and we participate in the prayers, we are all supposed to participate in the sermon, too.
- A fifth major part of our worship service is the Lord’s Supper (Communion). Some congregations have Communion weekly, some monthly, others quarterly. Whenever it is part of the worship service, it is the heart—the center of the service.
What is our response to the services?
Our response to the various elements of the worship service comes in multiple ways. One way is to do what God is telling us to do in the service. Some do this by serving in various capacities within the church. Others respond with service outside of the church, and some may respond by telling others how good and great God is — worshiping him by doing the priestly duty of sharing the good news of salvation — and hopefully all these responses will be common. Sometimes the proper response is more in emotion
No matter what, we should expect God to affect, through worship, both our emotions and our minds. Our relationship with him involves all our heart, mind, soul and strength. God wants all of us, not just part of us. The real test of worship is not what happens at church, but what happens at home, and on the job, and wherever we go. Is God important enough to make a difference in the way we live, in the way we work, in the way we get along with other people? When the Holy Spirit lives in us, when we are the temple of the Holy Spirit, worship is a part of everyday life.
To some people, ritual suggests meaningless actions. Some rituals are like that, but not all rituals are. God has commanded us to have some rituals, some repeated actions. We don’t want them to become meaningless, and to avoid that, we need to keep reminding ourselves of their meaning.
Some churches have many rituals, a highly structured service, a liturgy with carefully designed prayers, responsive readings, reciting creeds, and other repeated actions. In some respects, this is like what the temple worship was. Other churches are much simpler, more like the synagogue, with a focus on Scripture. Neither approach is commanded or forbidden.
Grace Communion International has traditionally been on the simpler side of things. We have a small number of ceremonies, such as weddings, funerals, ordination, blessing of children, anointing the sick, and a few others. But two ceremonies (called sacraments) are much more important than the others—baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Both of these picture, through physical actions, spiritual truths about the gospel. They proclaim God’s worth not only in what we say, but also by what we do. In different ways, they picture the death and life of Jesus Christ. (See the GCI articles on the meaning of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.)
Let’s conclude with a simple test that encapsulates some of the major themes of worship. To analyze a worship practice, we need to ask these questions:
- Does it glorify God? That is one major purpose of worship.
- Does it build up the body of Christ? That is another major purpose.
- Does it help us be what God wants us to be in the world? Does it have practical results in our lives?
Of course, no how carefully planned and carried out, our worship is never perfect. This is due largely to the fact that our lives are imperfect. We try to be living sacrifices for God, but we don’t always do that right. As some have said, the problem with living sacrifices is that they keep crawling off of the altar. Like the people of ancient Israel, our lives are mixed with sin.
We do not have the faith that we’d like to have. We do not have as much love as we’d like to have. We do not pray as well as we wish we could. Our songs do not express our emotions as well as we’d like. We would like to present our king with sparkling jewels, but we have only plastic trinkets to give!
How do we face our shortcomings in worship? We respond in the same way that we respond for other areas of failure: we look to Jesus. He has offered the perfect sacrifice for all of us; he has given his life to God as an act of worship for all humanity. He is our substitute — this is what theologians mean by a vicarious sacrifice. What he did counts for us. He had no sins of his own, and yet he gave himself as a sacrifice for sin — our sins.
Many Christians realize that Jesus was our substitute when it comes to sacrifice. “Christ died for us” is part of the New Testament message. He has given the worship that we could not. But Jesus is our substitute in other ways, too, because our lives are hidden in him (Colossians 3:2), and he lives in us (Galatians 2:20). The prayers that we offer are not perfect, but we pray in Christ’s name, and he intercedes for us. He takes our defective prayers, removes the parts where we ask amiss, adds the details that we have neglected, and offers those prayers to God as perfect worship.
Because Jesus Christ is our representative, he offers perfect worship on our behalf, and our role is to join him in what he is already doing for us. Whether it is sacrifice, prayer, study or response, he has already been there and done that for us. The worship he gives to God is a vicarious worship, done for us, on our behalf.
We do our best to “get it right,” but part of being “right” is admitting that we aren’t always right (1 John 1:8). So the last word on worship is that we must look to Jesus as the one who is doing it right for us, and he invites us to join in what he is doing.