When you hear the word worship you get a certain picture in your head. Odds are that it involves singing of some sort. But worship is much more than this. So, what is worship? Why do we worship? Who do we worship? How do we worship? These are all questions that need to be answered before one can truly worship. We attend worship services and say we worship God, but very few people have a concept of what worship is, or what it should be.
What is worship? The question can be answered in a number of ways, mostly depending on the why, who, and how of worship. Worship of God, or any god, is different in form from the worship of money, self, or pleasure. Worship of God is intentional. He doesn’t trick us into worshipping the way that Satan draws us away to worship money or pleasure.
Worship is defined one way as, “That attitude and those corporate and personal acts of reverence that are the appropriate response of human beings to God’s self-revelation.” (Revell Concise Bible Dictionary)
Worship is an appropriate response. We worship God because he is great. We worship because He is awesome in His works. We worship Him because He is the creator of all things. He is worthy of our praise. That’s a mouthful. It answers the question of why we worship but leaves us with many unanswered questions. So where do we look for a definition of worship but to the Bible.
The Bible is full of references to worship and spends a lot of time on how to worship. The Old Testament uses three different words that are translated worship. The one used the most is Shacah (shaw-khaw). It is used in reference to lying prostrate or bowing before God or a king.
The New Testament has seven different words for worship and it is here that the task to define worship becomes more difficult. One is to prostrate oneself in homage, just like the Old Testament word meant. Another is to cleave unto or remain with a person. An important meaning, although not used often is to minister (to God) through service. Once, it is meant to be pious or to respect. Once there is a reference to voluntary piety. These words give us an idea of what worship is but leaves the “how” of worship unanswered. To discover the how of worship we have to look at different passages where worship is described but is specifically mentioned.
The first appearance of the word worship is in Genesis 22:5. In this passage, Abraham has taken Isaac up onto the mountain and is prepared to sacrifice him. “He said to his servants, ‘Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.’” He was prepared to sacrifice his son but instead was given a ram, which he sacrificed.
In Exodus, the Israelites are given instructions on how they are to worship. In chapter 23 they are given three festivals that they are to celebrate annually; the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Harvest, and the Feast of Ingathering. They are given very detailed instructions on how the tabernacle was to be built and how sacrifices were to be carried out. The priests had to wear specific garments and do things in just a certain way.
Exodus 31:16 clearly says that the Israelites were to celebrate on the Sabbath. The penalty for not observing this, as mentioned two verses before, was death. This is why we worship once a week.
Israel didn’t do so well keeping these commandments however. Moses hadn’t made it down from the mountain after receiving the Ten Commandments before the Israelites were worshipping the golden calf. They’d struggle with this the entire time they were a nation.
Isaiah 2:8 says that the land of Israel “is full of idols; they bow down to the work of their hands, to what their fingers made.” How did a people so remarkably taken care of by God throughout its history forget about Him and worship other gods? It happened gradually and because their worship was false.
Psalm 50:8-10 shows the attitude of the Israelites in their worship. They believed that sacrifices were the most important thing to God. God however tells them what they mean to Him. “I do not rebuke you for your sacrifices or your burnt offerings, which are ever before me. I have no need of a bull from your stall or of goats from your pens, for every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills.”
If God had no need of Israel’s sacrifices, why did He require them to begin with? God was looking at the heart of those sacrificing. We are to give sacrificially. It shouldn’t be mindlessly as something we are required to do but it should be a joy to give back to the Lord for all that He has done for us.
Micah 6:6-8 further says what God thinks of burnt offerings and what he really wants.
“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 for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has shown 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.”
Once again, God has no need of what we give Him because it is already His. What does He want? He wants us to act justly and love mercy. We are to walk humbly with Him. This is what He asks for instead of the ritualistic, half-hearted sacrifices that the Israelites offered Him.
If God wanted ritualistic worship, he could have created zombies to worship Him. Instead, He wants us to walk with Him. This isn’t just a Sunday morning affair either. This is 24/7. When we walk humbly with God all of the time, worship will come naturally to us. It won’t be simply a ritual but an outpouring of love for our creator every day.
Today, in a lukewarm church, we are very much like the people of Malachi’s time. (Malachi 1:13 “And you say, ‘What a burden!’ And sniff at it contemptuously, says the Lord Almighty.”) Worship has become a burden for us. We offer only part of ourselves. We drag ourselves out of bed on Sunday. We suffer through an hour long worship service, and maybe Sunday school because that’s what is expected of us. When we sing, we repeat the words without meaning.
Some argue that music should be faster, or more rhythmic, or more entertaining. The problem doesn’t lie in the music. It lies in our hearts. It isn’t the rhythm that makes the music meaningful. It is our attitude towards singing it.
How we worship isn’t a matter of style. We all have our preferences but there isn’t a right or wrong style. I’ve been in a couple of churches that are filled with refugees from Sierra Leone and immigrants from Jamaica and let me promise you that they don’t worship anything like typical white, Protestant churches but their worship is not wrong.
The disciples sung hymns. David danced before the Lord. The psalmists often sung to the harp and the lyre. I believe that if David was placed in the company of the apostles, they’d find each other’s style of worship in music very different. Whatever the style however, we’ll worship God together in heaven.
Worship is a whole lot more than music. This is one major aspect however and the one given the most attention because the largest book in the Bible is a song book.
The New Testament brought about a new system of worship. The ritualistic sacrifices were done away with because Christ is our sacrifice, once for all. The New Testament lays out instructions on worship more in matters of heart and less having to do with simple actions.
Romans 12:1-2 instructs us to deny ourselves in worship. “Therefore, I urge you, 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. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is- his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
Obviously, offering ourselves isn’t something that will take place during a normal Sunday morning worship service. This is part of our worship throughout the week. This passage has also been translated –“this is your spiritual act of service.” When we serve others, we serve God. As in the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 26:31-46 what we do for others is also for God.
Verses 37-40:“When did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you? The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’”
Colossians 2:20-23 is another description of what worship isn’t. The people of Colosse were stuck in the legalism of their Jewish past. Paul tells them to leave the past behind them.
“Since you died with Christ, to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to rules: ‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!’? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false sense of humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.”
We can put up the same type of front that the Colossians did when we look to our works in place of worship or we force ourselves to worship. We think that merely coming to church will pass some sort of requirement that God has. These people checked off their lists of what they avoided like some check off their lists today. Go to Sunday school, go to morning service, go to evening service, go to Wednesday night service, sing in the choir. All of these are great things except when they become something we feel we are required to do and don’t do because we enjoy doing them or wish to worship God instead of just showing up.
Likewise, obedience to the law will not help us worship. Hebrews 10:1 says, “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming- not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship.”
The whole purpose of Christ’s coming was that we were not capable of upholding God’s commandments. Because of this, we had no right to come to God in worship. We have no fellowship with God when we are covered in sin. Isaiah realized this when he stood before the Lord and knew that he was holy. The Israelite high priest had to first make a sacrifice for himself before he could go into the Holy of Holies on that one special day a year to sacrifice for the people.
Likewise, we don’t come before God because of our deeds but because of Christ’s sacrifice. And we must be on the right terms with God to worship. Not that it shouldn’t be done daily, unless you make it through a day without sinning- I don’t- but we must ask God to forgive us our sins. Sure, our sins have been paid once for all, but our relationship still suffers when there is sin separating us from God.
Finally, we must worship in spirit and truth. In John 4:21-24 Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that true worshippers will worship in spirit and truth.
“Jesus declared, ‘Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem . 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 true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in spirit and in truth.”
The Samaritans had plenty of spirit. They worshipped on Mt. Gerizim with dancing and singing and everything else. There are still 400 of them who worship there today. The problem- they lacked truth. They worshipped God but missed Jesus. When we worship, the truth must be present. That means in our sermons and our songs.
There also must be spirit. The people of Malachi’s day had the truth. They were waiting for the Messiah. They were lukewarm in their worship. It was a burden to them. Their hearts weren’t into what they were doing.
When we worship, we must have spirit and truth. We don’t have a whole lot of control over the truth that we hear, short of going to another church. We do control our hearts however. We must first prepare our hearts for worship by having a right relationship with God. Ideally, we should be living our lives so that we always are walking in the ways of God. Unfortunately, this doesn’t usually happen. We must ask forgiveness and be made right with God.
We should come to church eager to worship God, not dragging ourselves there to check it off of our list for the week. When we sing, we shouldn’t just repeat empty words. We are to make a joyful noise unto the Lord, but it is only noise when our hearts aren’t involved in it. In Amos 5:23 God says, “Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps.” Instead, God desires to listen to the music of our hearts.
Worship doesn’t stop when we leave the church doors. We serve God through our actions throughout the week. What we do for others, we do for Him.
So what is the heart of worship? It is worship of the heart!
To read more on the topic of worship, check out Project Worship.