A while back I came across an article where the writer elaborated on his distaste for the “worship” industry, and how it muddies what “true Christian worship” is for him. Putting aside some of the catholic-related portions, the author’s main points felt pretty spot on. More importantly, it got me to revisit a topic that has troubled me for most of my Christian life: “what is worship”?
This is a slightly updated version of an article I wrote 2 years ago.
In modern Christian life you quickly learn to divide the church service into 2 main parts: “Worship time” and “Preaching time.” Once in a while they’ll mix things up. Maybe “worship” lasted the whole service, or it was at the end, or maybe it became an intercession thing. Overall, those were ultimately the two primary Sunday morning activities. “Worship”, as a child, mainly meant “when everybody sings.” It may or may not also include some dancing, flag waving, and/or instruments, depending on the church. There was also a clear difference in the songs as well. There were some songs that you definitely wouldn’t dance to, but rather sit quietly at your chair, kneel, and usually pray through. Normally, these songs were also the ones that, when played, would cause people to cry and raise up their hands.
Later in my youth, the latter is what I began to define as “real worship.” That’s not to say the former was “fake” or anything, but rather I deemed it a sort of “lower level worship” while the more emotional version was the one you were supposed to try and “obtain” because it was when you “truly connected with the Lord,” or so I imagined. I’ve always felt (and I imagine many other believers, new and old) that I have great difficulty reaching this “super emotional state” that apparently your typical Christian can achieve with relative ease. Sure, I could clap my hands for the active songs, and I could talk to the Lord during the more quiet phase of the music, but what a difficult task it was to get myself to cry. It seems like pastors and Christian leaders are constantly drilling in the notion that when you are truly thankful, truly in awe of what the Lord has done for you and your life, you can’t help but cry. It’s the natural thing to do. When you reach this level of gratitude, then maybe your sinful heart may open up to a state where you can truly “worship the Lord.” So begins my dilemma: Why is it so hard for me to reach this state?
Understanding that there are believers that probably share in this struggle in their daily walk, let’s return to the question the article sparked back up, “what is worship.” I’ve had this idea all my life of what it is (and how bad at it I am) but one thing I’ve noticed as I’ve become an adult is that it’s always a good idea to revisit things you once believed and get a solid understanding of it, because when someone comes across and challenges the idea or notion, you need to be able to defend whatever it is you believe (and if you can’t, perhaps you need to correct something/learn more about it). First thing’s first: What does the Bible have to say about worship? A quick search shows me that the word worship shows up in 102 verses of the KJV. So, I began going down the list:
The very first instance of worship was Genesis 22:5, which states:
Abraham said to his young men, "Stay here with the donkey. The boy and I will go over there and worship and then return to you."
For context, the chapter continues with (my emphasis):
So Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. But Isaac spoke to Abraham his father and said, "My father!" And he said, "Here I am, my son."
Then he said, "Here is the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?" Abraham said, "My son, God will provide for Himself the lamb for a burnt offering." So the two of them went together. Then they came to the place that God had told him. So Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood; and he bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on the wood. Then Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him out of heaven and said, "Abraham, Abraham!"
And he said, "Here I am." Then He said, "Do not lay your hands on the boy or do anything to him, because now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your only son from Me." Then Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behind him was a ram caught in a thicket by his horns. So Abraham went and took the ram and offered him up as a burnt offering in the place of his son.
Interesting to note: the very first mention of worship ends up being a sacrifice. There is nothing regarding music in this passage. Now, of course you don’t need music to “worship” but I don’t even see Abraham praying or anything in this chapter, you know, maybe “prepare his heart” a bit? However, Abraham himself claims that he was going off with Isaac to worship. The Genesis verse is just the start of the pattern:
If you ever forget the Lord your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, then I testify against you today that you will surely perish.
Deu. 8:19 (MEV)
But the Lord, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt with great power and a stretched out arm, him shall ye fear, and him shall ye worship, and to him shall ye do sacrifice.
2 Kings 17:36 (KJV)
All they that be fat upon earth shall eat and worship: all they that go down to the dust shall bow before him: and none can keep alive his own soul.
Psalms 22:29 (MEV)
And it shall come to pass, that from one new moon to another, and from one sabbath to another, shall all flesh come to worship before me, saith the Lord.
Isaiah 66:23 (MEV)
There are certain Jews whom thou hast set over the affairs of the province of Babylon, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego; these men, O king, have not regarded thee: they serve not thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.
Daniel 3:12 (KJV)
Thy graven images also will I cut off, and thy standing images out of the midst of thee; and thou shalt no more worship the work of thine hands.
Micah 5:13 (KJV)
Are you seeing the pattern here? Interestingly enough, the MEV translates the passage in 2 Kings a hint differently (but accurately), with a key to this whole study clearly revealed:
Rather, the Lord, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt with great power and an outstretched arm, Him you shall fear, to Him you shall bow down, and to Him you shall sacrifice.
2 Kings 17:36 (MEV)
Almost every single instance of the word worship in these examples (99 total in the Old Testament) comes from the Hebrew word
shachah, which means to
bow down. Daniel’s verse (and 12 others) uses
cĕgid which means
to prostrate oneself (basically the same thing). The New Testament isn’t much different, with the vast majority of verses having the same keywords as the Old: sacrifice, offering, bow down, serve, kneel (and the OT in particular, usually towards idols). At this point it was absolutely clear: at the very least, worship has nothing to do with music. In fact, only one verse in those 102 seemed to indicate anything music-related: Psalm (surprise) 66:4, which says “All the earth shall worship thee, and shall sing unto thee….” However, with our “new” definition, we can clearly see that this would now read more along the lines of “they’ll bow down and sing” which separates the 2 actions a little more (unless they were literally singing while bowing down).
The notion of “bowing down to idols” shouldn’t be anything new to even the most beginner Christians, but the realization of the Bible’s definition for worship was quite the revelation. It literally means to
bow down. I’m sure there were emotions involved in bowing down, but the only requirement to actually worshiping then seems to have been “bend your knees, have them touch the floor, and lean forward.” That being said, the study obviously doesn’t end here, as if worship were mainly some Old Testament concept that doesn’t apply to a modern Christian. There were two key verses in the New Testament that really popped out to me and nailed down an answer to my question: The first was in John 4, and the other in Philippians 3.
The instances of
worship in the New Testament were substantially less than that of the Old, with Revelation taking the majority of the count, but John 4 had a well known story that was essential to my study. The woman at the well runs into a man she’s apparently heard things about, “The Messiah”. Jesus in his infinite wisdom speaks into her life, and during his talk with her, mentions something interesting regarding worship:
Jesus said to her, "Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews. Yet the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth. For the Father seeks such to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship Him in spirit and truth."
John 4:21-24 (MEV)
When I saw the words “true worshipers” I knew I had to pay very close attention, as God himself was going to describe these people (of whom I want to be a part of), or so I thought. As you can see, it’s not like Jesus gets too in-depth with this concept of “worship in spirit and truth”. However, there is still some good stuff to extract from these verses.
Jesus said to her, "Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father.
The Samaritans “worshiped” on this mountain, the Jews worshiped in Jerusalem, neither of these locations were going to matter soon as Jesus reveals more but the first thing I noticed about worship as defined by Christ is that it is not bound by location. Jesus mentions it in terms of cities, but I believe it implies a little more than that. Jews didn’t worship just “anywhere” in Jerusalem, there was a very holy place known as “the temple” where they’d go do that. Bowing down and making sacrifices in the temple was the form of worship that God has established back in the Mosaic Law. This was all going to change though.
You worship what you do not know; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews.
Admittedly, I’m not exactly sure what Jesus meant by this first part. I understand that Jews “know what they worship”, they are God’s chosen people and were given the Scriptures from the time of Moses. They are well aware of the one known as “the Messiah”, that He is coming, and that He too will be a Jew. The Samaritans “worshiping what they do not know” makes it sound like they might have some understanding of who the Messiah is, but aren’t well versed enough in Scripture to really understand who He is? I would imagine if the Samaritans were worshiping something else (like idols) Jesus would have sounded more harsh than this. Either way, the key here is the fact that salvation is coming.
Yet the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth. For the Father seeks such to worship Him.
The new “style” of worship is apparently linked to this new hour (which is now here). From here on out a true worshiper will worship God “in spirit and truth”, and those are the type of worshipers the Father seeks. This is crucial as it’s the only thing I care about. All the stuff a pastor or leader teaches me about is worthless if it’s not actually what my Father is seeking. What is “in spirit and truth” though?
God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship Him in spirit and truth.”
Jesus finishes off what He tells the woman with this. In context, I’m linking this straight to verse 21. I believe Jesus is making a comparison, “before you worshiped physically at the temple, by outwardly bowing down and making sacrifices, but now you will truly worship, inwardly with your hearts, spiritually.” You must worship God in this way now, says Jesus. It’s amusing to me that the woman answers by saying “she’s heard of the Messiah”, which to me sounds like a very strange response to Jesus telling her about a new form of worship. I guess even the Samaritan lady understood that this new form of worship was being brought upon by the Messiah?
What’s even more amusing (and powerful, it’s one of my favorite responses) is that Jesus answers her by revealing that He is that Messiah. Usually when He is asked questions by other people, Jesus seems to just cut to the chase. It almost feels like he doesn’t even bother answering what was literally asked and answers more direct to the heart of the question, almost fast-forwarding the conversation in a sense. However, when Jesus is talking to this woman, it doesn’t feel like he is doing that. In my opinion, it indicates that the woman’s train of thought is right on track. The Messiah, worship, true worshipers in the spirit, they are all linked together very closely. Unfortunately, the story veers off into a different direction from here leaving me a little hungry for more. Fortunately, Philippians 3 adds the final piece to my puzzle.
Watch out for dogs, watch out for evil workers, watch out for those who practice mutilation. For we are the circumcision who worship God in the Spirit, and boast in Christ Jesus, and place no trust in the flesh, though I also have confidence in the flesh. If any other man thinks that he has reason to trust in the flesh, I have more: I was circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, and a Hebrew of Hebrews; as concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; and concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.
Starting from verse 2, we see Paul giving out a warning. Those “dogs who practice mutilation” are compared to Paul and his group who “are the circumcision who worship God in Spirit, boast in Christ, and place no trusts in the flesh”. I believe Paul is talking about the Judaizers he warns the Galatians about, who use circumcision as some requirement for salvation, as a form of justification, and ultimately corrupt the true purpose of the covenant that was established with Abraham (amusingly enough, circling back to our first “worshiper”). Either way, the important thing to note is that Paul and company worship God in the Spirit (as opposed to the flesh), just like Jesus said they should! What this means is unraveled as the chapter continues…
But what things were gain to me, I have counted these things to be loss for the sake of Christ. Yes, certainly, I count everything as loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have forfeited the loss of all things and count them as rubbish that I may gain Christ, and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is of God on the basis of faith, to know Him, and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if somehow I might make it to the resurrection of the dead.
Paul tosses out (like he does in Galatians) all of what man would use to regard him as “very Christian” (or in his case, “very Jew”). His circumcision, being from the tribe of Benjamin, a Pharisee of the utmost zeal, he’s thrown it all away for the sake of Christ. Although what Paul is really getting at here is the idea of righteousness through faith, and not by the works of the law, I love the parallel to Old Testament worship. Paul is, in a sense, sacrificing so many things for the sake of Jesus. His sacrifice is spiritual though, as we’re not talking about the blood of animals here, but rather the sacrifice of everything Paul had done in his life.
Not that I have already attained or have already been perfected, but I follow after it so that I may lay hold of that for which I was seized by Christ Jesus. Brothers, I do not count myself to have attained, but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal to the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. Therefore let those of us who are mature be thus minded. And if you think differently in any way, God will reveal even this to you. Nevertheless, according to what we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us be of the same mind.
One thing Paul is clear about is that he’s no where near the finish line; he is being sanctified just like the rest of us. He encourages the Philippians to press toward the calling of Christ, to be like minded (have the same doctrine), and allow God to correct their errors.
Brothers, become fellow imitators with me and observe those who walk according to our example. For many are walking in such a way that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ. I have told you of them often and tell you again, even weeping. Their destination is destruction, their god is their appetite, their glory is in their shame, their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, from where also we await for our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our body of humiliation, so that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working of His power even to subdue all things to Himself.
The chapter finishes with this: imitate and walk like Christ. This is how Paul brings it all together! Within this single chapter we see Paul and company “worship in the Spirit”, then we see that Paul and company walk according to the example of Christ, therefore the most logical conclusion is that
worshiping in the Spirit is equal to
walking according to the example of Christ. It’s that simple, and suddenly everything makes so much more sense. Jesus said true worshipers were going to be different from the coming of the Messiah forward, that it would be in spirit and truth. A Christian is someone who walks and imitates Christ (sacrifices his flesh in order to live after the will of God), living a life truly dedicated to Him (in reverence and obedience, a form of spiritually bowing down), which in turn allows his Spirit to live within us and conform us to the image of our Savior. A good Christian life is the worship our Father seeks. There’s nothing special you have to do; there’s no “state of mind/emotions”, music, or anything of what commonly comes to mind when one thinks of “worship” — living for Christ is worship.
Now, to be clear, that doesn’t mean that what happens in churches is false or useless. I’m sure the prayer and tears shed for the Lord during these times of praise can and are received by Him. I’m sure he enjoys the praises of his people when instruments and voices shout out to Him. However, Biblically speaking, none of that is actually worship. If any man says God requires something more than that, have them show you in scripture where to find it! I don’t know what term to use besides “praise” (even for the slow stuff) for what we consider “worship” in the church nowadays, but I’d encourage you to try and find any other scripturally-backed definition of worship besides a straight-forward “walk with Christ.”
It’s this simple twist of a definition that caused me (and I imagine so many others) years of doubt and confusion. The vocabulary used in Christian circles today like “worship music” or “worship time” really limits the whole concept of what worship truly is. It’s just one word which I that I had previously understood differently, but true to Philippians 3:15, God has graciously “revealed even this” unto me, with a proper understanding, through His wonderful Word.
I urge you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy, and acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service of worship.
Romans 12:1 (MEV)