A study of the Biblical bases of Christian worship.
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For many years voices have been decrying the decline of a proper sense of worship in the Western churches. Several decades ago A.W. Tozer wrote,
More recently Leslie Flynn has lamented that,
In similar manner John MacArthur Jr. explains that,
The suggested solutions to this perceived
decline of worship range from encouraging a renaissance of ritual
and liturgy to the repudiation of all structure. Perhaps the
most prevalent emphasis is that which advocates "contemporary
worship" styles which supposedly relate better to our modern
culture. These are usually patterned after the worship styles
of the "charismatic movement" which has flourished
since the 1960s in the United States and around the world. These
public worship assemblies feature an energetic, enthusiastic
and exciting spontaneity which is alleged to be the free-working
of the Holy Spirit, but can also be an emotional and subjective
experientialism. The attendees at these "services of worship"
are often physically involved by the raising and clapping of
hands, as well as touching and hugging one another. The music
features modern instrumentation of guitars, drums, keyboards,
and large electronic amplifiers. Such a "renewal of worship"
is used as a drawing-card to involve more and more people in
Our starting point must be to define worship within a Biblical theology that is Christocentric.
The Hebrew language of the old covenant literature had several words that indicated worship. The most prevalent Hebrew word was shachah which referred to "bowing down before an object of honor." When Ezra read the Law after their return to Jerusalem, the Israelites "bowed low and worshiped the Lord" (Neh. 8:6). The Psalmist implores, "Come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the Lord our Maker" (Ps. 95:6). A second Hebrew word was abad which indicated "service or work for God." Moses told the Israelites, "You shall fear only the Lord you God; and you shall worship Him" (Deut. 6:13). The Psalmist encourages rulers to "Worship the Lord with reverence, and rejoice with trembling" (Ps. 2:11). A third Hebrew word, segid, is used in Daniel to indicate "showing respect" or "doing homage" to the golden image that Nebuchadnezzar had constructed (cf. Dan. 3:5-18).
In the new covenant literature of the New Testament, several Greek words are employed to refer to worship. The Greek words gonu and gonupeteo refer to "bending the knee." From these we get the English word "genuflect." Paul refers to his willingness to "bow my knees before the Father" (Eph. 3:14), and the recognition that "every knee should bow at the name of Jesus" (Phil. 2:10). The Greek word sebo is derived from sebas, the word for "fear" or "reverence." The Jews tried to convince Gallio that Paul was persuading men "to worship God contrary to the law" (Acts 18:13). The composite Greek word eusebeo, combing eu, meaning "good," and sebo, is used by Paul when he refers to the idolatrous "unknown god" which the Athenians "worshipped in ignorance" (Acts 17:23). Proskuneo, which combines pros, "toward," and kuneo, "to kiss," is used by Jesus during His temptation when He responded to the devil, saying, "You shall worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only" (Matt. 4:10). Jesus also used this word when He told the Samaritan woman, "God is Spirit; and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth" (John 4:24). This is the predominant Greek word used for "worship" in the New Testament. Another word, latreuo, is derived from the word latris, referring to "a servant." To thus "serve in worship" is the word Paul uses of our "spiritual service of worship" (Rom. 12:1) and for "worship in the Spirit of God" (Phil. 3:3). The Greek word leitourgeo is the word from which we get the English word "liturgy." It is a combination of the word laos, "people," and ergeo, "to work." It refers to the work of the people in priestly service or temple worship. The Christians of Antioch were "ministering to the Lord" (Acts 13:2) in worship, and Christian giving can be a "ministry of service" (II Cor. 9:12). One other word, therapeuo, meaning "to heal," is translated as "worship" in the King James Version of Acts 17:25, where Paul indicated that God is "not worshipped" by human hands.
Our English word "worship" is derived from the old Anglo-Saxon term, weorthscipe, meaning "worth-ship," which gradually evolved into the word "worship." It refers to the attribution or expression of worth or value toward any object.
Word-studies, of themselves, do not bring us to a clear definition of worship. Such can only be derived from a comprehensive understanding of the New Testament and the new covenant awareness of the Person and Work of Jesus Christ.
Beginning then with the inadequate general and religious concepts of worship, we will proceed to differentiate "Christian worship" from all other concepts of worship.
In its most general sense worship has reference to regarding an object with honor, respect, devotion, reverence, veneration, adoration or admiration. An object regarded as having value, worth, honor or esteem is accorded recognition or worship.
Many have indicated that human beings in general have a fundamental need, drive or desire to worship, since they were created with a spiritual life-function. Unlike the animal kingdom which does not have spiritual function, all men have this basic need and human desire to worship, and therefore all men are worshipping creatures. Anthropologists and sociologists seem to confirm this phenomenon.
The object of this spiritual desire to worship is often sought in something beyond ourselves. Men have often projected spiritual worth and value to metaphysical, mystical and magical ideals and techniques, such as New Age "energy sources." Throughout history men have found more tangible objects to worship such as the sun, moon, stars, mountains, waters, storms, etc. In order to objectify the object of their veneration, men have often constructed tangible images or idols to represent what they worship. Paul explains the spiritual factor of idolatry as having "respect for demons" (Acts 17:22) and being "sharers in demons" (I Cor. 10:20).
Mankind can also revert to worshipping himself and his own abilities. Humanism ascribes ultimate worth to man and his intelligence, creativity and productivity. Writing to the Romans, Paul referred to those who "worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator" (Rom. 1:25). In so doing, man often becomes a slave to his own passions for power, possessions, relationships, sexuality, etc.
Anything that man becomes mentally and emotionally preoccupied with can become an object accorded with honor, value and worth. The materialistic orientation of modern society affords innumerable objects for worship. Real estate, automobiles, clothes, stocks, bonds and countless other objects are regarded as having great worth for the ascription of "worth-ship" in worship. Other people, such as athletes, musicians, and politicians (even pastors), are often idolized in hero worship. Associations with other people in such social groupings as fraternities, sororities, and special interest societies (even denominations and local churches) are often considered as having great worth that becomes "worth-ship."
All of these above mentioned objects of man's attention and desire have been formulated into collective religious expressions of worship.
By its etymological definition, religion involves being "bound" or "tied" in devotion to a particular object. In the process of such, religious worship, as differentiated from Christian worship, tends to develop certain traits and patterns. Whereas worship in general is object-centered, religious forms of worship are usually anthropocentric, focusing on the human worshipper's actions, experiences and benefits from such worship, as well as event-centered, focusing on the time, place and procedures involved in such worship.
Religious worship operates on the fallacious premise of human activated and generated activity. It fails to recognize that man is always spiritually derivative, deriving activity either from God or Satan. Such religious attempts at worship inevitably involve the imperative of human effort. Worship is defined as what we do. In order to worship we gather together and we sing, we pray, we listen, we give, and we serve God with our talents and skills. We "do our thing" in the parameters of prescribed programs and productions. It is "do-it-yourself" worship!
The reasoning behind such in the worship of Christian religion is usually that Jesus told His followers to do this, and gave us an example of such for us to follow. Even when couched in the explanation that "we do it because of Christ, in response to what He has done for us," it does not escape the reasoning that "we do it." Popular evangelical writers blatantly state that "real worship is something you do."8 "Because of what God has done for us, we are to be occupied with offering up acceptable spiritual sacrifices of worship."9 "Worship involves aligning ourselves with God's will for us."10
In contrast to such we shall note that Christian worship is not what we do anymore than anything in the Christian life is what we do! The explanation of worship as the self-generated activities of man is a failure to understand God's grace. "God is not served (KJV-worshipped) with human hands, as though He needed anything" (Acts. 17:25).
Religious worship also focuses on man's emotions and experiences. How does the worship experience make us feel? Do we feel good? Do we feel better for having thus engaged ourselves in worship? When worship is defined by how we feel, it is relegated to a mood-altering psychological experience. Our physical senses may be stirred by the architecture of the building, the beauty of the stained-glass windows, the sounds of the organ, the voices of a well-trained choir, the oratorical ability of the speaker, or the comfort of the pews. The lighting in the sanctuary, the musical variations, the sequence of the events, can and are orchestrated to manipulate people psychologically. They may be employed to create a pietistic and sentimental sense of peace and security. They may incite enthusiasm and excitement. They may draw tears of remorse, or impel the participant to a particular course of action. These subjective machinations are nothing more than playing upon the natural personal aspirations, gratifications and reputations of the participants, via "the lusts of the flesh, the lusts of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life" (I John 2:16).
In response to such experientialism, Ralph Martin writes,
R.J. Neuhaus also indicates that,
In addition to emphasizing what we do and how we feel, religious worship endeavors tend to fixate on how we think and the extent to which we think that we have the object of our worship all figured out. By the repetition of creeds and the recitation of "statements of faith" people's ideological belief-systems are conformed and confirmed. Worship is often regarded as a time to gain knowledge and understanding through the teaching of doctrine and theology. This is particularly true among fundamentalistic religious groups wherein epistemological constructs of thought become the objects of their worship, amounting to ideological idolatry.
Religious worship is also anthropocentric in its emphasis on the benefit that accrues to the worshipper by the activity of worship. By worshipping it is alleged that we get strength, patience, "energy," and blessings. "Blessing comes from God in response to worship,"13 writes an evangelical author. What then did Paul mean when he wrote that "God has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in heavenly places in Christ" (Eph. 1:3)? The objective of Christian worship is not to "get blessed," but "to the praise of the glory of His grace" (Eph. 1:6).
Alongside of being man-centered, religious worship is also event-centered. It is limited by particular times, places and procedures, outside of which the worship experience is not considered legitimate or allowed to take place.
In his book entitled Worship, A.P. Gibbs declares that,
The Judaic religion had carefully prescribed Sabbath regulations for worshipping from sun-down on Friday evening to sun-down on Saturday evening. Voluminous legalistic accretions were added throughout the centuries. The Jews of the old covenant, for the most part, missed the intent of God in pre-figuring the privilege of God's people resting in the enjoyment of what God has done and is doing. Jesus Christ came as the substance of which the weekly Judaic Sabbaths were but a symbolic shadow. Aware that He was "Lord of the Sabbath" (Matt. 12:8), Jesus violated the religious regulations of the Sabbath, for He knew that the "Sabbath rest" (Heb. 4:9) wherein God's people could cease from their labors of striving to please God by their prescribed worship procedures, was to be found in the dynamic of His own life through Christocentric worship.
Yet the worship of Christian religion continues to emphasize the "Christian Sabbath" on Sunday, complete with legalistic expectations galore. The event of worship is considered to take place during the "Sunday Morning Worship Hour."
Whereas Judaism regarded the place of worship to be the "earthly sanctuary" (Heb. 9:1) of the tabernacle and the temple, Christian religion regards the "church building" as "God's House." This despite the fact that Stephen indicated that "the Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands" (Acts 7:48), and Paul told the Athenians the same thing (Acts 17:24). Those who "go to worship" at "the house of worship" each week are limiting the worship that God intends in His people.
As religion is often based on law which prescribes precise procedures and patterns for life and worship, religious worship is often shackled by these forms, techniques, rituals, and "regulations of worship" (Heb. 9:1). Worship is perceived as a "program" or a "production," wherein different "styles" and "art forms" of "pomp and circumstance" are employed. The spontaneity of the Spirit of God is quenched. One religious author declared that "acceptable worship does not happen spontaneously. Preparation is essential."15 The author once overheard a pastor refer to his manipulation of "the worship service" using the oxymoron of "planned spontaneity."
Judson Cornwall writes,
God is not pleased with such religious worship. Through Isaiah God says to the Israelites concerning their religious worship,
This latter verse from Isaiah is quoted by Jesus as an indictment upon the scribes and Pharisees of first-century Judaism (Matt. 15:8,9).
The prophet Amos also states God's perspective on their religious worship.
Writing to the new Christians in Galatia who were in danger of reverting back to religious worship, Paul exclaims, "You observe days and months and seasons and years. I fear that perhaps I have labored over you in vain." (Gal. 4:10). To the Colossians who were being bombarded by religionists, Paul declares, "Let no one act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ" (Col. 2:16,17).
Religious worship is not only inadequate, it is an abomination to God. The "good news" of the gospel is that God has provided in His Son, Jesus Christ, an entirely new basis of life and worship.
Christian worship is radically different from all the forms of religious worship. That is because Christianity is not a religion, but the dynamic spiritual reality of God in action through His Son, Jesus Christ.
Judaism stresses God's Law and His activity which is to be gratefully praised. Islam emphasizes submission to the will of Allah. Hinduism advocates the good works of "karma" to please the gods. Buddhism promotes self-control for inner-peace to transcend the cycle of rebirth into "nirvana." Jesus did not come to bring another religious worship pattern. Despite his theological deficiencies, the early Christian thinker, Marcion, is reported to have said that "the new thing that Jesus Christ brought into the world was Himself." Christianity is Christ. Everything that is Christian is His Being in action, the dynamic reality of the ontological presence and activity of the risen Lord Jesus. Ralph Martin correctly states that "Christian worship is established on the premise that the risen Lord is present with His believing Church."17
Christian worship is not man-centered or event-centered, as is all religious worship, but it is Christ-centered. Such Christocentric worship was established by Jesus Christ in His redemptive work which reconciled God and man in order to restore the spiritual presence and dynamic of God to man.
As the "High Priest" (Heb. 2:17) and "the one mediator between God and man" (I Tim. 2:5), Jesus led us into reconciled relationship with God with the privilege of His divine presence in us. Jesus continues to be the priest that leads us in our worship of God. "No man comes to the Father," either in reconciliation or in worship, "but through Him" (John 14:6). "Through Christ we are enabled to come to God."18 John MacArthur Jr. notes that "the objective of redemption is making worshippers."19 The primary purpose of redemption is not how to get a man out of hell and into heaven, but to restore man to God's intent by the imputation and impartation of Christ's life in the receptive believer in order to live and worship to the glory of God.
In Christian worship the Christian participates in what Christ continues to do as the living Lord in our lives. We participate in His life, His ministry, His intercession and worship. C.E.B. Cranfield states that "the efficacy of our worship as our action lies in His action on our behalf, His continual intercession."20 Christian worship is prompted, evoked, activated and generated by Jesus Christ. This is the basis on which J.B. Torrance asserts that "Jesus Christ is the one true worshipper,"21 for everything that is "Christian" is the activity of Jesus Christ. "Worship is controlled by its object who is also subject,"22 writes G.W. Bromiley. Jesus is both the subject and the object of Christian worship, which is thus completely Christocentric.
"Jesus and worship are inseparable," writes Judson Cornwall; "He is the route to worship, the reason for worship, and the reality of worship."23 J.B. Torrance explains that "worship...is evoked by Christ, through the Spirit, in such a way that He is the One who acts in us and through us, so that our worship becomes real worship in Spirit and in Truth. It is not we who represent Christ, but Christ who re-presents Himself through the Spirit."24 "By Him (Jesus Christ) is our Amen (our worship) to the glory of God through us" (II Cor. 1:20).
"The main point," states the writer to the Hebrews, is that "we have a High Priest" who is "a minister in the sanctuary, in the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, not man" (Heb. 8:1,2). He identifies Jesus as the leitourgos, the "leader of worship," in the Holy Place of God's presence. The Christocentric reality of Christian worship could be expressed no clearer.
True Christian worship is the consistent
response and activity of Jesus Christ within us toward God the
Father, in order to glorify God by the expression of the "worth-ship"
of His character in the behavior of man. Jesus is, and has always
been, the only expressor of God. He is the expressive "Word"
which "became flesh" (John 1:1,14). He is the expressive
"image of God" (Col. 1:15; II Cor. 4:4), whereby the
invisible character of God is made visible in human behavior.
God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit prompt and activate Christian worship to express the "worth-ship" of His divine character, and are also the recipients of the glory of the expression of that all-glorious character. Christian worship can only be understood in this Trinitarian expression. All attempts to divide the triune God into varying economic roles is fraught with misinterpretation. The three Persons as one God function as the essence of Christian worship.
To the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus said, "God is Spirit; worship Him in Spirit and in Truth" (John 4:24). Despite the absence of a definite article, Jesus was not saying that "God is a spirit," one among many nebulous noumena. Rather, He was indicating that God is the essence by which all things "spiritual" are to be measured and determined. We are to worship God in (or by) the activity of His Spirit operative within our spirit. Every Christian has the Spirit of Christ dwelling in and operative in their spirit, or they are not Christians. "If any man has not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of His" (Rom. 8:9), and "the Spirit bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God" (Rom. 8:16). We worship as Christians by the energizing activity of the Spirit of Christ operative within us. Christ is the spiritual Reality of God, the Truth (John 14:6), and the only One capable of expressing the reality of God's character through us. Christian worship transpires only as the Spirit of Christ who is the Reality of God expresses the character of God in the behavior of man to the glory of God. Those who do not understand the basis of Christian worship will inevitably interpret Jesus' words of worshipping "in Spirit and in Truth" with religious concepts of worshipping with emotion and mind, with feeling and doctrine, with experientialism and epistemology, with "enthusiasm and orthodoxy,"27 with "sincerity and Scriptural consistency"28, with "whole-hearted genuineness and true concepts."29 They have missed the spiritual reality of Jesus Christ in Christian worship.
To the Philippians Paul explained that "we (Christians) are the true (the spiritual reality that God intended, in contrast to the physical pre-figuring of such among the Jews) circumcision (in that our sins have been cut off by the work of Jesus Christ, rather than just male foreskins), who worship in (or by) the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh" (Phil. 3:3). Christians worship by means of the Spirit of God, who is the Spirit of Christ (Rom. 8:9), expressing the "worth-ship" of God's character in our behavior, thereby counteracting "the confidence in the flesh," comprised of those selfish and sinful behavioral patterns expressed apart from Christ.
"Present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, your spiritual service of worship" (Rom. 12:1), urges Paul. Make yourselves available by faith to God's activity, in order to participate in a "spiritual service of worship." The intense practicality of such worship is evidenced by the following context in Romans 12-16. Christian worship is everything Christians do individually and corporately as Christ functions as their life (Col. 3:4). John Calvin noted that "the only lawful worship of God is the observation of righteousness, holiness and purity."30
What is the one condition of human responsibility for Christian worship? Faith is always the singular response of man in the Christian life, as the Reformation theme of sola fide (faith alone) indicated. Faith is much more than belief or mental assent. It is our receptivity of God's activity, which activity will always express the "worth-ship" of His character. God cannot act out of character. He does what He does, because He is who He is. In Christian worship we allow for our availability to His ability to express Himself unto His own glory. The message of Grace in the Christian gospel reveals that Christianity is not what we do, but what He does for us, in us, as us, and through us.
Christ's activity in the Christian is not prescribed with stereotyped patterns of behavior. Jesus Christ wants to be uniquely Himself in and through us. Whereas the old covenant had prescribed forms of worship as a pictorial pre-figuring to point to Jesus Christ, the new covenant is the Person of Jesus Christ functioning as the Reality of our lives, expressed in whatever form He directs and projects. The external rituals are replaced with internal spiritual Reality. Worship is not prescribed by the written words of the Law, but by the indwelling Spirit of Christ who serves as "the law written in our hearts" (Heb. 8:10; 10:16).
The free expression of a divinely indwelt human being allowing for the expression God's character in his behavior is the glorious purpose for which we were created (Isa. 43:7). That is why Jesus declared that "you shall know the Truth, and the Truth shall make you free" (John 8:32). Such truth is not the propositional truth of doctrinal orthodoxy, but is the Personal Truth of the Reality of Jesus Christ who said, "I am the Truth" (John 14:6). Jesus went on to explain that the Truth of which He spoke was Himself, for He said, "If therefore the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed" (John 8:36). By the presence of the Reality of the Life of Jesus Christ we are liberated from the prescribed forms and patterned procedures of religious worship styles. We are free to allow for the spontaneous, unique and novel expression of the "worth-ship" of God's character in our behavior all the time, everywhere, and in whatever manner He desires to manifest Himself. We are not limited to specific times, places and procedures in our Christian worship.
Geographical location is not a relevant issue in Christian worship, as Jesus made clear to the Samaritan woman who was questioning the proper location (John 4:20-24). Christians are both individually and collectively the "house of the Lord" (Eph. 2:19; I Peter 2:5) and the "temple" wherein God's presence is active (I Cor. 3:16; 6:19; II Cor. 6:16).
The time of our worship is not limited to a specific hour in a "service of worship." Worship is a lifestyle. Ernst Kasemann refers to "worship in everyday life,"31 for it is the moment-by-moment privilege of "practicing His presence," as Brother Lawrence phrased it,32 and allowing the glorious life of Jesus Christ to be expressed in our everyday behavior to the glory of God.
This is not to imply that there is not a place for the collective expression of Christian worship in the Body of Christ, the Church. We are "not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together" (Heb. 10:25). We have a functional responsibility in the "sharing of the Body of Christ" (I Cor. 10:16). J.B. Torrance correctly notes that "worship is the very life and essence of the Church,"33 but we must be careful to remember that the Church is not an institutional organization that exists to plan and promote public assemblies, the traditions and rituals of which are often regarded as constituting or producing worship. The Church is the collective expression of individual Christians who are allowing the life of Jesus Christ to function in their inter-relationships. John MacArthur Jr. correctly explains that "a Sunday service is to be only a corporate overflow of a worshipping life."34
Every facet of the Christian life is to be an expression of worship. Every Scriptural reference to the life and function of Jesus Christ in our lives can be viewed as being inclusive of the activity of Christ in our Christian worship. A few examples will suffice to document such:
These and many other Scriptures attest to Christian worship being the total expression of the life of Jesus Christ in our behavior. May we cease to generalize worship as object-centered human preoccupation with objects "which by nature are no gods" (Gal. 4:8). May we cease to engage in the man-centered worship of religion which falsely supposes that worship is what we do, how we feel and we think, the extent to which we are committed, and evaluated by the benefits and "blessings" we receive. May we cease to limit worship to the prescribed times, places and procedures of religious tradition. Christian worship is Christ-centered, being established by His redemptive and restorative work and continuously generated and activated by the risen Lord Jesus within the Christian.
Christian worship is Christocentric. Jesus worships the Father by the Spirit through the Christian.
A.W., The Knowledge of the Holy. The Attributes of God: Their
Meaning in the Christian Life.