A Definition of Worship
By Lina Cole
It is Sunday morning. The Jones family is getting ready to go to church. The mom is doing her best to pick outfits for her children, make breakfast, shower, get dressed, and make sure everyone has their bibles. They get in the car and go to church because it’s the Lord’s Day! When they arrive at church, they enter the sanctuary to worship. The room is full of people raising their hands with their eyes closed as they sing to music of their liking. The music stirs up emotions, and as the mom sees her family engaging in song, she is at peace because her family is worshiping God. After the music is done and the pastor begins the sermon, she turns to her husband and says, “worship was great today!”
There is no doubt that this picture is not far off from what plenty of church members think of worship. Worship is often associated with music and emotions, and the effectiveness of worship is often associated with the songs’ capacity to stir up emotions that bring forth physical gestures. Even related terms like giving praise and glory are being associated with singing songs about or to God. Although music is part of how worship is expressed, a definition of worship cannot be constrained to just singing. Christian Worship can be defined as the ongoing personal and corporate response to the triune God as he reveals himself through His Word, His creation His Son, and the Church. This response is characterized by a transformed, sacrificial life of obedience where the worshiper’s mind’s attention and heart’s affection are focused on and directed towards praising Christ for the glory of God the Father through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Revelation and Response
The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord…
and Moses quickly bowed his head toward the earth and worshiped.
One of the elements of this definition of Christian worship is response. Christians do not initiate worship, but rather they respond to an invitation from God. In John 4:23, Jesus teaches that the Father is the one seeking worshipers – he is the one inviting them to worship the one true living God. The Lord has revealed himself to his people through creation, divine speech, theophanies, Scripture, the person of Jesus Christ, and his Holy Spirit.[i] Today, the Word of God is how the Triune God reveals his character, his plan of salvation, and his transformational teachings. It is through the Word of God that he invites his people to behold his majesty and to worship him in truth. Allen Ross says, “the greater our appreciation and apprehension of the majestic God who we say we worship, the greater will be our reverence, adoration, and service.”[ii] When God reveals himself, his redeemed people respond with their affections and actions to who God is and what he has done.
One of the passages in Scripture where this rhythm of revelation-response is evident is in Exodus 34:5-9. The Lord descends into a cloud in Mount Sinai and declares his name by saying, “The Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty…” Moses, after receiving this self-revelation from the Lord, bows down and worships. Another passage where this rhythm is evident is in Isaiah 6 when Isaiah sees a glimpse of the holiness of God and responds in confession of sin and later in dedicating his life for the mission of God. Finally, in other passages such as Genesis 28:16-17 and Revelation 1:17, the people who received God’s revelation responded in fear and humility before the Lord.
Furthermore, this rhythm of revelation-response is only possible because of the Trinity. In the same way salvation is not something believers achieve on their own power, Christian worship is not a human-empowered activity. Believers are redeemed by grace, and they worship by grace. God the Father is the one who initiates worship. God the Son is the one who mediates worship.[iii] God the Spirit is the one who empowers and prompts worship.[iv] Philippians 3:3 says “For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.” Christian worship should not be focused on the believer’s ability to worship. Christian worship must focus on praising Christ – the High Priest who intercedes for his people – to glorify the Father through the power of the Holy Spirit. When worship is guided by the Trinity, believers are constantly reminded of the Gospel and the privilege they have of being a part of the ongoing worship within the triune God.
“My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God.”
Not only worship comes natural to human beings, but also worshiping God is where they find their fullness and destiny.[v] In Unceasing Worship, Harold Best says, “we are…unceasing worshipers and will remain so forever, for eternity is an infinite extrapolation of one of two conditions: a surrender to the sinfulness of sin unto infinite loss or the commitment of personal righteousness unto infinite gain.”[vi] The term “unceasing worshipers” means that worship is not something that can be neglected. Human beings cannot cease to worship, but they can change their object of worship. This exchange is seen in Romans 1:18-32. In this passage, Paul expounds on the reality and consequences of false worship. He says, “for although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him… they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator.”[vii] They did not stop worshiping, but rather, they exchanged their object of worship.
This ongoing aspect of worship makes it necessary to differentiate worship from Christian worship. On the one hand, worship can be defined as the “the continuous outpouring of all that I am, all that I do and all that I can ever become in light of a chosen or choosing god.”[viii] Best’s definition highlights the generic aspect of worship since it could be directed towards any god or anything. In light of this definition, every human being is a worshiper. On the other hand, Christian worship is an ongoing response exclusively directed towards, mediated by, and empowered by God – the Creator who reveals himself through his Word. Considering this definition, only those who have received the gift of salvation are able to direct their worship towards God and participate in true biblical Christian worship.
Personal and Corporate Response
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice,
holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
This ongoing response is characterized by the marriage between belief and behavior. Two of the three dimensions of worship are attitude and physical gesture. The physical gesture and actions are an overflow of the worshiper’s heart. In other words, what people believe informs the way they live and act. In Genesis 4, the story of Cain and Abel speaks to the importance of the consistency between belief and behavior. Both Cain and Abel offered to the Lord an offering, but the Lord only regarded Abel’s offering. Later, Cain in anger murders his brother. The Lord knew what was in Cain’s heart, and because of his heart, Cain’s physical gesture of worship to the Lord was void. Physical gestures and spoken praises become void when the heart is not focused on glorifying God. In the same way, as James 2:17 teaches, faith without works is dead.[ix] There cannot be genuine faith without visible fruits, and there cannot be genuine visible fruits without a heart of faith.
As Christians receive the revelation of God, their minds and hearts are being transformed and sanctified in order to make God visible in their lives. Psalm 115 teaches that the object of worship shapes the worshiper to the point that the worshiper becomes like the very thing they worship. In false worship, worshipers become like their worthless idols and dead gods. In Christian worship, worshipers are transformed into the image of their holy living God. When a person encounters God and receives the revelation of God through his Word, the Scriptures not only reveal who God is but also who the worshiper is supposed to be. This truth is evidenced in the life of Paul, formerly known as Saul. When Saul – a Jewish persecutor of Christians – encountered Jesus, his life was transformed. He was given a new name and a calling to be an ambassador of Christ.[x] Paul later in his ministry wrote, “do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”[xi] It is through God’s self-revelation through his Word that Christians are able to renew their minds and leave behind a life of sin in order to live a life of righteousness for the glory of God. It is only through the continuous exposure to God’s Word that Christians are taught, reproofed, corrected, and trained in righteousness to carry out good works and to worship in truth.[xii]
Furthermore, Christian worship is expressed in sacrificial obedience. The first time the word worship (shachah) is used in the Scripture is in Genesis 22, and its context is a sacrifice.[xiii] The Lord had asked Abraham to sacrifice his promised son as a burnt offering, and Abraham decided to obey. Abraham’s worship was characterized by his obedience, faith, and sacrifice. He was willing to sacrifice his only son to worship the Lord, and God rewarded his obedience by providing a substitute, a ram, to die in his son’s place. Moreover, a king and a widow are another example of sacrificial obedience. In 2 Samuel 24, David the King was preparing to buy the permanent place for the Temple of God. Araunah, the owner of the land, was willing to gift the land to the king but David said, “I will not offer burnt offerings to the Lord my God that cost me nothing.” In a similar way, in Mark 12:41-44, Jesus exalts the offering of the widow who gave everything she had to live on as an offering to the Lord. Both David and the widow understood that worshiping the Lord came with a cost, but they were sacrificially obedient.
After Christ’s redeeming work on the cross, the worshiper does not need dead sacrifices to come before the presence of the Lord as they used to do in the Temple practices. However, in Romans 12:1, Paul states that Christians are called to present themselves as living sacrifices. Christians are called to worship the Lord by being holy and living in a way that is acceptable to God. Fortunately, God provided a model to follow: Jesus Christ. The Son, the second person of the Trinity, was sent by the Father to live a perfectly obedient life and to die for the atonement of sins. Through his life, Jesus modeled what perfect worship looks like: an obedient life that sacrifices its own will to the will of the Father. Matthew records in his gospel Jesus’s temptation in chapter 4. In this passage, Jesus models worship by recognizing that there is only one object worthy of worship: the Lord. Satan was offering glory and a kingdom in exchange for his worship to Satan. In other words, Satan was offering victory without suffering. But Jesus held onto the commandments and the will of the Father and worshiped only the Lord. Moreover, Jesus’s obedience was prominently evidenced in his death on the cross.[xiv] In Matthew 26:36-46, Jesus prays to his Father to see if it was possible to pass the cup of suffering he was about to face. However, in his prayer, Jesus surrenders his will and submits to the will of the Father. Jesus’s worship was evidenced in his radical obedience and his sacrifice on the cross.
Finally, as Christians are being transformed through the Word of God to live in radical sacrificial obedience, they worship alongside other believers. This third dimension of Christian worship is the cultic ritual in a corporate setting. In the New and Old Testament, the people of God had come together at a mountain, the tabernacle, the temple, synagogues, and houses to grow spiritually, to serve each the Lord, and to bring praise to God. Today, the church has the same purpose. The body of believers gathers to hear from the Word, to serve God and each other with their spiritual gifts, and to praise God for who he is and what he has done.
In Colossians 3:16 Paul encourages the church in Colossae to “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” In Hebrews 10:25, the Hebrews are admonished to not forsake the gathering since it brings encouragement to the believer’s spiritual walk. Moreover, Acts 2:42-47 illustrates the fellowship of the believers and how they took care of each other’s needs. Also, in 1 Corinthians 11:24 and Acts 2:42 believers are being obedient to Jesus’s command in taking the Lord’s supper in remembrance of Him. When the church meets, believers are actively worshiping the Lord by responding together to the truth of the Word of God with their mind’s attention and their heart’s affections. Whether it is through singing, preaching, praying, serving, giving, baptizing, or participating in the Lord’s supper, believers engage in transformational worship by being obedient to the Word of God and sacrificing their time to serve others, and thus making God’s love visible. The church gathers to exalt Christ, to make the Father visible, and to be transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit through the revelation of God’s Word.
[i] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd edition (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), Chapter 7.
[ii] Allen P. Ross, Recalling the Hope of Glory: biblical worship from the garden to the new creation (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2006), 41.
[iii] See Hebrews 4:14-16.
[iv] Joseph Crider, Scripture Guided Worship: A Call to Pastors and Worship Leaders (Fort Worth, TX: Seminary Hill Press, 2021), 57.
[v] Noel Due, Created for Worship (Scotland: Christian Focus, 2005), 39.
[vi] Harold Best, Unceasing Worship: Biblical Perspectives on Worship and the Arts (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 17-18.
[vii] See Romans 1:21-25.
[viii] Best, Unceasing Worship, 18.
[ix] See Matthew 7:21 and Isaiah 29:13.
[x] See Acts 9:1-19.
[xi] Romans 12:2.
[xii] See 2 Timothy 3:16-17 and John 4:24.
[xiii] The word “shachah” means to prostrate oneself or fall down in humility.
[xiv] See Philippians 2:6-11.
Best, Harold. Unceasing Worship: Biblical Perspectives on Worship and the Arts. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002.
Crider, Joseph. Scripture Guided Worship: A Call to Pastors and Worship Leaders. Fort Worth, TX: Seminary Hill Press, 2021.
Due, Noel. Created for Worship. Scotland: Christian Focus, 2005.
Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013.
Ross, Allen P. Recalling the Hope of Glory: biblical worship from the garden to the new creation. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2006.
2 Samuel 24
1 Corinthians 11:24
2 Timothy 3:16-17