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  • Writer's pictureMarco Inniss

The Full Meaning of Worship

Worship is a dominant theme from Genesis to Revelation because the God who created all things and redeemed us in Christ is worthy to receive all honor, praise, service, and respect (e.g., Exodus 15:1 – 18, Revelation 4:11). However, since certain expressions of worship are unacceptable to God (Genesis 4:3 – 5, Revelation 9:20 – 21), it is important for us to know what pleases God and how he wants us to respond to him. What he has revealed in Scripture should control and direct our worship.

Three groups of words throughout the Bible convey aspects of what we commonly call “worship.” New Testament writers use these and related terms in a transformed way to show how Jesus has fulfilled for us the pattern of worship given to Israel.

Worship as Homage or Grateful Submission to God

The most common word for “worship” literally means “bend over” or “bow down.” It describes a gesture of respect or submission to human beings, to God, or to idols (e.g., Genesis 18:2, Exodus 20:4 – 6). Combined with other gesture-words, this term came to be used for the attitude of homage that the gesture represented.

Sometimes people expressed homage to God with prayer or praise (Exodus 34:8 – 9) and sometimes with silent acceptance or submission (Judges 7:15). The book of Psalms contains many different expressions of worship, including lament, repentance, prayers for vindication, songs of thanksgiving, and praise. Bending over before the Lord as a gesture of homage or grateful submission became associated with sacrifice and public praise in Israel. In such contexts it could be a formal way of expressing devotion to or dependence on God (2 Chronicles 7:3 – 4, Nehemiah 8:6). But the gesture was meaningful only if it was motivated by a genuine desire to acknowledge God’s majesty and holiness and to live under his rule.

The New Testament uses this terminology to show that Jesus Christ is worthy of the homage and devotion due to the Lord God of Israel (Matthew 14:33, Revelation 5:8 – 14). “Bending over to the Lord” now means responding with repentance and faith to the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 10:9 – 13). Such worship involves praying to him, calling on his name, and obeying him.

In John 4:20 – 24, a Samaritan woman inquires about the appropriate place to worship God, leading Jesus to speak more fundamentally about the way to worship acceptably. The Father is seeking “true worshipers” who “will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth.” This fulfills the pattern of worship that God gave Israel under the Mosaic law. New covenant worship involves acknowledging Jesus as the one who finally and fully reveals the truth about the Father and his purpose for Israel and the nations (John 14:6). It also involves responding to the Spirit he gives to transform hearts and lives (John 3:5 – 8).

Worship as Service to God

Another group of biblical terms often translated “worship” literally means “serve” or “service.” The people of Israel were saved from slavery in Egypt so that they could serve the Lord (Exodus 8:1). The parallel expressions “offer sacrifices to the Lord”(Exodus 5:3) and “hold a festival” (Exodus 5:1) indicate that some form of ritual service was immediately in view. God later instituted through Moses a complex system of sacrifices and ceremonies so that Israel could serve God as his holy people (Exodus 19:5 – 6).

For example, the Passover was a particular “service” to be observed in remembrance of the Lord’s saving work at the time of the exodus (Exodus 12:25 – 27). The ministry of priests and Levites was a specialized form of service to God. But God required a lifestyle of total allegiance from his people as a whole: service was meant to be expressed in everyday obedience (Deuteronomy 10:12 – 13). God strictly forbade bowing down and serving aspects of the creation or other gods; every temptation to idolatry and unfaithfulness was to be removed (Deuteronomy 5:8 – 9).

The sacrificial system was given to Israel to enable cleansing from sin, consecration to God’s service, and expressions of gratitude to God (Leviticus 1 – 7). The New Testament describes Jesus’ death as “a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood — to be received through faith.” Only by this sacrifice can the wrath of God be averted (Romans 2:5). Christ’s unique sacrifice secures for believers all the blessings of the new covenant and enables them to serve him wholeheartedly with consciences cleansed from sin (Hebrews 10:11 – 22).

In response to what God has done for us in Christ, we are to present our bodies to him as “a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God” (Romans 12:1). Christ’s obedience makes possible a new obedience for the people of God. Those who have been brought from death to life belong to God as a “living sacrifice.” This is “your true and proper worship” (Romans 12:1), or as an alternate translation, “your understanding service.” Acceptable worship is the service rendered by those who truly understand the gospel and want to live out its implications in every sphere of life (Romans 12:2 – 21).

The service rendered to God in everyday obedience is also the focus of Hebrews 12:28 – 29. The motivation and power for such service is the cleansing that comes from the finished work of Christ and the hope that his work sets before us. Gratitude expressed in service is evidence that people grasp and appreciate the grace of God. However, acceptable worship should also be characterized by “reverence and awe” because of the holiness and righteousness of God.

In particular, Christians are to offer to God through Jesus “a sacrifice of praise — the fruit of lips that openly profess his name” (Hebrews 13:15). This could involve celebrating Christ as Savior and Lord in personal or corporate acts of praise, but the immediate context exhorts believers to acknowledge Christ in the world in the face of opposition and suffering. In its widest sense, this sacrifice of praise will be rendered by those who confess Jesus “outside the camp” (Hebrews 13:13) in various forms of public testimony or evangelism. Allied to this, we are not to forget to do good and to share with others, “for with such sacrifices God is pleased” (Hebrews 13:16).

Worship as Reverence or Respect for God

A third group of terms sometimes describes worship – words meaning fear, reverence, or respect for God indicate the need to keep his commandments, obey his voice, walk in his ways, turn from evil, and serve him (Deuteronomy 6:13, Haggai 1:12, Deuteronomy 8:6, Proverbs 3:7, Deuteronomy 10:20). Sacrifice and other rituals expressed reverence for God, but faithfulness and obedience to the covenant demands of God in every sphere of life also distinguished true from false religion (Psalm 25:14). The New Testament indicates that humanity’s failure to fear God and show him proper respect brings his wrath (Romans 1:18 – 25). Only by being “redeemed . . . with the precious blood of Christ” can we be set free to serve God “in reverent fear” (1 Peter 1:17 – 21).

Worship and Congregational Gatherings

Worship in the Old Testament sometimes had a corporate expression, and this was meant to encourage God’s people to serve him faithfully in their individual lives (Jeremiah 7:1 – 29). The New Testament rarely applies the specific word “worship” to Christian meetings. Nevertheless, prayer, praise, and submission to God’s will were central to congregational gatherings (Acts 2:42 – 47, Colossians 3:16 – 17). Moreover, the link between ministry to others and service to God is clear in the way Paul uses worship terminology in a transformed way (Romans 15:16, 2 Corinthians 9:12 – 13). The New Testament is not prescriptive about the way we conduct our meetings, but it certainly provides guidelines and examples of Christians engaging with God together.

Paul regularly uses the terminology of edification, rather than worship, to indicate the purpose and function of Christian gatherings (1 Corinthians 14:26). This imagery portrays the founding, maintaining, and advancing of the church as God’s “building” or holy “temple” (1 Corinthians 3:10 – 17). While all ministry responds to God’s grace and does not in any sense cultivate his favor, serving others is an aspect of our service or self-giving to God. Moreover, edification is the exalted Christ’s work in our midst through the gifts and ministries that he empowers and directs by his Spirit (Ephesians 2:20 – 22). Our task is to apply the truth of God in love to one another.

It may be best to speak of congregational worship as a particular expression of the total life-response that is the worship described in the new covenant. In the giving and receiving of various ministries, we may encounter God and submit ourselves to him afresh in praise and obedience, repentance, and faith (Hebrews 10:24 – 25). Singing to God is an important aspect of corporate worship, but it is not the supreme or only way of expressing devotion to God. Ministry exercised for the building up of the body of Christ in teaching, exhorting, and praying is a significant way of worshiping and glorifying God.

By David G. Peterson from an article in the NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible.

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