Definition of Worship

Toward a Definition of Worship

Being that there is a great deal of romanticism surrounding the idea of worship, it is important that we get down to a definition of what worship is.  Otherwise we may be prone to worshipping worship itself, rather than the God who deserves our praise.

“there is a profound sense in which excellent worship cannot be attained merely by pursuing excellent worship.  In the same way that, according to Jesus, you cannot find yourself until you lose yourself, so also you cannot find excellent corporate worship until you stop trying to find excellent corporate worship and pursue God Himself. Despite the protestations, one sometimes wonders if we are beginning to worship worship rather than worship God.  As a brother put it to me, it’s a bit like those who begin by admiring the sunset and soon begin to admire themselves admiring the sunset.”[1]

Ironically, we have a tendency to make worship more about us than it is about the God to whom it should be directed.  Perhaps some Biblical grounding will provide the humility to stop this tendency.

Toward a Definition of Worship

How about a few sample definitions to get us started:

“Worship is the believers’ response of all that they are—mind, emotions, will, and body—to what God is and says and does. This response has its mystical side in subjective experience and its practical side in objective obedience to God’s revealed will.  Worship is a loving response that’s balanced by the fear of the Lord, and it is a deepening response as the believer comes to know God better.”[2]

“…the worship of the living and true God is essentially an engagement with him on the terms that he proposes and in the way that he alone makes possible.”[3]

“Biblical worship is God’s covenant people recognizing, reveling in, and responding rightly to the glory of God in Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.”[4]

“Worship is the work of acknowledging the greatness of our covenant Lord”[5]

As David Peterson writes, “the theme of worship is far more central and significant in Scripture than many Christians imagine.”[6]  It is certainly a monumental task to seek to define something so central to the Bible’s story.  However, there are certain elements to worship which every believer needs to understand:

A Few Essential Principles of Worship

  • Worship Always Involves a Mediator– due to our inherent (Rom. 5:12) and practical sin (Rom. 3:10-18), we cannot enter into God’s presence alone. The author of Hebrews thus tells us, “we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus” (Heb. 10:19).  Old Testament ritual centered around a preview of Christ’s sacrifice.  As well, New Testament and Church Age worship should do the same—centering around the sacrifice for our sins, Jesus Christ.
  • God Has Created Us For the Purpose of His Own Glory- “…bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth, Everyone who is called by My name, and whom I have created for my own glory, whom I have formed even whom I have made” (Is. 43:6-7). God has made us for His glory.  In fact, He has stated that He is a “jealous God” (Ex. 20:5) who will not give His glory to another (Is. 48:11).
  • There Is Pleasure and Delight For the Worshipper-My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God. Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may have her young— a place near your altar, O LORD Almighty, my King and my God. Blessed are those who dwell in your house; they are ever praising you” (Ps. 84:2-4).  God is often pictured as our true satisfaction (Jer. 2:13, Ps. 73:25-26, Ps. 42:1).  “In Your presence there is fullness of joy, in Your right hand there are pleasures forever” (PS. 16:11).

Old Testament Worship

It doesn’t take one long to realize the difference between the Old Testament forms of worship and what we practice today. There are significant distinctives for Old Testament worship that must be marked as such for us to recognize church-age worship properly.

The Altar/Tabernacle/Temple– In reading the OT, there are specific places where worship is acceptable and other places where it is not.  While it is implied in the time of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—who sacrificed at designated altars in worship—it is explicitly stated in the book of Leviticus:

Any man from the house of Israel who slaughters an ox or a lamb or a goat in the camp, or who slaughters it outside the camp, and has not brought it to the doorway of the tent of meeting to present it as an offering to the LORD before the tabernacle of the LORD, bloodguiltiness is to be reckoned to that man. He has shed blood and that man shall be cut off from among his people. The reason is so that the sons of Israel may bring their sacrifices which they were sacrificing in the open field, that they may bring them in to the LORD, at the doorway of the tent of meeting to the priest, and sacrifice them as sacrifices of peace offerings to the LORD. (Lev. 17:3-5)

Even in the earliest cases, these temples or altars were set up in places where God has intentionally revealed Himself (Gen. 12:7-8;13:14-18; 28:10-22).  Also, the tabernacle in Moses’ time is a symbol of God’s residing presence with His people. (Ex. 25:8; 29:45).   Finally, when Solomon has finished the temple and dedicated it, “the glory of the LORD filled the house of the LORD” (1 Kgs. 8:11).

The point to be made here is that God’s manifestation was His self-revelation.  God was revealing Himself, and thus was worshipped at those specific locations.

OT Character Nature of Covenant Form of Worship Example Text
Abraham Unconditional Altar Gen. 12:7-8
Moses Conditional Tabernacle Ex. 25:8
David Unconditional Temple (built by Solomon on account of David) 2 Sam. 7:4-16 (cf 1 Ch. 22:7-10)

The Sacrifice

Another significant aspect of Old Testament worship is the sacrifice. Early in the book of Genesis we are introduced to the concept of sacrifice on behalf of sin as Adam and Eve are covered by the skin of an animal, which God Himself provides for them (Gen. 3:21).  However, the theme of sacrifice is brought out even more clearly as Abel’s sacrifice, a blood sacrifice, is considered acceptable while Cain’s, a grain offering, is not (Gen. 4:3-4).  Abraham also was to offer his son Isaac as an offering (Gen. 22:1-15). The book of Leviticus has a great deal to say about what sacrifices to offer in which particular circumstance.

In particular, Leviticus 16 shows us the picture of a scapegoat—an animal specifically meant to bear the blame of the people (Lev. 16:21).  It’s here that we recognize that all people need a sin-bearer.  We cannot bear our own iniquity, but rather need one to bear it on our behalf.  This was not to be found in a bull or goat; even these anticipate the true sacrifice for sin, Jesus Christ (Heb. 9:13-14; 10:3).

The Priesthood

The first time we are introduced to a priest in the Bible is when Abraham pays tribute to Melchizidek, who is both priest and king (Gen. 14:18).  The priesthood is officially initiated in the time of Moses by God to provide a people who would be set apart for service in the temple itself.  As such, these men were to be consecrated for God’s use—not for common use—so that they could minister in God’s presence.

This is drawn out in a striking way in Numbers 16 where Korah, Dathan, and Abiram decide to confront Moses and Aaron on the basis that “all are holy” and should be able to minister as priests (16:3).  This story ends with the ground swallowing up those who had questioned God’s plan.

The reminder is that man is in no place to mediate his own sacrifice.  He is in need of someone to offer up sacrifice on his behalf so as to turn away God’s wrath toward sin, like Aaron standing with a censer between the dead and the living (16:48).

New Testament Worship

In John 4, Jesus tells us that there is now a dynamic difference in New Testament worship.  “…believe me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship me…but an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshippers will worship the Feather in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshippers” (Jn. 4:21-23).  Specifically, Jesus draws attention to two things in his conversation with this Samaritan woman—significant changes have happened in the “where” and “how” of worship.

Continuity and Discontinuity With Old Testament Worship

If we were to go back and look at the section above concerning the three defining aspects of Old Testament worship, we would find all of those aspects to be fulfilled in Christ.  This is to say that Jesus is the fulfillment of the entire Old Testament cult.  He is the temple that was torn down and rebuilt in 3 days (John 2:19-20).  He is the sacrifice for our sin (1 Pet. 2:24-25).  He is the great High Priest who continually offers sacrifice before the altar in heaven (Heb. 10:11-12).

Perhaps it would not be best to speak of these in terms of continuity and discontinuity but in terms of shadow and fulfillment.  After all, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8).  The Old Testament system of worship, while equally functional and legitimate as its New Testament counterpart, was meant to find its consummation in Jesus Christ.  What was hinted at is now clearly expressed.

Not only this, but we also, as we are in Christ, become fulfillment of the Old Testament cult;

“And coming to Him as to a living stone which has been rejected by men, but is choice and precious in the sight of God, you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (1 Pet. 2:4-5)

Just as Christ was the temple, priesthood and sacrifice so also we, as we are in Christ, fulfill those same functions.

Temple Priest Sacrifice
Jesus Jhn. 2:19; 4:21-23 Heb. 5:9-10 1 Cor. 5:7; Eph. 5:2
Us 1 Cor. 6:19 1 Pet. 2:9 Rom. 12:1-2

Regardless of the forms of worship, the heart of worship is consistent throughout the Bible.  As David Peterson says:

“Throughout the Bible, acceptable worship means approaching or engaging with God on the terms that he proposes and in the manner that he makes possible.  It involves honoring, serving, and respecting him, abandoning any loyalty or devotion that hinders an exclusive relationship with him Although some of Scripture’s terms for worship may refer to specific gestures of homage, rituals or priestly ministrations, worship is more fundamentally faith expressing itself in obedience and adoration. Consequently, in both Testaments it is often shown to be a personal and moral fellowship with God relevant to every sphere of life.”[7]

[1] D.A. Carson, Worship By The Book, p. 31; ©2002 Zondervan.
[2] Wiersbe, Warren W., Real Worship, p.26; ©2000 Baker Books
[3] Peterson, David, Engaging With God, p. 20; ©1992 Inter-Varsity Press
[4] Bob Kauflin–
[5] Frame, John, Worship in Spirit and Truth, p. 1; ©1996 P&R Publishing
[6] Engaging, p. 17
[7] Engaging, p. 283

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