I realize that this is a big question, but can you help me understand worship from a biblical perspective?
Quite some time ago I was preparing to present a worship seminar at a church. As I was setting up my equipment, the minister of music assisted me. At one point he casually mentioned, “I’m so glad you’re here. The people of our church seem to have the idea that worship equals the sermon and the sermon equals worship. To them, there are no other variables. I’m hoping you can help them see a broader picture.”
Since that time, I have encountered numerous churches whose worship services vary greatly both in style and in the elements they include in services week by week. Usually, the background (spelled: tradition) of the church dictates the type of service. In many churches, all the elements of the service are considered “worship.” In a broad sense, this is true, but I would challenge us to look more closely at the biblical definition of worship and consider its implications on our services.
Before we go any farther, we’d better attempt to define the term “worship.” Christians use the word “worship” to describe all kinds of activities. What we need, however, is to find the biblical definition of the word. You see, I can call anything by another name, but this does not mean that it really is what I’ve declared it to be. For example, I could call my guitar a fried egg. This does not, however, make it a fried egg. Simply calling something worship does not make it worship from an honest, biblical perspective.
When I was in seminary, one of the professors had us conduct a word study on the word “worship” in the Bible. We were to look up in our English Bibles all the times that “worship” appears, and see what the original Greek and Hebrew words meant. Based on this research, we were then to come to some sort of conclusion about what worship really is from a biblical perspective.
When the project was complete and we all shared our findings, I was astounded at the results. Almost everyone in the class came to the same conclusions: (1) worship honors God, (2) it is directed toward God and (3) it requires involvement on the part of the worshiper. Even a cursory look at worship in the Bible apart from the original languages will show this concept to be true.
- …all the people of Judah and Jerusalem fell down in worship before the LORD (2 Chronicles 20:18).
- Then they bowed down and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground (Nehemiah 8:6).
- Come, let us bow down in worship (Psalm 95:6).
- They came to him (Jesus), clasped His feet and worshiped Him (Matthew 28:9).
- …offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship (Romans 12:1).
- So he (an unbeliever) will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!” (1 Corinthians 14:25).
- …the twenty-four elders fall down before Him who sits on the throne, and worship Him… (Revelation 4:10).
Worship honors God. There are occasions in Scripture where people rail against God. There are times when some lament the Lord’s seeming lack of involvement in the affairs of His people. There are even places where some folks weep and mourn, crying out to God. All of these may be prayer, but it is not even suggested in the Bible that these are worship. To truly be called worship, it must honor God.
Worship is directed toward God. Let’s be perfectly clear: Unless the act is directed toward God, from a biblical perspective it cannot truly be called worship. Worship has God as the focal point, not us.
A few years ago I attended a conference where one of the speakers shared a powerful story. He had been in another city on business with a friend. Since they were there over the weekend, they decided to attend a church on Sunday morning. They found a nearby church and went to the service. As they left the service that day, the friend turned to the man and said, “You know, I really enjoyed the sermon there this morning, but I didn’t get much out of the worship.” The man thought for a moment, then looked at his friend and asked, “Have you ever considered what that’s got to do with anything?”
What he was saying was, “Who is the worship for?” Worship is not for us. Worship—in it’s truest sense—is directed toward God. It is not for the worshiper. It is for the One being worshiped. To truly be called worship, it must be directed toward God.
Worship requires involvement on the part of the worshiper. Yes, I am aware that there was one time in Scripture when Jacob leaned on his staff and worshiped (Genesis 47:31). However, that is clearly the exception! The overwhelming majority of times the Bible talks about things like singing, speaking forth words of praise, clapping, shouting, giving, kneeling, and raising our hands. Years ago Robert Webber wrote a book entitled Worship is a Verb. That title makes the point well. There is an involvement that is necessary in true, biblical worship.
Now that we have defined the term worship, let’s go back to where we began. What is wrong with the idea of the sermon being worship? Nothing, unless, of course, you want to be truly biblical in the use of the word. The sermon is clearly not directed toward God. It may be preached with an intent to glorify God, but it is ultimately directed toward the people. Hopefully the sermon will inspire people to worship, causing them to “see” God and the wonders of His mercy. The words of the preacher may cause people to ponder an aspect of God or His mercy that may well spur them to worship the Lord. However, the sermon is not—in the strictest, most biblical understanding—worship.
The same understanding is also true for communion. There have been numerous times throughout the years that I was inspired to worship God as a result of partaking of the Lord’s Supper. Receiving the communion elements may cause people to worship Him. Recognizing Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross may motivate the believers to worship, but the act of receiving communion is not directed toward God. It is not—in the true, biblical sense—worship.
Does this mean we stop doing these things? Absolutely not! They are biblical in origin. Scripture makes it very clear that these are activities for the Church. We should be very cautious, however, about referring to them as worship.
In his wonderful book, The Joy of Fearing God, popular author Jerry Bridges made these comments:
It isn’t my intent to make a judgment statement about any church service that emphasizes evangelism or body life or teaching. I do believe that such a service should not be called a worship service. A worship service should focus on God. This doesn’t mean that ministry to members of the body or even to unbelievers will not occur. It does mean that the emphasis is on worship of God, ascribing to Him the praise, adoration, and thanksgiving that are due Him. [Jerry Bridges, The Joy of Fearing God, Colorado Springs, Colorado: Waterbrook Press, 1997. (page 247).]
Praise. Adoration. Thanksgiving. Those are all God-honoring and God-directed. Additionally, they require involvement.
One key reason that we need to understand a truly biblical definition for worship is simple: so we will allow people the opportunity to truly worship. If a church service includes a sermon, communion and even a special song by the choir, it may be a wonderful service, but there may have been no opportunity for the people to actually worship—to focus on God and adore Him. We must give people time to engage in worship, not just activity.
Let’s be honest in looking at worship. Let’s not be guilty of calling a guitar a fried egg simply because of our traditions. From a biblical perspective—not a traditional or cultural perspective—worship honors God, requires involvement on the part of the worshiper and is directed toward God. Otherwise, why call it worship?