What Is Worship? (In Spirit and Truth – Part 1)

The fact that our worship underwhelms us is a signal of how much we are in need of true worship. We need true worship to honor the Father rightly. We need true worship to change our perspective.

To worship means to bow.

“Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.”

Matthew 2:2, NKJV

The word “worship” has come to signify an entire industry of music, often represented by record labels that are not even run by Christians. But even the English word outside of the modern church has little or nothing to do with music. To “worship” originally means to proclaim a person’s worth by bowing to them as an act of love and allegiance. In some biblical contexts, the English word “worship” means the physical act of prostrating oneself before another in expression of obedience (though biblical languages have several words that may be translated “worship”, and not all of them can mean this).

Worship does not depend on where we are.

“Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, and you [Jews] say that in Jerusalem is the place where one ought to worship.”

Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father.

John 4:20–21, NKJV

This may be the clearest New Testament teaching about worship, and yet we often hear mellifluous talk from the pulpit about how great it is to come into “God’s house” to offer worship. We are God’s house, we can offer our worship anywhere, and worship is much larger than the musical portion of our public services. We gather together to learn from each other, to receive teaching, and to remember Christ’s death, not because any institutionally-recognized location is a condition of acceptable worship. In fact, Jesus explicitly denies this idea. It is a Christian distinctive that we can worship God anywhere (see Acts 16:25!); we gather together and sing as one of many acts of worship.

Christian worship usually includes music.

And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.

Mark 14:26, NKJV

Since the days of Moses, music has been a distinctive element in Judeo-Christian worship. The Muslim may well be perplexed that the Christian reads (rather than recites) his holy book, and sings (rather than performs in ritual) his worship. Music is powerful in its ability to engage the mind, memory, and emotions. Christian worship is not a purely intellectual exercise. It involves our whole soul, and Christian music is a key expression of that fact. The memories of the earliest songs of our childhood show us the formative power of music. Music also has the power of disarming us, allowing us to understand a new perspective without argumentation. This makes it a powerful tool for teaching, for good and for ill.

Worship is more than music.

. . . speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord . . .

Ephesians 5:19, NKJV

Paul and Silas did not only sing songs in prison; they also prayed and spoke and evangelised. Even Christian songs themselves are a form of teaching. Jeremy Riddle writes that we have grossly underestimated the teaching role of Christian worship songs. Our worship leaders and songwriters should not be spiritual novices with thorough musical training; whatever their musical training, they should be theologians, capable of mediating and transferring spiritual truth through both word and song.

Worship may be addressed from us to God, from God to us, or from us to one another.

There are not one but three patterns of Christian worship: praise, prophecy. and exhortation. Some psalms may use two or three of these in turn, signfiied by changes between first, second, and third-person pronouns (“I”, “you”, and “he”). It goes without saying that we may freely address praise to God, directly:

. . . To You, O LORD, I will sing praises.

Psalm 101:1b, NKJV

In addition, a few modern Christian songs include lines that are written from God’s perspective, speaking to us words of encouragement. This may seem overly bold to some, but David’s psalms often included prophecies along with prayers. Worship as prophecy is an established, biblical pattern:

“For the oppression of the poor, for the sighing of the needy,
Now I will arise,” says the LORD;
“I will set him in the safety for which he yearns.”

Psalm 12:5, NKJV

Thirdly, worship can include words of exhortation between believers. Psalm 91, one of the most remarkable and memorable psalms, never addresses God directly. Verses 3 to 13—nearly the entire psalm—are in the second person:

He shall cover you with His feathers,
And under His wings you shall take refuge;
His truth shall be your shield and buckler.

Psalm 91:4, NKJV

Worship is about God.

I will sing of mercy and justice.

Psalm 101:1a

Worship, in the end, is not about how happy or despondent we feel, but about God’s wondrous attributes. Worship is an act of grounding our finiteness in God’s infinitude. It is for this reason that it is so important that those who prepare Christian worship of all kinds—whether in song, prayer, prophecy, or exhortation—must be seasoned disciples, trusted teachers, and grateful prophets.

Worship is for everyone.

Praise the LORD, all you Gentiles!
Laud Him, all you peoples!

Psalm 117:1, NKJV

Worship is not a musical performance put on by a few special saints. It is the prerogative of all Christians. When I write about worship, I don’t want anyone to misconstrue my words as only applying to worship leaders. The condition of our worship will improve when Christians everywhere realise that it is their responsibility to reflect God’s glorious image in their services and sacraments.

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