What is True Worship?

by James Hong

One of the great joys of my life was having the opportunity to teach the Bible at a Christian school. Being one of the few teachers who also knew how to play the guitar, I was responsible for nearly a decade to teach the worship elective for middle school students. At the beginning of the school year, I would ask the students enrolled in my elective a simple question: What does “worship” mean? Whenever I asked this question, I would almost always get some blank stares and confused looks. Of course they knew what worship was! Why would they have enrolled in my elective otherwise?

Most of these students had been raised in a church-going family or attended a Christian school for some time, and so, the word “worship” was a regular part of their daily speech. Unfortunately, the familiarity with the word used in Christian context led my students to assume a definition of biblical worship. Before I had the opportunity to teach this class, I had also assumed the definition of worship and many other important words for a long time.

It is common for people to build their personal dictionary upon assumed definitions. However, it is equally common for assumed definitions to be erroneous. My students had built a definition of worship primarily on their observation of its usage among Christians and not by its usage in Scripture. It was no surprise to me therefore, that all of their definitions of worship related it with music. To them, worship was music and music was worship.

The connection my students made with worship and music is not unreasonable. It happens to be rather consistent with the common usage of the word in our Christian circles. Regularly, Christians refer to the music at their church as worship. Recently, when I told a friend that I would be writing an article on worship, he immediately assumed that I would be writing about the music at church. For many Christians, worship is inextricably tied to music. The biblical usage and meaning of worship, however, is deeper and more nuanced than simply music, and it would be to our detriment to miss what is in God’s Word because we had assumed a definition.

Understanding Worship by Association
Surprisingly, despite the strong connection between worship and music in our contemporary usage, the Bible does not link worship with music as much as Christians might first suspect. For instance, if you were to search the NASB translation for all the occurrences where “worship” and “sing” are used together, you’ll only find two instances (2 Chronicles 29:30, Psalm 66:4). Praise? Three, two of which are the same verses as the prior search with the word “sing” (2 Chronicles 7:3). Music? Four, all in the same book and chapter (Daniel 3:5, 7, 10, 15). So out of the 172 instances where the NASB translated the word “worship” only five of those instances are associated with the words sing, praise, and music.

So how does the Bible use the word “worship?” Are there other words that the Bible associates with worship that can help us better understand its usage and meaning? Thankfully, there are. I see three words that are repeatedly used in association with the word worship in the Bible. First is the word “fall.” Worship is used alongside “fall” in 22 instances. It is said of Job that he “fell to the ground and worshiped” (Job 1:20). Similar to “fall” is “bow.” There are 16 of these instances. Worship is so tied to the action of falling and bowing low that the actual Hebrew word that is translated worship is often translated as “bow.” Lastly, worship is frequently used alongside the word “serve.” You will find 29 such verses in the NASB. One memorable instance that comes to mind is when Jesus rebuked Satan during His temptation, “You shall worship the Lord your God and serve Him only” (Matt 4:10, Luke 4:8).

It is clear from the number of these occurrences that worship is tied to the action of falling, bowing, and serving to the original writers and readers of the Bible. What, then, is the significance of these connections? These associations highlight three aspects of worship that will help us understand its use in Scripture. First, that the form of worship is a physical act. Second, that the heart of worship is humble submission. Lastly, that the measure of worship is obedient service.

(1) Worship Is a Physical Act
Worship in the Bible is always an action as opposed to an experience. It is not something we passively partake in; it is something we actively do. The psalmist appeals to men with the words “Come, let us worship and bow down ” (Psalm 95:6). He does not say, “Come, let us enjoy worship,” or “Come, let us experience worship.” He gives a simple call to action.

This also means that worship has a real form. It is not something spiritual or metaphysical. It is an actual event that takes place. The physical act that often took place was the act of falling down or bowing down. When the Israelites gathered before Ezra to restore the worship of God, it is written that “they bowed low and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground” (Nehemiah 8:6).

This point might be obvious to some, but one that still must be stressed. I have often been asked the question, “Did you enjoy the worship?” Or “How did you like the worship?” It appears that many commonly view worship as something we observe, experience, and judge. I am not suggesting that it is never appropriate to ask these questions. However, we need to be clear that worship is not an experience judged by our own standards but an action we take to fulfill the biblical call.

(2) Worship Is Humble Submission
The physical act of worship, such as bowing down, are expressions of inner realities. What does bowing down signify? What is the worshiper expressing? Humble submission. It is apparent that when one worships another in the Scriptures, it was always an act that affirmed the authority of the superior. The worshiper clearly puts himself in a lowly position while exalting the worth, honor, and authority of the other.

The extent of this humble act was not merely ceremonial. The worshiper was expressing that their lives were at the mercy and whim of the one who was worshiped. I was once told that the significance of the knighthood ceremony was in the act of the lord tapping the knight’s shoulder with the knight’s own sword. This was to express that the life of the knight was no longer his own; it was now in the hands of his lord. Similarly, the worshiper is declaring that his life is now subject to the one he worships, truly a submission requiring great humility.

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego exemplified this devotion when they stood before Nebuchadnezzar. They were about to be executed for worshiping God and not the king’s golden images. They boldly declared, “But even if [the Lord] does not [deliver us], let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up” (Daniel 3:18). Whether they were to live or die was up to their Lord, and they would willingly submit to His will.

Therefore, worship of God is not merely an act but an act that flows from recognizing one’s position before God almighty. It is not just an outward action, but also an inward disposition that submits oneself under the complete authority of God. The Christian takes to heart the very words of God: “But to this one I will look, To him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word” (Isaiah 66:2).

(3) Worship Is Obedient Service
To the original biblical writers and readers, worship was not measured by the volume of one’s singing, but by their obedient service. If worship is declaring another as your superior and lord, it is natural that the quality of your worship will be determined by the loyal service you render to your lord. It is no surprise that when God called out a people of His own and assembled His first group of corporate worshipers, He outlined meticulously what He requires of the nation of Israel and how He will be served.

The Israelites, who received the Law of God through Moses, had no confusion as to what worship of God looked like. Are you a worshiper of God? You followed the law. It was impossible for the Gentiles to be a worshiper of the one true God because they did not have the Law. You cannot worship what you cannot serve. The worshiper asks the question, “What does God require of me?” They follow after Jesus, the model worshiper, echoing what He said, “I have come to do your will” (Hebrews 10:7). No matter how much we adorn God with our adoration and praises, if we do not serve Him, we will only hear Him say, “But in vain do they worship Me” (Matthew 15:9).

The Object of Worship
Understanding worship in its biblical context should help us further understand God’s zeal for His own worship. Biblical worship cannot exist without a clear object of worship. Furthermore, biblical worship does not allow for multiple objects of worship. Numerous times, God declares that He is to be the singular object of worship by His people (Ex 20:3; 34:14; Deut 11:16). The people of God are to worship God and God only. The physical act of worship is rendered unto God. The humble submission which worship reflects is in view of God’s lordship. The obedient service which extends from worship submits to God’s commands.

If God is truly God, the sovereign of all creation, he can require nothing less than to be the exclusive object of worship. If he were to share the worship due him with another, He would be diminishing his own glory, sovereignty, and deity. Therefore, true biblical worship makes the Triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—the sole recipient of worship (Matt 28:19; John 5:23; 2 Cor 13:14; Phil 3:3). Jesus impressed this truth upon us forcefully when He declared, “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matthew 6:24).

Defining worship is not a trivial matter. Jesus made worship a pillar of Christian life and thought when He declared that the Father is seeking true worshipers (John 4:23). Did He mean that the Father seeks those who will sing praises to Him? Or maybe those who will experience Him? Biblical worship can be boiled down to this: the act of declaring God as Lord and proving that declaration with service.  There is no question when looking at worship through the biblical lens that the Father is seeking those who will humble themselves, declare Him as Lord, and come ready to serve. He is seeking those who will offer their “bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God,” because it is the “proper, reasonable service of worship” (Romans 12:1).

Sadly, in our day there are those who would like to take the simplicity of this act and complicate it to the point that only a select few can truly worship. I once heard someone say that in order to return to a true worship of God, we have to deconstruct worship into a new form for the modern age. Only those who have reached some arbitrary standard of enlightenment can ascertain what sort of form this worship will take. Worship becomes defined by the individual, not Scripture. This is not worship of the Bible. Worship was clearly understood by the writers of the Bible and its meaning is still true and applicable today.

Another dangerous aberration of the simple act of worship is the notion that it is a spiritual experience. The simple act of worship engages the entirety of our being; we worship with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. Yet there are those who want to make worship something so spiritual that it takes place outside of ourselves. We do not worship God as whole creatures; only our spirit worships in some spiritual plane. What takes place in that spiritual zone is anyone’s guess. Worship in the Bible is a stark contrast to such an idea. The Bible is clear regarding what worship is and how worship looks. Worship is not escaping this physical world for a spiritual experience; it is the determination to live in this world to serve the one, true God.

True worship of God should be the desire of every Christian heart. Praise be to God that He enables us to be true worshipers by giving us both His Spirit and His truth. Apart from the Spirit’s work in our lives and the Word of God to give light, who can truly worship God? For “no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3). God revives dead hearts and illumines our eyes to His Word so we can worship Him in the way He deserves and desires. As our understanding of worship deepens, let us all join the psalmist in saying, “Come, let us worship and bow down, Let us kneel before the LORD our Maker” (Psalm 95:6).

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