When I began to study worship, as it exists in the church today, and as a need in my own life, I came across very quickly the actual meaning of the word, both in Hebrew and in Greek. My discovery reminded me of Josiah’s discovery of the scrolls (2 Chronicles 34). If this simple finding is true, woe is me and all of us.
Both the Hebrew shawkhaw and the Greek proskuneo, the two main words for worship in your Bible, carry the idea of prostration. That’s not just bowing, it’s lying flat out on your face before God.
Bible words can sometimes be generic, even created for a purpose by well-meaning translators. I have long spoken of the word “baptize” as an example of this. The Greek baptidzo is not subject to a long list of interpretations. It can only mean “immerse.”
But the church of the famed King James’s day practiced a whole array of water activities when dealing with one of Christ’s commands. They sprinkled people with a bit of water. They poured water over the head, as Hollywood loves to depict the act in its Bible movies, with no authority from Scripture. And they dunked people.
What were the King James translators to do? They invented a word based on the sound of the Greek word, “baptize”, and the church went merrily on in its oblivion. Today “baptize” can mean anything you want it to mean.
So with “worship,” I fear. A man sitting in a chair, coldly singing from an old hymnbook, is said to be worshiping. People running around a room speaking in ecstatic utterances is also a worshiper. Raised hands are considered worshipful hands. Music is the essence of modern worship.
Contemporary music, that is, with the new ritual that must include a very expensive set of drums, with a shield blocking the deafening sounds from the congregation; a keyboard; electric guitars… you know the drill.
But the Hebrew and Greek words I found early on defy all of that. It’s to your knees, to your face, aware of Who He is!
I’ve seldom seen this in a church “worship service” but I have seen it, via video, in the Muslim mosque. That’s a telling fact, is it not? Believers in the false god Allah seemingly revering their deity more than the Christians do theirs?
That’s not the whole truth, but it is a fact to be considered when looking at Christian worship.
So, what is the whole truth? Best here to look at several passages of Scripture on the subject. God has told us what makes Him happy, what He is looking for. I trace the concept through the Bible.
Genesis. Cain and Abel. We all know the story. Cain’s garden variety of offerings, maybe even the best of his crop, given to God. But God wasn’t looking for that. Abel gave something that cost a life. Bloodshed. Sacrifice. This hurts.
That’s the first clue about offerings given to God. It hurts. But it is given in joy at the same time. Here, God, take my best. Let the blood speak to you of my love.
Noah wanted to give a similar offering when the ark travels were finished, and life was beginning anew on the planet. His burnt offerings were so pleasing to God that He promised never to destroy every living thing again. Powerful worship when God is pleased in this way.
So, clue two. Offer to God when He is not specifically asking for something. Do it just because you want to give to Him. You have no idea how far such a sacrifice will resonate in Heaven.
Genesis 22 tells the famous story of the patriarch Abraham under his most severe of trials, the demand for the sacrifice of his own son. Perhaps the very essence of worship is here described. Abraham tells the men who traveled up that hill with him that he is going up yonder hill to worship. And here all the conventional descriptions of the word fall off, even the ones I have insisted come from the Hebrew and Greek. Here is true worship.
What are the elements visible? A heart devoted to God. A heart-rending demand to be obeyed. No bowing or prostrating here. The body position isn’t everything. Abraham’s heart forever lies prostrate before his God. The evidence is his obedience.
Yes, the attitude of the heart is shown by the position of the body, we get it. But see the position of Abraham’s body, his hand poised above his son’s throat, every nerve and muscle taut and determined. Soon the hand will move downward. Are these positions not acceptable worship? Was not Abraham worshiping in this position?
Every worship time with God demands a new searching of the heart and positioning of the body. God cannot stand vain repetitions in body or words. His mercies are new every morning and so must be our worship. And you will note I am not yet speaking of corporate worship, which had not yet developed.
I see worship in Abraham’s servant, Genesis 24. When he realized his mission had been accomplished in the providence of God, his reaction, probably learned from his master, was to bow down his head and worship.
Notice carefully what the Scripture is calling worship here. Is it the bowing of the head, that shows the reverence to be involved? Is it the words that flowed from the servant’s grateful heart? Listen:
“Blessed be the Lord God of my master Abraham, who has not forsaken His mercy and His truth toward my master… ”
A combination, I think. Pure gratitude reverentially offered to a powerful merciful God. That’s worship!
In Exodus 24:1 is the narrative of the seventy-four men called up to the heights of Sinai. First, they are to “worship from afar.” The next verses tell of various sacrifices and offerings given to God. Outward worship with rituals attending, when they are commanded, do indeed please God.
But at best all of this is “from afar.” Soon they will be called up to see the God of Israel. Such splendors they viewed! Then Joshua and Moses are to move on even farther for a more intense look from within a cloud of glory. We can only imagine the trembling worship which Moses offered.
More clues. Bring an offering to God. Bring yourself. Stay in worship until He calls you up higher? Not everyone is a Moses, not everyone has the same call, but do you and I stay in His Presence long enough to see if there is more that He wants to reveal to us?
When we see Joshua in the book by his name (5:14) worshiping God, it is on his face. No one is ruling out body compliance in all the talk of the special men and events of the Old Testament and New. You are talking to the Lord of all the universe. Show respect, reverence, awe.
Worship experiences continue through the history of Israel, usually connected to animal sacrifice. But unfortunately, it is predicable that outward forms will eventually replace the true worship for which Jesus longs, and with which He is pleased.
David reminds us in the Psalms to worship the Lord “in the beauty of holiness” (Psalm 29:2). His holiness? Ours? Whatever way you see it, holiness is a part of true worship.
New Testament believers are admonished to lift up holy hands when worshiping. All other worship is vain and insulting to a holy God. Dirty hands must be cleansed in the blood before being lifted up.
David also tells us to worship in fear. Where is this taught today, in the extravagant showy spectacles being called worship by our generation? Fear? More like fun in our time. Feel-good stuff. Brilliant music. Incredibly expensive sound and lighting systems, with smoke thrown in to keep up with the world’s ways.
Makes me happy. How about You, holy Lord? Does it make You happy? Perhaps this can only be answered on an individual basis. Those truly worshiping at the event please Him. The event itself, maybe not.
And David continues the exhortation to bow down, in 95:6. Tell your body what’s going on. This can easily be carried out in private worship, as can all the Psalms. No one is suggesting that in every meeting, people are all laid out on the floor, that all are bowing and physically humbling themselves. Yet, why not? Would such displays be wrong? Out of order?
The problem with the displays that are taking place today is that they are connected to the music of the world and the rock concert atmosphere. It seems to be a practice of the young, the ones who know least about God’s Word and the deep truths there.
Do the lights have to be dimmed? Does the music have to threaten everyone’s hearing capacities? Is there no way for us to humble ourselves before the Lord without replicating the world?
I hate to mention them again, but in fact the Muslims do spread out before Allah. They do bow before him, some of them I am sure being quite sincere. But nothing of Western heavy metal or deafening drum is brought in. I can only imagine the contempt they have for a people who are forever following the culture, instead of demanding that the culture follow them.
Just for the record, Isaiah also mentions how false worshipers lie prostrate before their false gods. So does Daniel. Nebuchadnezzar demands that all are to fall before his statue. There is no body function, including “tongues”, that is not, somewhere in the world, done by unbelievers.
Unbelievers know how to worship. Those actions themselves are not proof of a true allegiance to the living God. But neither is their absence a thing to be praised.
The New Testament is a bit unclear, at first glance, when dealing with the subject of worship. Pagan astronomers come to worship Jesus. We remember their gifts. Do we remember also that they fell down? Not passed out. Deliberately took the knee, and probably more, to adore this new King. Worship is falling down, in heart, yes, but also in body.
This is the worship Satan wanted of Christ in the wilderness. The common thread continues. Just fall down and worship me. The two ideas are one. Fall down. Worship.
Paul says that those who hear a genuine interpretation of a foreign language, given by one who has never learned that language, will fall down on their face and worship God! That’s supposed to be the instinct of one who confronts the Reality of Heaven. Fall down. Worship.
1 Corinthians is packed with clues about public worship. At least, we see what the church in Corinth had become. Not sure that all of this was supposed to be in every church, but the example is here before us, so let’s take a look.
1 Corinthians 14:26 talks of the things that happened in a church meeting. Note first that everyone who wanted to could participate. This was no study in the performing arts. This was fellowship. People wanted to share what was on their hearts.
Paul restricts certain utterances and sets in order the way of their being manifested, but the general idea of communal sharing is not rebuked. One person might have a psalm, one might teach, one might manifest a miraculous gift. Keep it orderly, says Paul.
So that’s what church looked like? At least, at Corinth.
The book of Revelation is packed with worship. The very words spoken in Heaven are given to us to utter on earth.
Jesus, in speaking to His church in Philadelphia announces that those professing to be God’s people mistakenly, will be directed to come and worship at the feet of true believers.
Not that they would worship the believers, but that they will be forced to acknowledge that the true God of Heaven is in these people. And how does one arrive at another’s feet? Fall down.
Twenty-four elders, modeling plurality of eldership in the visible church, sit with Christ in Heaven. That is, when they are not worshiping Him. How? Falling down, casting crowns before Him.
So engrained is the habit of falling down in Biblical worship and in that first century, that John actually falls down twice in worship to an angel that is speaking to him. He is quickly corrected. But you get the point. Worship is a humbling reverential experience.
Where is it being practiced today? I hear the noise. Where is the awe? I mean awe of Him, not awe for the music band.
We cannot leave the Scriptures without pointing out perhaps the most crucial aspect of what is to be our worship experience: the Spirit of God. Paul claims in Philippians 3:3 that we are those who worship “in the Spirit.”
And then there is the classic fourth chapter of John. The woman at the well.
We know well the story of a woman convicted of her sin and confronted with the very Messiah of Israel. We know of her evangelistic efforts, and how a whole town turned out to hear Jesus.
But hidden in that passage is a truth that we still desire and need to discover.
God is looking for a group of people. When He finds them, He is pleased. Jesus tells us their general description, but we are left on our own to track down His meaning.
The woman was a Samaritan. Samaritans were despised by “true” Jews because their religion had been compromised over the years. First, when the Kingdom was divided into Judah and Israel, Israel became eventually a headquarters of false worship. Wrong place. Wrong sacrifices.
Then things got worse, as Israel sank into idolatry, worshiping the gods of their neighbors, in the ways those neighbors worshiped. Finally, they were taken captive by the Assyrians, who sent their own people to live in the land which had yielded its population to the conquerors.
There was a return eventually, but the mix was never resolved: Assyrian religion, mixed with a backslidden form of Judaism.
The woman, however, had been raised to believe that Samaritan ways were best. Aren’t we all subject to that syndrome?
Samaritans probably were taught that they were more open. More liberal. Ecumenism, you know. She was wrong to think Mt. Gerizim was the proper place of worship, and Jesus even told her so. “You don’t know what you worship!”
Yes, it had gotten that bad. Do the young know what they worship today, or are they merely caught up in a musical euphoria?
One thing she knew though. Messiah would come and set things in order. Her faith in Messiah suddenly paid off! But Jesus added some more to His revelations on that day. He told her that, even though Jewish worship was superior to Samaritan worship at the moment, soon there would be a sweeping away of all such geographically-oriented worship and something new would stand in its place.
He explained to her that God was interested, even now, for people to worship Him from inside, from the spirit. He thereby suggested that the outward form of worship was not the issue at all. He further told her that a true worshiper would have to be one who worshiped the true God.
“You know not what you worship” won’t do any more. You must know Whom you worship. And not just any “Whom” will do. There is only One Who is called the Truth. You must worship Him.
Worshiping Jesus from the inside. Such a revelation. Such a change from worshiping an unknown god with external ceremonies.
Worship then is to be spiritual first, then physical. Worship is to be located within, not in a specific location. Beyond this, no rules are given, no format. At least, not here.
We see how slowly over time this mandate for pure inward worship disintegrated and became a Roman priesthood following rigid regulations, suffocating the life out of worship, then claiming that this was the only worship allowed by the church.
Such suffocations eventually produce reformation. It happened in the form of Luther and Calvin and the rest. So much better. Rules remained, and rules still excluded. But the improvement was so marked that no one noticed for the longest time that ritual still governed worship.
The slowly evolving evangelical churches brought more relaxing of traditional rules. And yet more bondage in some ways. It isn’t long before a church or a denomination, whether yours or mine, the best of them, begins to feel that their order is the order when Jesus has called for no particular order.
I did not just say that there should be no order in the church. Each church must maintain the holy decorum demanded by its profession of commitment to a holy orderly God. If we have viewed the creation lately, we all must be aware of how orderly things are, and how order is not a bad word after all.
Pentecostals and charismatics declared war on some of the remaining issues of legalistic worship rules, but alas, they also created some rules of their own, equally exclusive.
For example, now there was to be a separate class of believers: the Spirit-filled.
Their “utterances” were to be held in awe and set the “utterers” apart as a holy club that could hear from God. A new priesthood, if you will. Like all priesthoods, it divided. And in some ways, it turned the progress of the church in the wrong direction.
For these people, the Scriptures often were not the final say. Rather, experience began its unhealthy rule in Christendom.
Offshoots of the Pentecostals were the charismatics, who could be found in every major denomination, and all the minor ones too. The movement caught hold, for better or worse.
But alas, it went even further into negative territory. A new offshoot, summed up today in the initials NAR.
Now, worship could mean anything the “experienced” desired. Falling down in a faint was one treasured addition. Walking and running around the building, carefully stepping over the “slain”, that was in. Utterances of persons speaking out of their own spirits multiplied. Barking like dogs. Laughing like hyenas. Feigned drunkenness. And of course the growing power of music to control crowds.
Was all of this, worship?
I find it interesting, don’t you, that the New Testament never mentions a “worship service.” The first Christians “continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer.” Did they not continue in worship? Is that included in the “prayer” part?
Just asking. But it seems to me, looking at “worship services” through the centuries, that perhaps Jesus is looking for those -individuals – who will worship Him in Spirit (or spirit) and truth. Alone, you can feel free to do whatever you want in praising God.
Just sayin’. Something to think about. Public worship is so varied, so regimented. Can you find a “worship service” that obeys Jesus’ basic mandates: reverence, falling down (voluntarily), giving gifts etc. Without being disorderly, of course.
Order is enjoined upon us because public meetings attract visitors, who, as Paul said in another but similar context, will be watching, and calling you mad if you behave as madmen. We must not turn them off to the Gospel on their first visit! Yet we should not sit as dead men either.
So we’ve been through the Bible…
But wait. Did we leave out the Book of Acts? Is this not the definitive description of what church ought to look like? Was not worship the central part of every meeting recorded in that history? Let’s see.
The first meeting. The arrival of the Holy Spirit. Some say it started as a prayer meeting of about 120. That’s not as easy to prove as you might think. There is a moving back and forth about who was present from time to time in the first two chapters of Acts. Acts 1 talks first of the remaining eleven disciples, their final encounter with Jesus and angels, their return to the upper room.
Was the upper room a rented banquet hall or just a room upstairs, large enough to have a final meal with Jesus, and house the waiting apostles? We aren’t told. But you would think that we were told.
What is stated is that these apostles stayed in fellowship with about 120 other followers of Jesus. Where they all met together is quite probably at another location, not the apostles’ temporary apartment!
At one of their regular meetings, Matthias was selected as Judas’ replacement. But chapter one ends speaking of the eleven.
And the next verse (2:1) talks about how they (who?) were in one accord when the Spirit fell. The common assumption is that 120 were gathered together, squeezed into an upper room. But that is not stated.
“They” (and the antecedent is “the eleven”) were in one place (unspecified) when the Spirit fell. This is the Spirit that Jesus had often promised the disciples when He walked with them. It would seem that they would be the only ones who could truly know what was happening. Peter certainly did.
The Holy Spirit descended, and people began to speak. That’s what we know. Miraculously, they spoke in the languages of all the people present! There was a broadcasting of the wonderful works of God.
Then it seems that everything pointed to a clear message (the apostles’ teaching) outlining the plan of salvation, followed by a response, and a 3000- person addition to the church via water baptism.
That was church on Day one. Not meant to be “prescriptive”, the pattern for all time, but “descriptive”, a telling of history. Glorious history, our history, but history. God would never repeat His original outpouring. The Spirit had arrived and everyone knew it.
The first worship service then, was a miraculous outpouring, a proclamation of the Gospel in many languages to all the foreigners present, and a further proclamation of that Gospel in the language of the day.
That’s as far as God went. Why have we tried to go so much further? Church is about the Word. The Spirit brings the Word. Church is not about musical extravaganzas, or weirdness. The Church edifies by speaking truths from Heaven, words now recorded in your Bible.
2. As to the next meetings: We are told of the striking dead of a man and his wife, for lying to the Spirit. Church discipline, totally lacking in today’s movement.
The Word is established by miracles of healing. The community practically lives together, shares fully with each other, prays. But no word yet of a formal worship service with strict rules.
3. The first Gentile meeting. A group of family and friends of Cornelius are meeting in expectation of something they know nothing of. They know how to worship, though, and begin to do obeisance to Peter.
They are people of prayer. Peter comes and preaches Jesus to them. The Spirit falls again, and the people begin to praise God. Another baptismal service, but still no formal worship outline.
4. A prayer meeting. Peter is in jail for preaching the Gospel. The church meets together to pray. Peter is freed and shows up at the meeting. This is the church at its finest, but no official worship service here.
5. Another prayer meeting. These seem rather common for the time. Lydia is part of an outdoor Jewish prayer group when Paul joins her and leads her to the Lord. Not a church service here.
6. Breaking bread. It seems that the habit of meeting on the first day of the week has begun, and a communion service is established. No rules are given, no formalities. Jesus’ institution of the Supper was likewise simple and free. We all know what happened to that simple meal.
7. In prison. Paul is the last person we see in Acts, and at the end of the book he is having regular meetings with enquirers. He preached and taught, that much we know.
Put all this together and we see again the summary we mentioned earlier, quoting Acts 2:42. The first-century church continued regularly in the teaching of the apostles (we call this the New Testament today), fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayer.
We are left scratching our heads as we seek the formalities of a worship service, complete with musicians, incense, rituals, vestments… and today, oh so much more.
Old Testament worship, specifically under David, was very musical and exciting. We can assume that much of this was carried over into New Testament times. Perhaps that explains why there is so little said in the New Testament?
Paul enjoins Ephesians and Colossians to be singing and making melody in their hearts, and (in some translations) to each other, but that is hardly evidence for a formalized program followed ritualistically every week. Agreed?
The question is a thorny one for me, for I have seen and been part of the “dead” and formalistic groups. I have seen also the performance-oriented churches that hire the best in the business – and church music is a business these days – to come and revamp their “worship” experience.
Pastors soon lose control in many of these places, as King Music reigns. What can poor Pastor say? The church is growing, and that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Growth? Why, to go back where we were is unthinkable! Right? Well, no.
Oh for pastors/elders who are free! No one’s income, in a free church, depends on the changing ways of his flock. The world is kept on the outside, and inside is a sense of holiness, awe, love. People are living for Jesus throughout the week, and thus come to the service ready to share as did the Corinthians, albeit with much more order that did they.
There’s a psalm. A teaching (by a man). A Scripture. Special prayers. True communion! And when they sing, they care not if a full-fledged rock-style band is blaring behind them. They can worship without instruments at all if they desire.
But alas, I know of no such place. Do you? Why must I only look back to a New Testament church to find what pleased God so much? And when true worship is present, must it always evolve into the sensual and demonic?
Lots of great questions, I think. Not as many great answers.