We should begin with a working definition of worship: Worship is the humble response of ‘spiritually transformed’ men and women to the self-disclosure of the Most High God. It is based upon the work of God. It is achieved through the activity of God. It is directed to God. It is expressed by the lips in praise and by the life in service.
The study of any subject such as worship must consider more than just the words themselves, for the context in which these words are found can add much to our understanding of the subject also. In addition to the ideas of humility, reverence, and service, we can add four other essential facets of worship.
Response. The first facet of worship that we should consider is that of response. By this we mean that worship, from man’s perspective, is primarily a matter of response. Approached from any perspective other than that of the Scriptures, man would probably suggest that worship was something that man devised to give expression to inner desires and needs.
Although man has been created with what has been called a ‘God-shaped vacuum,’ we worship not so much because we feel the need of doing so, but because God has first revealed Himself to us. The case is similar to that of love, concerning which we are told, “We love, because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
Love does not find its origin in man, but in God. Our love is only a response, only a reflection of God’s love toward us. And so it is with worship. We worship God because He has made Himself known to us and has instructed us to worship Him.
There is a passage in the book of Romans which states, “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:36).
This is surely the case with worship. Fallen man could never approach a righteous and Holy God, so God in the person of Jesus Christ made us just and righteous by His work on the cross for us (Romans 3:21-24). The Holy Spirit of God works within us to enable us to worship (Philippians 3:3). And worship is directed to the Father (John 4:23).
Worship is from God, through God, and unto God. Apart from God’s revelation of Himself and of how man can approach Him in worship, man could never worship God in a way pleasing to Him.
Adoration. If worship is fundamentally a response, what is the nature of this response? It is that of adoration and praise which God rightfully expects of His creatures.
Though worship is the primary calling of the one who has placed his trust in the person and work of Jesus Christ in the present age, it is also that which our Lord shall receive from those who reject Him, for in the book of Philippians we read, “Therefore also God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those who are in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 3:9-11).
Throughout the book of Psalms we find the continual expression, “Praise the Lord.” That is the spirit of worship. We are told in the Psalms, “Yet Thou are holy, O Thou who are enthroned upon the praises of Israel” (Psalm 22:3).
No book in all the Bible gives us a better pattern for praise and adoration in worship than the book of Psalms.
Sacrifice. A third facet of worship is that of sacrifice. Central in the worship of Israel in the Tabernacle and in the Temple was the practice of sacrifice. When Abraham worshiped God in Genesis chapter 22, the offering was termed worship. The presentation of the first-fruits was also regarded as an act of worship (Deuteronomy 26:10).
When the wise men came to worship the baby Who was the Savior of the world, they came with gifts to give. When David sinned by numbering the people of Israel and God stretched forth His hand with the plague, judgment was stayed when David built an altar on the threshing floor of Ornan. Ornan offered to give the land to David, but David responded,
No, but I will surely buy it for the full price; for I will not take what is yours for the Lord, or offer a burnt offering which costs me nothing (1 Chronicles 21:24).
In the New Testament the idea of sacrifice is still prominent in worship, but rather than the sacrifice of offerings it is the sacrifice of self which is essential.
I urge you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship (Romans 12:1).
The book of Hebrews adds to this the sacrifice of praise, of doing good and of sharing Hebrews 13:15-16 (NIV)
15 Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise–the fruit of lips that confess his name. 16 And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.
Proclamation. The aspect of proclamation admittedly is perhaps most subject to debate, but it nevertheless seems to me to be a vital part of worship. The nation Israel was not to worship God in secret, but were to be a ‘light to the Gentiles.’ In this task Israel failed, but it was nevertheless a part of their responsibility to worship their Redeemer. When Abraham worshiped, he built an altar and ‘called upon the name of the Lord’ (Genesis 12:8; 21:33). In the New Testament, we are told that the church has been created by God,
“in order that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 3:10).
Whenever the saints partake of the Lord’s Table they ‘proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes’ (1 Corinthians 11:26). As has been repeatedly said, we cannot look at ourselves as spectators watching what God is doing, but rather we must view ourselves as actors upon the stage, who are being observed by both those in heaven as well as those on the earth.
Worship (Part 2) John 4:19-26 (NIV)
19 “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.” 21 Jesus declared, “Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.” 25 The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” 26 Then Jesus declared, “I who speak to you am he.”
Principles of Worship for This Age
We should be able to discern that if worship is to be pleasing to God, it must be in keeping with principles set down for its observance in this age. Nowhere are these principles set down more clearly than in John’s account of our Lord’s conversation with the Samaritan woman in John chapter 4.
As a Samaritan, this woman believed that the central place where God was to be worshiped was on Mount Gerizim (John 4:20). Although she, as a Samaritan, looked for the coming Messiah, she worshiped in considerable ignorance for the Samaritans rejected all the Old Testament books save those books of Moses, called the Pentateuch. Even these Scriptures were altered to conform to the Samaritan preoccupation with Mount Gerizim. In the light of her Samaritan misconceptions, our Lord reveals to this woman the essential principles of worship in this Age.
All Worship Is Not Acceptable to God
The clear implication of our Lord’s conversation with this woman was that her worship was not acceptable before God. She worshiped in ignorance and not according to truth. Her worship was not essentially spiritual. The purpose of our Lord’s conversation with her was to lead her to true worship of Himself.
God Is the Initiatory of True Worship
The words of our Lord to the Samaritan woman indicate that it is the Father who actively seeks true worshipers (John 4:23). When we turn back to the first verses of this account, we learn that our Lord made it a point to pass through Samaria (4:4). Our Lord was seeking this woman and her fellow countrymen to be His worshipers.
God has initiated our worship of Himself in several ways. First, He has revealed Himself to us in human flesh, in the person of Jesus Christ. When men recognized Him as God’s Messiah, they worshiped Him (e.g. John 9:35-38). Secondly, He has accomplished redemption through the work of Jesus Christ. The sin which alienated us from God has been paid for by the death of Christ. Finally, He has given us the written word which instructs us in true worship.
God Is the Object of Acceptable Worship
To put it in a slightly different form, all acceptable worship is God-centered. Worship is rightly focused on the Father. God was worshiped through the Son while He was on the earth. In ancient times, God forbade the use of images or idols because they could not begin to adequately represent God to men. But Jesus Christ is the full representation of God to men.
Colossians 1:15 (NIV) 15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.
John 14:9 (NIV) 9 Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?
Worship is God-centered in another sense as well. Worship centers around God and His perfection, and His desire for praise and adoration. All too often we try to modernize worship, to update it and make it more meaningful and relevant to us. Now, of course, worship should be ‘relevant and meaningful’ to us, but we must see that worship is first and foremost for God’s sake rather than our own. We have placed far too much emphasis upon what God will do for us rather than upon our duty of devotion to God.
Acceptable Worship Is Worship in Spirit
When our Lord told the Samaritan woman, “ALL those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (vs. 24), He did not intend us to put a capital “s” in spirit. The Samaritan woman, as did many Jews, thought that worship was essentially a matter of externals. She was preoccupied with a central place of worship: “this mountain” (verse 20). The Jews thought of worship in terms of sacrifices, rituals, observances and holy days.
The essence of true worship is internal (in spirit) not external. This is necessitated by the nature of God Himself. God is a spirit being; thus, we must worship consistent with His nature.
Israel’s worship under the Law consisted of many ceremonies and rituals, but even then God was concerned with what went on in the spirit of those who worshiped. Over and over again the outward forms and motions of worship were condemned by the prophets.
Isaiah 1:10-17 (NIV) 10 Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom; listen to the law of our God, you people of Gomorrah! 11 “The multitude of your sacrifices– what are they to me?” says the LORD. “I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. 12 When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? 13 Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations– I cannot bear your evil assemblies. 14 Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts my soul hates. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. 15 When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood; 16 wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, 17 learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.
Isaiah 29:13 (NIV) 13 The Lord says: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men.
Matthew 15:8-9 (NIV) 8 “‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. 9 They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.'”
Mark 7:6-7 (NIV) 6 He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. 7 They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’
Acceptable Worship Is Worship in Truth
As countless others, the Samaritan woman worshiped in ignorance; she worshiped “what she knew not” (vs. 22). Acceptable worship can never be that which we deem best; it must be a response to the divine self-disclosure of God. Our Lord Jesus personified God’s truth (John 14:6) and so men could worship Him in truth. If our worship today is not firmly based on the truth of God revealed in the Scriptures, it is ignorant worship, unacceptable to God.
There Is Freedom in Worship in Our Age
One of the striking contrasts between the worship of our age and that under the Law is the freedom which we are given. When we seek to find the word ‘worship’ in the epistles, we rarely find it. This is not because it is nowhere to be found, but because worship was so integral a part of the life of the church it was almost assumed. We find worship in the epistles wherever we find the fundamental ingredients of worship. It is this freedom in worship which our Lord communicated to the woman at the well, but a freedom restricted to what was revealed as truth.
We do ourselves a great disservice when we think of worship only in stereotyped terms. But we also would be in error in assuming that spontaneity is spirituality.
Worship Is Our Highest Calling
By way of reminder, let me reiterate the principle that worship is our highest calling. Worship is the occupation of eternity.
In a time when we are encouraged to work for God, let us be reminded that our highest calling is to be worshipers of God and then to be workers. Never let your work for Him come before your worship of Him.
Some have said that men can be so heavenly minded they are of no earthly good. This can never be the case with worship, for we are of no earthly good until we have become pre-occupied with worshiping Him. That true worship will always bear the fruit of service.
Worship in the Church Meeting
Within the broad principles laid down in the New Testament there is a great freedom in the expression of worship at the church meeting. We do not see elaborate or detailed form or structure. We find no stained glass conceptions of what worship must be. There is no appointed place of worship and the only appointed time of worship is that of the weekly remembrance of the Lord commonly referred to as Communion or the Lord’s Table. Our Lord commanded us, “do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19).
From early church writers it is evident that the Lord’s Table was considered central in their worship. The Lord’s Table is a pretty accurate barometer of our own spirituality. If we are lackadaisical about attending and participating, it probably speaks more of our own spiritual deficit than of the celebration itself. If we have come prepared to praise and worship our Redeemer, we will find the meeting a great delight. May God help us to worship Him in spirit and truth.