What is worship? How can we describe an encounter with the divine? How do you approach the Creator of the universe, the God who made you and me and all things? Any attempt to describe worship actually detracts from it. Any attempt to confine worship to a prescribed set of ritual acts limits it. Any “act of worship” that caters to man’s wants and desires – his entertainment – cheapens worship, bringing it down from the exaltation of God to the excitement of the flesh of man.
So, what is worship? There are different words used in the Bible like PROSKUNEO – to worship, to kiss (like a dog licking its master’s hand), to prostrate oneself in homage. (John 4:23; Revelation 7:11) and LATREUO – to serve, minister, worship. (Phillipians 3:3; Luke 2:37).
But what do the words alone tell us about worship? Not much by themselves, do they? But look at these verses …
When the temple of Solomon was finished, the shekinah of God filled the house …
“And the priests could not enter the house of the Lord, because the glory of the Lord filled the Lord‘s house. When all the people of Israel saw the fire come down and the glory of the Lord on the temple, they bowed down with their faces to the ground on the pavement and worshiped and gave thanks to the Lord, saying, “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.” (2 Chronicles 7:2-4).
Shekinah is the majestic presence, manifestation or glory of God which had descended to “dwell” among men. The people in Jerusalem knew they were in the presence of their God and bowed down in acknowledgment of his worthiness to receive their worship.
When God gave the ten commandments he forbade any honor to be given to any idols because he alone is God and he alone is deserving of worship. His name is not to be taken in vain, that is, used in any way that does not hold him in reverence. (Exodus 20:3-7).
When Isaiah saw “the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple,” he cried out, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isa 6:1-7).
When King Hezekiah restored the temple worship after his father, Ahaz, had turned it into a house of idolatry, the people bowed down and worshiped God.
“The whole assembly worshiped, and the singers sang, and the trumpeters sounded. All this continued until the burnt offering was finished. When the offering was finished, the king and all who were present with him bowed themselves and worshiped. And Hezekiah the king and the officials commanded the Levites to sing praises to the Lord with the words of David and of Asaph the seer. And they sang praises with gladness, and they bowed down and worshiped. (2 Chron. 29:28-30).
Look up “worship” on BibleGateway.com. You will find that sometimes it refers to what was done in a formal assembly, but more often it was an individual spontaneously responding to something they saw God doing or some manifestation of his presence.
These scriptures and many more give us greater insight into the meaning of worship. We see people awed at the presence of God, ascribing him glory and honor, bowing down before him, revering him, adoring him, fearing him, trembling in his presence bringing offerings before him, serving him, rejoicing in him, praying and praising him, singing and playing on instruments to his name. In the Psalms we see people worship in times of joy and in times of trial and anguish, in times of sadness and sorrow and in times of gladness.
Jesus has something to say about the subject of worship. When he met the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well near the village of Sychar and offered her “living water” (the Holy Spirit? See: John 7:37-39), she turned the conversation to the question of worship. His response to her was …
“… Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:21-24).
Where is the correct place to worship? Was it here in Mt. Gerizim where the Samaritans worshiped? Or in Jerusalem where the Jews worshiped? There had been a temple on the Samaritan mountain and there still was one in Jerusalem, but neither of these places mattered from then on. The dividing wall between Jews and Samaritans was going to be torn down, but rather than having to worship in one or the other of the temples, place was going to be immaterial from then on. What was going to make the difference?
Even from that hour the time was dawning when acceptable worship of God would be that done “in spirit and truth.” The usual explanation of this of spirit is that acceptable worship would be that that comes from the heart or spirit of man and done according to the requirements of “truth,” which generally understood to be some kind of list of requirements. But is this what Jesus was getting at?
Look at what the woman had asked him. Which place is the acceptable place to worship God? She was having reference to worship as it was practiced in Jerusalem and in Samaria. That worship that was done by carrying out some kind of ritual formula in the offering of animals and other cultic practices. (Cultic – “A system or community of religious worship and ritual.” Free Dictionary). That worship consisted of adhering to lists of requirements and laws.
Jesus reply to her is that worship would no longer be done in that way. God seeks people who will truly worship him “in spirit” or “spiritually” and not merely in form. Paul puts it in terms of sacrifice in Romans 12:1-2.
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
It is spiritual worship to give our bodies as a living sacrifice. We truly, genuinely, “in truth” worship God when we do this. When we devote our lives to the glory of God, showing in our lives the image of God in ourselves, reflecting his glory into the world, how can this not be worship?
But is this all the worship that is accepted before God? Some answer in the affirmative. Yet it is obvious that the early Christians met together for several other purposes. The earliest Christians were…
“…day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people…” (Acts 2:46-47).
Acts 11:1ff; 12:12-17; 13:11-3; 15:4, 22 are other instances where Christians came together. None of these occasions are termed “worship” as such, yet who can doubt that God was glorified on all these occasions?
There are two scriptures in which Christians are seen to meet together for the purpose of edification (1 Corinthians 14; Hebrews 10:22-25). In the former there are very few things mentioned that apply to Christians outside their situation of miraculous giftedness. All things are to be done for edification and were to be done decently and in order is about all we can come away with. In the Hebrews reference there is stress on the “three things” that Paul said remain or abide in 1 Cor. 13:13 …
“So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”
These people are told to…
“…consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another…”
There are also two scriptures which deal with Christians meeting for the purpose of eating the Lord’s Supper (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 11:17-34). It is clear that the early Christians met together often to do this. They also met together for various other reasons.
It is no less needful for us to meet together as God’s family today. We need to be together and be conscious of our oneness in Christ. We need to be together and be conscious of our glorious Lord and Savior being in our midst (Matthew 18:19-20). Some religions talk about “sacred space,” which can have a variety of meanings to various people. Christians need to have a “sacred space” where we, as God’s family, can be with God in a special way. We need to be with him, to come before him to behold his glory and offer worship to his holy name. We need to read together from his word with the utmost respect. We need to stand in reverence in holy silence before the mighty Creator of the universe. We need to bow down before him in fear and trembling yet with awe and adoration. We need to be humbled before his mighty power and lifted up by his love and his grace. We need to be filled with gratitude for the multiple blessings he has bestowed on us so lavishly and be moved to pour out our thanksgiving to him. We need to rejoice before him and sing praises to his name. We need to remember all that he has done for us by providing for our salvation by his grace. We need to leave our assemblies lifted up, encouraged and empowered to live for him and to serve one another and our fellow man.
Do we need law to do all these things? No law, no commands, no examples, no inferences can prepare us for or allow us to truly worship God. The Jews in Isaiah’s day had all the commandments and were following them precisely, but God was sick of their superficial, perfunctory performance (Isaiah 1:12-17). Yet they would have maintained that they were obeying the commandments of God.
The Samaritan woman we referred to earlier responded to finding the Messiah by hurrying back into the city to tell the good news to others. This sinful woman who had come to the well in the heat of the day, probably to avoid other people, now becomes the first evangelist to the Samaritan people! She was so overflowing with the living water that she left her water pot at the well to hurry and share the refreshing water of life with others! I dare say she had never experienced anything at the temple ruins on Mt. Gerizim like she did when she met Jesus! Was she worshiping? You tell me!
What would it take for us to respond to the Lord in the way she did? The law of love is all we need! It is the only law that will move and motivate us to truly worship God!