*This was originally published in September 2013
Worship… those seven simple letters can conjure up so much meaning, emotion and passion. We worship anything and anyone these days. Last week, close to 27 million viewers tuned into the opening game of the 2013-14 NFL season between the Denver Broncos and Baltimore Ravens, while a Harlequin Romance novel entitled The Hero, by Robyn Carr rose to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. In June of this year, Justin Bieber passed a monumental 40 million twitter followers (as of Jan. 29 2015, that number has now skyrocketed to 59.8M), but was upstaged by Kim Kardashian as the most searched person on the internet so far in 2013. John Calvin said: “The human heart is an idol factory… Every one of us from our mothers womb is an expert in inventing idols.”
Hero worship has twisted our understanding of true worship. So when Jesus tells the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4:23 “An hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers,” we in the Church may be looking through a lens that is less than Biblical. Believers must ask themselves: What constitutes a biblical understanding of worship and what has been influenced by my preferences and tradition? Thankfully, the Bible is saturated with imagery and language which informs the Christian how to worship God and most importantly what He defines as truly important.
Sacrifice is not something that we like in our culture. We want what is ours, and we even want what is not ours. We are selfish! Yet worship demands sacrifice: “Therefore I urge you, 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). In the Old Testament the only acceptable way to come into the Lord’s presence was through sacrifice. Either someone or something had to die… regularly. Yet animal sacrifices never completely satisfied the relationship between God and man. Until an act of sacrificial worship, performed by the God-man Jesus Christ, would eternally appease both God’s wrath and pay the price for man’s sin.
Christ’s sacrifice was sufficient to cover all sacrifices “Every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins; but He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God (Hebrews 10:11-12). Christ pouring out His life is the single greatest act of worship. It should inspire us to a holy fear and awe. Jesus’ sacrifice permitted God to dwell amongst His people. Paul writes, “But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:13).
So now we can worship God in whatever way we feel is best for us, right? I’m sorry, but that just doesn’t make sense. When it came to sacrifice, exact adherence to the law was mandatory or it was unacceptable and detestable to God (Exodus 34:14-15). The New Testament does not release restriction upon our worship. Paul says to “present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God” (emphasis added). What does it mean to be acceptable to God? Presenting ourselves as a sacrifice, by keeping our lives pure and clean, separate from all defilement (Psalm 24:3-4; Philippians 4:8). Peter wrote, “you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5). Peter commends the church to understand that sacrifices of heart and will is what He does find acceptable. King David understood this mandate that worship required sacrifice, and that sacrifice required a cost when he said “I will not offer burnt offerings to the Lord my God which cost me nothing” (2 Samuel 24:24).
So what is the Biblical definition of worship? It must be music, right? WRONG! This is not a post about music, but about what constitutes true worship (I might address music in a future post). When scripture speaks of worship in both the Old and New Testaments, it refers to an understanding of posture. The Greek word for worship (proskynéō) described the act of stooping down to kiss the earth or prostrating oneself to the ground before another person or deity. The Greeks eventually abandoned the practice of physically prostrating themselves, but kept the term as an inward attitude of humility, and eventually evolving the term as a general expression of love and respect.
For Jewish believers however, proskynéō remained a reverential term that was reserved for deity and maintained the action of bowing, kissing or serving. Jesus was the object of many people having their proskynéō directed towards Him throughout His earthly life. In Matthew’s account of the incarnation, he includes the wise men who came to Bethlehem with the intent to proskynéō before Him (Matthew 2:2, 11). Even though gentiles, they recognized that this child was unique and deserving of worship, giving Him the respect that was reserved for deity. When Jesus appeared after the resurrection, immediately the disciples responded with proskynéō: “behold, Jesus met them and greeted them. And they came up and took hold of His feet and worshiped Him” (Matthew 28:9). What were they indicating by bowing down low? They demonstrated a knowledge of due reverence and honor. When one bows down, their very livelihood is given into the hands of the one whom they worship.
Written in the Ten Commandments, the Jewish mandate to bow down only before the One true God is commanded, for fear of great retribution by the Lord (Exodus 20:4-5). This further emphasizes the point that when Jewish people bowed before Jesus, they understood the impact, the bold statement and the consequences of such an action.
However, does physically bowing down still apply to the worship of the New Testament church? It would be virtually impossible for a person to remain in a physically prostrated state. But John the Baptist demonstrated a heart bowed low when he said, “After me comes a Man who has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me” (John 1:30). The church reflects this when it structures worship to properly acknowledges Christ as it’s head. It’s primary goal seeks to honor Him, rather than appease personal preferences and traditions.
Worship should spur us on to service. As one of the first acts of worship found in the scripture, Adam is commanded by God to serve and take care of the earth (Genesis 2:15). Work and service were not consequences of sin, but were meant as worship. After the fall (Genesis 3), work became a laborious task and exemplified the dissatisfaction that grew with alienation that existed between God and man. However, that was not the intended purpose of work, for in work, one worships. Work and service should be an outpouring of joy and thanksgiving; an opportunity to give back to God for all that He has done.
The Greeks had a very negative view of work or service. It was undignified, for men were meant to rule; not be subject to anyone or anything (sounds like our society). Yet for the believer, service is an outpouring of love that mirrors service to their master, Jesus Christ. Jesus explains that great reward comes through service in faithfulness and diligence. “Blessed are those slaves whom the master will find on the alert when he comes; truly I say to you, that he will gird himself to serve, and have them recline at the table, and will come up and wait on them” (Luke 12:3). As a servant serves his benevolent master, as in the case of Jesus Christ, a turn of the tables occurs and the servant is in turn served by the Master. Greeks and Jews understood that work was necessary, but this reversal of roles was revolutionary. Jesus clarified to them, “But it is not this way with you, but the one who is the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the servant. For who is greater, the one who reclines at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at the table? But I am among you as the one who serves” (Luke 22:26-27). To the Greek who viewed a servant as the lowest position, Jesus exalts service to demonstrate true worship and offers Himself as the supreme example (John 13:4-38).
The worship of God remains unchanged in its core value. The heart is the paramount issue with which the Lord is concerned. While practices and cultures may have changed, true worship remains an inward attitude of the heart. Worship involves costly sacrifice, a humbled posture and willing service. It’s not about the latest music, or time-honoured traditions. Instead, the heart of worship echoes the words of John the Baptist “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).