Monday, September 15, 2008


When I taught Bible Study Methods at the College of Biblical Studies in Houston, I would assign different texts of Scripture in order to teach my students the various steps and methods of interpretation. I often used Revelation 5 for teaching how to do an analytical outline. I taught them to look for major breaks, pivots or changes in direction in the text.

Most students would break the chapter at verse 9: “And they sang a new song, saying …” I’d ask why they broke it there and frequently I’d be told, “That’s where the worship begins.”

“Are you sure?” I’d ask. Sometimes I’d receive a blank stare, so I’d repeat, “Are you sure that’s where the worship begins?”

“Yes. Verse 9!” I’d be told, sometimes indignantly.

“Well, what’s going on in verse 8?” I’d ask, a bit impatiently. “Read it!”

So they would. ”When He had taken the book, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each one holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.”

“Where does the worship begin?” I’d ask again.

“Oooh!” Verse 8!” was the usual reply.

[I’ve done this dozens of times and nearly every time the dialogue was nearly the same, as if it were rehearsed.]

Now, why do I tell this story? Because it shows that most of us don’t really know what worship is. Like my students, we have a very narrow definition. We think it’s singing in church. All that stuff about falling down and harps and incense and prayers is not considered worship.

Maybe we need to consider some definitions (always a good place to start).

Webster’s 10th Collegiate Dictionary gives the following definitions that would seem to fit our usual usages:
n. “reverence offered a divine or supernatural power; also: an act of expressing such reverence”
vt. “to honor or reverence as a divine being or supernatural power”
vi. “to perform or take part in worship or an act of worship”

One difficulty we have is that there is no exact one-word equivalent of our English word in either the Hebrew Old Testament or the Greek New Testament. The words usually translated as “worship” are Shachah in Hebrew and proskuneo in Greek, both of which in their narrowest definition mean “bow down to” or “prostrate oneself before (someone).” Sometimes they are used as signs of respect for a human being. Obviously, while bowing down may be an act of worship, it can be something other, and our idea of worship includes more than this.

There are other words in both testaments that describe worship. Abad in Hebrew and douleuo in Greek, usually translated “serve”; Yare (Hebrew) and phobeomai (Greek), translated “fear.” All of these could be translated as “worship.”

Actually, I’ve found at least 14 different word groups in the Greek New Testament that describe worship, all with slightly different nuances or aspects. (There are undoubtedly many more; I just haven’t found them yet; but I’ll keep looking.)

Worship, it seems, is much broader than our narrow categories of activities, ancient or modern. It is both personal and collective. It is both internal and external. I believe our problems and conflicts involving worship are mainly due to our narrow focus, not only on a particular aspect, but also on style.

It is interesting that four of the major passages in the New Testament that discuss worship describe what worship is not, as well as what worship is.

In John 4, when Jesus presented Himself to a Samaritan woman He had met at the well, she seemed to be trying to escape His claims by pointing out the difference in their two “denominations” – a difference in the place of worship. “Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship” (verse 20).

Jesus said to her, “Women, believe Me, and hour is coming when neither in 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 an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (verses 21-24).

Amazingly, in this brief dialogue, Jesus tells this woman two things that worship is not: It is not confined to a particular location and it is not to be done in ignorance.

And He tells her some positives: It is to be done in spirit and truth. In spirit because God Himself is Spirit. It is a communion between the spiritual aspect of our nature, that “God-conscious” aspect of our being, and God. But this does not mean our minds are to be disconnected. The word truth implies that our worship must be conformed to reality. Elsewhere (John 17:17) Jesus identifies truth with the Word of God.

But the most beautiful thing about this passage is the wonderful fact that the Father is seeking such people to be His worshipers. He desires our worship!

In Acts 17, where Paul was going head-to-head with the philosophers at Athens, he begins with the Athenian altar “to an Unknown God” and explains to them who this God is. “ … what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you” (verse 23).

“The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things” (verses 24, 25).

He explains what worship is not: It is not to be done in ignorance; it is not confined to man-made location, it is not a tangible, that is, not a matter of touch -- not something done with our hands. We do not fulfill a need of God’s by our worship – He has no needs!

Verse 29: “Being then the children of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man.” God is not the product of our design and craftsmanship. It is the other way around. Therefore, we are not to worship Him through representational art. But positively: “And He made from one man every nation of mankind … that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us” (verses 26, 27). He has revealed enough of Himself that He expects to be sought (cf. Romans 1:18-21 – the purpose of natural revelation).

And it is only through Christ that He can be found and worshiped. “ … God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead” (verses 30, 31).

In Philippians 3:2, 3, Paul warns his readers of the dangers of falling into the Old Testament rituals advocated by his adversaries. “Beware of the dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the mutilators; for we are the (true) circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and do not put confidence in the flesh.”

Worship is not a ritual of the flesh in which we can take confidence, in this case, circumcision.

Worship is rather conducted in God’s Spirit (cf. John 4:23, 24). It is a glorying (literally “boasting”) in Christ.

I believe he is telling his readers that genuine worship cannot be tied to any mechanical ritual, but must be a communion between His Spirit and ours.

The glorying may well speak of outward verbal expression.

In Hebrews 12:18-28, the anonymous author devotes much material to telling his readers what worship is not.

The readers of this book were apparently Hebrew Christians who because of persecution were tempted to turn back to Old Testament rituals where they apparently felt safer. The book is full of exhortations and warnings based on the fact that in Christ we have something better.

In verses 18-21, he tells them: “For you have not come to … “ and describes the fearfulness of Mount Sinai and the giving of the Old Testament Law.

In verses 22-24, he tells them what they have come to: “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem and to myriads of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks better than the blood of Abel.” They were no longer to be tied to a fearful religion – that of the Law; rather they belong to a religion of freedom and salvation through the work of Christ.

After some serious warnings in verses 25-27, he tells them: “Therefore since we are receiving an unshakeable Kingdom, let us have grace by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe.”

All of the above passages point us to the fact that externals of style or location, even of ritual are relatively unimportant. Worship is an interaction with the Triune God and its starting point is the spirit. It is obviously expressed outwardly and verbally and is to be done to His honor and glory. It is for His satisfaction, not ours. He doesn’t need it, but might I say, we do!

Bill Ball

1 comment:

gary said...

one of my favorite pictures of worship is found in luke 7:44-45