How shall we formulate a biblical definition of worship for our time?
A bewildering array of definitions has already been proposed in the ever-expanding literature on the topic. Neither the First [the Old] nor the New Testament tried to capture the concept with a single word. We may characterize constituent parts of worship as mystery, celebration, life, dialogue, offering, or eschatological fulfillment, but to define biblical worship is to confine it.
At best we may try to describe the phenomena.
Pagan worship focuses on corporate and individual cultic efforts seeking to mollify the gods and secure their blessing. Today many Christians’ understanding of worship differs little from that of pagans, except perhaps that God is singular and the forms of worship come from traditions more or less rooted in the Scriptures. Largely divorced from life, such worship represents a pattern of religious activities driven by a deep-seated sense of obligation to God and a concern to win His favor. But this understanding is unbiblical; it separates worship from daily life and compartmentalizes human existence into the sacred and the secular.
To account for the dimensions of worship reflected in the Scriptures, we need a much more comprehensive explanation. In simplest terms, worship is ‘the human response to God.’ However, to reflect the complexity of the biblical picture, I propose the following:
True worship involves reverential human acts of submission and homage before the divine Sovereign in response to His gracious revelation of Himself and in accord with His will.
This is not so much a definition of worship as a description of the phenomena. Let me lay the groundwork with some brief commentary.
First, the Scriptures call for worship that is true as opposed to false.
Everyone worships. The problem is that not everyone worships truly.
Those who direct their worship to gods other than the God revealed in Scripture or who worship the living God in ways contrary to His revealed will worship falsely. Whether we interpret obedience ‘before YHWH’ in everyday conduct cultically or ethically (Deut. 6:25), to walk before Him in truth and faithfulness with our whole heart, mind, and being (1 Kings 2:4) demands integrity: consistency between confession and practice and consistency between what God seeks and what we present.
Second, true worship involves reverent awe.
Evangelical worship today often lacks gravitas appropriate to the occasion and the divine Auditor who invites us to an audience with Him. In Israelite worship, the concern for reverence was expressed through the design of the tabernacle and temple and by the priests’ attire, which was intended to promote dignity and royal beauty (Exod. 28:2, 40).
True worship need not be humorless, but neither will it be casual or flippant.
Third, true worship is a human response.
The Scriptures inform us that angelic creatures worship God by their words and by their actions as messengers of God and agents of providence (Isa. 6), and that the entire universe is involved in worshipful activity (Pss. 19:1-6; 50:6; 148). However, although Scripture envisions the ultimate restoration of fallen creation, its words are intended for human beings and primarily concern their relationship with God. The concern is not how the rest of the universe glorifies God but how we worship God – how we respond to the Westminster Catechism’s declaration that ‘the chief end of man [humanity] is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.’
Fourth, true worship involves action.
It is not primarily interior, as if God is concerned only about what is in our hearts and disinterested in external ritual and ethical expressions. Although many aspects of God remain a mystery to us, biblical religion is not mystical, nor is it primarily cultic or formulaic. Some challenge us to treat ‘worship’ as a verb, which is fine, so long as we recognize that true worship involves actions that demonstrate covenant commitment to and love for God, and that our daily lives are characterized by reverence and awe before Him. As the prophets declare (1 Sam. 15:22; Mic. 6:8) and Jesus Himself affirms (Matt. 23:23), obedience to the revealed ethical will of God must take priority over cultic ritual expression.
Fifth, true worship expresses the submission and homage of a person of lower rank before a superior.
While the Scriptures speak of covenant arrangements between equals (Gen. 31:44-54), the relationship between God and His people is by definition asymmetrical. By grace, the Creator of the universe and the Redeemer of Israel invites us to covenant relationship, but this covenant is fundamentally monergistic (instituted by one party): God selects the covenant partner, establishes the terms, and determines the consequences of the vassals’ response. True worship lets God be God on His terms, and we submit to Him as Lord with reverent and trusting awe.
Sixth, only the divine Sovereign is worthy of worship.
While human subordinates may express their humility before human superiors by bowing and prostration, only the divine Sovereign is worthy of actual worship – assuming that we understand worship as veneration of the One who is the source and sustainer of all things and on whom we are absolutely dependent.
This God has graciously revealed Himself in the First Testament by name as YHWH and by actions as Creator and Redeemer. In the New Testament He has revealed Himself primarily as the incarnate Son, but also as the Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Seventh, true worship involves reactive communication.
We could not worship God acceptably if He had not taken the initiative both to communicate with us and to open our eyes to His communication, whether in creation, history, or Scripture. The universe declares the transcendent qualities and glory of God in a general sense, but only through His specific revelation in deed and word do we learn of His specific character and attributes. True worship involves communication through action – demonstrating covenant commitment to God and our fellow human beings because He first loved us (Exod. 20:2; 1 John 4:19).
Eighth, for worshipers’ acts of homage to be favorably received by God, they must align with His will rather than with the impulses of depraved human imagination.
Forms of worship may vary from culture to culture, but true worship comes from hearts totally devoted to God and determined to please Him. Scripture clearly reveals the forms of ethical worship acceptable to God, and since the New Testament gives minimal attention to corporate worship, true Christian worship should be grounded on theological principles established in the First Testament. Unless the New Testament expressly declares those principles to be obsolete, we should assume continuity.
In part, evangelical Christians quarrel over the nature of true worship, especially its cultic expression, because the New Testament hesitates to prescribe any liturgy when it describes the gathering of Christians. In these assemblies, the emphasis seems to have been on edification and encouragement, serving one another, and challenging one another to faith and good works. While liturgical homage to God appears to be deemphasized, the First and New Testaments agree that all of life should be a service of worship.
This understanding of worship as being wholehearted and full-bodied is not a novel New Testament idea. It runs like a thread from Genesis 4 (the worship of Cain and Abel) through Revelation 19 (the worship of those invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb). Nor is cultic language absent from New Testament references to the gathering of God’s people. Not only are Jesus’ instructions for the Lord’s Supper profoundly cultic, but Hebrews 10:19-31 also calls on Christians to ‘draw near [to God] with a sincere heart’ and admonishes them not to neglect participating in the assembly of God’s people. Hebrews 12:28-29 reinforces the assumption of 10:26-31, that Christians’ relationship to God closely resembles the Israelites’ relationship to YHWH.
Worship is indeed a complex matter, encompassing all of life.
This excerpt is adapted from For the Glory of God by Daniel I. Block, copyright (C) 2014. Used by permission of Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group.