What is Worship?

The Samaritan woman in John 4 wanted to debate the Lord Jesus on this question. We Samaritans worship one way; you Jews have your way. Who’s right? The debate still rages. The Lord Jesus informed her, “True worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” (John 4:23 ESV). His statement teaches us that there is a right way and a wrong way to worship. This brings us to the question: What is true worship?

Giving God what is His Due

Broadly speaking, true worship is giving to God His due from the heart. To protect against false worship, it must be according to truth; sincerity, the stirring of emotions or what feels right is insufficient. To protect against formalism, it must be motivated by love (Matt 15:8-9). Going through the motions without engaging our minds, and without love for God, fails to meet the standard of true worship.

Worship can be expressed in many ways: an attitude of respect, a prayer that exults God, a song of praise, an act of service, an act of giving or the surrendering of our bodies. The common thread is that these are what we give to God, rather than what we ask and receive from God.

The purpose of this article is to explore the topic of worship by reviewing some of the key words used in the Old and New Testaments that express worship.

To Pay Homage

In the OT, the Hebrew word most commonly translated worship is shachah (Strong’s 7812), which means to bow down, to pay homage to one who is superior. “Moses quickly bowed his head toward the earth and worshipped” (Exo 34:8 ESV). The equivalent NT Greek word is proskyneo (Strong’s 4352). It is used of the Magi: “And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him” (Matt 2:11 ESV). In the above examples, the worshippers are giving God His rightful place as One to whom honor and praise is due. The focus is not on self or needs but on God and His honor. Bowing expresses humility, a right view of self, and at the same time exalts God. True worship does not place the focus on man and display his talents, but rather God and His glory.

Spontaneous Worship

Worship may be a spontaneous response or a purposeful activity. Spontaneous worship may arise from being in the presence of God, as in the case of the Magi when they entered the home where Christ was. While their worship was planned (for they had traveled the many miles for that purpose), they were awed at being in His presence and fell down and worshipped Him. How often does spontaneous worship occur in your life? You are struck with the startling beauty and wisdom of God’s handiwork; you are amazed at seeing Him work in your life and in others; you are overwhelmed at Christ’s sacrificial love; you are thrilled by an insight the Spirit has given you in your daily reading, and you spontaneously bow and say, “How great thou art.”

Purposeful Worship

There also ought to be daily planned worship. It should be incorporated into our daily and corporate prayers. The Lord’s model for prayer started with worship – “Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed by thy name” (Matt 6:9 KJV) – before moving to requests and confession. The content of our worship should focus on His Person and works. The psalmist said, “Praise him for his mighty acts; praise him according to his excellent greatness” (Psa 150:2 KJV). Our worship should not consist of rote statements with which we open every prayer. God has revealed Himself in creation and in Scripture, providing us exhaustless material with which to worship Him. If we resort to the same worn out phrases and thoughts, we are robbing God of the full scope of worship that is His due. Worship in the form of prayer or singing is fitting for all assembly gatherings, but it is the specific focus of the Lord’s Supper – “Do this in remembrance of me.”  The content of our prayers and singing should be focused on remembering and exalting Christ, not on ourselves, human performance, or even our needs.

Spiritual Service

If worship is rendering to God what is His due, all that we do in service to God is worship.  Quoting from Deuteronomy, the Lord Jesus answered Satan, “It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve’” (Luke 4:8 ESV). This word “serve” in Greek is latreuo (Strong’s 3000), and describes religious service as distinct from service in general. It is used to describe service associated with God’s house. Anna in Luke 2:37 served (latreuo) in the temple; the worshipper (noun form of latreuo) in Hebrews 10:2 came for cleansing with his offerings; the priests served (latreuo) the tabernacle (Heb 13:10). While these examples refer back to worship under the Law, Paul uses this same word to describe our worship and service today. “For we are the circumcision, who worship (latreuo) by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ” (Phil 3:3 ESV). These verses teach us that our worship is broader than praise from our lips or our participation at the Lord’s Supper. Paul viewed his service in the gospel as worship.  “For God is my witness, whom I serve (latreuo) with my spirit in the gospel of his Son” (Rom 1:9 ESV). He viewed the yielding of our bodies to God for His use as worship. “I appeal to you … by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship (latreia)” (Rom 12:1 ESV). All that we do in devotion to God, and because of the worth we find in Him, is worship.

Worship in Action

A beautiful example of an act of worship was performed without words in the house of Simon the leper by Mary of Bethany when she broke open a flask of costly ointment and poured it on Christ’s head. This provides a visual of what worship looks like. She found great worth in Christ as she considered Him worthy of the great expense. The act was for Him alone. She was there to give, not to receive. She showed great humility and honored Him as One who was superior – she “wiped his feet with her hair” (John 12:3). She rendered to him a valuable service – “she anointed my body beforehand for burial” (Mark 14:8). May our lives be oriented toward giving God His due in true worship.