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CHRISTIAN WORSHIP

By William R. Cunningham
January 1999, 2005

 

INTRODUCTION

What is Christian worship? We hear this word frequently in church, usually part of the term “Praise and Worship.” However, do we really know and understand true Christian worship? Apart from the cliché’s and church slang, can we really explain to someone what Christian worship is? This study is going to look at the concept and practice of Christian worship. We will examine the early church’s concept and practice of worship as well as insight from the Old Testament scriptures (the Hebrew Bible).

I hope that you will have a better understanding of true Christian worship as it relates to church services and personal experience after going through this study guide. Closely related to worship is the concept of praise, which we will examine in another study.

worship defined

What does the word worship mean? The following are common definitions of the word “worship” taken from Bible dictionaries.

  • The expression of one’s devotion and allegiance pledged to God (deity)
  • Religious rituals which salute, revere or praise a deity
  • Human response to the perceived presence of the divine

In addition to the above definitions, the Bible gives us other insights into the word “worship” since there are quite a few Greek words that have been translated into the word “worship.” First we should know that the English word worship originates from an Old English word “worthship,” which was a word that denoted the worthiness of the one receiving the special honor or devotion.

The word “prostrate” is sometimes used to indicate an act of worship. One would prostrate himself in response to the presence of God or in honor (in the presence) of an official or someone given great respect or honor.

  • Abraham – Genesis 17:3
  • Moses & Aaron – Genesis 20:6
  • Elijah – 1 Kings 18:42
  • Job – Job 1:20
  • To Jesus Christ – Mark 5:22; John 11:32
  • Isaiah 44:15, 17, 19; 46:6
  • Matthew 2:2

The word “venerate” is also used to denote worship. See Daniel 2:46; 3:5-7, 10,15,18,28.

The phrase “to bow down” is also used to denote an act of worship. See Genesis 24:52 (compare this with Genesis 23:7; 27:29).

Worship is also associated with performing a sacred service or the offering of gifts. See Acts 7:42; 24:14 for example.

For many people worship is thought of as something that we give to God. It is seen as a mere human activity. However, worship is not really about what we do, but rather a response to God himself. True worship is a human response to God. It is not something that we can just turn on or off depending on the music or mental state we happen to be persuaded into.

Likewise, we should be careful not to consider ritualistic activities as true worship to God. It is very interesting that in many church services we instructed when to worship God. There is the praise and worship section of most church services. This is the time where we worship God and praise him for what he has done. However, true worship is not a spontaneous activity of human offered to God whenever one feels like it. True worship to God is a response to His presence and even in our own lives.

What would you do if you were actually face to face with God? Would you begin to ask him about all of the mysteries that plague your mind? Would you ask him about all of the problems that you have? Would you ask him to help you with a particular problem or dilemma? No. You would do what is recorded that everyone else did when in the presence of God. You would drop in fear and worship. Your response to his presence would be of severe inadequacy and guilt. You would be face to face with all that is good, pure good and you would know how very bad you really are.

Scripture Lesson

Now let’s look at various scriptures that use the word “worship” to identify a particular concept or thought.

  • To prostrate oneself

    (Matthew 2:2 KJV) Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.

    The word “worship” in this scripture comes from a Greek word that means to prostrate oneself in homage (do reverence to, adore). See also Matthew 4:9-10. So the Magi (wise men) in this scripture wanted to pay homage to the King of the Jews.
  • Revere

    (Matthew 15:9 KJV) But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.

    The word “worship” in this scripture comes from a Greek word that means to revere, adore, devout—religious. See also Mark 7:7. This verse gives an example of false worship. The worship here was religious in nature and not true worship, which we will define shortly.
  • Receiving dignity and praise

    (Luke 14:10 KJV) But when thou art bidden, go and sit down in the lowest room; that when he that bade thee cometh, he may say unto thee, Friend, go up higher: then shalt thou have worship in the presence of them that sit at meat with thee.

    At first glance this appears to contradict our present knowledge about worship. It appears that Jesus was condoning the worship of men. However, we need to understand the way that the word “worship” was used in this verse and then it will become clear. The word “worship” here comes from a Greek word that means glory, dignity, honor, or praise. Therefore, in that context the use of worship in this verse is understandable. It is OK for us to receive praise or dignity from others.
  • Pious towards

    (Acts 17:23 KJV) For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you.

    The word “worship” in this verse comes from a Greek word that means to be pious towards. In this case the Ephesians were pious towards an unknown God. This is more religious and ritualistic than anything else.
  • Worship of Idols

    (Acts 17:25 KJV) Neither is worshipped with men's hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things;

    Worship here means to wait upon menially, to relieve (of disease)-cure, heal. This denotes the concept of idol gods that are formed by man’s hands.
  • Ceremonial observance

    (Colossians 2:18 KJV) Let no man beguile you of your reward in a voluntary humility and worshipping of angels, intruding into those things which he hath not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind,

    Worship here simply means a ceremonial observance. This scripture deals with the practice of some to revere angels as well as heavenly bodies in general. This is believed to be a form of mysticism where people sought visions from the heavens. This turned them away from Christ however. Also common during the first century was the notion of self-denial (asceticism), which in itself could cause hallucinations because of sleep and protein depravation.
  • Service

    (Acts 19:35 KJV) And when the townclerk had appeased the people, he said, Ye men of Ephesus, what man is there that knoweth not how that the city of the Ephesians is a worshipper of the great goddess Diana, and of the image which fell down from Jupiter?

    The word “worship” used in this verse means to sweep—a temple-servant. By implication it means a votary (consecrated by a vow or promise).

Christian worship is a response to the presence of God that is expressed in a number of ways as shown above. Worship comes from the heart as you know who God is and therefore respond accordingly. Worship is not something that we give to God as if we have something to give him. Worship is something that we offer to God because he deserves it and is worthy of all worship and praise. True worship comes from the heart and therefore implies a certain relationship with God or at the very least knowledge of who he is.

Practiced worship

How do we worship God? Is there a set way that Christians are instructed to worship God? Consider the typical church service. Usually somewhere in the service the praise and worship leader or the minister instructs the congregation to worship the Lord. Sometimes we are told to raise our hands, speak in tongues, or some other activity. Are these biblical? Do these activities constitute true Christian worship? Let’s take a closer look at these relative to the early church’s perspective.

I believe that evaluating the principles of the early church will help us greatly in understanding the practices of the Christian faith. It is very beneficial to understand the origin of something to better understand its purpose and use. For example, if we can better understand the origin and God’s intent for marriage, then we are more likely to have better marriages. Likewise, if we can understand the origin and purpose of worship in the early church, then we can become better worshippers in our daily lives and in our church services apart from the commandments and instruction of people.

New Testament Worship

Joy and thanksgiving because of God’s gracious redemption in Christ characterized New Testament worship. Therefore, the early Christian’s worship focused on the saving work of Jesus Christ. Also, true worship occurred under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. See John 4:23-24 and Philippians 3:3. Our worship of God is something that is done apart from, but not excluding, outward activity. We worship God in spirit because God is Spirit. True worship therefore, comes from within our very souls and expresses itself outwardly in various ways. This makes our worship true according to the intent that God has for worship.

The Worship Service

Historically, the Christian worship service, which is a bit of a misnomer, was for celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ and was held on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7, 1 Corinthians 16:2). This day came to be known as “The Lord’s Day.” This was different from the strict Jewish observance of the Sabbath, which was observed on the seventh day of the week. There are still many debates regarding the observance of the Sabbath for Christians. These include:

  • The Sabbath was abolished by the work of Christ
  • Sunday became the Christian Sabbath
  • Christian services are in addition to the Sabbath. This implies that the Christian should observe the Sabbath as well as the “Lord’s Day.” This however has been deemed both impractical and unnecessary.

The Christian services were first held in private homes and, some believe, in the synagogues as well. The New Testament does not give specific instructions on conducting a Christian worship service. However, there are certain common elements in the early church’s worship service. These are listed below.

  • Prayer—prayer seemed to have had a leading place in the worship service
  • Praise—either individually or collectively by hymns sung together
  • Bible lessons—probably the focus was on the messianic prophecies pertaining to Christ. Bible lessons also included the teachings of Jesus Christ. Please understand that the early church did not have a New Testament Bible as we do today. Most of their scriptures were actually the scriptures in the Hebrew Bible and then the epistles. The canon as we know it was not developed completely until hundreds of years later.
  • Prophecy—inspired preaching by one filled with the Holy Spirit. See Ephesians 4:11, 1 Corinthians 12:28.
  • Collection of Contributions—Money, property, and other items were collected to help the poor and to assist those in needs. Since the first Christians were Jews, some of them were ostracized by their Jewish communities and found it hard to acquire items for daily sustenance.

Historically worship was not associated with the Christian church meetings. This should be more understandable given our understanding of what worship really is. The early Christians came together for edification by reading the scriptures, praying, and fellowship. Worship was and is something that we do when we come face to face to God so to speak.

Consider the following scriptures, which are some references in the Bible regarding early Christian’s church meetings.

  • Acts 2:42, 46
  • 1 Corinthians 14:26
  • Ephesians 5:19-20
  • Colossians 3:16
  • 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

These meetings were gatherings of Christians who desired to fellowship together and celebrate the works of Jesus Christ especially his resurrection. They differentiated themselves from the Jewish by meeting on the first day of the week instead of the seventh, which was the Sabbath. They also met in homes.

Divine Presence

The awareness of divine presence is essential for Christian worship. Jesus promised that he would be with two or three that came together in his name (Matthew 18:20). So the heart of Christian worship is the power of Christ’s presence in a gathered community of disciples. See John 14:12-14; Acts 2:43-47, 4:9-12, 32-37; 1 Corinthians 5:3-4; Revelation 2:1.

Therefore, true Christian worship must be in the presence of God (Christ). Without this presence our worship is no more than physical activities. We can also see here how important personal experience of God’s presence is in corporate worship. Each person experiences the loving presence of God and responds by worshipping God (honoring, adoring, and reverencing). The actual activities used to do this vary.

It is important to understand that we cannot summon the presence of God the way one would summon a spirit so to speak. God is not under our control to come on command. We can have the most blessed music and greatest moments of silence. These in themselves do not guarantee that God will come down as He did at Pentecost. These do not insure that God will come and make himself known among us. We server God by faith and we obey him in love and trust. We cannot command his presence whenever we want. We know he is always watching us and that should be enough.

Also keep in mind that worshipping God could involve service to him. Remember that worship is also to honor and revere him. Therefore, we can honor God in many many ways and service is one way we honor God. This could mean being an usher, minister, evangelist, doctor, store owner, helper, police officer, or whatever God has inspired you to do. Our worship is all about God and our response to him.

Church and Worship

It is amazing to me how we ritualize things in church. Worship is in many cases a mere ritual in churches. We play certain music and call it worship. We play or sing another kind of music and call it praise. Slow music is considered worship music and fast music is considered praise. Who made up those rules? Worship is worship. Worship is not dependant on music, but rather your heart and your response to God.

We should not be fooled to think that singing in a church service is worship. It could be mere ritual. Worship comes from the heart. Therefore, I could worship God during and by a particular song or songs. I could worship God in the midst of silence. It’s not about the song. It’s about God. Music is used in the worship of God, but it should not be confused as the act of worshipping God (except for perhaps musicians who may express their honor and reverence to God through their instruments).

The Mental State

We should also be aware of the hypnotic affect that music may have on us. This is also true for some preaching as well. Many things can change the emotional and mental state of a human being. Driving down the highway with the rhythmic bumps of the road could put us in a trance. Music in church services can also change our emotional state and this is sometimes construed to being the presence of God. That is, we feel the presence of God because of a certain mental or emotional state we are in. This is something we should avoid.

God’s presence is not necessarily consistent with our mental state. God can show up whenever he wants regardless of how you feel. Also, as I stated earlier, we cannot conjure up the Lord as a medium would conjure up familiar spirits. True worship is from the heart and that is a point you should always remember.

conclusion

True Christian worship comes from the heart (spirit) and is a response to the presence of God, which causes us to honor and revere him. The method of the expression of this adoration and reverence varies. The important thing about true Christian worship is that it is focused on Christ, a result of the awareness of the presence of God, and comes from within.

True Christian worship can be personal and corporate. However, both are fueled by personal experience. Corporate worship is beneficial because it provides proving ground for our experiences as well as biblical understanding.

Above all else we should understand that true Christian worship comes from within. First there must be knowledge of God and an awareness of his presence (See Proverbs 3:4-5). There must also be reverence, honor, adoration, and love for God. From these worship is induced and fueled. We worship God because of who he is. We worship because of our risen Lord. We worship because God’s Spirit is in us directing us. We worship because we love God. So adore God, honor Christ, revere the Lord and worship Him in spirit and in truth.

 

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