What Is Worship?

What Is Worship?

What is worship? Some years ago the Chicago Tribune reported the story of a New Mexico woman who was frying tortillas when she noticed that the skillet burns on one of her tortillas resembled the face of Jesus. Excited, she showed it to her husband and neighbors, and they all agreed that there was a face etched on the tortilla and that it truly bore a resemblance to Jesus.

So the woman went to her priest to have the tortilla blessed. She testified that the tortilla had changed her life, and her husband agreed that she had been a more peaceful, happy, submissive wife since the tortilla had arrived. The priest, not accustomed to blessing tortillas, was somewhat reluctant but agreed to do it.

The woman took the tortilla home, put it in a glass case with piles of cotton to make it look like it was floating on clouds, built a special altar for it, and opened the little shrine to visitors. Within a few months, more than eight thousand people came to the shrine of the Jesus of the Tortilla, and all of them agreed that the face in the burn marks on the tortilla was the face of Jesus (except for one reporter who said he thought it looked like former heavyweight boxing champion Leon Spinks). [1]

Clearly, worship can sometimes go awry.

Worship is the reverential response of creation to the all-encompassing magnificence of God (Isa 6:1-6; Exod 15:11; Psa 148:1-14). In the Old Testament, worship encompassed a variety of activities. Bringing forward an offering to God was an act of worship (קָרַב, qārab). Bowing down in the presence of God was an outward display of an inner attitude of reverence before the Creator (חָוָה, ḥāwâ). The verb רוּם (rûm) could indicate that a person was “lifting up” or “exalting” God with praise. Together, these last two terms provide a rich image of worship: People both bow before God and lift him up in praise and wonder. The verb הָלַל (hālal) could be used to designate the act of celebrating God. The word “hallelujah” is derived from the Hebrew phrase הַלְלוּ־יָהּ (halĕlû-yāh), meaning “praise Yahweh.” This praise could involve זָמַר (zāmar, “singing”). Worship could also be described as “serving” (עָבַד, ʿābad) God. The ritual life of devotion was emblematic of a whole life given over to God. [2]

The New Testament carries over many of the actions described as worship in the Old Testament. The verb προσκυνέω (proskyneō) means to bow down as an act of worship, while κάμπτω (kamptō) signifies bending the knee or bowing in reverence to God. Other words for praising God include δοξάζω (doxazō), for the act of giving God glory, and εὐλογέω (eulogeō), for praising or blessing God. [3]

At their core, what these portraits of biblical worship represent is the reality that the only proper object of worship is the one God who created and redeemed humanity (Deut 5:6-7; 6:4; 1 Cor 8:5-6; Isa 40:18-23; Col 1:15-20). Jonathan Edwards said,

If man does not give his highest respect to the God that made him, there will be something else that has the possession of it. Men will either worship the true God, or some idol. It is impossible it should be otherwise; something will have the heart of man. And that which a man gives his heart to may be called his god. [4]

Martin Luther said, “The most acceptable service we can do and show unto God, and which alone he desires of us, is, that he be praised of us.” [5]

To worship is to assign worth or value to God. One of the more powerful portraits of worship comes to us in the book of Revelation. In it, we are given a glimpse into the inner sanctum of heaven itself, and we hear the song of the living creatures, the elders, and the angelic host.

John describes the scene:

“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” and the elders fell down and worshiped. (Rev 5:12-14)

In this text, we encounter something extraordinary, yet it is something to which all Christians should be able to relate—pure worship. As creatures made in the image of God, we were designed to worship our Creator, yet we depart from this purpose due to our sinful human nature. Nevertheless, once the Spirit of God enlivens people, imparting to them spiritual life, they have a new capacity for worship. Deep within, all Christians have a hunger to find a way to express worship of God.

It is no accident, therefore, that worship is one of the central purposes of the church. When the people of God gather in a common assembly, the purpose is to worship. People often go to church primarily for fellowship, Christian education, or edification, but the primary reason we should be there is to join with other believers in worshiping the Lord.

Nicholas Herman (1611-1691) was a Carmelite mystic, born in France, who was converted at age eighteen. He became a lay brother of an order of Carmelites in Paris where he worked in the kitchen as a “servant to the servants of God” until his death. He is best known for his little book of sayings, published under the name Brother Lawrence, called The Practice of the Presence of God. When Brother Lawrence lay on his deathbed, rapidly losing physical strength, he said to those around him, “I am not dying. I am just doing what I have been doing for the past forty years, and doing what I expect to be doing for all eternity!” “What is that?” they asked. “I am worshipping the God I love!” [6]

I hope you have worshipped God today. We describe the worship of God with words like exaltation or praise. Paul tells us that one of the most wonderful ways that we can praise and adore God is to present our bodies as a living sacrifice to him (Rom 12:1-2). Would you adore God in this way by dedicating yourself to him? It is unfortunate that we have cheapened the meaning of the word adoration these days. We describe people as “adorable,” meaning that they are cute or attractive, and in romantic situations, it is not uncommon to hear that one lover “adores” the other. Properly speaking, adoration is more than that. It is one thing for me to love my wife but quite another for me to worship her, which I am most certainly not to do. The sort of affection associated with the concept of adoration is meant to be given to God alone.

From a biblical standpoint, adoration takes place in the innermost recesses of our souls; it is of a spiritual nature that defies precise definition, yet we know when we experience it. We are aware of a spiritual connection between the nonphysical aspect of our humanity and the very character of God in which we praise him with our lips or with our thoughts such that our spirits overflow with affection, admiration, reverence, and awe for him. Adoration includes placing ourselves in a lowly position so that the One being reverenced is thereby exalted. I think it is that which Jesus had in mind when he told the woman at the well that true worshipers will worship God in spirit and in truth (John 4:21-24).

The paradigmatic picture of early Christian worship has long been Acts 2:42. The church gathered to hear the apostles’ teaching, to fellowship, to break bread (observing the Lord’s Supper; compare 1 Cor 11:23-26), and to pray. Other accounts indicate that early Christian worship included offerings, songs, and the felt presence of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 16:1-2; Eph 5:19; Gal 3:1-5). Worship encompassed the entirety of one’s life lived in obedience to God (Rom 12:1-2). Every act of obedience to Christ, no matter how mundane, when done to his glory, is an act of worship (e.g., Col 3:17). This worship will find its consummation when people from every tribe, tongue, and nation join with the rest of creation in adoration before the throne of the Lamb (Rev 5:11-14).

Perhaps it is for that reason that Karl Barth once said, “Christian worship is the most momentous, the most urgent, the most glorious action that can take place in human life.” [7]



[1] John MacArthur Jr., The Ultimate Priority: Worship, electronic ed. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1998), 1.

[2] Esau McCaulley, “Worship,” ed. Douglas Mangum et al., Lexham Theological Wordbook, Lexham Bible Reference Series (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Elliot Ritzema and Elizabeth Vince, eds., 300 Quotations for Preachers from the Puritans, Pastorum Series (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2013).

[5] Martin Luther, The Table Talk of Martin Luther (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1952), 66.

[6] Robert J. Morgan, Nelson’s Complete Book of Stories, Illustrations, and Quotes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000), 811-812.

[7] Ibid., 808.

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