biblical vocabulary: worship

Some of us love it, some of us hate it. We sometimes name our church gatherings or sanctuaries after it. We try to avoid directing it toward an unworthy subject in the form of idolatry. But do we even know what it is?

What is this thing we call “worship”? More importantly - how does the Bible define it?

In this third installment of the Biblical Vocabulary series, we’re going to try to understand a word that already has a lot of connotations for most of us - some positive, some not, depending on who we are and how we’ve experienced religion and the church. We’ve already covered the basics of faith and joy - now, it’s time to step into worship.

What is worship?

As always, we’ll begin with the dictionary definitions, just to make sure we’re all on the same page:

  1. reverent honor and homage paid to God or a sacred personage, or to any object regarded as sacred.

  2. formal or ceremonious rendering of such honor and homage: They attended worship this morning.

  3. adoring reverence or regard: excessive worship of business success.

These definitions likely don’t fall too far from the ideas that come to our own minds when we think of worship. Having grown up in the church, one of the first things I think of when I hear the word “worship” is singing, because that’s what has always been called the worship portion of the church gathering. That’s how I tend to understand the idea of honoring or adoring God.

And considering the lengths our modern American churches go to create an “experience” around this time of song, with dimmed lights and catchy melodies and emotional lyrics, I don’t think I’m alone in my preconception. For many of us, the word worship brings a lot of feelings to our attention - either positive ones of feeling “spiritually high,” or negative ones like the guilt associated when our worship doesn’t feel genuine enough.

But are these definitions Biblical?

Yes and no.

Factually, yes, worship is the act of honoring and adoring God. I’ve heard worship defined as “ascribing worth” to something or someone - in other words, treating it as if it has value. And that, I think, is a pretty accurate way to think about worship.

It’s in the connotations, not the definitions, that we begin to veer off the Biblical course.

If our picture of worship is a group of Christians singing the latest Hillsong, then our idea of worship is not Biblical. What we are actually thinking of is praise.

There are seven words in Hebrew for praise:

  • Tehillah: The pouring out and surrender through pain (lament-style)

  • Hallal: Celebration or dance

  • Shabach: Shouting out

  • Yadah: Applause or praise with hand motions

  • Todah: Thanksgiving

  • Zamar: To praise using skilled musical talent and instruments

  • Barak: A physical gesture, such as kneeling or bowing

As you can see, just about every praise style you can find in a church on Sunday morning is covered in the Hebrew terminology. The person who prefers to kneel, the person who can’t stop clapping with the beat (or off beat ;)), the person who plays the guitar - all of it is praise. Praise is what happens when we look upon God’s character and respond to Him properly - with delight, thanksgiving, surrender, song, and so forth. It’s a celebration of who God is that comes out of our hearts through music, words, dance, and gesture.

But, though closely related and vitally important, it’s too narrow a category to encompass worship.

Biblical vocabulary: What is worship? Is it the same thing as praise and singing, or is it something more?

So, having established what worship is not, let’s turn to the Bible to find out what it is:

Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.

Romans 12:1

And coming to Him as a living stone which has been rejected by men, but is choice and precious in the sight of God, you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

1 Peter 2:4-5

These New Testament passages appear cryptic at first glance, but they are pointing back to a pattern that the original readers surely would have recognized: the long-standing pattern of Jewish worship beginning in the Old Testament. We can’t understand worship Biblically without understanding worship throughout the whole Bible.

When God took Israel into the Promised Land to be His people, He set highly specific guidelines for worship. A huge part of their worship was to consist of animal sacrifices, which had to be carefully prepared and offered where He commanded, when He commanded, and how He commanded. An entire tribe of Israel - the Levites - became the service staff on God’s worship team. It was an enormous job and a central part of Jewish life. It required an immense investment of time and resources.

Paul and Peter are pointing back to this system when they say that our worship involves sacrifice - not of animals, but of our own living bodies, and the time and resources associated with our entire lives.

And yet even sacrifice is not the full extent of worship, as Saul’s example shows us in 1 Samuel 15:

Samuel said [to Saul], “Has the LORD as much delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of divination, and insubordination is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, He has also rejected you from being king.”

1 Samuel 15:22-23

There is an integral part of worship, then, that is obedience. Saul could not simply sacrifice a few animals and have his worship accepted by God, because he was walking in disobedience to God’s specific commands and purposes. His disobedient efforts at worship were so opposite true worship that Samuel likened them to idolatry!

Worship is an act of obedience as much as an act of sacrifice; only obedient worship is acceptable worship. This means that, unlike praise, there aren’t seven passable ways to do it; we can’t just make it up as we go along or do what feels good to us. God decides how He wants to be worshiped, and then we obey. According to Paul and Peter, worshiping God on His terms requires not merely laying oneself across the altar in God’s temple, but becoming one with God’s temple - becoming a vessel for His presence and His plan, no longer serving one’s own needs or agenda.

Jesus may have summarized it best in His interaction with the Samaritan woman, who asked why the Jews were so attached to Jerusalem as the sole location of their worship - bringing to light, like Samuel, the tension and balance between obedience and sacrifice, between the letter of the law and the heart of the worshiper. Jesus replied,

“An hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”

John 4:23-24

Worship is sacrifice and obedience, done in spirit and truth. It is giving God what He has asked for from a heart of reverence and adoration for Him rather than an obsession with the rules. Its manifestation is an action, its guide is the truth, its source is the heart.

What is worship according to the Bible? How can we worship God in the way He desires to be worshiped?

Worship is work. Work is worship.

Perhaps the best way to tie this all together in a way that makes sense is to introduce you to the Hebrew word avodah. In its simplest definition, this means “labor, service.”

We can find this word all the way back in Genesis 2, before the fall of man:

Then the LORD God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it.

Genesis 2:15

The word cultivate is the word avodah. Labor and service. Well before God’s perfect creation was tainted by evil, He gave man a purpose: to labor and serve, and to guard what is good.

And it’s the same word used over and over again in the Old Testament to describe the work of the priesthood, the service of the Levitical singers, the builders of the temple, and other acts of obedience to God’s commands regarding the proper worship of Himself.

When we think of worship as singing or praise only, we are thinking far too small, far too passive, far too egocentric. Praise is almost always at least in part about us - about expressing ourselves and responding to our own experience. But worship is work. Worship is active. Worship is not about us - it’s entirely about God, and offering up to Him what He has asked for, no matter how we feel about it.

Worship is avodah. Labor and service.

And this is still our purpose - we were created for this. Worship is work, and work is worship. We are to revere and ascribe worth and bring glory to our God by so much more than just singing! We are called to labor and serve, at high personal cost, in the specific ways He has commanded us: by guarding what is good, by giving and stewarding our resources, by loving one another selflessly, by bearing one another’s burdens, by using our gifts to His glory.

This is worship.

Returning to Paul’s instruction in Romans 12:

Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.

Romans 12:1

“Spiritual service of worship” is a phrase that has always mystified me, but it makes so much more sense in light of avodah. The Greek words Paul uses reveal his meaning with a little more clarity: “Spiritual” actually relates to the Greek logikos, meaning reason, and “service of worship” is closely correlated with the idea of sacred, priestly service. In other words, the presentation of our bodies as a living and holy sacrifice is the divinely reasonable sacred service. There is an element of practicality and logic to this worship - it’s not all nebulous emotions and metaphysical experiences. There is labor and service, obedience and sacrifice, spirit and truth.

Worship is work, and our work can be our worship. Whether you work at a desk or in a field, whether you serve under a CEO in a corporation or serve your family in your own home, you have an equal opportunity to share in the spiritual service of worship. God doesn’t demand what you do not have, He only asks for all that you have.

do not be overcome

Some days I am overcome by the sheer quantity of sin and evil in the world. It's as if Satan took a broad brush dipped in black paint and made a few heavy strokes across the surface of the earth, sucking away all the color and light and life from God's beautiful Creation and replacing it with death.

And it's not just a generalized darkness - maybe that's why it hurts so much. Some of it is so terribly personal. So terribly close. The oozing black paint seems to find its way into every crevice, even the most sacred spaces of our lives.

It makes me cry for the children - the innocent ones who enter into a world that immediately stains them and batters them and breaks them. Before they are even old enough to fight back, they've already been made slaves to sin and the ever-willing flesh. Some of them never escape.

And some of them - some of us - are set free, only to keep going back again and again to that addictive black bondage.

I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?
Romans 7:21-24

Wretched men and women that we are - stained from birth with the long-reaching after effects of Satan's paintbrush, wanting to walk in the freedom that comes from God and His Spirit, and yet still ravaged by the war of our two natures within us. We have been freed from guilt and judgment, but who will free us from the evil that still resides in our bodies of death? Who will scrub away all that wicked black ink?

Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin. Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
Romans 7:25-8:4

A flicker of light

This might be one of the most incredible passages in the New Testament, and I think it's too easy to miss with the chapter break in the middle of it, so I like to read it straight through: "Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin. Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus."

What honesty, from a man we all probably consider a super-Christian. Paul the Apostle admits that evil still lives inside of him, and that his fleshly desires do not align with his spiritual ones; that he is wretched and helpless, but for the gift of God. The two opposing natures are still at war for as long as he awaits glory, but safe in the freedom of Christ's sacrifice, there is no condemnation.

We come into the world already stained by evil and we grow into adulthood already broken by it. The world is, indeed, black. And yet what is this we see in Paul? A flicker of light!

Later in Romans, there's a short little verse that caught my eye: "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (Romans 12:21).

Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good. Romans 12:21

The blackness seems suffocating. It would be easy to be overcome. Even God could have chosen to let Satan snuff His Creation out - could have decided it was easier than mustering up His mighty attributes of love, grace, and mercy to save an evil humanity from the dark.

But He was not overcome by evil. He overcame the evil with good.

He sent Jesus - His Son - to die as the only sin offering powerful enough to set us free from condemnation and slowly-but-surely, over lifetimes and beyond, scrub all that black out of each one of our hearts.

And as He scrubs Paul, and Paul candidly testifies of God's ongoing work, that little flicker of light grows and multiplies.

walk as children of light

It would be easy to be overcome by the evil we all see around us (and in us) every day - especially the stuff that hits us close to home, or stabs like a poisoned knife straight into our hearts. But with a little more effort and a lot more sacrifice, we have the option to overcome evil instead - not with our own might or determination or fearlessness, but simply with good. Not a spineless "good" that says anything goes, but the fierce kind of good that makes up the merciful and unconditional love which both "exposes" the deeds of darkness (Ephesians 5:10) and "covers a multitude of sins" (1 Peter 4:8).

This kind of good is hard, even excruciating work. Sometimes it means that we join with God in the sanctification-scrubbing of the saints (John 13). Sometimes it means confrontation or confession to bring light into the dark places. Sometimes it means forgiving a betrayal that seems impossible.

Always, it will require participation in a Christ-oriented body and a refusal to follow the comfortable call of isolation and complacency. Paul didn't have to confess to the hidden evil inside himself, but if he hadn't, where would we find that flicker of light to cling to when we feel that the darkness might choke us to death, both from within and without?

One final thought: if you read the account of Creation in Genesis 1, you will find that there is only one thing that God did not have to create: the darkness. Darkness is default. But therein lies its weakness, for it is vulnerable to be driven away the very moment that God speaks and the Light is revealed.

For you were formerly darkness, but now you are Light in the Lord; walk as children of Light (for the fruit of the Light consists in all goodness and righteousness and truth), trying to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. Do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them; for it is disgraceful even to speak of the things which are done by them in secret.  But all things become visible when they are exposed by the light, for everything that becomes visible is light.
Ephesians 5:8-13

through Him

through Him

Today, my words are few - because there are words far more precious than mine, far more encouraging and life-giving, in God's Word.

I have a hard time choosing a favorite book of the Bible (usually I waffle between Genesis and the Samuels, but then I love Revelation and 2 Timothy as well....) but I think, at least recently, this is my favorite chapter. It's my goal to memorize the whole thing one day.

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