What is worship really? With so many different worship practices in the world today, how can we know what God really wants?
What does worship mean to you? It’s vague and ethereal to many. Others have specific actions and attitudes in mind—absolute silence or ecstatic utterances, hands raised to heaven or faces bowed to the ground—often based on the worship style of their religious group.
But what does God say? What worship does He expect? What pleases Him, and what does He reject?
The Bible has a lot to say about worship. In this article we will focus on the New Testament teaching about worship and the practice of the New Testament Church.
Who deserves worship?
The most important question about worship is this: Who should be worshipped? The Bible shows that people have worshipped angels (Colossians 2:18) and pagan gods (Acts 7:43). It predicts that in the end time the whole world will worship the evil beast and the dragon (Satan) who empowers him (Revelation 13:4, 8).
But none of these deserve worship. They are counterfeits, frauds and usurpers. We break the First Commandment if we worship any of these.
Who does deserve worship?
“Worship God!” (Revelation 19:10; 22:9).
When Satan the devil offered Jesus the world if He would worship him, Jesus responded, “You shall worship the LORD your God, and Him only you shall serve” (Luke 4:8).
God the Father and Jesus, the Son of God, are worthy of worship. Speaking of Jesus Christ, Hebrews 1:6 shows that even “the angels of God worship Him.”
What does worship mean?
A word translated “worship” 60 times in the New Testament is proskuneo (Greek 4352). Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words defines it as, “‘To make obeisance, do reverence to’ (from pros, ‘towards,’ and kuneo, ‘to kiss’), is the most frequent word rendered ‘to worship.’ It is used of an act of homage or reverence.”
Thayer’s Greek Lexicon adds, “To fall upon the knees and touch the ground with the forehead as an expression of profound reverence … hence, in the N.T. by kneeling or prostration to do homage (to one) or make obeisance, whether in order to express respect or to make supplication.”
The specific actions of kneeling and falling prostrate demonstrate the broader attitude and approach toward God that worship can entail.
“The essential concept in Scripture is ‘service,’” explains the New Bible Dictionary article on worship (1982). The “Greek latreia … originally signified the labour of slaves or hired servants.”
Matthew 4:10, describing Jesus’ response to Satan’s temptation, uses variants of both of these Greek words: “Then Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! For it is written, “You shall worship [proskuneo] the LORD your God, and Him only you shall serve [latreuo].”’”
Basically worship is deep respect, reverence, obedience and service to God.So basically worship is deep respect, reverence, obedience and service to God.
Our relationship with God requires a personal commitment, and worship is an essential part of that commitment. Not only is He our Creator, but by Christ’s sacrifice He has made it possible for our sins to be forgiven and for us to become children of God forever.
In return, we are to love Him with all of our heart and mind (Matthew 22:37), to be a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1). We must worship Him in Spirit and in truth (John 4:23), which includes following the teachings of the Bible and the leading of the Holy Spirit. (See our Life, Hope & Truth articles “What Is Truth?” and “How Do You Know You Have the Holy Spirit?”)
Worshipping in the Spirit also transforms our physical lives and actions. As James explained, “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world” (James 1:27).
We also worship God through our individual prayers of praise and by growing in what the Bible calls the fear of the Lord. (See our articles “Praise God” and “Fear of the Lord: What Does It Mean?”)
In addition to personal worship, the Bible describes community worship, such as Sabbath and festival services (Isaiah 66:23; John 12:20).
The Bible doesn’t give much information about how New Testament church services were conducted, except perhaps in 1 Corinthians 14, where the apostle Paul told the Corinthians they were doing it wrong. But there are many passages that can guide our worship at church services. The Church leadership is given the responsibility of setting the format to avoid confusion and provide peace and unity (1 Corinthians 14:33, 40).
Music and praise
Music and praise are a vital part of worshipping God as a congregation. Paul encouraged the Ephesians to be “speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:19-20). (See “Songs of Praise.”)
Public worship also includes prayers of praise and requests for God’s help and guidance (Acts 4:24-31; 12:12).
Listening to God’s Word
Church services also involved sharing and learning God’s truth. Paul described some of the benefits inspired preaching of God’s Word can give: “The one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation” (1 Corinthians 14:3, English Standard Version). Prophesying has a wider meaning than just foretelling, and includes speaking by God’s inspiration.
The Bible—God’s Word—is truth (John 17:17), and so the Church needs to hear the Bible preached to grow. Paul wrote, “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17). He encouraged Timothy to “preach the word!” (2 Timothy 4:2).
If “vain” worship is to teach the “commandments of men” (Matthew 15:9), then right worship is to present the Commandments of God.
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Coming before God
Worship involves coming into the presence of God.Worship involves coming into the presence of God. The Bible gives us glimpses into the throne room of God to help us grasp the wonder and majesty and awesome privilege we have to come before Him. One such description is found in Revelation 4. We encourage you to read the whole short chapter, but here are a few excerpts:
“The four living creatures … do not rest day or night, saying, ‘Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!’
“Whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to Him who sits on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before Him who sits on the throne and worship Him who lives forever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying:
“‘You are worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power; for You created all things, and by Your will they exist and were created’” (Revelation 4:8-11).
This awesome scene is not meant to scare us off, but to give us a small taste of the reality of our all-powerful, merciful Creator. He wants us to come to Him. As Hebrews 4:16 says, “Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
Though church services are not called worship services in the Bible, and as we noted, the New Testament doesn’t give many details of how church services were conducted, we can still glean a number of principles about the type of worship style that is pleasing to God, and what is not.
Here are some biblical directions. Church should be:
- Meaningful, not meaningless: “That the church may receive edification” (1 Corinthians 14:5).
- Unified, not divided (1 Corinthians 1:10; 11:18).
- Organized, not confused: “For God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints” (1 Corinthians 14:33).
- Serving, not selfish (1 Corinthians 10:24; 12:7).
- Reverent, not profane, crude or sloppy: “Serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear” (Hebrews 12:28; see also Ephesians 5:4; 2 Corinthians 6:16-7:1). For hints about acceptable dress, see Matthew 22:11-13 and James 2:2-4. God does have high standards, but His people are not to discriminate against the poor who are wearing the best they own.
- Generally joyous, though sometimes somber or repentant: “Worship the LORD with gladness; come before Him with joyful songs” (Psalm 100:2, New International Version).
There is much more in the Bible about how God wants to be worshipped and what church services should be like. Study more in these Life, Hope & Truth resources:
- “Fear of the Lord: What Does It Mean?”
- “Private Worship Toward God”
- “Praise God”
- “The Church: What Is It?”
- “3 Things You Should Expect From Your Church”
- “Christian Fellowship”