A Worship Primer


By Daniel L. Sonnenberg

This paper is adapted from an outline for a class I taught on worship for our local church. The purpose was to set forth a basic theology of worship that could be covered in one extended sitting of two or three hours. I intended to answer some basic questions from Scripture on the nature of worship: what it is, why we engage in it, and what results when we do.

Because the subject is so broad and the time was so short, I tried to limit myself to the most important things one should know about the subject. Many sources cover what are considered the basic principles, and each one approaches them from a different perspective. I chose what I considered some of the clearest sources and built my outline around them. The footnotes, therefore, are broad, covering entire sections rather than specifically noting each passage referenced because I borrowed heavily from a few sources. Therefore, most often, the footnote refers to what follows rather than the standard format of what has gone before.

What is worship?

The term ‘worship’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon weorthscipe which later developed into worthship, and then into worship. “It means, ‘to attribute worth’ to an object. To worship God is to ascribe to Him supreme worth, for He alone is worthy.”[1] Archbishop William Temple has given us one of the best definitions of worship.

“Worship is the submission of all our nature to God. It is the quickening of conscience by His Holiness; the nourishment of mind by His Truth; the purifying of imagination by His beauty; the opening of the heart to His Love; the surrender of the will to His purpose – and all this gathered up in adoration, the most selfless emotion of which our nature is capable and therefore the chief remedy for our self-centeredness.”[2]

Since the Scriptures are our guide in worshipping the Judeo-Christian God, it is helpful to be aware of some of the vocabulary used for worship. There are a number of Biblical words for worship found throughout Scripture.[3] First, let us look at two of the most common words found in the Old Testament. The first is often translated ‘service’ (abad), which indicates all kinds of service including both acts of adoration and relatively menial chores, e.g., Ex. 3.12; 20.5; Dt. 6.13; 10.12; Jos. 24.12; Ps. 2.11. The second Old Testament word is often translated ‘bowing down’ or ‘prostrating’ (shachah) oneself before the object of worship, eg., Gen. 22.5; 27.29; Exo. 34.14; Ps. 22.27. There are three words used commonly in the New Testament for worship. The first is translated ‘service’ or ‘worship’ (latreia) depending on the context, e.g., Rom. 12.1; Mt. 4.10; Lk. 2.37; Act 26.7; Heb. 8.5; 9:9. The second is translated in various ways to communicate the concept of ‘service to the community or state’ (leiturgia), e.g., Lk. 1.23; 2 Co. 9.12; Phil. 2.30; Heb. 9.21; 10:11. The third is translated ‘bowing down’ or ‘prostrating’ (proskuneo), e.g., Mt. 4.9-10; 14.33; Mk. 15.19; Act 10.25. It becomes evident in both Testaments, that Judeo-Christian worship and service are two sides of the same coin, so to speak. A believer’s life rendered to God in service is considered worship and pleasing to Him as well as particular acts such as bowing down before him when done with a reverent heart. Therefore, worship is both an event at a particular point in time as well as a lifestyle carried out in daily life (cf. Ps. 95:1-7a and 7b-11).

Several other aspects are important to remember concerning the meaning of worship. First, worship can be viewed as revelation and response. God makes himself known to us (revelation) in numerous ways: through His works in creation (Ps. 19:1); through His written word (Ps. 19:7); supremely, through Jesus Christ (Jn. 1:18); and, through the Holy Spirit. (Jn. 16:13).[4] We respond (response) in service and adoration as above. Second, God alone is to be the object of our worship (Exo. 20.1-3), not men (Act 14.12-14) or angels (Rev. 22.8-9). Third, we are to worship Him with our whole being: mind, will, emotions, and body. “He [Jesus] answered: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself'”  (Lk. 10.27; cf. Dt. 6.5).

Why do we worship?

Next, we will look at some of the reasons we are given for worshipping God in Scripture. First, we worship because He alone is worthy. “Worthy are You, our Lord and our God, to receive glory and honor and power; for You created all things, and because of Your will they existed, and were created” (Rev 4:11). Second, we worship in response to His acts of redemption. He has acted in history! The Psalms often implore us to worship God for what he has done in history:  “Sing to the LORD, for he has done glorious things; let this be known to all the world. Shout aloud and sing for joy, people of Zion, for great is the Holy One of Israel among you” (Isa. 12.5-6). He delivered His chosen people Israel from bondage to slavery in Egypt. “And He said, “Certainly I will be with you, and this shall be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God at this mountain” (Exo 3:12). He commanded Israel to come out for one primary reason, to worship Him. In the new covenant, Jews and Gentiles alike are commanded to worship God through faith in the blood of Christ. “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Pet. 2.9).

What are some practical implications of this teaching? First, everything in our public worship services should be designed and carried out not to call attention to us but to God and to cause people to think about Him. Second, this should be the basis of our evaluation of its various elements – the preaching, public prayer, leading of music, the Lord’s Supper, the announcements and the offering. Third, all of our spiritual gifts should be used in such a way as to glorify God rather than ourselves: “Whoever speaks, is to do so as one who is speaking the utterances of God; whoever serves is to do so as one who is serving by the strength which God supplies; so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belongs the glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.” (1 Pet 4:11)[5]

How are we to worship?[6]

Our worship should be God-centered. Covenant Lordship involves control, authority and presence. First, worship must be focused on the covenant lord’s control, his rule as sovereign over creation, praising him for his “mighty acts” in creation, providence and redemption. “And they sang the song of Moses, the bond-servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, “Great and marvelous are Your works, O Lord God, the Almighty; Righteous and true are Your ways, King of the nations!” (Rev. 15:3-4; cf. Ex. 15:1-18; Ps. 104; Zeph. 3.17). Second, we bow before God’s authoritative power and his holy Word. We read and study his Word in worship. “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching” (1 Tim. 4.13; cf. Act 15.21). We go out to be doers of the Word, not hearers only. (Rom. 2.13; James 1.22-25; 4.11). Third, we experience God’s presence in worship. He comes to us to be with us. God met with his people in the tabernacle and the temple (Exo. 20.24). He rejoices over us with singing (Zeph. 3.17). The name of Jesus is Immanuel meaning “God with us” (Is. 7.14; Mt. 1.23). In New Testament worship, even a visiting unbeliever may be impressed with the presence of God in worship so that “he will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, ‘God is really among you!’” (1 Cor. 14.25). Therefore, when we leave public worship, we should not ask first ‘What did I get out of it?’ but ‘How did I do in my work of honoring the Lord?’

Our worship should be Gospel-centered. Though Adam and Eve enjoyed fellowship with God in the Garden, they fell into sin. However, God continued to seek worshipers (Jn. 4.23) after the fall: Cain and Abel both bring offerings to the Lord (Gen. 4.3-4) and in the time of Seth, people “began to call on the name of the LORD” (Gen. 4.26). The Israelites were conscious of sin and forgiveness in worship through their system of animal sacrifices which prefigured deliverance through Christ. In New Testament worship God’s word tells us of our sin and God’s provision for forgiveness. Our eating and drinking in worship reminds us of the Lord’s death until He comes (1 Cor. 11.26). Our worship centers around the life, death and resurrection of Christ and his coming again. Worship should bring us to repentance for any known sin in our lives, including sins against one another. Otherwise, our attempts at prayer and ministry are frustrated by God. (Matt. 18:15-18; Ezek. 44:6-14)

Our worship should be Trinitarian. Trinitarian worship is aware of the distinctive work of the Father, Son and the Spirit for our salvation. After the work of Christ was complete on earth, the Father and the Son sent the Spirit to empower the church in its mission to bring the gospel to every nation. We worship God for initiating our redemption, we worship Christ for accomplishing our redemption, and we worship the Spirit for sealing our redemption, applying the work of Christ to our hearts, enabling us to understand His Word, filling us with divine gifts and empowering us for ministry in the world.

Our worship should both vertical and horizontal. Vertical worship is ministry to God. The horizontal aspect of worship is ministry to one another. We love God. We also love one another. “If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from Him, that the one who loves God should love his brother also” (1 Jn. 4.20-21; cf. Mt. 22.37-40; Mk. 7.9-13). We should not ignore the needs of the poor (Is. 1:10-17; cf. 1 Cor. 11:17-34; James 2.1-7). We should edify other believers. “What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church” (1Cor. 14.26). We should encourage one another to good works and not forsake assembling together (Heb 10:24-25).

Our worship should be both “broad” and “narrow.” Narrow worship includes public, family and private acts of devotion such as adoration, confession, thanksgiving, Scripture reading and partaking of the sacraments. Broad worship includes all of life. “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God– this is your spiritual act of worship” (Rom 12:1).

Our worship should be of utmost importance to us because it is of utmost importance to God. The Westminster Shorter Catechism tells us that “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” The goal of our entire life is to glorify God. “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God”  (1 Cor. 10:31). To that end God is seeking worshipers. “But 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” (Jn. 4.23). All of history culminates in “the praise of his glory” (Eph. 1:13-14).

What are the results of worship?[7]

One of the results of worship is that we delight in God. In the Old Testament Psalms we see examples of the psalmist finding delight in God in worship. “You will make known to me the path of life; In Your presence is fullness of joy; In Your right hand there are pleasures forever” (Psa 16:11).  “Whom have I in heaven but You? And besides You, I desire nothing on earth” (Psa 73:25; cf. Psa 27:4; 84:1-2, 10). In the early church we see several examples of believers’ delight as they worship God. At Christ’s birth: “The shepherds went back, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as had been told them” (Luk 2:20; cf. Mat 2:11). After his resurrection: “Then He said to Thomas, “Reach here with your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand and put it into My side; and do not be unbelieving, but believing.” Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!” (Jn 20:27). At Christ’s ascension: “And they, after worshipping Him, returned to Jerusalem with great joy” (Luk. 24:52). We now look forward to the consummation of all things in Christ. Worship gives us a foretaste of heaven: “And the four living creatures, each one of them having six wings, are full of eyes around and within; and day and night they do not cease to say, “HOLY, HOLY, HOLY is THE LORD GOD, THE ALMIGHTY, WHO WAS AND WHO IS AND WHO IS TO COME”” (Rev 4:8; cf. 5:12).

Another result of worship is that God delights in us. First, God delights in his creation: “God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day” (Gen 1:31). Second, God delights in those he has redeemed: “You will also be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD… you will be called, “My delight is in her,” …For the LORD delights in you….as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, So your God will rejoice over you” (Isa 62:3; cf. Zeph 3.17).

A third result of worship is that we draw near to God. In the Old Covenant, believers could only draw near to God in a limited way through the temple ceremonies; most had to remain in the courtyard. Only the priests could enter the holy place and only the high priest once a year could enter the holy of holies but not without blood (Heb. 9:1-7). But Christ, by his death, went into the holy place as mediator of the new covenant and high priest, offering His own blood for our redemption (Heb. 9:11-24). “Therefore we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus…and since we have a great priest over… [us], let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith” (Heb. 10:19-22). So New Testament Christians are no longer worshipping, as it were, in the shadows of the Old Covenant tabernacle or temple, it is genuine worship in the presence of God himself through the blood of Christ. Christ our mediator has brought us into the holy place where God is. We have not come to Mount Sinai where Israel received the Ten Commandments, but to the heavenly Jerusalem where we worship God together with those already in heaven.

“For you have not come to a mountain that can be touched and to a blazing fire, and to darkness and gloom and whirlwind, and to the blast of a trumpet and the sound of words which sound was such that those who heard begged that no further word be spoken to them…But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks better than the blood of Abel” (Heb 12:18-24). Our only appropriate response is this: “…Let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb 12:28-29).

A fourth result of worship is that God draws near to us. James tells us, “Draw near to God and he will draw near to you” (Jam 4:8). In the Old Testament, when God’s people praised him at the dedication of the temple, he descended and made himself known in their midst: “The trumpeters and singers joined in unison, as with one voice, to give praise and thanks to the LORD. Accompanied by trumpets, cymbals and other instruments, they raised their voices in praise to the LORD and sang: “He is good; his love endures forever.” Then the temple of the LORD was filled with a cloud,  and the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the LORD filled the temple of God” (2Ch 5:13-15). God dwells in the people’s praise. Though this was a unique occurrence accompanied by a visible cloud, David affirms that God, perhaps more often invisibly, inhabits the praise of his people: “Yet You are holy, O You who are enthroned upon the praises of Israel.” Psa 22:3.

A fifth result of worship is that God ministers to us through other believers. Though the primary purpose of worship is to glorify God, the Scriptures teach that something occurs to us as we worship: we are built up or edified. “What is the outcome then, brethren? When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification” (1 Cor 14:26). “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col 3:16; cf. Eph. 5.19; Heb. 10:24-25). Also, God ministers to us directly as we come to Him in worship through Christ: “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 Pet 2:5). “Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb 4:16). “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Cor 3:18).

A final result of worship is that the Lord’s enemies flee. When God’s people worshipped him, at times he would fight for them against their enemies. This occurred when King Jehoshaphat faced the Moabites, Edomites and Syrians. He sent out the choir praising in front of the army: “When he had consulted with the people, he appointed those who sang to the LORD and those who praised Him in holy attire, as they went out before the army …When they began singing and praising, the LORD set ambushes against the sons of Ammon, Moab and Mount Seir, who had come against Judah; so they were routed” (2 Chron 20:21-22).

[1]Ralph P. Martin, Worship in the Early Church, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 10.

[2] Archbishop William Temple. I was unable to locate the source of this quote.

[3] New Dictionary of Theology, 1988 ed., s.v. “Worship.”

[4] Ibid.

[5] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 1005.

[6] This section is adapted from John Frame, Worship in Spirit and Truth, (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1996), 4-11.

[7] This section is adapted from Grudem, 1005-1009.

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