We just finished a series on worship among the youth called “worship: what you were made for.” We talked about having both joy and reverence in worship, how worship is all of life, how to uproot idols that compete for our worship, how worship moves us out into mission, what our corporate worship should look like, and other things. We finished it off with a night of worship called “Holy Ground,” drawing from Exodus 3 where Moses takes off his sandals when at the burning bush because the ground there is holy. It was a great series and I learned a lot from it. I want to keep growing in my personal worship. It truly is what we were made for, and there is so much more of it that I want to experience.
In the course of my preparation and study, I ran across this old paper I wrote, which I found helpful by way of reminder as to what worship is.
(1) First, worship is a part of the fabric of the creature-Creator relationship. It is the natural and proper response of creatures to the Creator, because He is Creator and Lord. Worship exists because God exists, and implicit in God’s very nature is that he is worthy of worship – because of His majestic glory, His fierce holiness, his indescribable beauty, His enduring faithfulness, His untraceable wisdom, His mighty power, His redeeming love, His weight and worth and wonder as God. Worship is meaningless without an understanding of who God is, and who we are in relation to Him as His creatures. As His creatures, God has made us with a capacity and longing for worship, and that longing cannot be quenched. As Augustine said, “you have made us for yourself – and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.” Worship is hard-wired into our DNA such that the question is not whether human beings worship, but what human beings worship. This is why idolatry is such a prominent theme in biblical theology – the essence of sin is turning from worshiping God to worshiping idols. According to the Bible, God alone is worthy of worship (e.g., Exodus, 20:1-6). No other object in the creaturely realm is worthy of worship – it is a posture appropriate only from creature to Creator.
To summarize: worship is simply what creatures do (at least morally conscious creatures like humans and angels). To be a created being is to be a being created to worship, because worship is a part of the fabric of the creature-Creator relationship.
2) Second, worship is responsive. By this I mean that worship is in response to God’s covenantal and historical actions, the climax of which is the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the sins of his people. Worship does not originate in human initiative, but is made possible by what God has done (redemption) and is in response to what God has said (revelation). As such, it is not free flowing and up to human arrangement, but must be on God’s terms and in accordance with his guidelines. This is an emphasis that David Peterson highlights well in his definition of worship as “an engagement with (God) on the terms that he proposes and in the way that he alone makes possible.” Peterson also draws attention to this point in his treatment of Romans 12:1, an important passage regarding the Bible’s teaching on worship. Peterson highlights the word “therefore” in 12:1 and argues that Paul’s understanding of worship draws from all that he has written in the previous chapters of his letter about human rebellion and the free grace of the gospel. Paul only gets to worship after 11 chapters of gospel explanation!
This emphasis on worship as tied down to God’s revelation is especially important to note because it flies in the face of many of the errors of our cultural setting, in which people often assume that our preferences are the most important aspect to our worship gatherings. D.A. Carson helpfully reminds us in Worship By the Book, “we should not begin by asking whether or not we enjoy ‘worship,’ but by asking, ‘what is it that God expects of us?’ That will frame our response. To ask this question is also the take the first step in reformation. It demands self-examination, for we soon discover where we do not live up to what God expects.”
3) Third, worship in the new covenant era is “all of life.” When traced along the lines of biblical theology, it becomes evident that worship has undergone important developments from the old covenant era to the new covenant era. This is the great insight of David Peterson’s Engaging with God. Under the terms of the old covenant, worship was associated with the cultic institutions that God had set up: the tabernacle/temple, the sacrificial system, the Levitical priesthood, and so on. Of course, worship was not exclusively tied down to the cult (private worship was still a valid category), and worship was still required to be sincere, from the heart (hence the prophetical judgments on hypocritical abuse of the cultic system). What is fascinating, as Carson points out, is that the New Testament teaches that these cultic institutions are abrogated, but still uses cultic language to describe Christian worship. So our bodies as said to be “sacrifices” in Romans 12:1. Christ is referred to as our “Passover lamb” in I Corinthians 5:7. Paul’s missionary work is considered “priestly service” in Romans 15. The church is God’s temple in I Corinthians 3:16, and Jesus’ body is the temple in John 2. Christ is our high priest in Hebrews, and the church is a kingdom of priests in I Peter 2:9 and Revelation 1:6. And so on.
What emerges is that worship under the new covenant era has been expanded into every sphere of life. Of course, this does not mean that the Israelites were expected to only devote part of their lives to God, or that new covenant Christians should not worship corporately. Nevertheless, the difference of emphasis and language reflects a priority change. As Moule puts it, “if there is no longer any ‘cultus’ in the ancient sense, it is equally true, conversely that all of life has become ‘cultus’ in a new sense.” This point fits nicely with Peterson’s observation that edification, not worship, is the dominant New Testament category of thought for corporate gatherings.
4) Fourth, worship is transformative. In worship, the worshiper is conformed to the object he/she is worshiping. Psalm 115:8: “those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.” This follows from the point that we tend to emulate what we most admire, and fits with my first point above: if worship is what we were made for, it is fitting that it should have the greatest power for moral formation.
5) Corporate worship is for God, believers, and unbelievers. In other words, it is for praise, edification, and witness. One often hears the sentiment, “worship is for God, not us.” While it is true that worship should always be grounded in God’s word and unto God’s glory, this statement unnecessarily polarizes the human and divine concerns in corporate worship, and fails to account for the New Testament focus on edification in the corporate gathering. Even more common is the idea that the corporate worship gathering is for believers only, and then from the gathering believers go out into the world to conduct evangelism and outreach events. Paul, however, shows different concerns in I Cor. 14:23-25, for part of his argument against public un-translated tongues is that it will damage the Corinthian witness to outsiders and unbelievers (whereas prophesy will disclose the secrets of their hearts, causing them to perceive God’s presence). Interestingly, his stress both for edification of believers and witness to outsiders ultimately hinges on the same point: intelligibility. In Paul’s world of pastoral concerns, evangelism and edification are not always neatly separable, for what edifies believers (in this case intelligibility) often also constitutes a powerful witness to unbelievers.
6) Worship embraces the whole human being: it is for both the head and heart, both the intellect and the affections; it consists in both adoration and action; and it is motivated by both God’s transcendence and immanence. Many worship traditions tend to focus one of these at the expense of the other, but worship that is fully in line with biblical priorities will engage the “whole man” and seek to cultivate both reverence and joy.