Don’t Settle for the Substitute

We have discussed the question, “What is Worship?” numerous times before here on the blog. To be honest we could attack that question from a different angle every week and end up barely scratching the surface of all that encompasses worship.

So today I want to discuss what it means to worship? Or more specifically, is there a right way or a wrong way to do it?

Is it singing, clapping and/or raising your hands at your local church on Sunday… or is there something more to it than that?

The question of “what does worship look like” is extremely important. Far too many arguments have been had over what is and is not a legitimate form of worship. Whole denominations have formed and churches have split over the nuances of this question! Preferences can too easily become elevated to precepts if we’re not carefully grounding our understanding of worship in what we see in the Bible.

Worship is singing… but not only singing.

Many Christians today understand worship as singing. When we talk about Sunday morning, we refer to congregational singing as “worship.” When we say, “I really enjoyed the worship,” we almost always mean “I really enjoyed the music.”

This isn’t entirely wrong… it’s just incomplete. There are clear examples of singing as worship found in Scripture. Exodus 15:1-2 says,

I will sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea. The LORD is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him.

Judges 5:3 says,

Hear, O kings; give ear, O princes; to the LORD I will sing; I will make melody to the LORD, the God of Israel.

2 Samuel 22:50 says,

For this I will praise you, O LORD, among the nations, and sing praises to your name.

Psalm 5:11 says,

But let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them ever sing for joy, and spread your protection over them, that those who love your name may exult in you.

Psalm 7:17 says,

I will give to the LORD the thanks due to his righteousness, and I will sing praise to the name of the LORD, the Most High.

These are just a select few of the vast examples of singing out of worship that we can find in Scripture, and as you know I could go on and on. The point is… we’re admonished to sing to the Lord and to encourage one another with hymns and spiritual songs.

So singing, biblically, is a part of worship.

However, we must be careful not to equate worship solely with singing and music.

The word “worship” at its most basic level means to ascribe worth… or “worth-ship.” This is helpful to keep in mind, especially when you consider the words translated as “worship.” The two most commonly used words in Hebrew and Greek that we often translate as “worship” are ḥā·wā[h] and proskyneō and refer to bowing or kneeling down, both to God and to men.

They describe an act of reverential deference.

This is the important thing to understand, then, about worship. It’s not merely about singing, but it’s about reverence. It’s about having a biblical fear of the Lord. At its most basic level, then, you could define worship as the humbling of yourself before the One who is your better. This, naturally, has serious implications.

Worship is not primarily about how you feel.

First, if worship is about humbling yourself before God, we have to consider the place of our feelings. Many today seem to equate fired up feelings with genuine affection for the Lord. The louder the music, the higher the hands are raised, the more our hearts must be inclined toward God… right? We all do it! We leave an energetic worship service where the atmosphere and mood was just right, the music struck a chord deep within us, and we feel as if we have “taken” something away and out of worship with us.

But this understanding places too much emphasis on feelings. We must always remember that while emotional expressiveness can be a sign of genuine affection, It’s what is in the heart that really counts and those things aren’t always demonstrated fully in a 25 minute worship set on Sunday.

Jonathan Edwards put it this way,

Nothing can be certainly known of the nature of religious affections by this, that they much dispose persons with their mouths to praise and glorify God.

His point is simple: people can fervently praise God with their mouths and still be far off from Him. This is much the same warning Paul gives when he tells the Corinthians that you can have a great outward show, but without love, it’s worthless. You can see that in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3,

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Is it any wonder that Jeremiah reminds us not to put too much stock in our feelings in Jeremiah 17:9?

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?

Worship is what you do every moment of every day.

Second, in the Old Testament, particularly once the nation of Israel is established, there’s a definite connection between place and worship. God’s people were to worship in a specific place (first the Tabernacle, then the Temple). This was the meeting place between God and His people. At the Temple, God’s people would offer sacrifices for the forgiveness of sin, peace offerings to God, and numerous other offerings and acts of service.

It can be tempting to take the imagery of the Temple worship and place it upon the local church. However, the New Testament doesn’t allow for this. Instead, starting with Jesus, the New Testament presents a definite shift away from “place and time” worship to “every moment, everywhere” worship.

In his discussion with the woman at the well in John 4:21-24 Jesus tells the woman,

Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.

Romans 12:1 says,

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.

Hebrews 13:15-16 says,

Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.

While I’ve only included a few brief examples, the general thrust of the New Testament, while never neglecting the importance of believers gathering together in corporate worship, drastically broadens our understanding of what worshipping God truly is. It’s not a matter of getting together on Sunday, singing songs, giving money, listening to a sermon and heading home for the rest of the week to do whatever we want.

Every moment of every day is to be an act of worship to God.

This brings us to the most serious implication of the New Testament understanding of worship: our need for the Gospel.

The reality is: the Gospel perfects our worship.

On our best days, our efforts are half-hearted, our motives conflicted. The flesh is constantly at war with the spirit. If our worship were up to us alone, we’d be utterly lost. None of it would be pleasing and acceptable to God. But this is where the good news of the Gospel aids us in our worship… Jesus is the perfect worshipper. In His incarnation, He obeyed every command of God without flaw or failure. His devotion is unwavering.

He gives us His perfect worship to cover our imperfect offerings of songs, service and sacrifice.

The Gospel gives us reason to stand before the throne of grace, imperfect as we are, because we have an Advocate there who has completed the work for us, one who appeals to us to rely on Him increasingly to purify our motives, and perfect our worship. Hebrews 4:16 says,

Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

That’s what biblical worship looks like. Don’t settle for a substitute.

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