What is worship? We have many arguments in the church over what worship should look like, but what is worship actually? For many in contemporary evangelicalism, it seems that worship has become the time during the church service when we sing together. From my conversations with people across a broad spectrum of Christian churches, it seems to me people now associate worship with an emotional experience brought on as they are moved by the music and/or words of a song. But does this recent conception of worship accurately reflect what the Bible says about worship? To find the answer let us look at Scripture together.
The first instance of the word “worship” in the ESV translation of the Bible is found in Genesis 22:5 where Abraham takes Isaac to Mt. Moriah at God’s command in order to offer him as a sacrifice. He tells his servants to wait for him at a certain location while he and Isaac go further to worship. In this particular instance it seems unlikely the servants were expecting Abraham to walk a little further and sing some songs with Isaac and return refreshed after an emotional encounter. In fact, the whole trip was based around sacrifice. This is why Isaac asks about the details of the sacrifice in v. 7. So worship is at least not exclusively singing during church services.
Though 22:5 is the first instance where the English word for worship is recorded in the ESV, the Hebrew word translated as such is used much earlier. In Genesis 18 and 19 the Lord appears to Abraham and Lot accompanied by two angels. Both men meet these messengers by bowing before them (Cf. Gen. 18:2; 19:1). The Hebrew word translated “bowed” in the ESV is the same word translated “worship” in Gen. 22:5. Certainly Abraham and Lot were not singing a moving song to the angels in their tents. Instead, this act of deference was intended by these men to honor their guests. So worship is an expression of humility in the presence of God.
God was careful to define the exclusivity of worship to the people of Israel. He commanded his people to destroy the idols of the land of Canaan when they took possession of it. He does so because he requires worship to be show to him alone (Cf. Ex. 34:14). Worship is then described as sacrifice in the following verses. Sacrifice was an acknowledgment of the deity’s power over his worshipers. It had nothing to do with singing, or an emotional response.
So what is worship? The apostle Paul clarifies this term for us in Romans 12:1-2. There he commands the brothers to present their bodies as a living sacrifice, which is their spiritual act of worship. Unless you are always singing, worship cannot be exclusively viewed as our corporate singing at church. Worship, rather, is a humble serving the Lord in all of life because he is the only one deserving of honor. The worshiper defers to the Lord and ascribes glory to him. Worship, then, is not primarily about the person but about the Lord. This word should not be reserved only for singing during our services, but should be applied in all of life. We will worship the Lord at work, in our homes, and in our churches.
In the next few weeks we want to consider how worship in each of those domains is properly expressed.