This is a very difficult question and my definition will likely have many inadequacies. My goal is not to start an argument; I hope that this post will foster edifying conversation on the subject. In most situations, one would want to define something in the narrowest of terms. Worship, however, is not a narrow subject; it encompasses a variety of things. I intend to, as best as I can, holistically define worship in such a way that it is clear what worship is and is not while providing a definition that most will agree upon. We were created for God’s glory and the redeemed will spend eternity worshiping the Lord. Defining worship is not a peripheral issue; it lies at the heart of the Christian life.
Spirit and Truth
In John 4 Jesus informs a Samaritan woman, “23But 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. 24God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” Here Christ gives us the barebones definition of worship, or rather, what is necessary to worship.
The word “spirit” when speaking of God is in reference to His invisible nature and when referencing man it is in reference to man’s spirit, or heart. The word “truth” simply refers to the divine attributes of God, as revealed in His Word. Worship must also be a truthful non-hypocritical and non-deceptive act. “True worshipers” (alhqinoi proskunhtai is derived from proskuneo meaning to bow a knee) are therefore those who know God, as revealed in Scripture, and whose hearts are humbled before the Lord. True worship only occurs when we know God and our hearts are humbled before Him; inward attitude/action, not outer conformity, is the mark of true worship.
Fun with Greek
Below is a list of Greek words, commonly translated as worship, and there definitions (thank you Woody).
- Proskuneo: this is the most frequent word rendered to worship. It is used of an act of homage or reverence, John 4.
- Sebomai: to revere, stressing the feeling of awe or devotion, Matt 15:9
- Sebazomai: to honor religiously, Rom 1:25
- Eusebeo: to act piously towards.
All of these definitions define action, or rather an act, something done or performed. My question is this: “Does merely performing the physical actions implied by these words constitute true worship?” A similar question filtered through the implied humility of John 4: “Is true humility found in the mere physical expressions of humility? Or is true humility the attitude of the heart behind those humble actions?”
Themes from Scripture
I Samuel 15:22 And Samuel said, “Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams.”
God does not desire the actions of worship; He desires a people who listen to and heed His voice.
Isaiah 1:11, 16-17 “11What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. 16Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, 17learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.”
God is disgusted with the abundance of Israel’s sacrifices (OT worship) and no longer delights in them. Later in the passage, God commands them to cleanse themselves and obey His commands. Likewise, I think God is disgusted with our abundance of singing and is seeking a people who will wholly submit to Him.
Isaiah 29:13 And the Lord said: “Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men.”
God desires a people who worship in spirit and truth. He does not desire our lip service He wants our hearts to honor Him; He also wants our hearts to have a truthful knowledge of Him and not a knowledge distorted by man. Later in Isaiah 29, the Lord speaks of how the humble are those who will rejoice in Him but the proud will be destroyed; worship is a matter of the heart.
Jeremiah 12:2-3 2You have planted them, and they have taken root; they grow and bear fruit. You are always on their lips but far from their hearts. 3Yet you know me, O LORD; you see me and test my thoughts about you. Drag them off like sheep to be butchered! Set them apart for the day of slaughter!
The prophet Jeremiah is lamenting the proud and arrogant who are appearing to prosper (bear fruit) even though their hearts do not honor God; His cry is that God will destroy these men and prosper those who truly worship Him in their hearts.
Malachi 1:6-7 “6A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If then I am a father, where is my honor? And if I am a master, where is my fear? says the LORD of hosts to you, O priests, who despise my name. But you say, ‘How have we despised your name?’ 7By offering polluted food upon my altar. But you say, ‘How have we polluted you?’ By saying that the LORD’s table may be despised.”
The priests in Malachi still perform their priestly duties; however, they do not do so out of a fear of the Lord or to honor Him, they perform their duties out of obligation. God does not desire rote obedience He desires a humble heart that submits itself to Him.
Malachi 2:1-2 “1And now, O priests, this command is for you. 2If you will not listen, if you will not take it to heart to give honor to my name, says the LORD of hosts, then I will send the curse upon you and I will curse your blessings. Indeed, I have already cursed them, because you do not lay it to heart.”
The priests in Malachi are performing their sacrifices, albeit with imperfect animals, and doing their duties so what is God’s complaint? Their hearts. “If you will not listen, if you will not take it to heart to give honor to my name;” God desires that they worship Him from the heart, that they honor Him from the heart.
Romans 12:1 “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.”
Worship within the new covenant is not a matter of animal sacrifices it is a matter of self-sacrifice. The resounding theme throughout the whole of Scripture, Paul writes that we should be living sacrifices and that is how we worship. Notice that it is our “spiritual worship” and Christ clearly states that we must worship in spirit and truth.
II Corinthians 9:7 Each one must give as he has made up his mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.
God’s delight in our giving is not in the mere action of giving but in the cheerful heart attitude behind our giving.
Bringing it all Together
It is obvious throughout Scripture that we must know God to worship Him. We know God through living His Word, not merely being taught or studying His Word. Knowledge of God must be experiential; we must know Him because we experience Him by submitting to and living out His word. We cannot know God, and subsequently worship Him, if we do not submit to and live His Word.
It is also obvious throughout Scripture that because God is spirit we must worship in spirit. Singing songs (or anything else that is considered worship), like the OT sacrifices, is only considered worship when the right attitude of heart is what compels those actions. Worship is not a matter of the physical realm; worship is a matter of the heart that at times manifests itself in tangible physical ways. It is also important to note that the physical manifestations of worship (singing or whatever) are a hypocritical abomination when they do not proceed from a heart of worship. We must caution ourselves against defining worship by its mere physical manifestations because worship is a matter of spirit and truth.